Introducing a new type of (occasional) blog post, Photo Backstories. The idea came when I got an email recently from the son of a dear friend whom I hadn't heard from in a decade or more. He inherited a poster from his older brother, who had taken his own life at age sixteen. I had produced this poster in 1984 and personally bestowed it on the departed brother. Now the younger brother is 35 and wanted to know how the image and poster came about. After sending it to the young man, I realized others might be interested in the stories behind some of my pictures, and fleshed it out a bit to share with readers here.
Webmaster note: Please do let us know if you would like to see more of these photo backstories. I will pester Marvin gently.
also employed skilled craftsmen who used tiny brushes and color dyes to remove unwanted items from the secondary image by painting over them. That was how, for example, trash on a lawn became green grass, and scratches on the original color image vanished.
Some years later, when I was a freelance photographer, I became the vice president of the Southern California Chapter of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Among my duties was creating and arranging four of the ten monthly programs we put on annually. Free and open to the public these programs often consisted of a well-known photographer showing images from his or her portfolio, talking about these images and about their career, and taking questions from the audience. Other programs dealt with technical subjects such as lighting or recent technical innovations.
I had learned by then how hard it was to shoot a picture that looked as good on a page as it did in the camera, and as many ASMP members shot for magazines, I thought that they would be interested to know what I had learned about correcting color, retouching, and preparing an image for the printing press. This was, I hasten to add, decades before the advent of powerful home computers and photo editing software such as PhotoShop.
I created a two hour program around a printer, a color correction specialist, and two art directors. To publicize this program, I needed a poster that would be distributed to camera stores, art galleries and at other retailers where photographers, including amateurs, might see it. Eventually, my poster would be seen around Hollywood, West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Santa Monica, West Los Angeles, Venice, and several other Southern California communities. We also left 200 copies on a table near the door of our rented hall. All but a few went home with attendees.
The image I selected was one that I had made years earlier.
In 1984 I learned that the Chinese government offered very inexpensive tours to media people. I applied. When I got to the San Francisco Airport I discovered that nearly all others were septuagenarian publishers of small-town newspapers and their wives. There were a few younger people, all photographers, including Mikki Ansin and John Livzey. We flew directly to Shanghai, and from there went by canal boat, train, and bus across China’s central section, arriving at last in Beijing. At every stop, we were reminded of the glories awaiting us at The Great Wall. We rarely left our bus, train or canal boat except to go to a hotel or spend an hour at some tourist destination, which always included a Friendship Store. We spent much more time in Friendship stores, each offering inexpensive, duty-free imports from France, Italy and the United Kingdom. And lots of local products—silks, carvings, paintings and other artwork, clothing, and a large selection of unusual tchotchkes at very good prices. And everywhere we went we were promised the wonders of the Great Wall at the end of the tour.
Alas, at our tourist destinations, there was no time to just walk around and explore. Mostly we had no opportunity to take photos except through the window of a moving bus.
Eventually, we youngsters, all in our forties, became the Gang of Five and jumped ship. For example, when the old folks were shopping in Shanghai, we descended, sans guide, on a factory and spent an hour or two photographing the children in its childcare facility.
We got to the Wall on a typical northern China February day: It was very cold, with overcast skies and a stiff breeze from the Gobi Desert. We were promised half an hour on the Wall, and then an opportunity to visit a very special Friendship Store before returning to Beijing.
Half an hour? The Gang of Five revolted. We decided to spend as long as we liked on the Wall, and then find our own way back to our Beijing hotel.
Our guides held a rapid-fire discussion in Mandarin and gave in.
To our surprise, we were joined, briefly, by an older woman who had informally but very emphatically taken charge of all the passengers on our bus. She, too, wanted to spend more time on the wall and hoped her legs were up to it. We learned that this lady had once been the sergeant-major of an all-female anti-aircraft battalion in London during the Blitz.
Anticipating Northern China’s winter drabness, I had brought along a bright red knit watch cap. When I got to a likely spot in the window of one of the many watchtowers dotting the wall, I asked one of others, whose name I have forgotten, to don the cap. I positioned him on the Wall below me.
When he was in position, and while I was fussing with my tripoded camera, the sergeant-major stepped into my frame and demanded in her parade-ground voice that I take her picture.
How could I say no to a lady sergeant-major?
She wore a thick gray overcoat, a white fur hat, and her new Gucci scarf.
I shifted my frame to the left to re-compose the picture.
Clutching her handbag, she smiled at the camera. A gust of wind blew her black scarf across her face. For an instant, the Gucci logo became her third eye.
I made the exposure without thinking. Then the wind paused, the scarf fell, and I took a few more for the sergeant-major’s scrapbook.
Flash forward to my poster project. I had decided to call the lecture “The Color Enigma,” because to most photographers the information my panel would present was new. Few of us had any notion of what happened between the time we handed in our transparency and its publication in a magazine, or how to make exposures that better lent themselves to lithography.
I designed the poster, which included both a title and a line of explanation, plus the time and location of the event, and found a printer who agreed to run a thousand copies gratis, as a donation to the nonprofit ASMP.
Color printing on an offset press requires that each sheet make multiple journeys through the press, each time accepting a new layer of color, laid down as tiny ink dots on the paper. Usually, the last pass was black or, following that pass, a lacquer of some sort that made part of the image pop off the page.
The printer agreed that after printing the ASMP’s posters, he would remove all the type except the word “Enigma” on the red layer, burn a new printing plate, and make 500 copies of the poster for my own use, all at his cost, which was less than $100.
I gave the poster to my clients and prospective clients. I had about twenty left when I moved to North Carolina, but they were dusty and wrinkled, and I threw them out. That chapter of my life closed long ago.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
I seethed. A relatively diminutive person, I took this song personally.
Eventually, I realized that Randy Newman's pop hit was parody, that Newman was lampooning bigotry, showing that discriminating against people on any basis is not merely ugly but stupid.
Still, I wince whenever I hear "Short People."
I was an inch over five feet when I joined the Army. Following tradition, our training company was "sized," tallest men in the first platoon, next tallest in the second, and so forth. I was in Fifth Platoon, the so-called Mickey Mouse Platoon. The six-footers in First told jokes at our expense. Drill sergeants berated us for low altitude and demanded extra pushups. When Fifth Platoon took company honors on the end-of-cycle proficiency test, our pennant was presented with yet another give at shortness. "The Mickey Mouse Platoon had to stand on boxes so we could see them all at roll call every morning," said our CO. "But somehow they got the top score."
I felt cheated of a hard-won triumph. We had proven our soldierly skills -- what more could these people want?
A year and an inch of growth later, I sewed on sergeant's chevrons. Almost immediately a pair of six-foot MP privates, sneering that nobody that short could be an infantry noncom, demanded to see my ID. Instead of apologizing for their mistake, they cracked a short joke. Outraged, I went to the MP desk sergeant, who spread his palms. "Well, you are pretty short, Sarge," he grinned.
In America, height is a valued physical attribute. As author Ralph Keyes documented in his book, The Height Of Your Life, most Fortune 500 companies are run by men of more than six feet, while those at the helms of Fortune 100 firms, on average, are even taller. In most corporations, each inch over six feet correlates with significantly higher salary.
That this cultural imperative is bigotry is easily overlooked. During President Clinton's first term, pundits derisively noted what they termed his "predilection for surrounding himself with short appointees," naming among his Cabinet and senior staff the diminutive Robert Reich, Donna Shalala, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey. That they are brilliant and accomplished people was less remarkable, it seems, than that they are short. Their short stature seemed to be fair game, but not even the most indecent of administration critics would have observed that the president also had surrounded himself with dark-skinned appointees, including Togo West, Ron Brown, Henry Cisneros and Federico Peña, among others. Race is not an acceptable measure of a person's worth. Why is height?
I topped out at 5 feet 4 inches, and I have felt a sense of powerlessness, of being discounted, reduced to insignificance for reasons beyond my control around pretty much everyone.
Being small was worst in the arena of romance. Growing up, girls towered over me; through high school I had a total of two dates. I thought this would change as I grew older, but it didn't. in my late 30s, a woman whom I had courted for more than a year finally told me that she enjoyed being with me, admired my qualities and accomplishments ... but she wanted tall children and could not marry a short man. On the long trip home from her house, I fantasized about driving off the winding road.
There were women with even less tact. I have been rebuffed by dozens whose first question on seeing me was, "How tall are you?" Others laughed in my face. "I won't date short guys," they said. Never mind that they are superficial, and beneath my attentions. It hurt then, it hurts now.
But bigger is not always better. My daughter entered my life shortly after her first birthday and inherited no genes from me. From kindergarten onward, she was tallest in her class, reaching her ultimate elevation of 5 feet 6 inches at age 10. Because she dwarfed playmates, teachers assumed that she was smarter, more mature, more able. Her test scores, however, were just above average, far beneath teachers' heightened expectations. They expected her to lead, but she was more comfortable following. Pedagogues pouted that she was lazy, that she did not perform up to her capabilities, that she was immature and often behaved childishly.
Well, yes. She was and she did. She was 6 years old.
For reasons unrelated to size, I was divorced when our daughter was 5. Eight years later, a gawky teen hiding behind punk-rock pancake, my child came back to live with me. Learning about parenthood, I grilled her beaux when they came calling. Craning my neck to look them in the eye, I asked such penetrating questions as, Where do you live? What are your parents' names? What are your plans after high school?
One day my daughter objected. "Pops," she wailed. "You are like, sooo intimidating! My friends hate coming here!"
Me, intimidating? I was taken aback. "But those kids are taller than me," I said.
"It doesn't matter!" she sniffed. "You've written books! You go on TV! Your picture is in newspapers! You were a drill sergeant in the Army! You were in Vietnam! You interview famous people! You can talk to anyone about anything!"
Suddenly I felt tall. It felt good.
"But we have our own problems, and you just don't understand us," she said.
I turned that over. She was right: Everybody has problems growing up. The tallest boy feels the stares, and fields lame jokes about playing basketball. The acne-scarred geeks hide their faces. The overweight bury the world's disdain under layers of protective adipose. The thin hide behind baggy clothes.
Thanks largely to my experiences as a short person, by middle age I had learned to accept rejection. That's valuable to everyone, but especially to writers. I know that negative responses are part of the cost of doing business, every writer's emotional overhead.
In adulthood, we come to learn, there are plenty of handicaps. Everybody has one. Me, I'm short. And if some people in our Taller-Is-Better world can't get past that, then they ought to move on.
* * *
Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
First published in TWA Ambassador, February, 2000, with this notation:
"Marvin J. Wolf, the author of nine nonfiction books,* was the only U.S. serviceman to arrive in Vietnam a private and depart as an infantry lieutenant."
*Update May 23, 2018: Marvin J. Wolf is now the author of eleven nonfiction books, three novels, and a made-for-television movie script.
AT THE JET PROPULSION LABORATORY, SCIENTISTS ARE BUILDING ROBOTS TO EXPLORE THE SOLAR SYSTEM--AND EVEN MAKING PLANS TO SAIL TO THE STARS.
Cover Story, Los Angeles Times Magazine
November 14, 1999
Marvin J. Wolf's last piece for the magazine was about his father, a junkman in Los Angeles
So here's young Frank Malina out of East Texas, slim and dark, mind quick as a prairie twister, studies engineering at Texas A&M and makes ends meet playing fiddle in his daddy's band for hick-town dung-stompers, and graduates in 1934, a Depression year.
When Caltech offers him a scholarship, his family is busted so flat that he's got no way to Pasadena. So his college teachers pass the hat and durn near the whole town of Brenham, mostly Czech immigrants like the Malinas, scrapes together $300. Comes 1936 and Frank, after earning two Caltech master's degrees--you ready for this?--decides that he wants to build a rocket. Not a spaceship to reach the moon--that might come later--Malina's modest missile would merely haul instruments to plumb Earth's upper atmosphere and measure cosmic rays at the edge of space. But when he tells his professor, Clark Millikan, son of Nobel laureate and Caltech president Robert Millikan, that he wants to write a doctoral dissertation on rocket propulsion and high-altitude rocket characteristics, the prof tartly suggests that Malina leave academia and find a job in the aircraft industry.
Forgive that man. It was 1936, only nine years since Lucky Lindy hopped the Atlantic, and those who set America's science agenda saw rocketry as pulp fiction. Certainly no one would expect that fiddle-playing Frank Malina out of East Texas was destined to cross paths with three hugely eccentric characters--a Hungarian Jew, a Chinese mandarin and a self-taught chemist--to give birth to the institution that has become mankind's window for exploring the universe.
Malina, who had gulped down Jules Verne in Czech and had big dreams, did not give up. He went to Theodore von Karman, director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and one of the world's leading scientists. Sharp-featured and elfin, irresistibly charming, a confirmed bachelor perpetually suspected of seducing colleagues' wives, amusing in half a dozen tongues, intellectually fearless, terminally curious, Von Karman liked to lie in wind tunnels to feel the air rushing over his body. A Hungarian descendant of Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th century Prague mystic who is said to have created the Golem, a mechanical man brought to life with sacred writings, Von Karman was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. There he devised a tethered helicopter to replace observation balloons and redesigned Anthony Hermann Gerhard Fokker's device so Austrian machine guns could fire through aircraft propellers. After earning wide recognition for pioneering the physics of flight turbulence, he came to Caltech during Hitler's rise. Von Karman knew that German scientists were interested in rockets; he gave Malina a green light. In this uncharacteristically unwitting fashion, he ensured his own legacy.
Word of Malina's project got around town, and Pasadenan John W. Parsons offered help. Parsons, unencumbered by knowledge of higher math or molecular processes, was a cookbook chemist obsessed with things that go bang. Tall, beefy, insouciantly handsome, he was a mama's boy who hated authority and detested societal mores but gave no outward hint of the inner stirrings that soon would propel him to leadership of an unlikely cult.
Parsons and a childhood sidekick, mechanic Ed Forman, had tinkered with black powder rockets, and had backyards littered with craters to prove it. With Von Karman's blessing--but no school funds--Parsons joined Malina's project. Forman helped by turning Malina's designs into hardware. Between jobs and studies, for months the trio prowled junkyards and used machinery shops, trying to patch together test equipment. Desperate for funding, Malina and Parsons set out to write a movie script about mad scientists building a moon rocket; they hoped to sell it to a film studio. They worked in Parsons' kitchen until Malina realized that the bags, boxes, bottles, cartons, jugs, tubes and vials piled everywhere were filled with assorted explosives, combustibles and chemical accelerators.
Malina began designing a firing chamber and exhaust nozzles--tasks that, before computers, required laborious hand calculations. In October 1936, the first motor was tested in the Arroyo Seco, three miles north of the Rose Bowl. Fueled by a brew of gaseous oxygen and methyl alcohol, after a few false starts it burned for three seconds, until an oxygen hose burst into flame and began snaking across the rocky ground. The rocketeers scattered in panic. They returned to the arroyo on Nov. 28 and got the motor to run for 15 seconds.
In January 1937, an improved motor ran for 44 seconds, and Malina invited another grad student to join: Tsien Hsue-shen, among the first of a generation of Chinese to benefit from educational reforms. A voracious and far-ranging intellect, committed to modernizing his backward homeland, he presented himself as a mandarin, a regal presence who in public could not err or display weakness. He agreed to help Malina and another grad student with the critical equations for a more powerful engine.
Upon reviewing Malina's written analysis of the experiments, Von Karman allocated campus lab space to the effort. Following a nitrous oxide leak, however, the group, now dubbed the Suicide Squad, was forced to move all equipment outdoors. Weld Arnold, a 40-ish lab assistant, asked to photograph the experiments. Told that there might be no more unless some funding was found, Arnold pledged to raise $1,000. The first $100, ones and fives, came wrapped in old newspaper; no one questioned the source, which remains a mystery.
Near the end of 1937, Malina, with the assistance of grad student Apollo Milton Olin Smith, published his first paper, "Flight Analysis of the Sounding Rocket," which so impressed Von Karman that he sent Malina to New York to present it. With the right motor, Malina told open-mouthed listeners, a rocket could reach an altitude of 1,000 miles. Time magazine and the New York Herald-Tribune reported Malina's speech, the Associated Press sent his photo to newspapers nationwide, and the Los Angeles Times editorialized for more rocket research. A reporter who observed test firings wrote imaginatively about rocket ships blasting off from the Los Angeles Civic Center.
In May 1938, a new motor with a graphite lining and copper exhaust nozzles ran for a full minute. But then the money did run out, and the group dissolved, briefly. A few months later, with Hitler rattling sabers in Munich, Army Air Corps boss H.H. "Hap" Arnold popped into Caltech to update himself on aeronautical research. Fascinated by what the Suicide Squad had achieved on a shoestring, he asked a National Academy of Sciences committee to give the lab $1,000 to study rocket-assisted aircraft takeoff.
In early 1939, Parsons and Tsien rejoined Malina. In June, the committee disbursed another $10,000. With a wary nod to the rocket-phobic, Malina's group was later designated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
On a sweltering summer day this year, a small team of scientists attempts the unimaginable: Working among the 150 structures on JPL's 156-acre home in La Canada-Flintridge, they are dreaming of a voyage to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, a journey that would take the most advanced existing spacecraft tens of thousands of years. The JPL team hopes to design a vehicle to fly at one-tenth the speed of light, cutting travel time to less than 40 years. If such a journey seems unfathomable, consider this: These scientists and engineers are devoting their careers to a mission that won't fly until long after they are dead.
“It's like the 15th century explorers who set out for the Americas, for Africa, says Dr. Charles Elachi, the ebullient but low-key Lebanese-born scientist who heads JPL's Space and Earth Science Programs. They didn't know, step by step, how they would explore new continents, he says, but they had the confidence that they would figure out ways to overcome the hurdles.
In the half-century since JPL's genesis under Von Karman, Malina, Parsons and Tsien, JPL has grown into the jewel of the American space program. It is Earth's leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system and the universe beyond--a place where scientists and engineers like Malina spin ideas that most people would dismiss as science fiction, then turn them into technologies, experiments and spacecraft. "You have to be kind of a rogue scientist, with harebrained ideas," says Dr. Andrea Donnellan, a JPL geophysicist. "People here support that because they can see the value of an idea that may seem crazy elsewhere." If such ideas can be related to one of JPL's missions, "it may get cultivated."
Donnellan's most recent brainstorm: uses computers to process hundreds of Global Positioning System satellite measurements of fixed points on Earth's surface. Backed by hundreds of sensors, the same system that allows motorists to determine their location on the map within a dozen yards lets geophysicists track daily movement of California's fault lines by tiny fractions of an inch, data that someday may help forecast the probabilities an earthquake will occur.
Another JPL project, the Topex-Poseidon satellite, measures sea surface heights and ocean temperatures, providing a scientific basis for understanding the El Nino phenomenon that affects weather patterns worldwide.
With a planning budget of $1.315 billion for the year, some 5,000 employees and hundreds of on-site contractors, JPL is now close to three times the size of its Caltech parent, and with about 1,000 "JPLers" holding PhDs, it is arguably the world's greatest concentration of technical brainpower. "One thing you see here is that nothing is impossible," says JPL's 63-year-old director, Dr. Ed Stone, a University of Chicago-trained physicist.
Starting with America's first satellite, Explorer I, in 1958, most of the news of our solar system in the last 40 years has come from data obtained by JPL spacecraft. The twin Voyagers, launched in 1977, beamed back the first close-ups of the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Other missions have found Venus' hothouse atmosphere; mysterious reverse landslides on Mars (mounds of soil that appear to be climbing a crater rim); an ice-topped ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa; colossal volcanoes on Io, another Jovian satellite; Neptune's Great Dark Spot, which boasts the strongest winds in the solar system, and hundreds of other discoveries. JPL engineers also built the Wide Field and Planetary Camera that enabled the Hubbell Space Telescope to peer deep into interstellar space.
Yet despite its successes, and occasional failures, until recently JPL had a history of spending vast sums on a small number of projects, a practice that brought criticism and uncertainty. "When I first came here, JPL was focused on survival," says NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin, who took office in 1992. "They needed a big project every 10 years to feed them." At the time, that was Cassini, a $1.5-billion effort that began in 1989 and went up in October 1997. Named for the 17th century French-Italian astronomer who discovered the gap in Saturn's main rings and found four of its moons, the spacecraft will reach and explore Saturn's amazing system in 2004. At JPL, Goldin found angst, with scientists wondering, " 'What comes after Cassini?' And it was paralyzing them. Their programs were so expensive that running a thermal vacuum test or a shake test became a political event, and because they were so worried about failure, they would use old technology that was proven, instead of blazing a path like they are doing today and leaping ahead 10 years."
Goldin would not have this. "Between 1980 and 1992, NASA's budget doubled, but we had only two interplanetary missions," he says. He issued a decree: "From now on, we do things faster, better, cheaper." It has transformed the lab into the proverbial beehive, a frenetic place with "dozens of small- to medium-sized projects," Goldin says, "where young kids who don't even shave yet or haven't combed their long hair are in charge." Most of JPL's 18 mission project managers, 24 experiment project managers and 10 pre-project managers are relative newcomers to these jobs. "The innovation is unbelievable. These boys and girls--there are none better."
Among the dozens of projects now underway is an orbiting infrared observatory that would offer astronomers views of previously invisible phenomena. It is scheduled for launch in 2001. A 2003 mission, Space Technology 3, would place two concave mirrors in solar orbit. Deployed up to a kilometer apart and linked by computer, they would resolve star images up to 40 times better than the Hubbell, detecting the telltale star wobbles that suggest the presence of planets. The Terrestrial Planet Finder, a space interferometer scheduled to fly in 2010, would use this data to examine earthlike planets. Both are part of NASA's Origins Program, aimed at learning how life has evolved in our and other solar systems.
The purpose of JPL missions also is changing. Stone carves space exploration into eras. The first was meeting the engineering and science challenges of getting to another planet, he says. Once we learned how to get there, the next era was finding what was out there. Now NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" credo coincides with Stone's third era of space exploration: bringing back to Earth samples of distant worlds. Stardust, launched in February to encounter the comet Wild-2 in 2004, will return some of its dust to Earth. Why spend megabucks on comet dust? Because comets--small, fragile, irregularly shaped mixtures of particles and frozen gases--are thought to contain the primordial material from which our solar system was fashioned. Stardust also will return samples of mysterious interstellar dust streaming into our system from the direction of Sagittarius.
While JPL has earned an exalted reputation for navigating billions of miles with split-second timing and surgical precision, spaceflight remains a risky business. In July 1962, when JPL attempted its first interplanetary voyage by sending Mariner 1 to Venus, the Atlas-Agena launch vehicle veered off course minutes after liftoff and had to be destroyed. The reason: A single hyphen had been omitted from a computer program. In 1993, JPL's Mars Observer probe disappeared just before its scheduled rendezvous with the red planet. Engineers concluded that something probably went wrong while its fuel tanks were being pressurized, causing the craft to spin out of control. More recently, JPL's once lengthy and detailed peer review process, streamlined by "faster, better, cheaper," failed to note a critical oversight in the lab's Mars Climate Orbiter. Orbiter's mission failed in September as it neared the planet because contractor Lockheed Martin Astronautics sent data for the critical orbit maneuvers in feet and pounds, while JPL uses metric units. Nobody caught the error.
Another measure of JPL's evolution is its technology-transfer program. In the 1930s, aviation pioneer Donald Douglas asked Von Karman for help designing the DC-1, forerunner to the famed DC-3. Von Karman's analysis reduced drag and turbulence and enabled the aircraft to fly faster with less fuel. Also in the '30s, Von Karman had a "water wind tunnel" built to redesign archaic Metropolitan Water District pumps to bring water over the Tehachapis more efficiently. And in the '50s, a JPL group under Dr. Solomon Golomb, now a USC professor, sought a way to prevent enemy jamming of missile-guidance systems. The result was a digital coding system that became the basis for cell phones, commercial cryptography and radar.
Today JPL's Dr. Merle McKenzie and a small staff seek commercial applications for new lab technologies. For example, Caltech, which holds JPL's patents, licensed Ford to produce a "neural networking" computer chip to detect tiny variations in engines. Other JPL technologies have led to a collision-avoidance system for small aircraft, infrared ear thermometers, and digital cameras on a single microchip. JPL also rents out its formidable expertise. "We don't do any work that could [be done] by another U.S. company," explains McKenzie. JPL works only "in areas that are unusual and unique," where the lab has special competence.
When a proposal is accepted, JPL is reimbursed for salaries, materials, facilities usage and other expenses. Even so, she explains, this amounts to a tiny fraction of what it would cost a company to do the work on its own, if it could find scientists and engineers with the right skills. McKenzie is looking now for private-sector partners to design and build an interplanetary Internet. JPL's own contribution, taking shape in the next few years, is Web sites where earthlings can surf in to see what's happening on Mars as it happens, with pictures from satellites and ultralight aircraft soaring over Mars.
JPL's fourth era, in stone's epochal view, will be building robotic outposts throughout the solar system so that instruments, imaging systems and local exploration vehicles can gather data. In his view, that will begin early in the new millennium. Someday there will be a fifth era, the era of leaving our solar system, of visiting the stars--and JPL already has begun to plan for it.
A few hours before Pathfinder landed on Mars on March 4, 1997, Goldin was at JPL to dedicate the Carl Sagan Memorial Wall on the lab's mall. He recalls that a few JPL staff members "who were discomfitted with change, came up and said, 'Hey Dan, why don't we get another Pathfinder mission?' " Goldin recalls. "The blood drained out of my face. Been there, done that. We are not about repeating things." Later, speaking extemporaneously at the ceremony, he challenged JPL to build and launch a probe that would travel 10,000 Astronomical Units (an AU is 93 million miles, the distance from Earth to the sun) into space within 25 years. In the audience, "three out of four were dancing on air--and a couple were gasping and wheezing," Goldin laughs.
In the months ahead, Goldin's notion evolved into a true interstellar mission, a probe to visit the sun-like stars nearest our solar system: Alpha Centauri A, B and C. All three may have planets. They are some 4.3 light-years (270,000 AU) distant, about 9,000 times the distance from Earth to Neptune, which is as far as any spacecraft has yet flown.
Early this year, Art Murphy of the lab's Technology and Applications Program met with Sarah Gavit, manager of the Deep Space 2 project, a microprobe designed to penetrate the surface of Mars in search of water ice. Murphy reminded Gavit of Goldin's interstellar ambitions and offered her the chance to oversee a study, the necessary precursor to a mission. "He said, 'We need somebody to run this, to bring it down to reality, to make a real program out it, rather than just science fiction,' " recalls Gavit, 37. In her heart-of-hearts, says Gavit, "I thought, 'You guys are nuts.' Interstellar? Interstellar? Going where? Right."
As an 8-year-old vacationing in Michigan, Gavit was playing kickball on a sultry summer day when her parents summoned her to watch television. She dutifully sat down to see grainy black-and-white images crawling across the screen. "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," said Neil Armstrong. It was July 20, 1969. When the other kids returned to their game, Sarah sat spellbound. Later her family moved to Fort Meyers, Fla., and Sarah visit Cape Canaveral. After high school, she enrolled at MIT. Before graduating with a masters in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1985, she was an Amelia Earhart Fellow and co-led development of a five-person bicycle that attempted to break the human-powered land speed record. After receiving the James Means Memorial Prize for Space Systems Engineering, she went to work for Martin Marietta Corp. on Magellan, which JPL launched in 1989 to radar-map Venus. When Magellan was over, JPL hired Gavit for Cassini.
"Sending a probe to Alpha Centauri will require enormous advances in three areas," Gavit explains. First, since it would take 4.3 years for light to travel between Alpha Centauri and Earth, communications with a spacecraft flying between them would be difficult. For that reason, any spacecraft must be able to repair itself, evaluate data from sensors, devise missions to suit this data and reprogram itself to execute them.
Interstellar voyages also will require vastly improved communications. JPL uses radio, which requires elaborate enhancement of incoming signals. Since radio and light waves obey a physics law, the inverse square rule, signals from a distance of two AU arrive with one-quarter the strength of those from one AU; from three AU they are only one-ninth as powerful. So radio or light waves from Alpha Centauri arrive with only 1/81,000,000 as much energy as they would from Neptune.
Enter Dr. James Lesh, 55, who has spent most of his 28 years at JPL studying lasers and now manages communications technology development. Intense and articulate, comfortable explaining complex scientific notions to the unschooled, Lesh personifies JPL's workaholic, mission-oriented culture. When he goes home at the end of a long work day, he generally drags a thick briefcase along. "Going home for the weekend, I sometimes feel like I should be doing more; that might cause me not to do some big [household] project that I would if I felt totally free," he says. JPL is full of people like him. Many times, working at home at 2 or 3 a.m., he has sent someone an e-mail--and gotten an instant answer. "There is an appreciation for those who are committed, who seem to live it, who have a passion for it."
Lesh thinks lasers might be the answer to interstellar communication. "Voyager's radio beam is about 1,000 Earth diameters wide when it reaches here," he explains--and 20 billion times weaker than the power needed to operate a digital wristwatch. "If I take a fair-sized telescope and transmit visible light through it from the same distance," says Lesh, "the spot size is about one earth diameter," which translates to a million-fold increase in power concentration.
As daunting as the communications question is, the biggest problem with getting to Alpha Centauri is getting to Alpha Centauri. "At present speeds, if either Voyager were headed for Alpha Centauri, it would take 74,000 years to arrive," Gavit says. So JPL has turned to Charles Garner, 47, whose lab moniker is "Mr. Solar Sail" because he is an expert at a once-mythical form of travel--sailing the stars on solar energy. "A solar sail is a giant, lightweight mirror in space," Garner explains. Instead of catching wind, however, this sail is powered by photons--light particles--from the sun. Unlike chemical rockets, which burn for mere minutes, this sail will boost the spacecraft for months or years--but only if its sail weighs almost nothing. Garner thinks he has solved that with ESLI Microtruss, a three-dimensional material made of carbon fibers that are 10 times stronger than steel but 10 times thinner than a human hair and weigh less than one gram per square meter. Manufactured by Energy Science Laboratories in San Diego, the material will be covered with a reflective aluminum film. "You can support a square meter of this on your finger, yet you can bend it and it is so stiff that it will spring back on its own," Garner marvels.
Gavit's team, armed with these and a handful of other fantastic ideas, has proposed that NASA take an essential step toward funding an experimental interstellar mission by listing the project in its long-range Strategic Plan. Gavit's group wants to launch such a mission in 2010 with a goal of reaching the heliospheric boundary--the line in space separating material from our sun from the material of interstellar space--by 2025. That means building a spacecraft to travel 15 AU a year, about five times as fast as any of the Voyager spacecrafts.
The 2010 mission envisions a spacecraft of just 220 pounds with a science payload of 55 pounds. To accelerate this craft to 15 AU per year requires a solar sail nearly five football fields across, but weighing a mere 270 pounds.
All this, however, is just a warm-up for a true interstellar mission. For that attempt on Alpha Centauri, Dr. Stephanie Leifer, an advanced propulsion expert, talks about a sail miles in diameter driven by an array of lasers more than 600 miles across. The system would power a payload of 2,200 pounds, including the sail, to a tenth the speed of light--many times faster than the most advanced propulsion system currently in use. But even this would require "more energy than is produced by human civilization in a month," Leifer sighs. And even at a tenth the speed of light, a simple fly-by of Alpha Centauri would take close to 40 years.
"There are so many problems to be solved before we can even think of going to another star," Leifer says. "People in the space program have been screaming about launch costs for decades. The reality is that we can't conceive of a small interstellar mission. We don't know how to build anything that tiny to go to another star." Leifer thinks that before a true interstellar mission can be launched, NASA will most likely be able to put a base on the moon or on an asteroid, from which it could build the infrastructure to mine raw materials and manufacture the spacecraft. "This is really far-out stuff that it's hard to imagine doing in the next 50 or even 100 years," she says. "It would be really neat if I could live to see a lunar base or long-term human habitats in space, where people can live and work. Those are the kinds of things that excite me."
Nor does Gavit imagine she will live to see an Alpha Centauri launch. "Maybe my nieces and nephews will," she says. "When I first took this job, it wasn't my first choice. One day when I was grumbling about something, my boss said, 'Sarah, did you ever, in your wildest dreams think that you would be the first person to start an interstellar program for NASA?' " And then it hit me. And every now and then it just blows me away. Because I don't do this for the money. I do it for the dream, to explore, to know more about ourselves. Ask any kid on the street: They're full of dreams, they don't know what can't be done. And I don't feel alone--not at JPL. I don't know how we will get to the stars, but I think we can, that we will."
Frank Malina, the student who started it all, did live to see his dream realized. As JPL's chief engineer, he headed the effort to develop Army guided missiles. WAC Corporal, launched Oct. 11, 1945, at White Sands in New Mexico, soared to more than 205,000 feet.
Jack Parsons was not on hand to share this triumph; he left JPL in 1944. A year earlier, he had assumed leadership of the Agape chapter of Ordo Templi Orientis, a cult featuring priestesses rising from alters in diaphanous gauze to perform gnostic masses. Parsons dabbled with peyote, mescaline, marijuana, opiates and hallucinogens. In 1946, his friend, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, documented a ritual, including frenzied copulation, which Parsons claimed evoked the "goddess Babalon [sic], mother of harlots." Soon afterward, Parsons began using the name "Belarion Armiluss Al Dajjal Anti-Christ." He died in June 1952 in a mysterious explosion, perhaps an accident--but maybe murder. Malina credited him, after Von Karman and himself, with the greatest contribution to JPL's start. The crater Parsons, named in his honor, is on the moon's dark side.
As a Caltech don and a premier JPL consultant, Tsien Hsue-shen was regarded by 1949 as Von Karman's peer and probable successor. His blueprint for a passenger rocket linking New York and Los Angeles in less than an hour drew enormous media attention. Less than six months later, however, the FBI revoked his security clearance, suspecting he was a Communist. Angry, he made plans to visit his ailing father in Shanghai. Soon after, war erupted in Korea. His baggage was searched, and when classified documents--his own papers--were found, he was imprisoned as a spy.
He was released on condition that he remain in the United States; paradoxically, the INS began deportation proceedings. Despite the many scientists who vouched for his loyalty, in 1955 he was one of two prominent Chinese exchanged for U.S. Korean War POWs. He went on to become one of China's most revered scientists, overseeing development of ICBMs, weather and reconnaissance satellites and the deadly Silkworm anti-ship missiles exported to Third World dictatorships. He lives near Beijing.
Von Karman, through his friendship with "Hap" Arnold and participation in World War II scientific planning, had a profound and lasting influence on the U.S. Air Force. At his suggestions, promising young officers attended graduate schools to receive rocketry training and the federal government committed to funding fundamental research. He was honored with America's first National Medal of Science in February 1963, and he died a few weeks later at age 81.
After World War II, Malina grew uncomfortable with designing weaponry and with the national obsession for rooting out Communists. When the FBI began investigating Sidney Weinbaum, a Caltech professor and gifted musician, for Communist Party membership, Malina began to worry. With his wife, Liljan, Malina often had visited Weinbaum's home. Along with enjoying music, they had discussed politics and the works of Communist writers. Before Malina's security clearance came up for renewal in 1947, his home was searched by a methodical burglar who examined the contents of file cabinets but took nothing. Soon after, Malina left JPL and accepted a position with the U.N.'s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, in Paris.
After a second marriage, he left the U.N. to create striking kinetic art and to found the arts magazine Leonardo. In 1959 he rejoined the world scientific community when Von Karman asked him to become part of the International Academy of Astronautics. As dean of American rocketeers, he roamed the world, speaking of rocketry's origins and envisioning its future. He spoke eloquently of exploring our solar system--and of eventually journeying to the stars. He died in Paris in 1981.
© 1999 Marvin J. Wolf
Published in The Los Angeles Times
February 20, 1983
Hunch down, let the cool smoothness of the polished planks seep up through your stockinged feet and peer through a narrow slit set low in the thick stone wall.
Look down at the dark, still waters of the moat a hundred feet below. Let your eyes sweep across the water. Now look past the flowering cherry, plum and apple trees. Look toward the snowcapped, saw-toothed mountains that crowd the horizon from every direction. Imagine that your fingers grip the rough wood of a crossbow, and you may have some idea of what it felt like to be a Sixteenth Century samurai warrior defending your feudal master's fief from a firing slit atop the five-story donjon of Matsumoto Castle. Donjons are the fortified inner towers of Japanese castles.
Many call it Karuso-jo, Crow Castle, because it's thick stone walls are black. This is Japan's oldest surviving fortress tower. It's walls and moat were built in 1504, near the beginning of a turbulent era of civil war. Perhaps it was spared the repeated attacks that destroyed most of the country's other castles because Matsumoto is so remote.
"The roof of Japan," it was called. An island in a sea of forbidding crags, a landlocked island on Honshu Island. Not even 200 miles from Tokyo, but worlds distant, it is accessible only through high, steep, mountain passes or over dangerous, narrow rivers churning noisily over rocky rapids.
Life was hard here. The growing season is short, the winters cold, the altitude takes its toll in human energy. The tough survived, nurtured their culture, valued their land, defended it.
Perhaps it was only the remoteness that made outsiders covet this region. Or perhaps soldiers cannot resist the lure of fortresses, even natural ones. So in 1504 the warrior Sadanaga Shimaduchi built a fort here. After 90 years and innumerable intrigues, coups, successions, marriages of alliance and not a few battles, Kazumasa Ishiwaka, a famed fortifier, became lord of this district. He remodeled the castle completely. It is the work of his men that is the Crow Castle of today. But now the brooding stone walls of the donjon, walls that intimidated generations of warriors, can be breached for a mere 200 yen, less than a dollar.
Remove your shoes and climb the steep wooden stairs and ladders toward the castle keep, the steps worn smooth by generations of tourists, emperors, foreign plenipotentiaries, schoolchildren, local politicians and, not recently, soldiers.
The samurai used clumsy, oversized firearms; a few remain to impart clues to what sort of fighter could use them: tough, strong, patient men.
The castle walls are lined with wood hauled down with great effort from the dark forests that still mantle the mountains. Now the wood is dark and smooth, worn by legions of hands and stained by soot and smoke and sweat.
The lords and ladies of the donjon lived here with their retainers and their soldiers. They slept on thin mats much like those used by modern Japanese. They cooked their daily rice here, they ate and drank, slept and made love; they conspired, confided and cleaned; they lived out their lives in the low-ceilinged rooms of this castle, and traces remain to remind us.
Most of their artifacts, perhaps 50,000 items, are on display at the Japan Folklore Museum within the ancient outer walls of the original castle grounds.
Once the castle moats were the last line of defense; they kept an invader just out of bowshot while defenders, allied with the force of gravity, could still hit them.
But that was before firearms. Now the moat is the reflective centerpiece of a lovely central park peopled by strolling lovers, families, swarms of tourists. Matsumoto is no longer remote.
Now the tallest buildings of this city of 200,000 crowd against the skyline and overshadow the medieval magnificence of the castle. The fortress is a monument to defense of clan, region and animistic religions; the city buildings are castles of commerce, the new religion. They are hung with microwave towers, huge curved shields that connect Matsumoto with Tokyo with the rest of the world, instantly, effortlessly.
At the center of the new city is the train station. Japanese National Railways trains roll in from Tokyo and Osaka and from outlying towns and villages, bringing workers, tourists and foreigners on pilgrimage to the industrial mecca that is the Matsumoto of the Twentieth Century. A trip that once took weeks, a trip fraught with danger, a trip for the bold, is now a pleasant, often entertaining, four-hour train ride from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station.
The tracks descend through the mountains between small villages, and through manicured fruit orchards and immaculate miniature vineyards from which come delicious varietal wines, some sweet, others rather close to California or European dry vintages.
An English priest and alpinist, Walter Weston, was the first Westerner to visit the splendid alpine plain where the city of Matsumoto sits in Nagano Prefecture. Around the turn of the 19th century, Weston looked over the mountains, climbed many of them, and decided that this part of Japan reminded him of the Swiss Alps. And in a curious, East-imitating West fashion, the region is now more than ever like the Switzerland Weston fancied.
Perhaps because of Weston's influence—but also, perhaps, because of the many swift mountain streams that once provided industrial power—Matsumoto and environs became the center of the Japanese watchmaking industry and lately its computer industry, too. The factories are quiet, clean and non-polluting; they're all but hidden among the densely populated towns and still upland valleys.
You will not be invited inside these factories. If you come to buy products for export, you will be led to a display room, offered o-cha, green tea, shown spec sheets and samples. But behind the factory walls legions of uniformed workers, the lowest indistinguishable from the highest, make electronic marvels in spotless, dust-free rooms.
Often they attend tireless industrial robots or work in rooms illuminated only by dim, narrow-spectrum yellow fluorescent lights. Or assemble complex components with deft motions on hushed assembly lines. You know the names of their products: Seiko, Citizen, Epson. These Japanese workers and technicians are very much aware of who buys most of their products.
Matsumoto's watches and computers, and some products that seem to be both, are among the world's best and have found markets all over. Many foreign businessmen come here. Much business is conducted around the low tables of traditional restaurants, at the swivel stools of sushi bars or in the comfortable booths of Western-style coffeehouses or discos. So it should be no surprise that the city offers an astonishing variety of dining. It has passable Continental food—Italian, German and French—and the whole panoply of Japanese cuisine to choose from, from local delicacies such as pickled honeybees to traditional meals of sukyaki or tempura, as well as the more modern shabushabu.
Matsumoto has no huge, modern hotels. Instead there are dozens of smaller places, many of them recently upgraded with Western-style private baths. With true Japanese efficiency, this was often accomplished by inserting a multipurpose bath module containing miniaturized versions of the all necessities.
The oldest Western-style school building in Japan, now a museum, was built in 1876 and is a leisurely 10 minute walk from the castle. Its whitewashed walls contrast with beautiful blue roof tiles topped by a graceful weathercock. Restored classrooms and an auditorium are on display, along with period school books and Japanese versions of Victorian educational materials.
Near the swift, koi-filled mountain stream that loops through the city, and not far from the castle, is an enchanting Shinto temple, still very much in use. While sightseers rarely enter, the traditional façade of the temple is surrounded by small outdoor shrines. By local custom some worshippers fulfill religious obligations by singing cantos in a haunting, melodic chant. Their paeans address the rock cairns wherein, they believe, live powerful but benign spirits.
In the square before the temple, fearless pigeons flock to gather crumbs scattered by visitors. Some allow themselves to be caught by youngsters, who stroke them fondly for blessings of good luck before releasing them to the spirits of the wind.
Matsumoto is famous throughout Japan for its pickles and its many sweetshops. Virtually anything grown locally is available in its pickled form here. The sweetshops offer a variety of tempting traditional sweets and Continental-style pastries; neither are nearly so sweet as the Western palate might expect from their appearance. They are subtle, without the overpowering sugary taste—or the calories—of their Western lookalikes. In Japan, baking is regarded as an art form, and many of the shops offer baked goods that truly look much too good to eat.
Many of Japan's most noted artists and artisans live in the alpine region. Displays of 600 wood, glass and bamboo items representing their finest works are at the folk craft museum in Shim-Kanai, about 20 minutes away by bus. The most admired local crafts include beautiful yet functional lacquerware; a bamboo ware known as misuzu zaiko; a decorative cloth incorporating silken threads, Matsumoto tsumugi, and lovely birch carvings. An ornate, embroidered ball called the Matsumoto termari is the most famous alpine craft product; the best are available only in this region.
Most visitors come to Matsumoto from Tokyo by train for about $70 round-trip, first class. There is also a daily Japan Air Lines flight from Osaka. It offers a breathtaking view of the roof of Japan, the mountains that once made Matsumoto a fortress, that kept it safe from foreign invaders.
Foreigners are welcomed now, but the dark fortress of Crow Castle remains, evoking the spirits of the past and fortifying the present with its links to an intrepid era.
© 1983 Marvin J. Wolf
Give credit where it’s due: This was Barriga’s idea. But Staff Sergeant Al Barriga was a cartoonist; he just didn’t have the creative writing chops. Besides, even with over 20 years in uniform, there’s no way he could have pulled it off on his own.
Like Dirty Harry says, a man’s gotta know his limitations.
So Barriga came to me – his boss.
It was 1968, we were stationed in South Korea, and we were bored out of our tiny minds. “We” was me, the Seventh Infantry Division’s public information officer, Barriga, and the five other soldiers who worked for me.
Not that we had nothing to do. We put out The Bayonet, the division’s weekly newspaper. While this was widely ignored as Army propaganda — you can’t fool the troops — we still tried to make it as interesting as possible. We also pulled field duty, maintained our equipment, froze our butts off and suffered the same lack of creature comfort as everyone else at Camp Casey. And like every other red-blooded American soldier, we endured a lack of off-duty attractions beyond those offered by the venereal disease distribution center outside our gates, better known as the village of Tongduchon.
While working in a warm office is way better than dragging a rifle and combat gear up and down frozen mountains or through icky, sticky rice paddies, we were bored with putting out a newspaper that nobody read, filled with “news” that everybody either already knew or didn’t care about.
The single exception was sports. Guys liked to read about intramural competition. There were bragging rights in sharing a Quonset hut with a member of a championship team.
But now it was late winter. Football was long over. Basketball was finished. We had no hockey rink and it would be months before baseball. Our sports page dwindled to almost nothing; troops got their only sports fix from Stars & Stripes, the semi-official Department of Defense daily, which along with world and national news, carried pro and college scores and wire service features.
Then Barriga thought of a way to fill our sports page.
With assistance from the whole office, he invented a sport. Barriga’s parents were from Peru. His ancestors, he firmly believed, were Incas. So we dubbed it “grumaché” and said it was the “Sport of Inca Kings.”
We began by reporting the results of the first round of the [mythical] Mayta Cup, the [mythical] international grumaché tournament held in Cuzco, Peru, and named for the Inca athlete king, Mayta Cápac.
There really was a Mayta Cápac — 750 years ago. Sports-wise, nothing much has happened in southern Peru since 1533, when Pizarro sacked and looted Cuzco.
We began with the assumption that none of our readers spoke Quechua, the native language of the Central Andes. Not that Barriga did, either, but he knew a smattering. To color our reports, we sprinkled game highlights with whatever words and phrases he could recall. For example, we called the grumaché field rit'i qewa, which means snow-covered grass. [Maybe]. Other grumaché terms were mostly words used by Barriga’s dad when he was drinking. Or by his mom when his dad drank too much.
In reporting a baseball game, no contemporary sportswriter would explain stuff like “strikeout,” “infield fly rule” or “no-hitter.” So while we used assorted grumaché terms, we rarely explained them. Nor did we describe the object of the game or the field it was played on, except in passing or with Quechua words. And of course, we made up rules and changed them as we went along.
Think about what it would be like to read an account of a hockey game if you’d never seen one, and didn’t know the rules or even what equipment players used — that was the fun of it, knowing that our readers would be scratching their heads and for the first time talking about something they read in our paper.
Not until our report of the third round of the semi-finals did we let slip that grumaché was played on a sunken hexagonal field about half the size of a basketball court. There was a simi rumi [stone mouth or goal hole] in each of the six sides, alternately defended by two opposing teams. The idea was to throw, kick or stuff a rumi pupu into an opponent’s simi rumi. The rumi pupu could be thrown or bounced but never carried or rolled; a rumi pupu, we eventually mentioned, was a 15-pound, leather-wrapped stone.
All these game details, and others, were slipped into stories, a few at a time in no particular order. Eventually, discerning readers understood why, while fielding only seven men, a [mythical] squad needed 30 players. And why so many players suffered [mythical] bruises and serious [mythical] hand, head, leg and foot injuries. Except we didn’t say anything about it being mythical.
In our third piece we mentioned in passing that Special Service officials were discussing plans for a [mythical] Seventh Division grumaché tournament.
I should explain that every story we published, as well as every news release, was reviewed by my boss, Major Matero,* the civil affairs officer. But by 10:00 am most mornings Matero had sipped so much bourbon-laced coffee that he would approve anything, including a test piece I submitted reporting that Amelia Earhart was found working as a Tongduchon bar girl.
We had planned four stories, ending with final playoff results from Cuzco, which would get us almost within spittoon range of baseball spring training.
But then came a telex message from Stars & Stripes in Tokyo; I’d forgotten that they were on our distribution list. Stripes editors browsed our pages looking for stories that they could expand or report more widely. The sports editor asked me to send scores and highlights from our grumaché tournament, the Chicha Cup. In Quechua, Chicha [actually] means beer.
Obviously, Stripes was just as desperate for sports news as we were.
So as grumaché disappeared from The Bayonet, weekly tournament roundups appeared every Saturday in Stripes. A million readers from Pearl Harbor to Hong Kong, from Sydney to New Delhi, scratched their heads over the mysteries of grumaché. Twice editors telexed requests for explanation of terms; I ignored these until an irate editor telephoned, then had Barriga create a skeletal grumaché lexicon in faux Quechua.
Desperate to end the hoax without giving ourselves away, we dreamed up a tournament grand finale: A prolonged, scoreless struggle between the 2072nd Radio Research Group and the 9th Ordnance Depot team. These were, of course, nonexistent units. We did have a small Radio Research detachment, but their mission — mining North Korean Army radio traffic for useful intelligence — was classified. Anybody attempting to contact any unit called “radio research” was routed to a counterintelligence officer who scared them off. We sort of had an ordnance outfit, but its men and equipment had deployed to Vietnam, leaving behind a skeleton force. They rarely answered their phone; I suspected that they all hung out in the PX cafeteria drinking coffee.
To tie things up in a bow, we created an exciting finish that we hoped would forestall all further requests for grumaché news: Through four scoreless periods, the Radio Research guys would hold off several clever asnu [donkey] sonqo-suwa [heart-stealer] feints by the Ordnance team. With only minutes before sunset — grumaché play is suspended until daybreak so that qolqe [money] could be erk'eta munay [given affection] — the 2072nd‘s qoyllor [star] songollay [sweetheart] fractured his knee while attempting the difficult munay usa [love louse] maneuver.
With both sides out of ambulatory replacements, the kura [priest] ran onto the field yelling “Soq'oita q'owai,” [“Give me something to drink!”] to halt play. He then declared am urubamba [a plain of snakes, e.g., a draw], whereupon both enraged benches limped onto the rit’i qewa and pelted each other with ukuku wiqsa kuna [bear heads, e.g. worn-out rumi pupu]. After MPs restored order it was decreed that grumaché would no longer be played in the division.
Just as we were ready to ship this masterpiece to Tokyo, Major Matero’s liver failed; he was evacuated Stateside for treatment. Until a replacement arrived, the chief of staff’s sharp-eyed master sergeant, a veteran of decades proofreading personnel orders, would review our press releases for style and punctuation. The chief of staff himself would spot-check content.
There was no way we could sneak even a single rumi pupu past the master sergeant, and the chief of staff would have kittens the first time he encountered a phrase like “Soq'oita q'owai.”
I decided to cancel the last piece.
Then the Stripes editor called from Tokyo. He’d planned to run our final piece as the lead story in Sunday’s sports roundup. When I started making excuses he asked for my boss’s phone number. I faked static interference as an excuse to hang up, but it was plain that he'd call back.
We were screwed.
Barriga was scheduled to rotate Stateside and then retire from the Army; I arranged for him to leave Korea immediately. Cleaning out his desk I found a letter he’d written in which he accepted all responsibility for the hoax. I might have been tempted to keep it, except that it was so full of misspelled words and make-you-cringe grammar that no one would believe that this particular cartoonist could have written anything published in Stripes.
In any case, as senior officer, I alone was responsible. I made an appointment to see the chief of staff, a humorless, no-nonsense full colonel, and confess all. If by some twist of fate I was spared a court-martial, I could expect immediate reassignment to infantry duty on the DMZ.
I began packing.
And then the weather turned unseasonably warm; a forecasted blizzard became an intense, slow-moving rainstorm that washed out roads and bridges from South Korea’s Yellow Sea coast to the Straits of Tsushima.
I telexed the sports editor in Tokyo that due to severe weather, our tournament was cancelled.
I heard no more about grumaché until a few weeks later, while attending a conference in Tokyo. The last day’s events included a tour of Stars & Stripes. As I traversed a top-floor corridor en route to a briefing, a flinty Marine colonel hailed me through his open office door.
The new commanding officer.
“Seventh Division?” he said, eying my shoulder patch.
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Then you’d be the public information officer?”
“Grumaché – that was pure, unadulterated, bull, right?”
“Tell me that it wasn’t a hoax.”
“No sir, I can’t tell you that.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Captain, you just made me $100 richer,” he said. “A bet with my predecessor.”
“Glad to be of service, sir,” I said, choosing my words carefully.
He turned my blood to ice with a withering glance.
“Pull something like that on my watch and I’ll see you in Leavenworth,” he growled.
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is home to the Army’s maximum security prison.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I mean, no, sir.”
“At the Naval Academy I took four years of Spanish,” he said, studying me. “So when I graduated, in 1939, and chose to serve in the Corps, my first duty station was the embassy Marine detachment in Lima, Peru.”
I was beginning to understand.
“Spanish is useful in Peru,” he continued. “But back before the war, the locals mostly spoke Quechua. There isn’t a helluva lot for a young man to do at night in Lima, so the first Quechua every embassy Marine learns is ‘Chicha’ — beer.
“And the first phrase we learned was ‘get me a drink’ —‘Soq'oita q'owai.’
“You really can’t [salty euphemism for excrement] the troops, Captain.”
My heart went down faster than the Titanic.
“Grumaché!” he said, barely able to contain his mirth. “The sport of Inca kings! Really — the very idea!”
Still laughing, he waved me away.
* Deceased 1969
Copyright (c) 2014, Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.