Tag Archives: History

Where is Santa?

At a writers meeting the other day, someone asked me about my experiences in the military.  So I told a couple a stories, and then she asked:  “Why don’t you write about that?”

It’s a simple question, with a complex answer.  I spent six years in the US Navy—1982 to 1988.  I was a nuclear electrician and served aboard a fast attack nuclear submarine.  There is no dark, dramatic story behind my reluctance to talk about that time.  Even so, I’m always tempted to use the standard flippant answer we used back then when civilians asked us what we did:

“I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

There are several reasons why I am reluctant to talk about my navy days:

  1. I’m an introvert and prefer to keep such things private.
  2. I was lucky to serve in a time between wars. I have no exciting war stories to share.
  3. Most people think of combat troops when they think of the military. While I was qualified with small arms, the only time I ever carried one was when we had repel boarder drills.
  4. We weren’t allowed to talk about the nuclear submarine (I had a secret clearance) and I still feel uncomfortable discussing it even now (even though that whole submarine class has been decommissioned).
  5. Most of my navy stories involve drinking, which are mostly funny stories, but are not ones I care to share with strangers.

Being in the military, any branch, does give you a different perspective.  I write fantasy novels with a strong military element.  While I was never in combat—especially with swords, spears, bows and arrows—I understand the sense of belonging to a greater group than yourself, and the camaraderie that military people share.

With all that being said, there is a story from my navy days that most people may find entertaining.  I was stationed aboard the USS Gurnard (SSN 662).  It was commissioned in 1968.  At the time when I served on board, it was middle-aged for a submarine; there were older diesel and nuclear subs still in service, but there were also shiny new 688 submarines (Los Angeles Class) getting all the attention.  The older subs, like the Gurnard, had one advantage over the newer Los Angeles class subs—they were designed to surface through the ice.

When the navy decided to send a couple of submarines under the arctic ice in 1984, the Gurnard was chosen.  Luckily for me (Yes, this is meant to be sarcastic), I was on board at the time.  We left sunny San Diego and headed up the western seaboard.

Unfortunately, we had a major piece of equipment breakdown and had to make a pit stop in Adak, Alaska (I did say this was an older boat, right?).  If you’ve never been to Adak, Alaska, you didn’t miss much.  It was a small base on a small island in the middle of a cold sea.  We were there for two days, and I had duty.  All I saw was the dock.  The guys that went ashore only saw the bars, go figure.  From what I understand, there’s nothing left to see there today.

http://www.ktuu.com/content/news/Abandoned-Alaska-Once-a-thriving-naval-base-now-an-Adak-ghost-town-401510545.html

We left Adak and headed through the Bering Strait, submerged.  I worked in the engine room, but the guys from up forward said it was a white-knuckle ride with the ice above and the sea bed below and not much room in between.  I couldn’t say, but sometimes it can be good not knowing where you are.

After that, we were submerged under the ice for over a month (44 days).  We surfaced through the ice twice during that time.  Once early on to load the equipment that needed replacing (from our stop in Adak).  The navy set up an ice camp and we surfaced long enough to clear ice from our main hatch so we could rig the new motor onboard the sub.  I was awake for over a day during that fiasco (I call it a fiasco, but we actually got a commendation letter for our planning and execution), because my division was responsible for rigging and setting up the pump.  After replacing the pump, we slipped back under the ice until we reached the North Pole.

When I tell people I’ve been to the North Pole, I always get two questions, so I’ll save you the trouble:

  • No, there is not an actual pole there, and
  • No, I did not see Santa.

Really, I didn’t see much of anything but snow and ice and darkness.  We were there in the winter when it stays dark forever.  The picture below is the sail of the USS Gurnard sticking up through the ice at the North Pole.  The color on the ice is a reflection from the flare shot off so you can see.

North Pole

I actually got out on the ice twice while we were there.  The first time was because who would go to the North Pole and not go up on the ice?  So I dressed up like a green Stay-Puff Marshmellow Man and went up to look.  I kinda looked like this guy, only all green instead of camo with a mask over my face.

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We were only allowed to be up there for about 5-10 minutes because of the temperature (I don’t actually remember how long, but it was no more than 10 minutes).  It was probably the most surreal experience of my life—walking away from the boat’s sail, on the ice, in the dark, and thinking, “I hope I don’t fall through (the ice was way too thick for that); I hope they don’t leave me (That would suck); and I hope I don’t get eaten by a polar bear (If you look at the picture, there are two men up in the sail with high-powered rifles.  They were called the polar bear watch.).”

That could have been the end to my North Pole adventure, and I would probably have been left with a more positive overall impression—been left more in awe of the majesty of the place—but this was the navy.  Several hours later, I was woken up (during my never-enough-to-really-feel-rested rack time) to go back up on the ice to hook up temporary lights.  Several crew members decided that it would be awesome to reenlist at the North Pole.  How exciting!  Of course, I was the poor slob who had to go up and string lights for the ceremony.  Have you ever tried to hang lights in the dark wearing two pairs of gloves (the outer pair being mittens thick enough to be used as oven mitts)?  Needless to say, my North Pole memories are somewhat marred by the experience.  But hey, the navy promised adventure, right?

I remember the ads from those days: “Navy.  It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.”  I’m not sure why they didn’t show someone stringing up lights in freezing weather on that commercial.  I’m sure it would have been a hit.

All joking aside, the navy was a positive experience.  I have made a good living because of the training I received.  (And I don’t glow in the dark much either.)

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Filed under History, Navy, North Pole, Travel

Favorite Book of 2016

In 2016 I read some fantasy novels, historical fiction, historical non-fiction, and a couple of teamwork books.  I don’t count all the online reading I do for research.  I’ve always been a history buff, and have recently been into historical fiction more than any other genre.

I like to go to used book stores and thrift stores and rummage through the stacks.  You never know what you’ll find on those musty shelves.  This year I found The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez – Reverte at the local Goodwill store.

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The Fencing Master is set in Madrid in 1868 during the Spanish Revolution that disposed Queen Isabella II.  While the politics taking place in Madrid are a strong backdrop to the story, it really centers around the fencing master Don Jaime and his adherence to the older social structure of honor and fencing.  This way of life has been all but displaced by the rise of firearms and a more liberal political order.  The story is a clash between the old and the new and much of the tension is internal to Don Jaime.

The narrative does drag a bit when it focuses too much on the politics, but makes up for it in the characterization of Don Jaime and the focus on fencing.  This book gives the reader a good understanding of the fencing culture of the Early Modern Period in Europe, just like Moby Dick did for the American whaling culture of the 19th century.

I enjoyed the story because of the strong character of Don Jaime, the historical backdrop of the Spanish Revolution, and the fencing content.  It captured the essence of the fencing era from an interesting retrospective viewpoint.

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I Love Old Churches

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Here is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The original church on this site was built in 1626 but was destroyed in the 1680 Pueblo revolt.  This particular church was built in the late 1800’s.

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The San Miguel Mission church in Santa Fe is the oldest church structure in the US.  It was originally built in 1610 by Franciscan Friars, or at least their indian servants.  The last picture is of the oldest house in the US, which stands next to the church and was where the builders/servants lived.

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Here are two churches in Taos, New Mexico.  The first is the San Francisco De Asis Mission Church located in Rachos de Taos.  It was built around 1815 and is considered one of the most photographed churches in the country.  The second church is really the ruins of a church.  It is the original site of the San Geronimo de Taos Mission Church.  The church was originally built around 1627 at the Taos Pueblo.  It was destroyed during the Pueblo revolt in 1680 and was then rebuilt.  This particular church was destroyed around 1850 by US troops while putting down a rebellion in Taos.  This church has some significance to me because some of my ancestors were baptized/married here before it was destroyed.

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Invocation to the Blarney Stone

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I ran across some old picture files from a trip I took to England and Ireland back in 2003.  One of the highlight of that trip was visiting Blarney Castle.  It is the first medieval castle that I ever visited and it was fascinating to me.  I remember climbing the stone spiral stairs and feeling a bit claustrophobic in the tight space.  Most of the castle was in need of major repair, but it did give me a good idea of the living conditions in such a small stone keep.

Of course I could not visit Blarney Castle without kissing the Blarney Stone.  Well, I kissed what the attendants at the castle said was the Blarney Stone.  Irish legend says that a person who kisses the Blarney Stone receives the gift of gab.  Being a writer, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

Blarney Stone

Hanging upside-down wasn’t exciting, but the experience did inspire me to write my Invocation to the Blarney Stone:

If it were that with just one kiss,

I could be transformed by your cold gray lips.

Words come slow to one such as I,

but with your eloquence my verse could fly.

If I came to you, my soul laid bare,

would you be moved enough to share,

your gift of gab with a supplicant true,

So that I could become as famous as you?

I don’t think it worked.  Maybe I should have bought it a drink first.

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Remember to Visit the Alamo

I recently traveled to San Antonio for a business trip.  As much as I travel, I typically don’t look forward to any new trips being added to my schedule, but I was excited at the chance to visit the Alamo.  Anyone that has sat through a U.S. History class has heard of the Alamo.  Being a history buff, I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the southwest outside of the classroom. The chance to visit the Alamo in San Antonio was worth the plane ride.

I had several people warn me before I went that it wasn’t very impressive to see.  I was told that it was smaller than you would expect.  This didn’t faze me.  As soon as I checked into my room, I headed down the street to visit the historic site.  Luckily, the conference I attended was at a downtown hotel and I was only about a block away.

The Alamo historic site is not very large.  Of the makeshift fort from the war for Texas Independence, only the church and the barracks remain.  Still, this is enough to give you a feel for what the structure was like and maybe even how the defenders felt as they waited for the help that never came.

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Church with barracks to the Left.

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Barracks with church on right.

In actuality, the Alamo of our history books would have taken up the street in the picture above and a portion of the building across the plaza.  If you visit the official Alamo website there is a map that shows the original building overlaying the modern street.

After delighting my inner historical nerd, I looked around to see what else San Antonio had to offer and was pleasantly surprised.  My hotel was adjacent to the River Walk.  When I arrived, I was so intent upon visiting the Alamo I didn’t even realize the river was just outside the hotel back door.

The San Antonio River runs through the city, but it doesn’t look like a typical river.  Periodic flooding occurred  in San Antonio prior to the 20th century.  Starting in the 1920’s the San Antonio River was made over with a dam, a bypass channel, and a manmade waterway.  I did have a picture, but lost it somehow.  In my defense, my wife takes the pictures and she wasn’t with me on this trip.  You can visit the River Walk website for more details.  Along the River Walk you can find hotels, shops, restaurants, and a mall – at least in the areas I checked out.

I wish I had more time on my trip to explore the River Walk.  I’m thinking of going back with my wife to spend a little more time strolling along the water.  I think this would make a great weekend trip for two.

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In The Mood?

I saw In the Mood last night at the Knight Theater in Charlotte.  The event featured big band music from the 1940’s.  There was comedy, dancing, singing, and awesome music.  The group tours throughout the year across the U.S.  My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the show.  If you like big band era music, it is worth the trip to the theater.

I was a bit surprised that there were not many young people in the crowd.  Yes, it is the music of an older generation, like my grandparents era and I’m fifty, but it was entertaining and I expected a more eclectic crowd.  Ballroom dancing seems to be more popular today, and there was a swing dancing craze a few years ago.  I guess 1940’s music just isn’t a big thing right now.  No surprise, I’m totally oblivious to what’s popular.

I had to laugh when we asked our twenty-something daughter if she wanted to go to the show.  She gave me a look which basically told me just how out of touch I was.  So I asked her what she was going to do instead.  She was going contra dancing.  Contra dancing is basically square dancing like I had to do back in junior high school during recess on rainy days.  Okay, not quite the same, but close enough.  So square dancing is in, but big band music isn’t?  I think I’ll just embrace my old man, uncool, out-of-touch self.  Eventually that’ll be popular too, right?

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What Does a Half-Century Look Like?

I’ve officially lived for half a century.  It sounds much more impressive than it feels, especially on cold winter days.  I could say that I’m older but wiser, but this statement is only accurate for a small proportion of the population from what I can see, and I won’t try to claim to be the wiser.  Every year on my birthday, I typically review what I’ve accomplished over the past twelve months, but this year I find myself looking back even further.  What does a half-century look like?

I guess each generation has their group memories.  Here are the ones that stand out for me:

    • The Space Race (1969-1972)—I remember sitting in the school library watching one of the Apollo missions land on the moon.  It was a big deal, and the entire school squeezed into the library to watch.  Back then it was the only television on the campus.  I can’t say which mission it was, but I would have been in kindergarten, first, or second grade depending.  I’m thinking it was one of the later moon landings and I was either in the 1st or 2nd grade, but I couldn’t say for sure.  Also, my father had a picture of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the living room wall.  The three of them are sitting together in their space suits were like an iconic image of that period, except that guy in the middle had crazy eyes.  It seemed like his eyes followed me across the room.  Thanks to that picture and my over-active imagination, I had a few sleepless nights as a kid.
    • Vietnam War (1965-1975)—American ground troops were sent in in 1965.  Anyone growing up in that era has memories of that war.  It was constantly in the news, but I was isolated from much of the controversy being a kid growing up on a marine base.  Probably my strongest memory was waiting for my father at the airbase.  I remember watching the huge transport plane land (C-130 I’m pretty sure) and waiting with my mom and siblings for the line of marines to file out and head our way.  Of course, he was gone quite a bit during that time, so he could have been coming back from any number of places, but I remember how anxious my mother was so I’m thinking that particular homecoming was from Vietnam.
    • Watergate (1972-1974)—I remember my parents watching the Watergate hearings on television.  It was a pain in the ass because they kept breaking into our normal television shows.  I was ten, so I wasn’t all that interested at the time.  I remember it was in the news forever, and it seemed impeachment was on everyone’s lips.  Of course, Nixon decided to resign instead.
    • Roots (1977)—Just as my kids grew up in the internet age, I grew up during the golden age of television.  I can’t think of a television show that generated more buzz during this time than Roots.  We all waited impatiently for the next installment (it was a mini-series), and it was all anyone talked about.  Television did shape our lives, and I think this show had a positive effect on race issues in America.  I will say that I enjoyed Shogun more the following year, but Roots started it all.
    • Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981)—The image of the helicopter crash from the failed rescue attempt sticks out the most for me.  Why, I couldn’t tell you.  Maybe it was because after that there seemed no hope for the hostages.  The whole affair seemed cruel at the time, but at least the hostages kept their heads.  Does that mean those were the good old days?
    • The home PC (1984?)—I remember the first time I saw a home computer was around this time.  One of my navy buddies was married and had one at his house.  It was an IBM clone of some type and I was mesmerized.  Yes, there had been the TRS-80 and Commodore 64 before that, but they hooked up to your TV and were more limited.  Just two years previously, I had taken a computer class my senior year in high school and we worked with a card reader that fed a mainframe that was shared by the entire school system.  The home PC changed the world, and quickly.
    • Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)—My kids weren’t even born at this point, and I’m sure they have no memory of the Berlin Wall besides in history books.  They have no concept of the cold war, nor the significance of this event.  It was a big deal around the world.  I remember watching them pulling it down on the news.  I’m guessing that if Germany hadn’t reunited, there probably wouldn’t be an EU today.
    • The Gulf War (1990-1991)—I have to admit that my thoughts on this war are pretty personnel.  I had finished my hitch in the navy in 1988 and had two years of inactive reserves where they could call me back.  I felt like a dodged a bullet when this thing kicked off.  Although I did have a few nightmares about getting recalled.
    • Dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991)—I remember taking world history my senior year in high school (1982).  A good part of this class had to do with the cold war, the iron curtain, and what was then the current world order.  I remember having a debate about the Cuban Missile Crisis—this stuff was part of our world then.  The first time I saw a map without the USSR, I thought it was a misprint.  Of course, Eastern Europe still has not completely stabilized from this.  The Ukraine is just the latest example of the fallout.
    • Rodney King Riots (1992)—Unfortunately, race riots are not a new thing nor are they likely to stop anytime soon.  The L.A. Riots weren’t the first.  My grandparents told me about the Watts Riots in 1965, and more specifically the riots that occurred in San Diego in 1969.  They lived in a rough neighborhood in San Diego and watched their neighborhood go crazy, it sounded about like what happened in L.A. in 1992.  This one stands out in my memory because I lived in the Mojave Desert at the time, about three hours from L.A.  A couple of guys I worked with decided to drive down to the city to see what it looked like.  Luckily for them, the National Guard was on the scene and turned them away.  Go figure, there are rednecks everywhere.
    • Bosnian War (1992-1995)—Yes, U.S. Troops went to Bosnia.  I remember it mostly because my brother was over there when he was in the marines.
    • 9/11 (2001)—We all have our memories of this day.  I was at work.  It may seem odd, but it didn’t seem to be the game-changer it was made out to be.  The Trade Center had been bombed before and let’s not forget the Oklahoma City bombing or the USS Cole.  However you feel about 9/11 it changed the world.
    • Afghanistan (2001-?)—Talk about 9/11 fallout.  This war seems odd to me.  I want to call it the war that never happened.  Not because it didn’t happen, isn’t still happening, but it seems that no one cares.  It’s like the polar opposite of Vietnam where everyone cared.  Whatever the reason, this war gets little media attention, maybe because it was eclipsed by the Iraq War and other Middle East issues.
    • Iraq War (2003-2011)—Nothing like lighting off a powder keg in the middle east.  Let’s just lump it all together and call it the Iraq Wars, and hope it doesn’t suck us all down the drain.  But to end on a high note, it ended in 2011 right?
    • The Order of the Wolf Published (2012)Okay this is a shameless plug, but it’s my list.  For me, the publishing of my first book was a huge milestone.  I guess I could have put Harry Potter in here instead, but I never read it.  If you don’t consider this a group memory, maybe it’s time to remedy that.

Wow, fifty years down the drain and all I have to show for it is this lousy list.  Maybe I need to put that on a t-shirt.  I did celebrate my 50th with family and friends though, and I guess that’s the real accomplishment after all—not just making it to fifty but having someone to celebrate it with.

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