I’ve noticed that I’ve never really had any comments on the Personal Stories section of this blog. Funny. Everybody has interesting stories about their lives. I used to love listening to my grandmother tell stories about growing up. She lived for a few years in a New Orleans orphanage, for example. She used to watch from her window as the lamplighter came down the street to light the street lamps. I’m not saying my stories are the equal of my grandmother’s but they may bring back your own memories and stories that your kids and friends would find fascinating.
So as Tom Lehrer, a famous singer/songwriter used to say “As we slide down the razor blade of life”…….here are a few more my personal stories.
The Engineer Who Went to Yellowstone
It was the summer of 1966 and I was 25 years old. I was single and working at North American Aviation (NAA) as a rookie engineer. I worked with several other engineers on the Apollo space program. One of my favorite engineers was Steve Athan, one of two Greek guys who worked there. Steve was lively, laughed a lot and loved to help out younger engineers. His passion, however, was investments. He started an investment club at NAA and I contributed to it.
One day in the early summer of 1966, Steve announced that he, his wife and 3-year old daughter were going camping in Yellowstone National Park. Every week or so, he would come to work and announce, with much joy, that he had purchased an item of camping gear. First it was a camp stove, then it was a tent, then it was a small axe. He told us he had never gone camping in his life and was really looking forward to the trip. On a Friday in July, the big day finally arrived. He said goodbye to us and planned to leave for Yellowstone early the next morning. I remember telling him how much he was going to enjoy camping.
I came to work on Monday morning and was greeted with “Have you heard about Steve?” He had been killed by a falling tree while setting up his tent. I was stunned. He used to sit at a desk close to mime. We used to talk about strategies for stocks and bonds. He told me about warrants. He told me about cosmetic stocks. He told me about carefully selecting stocks to hold for the long-term. We used to talk about his wife and daughter. He was a wonderful friend.
Over the decades since, I still remembered Steve. One day I was looking at books that my son’s wife had purchased. She is an on-line book seller. The book was “Death in Yellowstone.” The book details individual stories about how people have died in Yellowstone, sometimes through stupidity but often by bears, falling rocks, boiling pools and, lo and behold, falling trees. I never saw it coming. I turned the page and saw the Steve Athan story. The hair rose on my neck and I called everybody over. “I knew this guy”, I said. I always knew the basic story but found out about the aftermath. The Government was found in court to be the sole cause of the death of this visitor. His family was awarded about $43,000, which I suppose was a lot of money in those days. If you ever go camping in Yellowstone NP today, you will find that all the trees in nearly every campground in Yellowstone have been removed. This is the legacy of Steve Athan, a man I knew. If you were to look hard, you would find the Steve Athan story on the Web.
Why I boycott AAMCO, the transmission “specialists”.
I was working in Los Angeles for North American Aviation. I was driving a 1960 Chevrolet that used to be the family car. The car was beginning to act up. The automatic transmission would change gears with a big “thump” that shook the car. I knew something was wrong but didn’t have any idea what it was. I took the car to AAMCO, near my apartment, and asked them to check it out. I waited for about half an hour. A couple of AAMCO techs came over and told me that the transmission was in really bad shape and I needed a new one. “How much will that be?” I asked. It’ll be $400, they said. Whoa, I thought. For a guy making $600 a month, that was a lot of money.
I went to Bank of America and inquired about a $400 loan but they turned me down. I argued with them, saying I was working full time right down the street at North American. Nothing doing.
A month or so later, I went back to Arizona to visit my brothers and my dad and told them about the problem. My dad and I drove down to his favorite mechanic and asked him to look at the car. The mechanic crawled under the car for a few minutes, slid back out and announced “It’s fixed.” He had noticed that a short vacuum hose attached to the transmission had come loose and he put it back into place. We asked how much he would charge us and he said a nickel but then decided it was free. That’s why I’ve boycotted AAMCO for 50 years.
A Memorable Day at White Sands Missile Range
While attending college at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, I worked part time at White Sands Missile Range. I was fortunate to work for Missile Flight Surveillance, where I worked with top-notch engineers and always had interesting work to do. One of my favorite stories has to do with the Corporal missile. This missile was already in U.S. Army inventory, based mostly in West Germany. Many times NATO troops would come to WSMR to practice live firing. The Corporal was supposed to be quite reliable but this wasn’t always the case. The Corporal was an advanced version of the German V2 rocket, used with devastating effect on Great Britain, including the civilian population of London.
One morning, we completed our installation of the detonator block and safety receiver on a Corporal and hunkered down in the back of a ¾ ton Army vehicle about 250 feet from the missile, to wait for the launch. We normally monitored the operation of the safety receiver from a sandbagged bunker but were in a truck this time. A wire is released after the missile lifts off and goes up a few inches. This arms the explosives.
Because this firing was done by a German NATO team, there was a slow-motion film camera set up to capture the event. The missile ignited, with a loud and continuous roar and lifted into the air. Desert sand and smoke flew out in all directions. We knew how the missile was supposed to behave and after some 10 – 20 seconds, we knew something was terribly wrong. As was sometimes the case, the high pressure air system that pushed liquid fuel into the ignition chamber didn’t build up sufficient pressure and the missile slowed down after it rose about 30 feet. Although still vertical, it started to slowly slide back down. The four of us in the truck knew what would happen next so we leaped out of the truck and ran like hell for the nearest sand dune. I never looked back but I heard the explosion and felt a barrage of heat from the fire when the missile settled back on the launcher and blew up. Another engineer was faster than me and had me by a few steps. He fell down in the sand, but got up when I was even with him and still beat me to the sand dune. We all made a great leap for the dune and fortunately weren’t hurt. This was all captured on NATO film. I sure remember that day.
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Incident
It was 2005. We went to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta for the first time. What a fantastic sight for those of us who don’t ride in balloons. We were in our motorhome, parked near the launch site for all the hot air balloons. We arrived in the afternoon and parked, hooking up our motorhome to water and electricity. We were surrounded by other RVs. We planned to go to the Dawn Patrol the next day to watch the balloons light up before sunrise and launch in the early morning sky.
It was about 8:00 pm. All of a sudden I heard a muffled explosion and our RV rocked to one side. At first I thought some big RV was maneuvering into a parking space and had hit my RV. I jumped outside and started to look around when I noticed a Toyota RV was on fire. It was about 80-100 feet from us. Three or four people were jumping out the door and I saw a fire in their kitchen area. I ran back to our motorhome to get my fire extinguisher which, by the way, was about the size of small flashlight or a medium sized bratwurst. As I ran toward the other RV, a lady stopped me and said “That fire extinguisher is too small to do any good.” By this time the whole roof of the Toyota RV was burning and the interior was mostly flames. So, I ran back to get my camera. I took a bunch of pictures as their RV burned down to the ground. The horn started to sound as the fire shorted out some wiring. The horn stopped and the headlights came on. By now the RV was only about 4 feet high. Then the tires blew out. It’s amazing how this nice little RV burned down until it was only 2 feet high. Eventually, the fire department arrived, much too late. Then the local TV news van arrived, again much too late. I thought about giving the TV crew my photos but decided against it. The occupants were unhurt except for the guy who was trying to light the oven. He was burned on his hands and face but was going to recover. Ahhh, the risks of the RV lifestyle.
How I Met Arlyne
It was March 1966 and I was 24 years old. I was working as an engineer on the Apollo Space Program at North American Aviation in Los Angeles. Having just graduated from college, I was trying to learn the ropes from fellow engineers. I met a variety of interesting people, including, for example, George Shimada, who had been interned at the age of 14 in a camp for Japanese-American citizens. I loved to talk to him. Sitting at the desk next to mine, I met and befriended Larry Thomas, another engineer. He was an interesting guy as well. After a few months, he asked me come over to his apartment for dinner. He said he would invite his girlfriend over and she would cook dinner for us. That was OK with me.
I arrived at his apartment, where he introduced me to Arlyne. We all had a nice dinner and talked about all kinds of things, art, investments, Costa Rica. She seemed very nice and very cute. Arlyne lived in the same apartment complex but roomed with five other Latin girls, from Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Peru. Now that was interesting.
One Saturday, I drove over to Larry’s apartment unannounced just to see him. I knocked on his door and got no response, so I decided to walk over to Arlyne’s apartment. There I met some of the other girls but I was starting to focus on Arlyne. The next time I came over, it was to ask Arlyne to go to the movies and it was the start of our wonderful life for the last 48 years. We were married that year.
My First Airplane Ride
It was in the late 1940’s and we lived in North Hollywood, CA. My twin brother Rich and I were young and didn’t really know that our dad had learned to fly before we were born. One fine day he took my brother and me to the Burbank airport for our first airplane ride. His best friend, Wash Wilson was going to be the pilot. We climbed on board an AT-6 Texan low wing military training plane. Wash flew from the back cockpit and dad had Rich and me on his lap in the front. Wash had been in the Army Air Force during WWII, assigned to fly gliders full of soldiers during D-Day. The gliders were towed by large aircraft and dropped off above French coastal areas to glide to safe landings behind German lines. Wash was so good at maneuvering these barely flightworthy gliders that he never deployed overseas but was assigned to train other pilots. We took off from the airport in the loudest, noisiest environment I had ever been in. The airplane made a huge racket. We couldn’t hear anything at all. We flew over parts of Los Angeles and then over the ocean. I think the Spruce Goose, the famous wooden plane designed and flown by Howard Hughes, was parked on the water under us. It was quite a thrill and Rich and I weren’t scared at all, just fascinated. I wish I could repeat that flight today. What was your first airplane ride like?
I was working at a small electronics company in Mountain View, California. A small team of us were working on a very compact data acquisition system that would fit inside the seat pack of an F-15 aircraft. It would monitor and record aircraft and flight parameters during a special mission where an F-15 would be air-launched from a B-52, light off a rocket booster and head vertically up to near space, higher than any air vehicle (with wings) had ever gone. We built only one system and I was briefly sent to Edwards Air Force Base to test it before installing it on the airplane. Edwards AFB is in the middle of the high desert with not much around. I was walking through the Headquarters building one morning when I looked in an office and saw one of the most famous people on earth……Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, right after Neil Armstrong. I took a few steps, stopped and wondered if I should go in to say hello. Finally, I decided to just step in briefly. After his Apollo adventures, Aldrin had been assigned as Commander of the Test Pilot School at Edwards. He looked up and I just said “Hello Mr. Aldrin, I just wanted to say hello. I’m working on the F-15 project.” He was, even then, a somewhat taciturn man and said a few words to me that I can’t actually recall, maybe just a nod since he was busy writing. I’m glad at least that I saw him.
My Grandfather the Stone Mason
My mother’s father was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. He came from a line of architects and stone masons, which were nearly the same thing at that time. Aberdeen is famous for stone. The railroad station in Dunedin, a town in New Zealand that was founded by Scottish immigrants, is made entirely of stone brought over from Aberdeen. My grandfather, William G. Walker, was brought over to the U.S. when he was only a year old but he grew up and maintained the family tradition. He lived in Utah, Los Angeles and Mesa, Arizona and made his living crafting beautiful flagstone facades, patios and fireplaces for commercial buildings and private residences. He was a master craftsman in a day and age where talent like this was highly valued. When he moved close to us in Arizona, I got a chance to watch him in action. He had a flatbed truck and I went with him to Seligman in northern Arizona to pick up huge slabs of flagstone. He would inspect every piece carefully, looking for characteristics, color and other features I couldn’t fathom. A large crane was used to hoist the flagstone pieces onto the truck. My guess is that the larger pieces were at least 2000 pounds. Sometimes trucking companies would bring the stone to his house where he had a large backyard for working. I watched in amazement one day as he worked with a slab of flagstone that was 4 or 5 inches thick and about 12 feet across, laid on large sawhorses. He chose an angle and scored a shallow, straight line across the entire stone with a chisel tool and did this several times. When the line was still pretty shallow, he would take his chisel and tap along the line with his hammer a few times. Somehow, the stone knew what he was trying to do and as I watched, he put his chisel at a specific point on his scored line and tapped the chisel a little harder. Suddenly, with a tiny clicking sound, the huge slab broke right along his line, not a chip, not a flaw. He made a fireplace and a patio for the ranch house we grew up in. He was a master. We always thought he looked like Abraham Lincoln and he was a man of great stature to us. He volunteered throughout his life for Shriner’s Hospital and his wife Mae Robinson, my grandmother, worked during WWII in airplane factories as “Rosie the Riveter.” Some of you may have to look up this term.
The Carbon Monoxide Incident.
We were living in Southern California, where it doesn’t really get cold that often. Our house at the time was an older one but as it turned out, that wasn’t the problem. We had recently purchased the house and wanting to get everything squared away, we hired a company out of the newspaper to inspect and clean all the ductwork in the house, just in case. It was summer at the time. Two young guys came out and did the job in a couple of hours. Our central furnace was inside a very small closet which didn’t have room for anything else so we didn’t look at it very often. As winter approached, we used the heater off and on when it got cold. Near the very end of the year, late December, it was very, very cold in our old house and we piled on blankets and turned on the furnace. Because of the low temperature, the furnace apparently ran nearly all night. We both worked and got up early. I put on my running shorts and went outside to jog. I ran a little bit, maybe a hundred feet, when I felt quite nauseous and decided it was too cold to run anyway. I went back in the house. I said hello to my dog and instead of coming over to me, he just laid there, not like himself. Arlyne got up and went into the kitchen and I took a shower. I felt very weak and almost couldn’t manage to shave. I thought “Is this what old age is like?” I felt I had aged 20 years. I got dressed and found that Arlyne had fainted in the kitchen and was sitting on the floor. We didn’t yet realize what had happened. Just when we needed our brains to work, they were degraded. We drove to work together and Arlyne dropped me off. She did say something about carbon monoxide. After an hour, she called me and said we were going to the emergency room. I agreed, especially after I had bounced off the wall while walking down the hallway. In the emergency room they listened to our suspicions, checked our insurance papers, had us lie down on gurneys and extracted some blood. While we were waiting for the results, the nurse gave me a pencil and paper and told me to draw a clock. It took me a minute but it was OK. Suddenly, two technicians came running over to us with oxygen bottles and masks. They put the masks on us and we breathed pure oxygen for several minutes. The carbon monoxide reading in our blood is supposed to be 0.5 and we were both at 20. That’s 40 times normal! They made arrangements for us both to be transported, in separate ambulances, to UCSD Hillcrest where there was a hyperbaric chamber. Immediately, we had plastic “diving helmets” put over our head so we could breathe pure oxygen and went into the chamber at 1.4 times normal atmospheric pressure. Carbon monoxide molecules attach to cells in your brain with adhesion that’s 200 times stronger than oxygen molecules. The chamber scrubs the carbon monoxide molecules. After an hour and a half in the chamber we walked out. As soon as we started walking, we felt fantastic! The chamber changed us dramatically. I got my 20 years back.
We had the gas and electric company go out to our house to see what had happened. They treated the house like a crime scene, running a probe into the house to check the atmosphere before they entered. My dog, thankfully, was OK. The problem went back to when we had the duct work checked. One of the workers, apparently a rookie, couldn’t figure out how to put the cover back on the furnace so he just taped it shut with masking tape. Over a period of a few months, the tape failed after going through many hot and cold cycles. The furnace door (the one that says “keep this door closed”) fell open and let combustion products fill the house. After an argument, the company that did the duct cleaning told me the “tech” that came to my house had been fired but wouldn’t give us our money back. Based on our story, at least 25 friends and family members bought carbon monoxide detectors at $40 each. We were lucky.
The Engineer and the Traffic Ticket
My daughter was in the hospital preparing to deliver her second child. I worked close by and went to see her a few times at lunch. After one of my visits I was driving back to work and came to a red light, intending to turn right. I looked around, decided it was safe and turned. Half a block later, a motorcycle cop flagged me down. He said the intersection where I had turned was a no-turn-on-red intersection. I was really surprised. I told him I had lived here a long time and I never realized this. I took my ticket and went back to work but thought about it. My engineering background took over.
At lunch the next day I drove down to the intersection with my camera and took pictures of the two no-turn-on-red signs, one on the approach and one on the other side of the intersection. Neither sign was actually noticeable. The first one was too far from the intersection and around a curve. Not what you’re looking at when you’re driving a tight turn uphill. The second sign, across the street, was so high up on a pole that I was not able to see it through my windshield. I then parked in a nearby parking lot at the intersection and took notes. Every time a car came to a stop at a red light and had the opportunity to turn right on red, I made a notation. If the car illegally turned on red, I made another notation. At the end of an hour, I had counted some 60 or 70 drivers that had gone through the intersection and noted that 52% of the cars turned illegally on red. I came back the next day and watched again for an hour. This time, 48% of the cars made an illegal turn, including a bus and a taxi. That evening after work, I spent another hour there in the dark. This time I noted 53% of cars made illegal turns, including one driver who turned right in front of a police car. I had witnessed probably 90 to 100 violations in three days. Just to be complete, I came again a couple of days later when it was raining. I had similar findings.
I compiled my findings in a printed report, complete with color pictures, tables of data and an analysis. I then called the city traffic engineering department and told them about the intersection and asked how long it had been a no-turn-on-red. Only 3 months I was told. They also asked me to send them my report because often an intersection design is changed after it has some history. Now, of course, I knew why the policeman situated himself just down the block from that intersection.
My court date finally arrived. My fine, if convicted, or my bail if I didn’t show up, was $283. My case came up quickly and “my” police officer testified first. He stood up and drew a diagram indicating where we had been located and what he had observed. The judge then asked me if I had anything to say. “Yes I do, your honor”, I said. I explained that I had indeed turned illegally but that I had accumulated information about the intersection that showed over 50% of drivers did the same thing. I explained that the signage was poor and that because of the angle of the road and my height I was unable to see the 2nd sign. My analysis indicated that the intersection was a work in progress and was unfair in its current configuration. I basically paraphrased my report. The judge asked me to come forward so he could see my report. He looked it over, gave it back to me and said the following: “Nice work, Mr. Draper, but the city can’t wait until a traffic design is perfect. We have to use what we have until we are compelled to change it. The signage is not drastically different from anywhere else in the city and there are other intersections that have similar problems.” He made note of my “very interesting” report and said that I was guilty of the traffic violation but he reduced the fine from $283 to $80. He called the next case. I was pretty happy about the whole experience but the policeman gave me a really dirty look as he left. Hey, I thought the whole thing was a “win-win”.
Thanks for reading this stuff…….back to the birdies soon,
Bob and Arlyne