Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Prettiest Girl I Had Ever Seen

I kissed Terry Richardson outside the door to our first grade classroom. It was a bright fall morning and a number of us were waiting patiently for the door to be unlocked. Our classroom was on an outside corridor that opened up to a southern exposure and the low morning sun was filtering through the fall leaves. The dappled shadows played across our faces. The sidewalk and classroom wall were calico. It was a windless, bright, and tepid day.

It was Mrs. Lidecks’ custom to enjoy her preparation time without benefit of her students’ help, so she had locked the classroom doors to the outside world. We first graders stood in the corridor, eagerly awaiting the bell, making small talk. I have no idea what the talk was about that day. I have no idea how I managed to or why I kissed her, but I did. She did not yell or scream, or try to get away. There was no whispering to her girlfriends. She simply smiled. The bell rang. The door opened. We filed inside and that was the end of our romantic entanglement. Life is busy for first graders and the opportunity never arose again.

Later on in college, I was talking to a new found friend, and, in the spirit of small talk, I mentioned where I was from. The conversation evolved from there into a discussion of how small a world it really was. It turns out that he knew a Terry Richardson. In fact, the Richardson’s had been family friends for years. They were from my home town. Since they did not live in the same area, he had never considered the option of dating her, but he admitted in a moment of candor that she was perhaps the prettiest girl he had ever seen. I nodded absently.

Quite some years later, I decided to take up oil painting. I enjoyed the quiet time and introspection it afforded. I also liked the technical problems painting presented, like coloration and how to load a brush for just the right effect. I learned how the use of composition in painting can create a sense of movement, or of peace; how brush strokes can create tension; how color can affect mood. I attempted a couple of paintings on my own, copies of the masters, to examine in detail how they managed to work the colors and layer the paint for a given outcome.

I took a night class once and did a study of a single element from Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” a wine glass on the table. It looks just like glass and yet, it is simply a white pigment brushed hastily over a dappled background. It took me several tries before I was able to make my attempts look even remotely like glass. There is a reason these artists are called masters.

I have always been drawn to this painting. The mood it evokes in me is unique, but I had been at a loss to understand what about it I liked so much. A few years ago I had the opportunity to see it up close at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. It is more striking in person than in any reproduction. I stared at it for a good half hour moving slightly from one spot to the next to see how the ambient light changed the look of the painting. That half hour wasn’t quite enough, but my thoughts coalesced there in the gallery.

As the light played across the faces of the boating party, I remembered standing outside one bright fall morning when I was in the first grade. The dappled shadows played across our faces. I have no regrets about Terry Richardson.

© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What Are You Building?

My dad rented space from the McCarthy Steel people. When I was a little kid he would take me to work some Saturdays while he did some office work. For an added treat when he was done we would walk over to the McCarthy offices. He would put 15 cents into the vending machine and let me push the button for a Payday candy bar. The big rough and tumble steel men made jokes at my expense, but the candy bar was good and made up for anything they could have said.

The McCarthy Steel fabricating works consisted of long loading dock, some offices, a long open air, covered storage hanger, and an expansive stretch of tarmac that was exposed to the sun. The asphalt was spotted with one or two stand alone overhead hoists that were certainly capable of great things, but they mostly sat like the rocks at Stonehenge. While the loading docks were fairly busy, I rarely saw any activity at the hoists.

Fourteen years later, I was back as a young man, working for the summer at my dad’s machine shop. The vending machine was still there, and it still sold Paydays, but 15 cents would barely buy me a piece of gum, let alone a candy bar. The big rough and tumble steel men had different faces and different attitudes for a young skinny kid barely in his twenties. They were still patronizing, but different somehow. I made one nostalgic trip to the vending machine and that was enough. My memories were better left unrefreshed.

I was a “go-fer.” I did a lot of running around inside and out, moving, cleaning, painting -- doing all sorts of things that anybody could think up for me to do. The overhead hoists in the McCarthy yard were only thirty to forty yards away on the blacktop. The structures shimmered in the heat of the day, typically a hundred degrees or more. When the sun was high overhead and the conditions just right, pools of mirage water collected and vanished at various places on the pavement.

One day there was some activity out underneath one of the overhead cranes. A man drove a flatbed out there loaded with sheet steel. He used the hoist to lift a few of these sheets off the truck and onto his working surface. I watched him intermittently throughout the day for several weeks as he referred to drawings, chalked up his steel, and finally got down to business.

Working by himself, he suited up in a leather apron and welder’s hood and proceeded to cut the steel sheets with a blow torch. This was long and hot work. I would glance over whenever my work took me outside and there he was sweltering, laboring over his cutting torch. Sheet after sheet, hour after hour, he worked through the cool of the morning well through the heat of the day. Occasionally, someone from the McCarthy offices would wander out and check on his progress, but for the most part he worked by himself. Every time he finished a cut he had to use the hoist to get one set of pieces out of the way and place another on the ground.

In the shop, one of my dad’s guys took me under his wing and taught me and another go-fer how to weld. We learned about the equipment, what to do, and how to do it. I pulled on my leather gloves and dropped my smoked glass hood and proceeded to weld some simple right angles that he said he needed. This was fun for me, but for that guy out in the yard, it was real work -- hot work. My little welding experience gave me an appreciation for exactly what this guy out on the tarmac was doing day after day.

After he had cut all his parts and pieces, it was time to put it all together. He dropped his cutting torch and brought out a welding machine. He welded flat on the ground for awhile. Day after day he knelt down in the hot summer sun suited up in his leather apron and leather gloves and welder’s hood. I could see the welding arc, intensely bright against a backdrop of intensely bright days that were no shelter from the summer heat.

Patiently, he would weld these large sheets together. He would use the hoist to set the steel at the proper angle and then weld away. He would weld two or three sheets together then use the hoist to set them aside. When he was ready, he welded these subassemblies together. Slowly his work began to take shape. After weeks of guessing what this project might be, it started to reveal itself.

When this much was done, another flatbed truck came up to the site with the remaining parts and pieces and suddenly it was blazingly obvious what all this toil had led to.

Another few days on assembly and this solitary welder had built a railcar -- a single hopper, dropped center, covered gondola to be more exact. Gentle Reader, don’t try this at home. The McCarthy Steel company was not in the business of building railcars generally, but apparently it was not beyond their ability to do.

In the six or seven weeks I worked at my summer job, I saw the transformation of raw materials into something that had heft and weight and purpose. My own simple accomplishments of moving, cleaning, painting, and the occasional right angle weld now paled in comparison to what a single man had accomplished in the same time.

Any parent worth their salt will try to instill in their children a little self esteem, some positive attitudes about life and the world around them, the importance of teamwork, the necessity of some modicum of discipline, and the indispensability of an education. One of the lessons most important to impart is that this world is theirs to make of what they will; that they can accomplish anything to which they set their minds. A lot of kids don’t take this last advice very seriously and end up squandering a perfectly good life in the sorry state of underachievement. It is important for them to realize that none of these building blocks of advice works all by itself, but rather it is the collective effort of the whole that makes real achievement possible. Rarely do kids who lack the discipline to practice make good piano players. That’s just the way it is.

This railcar building man may not have had a formal education. He may not have been very high on the employment totem pole at McCarthy, pulling this particular job on a very hot tarmac in a sizzlingly hot summer. But, he demonstrated to me that he had what it takes to accomplish something in this world. This wasn’t plastic model building, this was the real thing. He started with nothing but raw materials and time. He ended up with something big and real and useful.

I’d never built a railcar, nor anything so grand. I marveled at what he had done. I marveled that it could have been done by just one man with a little time and some simple tools. I did not know him. I did not ever meet him and I regret that I did not make the opportunity to shake his hand, or applaud his efforts.

His was a simple example of how lives are built. We start small with simple tools and basic materials, building through experience and perseverance. In the end, if we’re lucky we can look back on it and know that it was something big and real and useful.

© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

God’s Grace

Jeanie was in my first grade class. Jeanie was just like any of us in the first grade except she was shorter. She was the smallest first grader at our school and smaller than a lot of kindergarteners. That’s it. She was just short. She wore pretty dresses, her hair in curls, and had a nice smile. She wasn’t retarded and she didn’t misbehave. She was in a couple of my groups for working on projects. I liked Jeanie. She was OK.

She was short because one leg was shorter than the other, or because her back was almost completely hunched over, or because one arm didn’t move very well, or because she really couldn’t hold her head up very well. None of that stuff seemed to matter to any of us. Jeanie was just Jeanie.

Sometimes she had a little trouble getting in and out of her desk, but that didn’t slow her down. I don’t remember Mrs. Lideck singling her out in any way. There were no speeches about how Jeanie might be different, or require special assistance from any of us. To us, she was just Jeanie.

Maybe we were too young to be inconvenienced by the thought of someone who might be different. It didn’t seem to matter. We didn’t leave her out of any games. She knew how to laugh. She got Valentine’s cards, she got invited to birthday parties, and she got to do show and tell in front of the class just like everybody else. Maybe that’s because, in the first grade, she was just like anybody else.

Prejudice isn’t natural. It is not innate. We don’t seem to be born with it. We don’t start filtering people who aren’t like us out of our lives until we are taught how to do it by our teachers, or by our parents, or by our friends who think they know better. (That doesn’t happen until later, but it doesn’t take long for us to get good at it.) I don’t know how it is now, but back then kids generally didn’t start getting cruel to each other until sometime after the first grade.

Having accidents is rather common place both in kindergarten and in the first grade. Kids are always throwing up in class and the janitors have to be called in to sprinkle the deodorizing barf dust around and sweep it up. Some kids wet their pants. Stuff happens. Teachers handle this sort of thing as a matter of course. When they can, they are quick to get the rest of us out the room before the sympathetic queasiness starts to set in among the most sensitive and the vomiting becomes epidemic.

One day Jeanie had an accident. She was obviously in distress, but quietly and while still at her desk voided her bladder and bowels. This was not good for her. She sat there crying. Marilyn who sat next to Jeanie and was a little Miss Prissy raised her hand and announced that Jeanie had a problem. Accidents happen. No big deal, except maybe for James who had already been taught something the rest of us had been spared and found the situation funny. Mrs. Lideck looked more concerned with James than usual. James was promptly sent to the principal’s office. Mrs. Lideck got the janitors in quickly and took care of things. Jeanie’s mom came and took her home.

That was the last time any of us saw Jeanie. We later heard rumors from some of our classmates that she was in the hospital -- something about kidneys. Jeanie was the topic of conversation for several days. We got to work individually at our desks to make get well soon cards for her. Then there was nothing.

Finally, someone remembered to ask, “Will Jeanie ever be coming back?”

Mrs. Lideck said, “No, Jeanie’s gone.” It was not a satisfying answer, but it was the only one she had.

Jeanie’s name comes from Hebrew. The root source isYochana, from which was derived the later Latin variants of Joanna and Johanna. Those were taken by the old French and loosely pronounced “Jehanne.” The name means "God's grace," or alternately, “the Lord is Gracious." Shakespeare felt that names were not particularly significant and had Juliet expound on names with “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

But by any other name, she wouldn’t have been Jeanie.

© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Art Collector

Mrs. Hartman taught third grade. She was perhaps the first teacher that I really liked -- liked in the sense of those crushes little boys have on their teachers. My mother facilitated our romance by giving me camellias off our bushes to take to her a couple of times a week. Mrs. Hartman seemed to appreciate them. I don’t think she thought much about it though because I only managed to bring her flowers when my mother was helping out in class. Things never really heated up between us. Besides, she was already married.

Third grade is when we got to practice our printing, do addition and subtraction tables, and learn about local government. Our highlighted project of the year was a giant map of our county that we drew on a roll of butcher paper. Onto this map we drew all the important things about which we knew. The map had fine drawings of the airport with a requisite plane, the museum and some representations of a few of the old buildings in Pioneer Village. (Pioneer Village, part of the Museum, was a unique historical park with many preserved buildings from our fine county’s early years.) There were pictures of oil derricks and movie theaters and the river and, of course, our school. Some of my classmates drew their own houses complete with their family cars parked out front. We had room for all of this detail because it was literally on a roll of butcher paper. While modern cartographers might applaud the effort, I doubt that they would be moved to praise its accuracy.

There were a couple things I learned while working on this mapping project, when I wasn’t trying to figure out why Bruce was taller than I was or why Jeanie was as crippled as she was. I had lost interest in Denise, and Terry Richardson had moved to the other third grade classroom. There were two really good drawers in our class. Both Mark and Cliff made drawings that looked like real things. Their pictures had detail, scale, and realism that are traditionally lacking in a third grade effort. For the rest of us, our attempts at drawing paled in comparison. Of course, most of us spent five minutes on our little scene and then we were done. We quickly found other things to do at our desks or outside at recess, but Mark and Cliff stayed at it and worked. Evidently, they had found their passion while the rest of us were still looking for somebody to play marbles with.

That they had found their true calling in the third grade is something that I have since been able to confirm. I know that they had found their true mission in life because they are both graphic artists today. They live three thousand miles apart and I doubt if they have even spoken to each other since. It is only through the magic of the internet that I know who and where they are. Whatever their recollection of me might be, they have survived all of their adult lives without any desire to refresh it. I don’t think that they would have much interest in how this little fragment of their lives contributed to my greater understanding of the world.

They both approached their drawing in two quite distinctly different ways. Mark drew in short redundant pencil strokes, back and forth, back and forth with a little more forth each time until he got to the end of his line. He often would pick up his pencil and start in a new place and bring all his lines together into the picture. They were both left handed. Maybe that was it. Cliff, on the other hand, rarely lifted his pencil. His lines were contour lines that outlined the objects and then filled in. Cliff would have been good on an Etch-a-Sketch. I was amazed at their differing techniques and thought that just technique might be the secret to good drawing. I tried my hand at both for awhile in my room at home, but “technique” didn’t seem to be the secret. I soon lost interest. I guess this lesson in left handed passion didn’t quite resonate yet. It would still be a couple of years before I took up the saxophone and got really confused about this passion thing.

Third grade passed without incident. After summer we reconvened in Mrs. Eckhardt’s fourth grade classroom. After a few weeks, I had occasion to go back to visit Mrs. Hartman to see if the flame still flickered, but when I got there, I realized that whatever magic she had held for me in the third grade simply had no appeal to an older, more mature fourth grader. I found myself suddenly without purpose, so I asked her about the County map we had all drawn. Surprisingly, she still had it and got it out for me to see. Once unrolled, the clarity of the Mark and Cliff contributions was startling compared to anything else on the paper. My own picture looked something a third grader would have drawn.

Mrs. Hartman offered to let me have the map, but I really had no more use for it than she did. It did remind me of how good Cliff and Mark could draw and I really wanted one of them to draw me a picture.

In the fourth grade we moved on to the study of cursive writing and early American history. The math got harder with multiplication and division added to the mix. Cliff was willing to sacrifice a little recess time. I asked him to copy for me a painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that was printed in our history book. I liked the painting, we were studying American history and Cliff was willing. I was going to begin the first of my personal collection of great American artists with an original hand drawing by Cliff, a soon to be future great American artist.

There we sat, Cliff and I, during recess one day. I watched the drawing take shape. Cliff was so good and so fast that I was amazed at how he must look at a picture and break it down into outlines, shapes, contours, shadows and light.

At the end of recess, the drawing was almost done. Mrs. Eckhardt magically appeared over my shoulder and gasped and gushed over Cliff’s efforts. She heaped praise on his talents, and said that she simply must have that drawing to put up on the bulletin board for our history lessons. Before I knew it, my commission of Cliff’s drawing had been swept up from his desk and posted on the bulletin board for all to see. I was helpless to do anything about it. Cliff said nothing. For all intents and purposes, it was gone. Cliff wasn’t going to do another one for me and Mrs. Eckhardt wasn’t ever going to give it up. That drawing teased me from its special position on the board for several months before it just disappeared and a new poster on the finer arts of forming a capital cursive “G” appeared in its place.

I regret that I wasn't somehow able to keep that picture. I doubt that even if I had managed to keep Cliff’s drawing for myself, it would have survived in my possession to this day, having long been thrown away with everything else from elementary school. But, one never knows.

That one drawing could have been the foundation of a great collection of great works. It could have been the starting point to igniting my passion for appreciating the finer arts. If only Mrs. Eckhardt had not intervened, I might have had an earlier start on discovering my true self. Damn you, Mrs. Eckhardt.

© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Modern Health Care

I broke my foot the other day in a silly accident.  Nothing exotic.  Nothing that I really will have great stories about.  It was a common household accident that could and probably does happen to a couple of thousand people everyday.  I stepped on my foot the wrong way and just went down.  After a couple of minutes on the floor to assess the damage, I got up and walked carefully a few feet to sit down.  After twenty minutes, it was clear that this was more than a simple sprain.  It was time to go see somebody who knew what they were doing.


I went to an urgent care clinic that was staffed by some office help and a physician’s assistant.  In a stroke of good fortune, I was their only patient.  I was still there for an hour and 45 minutes while they diagnosed my broken bones, provided me with crutches and a nice fancy boot for a broken foot, and an appointment with a real doctor to confirm my brokenness.  Three days later I spent maybe 5 minutes with the Orthopedist who said I was doing everything I was supposed to and to keep it up for another 5 weeks.   A gentle pat on the head and I was sent away.  It was almost demeaning in a way.  I guess that is the price I have been made to pay by the depersonalization of our health care. 


Not that I minded much.  The doctor didn’t have to spend very much time with me.  I would have felt better if he had, but there was really no reason to do so.  There was no question that he knew what he was doing, and clear to him that I was doing what I should be doing and should continue to do.  We were done, but I still would have liked some professional sympathy.  Apparently, my private health care dollars don’t pay for sympathy.


Of course, these days health care spending is very expensive and out of control – out of reach for a lot of Americans.  This is just the kind of thing that falls under the governmental care that our forefathers so thoughtfully wrote into our constitution’s preamble in the phrase “promote the general welfare.”  This little phrase does not require socialized health care, but it does demand some reasonable solution to control the escalation of costs.  Health care spending is out of control for a whole bunch of reasons.  It is the kind of thing that we expect our government to fix, but that seems unlikely. There are many things to blame, and not very many palatable ways to fix it in a capitalistic economic system without seeming cruel and arbitrary, not to mention the ever popular sobriquets of racism, bigotry, other name calling, and miscellaneous slights from their constituency that keep our politicians from dealing with real economic problems. 


In a simpler time, we trusted our doctors.  We trusted them to have done all their research and know which illnesses were fatal and which we would survive, which drugs could help us and which could hurt us, which pains led to appendicitis and which led to the flu.  We did not question their judgment.  There were important maladies that neither the tincture of time nor bed rest itself could cure, and our doctors did their best to diagnose and provide us with the best care they could.  We paid our doctors as we needed them, and though they made more money than most, they were still affordable.  Doctors made house calls.  Life was simpler.  Then we learned to watch TV.


In a simpler time, there were no HMOs, or PPOs, and clinics were small self organized offices.  Hospitals were small providers of specialized care, not big businesses.  Health insurance was affordable, but hardly needed.  If you were really risk averse, you might have purchased a policy for “Major Medical.”  It would have been no more expensive than most people’s Starbuck’s budget for the month in this modern day. 


In a simpler time, there were no advertisements on TV for prescription drugs.  Television was black and white.  It was reserved for local news shows, cartoons on Saturday mornings and movies with good guys and bad guys, or with cowboys, horses and the occasional Indian.  Now we are assaulted with all sorts of colorful, informative advertisements that send us to our doctors demanding certain medications that we know we must have because the television has told us so.  We demand allergy medicines, flu shots, pills for our blood pressure and our cholesterol levels and our ulcers and our regularity and our post nasal drip and our dry eyes.  We demand pills to help us sleep at night, or to feel better about ourselves in these most uncertain times, or to calm our hyperactive children, or to lose weight, or to have better sex, or to alleviate our natural aches and pains.  We do this because we crave the simplicity of the uncomplicated and healthy lives we see on TV without the pain of earning an uncomplicated or healthy life by eating well and exercising.


We demand these things from our doctors and because, well, time is money and we don’t have the time to be sick and they don’t have the time to waste on the education of their patients. It is so much simpler to just give us what we want.  Our doctors have sought shelter in great assemblages of doctors and they generally give us what we ask for…because it is easier and less time consuming than arguing with us about appropriate patient care and drug protocols.  These doctors work normal 9 to 5 shifts in large hospitals and institutional clinics where the terms like HMO and PPO abound.  The term “house call” has been dropped from the vernacular.


In a simpler time, we had doctors and nurses.  Now we are seen by physician assistants who are well meaning, but neither as educated as a doctor nor as fulfilled in their vocation as a nurse.  They consult with real doctors when their patients present with more than a simple cold.  They are kind of “tweener”…an economical response to patients that want to dictate their own course of care.  They don’t get paid as much as doctors, but serve as a useful front line of defense to keep doctors from squandering their real doctoring on patients that just have the flu, or just have a cold, or just started running a fever.  The fact that most people try to put themselves in front of a doctor at the first sign of any physical discomfort is the most compelling reason for doctors to hide behind their assistants, and the most obvious indicator that people who prescribe a course of medical care for themselves don’t have a clue about anything but what they see on TV and should be dealt with at arms length.


It turns out that my physician’s assistant knew exactly what he was talking about. This was simply confirmed by the more time constrained, more expensive orthopedist who obviously had bigger bones to pick than my poor metatarsal.  I wasn't paying him to be empathetic.




So I’m talking with a little old church lady, Miss Sally Mae, about my broken foot and the inconvenience of crutches.  There are a couple things you need to know about Miss Sally Mae. 1) She was a red hat lady before there were red hat ladies.  She wears anything bright and spangled.  She has sequined ball caps and gold glitter tennis shoes, and wears earrings the size of hub caps.  2) She broke her pelvis about 5 years ago and carries a cane with her now wherever she goes.  (I think that has more to do with a litigious legal history than her ability to walk without it.)  She does not use the cane; she carries it like she’s leading a dog on a leash.  There is no wear on the rubber tip.  She decorates it seasonally as is her fashion.  She and her cane are quite the pair. 


Her conversation with me reminded me of the 1970’s movie, The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman.  In the opening scene, Dustin has just graduated from college and is at a pool party thrown by his parents.  All the guests are family friends, but mostly business associates of his father’s.  A few of the men speak with the new graduate and give him a wink and a sly elbow nudge while whispering the word “plastics” into his ear. “Plastics” being the wave of the future.  Anyway, Miss Sally Mae and I are talking about my foot and I told her that I never thought I would say that I was going to be happy to get to walk with a cane in a couple of weeks.  She leans into me and with a conspiratorial wink and a quick glance at her cane, she says, “reflective tape.”  I can hardly wait.


This brief brush with our medical care delivery system brought to my attention an article in the paper the other day.  The state of Texas spent over $3 million caring for only three, otherwise healthy human beings who, over the course of three years had visited the emergency room of their local hospital on an average of once a week.  Each week these people felt they had a need to receive medical care of the highest order.  Each week they showed up in the emergency room with ill-defined complaints, and each week they received a battery of tests and visits from assorted medical personnel.   Each week their bills were 5 to 6 thousand dollars.  Now I realize that this is an extreme example of run away health care expenditures, but I’m wondering if they sort of felt like I felt in the Orthopedist’s office and just wanted some professional sympathy.  I missed not having received it, but I don’t actually regret that I didn’t get any.  Now if we could just get that sympathy product advertised on TV….

© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Angels of Death

I was once a young buck in the business world. I had been a consultant with a “Big 6” accounting firm who was hired away by one of my clients. I was good, skilled, and in demand. My client, now my employer was growing like crazy and was clearly understaffed. In addition to my own responsibilities, I had to help to hire another 150 people to flesh out the organization. Times were busy. I had two young children to raise and a nascent business to plan for. We had just moved the business from one part of the state to a much more affordable locale that would allow the business to grow. The office had a comparatively slow and bucolic feel to it from what I had been used to.

My new office enjoyed a view of the American River. The office park was located in an area had not been built up yet, so the surroundings were sparse and natural. We were located about a stone’s throw from the water. Every morning I could see as well as hear the geese flying up river and honking on their way, drawing dark Vs against the bright blue skies.

Occasionally, I would take my work outside. These flights were so numerous that outdoor conversations were always interrupted and punctuated with various honks and squeaks. It was an almost a continuous display of precision flights of flying V’s. Every so often the goose at point would fall off lead and his place would be taken up immediately by his successor. The V would reform effortlessly and move on. Every afternoon they would reverse course and I could watch them again. I was often caught up in their aerial ballet. It was easy to take a twenty second respite from my desk duties to calmly soar with the geese for a moment. I never tired of watching them.

They became my almost private diversion. Work was a halcyon of activity and my mind required the restful peace that the geese randomly afforded. There was comfort in seeing their migration to and from points unknown along the river. But, they were not the only birds in the sky.

In 1947, the Air Force became a separate branch of the armed services. That reorganization of our military forces solidified the role of the Strategic Air Command, or SAC as it was called, in the development of both an aggressive and deterrent ability to forward the interests of the United States while giving primarily the Soviet Union pause at plying more aggression toward Europe. SAC’s mission statement was in part to “…be prepared to conduct long-range offensive operations in any part of the world, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces; to conduct maximum-range reconnaissance over land or sea, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces; ….”

It was under General Curtis LeMay’s command that this mission was interpreted to be the cornerstone of our strategic policy of nuclear deterrence during the cold war with the Soviets. The SAC Force grew to include more than 1,500 bombers at its peak. As the Soviets became more capable of delivering nuclear weapons on their own, SAC strategy evolved accordingly. In the mid 1960’s, at the peak of the cold war, almost of one third of these bombers were aloft at any given hour to provide a swift and deadly response to any overt attack. Almost all of them contained nuclear bombs. The most impressive of these planes was the B52 bomber.

These B52’s were first delivered to SAC in 1954 and quickly became the backbone of the SAC air strategy. Impressive by any measure, these planes had a tail fin that topped out over 48 feet above ground and some four thousand square feet of wing surface area. Each wing supported 4 engines and the plane could carry impressive payloads of large numbers of conventional weapons or a single 43,000 pound nuclear one. Its wingtips sagged when the B52 sat on the runway. In addition to their deterrence initiative, they were used for surveillance until the Vietnam War in the mid 1960’s in which they were used in earnest to perform “carpet” bombing. Again, in the Gulf War of 1991 they delivered 40 percent of all munitions dropped in Iraq. They are huge, unmistakable, and deadly. They were nick named Angels of Death for quite legitimate reasons.

For those of you readers too young to have lived through it, the Cold War whip-sawed between heightened fear and relative calm. International crises, such as the Berlin Blockade (1948–1949), the Korean War (1950–1953), the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War (1959–1975), the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–1989), and NATO exercises in November 1983 arose from time to time encouraging a mild hysteria in the press. Both the United States and the Soviets sought d├ętente as the only rational course of action. Direct military attacks on adversaries were deterred by the potential for mutually assured destruction using nuclear weapons that both sides possessed and both sides could deliver…if someone was just crazy enough to pull the trigger.

Just a few miles down the road from my office was Mather Air Force Base. Mather was home to SAC’s 4134th Strategic Wing. Half of their 72 B52s were in the air at any one time, keeping the concept of nuclear deterrence alive. My office was in Mather’s flight path. It was hard to tell if I should have felt safer when these planes passed low overhead, but they were impressive in their size and more importantly for what they represented.

I was born during the Korean War. I saw Kennedy on the news in Berlin, but I didn’t understand what was happening or why. I remember the first headline from the local newspaper that I ever read on my own was in big two inch type, “Cuban Missile Crisis.” I was taught not only to stop, drop and roll if I was ever to catch fire, but also to "duck and cover” and crawl under my desk should our teacher tell us that an atom bomb was going to be dropped. We were drilled on these techniques as commonly as we had homework. Backyard bomb shelters were thought to be a good idea. I was in high school and college during the Viet Nam War. The world was altogether a frightening place when we stepped beyond the boundaries and safety provided by our parents and the sense of home that they engendered.

By the time I got to be that young buck that started this story, there had been several years of relative calm for the United States. We had been beset with some economic turmoil in rising interest rates, falling housing prices, and were marginally involved in various trouble spots around the world, but on the whole, there was security. I felt safe. I was sure that the world was mature enough to take care of these problems without interrupting my life, or endangering the lives of my family, and I was sadly disabused of that notion everyday as the geese flew overhead under the shadow of our own Angels of Death.

Life moves on. I began to raise the two children I had then and a third that came soon after. They have grown into fine young men, raised in a world far different from the one in which I grew up. Their lives were filled with soccer, and basketball, and baseball and all the things that young kids do. The prosperity of the late 1980s through the ‘90s made life full and unburdened by presence of war. There was a brief skirmish with the first Gulf War in 1991, but after month it was out of the news.

The United States, under President Ronald Reagan, increased diplomatic, military, and economic pressure on the Soviet Union, which was already suffering from severe economic stagnation. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leaving the United States as the dominant military power. The Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. There was simply no one left to play the game. SAC moved on to different objectives, Mather was closed, and the over flights stopped.

In benign and honest efforts to improve the historical curriculum in our schools, certain aspects of history just disappear. My children were not taught that there was such a thing as the cold war. If the subject was broached, it had no context, nor meaning for them. There were no reminders. I am sure that they feel that the world is now mature enough to take care of these problems without interrupting their lives, or endangering the lives they might find themselves responsible for, and they will not be disabused of these notions everyday as the geese fly overhead. The Angels of Death have not lost their sting, only their wings. I regret that the generation my children belong to isn’t any more right about this than I was.

© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved