A Few More Stories……

04 May

Why I didn’t go into Military service. I sure wanted to. I was a junior in high school, a swimmer, and wanted to join the Navy and fly off carriers. I researched this a little (without the internet) and understood that I could get into Officer Candidate School, go to college at Government expense, and spend six years or more in the Navy. Maybe even make it a career. I sent off for some college catalogs, including one of my favorites, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I loved reading (and re-reading) about their courses and dreaming about my future.
When I was 16, my mother and I went by bus from Arizona to Los Angeles to see about the Navy. I took a battery of written tests, including a series of questions I really liked: There was a picture of a jet fighter in a climbing turn. Four other pictures showed the same fighter in another attitude. I was to pick out which of the four pictures was correct if the first fighter made a 90 degree turn and rolled to the left 60 degrees. I think I got all of these correct, probably. After other written tests, I joined a group of other young men in a large room where we were given a physical exam. It didn’t bother me to be with 25 other naked guys. There were several men who looked in bad shape and had various maladies or physical problems. I was a swimmer and in good shape. As part of the exam, I was asked to run in place for five minutes, rest for five minutes and have my pulse rate measured. After the five minute rest, the physician measured my pulse at 48. For me, this was a measure of my fitness. He looked at me and said “We don’t take anyone with a pulse lower than 50.” I was 16, confronted by an official with the Navy and didn’t know quite what to say. I said I was a swimmer and in very good shape. He said that didn’t matter.
I went home and discussed this with my parents and my doctor who said they didn’t know what they were talking about. I was in very good shape. After a number of letters (remember those?) to the Navy, I was still denied. Screw the Navy, I said. I went on to college (Arizona State) and joined the Air Force ROTC. I’ll fix them.
As a sophomore, I was doing pretty well in Chemical Engineering and looking good in my Air Force uniform. I was on my way. One morning, there was a marching contest for nearly 300 ROTC members. We were formed into large groups and directed to march. Anyone who made a mistake had to drop out. Pretty quick, there were only 30 or 40 left. A bit later, there were only ten of us. The marching orders got harder and faster, “to the rear, march” seven times in a row for example. It got down, believe it or not, to just two of us. All the other blokes were just standing around watching us. It didn’t take long until the other guy made a mistake. I won the contest. The winner, we had been told, would be taken to the local Air Force base for a jet ride! Great stuff. Yep, I was on my way.
Two weeks later, I asked my commanding officer about the jet ride. He casually said “Oh, we don’t do that anymore” and walked off. This time, I was really pissed. So, I decided two things during that first sophomore semester. Screw the Air Force and I don’t really like Chemical Engineering.
One of my best friends, also an engineering student, told me he was transferring to New Mexico State in Las Cruces to work half-time at White Sands Missile Range and go to school the other half of the year. I was ready to do something different and a few months later I applied to NMSU and WSMR. I got in and left home at 19. It turned out to be a profound change in my life that served me well but I didn’t know it at the time. What great fun I had learning engineering at WSMR and taking classes in my new major, electrical engineering. I felt at home……until well into my junior year. Because I was only attending college half the time, it was taking forever to get my degree. I still wanted to be in the military (sort of) and thought about the Army. I called my folks and told them I was going to drop out of college and join the Army.  Their answer was “OH NO, YOU’RE NOT.” They drove almost all night to talk me out of it. My two brothers had already graduated and were working. I relented and I’m glad I did. Thanks, mom and dad.

Two smart guys in college.  Taking electrical engineering in college was, as it should be, a challenge.  Even though I loved the subject and learned it pretty well, I struggled much of the time.  I knew two guys, however, that graduated No. 1 and 2 in our class.  The number 1 guy got straight A’s all through college and the number 2 guy nearly did the same but got a B or two.  The best part of this story is that the No. 1 (Valedictorian) guy didn’t have to work very hard.  He was a natural student and things came easy to him.  I guess he was a genius.  I heard a few years later, however, that he hadn’t done much with his life.  He was a blueprint checker at a shipyard in Hawaii.  The No. 2 (Salutatorian) guy worked his ass off every day in college.  He studied into the night, he studied on weekends, and he totally drilled himself.  Once a bunch of us engineering students wanted to go out for a beer but he said (as usual) he had to study for a test.  I knew him pretty well and that’s the way he was.

I heard a few years later that he went to work for Motorola and invented a new kind of RF modulation.  He was a star at Motorola.  It appears he just kept studying and working hard.  Is there a message there?  I always remember the message I got from these two guys.

Car accident with cat.  It turns out that even rudimentary engineering skills can help a person in life.  Here’s a small example.  I was in college, learning how to be an engineer.   My brother, a few fellow engineering students and I were renting a small house off-campus, located on a two-lane country road.  One of my roommates, driving his car, was heading for home and I was a passenger.  We were only a half mile from the house when a cat darted across the road in front of us.  My roommate instinctively hit the brakes, the cat disappeared just in front of the car, but then reappeared running unhurt into a nearby field.  Only a very few seconds went by when another car slammed into our car from the back.  It happened fast.  My head went back and my knees crunched into the dashboard in front of me.  We got out and discussed the accident with the guys in the other car.  None of us knew traffic laws well enough to really know who was at fault.  We did know that almost every time a car rear-ends another, it’s the car behind that’s to blame.  We exchanged information and went on our way, with slightly damaged cars.

A week or so later, an insurance adjuster came out to our little house to ask us questions about the accident.  My roommate wasn’t there.  After going over my description of the accident, he asked me “Mr. Draper, how long do you think a yellow traffic light lasts?”  I didn’t really know but being an engineer-in-training, I thought about it and said “About two seconds.”  He was amazed.  My answer was shorter than the actual time, rather than longer.  He said that almost all people say things like “30 seconds, a minute, seems like forever, etc.”  The correct answer, he said, was 4 seconds.  Being an almost-engineer, I believe some estimating skills were beginning to emerge.  Because of my answer, the adjuster felt I was an accurate witness and he wasn’t going to get anywhere blaming the accident on us.  The other car was clearly too close.  Yeah, I felt good about that.

Planet of the Apes.  I was fortunate to help write a large proposal to design and build a military training area for the South Korean Government.   A colleague and I went to Seoul for a couple of weeks to work with our Korean partner on this major proposal.  While we were there, we took a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  Remember that place?  It’s not far from Seoul.  We went first to a visitor building at Panmunjom where we used binoculars to look out over the ½ mile DMZ, which has been heavily mined since the 1950’s and still is.  In case you’re not aware, there is a North Korean city in the distance with small skyscrapers, hospitals, daycare centers and other buildings, apparently including homes.  Closer to the actual border, there is a college campus with “students” casually walking around, reading on the steps of a library and stepping in and out of the main doors.  In the front of the college, there was a tractor working on a small (maybe 80 acres) farm.  We quickly learned however that this entire city across the DMZ was a complete fake, as was the “college “and the “farm”.  The free world calls it the “”Propaganda Village.”  (check it out on Google) north_korean_village_kijong-dongEach night, every light in the city comes on at the same time, every window in every building.  I never knew this was there.  I was just then reminded of the original Planet of the Apes movie.  If you haven’t seen the movie, Charleston Heston plays a spaceman who crash-lands his ship on a planet and goes in search of inhabitants.  He quietly approaches a village and, at first, everything seems normal.  He sees farm animals and dogs and hears voices.  Suddenly, horses run up the street and gorillas and apes in uniforms are riding them.  He was stunned!

As I looked over the DMZ the day I was there, everything looked normal at first until I realized that in North Korea, THE APES ARE RUNNING THE COUNTRY!

On a side note, we also visited the nearby site of the “famous” Third Tunnel.  Over the years, North Korea has attempted to build possibly up to eight (some say as many as 20) tunnels under the DMZ, in preparation for an invasion of the South.   A few tunnels were discovered but many years passed before the enormous third tunnel was finally discovered in 1978 using listening equipment.  It’s a mile long and had almost reached the southern side of the DMZ when it was located.  It was big enough to allow vehicles and a lot of soldiers to pass through for a surprise attack on South Korea.

Before our little tour group entered a smaller slanted tunnel that was dug to intercept the larger one, we stopped to read a prominent sign at the entrance.  The sign said:  IT IS FORBIDDEN TO TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THIS SIGN.  Of course, everybody took pictures of the sign.  Visitors can walk down the intercept tunnel and a short distance to the north to reach one of three huge concrete plugs that now block the tunnel.  The walls of the tunnel are solid granite.  It was eerie down there, 240 feet from the surface.

I swear I saw some apes in the shadows.

Louisiana mosquitos.  My company was designing and installing a large, complex military training range at Ft. Polk, Louisiana and I stayed in the nearby little town of Leesville a number of times.  One evening a few of us went to a barbeque in the backyard of a local guy who worked at Ft. Polk.  He was very nice and, as it turned out, funny.  It was summer and there were mosquitos flying around.  Making conversation, I happened to mention that I had heard that mosquitos in Minnesota (Land of Lakes) were huge because of all the water.  He said, no, the mosquitos in Louisiana were the biggest.  I innocently threw out the classic line “Oh yeah, how big are they?”  He said one of the most colorful things I’ve ever heard when he said “The mosquitos in Louisiana are so big they can stand flat-footed and f**k a turkey.”    Try beating that one.

My Colleague Who Killed his Wife.  Since this story of John is pubic knowledge, having been published in newspapers and located on the internet, I will relate it here.  First a bit of background.  I worked with John for several years in a small engineering company in Mountain View, in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I was a young engineer and he was in marketing.  John had degrees in mathematics and engineering and owned his own airplane, a Beech Bonanza.  I flew with him a few times to visit with customers, one time to Edwards Air Force Base.  He was, as I recall, in his mid-30’s at the time I knew him.  John was very intelligent and an interesting person.  He was clever and did, however, like to play with your mind sometimes.  I later heard unsubstantiated rumors that he was a philanderer and difficult to live with.  Further, it appears his wife had a difficult childhood and moved to California to be away from her family.

Arlyne and I met John and his wife at a few company functions and once went to the John’s house for lunch.  We also met his two children who were both under 10 at the time.  They were a nice looking couple.  After working at this Northern California company for nearly 10 years, Arlyne and I moved to San Diego.  I more or less lost track of John and many of my other colleagues as time went on.

Just a few years later, however, I got a call from a friend that still worked at the company and he told me John had killed his wife!  Eventually, the details emerged.  I knew John and his wife had been having problems in their marriage, but this was a shock.  It has also been said that his wife was clinically depressed (gleaned from her diary)..

One morning John was apparently drawing a bath for his son but there was a water plug or leak in the nearby wash basin.  He was repairing it with a pipe wrench.  He and his wife began a heated argument (about what, I don’t know) in the bathroom.  I don’t know what precipitated it but it seems his wife came at John with a screwdriver.  John became either defensive or enraged and swung the pipe wrench at his wife, hitting her in the face (broken teeth and worse as I read later).  Somehow she wound up face down in the bathtub, which had water in it.  John said he blacked out and didn’t know how she ended up in the tub.  The cause of death, according to the autopsy, was drowning.

After a lot of commotion, I presume, John called 911.  His wife was pronounced dead at the scene and eventually John was charged with murder.  He admitted that he had hit her with the wrench, presumably killing her.  He claimed no knowledge of how she got in the tub.

After a trial, John was convicted of second degree murder and was sentenced to a term of 15 years to life.  His wife’s parents were horrified and said that they never really liked John in the first place.  I have to say Arlyne and I couldn’t really follow his story closely but we did attempt unsuccessfully to contact John through his attorney.  We were told that John didn’t want to talk to anyone.  We just wanted to tell him that we were sorry about what happened and that we believed he must have “snapped” as we didn’t believe it was in his character to kill someone intentionally.

Initially, John was incarcerated at a prison that I can’t recall.  Remembering his math and engineering degrees and how smart he was, I was not surprised to learn he compiled law books and, eventually having access to a computer, began assisting other prisoners in obtaining their rights, such as family visits and other aspects of law regarding incarceration.  The parole board was highly political, as you can guess, and insisted that John hit his wife and then purposely drowned her.   They said that he would continue to serve in prison until he admitted that he drowned her.  He never did admit anything except that he did indeed hit her with the wrench.

The parole board (or the bureau of prisons, or whatever) then took away all his law books, his computer and materials and transferred him to San Quentin, a very tough place.  This was determined to be obviously out of malice and was essentially a reprisal for the help he gave other prisoners.  The story was that his children hated him and always went to his parole hearings to ensure he never got out.  It turns out that his children were and are close to their father and the circumstances of their lives with their foster parents were always good.  I read virtually the entire opinion by the parole board in 2007 where they refused him parole.  There were a lot of points of law involved that I truly don’t understand.

At one point, John was paroled but then California Governor Schwarzenegger reversed this decision.  John was finally released after serving 22 years, I believe only after the makeup of the parole board changed.  He is close to 80 now and is presumably not a threat to anyone.  I do recall him fondly as a colleague but I don’t pretend to have an informed opinion of his behavior except that he was a model prisoner for his entire term.  Sorry, John.  Sorry, about his wife.  Sorry to the children.  This is a tragic story.

Medal of Honor Winner.  I worked at a small electronics company in Palo Alto during the early part of the Vietnam War.  One day a friend remarked to me “Have you met Ralph?  He won the Medal of Honor in WWII.”  I don’t recall his last name but I went to see him in the shipping department and asked if he wouldn’t mind telling me what happened and what he did.  He had no problem and asked me to sit down.  He was not a large man, fairly ordinary looking and would never be picked out of a lineup as winning the MOH.  Isn’t this how it always is?  This is what he told me.

His outfit wasn’t quite in Germany yet but was getting there.  His platoon encountered a barn where it was clear German soldiers were entrenched inside.  After some initial exchanges of fire, his platoon commander said they were going to “charge” the barn.  The US soldiers were hunched behind an earthen mound or a ditch.  On my signal, the commander said.  When the order came, Ralph jumped up, ran at the barn, burst through the doors and, as he described it, started shooting at everything that moved.  He was shot at as well.  He said he couldn’t relate all the details because he just didn’t remember them.  It couldn’t have taken long and soon all was quiet.  Ralph said he looked around and noticed that not a single man had come with him, not the commander, no one.  They had all stayed back in the ditch, undoubtedly scared to death.

When it was all over, the men formed up again and counted 11 dead German soldiers.  I don’t know how Ralph felt about the whole thing at the time but, amazingly, he simply related his story to me in a conversational manner.  I was amazed and told him that.  Like so many of the “Greatest Generation”, it appeared that when the war was over, he simply went back to work.  I hope his incredible action was fully appreciated by everyone who knew him.  I never looked at him the same way after that conversation.

The Engineer that Rewrote the Textbook.  During the time I was in college and worked part time at White Sands Missile Range, I met a number of good engineers.  They were my heroes, for the most part.  I was officially a Cooperative Work-Study employee, or a CO-OP, as we were called.  The engineers said we were named after the sound of a fresh cow pie hitting a flat rock – Co-Whop!!

We all worked in the Missile Flight Surveillance Office, better known as MFSO.  It was this organization’s job to ensure that missiles once fired could be safely disabled or destroyed if they went haywire in flight.  This happened more often than you would think back then.  The MFSO team installed very rugged and expensive radio receivers in the missiles with special antennas so that a destruct signal could be sent if necessary.  Depending on the missile, the signal would either ignite a large explosive package or sever the fuel line, effectively disrupting the flight path at the appropriate moment.  This would hopefully allow the missile (or what was left of it) to end up in some safe place in the desert.

A key component of this system was the ground transmitter and steerable antenna that communicated the destruct signal to a missile streaking through sky.  One of the engineers in our lab designed transmitter components and the special antennas to send the signal (at 409 MHz).  His name was Veryl Brunton.  Veryl was a very quiet guy that mostly worked by himself.  He used aluminum tubing and carefully wrapped a helix around a GI butt can, roughly the size of a small wastebasket.  As I recall, there were about 8-10 turns around the butt can.  He used a Smith Chart, a tool that I learned to use once and promptly forgot.  He showed me how he used it but it didn’t take.

One morning, six guys in suits showed up in the lab and clustered around Veryl, talking excitedly to him.  I asked another engineer who they were.  They were from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and had flown out to White Sands to see Mr. Brunton.  It seems he was exceeding theoretical efficiencies for antennas.  To repeat, THEORETICAL EFFICIENCIES!  It seems the textbooks were wrong.  Veryl, with his butt cans and his hand-made aluminum tubing helical antennas, made in the lab before our very eyes, forced textbooks to be rewritten.  I used to commute with him and a couple of other guys on the 30 mile drive from Las Cruces to WSMR and I was not able to fathom the brilliance of this guy.  I hope he got a patent or something.  He’s one of my engineer heroes.  A little known sidelight to this story is that Veryl once asked me to work an integral calculus problem for him and I did it.

A few Bird Pictures to Lighten Everybody Up.  From a side trip to Madera Canyon, south of Tucson.  Northern shoveler.  Broad-billed hummingbird (2).  Painted redstart.

The Drapers, Bob and Arlyne

northern shovler on patrolbroad-billed on flower

broad-billed perched

pretty good painted redstart

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Posted by on May 4, 2016 in Bird Lover


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