One of My Heroes……

Many of my stories are from when I was younger but as long as I have these memories I’ll consider relating the ones I find interesting.  This story is certainly about an interesting (actually incredible) guy I knew who was one of my early (and current) heroes from both an engineering and sports perspective.  We all have our heroes and Charley Johnson is one of mine.

I was in college at New Mexico State University.  The football team was the Aggies (we all were) because in the early days of NMSU it was an A&M (Agriculture and Mechanical) college.  Students learned about soils, cotton, cattle and other farming subjects.  It later became a great engineering college.

The quarterback of the football team during my first year there was Charley Johnson.  In 1960, he led the Aggies to an undefeated season and a national ranking.  He was that good.  I believe that was the only time the Aggies had this kind of success.  The other thing that impressed me; he was taking Chemical Engineering.  He was getting straight A’s.  A 4.0 grade point.  I had started my college career in Chemical Engineering so I knew it to be a difficult subject.  Although I loved chemistry, I changed from Chem E to Electrical Engineering in my sophomore year.  Not Johnson.  He took the Aggies to the Sun Bowl twice during his tenure at NMSU, winning both charley-johnson-3games.  He was selected as the MVP both times.  Impressive for anyone but incredible for an engineering major.  There’s more.

Johnson went on to the NFL, initially playing for the St. Louis Cardinals (football team), followed by the Houston Oilers.  Although he had a spotty record with these teams, he was picked up by the Denver Broncos in 1972.  He took over the starting assignment in 1973 and led the team to its first ever winning season in the 14 years of its existence.

As an active player in the NFL, be began studying for his master’s degree in Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.  Night classes!  There’s more.  Johnson was in the United States Army Reserve and was called up to active duty during this period.  He was away from the team during the week as an artillery officer, flying back to the team on weekends, throwing touchdown passes.  He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1964 and 1965.  There’s more.NFL Historical Imagery

Johnson got his master’s degree and began studying for his Doctorate in Chemical Engineering.  He achieved this as well.  I heard he continued to get straight A’s.  Of course.

Later, Johnson went back to NMSU as the Department Head of the Chemical Engineering School and retired just a few years ago.  Amazingly, I heard this news while Arlyne and I were passing through Las Cruces (location of the NMSU campus) on our way to California.charley-johnson-quarterback-chemist

It is said of Charley Johnson that it is “unlikely we shall ever see this rare combination of accomplishments again.”  He showed how much one person can do if he puts his mind to it.

I actually recalled much of this story from personal observation but also borrowed some of it from Jim Saccomano’s* article, “Charley Johnson, the quarterbacking chemist.”

NOTE:  Jim Saccomano recently retired from the Denver Broncos as VP of Corporate Communications, after 36 years.

Thanks for reading my stuff,

Bob Draper


Posted by on January 12, 2017 in Bird Lover


Closing the Circle

Recently, many readers of this blog have followed and commented on the story about my friend and colleague Steve Athan from so many years ago.  He died tragically in Yellowstone NP.  (see blogs from January 6, 2016 and July 13, 2016) Last year I was given an exceptional opportunity when I heard from Steve’s wife and daughter, 50 years later.  When I realized that Steve’s wife Felice still lived in California, I knew Arlyne and I were going to visit her.  I told Felice that we should have a cup of coffee together.

On a recent Sunday, she invited us for lunch at her house and we drove there.  Thanks Felice, for having us over.  As I said, I thought this was a truly unique opportunity to meet Steve Athan’s wife.  We both have our memories of Steve but had never met.  In my mind, our lunch with Felice was a chance to close a circle that has remained open for 50 years.  I told her she has always been the “imaginary” wife.  I always sort of wondered about her over the years.

She remarried sometime after Steve died and her second marriage lasted 40 years.  Incredible.  She and her second husband traveled the world a bit and it must have been a very good marriage.  Let me congratulate Felice for a continued great life in spite of some challenges, not the least of which is, of course, the passage of time.  It’s happening to all the rest of us as well.


Felice and Me

She told me her marriage with her first husband, Steve, was “the best seven years of my life.”    I believe her of course because I knew Steve.


Wedding Day

Felice allowed me to take a picture with her and permitted me to take a few pictures of her photo album.  This is my friend Steve Athan and I remember him well.  Most importantly, Felice (Athan) Hunter is no longer the imaginary woman and the circle (my circle) has closed.  I’m sorry that we’ve both aged (pretty well, actually) but we’re leading the way for the rest.    Thanks Felice,

Bob and Arlyne Draper


  Felice and Steve Athan



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Posted by on January 5, 2017 in Bird Lover


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