My Astronomy Saga……

I’m struggling a bit putting together a blog about Arlyne as I had promised.  It’s a lot of work and I want to give it my best.  It will happen however.  My next blog after this current Astronomy post will be another chapter of the Steve Athan story, The engineer who went to Yellowstone.  

In the meantime, I will post this piece about my fascination from an early age with telescopes and the night sky.  This blog has been in the “can” for a while.  You probably have to be an engineer to really like this story.

Early Days.  My brothers and I grew up in Arizona in the days of wonderfully clear skies, night and day.  We would lie in our dad’s half-full cotton trailers and look up at the night sky in summer.  I learned many of the constellations and the stars that made them up.  It was fantastic and I loved it.  My high school chemistry teacher gave me a 1950 edition of the Skalnate Pleso Atlas of the Heavens, which is a set of large celestial charts that covered the entire sky.  These were marvelous charts that included galaxies, star clusters, Messier Objects, variable stars and all stars brighter than magnitude 7.75.  (another thing I used to have but don’t anymore) These charts were discontinued in the 1970’s.

Now, I don’t want to bore you but, as a teenager, I used to spread these charts out on the floor and try to learn all the big stars, nebulas, and other astronomy stuff.  I wanted a telescope but only had binoculars at the time.  I learned quite a bit but couldn’t really put it into practice.

I went to college, had other hobbies, graduated and went to work in Los Angeles at North American Aviation (NAA), which much later merged with Rockwell.

Roger Coulomb.  I met several interesting people at NAA as many of you have learned.  One of the engineers I met was Roger Coulomb. He told me he was a descendant of Charles Augustin Coulomb, the famous British scientist.  I believed him.  Roger was probably the great-great (great?) grandson of Charles.  Having studied electrical engineering, of course I knew of Charles Coulomb, who developed important theories and laws.  Charles Coulomb is considered one of the great engineers of eighteenth century Europe.  He did research in friction, mechanics, physics, electricity, magnetism, and structures.  In his honor, the electrical charge of electrons and protons (and other particles) is measured in coulombs.

I had wonderful conversations with Roger, including discussions of astronomy.  I learned that he had built a 14-inch Newtonian telescope.  He told me he was working on a photographic map of the moon with this telescope.  I also discovered that North American, having so many engineers, had a shop in our building where we could make our own telescope mirrors!!  A 14-inch mirror is HUGE and was not often found in the amateur world at that time.  Urged on by Mr. Coulomb, I started making a (small) 8-inch mirror.  I spent several evenings at NAA, using their grinding plates to make a spherical mirror, which I would eventually polish to give it the parabolic surface needed for a telescope.

One evening I borrowed Coulomb’s telescope, took it to a nearby park and set it up.  Even back then the Los Angeles night skies were pretty bad but I was impressed by the power of this instrument.  Setting it up horizontally, I looked in an apartment window a few hundred yards away, saw a man reading a book and could almost read the book.

Alas, I moved from Los Angeles to the SF Bay Area, leaving my own partially completed telescope mirror in my Grandmother’s garage.  Pretty quick, a few major things happened:  I moved to Florida on an assignment, I got married, we had a child and my grandmother’s garage burned down.  End of that telescope (but not my interest in astronomy).  the-completed-telescope

Several years later, I again got interested in making a telescope.  Arlyne wasn’t thrilled but I set up a “station” in the garage and ground a spherical glass mirror again, by hand, this time a lowly 6-inch.  I finished the grinding and started the polishing process.  I then used what is called the “knife-edge” lighting technique to determine how close my glass surface was to a parabola.  It was pretty close when I was done.  I sent the mirror off to be “silvered” with a nice, shiny, reflective coating.  I used an air-conditioning duct, PVC pipe, shot, plywood, various screws and bolts along with lenses and lens holders and a few other cool things I had to buy.  Lo and behold, a Newtonian telescope finally emerged.  I set it up and had a great time looking at Saturn’s rings, the moons of Jupiter, double stars, red giant stars and distant nebulas and galaxies.  Our friends and neighbors loved to see these things they had never seen before.   This adjacent picture is not my scope but it’s quite similar including the tripod pedestal it sits on.

The grand sighting.  All this went along for a few years.  Computers got better and we got a Compaq.  Dennis Santocono, a colleague of mine, and I then purchased a great software program that could accurately produce beautiful images of astronomical objects, including stars, galaxies, the sun, the moon, the earth itself, and all the planets. We had great fun with this.  Then a marvelous, unprecedented celestial event occurred.

In 1993, the Shoemaker-Levy comet was discovered as it entered our solar system, heading for Jupiter.  As scientists predicted, the comet approached Jupiter, entering the planet’s immense gravitational field.  Astronomers around the world were excited, as no one hadcomet ever witnessed such an event.  No one really knew what was going to happen when the comet struck Jupiter.  The enormous gravity from Jupiter shattered the comet and broke it into several pieces as it approached Jupiter, forming a bright “string of pearls.”  (You can see these pieces in the official photo, just below Jupiter)  Finally, in 1994, these pieces struck our biggest planet over the course of a few days, making dark smudges on the surface.  (Look it up)

The software company that sold the previously mentioned astronomy program then offered an update to their product, fragment-a illustrating the Shoemaker-Levi comet as it struck Jupiter, including an accurate depiction of the smudges on the planet’s surface where the pieces of the comet hit.

Dennis and I bought this update and ran the new program, setting the date as the present.  The program showed the precise position of the dark smudges on Jupiter.  I then set up my little 6-inch telescope on a clear night in San Diego and after letting my eyes adjust, I focused on Jupiter.  To my surprise, I could actually see three of the smudges.  When I went inside and checked with the astronomy program, it illustrated exactly where the smudges should be and there they were, just as I had seen them.  jupiter-with-smudgeWhat a thrill for a teenager who loved astronomy!  I was practically a scientist.  I was the only one I knew who could be astounded by this.  It was a beautiful, unforgettable sight.  The smudges gradually disappeared, my telescope is gone, and it’s all just history now.  But, thanks to Roger (and Charles) Coulomb for getting me started.  I was finally rewarded.


Thanks for hanging in with Arlyne and me.

Bob Draper


Things I Used to Have But Don’t Anymore

We’ve all had little things we collected, found or stumbled on as we grew up.  Usually, they fit in our pockets.  Some of us still have these things.  I was musing the other day (as I often do) about some of the things I used to have and recalled a few of them.  The interesting aspect about most of these things is that to my knowledge, they were never actually purchased.

  1. A counterfeit 50 cent piece.  This coin I had in the mid-50’s was an accurate replica of a real coin.  The Franklin half dollar was released in 1948.  Apparently, it was a collector’s item initially.  Back in the late 1940’s and throughout the 1950’s, 50 cents was actually worth something.  I’m sure the counterfeit “industry” at the time 38942_obvthought it was a good idea to make some.  This project couldn’t have lasted very long.  I don’t know what happened to my coin but I remember twirling it on a table and hearing a really “dead” sound.  It didn’t seem to weigh the same as a real one.  I asked my dad about it and he said it was counterfeit.  I think he was right.
  2. Silver certificates. These were issued in $1, $5, and $10 denominations.  These bills briefly became redeemable for raw silver bullion in 1964.  After that, they could only be redeemed for Federal Reserve Notes. I had a few certificates at the time, but not enough to be meaningful.  A friend of mine at North American Aviation saw this change coming and hoarded as many as he could and traded them in for real silver bullion pieces.  It was interesting to me but I couldn’t cash in.  I don’t know what happened to these either.  Hey, it’s been 50 years.
  3. A presidential campaign button for Teddy Roosevelt. This small button has an image of Theodore and his prospective vice president, Charles Fairbanks. button-cropped
    My dad gave it to me in the 1980’s.  As I recall, this button was for the 1904 election.  It was in good condition and is worth about $58 today.  I don’t have it anymore because I gave it to my son.  At least it’s still in the family.
  4. An autographed photograph of Amelia Earhart. Actually, this photo was a family item that our father obtained way back in the day when he was a flyer.  I don’t know the circumstances about how he got it but he was in his 30’s when Amelia and Fred Noonan disappeared on their attempted flight around the world.  Again, this photo is still in our family.  My brother has it and takes good care of it.  It could be worth a couple of thousand dollars.
  5. An unusual toy with a WWII theme. As incredible as it seems now, this toy, which I played with in the early 50’s, had a small map of Japan encased at the bottom of a little cylinder about three inches across and half an inch high.  Made out of cardboard, the top was transparent and two BB’s rolled around inside.  There were two little depressions on the map of Japan labeled Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the trick was to roll the two BB’s around and try to get them to land in the depressions.  Needless to say, the BB’s represented atomic bombs.  The state of the world and our national attitudes were a lot different then.  I don’t know what happened to that little gadget either.  I think our mother threw it out.
  6. A short 16mm movie from the 1930’s of our father as he was piloting (from the rear cockpit) what was probably a Kinner biplane. The film was black and white of rgb-flyingcourse but there he was in his leather helmet and goggles as he performed maneuvers, filmed by a friend who sat in the front cockpit.  He loved to fly and even hired out as a “delivery” pilot who flew airplanes out of Los Angeles to buyers in California and Oregon.  This film, kept in our refrigerator rgb-kinner1931for years to preserve it, was lost in one of our moves as a young family.  This one I’m really sad about.  We have these photos though.  Our father was a dashing young man.
  7. A baseball signed by Willie Mays. My sportswriter brother gave me this one.  Hey, if I try really hard, I’ll find this one.  I did see Willie play in San Francisco a few times before he retired.  Anybody who knows baseball, even a tiny bit, knows Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid.  I think this baseball is in our storage.
  8. Willie Mosconi’s autograph. Now, most people today have absolutely never heard of Willie Mosconi, who he was, what he did and why his autograph is undoubtedly valuable today.  Mosconi was one of the best pocket billiards players that ever lived67039939_wgtuy-m.  He played straight pool, also called 14.1.  I saw him in Los Angeles in 1965 at a pocket billiards championship in Burbank.  A friend and I drove there to watch the tournament.  Willie was already in his 60’s and I got his autograph on a small piece of paper because that’s all I had.  I was a fairly good pool player in high school and college and loved to play straight pool, a game most people don’t play anymore.  I played straight pool in college with one of my  professors.  We sneered at 8-ball and rotation but loved straight pool.  You can find out about and watch Willie on YouTube.  Needless to say, I can’t find Willie’s autograph.  I do have a box of stuff in storage and I think it’s in there.
  9. BONUS:  At that Burbank tournament, which I believe was the World Invitational Championship, I was astounded to see a black player shooting on one of the tables.  He wore a very nice suit and tie and was one of the few who did.  I could see he was very, very good.  His name was Cisero Murphy.  I googled him before I put this post ciserotogether and learned a lot more about him.  He is in the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame.  He even beat Willie Mosconi a number of times.  He won that Burbank tournament I witnessed.  He is the only player who ever won a national championship on his first attempt, which I saw.  He was the player who broke the “color line” for all the others.  I wish I had Murphy’s autograph.  He’s considered the Jackie Robinson of billiards.  Perhaps Willie Mosconi should be considered the Jack Nicklaus of billiards?
  10. The first issue of Sports Illustrated. Our father subscribed to SI way back then when it was first published, in 1954.  None of us ever thought to hold on to this magazine.  I sports-illustrated-first-issuehave to look for it to see if one of us Draper brothers still has it.  It’s worth a lot of money now but probably we don’t have it anymore.
  11. Buffalo nickel, with buffalo on raised ground. I acquired this coin in change in the 1960’s.  I had a small interest in collecting coins and had mostly pennies that, even today, aren’t worth much.  Maybe in a few decades.  This nickel had a major flaw.  It was so worn that the date could not be easily identified.  From what I could see, it was either 1934 or 1935 but it could not be confirmed.  The coin books at the time had this coin worth a few hundred dollars up to $30,000.  Alas, my coin was quite worthless except for its curiosity factor.  I hung on to it for a few years, storing it in my grandmother’s garage with a few other things.  I called her up one day in 1967 to see how she was doing and she said “Bob, the garage burned down.”   Good thing the coin was worthless.
  12. I presume that many of you used to have interesting things and still have some of them.  Little pieces of history that mean something to us.
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Posted by on October 11, 2016 in Bird Lover


Swimming in the Olympics…..and Me

The 2016 Olympics are over.  I loved the performances, especially track and field and swimming.  The Olympics are a business, for sure. A lot of money is spent and made.  It’s pretty overblown in many events and that’s probably why I like athletes that don’t have much on except shorts and a pair of shoes.

I’m also sorry we don’t get to see such events as table tennis, weight lifting, badminton and many other “minor” sports.  We’re missing some incredible performances and terrific athletes.  Alas, the money thing again.  But, about swimming.

I was a pretty good swimmer in high school and college.  I look at the times in the recent Olympic swimming events and can’t imagine how I could ever have been so slow, back in those days.  I worked hard and sometimes exhausted myself, mostly swimming against other guys I knew in Arizona.

I was the Michael Phelps of Arizona (and maybe New Mexico) but probably not anywhere else.  I set state records in the individual medley and the breaststroke.  I wondered…….then I began to think about how swimming times could have improved so much over the years.  Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Indoor pools.  We only had outdoor swimming pools, with wind and rain and dark water at night.  We practiced in pools that were only 25-yards long.  Not good.
  2. The lane markers (floats) today touch each other and form a perfect barrier that really isolates swimmers in each lane.  Our lane markers were flimsy little things that were sometimes several inches apart, creating waves from other swimmers.
  3. I believe the lanes are wider today than they were for us. Easier for swimmers to avoid the lane markers and stay in the center as they swim.
  4. Swimmers train all year. We went to high school and college during the winter months and only swam competitively in the summer.
  5. Swimmers lift weights today, a lot. We were told it wasn’t good for swimmers. Wrong.  We did strap 2-1/2 pound weights to the back of our hands with duct tape while practicing but that was it.
  6. Running. We were told that running wasn’t good for swimmers. Wrong.
  7. Swimmers wear bathing caps.  We wouldn’t be caught dead in them back then.
  8. Swimming trunks are tight-fighting spandex or something equivalent. We weren’t allowed to wear trunks like that.  Neither were the girls, unfortunately.
  9. Swimmers shave their bodies.  We didn’t do that.  I have to say we thought about it though.
  10. Great, high starting blocks are used all the time now, with non-slip surfaces, instead of just the edge of the pool.
  11. The water is clear and temperature controlled.  We swam in cold, cloudy, highly chlorinated water.
  12. Coaches are fabulous and highly paid now, not just part time high school teachers. It’s a science and a business now, not just a sport.  I trained myself to swim faster. Wrong.
  13. The flip turns that are done now were totally illegal then.  We had to touch the wall with our hands before we made our turns, for example.
  14. Swimmers now are allowed (trained) to swim underwater with a dolphin stroke when they start and after they turn. They do that for several meters.  That was illegal back when I swam.  We had to get to the top of the water quickly.
  15. Swimmers today have sports psychologists, dietitians and agents, not just parents.
  16. Swimmers today have protein shakes and supplements and other cool stuff. We had steak and baked potatoes.
  17. Swimmers now use super-cool, well designed swimming goggles. We didn’t have them.  My doctor told me my red eyes and cloudy vision were the result of too much chlorine and advised me to quit swimming.  I did.
  18. There’s a lot more competition now, motivating swimmers to perform better.  And giving them targets to shoot for.
  19. Swimmers are genetic giants now, apparently bred or selected for certain sports.  I can’t prove this but there are a lot of 6 foot 6 inch swimmers out there.  Where did these guys come from?
  20. Many swimmers (even well below the big stars that we all know) are highly celebrated, have sponsors and make a lot of money. We were all complete amateurs.  There was no money in swimming except for a few college scholarships.  In my sophomore year, my mother once wrote me that I had received a letter back home with a scholarship offer to Stanford.  It was for $400 a year. It was a nice thing but even then, that wasn’t close to covering college costs.  It would perhaps pay for a cafeteria card.  Besides, by then I knew I was going to be an engineer

I think if I had access to all these improvements, my times could have been a whole lot better.  Could I have gotten a gold medal (or any medal) in the 1960 or 1964 Olympics?

………Not a chance in hell.  But I still enjoy watching swimming events.bobcutout

Bob Draper


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Posted by on August 24, 2016 in Bird Lover, olympics


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The Steve Athan Story, continued


I would please like anyone reading this to go back to my January 6, 2016 blog entitled “Some Possibly Interesting Stories” and read (or re-read) the first story called The Engineer who went to Yellowstone.  Go to the archived list and click on January 6, 2016 and you’ll find the story, first on the list…..

You’ll see that the story is about a man I worked with 50 years ago.  He went camping to Yellowstone NP in July of 1966 and was killed by a falling tree on a windy day.  Although it’s an astonishing and tragic story by itself, the event had a powerful impact on me at the time, over the years and then just a couple of days ago.

Regarding my story of Steve Athan, something truly incredible and emotional for me just happened…….  I write my blog mostly for myself because I love to tell interesting stories.  I never thought one of my stories would someday have such a personal impact on me and another family.

Arlyne and I were visiting our son and his wife last weekend and I casually looked at my gmail.  I saw a message from a Felice Hunter, whom I didn’t know.  As I read her message and began to comprehend what she was saying, I was stunned.  The only proper way to relate what she said to me is to put her entire message here.  (Thank you so much for your permission, Felice) As I read her message, I was incredulous and started to cry.  I couldn’t actually read her words aloud.  My son did that for me.  Here is what she wrote, an unexpected tilt of the earth:

Thank you, Bob, for Steve’s story. I was the wife who went to Yellowstone with Steve and our daughter Stacey. Yes, he was so excited for this trip to happen. We had planned the trip in January, but his father got sick; we said that if his father recovered, then come July, we would be Yellowstone bound. Well, his father’s health improved, and off we went. I thank you for your kind sentiments; he was a special person, a loving and caring man.

I remarried sometime after, and fortunately Stacey’s life turned out well. Yesterday I saw Stacey and her special husband Mike; Steve would have been proud of what Stacey has achieved, both academically and professionally and if only he had lived to see her beautiful and talented daughters.

After lawyers and botanists’ fees, I did not receive all the money you mentioned in your blog, but if the trees in the campgrounds at Yellowstone have been removed and fewer people are injured, then I’m pleased that something positive occurred on July 2, 1966, in this precedent case.

Thanks again.
Felice Hunter

I almost couldn’t speak.  I never imagined how my story could cause such a contact after 50 years.  Just days ago, Steve Athan’s daughter, Stacey, found my blog by chance on the 50th anniversary of her father’s death.  She commented on my blog and was so kind to me about my story of her dad.  Fifty years!!  I read Stacey’s comment after reading her mother’s message.  Here is her comment to me about searching for her father’s name after 50 years and finding it:

I am the daughter of Steve Athan.  He died 50 years ago today, so I googled him on a lark and found your blog.  Your writing touched me, and I will share it with my mother.  Thanks so much for taking the time to remember my father in such a lovely way.  You brought him to life.

Stacey Hunter Schwartz

I’ll never get over this.  I’ve met memorable people over my life and I remember Steve just perfectly after 50 years because he was a memorable person.  I’m nearly overwhelmed by this lightning bolt out of the distant past.  I commented back to Stacey:

I’m so glad you tried your father’s name.  I actually did the same thing a number of years ago and learned more about him.  I answered your mother’s message yesterday.  You guys brought tears to my eyes………50 years, imagine.  I am hoping to put this update of your story on my blog because of the incredible nature of our communication.  I didn’t ask your mother’s permission yet.  What a wonderful thing you both have done.

Best Regards, Bob Draper and Arlyne

This is what I wrote back to Felice:

Ms Hunter, I received your kind message yesterday and it was an incredible experience for me.  My wife and I were visiting with our son in Upland.   They had heard Steve’s story before over the years but haven’t carried it around with them for years as you and your family have.  I still clearly recall Steve and his joyous outlook on life.  I loved his colleague Nick (the Greek)as well.  (Hope I got that right)

As you know, I am 75 years old now, but I have always felt compelled to tell the story of Steve Athan to a wider audience.  My blog, which you found, is mostly about birds, but as I began contemplating posting personal stories, the story of your husband did rise to the top quickly.  The tragic nature of his death and the suddenness of it stays with me.  I don’t always get responses to my posts but I have to say that several of my really “steady” readers told me they especially liked the story of the engineer who went to Yellowstone. 

I regret having never met you and your daughter and I recall a feeling of helplessness at not knowing anything about Steve’s family, where you were from or anything.

I was only at NAA for a year and a half before moving to the SF bay area.  I met the woman I am married to in Los Angeles and we are anticipating our 50th anniversary later this year.  Both you and Steve were cheated out of a life together……a life I am careful not to take for granted.

Arlyne says we should have a cup of coffee with you one day, as we come to San Diego and LA often.  We will be in San Diego for the next three months.

I thank you so much for having the courage to contact me without knowing very much about us.

Our best wishes to you and your family,

The Drapers, Bob and Arlyne.

I suppose I’ve become an emotional man in my later years but sometimes I think it’s warranted and needed.  I asked Felice if I could relate this latest chapter of my Steve Athan story because I wasn’t going to write about it unless she agreed.  She kindly gave me permission and I wanted all of you to understand what just happened.  I never met Steve’s wife Felice and his young daughter.  I know if Steve had lived and I had stayed at NAA for just a bit longer, I would have met them.  He and I connected so well at that time so long ago.

I remember he gave me a little “test” just a few days after I began working with the Apollo Test Group there in Downey.  He showed me a diagram of a transistor circuit and asked me if the transistor was turned “on” or “off.  I looked at the circuit and told Steve of course the transistor was turned on.  He liked that the college boy was right and this was the start of a short but memorable relationship between us.  I liked him right away.  He told me about researching and buying stocks for the long term and said that his other buddy (Nick, I think it was) bought and sold stocks so often that his broker sometimes made more money than Nick did.  I laughed at that.

I am still astonished that, after 50 years, such a wonderful thing happened, so unexpectedly.  Steve, it looks like you have a great family and I know this now.

My thanks to Felice and Stacey and their families.  You’ve made this guy very happy.  I intend to look you guys up in the next few months, you can be sure of that.

Our best regards,

Bob Draper and Arlyne


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A Story or two….and part of my bucket list

A Story or two….and part of my bucket list

I love to tell stories about things that happened to me or that interested me.  I’m a birdwatcher and photographer but we find ourselves unable to do that right now.  So, I’ve dug up a few more little stories.  But this time, I’ve also included a few of my many bucket list items, something nearly everybody has.  I’ll start with a few stories that I recently remembered…….

The Kindergarten Kids.  This is actually one of my favorite stories.  We hadn’t lived in San Diego very long.  I still had my old 1966 VW bus that I had brought down from San Jose.  I loved driving that thing.  I felt like a hippie.  We only lived 10 miles from where I worked so sometimes I drove home for lunch.  Instead of going on the main road to our house, I went through the neighborhood so I could look at houses, yards, etc.  I was on the suburban road for a little while when I noticed a large truck ahead of me.  All of a sudden, the truck stopped in the middle of the road.  I was a little too close to him but I didn’t expect to see his backup lights come on.  As I frantically fumbled with the floor stick shift trying to get into reverse, the truck backed up quite fast and bashed into the front of my bus.  Remember the old VW buses?  They had a big, nearly flat front end.  His truck pushed the entire one-piece front of the car back two feet.  Freaked me out!

We got out of our vehicles.  I said “What the hell, mister?”  He said “I didn’t see you back there!”  We talked back and forth.  He was delivering a set of mattresses to a house that he had just passed, then stopped and backed up quickly.  He said “Hey, I’m sorry, it was my fault, I just didn’t look.”  We exchanged information and since our cars still worked (pretty much), we went our separate ways.    He disappeared.  As I was talking to him in the middle of the street however, I had noticed several kindergarten kids walking home from school on the sidewalk.  I started to drive home when I had a thought.  About a block later, I drove to the curb and rolled down my window as two boys were walking along.  How do I play this, I wondered?  I asked them “Did you see what just happened back there?”   One kid said “Yeah, that guy backed up right into your car.”  Bless his heart…….maybe I had a witness.  Casually, I said “You guys just saw an accident.  Would you tell somebody what you saw, if I needed you guys as witnesses?”  I still recall both the boys taking a step back, undoubtedly remembering all the warnings their parents gave them.  Then one boy stepped forward and said “Yeah, I’ll do it.”  Again, very carefully, I said “Could you give me your mom’s phone number so I could explain to her what happened?  I probably won’t need you guys at all but just in case.”  After a pause, one boy gave me his home number.  Amazing, actually.  I thanked them and again said that I hoped I wouldn’t need them to talk to anybody.  I drove home.

Amazing again, I called the truck driver that evening and asked if he had contacted his insurance and so forth.  He said “I’m going to say that you drove into me.  There’s no way to tell.”  Yeah, maybe so, I said, but I have witnesses.  He said “What, what witnesses?”  I asked him, remember all the kids walking home from school as we were standing there?  After a pause, he said “Yeah, I guess so.”  Well, I said, I talked to two of them and they’re my witnesses.  I have their phone number, I talked to their moms and they’re willing to describe exactly what happened.  A long pause…..and he said “OK, OK, I’ll tell my insurance company what happened.”  He did, my VW was repaired and I never had to call the kids or their moms.  Amazing.

The Jet Crash.  Arlyne and I both worked in the San Diego area for some time.  She was working for a small firm in Sorrento Valley.  She came home one day with an incredible story.  Sitting at her desk on the second floor of her building, part of a complex of small buildings in an office park, she heard a really loud thump above her.  Wondering what it was, she looked out the window and saw a Navy pilot coming down on his parachute and landing on the street.  Arlyne was shocked and didn’t know what the hell had just happened.  Some of the people in her building told everybody to get out and she did.  The thump was the canopy of his jet hitting the roof of her building.  He had ejected not long after takeoff from Miramar Naval Air Station.  The flight path leaving Miramar went almost over the office park.  One of his engines caught fire right after takeoff.  As the story emerged, it seems he guided his falling F8 Crusader reconnaissance aircraft the best he could, as long as he could, trying to avoid a populated area.  He saw an opening between two buildings where there was a parking lot and he somehow guided the plane there.

NOTE:  Just a few minutes before the crash, the lunch truck had been parked there, with two dozen guys around it but the truck left and they had all gone inside.  The plane crashed right in that parking lot!  Eighteen cars were destroyed or damaged.

The crash investigation found that if he had ejected half a second later he would never have gotten out.  He was called a hero, and rightfully so, because of how long he stayed with the plane, guiding it to a “safe” spot.  A Navy spokesman said the pilot, Cmdr. David Strong, stayed with the plane longer than he should have.  The pilot, as Arlyne witnessed it, quickly got out of his parachute and harness, grabbed a fire hose and helped firefighters put out the fire.  I could have lost her right there, but only one person on the ground was slightly burned.  Amazing!

I still have the 30 year old San Diego newspaper with all the details.

The Camping Incident.  Several years ago, Arlyne and I were camping with some dear friends at an RV park in Ramona, CA.  We had a motorhome and they had a 5th wheel trailer.  We’ve known this couple for a long time and we all love camping.  It was a warm evening and we settled down outside with some chairs and a barbeque, near a tree.  Our friend Jerry poured some red wine for everybody. Karol, who is very spiritual, put some little candles around us and a few in the tree.  We put on some folk music and just sat around in a circle, chatting and having wine.  Not a problem in the world, right?

After a couple of hours, we were still hanging out when a sheriff’s car slowly came along the camping road and stopped at our site.  The deputy got out of his car, in full uniform and utility belt, looked around, hitched up his pants and came over to us.  “Is this site 32”, he asked.  Well, that’s right, we told him.  He looked at us and started to laugh.  We had no idea what was going on.  Between laughs, he said there had been a report of people at site 32 drinking blood and having some kind of weird rituals.  After a beat, Karol said “But we’re all grandparents!!  We’re just having some wine.”  The guy laughed again, shook hands with us and said that it had to be someone in a nearby site that couldn’t tell what we were doing and imagined horrible things.  He got back in his car, chucking, and drove off.  We laughed about the whole thing for a long time and we still laugh about it now.

First New Zealand Trip.  I understand that not many people get to visit New Zealand.  Arlyne and I were very lucky and tried to make the most of our opportunity to live there for a time.  However, this little story has to do with my very first trip to NZ.  I was by myself and needed to go to an important meeting in Auckland regarding a large new project with the Australian government.  It turned out to be a great thing that the meeting was set for 1:30 pm.

Because my trip was not decided upon until quite late, there weren’t enough seats and I “had” to go 1st class.  Not bad.  We left at 9:30 pm.  After a nice meal, everyone went to “bed”.  My seat folded down completely flat, I was given a glass of wine, a chocolate and a blanket.  Believe me, I went right to sleep.

That was fabulous but wasn’t the best part.   We woke up as we were nearing NZ, had breakfast and landed as it was just getting light.  I went through all the customs procedures, got my bags, rented a car and (carefully, because of driving on the left) managed to find my hotel in downtown Auckland.  Lo and behold, because of the very recent America’s Cup yacht races, the hotel was fully booked and my room wasn’t going to be ready until noon.  “What should I do in the meantime?” I asked the desk clerk.  You could hang out in the bar, he said.  I thought for a while and asked him “Where’s the nearest golf course?”  So…..I left my bags at the hotel, took a cab to the municipal golf course, walked up to the golf shop and asked about a tee time.  The kid said “I can put you with three other guys in about 15 minutes.”

The NZ exchange rate was quite favorable for Americans.  Get this:  I paid my green fees, rented some clubs, rented a pull cart, bought some balls, bought some tees, bought a glove, bought a hat……all for $35.  Now that’s amazing.  I played a complete round with some friendly and helpful golfers, enjoyed myself immensely, took a cab back to the hotel, took a shower and easily made the meeting.  Nice.

Arlyne at Ampex.  Arlyne has some stories as well.  Not too long after we were married, Arlyne went to work at Ampex International in Redwood City, CA.  Ampex today isn’t the major player and innovator that it was in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Ampex developed many innovative products in video technology and their techniques are still in use today.  Arlyne initially worked in the Latin America division for several years where, among other things, they sold audio cassettes to developing Latin American countries.  She was in her element at Ampex, helping to translate, organizing international shipping and travel documents and teaching American marketing guys how to survive in South America.  She left Ampex for a year because of breast cancer.  The best part is:  Ampex called her back to work for the founder of the company (back in 1944).  The name AMPEX is an acronym, created by the founder, which stands for Alexander M. Poniatoff Excellence.  Then in his eighties, Mr. Poniatoff loved to come to work nearly every day.  Arlyne’s job was to keep him company, have lunch with him, listen to his stories, get his mail, etc.  She loved the man, who was (and still should be) an industry icon.  She “worked” for Poniatoff for a few years, a memorable time.


(Part of) My Bucket List and Reverse Bucket List.  Most everybody has a bucket list, even if they don’t call it that.  I had never heard of such a thing until I reached middle age.  As a result, I really should have two lists (at least) because I had visions of doing or seeing things when I was young and my list is naturally different now that I’m older.  Now, however, there is a trend to have a reverse bucket list.  These are things that you’ve actually done, seen or accomplished that are worthy of a bucket list.  I change my list(s) all the time as it suits me.  Here’s a list of my mix of bucket list and reverse bucket list items.  To account for some items for which I can only claim partial credit, I have officially invented the term half-reverse bucket list.

overview of Machu Piccu

Machu Piccu

Go to Machu Piccu.  I must have been about 12 years old when I read  about Machu Piccu, the famous lost city of the Incas in Peru.  I was fascinated by pictures of the place, which was distant and hugely exotic.  I never imagined a farm boy like me would get there but the seed was planted (no pun intended).  It wasn’t until I was in my 60’s that an opportunity presented itself.  I had some frequent flyer miles and Arlyne’s niece, who was living in Uruguay, had a business conference in Lima.  She persuaded us and her parents to meet her there and see Machu Piccu on the same trip.   It was the trip of a lifeline (of course) and we saw a bunch of new birds as well.  I think I’ll describe that trip in an upcoming blog.

Climb Mt. Whitney.  This wasn’t high on my list (damn, another pun) but it kept climbing up there (another pun) until Arlyne’s niece (again) convinced me to go with her.  I had been running and exercising and the climb seemed tough at first but went pretty well finally.  To top it all off (another pun?), Sean and Diane Dyer and some other Cubic colleagues convinc ed me several years later to climb Whitney again.  This time, I had not been running and it was monumentally difficult.  The goal was to do the 24 hour version, up and down in a day.  The hike is about 13 miles up and 13 miles down.  I did break what I call the 20 hour barrier but I was the last one to get to the top and the last one to finish back at the trailhead.  An IV would have helped at that point.  It’s a wonderful hike and I recommend it to everybody.  Just take two days if you can.

Parachute jump.  Even though I don’t do well with heights, I figured being up so high in an airplane would be abstract enough that I could overcome that.   I was in college.  One day I heard on the radio that a small troupe of young guys was coming to town with an airplane.  For $30, they would give you an hour of instructions, take you up a few thousand feet and push you out of the plane, on a static line.  I told my roommates I was going to do it on Saturday.  As “luck” would have it, however, I was again listening to the radio and heard that a young man had been taken up for his jump a few hours previously and had been killed.  His main parachute didn’t open.  He was found with his hand grasping the handle of the reserve chute.  No one knows why he didn’t pull it.  I cancelled this from my bucket list and won’t ever be doing it.  I also decided that I would rather have more mature people running such an operation.  That’s why I haven’t ever done a bungee jump.  These “operations” are usually run by guys in their late teens or early twenties.  No thanks.

Go on a Pelagic Bird Trip.   A trip to see birds out on the ocean and coastal islands can be very rewarding for birders like Arlyne and me.  As we became serious birders, our goal was

blue footed booby DSC_0096

blue-footed booby

to go out on a boat to see birds.  Our first actual trip was on a converted fishing boat in the Hauraki Gulf outside Auckland, New Zealand.  It seems local fishermen found they can make a lot more money, with less risk, taking birders out.  The Captain of our boat spent a few months learning the rest of the birds, because he already knew many of them.  What a great trip.  We saw albatrosses, cape pigeons, sooty shearwaters, Southern giant petrels, little blue penguins, flesh-footed shearwaters (lots of them), Buller’s shearwaters, white-faced storm petrels and others.  Sitting on land, you won’t see any of these birds.   Another pelagic trip was out of San Diego to the Coronado Islands in Mexican waters.  I went with my birding friend, Richard Griebe.  At first, it was just gulls, then we saw blue-footed boobies and black-vented shearwaters.   So even though we’ve done this, we want to do it again, so it’s still (always) on our bucket list.

Play guitar (acoustic).  Growing up in the rock and folk era, I thought guitar music was the best.  I didn’t own a guitar until college and just picked away at it a little.  I moved to Los Angeles and a girl-friend engaged me in the folk scene.  I saw several legendary folk singers (Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson and others) and decided to take lessons.  I walked one Saturday into the Troubadour in LA for a lesson and was given a choice: flatpicking or fingerpicking.  I chose door no. 2 – fingerpicking.  A guy named Taj Mahal was teaching flatpicking.  Today, he has become nearly a legend in blues and folk music.  But I figured with fingerpicking, I wouldn’t need a backup bass player, drummer, etc.   I could practice and play by myself.  It took forever to learn how to play the bass beat with my thumb and the melody on the other strings but it finally clicked in.  I took lessons again in my 40’s and I still play today, still playing for myself and still not that good.  In my head it sounds OK.

Shoot a hole-in-one (and/or play with a golf professional).  My two brothers and I took golf “lessons” from our dad as we were growing up.  He was a good golfer (a lot of rounds in the 70’s) and two holes-in-one.  Of course, I had the ability to hit the ball a long way but


The Great Lee Elder

I sprayed it all over the place.  Nevertheless, I knew that one day I would have a hole-in-one.  Hasn’t happened.  Probably won’t.  I’ve been 2-inches, 3-inches and 9 inches but never in the jar.  It’s on my list.  Help me out, dad.  I still play but have never quite made it to my dad’s level.   I did play golf with a true legend a few times – Lee Elder, the first black golfer to play in the Masters.  He was 68 then and still an incredible talent.  Lee rented a home just down the street from us for a few years.  Lee is a really nice guy and told me a few stories.  I went down to his place a couple of times to watch the Masters and he made us both some sandwiches.  Elder won 61 tournaments around the world and has 6 holes-in-one, so far.  Good on ‘ya, Lee.

Thanks for listening to some of my favorite stories……

More bird pictures soon, I hope,

Bob and Arlyne Draper


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Posted by on May 21, 2016 in Bird Lover


A Few More Stories……

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


Some Possibly Interesting Stories

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”.transmission

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 RangeWhite Sands 4

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 IncidentOut_of_bounds balloon fiesta

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 Arlynebobnarlyne010

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 RideAT-6 Texan-2

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 Masonwalkers109

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


Posted by on January 6, 2016 in Bird Lover, personal stories, RV living