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
One by one the letters arrived in Florida, Washington and New York. They bore New Jersey postmarks, neatly printed but nonexistent return addresses, and a powder that proved to be anthrax, a bacterium that can cause agonizing death if inhaled. One person died, and dozens were infected.
If police, federal agents and postal authorities succeed in tracking down the sender(s) of these guided missives, they will require another type of detective to find evidence linking them to the deadly envelopes.
Using techniques pioneered in the nineteenth century along with technology so new that it's still evolving, sleuths called questioned document examiners will attempt to match the handwritten words on the envelopes with known examples of the suspects' writing. They will analyze ink and paper to determine their origins and perhaps link pen and paper to any suspect. And they will peer into invisible realms to ascertain if the anthrax mailer might have written something else on top of the envelopes he or she mailed.
Most document examiners work for government agencies, but others are in private practice. One of this unsung profession's landmark cases involved the so-called Mormon Will, purportedly handwritten by the mysterious, reclusive Howard R. Hughes. Dated March 19, 1968, it was three pages long, written on yellow legal tablet with the tops ripped off, and delivered along with two envelopes and a brief note to the Clark County, Nev., courthouse by an emissary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the will earmarked most of the money for well- known charities, one bequest was startling: Melvin Dummar, owner of a Gabbs, Nev., gas station, was to receive one-sixteenth of Hughes' $2.5 billion estate.
The so-called Mormon Will was just one of 30, most hilarious or pathetic, delivered to the court after Hughes died in 1976, supposedly without leaving a will. Unlike the others, it acquired a quick veneer of authenticity when a "handwriting expert hired by a television network peered at the lined paper under a magnifying glass and pronounced it "absolutely genuine." Lawyers representing Hughes' heirs, however, hired John Harris, the legendary founding member of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, who soon determined that, like the others, it was a fake. Charities that stood to reap megabucks from its bequests nevertheless went to court repeatedly to assert the will's legitimacy. Because Hughes was such a famously improbably character, the incident inspired a Hollywood move, "Melvin and Howard," and the Mormon Will remains among the most famous forgeries.
Disputed documents are far from rare: Virtually every day in America, someone goes to court to challenge or defend the authenticity of a will, check, credit-card receipt, ledger, contract, power of attorney, bill of sale, deed, medical record, insurance policy, lease, diary or other paper record. Questioned document examiners-the term dates to the early 19th century--are experts employed to authenticate disputed papers. Some are primarily handwriting specialists. Others are particularly adept in the use of laboratory equipment to detect forgery, including analyzing and dating of ink, paper, typewriters, computer printers, faxes and photocopiers, and in revealing erasures and alterations. A tiny cohort of the profession assesses the linguistic or literary qualities of writings as a way of determining authorship.
The art of authenticating a single document can involve an array of techniques, from the almost primitive (handwriting analysis) to such advanced technologies as lasers and carbon dating.
In North America only a couple of hundred qualified examiners are in private practice. To succeed they must have patience and encyclopedic memories. Other useful traits are a suspicious nature and an appreciation of the criminal mind: If there is a way to fake a document, someone will find it.
Most examiners deal with handwriting and hand printing, typewriting comparison and authentication of legal documents. Some specialize in verification of anonymous letters, disguised writing, the detection of erasures, and alterations o disturbance of paper fibers.
One such professional is Howard Rile of Long Beach, Calif. He learned his trade as a Colorado police examiner and mastered it under the tutelage of Jack Harris, now retired. Rile notes that while many cases involve forgeries, a great many of the documents he sees are genuine.
Wills are among the most commonly disputed papers. Rile recalls one scribbled scrap of paper that began with:
loaf whole wheat
coffee regular grind
I hereby bequeath my home and its contents to (her grandson).
My other real estate goes to [a nephew] And my stock- holdings are for [a sister]
"It was a genuine document," Rile chuckles. "Now, whether or nor the elderly woman who wrote it was of sound mind-that's not a question for a document examiner."
Documents are often valuable evidence in the courts. The primary reason that people turn to document examiners is to verify signatures. "That's the bulk of what I do," says Howard Rile. "Here we are in the 21st century, still trying to prove that a person actually signed a piece of paper."
Part of a document examiner's job is educating clients, most of whom are attorneys. "The legal profession still doesn't have a clue about how technology is affecting evidence," Rile says.. For example, he notes the "widespread and naive assumption that a photocopy is a reliable copy of a missing original. Yet it's incredibly easy to manipulate photocopies--at least three techniques can be used and only one, cut-and-paste, sometimes leaves evidence of manipulation." Examiners sometimes prove that a document came from a certain photocopier by analyzing the pattern of tiny dots left by random bits of dirt on rollers, photosensitive drum and glass.
"We can discredit a signature on a photocopy, but neither I nor anyone else can say for sure that it's a true copy without the original to compare it with," he adds. "A variant of this is faxes."
He cites a recent case trying to determine the authenticity of a signature and eventually disproved its legitimacy by determining the brand of fax machine used. "The people who presented the document asserted that it came from one of three types of machines," he explains. "(In my experience) it's generally not known, but the information at the top of each page is created by the sending machine. Particular fonts may be unique to a particular brand." Accessing a research database, Rile was able to prove that the fax did not come from one of the three machines. "That tended to discredit the document," he says.
To compare questioned signatures with proven exemplars, Rile often works from huge photographic enlargements. On a workbench covered with costly, esoteric devices, such as an infrared-sensitive video display for identifying ball-point pen inks, is a faded wood box--a 75-year-old camera, still used to enlarge signatures. "We sometimes use color photos, but otherwise this is exactly the kind of work that was used in the Lindbergh (kidnapping) case in the '30s," he explains.
Most document examiners constantly update their technological expertise. One who has made the leap from the archaic world of typewriters to the latest computerized printing devices is New York's Peter Tytell, who grew up in a family of document examiners. At the 1982 tax-evasion trial of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in New York, Tytell's mother, Pearl, testified that papers showing ownership of some $1 million weren't produced until a year past their dates. Peter's 86-year-old father, Martin, is a leading authority on typewriters, learning the intricacies of the machines in his father's repair shop. At 11, Peter worked on his first document, one of his father's cases, by counting the times a certain letter appeared on each page. At 55, he has been examining documents for more than 40 years.
When the New York Post ran a Page One enlargement of a letter accompanying "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski's manifesto in 1995, it caught Tytell's eye at the newsstand. "I took a paper and handed the dealer a dollar," he recalls. "Before he made change, I knew what the letter had been written on, and the year that this model was manufactured." The FBI later confirmed it.
When an attorney was accused of over-billing, Tytell examined his time sheets. He found that entries were made by the same typewriter, which had been repaired after the penultimate entry. "One character--the hyphen--had been resoldered. After that, it hit the paper a tad higher," he explains. Examining other time sheets, Tytell saw the same pattern: early entries with drooping hyphens, late ones by the repaired machine. "The problem was that most of the late entries bore dates that were months or even years before the repair," he laughs.
Tytell once tracked down the designer of a laser-printer type font to show that the apostrophe character appearing on a questioned lease was not yet available on the date it was signed. So the landlord had added a new clause, then used the original printer with updated fonts to make a new document that he claimed was the original.
"Many of the investigative principles developed for typewriters can be used for laser printers and other modern devices," says Tytell. "For example, marks made on paper edges as they feed through a printer can often be matched to individual machines."
Miami's Linda Hart also has met the past in the present. In reviewing Dade Registrar of Voter signatures she encountered citizens who had continued to exercise their franchise long after their obituaries were published. "Apparently dead men do vote in Miami," she sighs, pointing to several forgeries. In the 25 years since she left her position as a U.S. postal investigator to become an independent document examiner, Hart has investigated many forensic mysteries. While much of her work involves distinguishing individual handwriting characteristics to identify authorship, she also employs other techniques to verify claims.
"Recently I was asked to date bearer bonds offered as collateral for a million- dollar loan," she explains. Issued by three Latin American companies and bound into three books, each bore the date when the respective company was founded, a 24-year span between oldest and newest enterprise. Hart probed paper, inks and printing processes, but after days of toil, could not determine when they were printed.
Then she observed that one book bore diagonal striations along its unbound edges, the marks of an industrial paper cutter. "When the guillotine blade drops, any burrs or nicks create a distinctive pattern in the paper," she explains. "I stacked all three on top of each other and looked at them under focused fiber-optic light. The marks were identical. Since every blade develops tiny defects over time, it was plain that all three books had been cut by the same blade at the same time--and that made them fakes."
It can't be easy living with such a good spy. Not long ago Hart noticed erasure marks on her son's school attendance record. When confronted, the boy confessed that he'd changed the number of absences because he didn't want his parents to know he'd ditched a day.
Like other examiners, Hart draws on a host of resources. One weapon in her forensic arsenal is a device invented by Scotland Yard in the 1950s. The Electrostatic Detection Apparatus reveals faint impressions left in paper by writing on the sheet above it. In the fiction of espionage, secret agents burnish the paper with a soft pencil to create a negative of the imprint. The ESDA accomplishes this without altering the original by creating an electrostatic field on the paper. When fine particles of ink are sprinkled across it, they create a permanent record of the latent impressions.
Jerry Brown, who heads the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations Laboratory, worked as a criminalist supervisor and document examiner for many years. He once used an ESDA to examine an anonymous note threatening Pope John Paul 11 during his most recent visit to the United States. In this case, the criminal mind wasn't operating on all cylinders. Impressions from the sheet above revealed a letter to the writer's mother. "At the end of the page he gave Mom his new address and phone number," chuckles Brown.
The constituents of paper often tell tales. Diane Tolliver, a 29-year veteran document examiner at the Indiana State Police Laboratory in Indianapolis, had a case involving a lawyer charged with embezzlement for cashing a check intended for his client. "The lawyer admitted taking the money, but offered a power of attorney granting him check-cashing authority," says Tolliver. Her microscope examination of the watermark, a faint, translucent impression embedded in the expensive bond paper's fiber during manufacture, revealed a code enabling the paper maker to prove the sheet had been manufactured months after the document was dated. "No way it's genuine," concluded Tolliver. A jury agreed.
The most esoteric specialty among forensic document examiners involves linguistics, the critical, qualitative and comparative analysis of language within a document. Maybe half a dozen experts practice this art in North America, one of whom is Professor Gerald McMenamin of California State University, Fresno. "A writer's choice of words, use of punctuation, spelling, grammar and sentence structure reflects his class and education," McMenamin explains. "Among the more educated, there are fewer differences," he adds, noting that these disparities often betray claims.
McMenamin recalls a case involving a man accused of molesting a child. Reviewing an unsigned letter to the victim an comparing it with other samples of the man's writings, he spotted an oddity: While writing in English, the man sometimes used Latin grammatical constructions such as "Your friend loyal." McMenamin attributes this to the man's education. "He grew up speaking Bengali, learned to speak English in India, then spent several years … studying Latin," explains McMenamin, whose insight was used to confirm the suspect's identity.
McMenamin has traced many offenders to their writing through such oddities as distinctive punctuation The text of a bomb threat, for example, contained an extra space after commas, and added two after semi- colons and periods. "When I examined one suspect's other writings, I found the same pattern," McMenamin says. Once able to focus on this suspect, police uncovered further evidence that led to a conviction. "Some who learn English as a second language may use unusual phonetic spellings," he continues. "A woman who grew up speaking Spanish was angry at her boss. She sent (anonymous) typewritten letters to several co-workers, each attributing disgusting behavior to the supervisor. In each she used the phrase, 'A beseen ya,' meaning 'I'll be seeing you.' The writer also sent a letter to herself, which is very common in this kind of case. Police never found the machine used to write the letters, but when I read her personal letters, all handwritten, several contained exactly the same phrase," McMenamin notes. Confronted with this and other similarities between her private letters and the missives to her co-workers, the woman confessed.
McMenamin once examined threatening letters that had been produced on an anonymous word processor. He noted that one suspect's business correspondence always contained exactly four paragraphs and used "boilerplate" topic sentences, with phrases such as "I have enclosed" and "I wanted to follow up." McMenamin found the same format and phrases in each offending letter. The findings became part of a case of circumstantial evidence that prosecutors used to obtain a conviction.
In one of McMenamin's more unusual cases, an Oregon man murdered his wife and disposed of her body in the Columbia River wanted police to believe that she had been abducted by a mysterious Canadian. He sent authorities a ransom note in which he effectively disguised his handwriting but still left clues. "People speaking aloud may imitate an Irish accent for a few sentences, but they can't keep it up. The same is true when they try to fake a writing style," says McMenamin. "For example, the husband spelled 'color' like a Canadian, 'c-o-l-o-u-r,' but he used American spellings everywhere else. I took that for a red herring."
In the page-and-a-half document, McMenamin found 60 "style markers"-deviations from standard usage. Among them: "to late" (for too late), "bossiness" and "confidentuality." "That was a very high number of markers, and it allowed me to demonstrate conclusively that the husband had written the letter." A jury agreed.
In addition to the anthrax-contaminated letters mailed to news organizations and lawmakers following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, since 1998 more than 200 abortion and family-planning clinics in the U.S. have received letters containing white powder and threatening notes. All proved to be hoaxes. The handwriting, paper and ink of these threatening notes, however, have given law enforcement document examiners a trove of valuable evidence.
Despite new methods of creating documents and a shift to email for much personal and office correspondence, the venerable document examiner remains in the forefront of efforts to apprehend and convict those who mail terror.
© 2011 Marvin J. Wolf
Ron Hale was in the middle of a residency in dermatology when his friends and neighbors decided that it was time for him to serve his country. This was 1965, the start of the Vietnam War buildup, and Dr. Hale accepted his draft notice and joined the Army Medical Corps.
He was sent not to Vietnam but to South Korea, where some 50,000 American soldiers were deployed to prevent resumption of the hostilities suspended in 1953. If a young doctor has not yet completed a residency, the Army almost invariably assigns him as a battalion surgeon. In wartime that would mean running an aid station where battle wounded get immediate first aid. In peacetime it means seeing patients with runny noses, sprained ankles or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Hale might have completed his service uneventfully ─ except one day several battalion officers called his attention to the unusual behavior of the battalion commander. Hale determined that this colonel urgently needed psychiatric treatment. When he refused to accept such treatment, Hale had him strapped into a straitjacket and sent to the psychiatric ward of a military hospital.
The colonel's replacement decided that he would prefer the services of another battalion surgeon. No other battalion commander would accept him, so Doc Hale became the Assistant Venereal Disease Officer for US Forces, Korea, a job where he was unlikely to order anyone put into a straitjacket.
For decades those who preceded Doc Hale in his new position had limited themselves to statistical analysis of reported disease. Hale, however, took his new job seriously. While he studied disease reports carefully, he also traveled all over South Korea to visit aid stations and speak with Army doctors and Korean physicians in communities adjacent to bases. He was shocked to discover that a quiet epidemic was raging throughout the country. US soldiers were contracting syphilis, a highly contagious and potentially fatal STD, in record numbers.
Syphilis is easily cured with penicillin. But Hale discovered that because the Army classified this inexpensive drug as a controlled substance, only a physician could prescribe it. Every dose had to be accounted for.
At the same time, Hale learned from Korean doctors, syphilis was running rampant, virtually out of control, among the local populace. There were thousands of cases, few of them reported to authorities. Because penicillin, which had to be imported from the US or Japan, was too expensive for most Koreans to afford, few cases were treated. Worse, unlicensed medical practitioners often dispensed diluted dosages of the wonder drug, creating penicillin-resistant strains of the disease.
Hale waited a few weeks until his boss, the Venereal Disease Control Officer, went on leave. As acting head of the department, he sent memos to every US Army doctor in Korea repealing all controls on penicillin. He suggested that aid stations hold sick calls in their local communities and offer penicillin to anyone who tested positive for any STD. He also shipped large quantities of penicillin to Korean hospitals and health clinics around the country, and let it be known that any doctor who wanted penicillin had only to ask at any US base.
In a month the epidemic was over.
Hale completed his military service and returned to his residency. Today he maintains a private dermatology practice in Santa Monica, California.
© 2002 Marvin J. Wolf
Softball Can Be a Great Equalizer When You're Short and Lack God-Given Skills. But You Can't Play Forever, Can You?
I toe a corner of the rubber with my cleats and bend forward, squinting to peer at the holy trinity: batter, catcher and umpire. It is a late afternoon in early winter; until my eyes adjust, the banks of lights towering above Rancho Park have little effect. Time was when I could see a camouflaged soldier turn his head at 500 yards in twilight--but that was 1959, when I was a 17-year-old grunt with 20/10 vision. Now it takes enormous concentration to focus on home plate only 50 feet distant.
It's a long time and a long way from when I picked up baseball's rudiments on the streets of Chicago. Long before Little League came to the inner city, I spent sweltering summers on vacant lots, picking glass, rubble and defecation from the weeds before each game. Bases were cardboard swiped from the corner market. Usually someone brought the essential equipment, but often we swung a broomstick at a worn tennis ball.
On the sandlots of my youth the pitcher was inevitably the tallest boy or the best athlete; but early on, I knew I would never be either. Still, I persevered. In my ninth year I went to summer camp, began to learn the intricacies of the game and came to idolize Nellie Fox, the diminutive White Sox sparkplug.
At 12, a ball smashed the bridge of my nose. The resulting twin black eyes horrified my mother, who locked away my glove and forbade me to participate until I could "play with boys your size."
My vertical growth ended at 64 inches. I went from Fairfax High School--my family moved here when I was 16--to the Army, served 13 years and did not swing a bat or throw a ball again until I was 40. I joined a group of freelancers who challenged some editors from the Herald Examiner (former daily newspaper, long since closed) to a softball game. Nobody wanted to pitch, so I tried. We lost, but by the end of the game I knew that I could become a pitcher if I worked at it.
More importantly, I realized how much I had missed the game.
This was related to a matter that I had never dared confront. When I left the service, I was married briefly, then divorced. New relationships were elusive, and I wondered if it was because I was short and tubby in a society that equates tall with good, taller with better. I thought being a soldier in Vietnam had settled the issue for me: I had made sergeant before I turned 19, won a battlefield commission, rose to captain, commanded a company of troops. The chevrons on my arms or the bars on my collar proclaimed me a man among men.
But few women seemed to care, and going without female companionship undermined my sense of manliness. Between the white lines of the diamond, however, players are what they do. I returned to the game not to meet women or to recapture the spirit of my youth, but for the feeling that comes from playing well, of being accepted by peers. Of liking myself as a man.
I know. It's crazy. And I put a lot of pressure on myself.
Softball is a hitter's game, but even in slow pitch a good hurler can keep his team in the contest, and a poor one can lose it. Rules require that balls rise above the batter's head and land in a rectangle 17 inches wide by 30 inches deep that includes home plate. For two years, several nights a week, I tossed softballs into a box. Meanwhile I found a Sunday morning pickup game. Eventually I was invited to join a coed team, the Brewjays. I practiced endlessly in my alley, but it was not until I took the field that I learned to pitch.
I began carrying a softball everywhere I went. At night I dreamed of becoming the ball, soaring out of my fingers into the wind, rising into the sky, falling toward the strike zone. I thought about each game for days afterward. For years, I hardly slept Saturday nights. In the morning I was exhausted and wanted to stay in bed.
Often, just before taking the field, I wanted to puke. I kept it all inside, put everything I had into every pitch. My teammates socialized between innings, but I coached runners or sat alone, immersed in the game.
In a late inning of my first championship game, I choked. Tired after pitching two previous games, with irresistible bubbles of fear welling up within me--fear of failing, of revealing that I was a fraud--I walked several batters, forcing in runs and putting our opponent ahead for good. Afterward I apologized to my team. "We would never have gotten this far without you," replied one teammate.
I learned to wall off fear, to stay in the moment. A year later we played the same team again for the championship, and in the final inning of the last game, with the bases loaded and no outs, I induced two pop-ups and struck out the last batter to seal a victory. Weeks later I ran into a man against whom I had often played. Tall, handsome, muscular and 20 years my junior, he shook my hand and volunteered to his wife that I was the most intimidating presence he had ever faced on a ball field. I never knew. After that I learned to relax, to stay within myself, to savor every moment.
The Brewjays wore beer T-shirts and Toronto Blue Jays caps; as years slipped by we played under different names and sponsors, two seasons a year, April to July and September to December. Players came and went, but our corps of regulars remained intact. My life shaped itself around the team--not just games but practices and trips to the batting cage. As a prolific author with several published titles, I made sure that my books were released between softball seasons.
In the spring of 2000 we won the league championship for the third time. Afterward, most of the veterans quit to focus on family or medical matters. Our new teammates were in their 20s and 30s, with little playing experience. The Mixed Nuts, as we were now called, won only one game. I hit .669, my best season ever.
In slow pitch, a hitter has an eternity to swing a bat almost 3 feet long and weighing nearly 2 pounds. Aided by graphite composites or aluminum/titanium alloys, even an average player can swat a ball well over 100 mph. It can reach the pitcher in less than the blink of an eye.
My teammates once said that I had the fastest glove in the West. Well, at least in the Westside Entertainment Softball League. I snared anything within reach, leaping to capture line drives, bounding off the pitching rubber to scoop up a hot grounder.
Every season I took a shot or two off a leg from a ball that I could neither catch nor avoid. Once my sternum stopped a liner. It voided my lungs and I blacked out momentarily. Another time a horsehide bullet crushed my groin. Woozy and rubber-legged, I retreated from the field, asked the ump for a few minutes and returned to pitch--and win.
I never thought much about it: Injuries are part of the game, I have a high tolerance for pain and my bruises heal in a week or two. But in the spring 2001 season, I was hit almost every game. After several weeks I wasn't even flinching anymore--I had accepted the inevitability of being hit. I saw then that my glove was no longer fast, that my body could not respond as once it had, that I could no longer will myself to perform. Near season's end I was hit twice in one inning. In agony, I took myself out of a game for the first time. Then I noted that my bruises took longer to heal.
Realizing that I was no longer afraid of getting hit, I knew it was time to quit. A shot to the breastbone could precipitate a coronary. I could lose an eye. I could need a new knee joint. There were books I wanted to write, places I wanted to visit. To continue playing amounted to a death wish. I was not ready to die for the sake of my manliness.
But knowing how hard it is to find a pitcher, I decided to play one more season, to try and pass along some of what I had learned to my young teammates.
Back on the field in the uncertain twilight of December 2001, I straighten up, glove high, right arm behind my body, feeling the breeze from that side. I grasp the ball palm downward, fingers along the seams, thumb below. I bring my arm up rapidly through the dull soreness of my shoulder. Despite the ibuprofen I swallowed an hour before game time, an electric jolt zaps through me as my weight lands on my left leg, residue of an injury suffered months earlier. Wincing, I slide into a crouch, gloved hand in front of my chest, watching the windblown ball's curving descent toward the plate.
Now it is the last game of that season, and the ball hurtles out of the dark to land on the front inch of the plate, an un-hittable called third strike. The batter turns away in disgust. We go on to win; I get two hits, knock in three runs, snare a line drive, make three other solid defensive plays and am awarded the game ball.
Driving home, I consider playing another season. Maybe I'll find an over-50 league. Then I remember the agony of getting out of bed on Monday mornings. I think about going hitless in my first four games, of finishing the season with a batting average barely above .300--more or less the bottom rung for softball players. I recall nearly getting thrown out at first on a single to left field and the humiliation of legs so sore and bruised that I required a pinch runner.
Safe in my driveway, I wipe my eyes and decide to listen to my intellect, let go of my emotions. The boy inside me must shut up and sit down.
From my first day, I was the oldest in the league--including umpires. In 27 seasons I missed no more than four games; no one played more. I struck out more batters than anyone and gave up fewer walks per-inning-pitched. No one pitched or won more games. Hell, nobody lost more games. I had nothing left to prove. Gehrig quit. Ryan hung 'em up. Ripken was gone. I didn't play in the majors, but, hey, I was 60 bleeping years old.
Two weeks later the playoffs begin and I return to pitch what is likely my last league game. Before we start, league commissioners Adam Rosen and Vince Crooks--both veteran players--assemble the teams. They say nice things about me and produce a cake. Atop its frosting is an icing rendering of a photo: me, my arm thrust skyward to launch the ball.
Below the picture it says "Ironman."
Players I hadn't seen in years, including Richard Martell, our former manager, turn up to say farewell. Richard takes me aside. "I've never seen anyone with less ability play as well," he tells me, not for the first time. "You don't have much talent, but you got the most out of it." It reminds me of what Yankees skipper Miller Huggins said about 1923 rookie first baseman Lou Gehrig: "Only this kid's willingness and lack of conceit will make him a ballplayer."
It's been a year since then. I wear glasses now, and while I often join a Sunday morning pickup game, I haven't returned to visit my old team. I know that I'd want to play, and that I can't. But I'll always remember my last league at-bat, when I singled to center.
Take that, Ripken.
January 12, 2003|Marvin J. Wolf | Los Angeles Times Magazine. Marvin J. Wolf last wrote for the magazine about the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
I reported to Ft. Benning, GA and was assigned to the Ranger Combat Conditioning Committee. We were attached to the Ranger School, but not part of it, and that was good: Rangers earn their elite status by learning to fight under the most difficult conditions. That meant nine dirty, weary, hungry weeks patrolling swamps and mountains, eating berries, rodents and rattlesnakes and playing at war while supervised by "lane graders" who took pleasure in finding ways to challenge their charges.
My arrival coincided with the first day of a training cycle, when new students, all volunteers, are introduced to the weary weeks ahead. The students assembled in a U-shaped formation and the Ranger sergeant major introduced them to Lightning, his six-foot timber rattler. Then he put a white rabbit into the snake's cage. Lightning coiled. The rabbit froze. Finally it twitched — and faster than the eye could follow, Lightning struck. The rabbit jerked, twitched, quivered. In two minutes it was dead.
"Before today is over," bellowed the topkick, "Every one of you will handle this killer snake with your bare hands."
At that moment a staff car turned the corner and drew to a halt behind the snake cage. The rear door opened and a tall officer emerged. He wore a lieutenant colonel's silver oak leaves, and the distinctive yellow-on-brown shoulder tab that identified him as a Ranger. He strode angrily toward the formation.
"Sergeant Major, I thought I warned you about trying to scare these men with that sick, old snake," he said.
"No sir, you never said nothing about it," said the sergeant major.
"I know that snake, and he's had his fangs removed," bellowed Lieutenant Colonel Denham. "What did you do, put a drop of atropine from a gas mask kit on the rabbit, so he'd go into convulsions?"
"These men are never going to learn a thing about handling snakes until you use a rattler with all his equipment," said the colonel.
"I'm telling you, Colonel, that Lightning's got all his equipment. He's a killer. He'll croak you or me quick as he did that rabbit."
"Bullroar. I'm no more afraid of that old snake than I am of the bogeyman."
"Well, if you feel so strongly, Colonel, maybe you'd like to put your money where your mouth is."
I stared at the colonel as if he was nuts. So did every one of the 200 students.
The sergeant major reached into his pocket and took out a wad of bills.
"Right," said Denham. "I'll wager a hundred dollars that I can put my leg in that toothless, sick, elderly, worn-out snake's cage and let him bite it, and be no more bothered than if I was bitten by a mosquito."
"You're on, Sir," returned the noncom.
"How about another on the side? I'll bet every man here a dollar. My two hundred dollars against your one dollar each," said Denham.
"What do you say, Rangers?" bellowed the sergeant major.
The ranks responded with a raucous cacophony of derision.
"Let's get the snakebite kit out here," yelled the sergeant major, and a medic came forward with a canvas bag adorned with a red cross.
"We better let someone hold the bet, because after Lightning bites him, the colonel will be on his way to the hospital," said the sergeant major, looking around. Just then a field ambulance, emblazoned with a huge red cross, turned off the blacktop and onto the gravel street. The sergeant major stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. The ambulance stopped and the driver's head poked out the window.
"Bring that meat wagon over here, Specialist, I'll have a load for you in a minute," bellowed the noncom. The driver rolled up, then unbuckled a canvas stretcher. I stepped out of the shade to see, and the sergeant-major yelled at me to come over.
"This damn-fool has just bet these Rangers a dollar apiece that he's not afraid to stick his leg in the cage with Lightning. Will you hold the bet, young sergeant?" he said.
I was speechless.
"Won't take a minute, Sarge. Help us out here." So I walked up and down the ranks, collected a dollar from each man, then took the sergeant major's money. Colonel Denham handed me three crisp hundred-dollar bills.
An almost palpable hush descended on the ranks as Denham strode resolutely toward the wire mesh cage. The sergeant major took out a key, broke open the heavy steel lock, pulled it off the hasp. Then he hesitated.
"You really want to do this, Colonel? Ol' Lightning could kill you."
"I'm not afraid of being gummed by that senile, toothless snake," roared Denham.
The sergeant major shook his head in disgust. He took a big forked stick from the top of the cage, then opened the door a few inches. Someone in a back rank coughed, and then it was dead quiet. Denham put his right leg in the cage.
Lightning had flowed to the center of the cage, where he wound himself into a huge coil. When Denham's leg moved, ever so slightly, the snake struck at the khaki trousers, recoiled, struck again.
Denham didn't even twitch.
The sergeant major forced the huge snake to the rear of the cage with the forked stick, then jammed the lock on the hasp.
Four hundred unbelieving eyes followed Colonel Denham as he strolled over to me and stuck out his hand. I handed him the money.
"Sergeant-major, I'll be back at the end of the course, and I expect to see a healthy, poisonous rattlesnake by then."
The sergeant major's mouth hung open. He snapped his jaw shut and swallowed.
"Yessir," he said.
The staff car rolled up and the driver scurried around to open the rear door. The sergeant major exchanged salutes with the colonel, then turned back to the company.
And as Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Denham, who had left most of his right leg behind in a blazing Sherman tank during the Battle of the Bulge, got into the car, he carefully rolled up his pant leg to reveal the wooden prosthesis that had replaced it.
"See you in nine weeks," he said to the sergeant major, who as a teen-aged PFC had pulled Lieutenant Denham from the burning tank.
The sergeant major turned back to the troops. "Today, Rangers, we have learned about the dangers of making assumptions, the importance of planning, and the powerful effect of surprise," he said. He went on to say that after Denham lost his leg, he spent years in hospitals, learning how to walk. He could have retired on a nice pension, and spent his life mourning his lost limb. Instead, Denham fought to stay on active duty. Anybody who ever spent an hour around him would never again believe that having only leg is a handicap if you don't want it to be.
So I'll bet $200 that after stumbling around swamps and mountains for weeks, sore, exhausted, bug-bit and ravenous, what kept some of those 200 students from quitting Ranger School was the thought that one-legged Ernie Denham became a Ranger AFTER he lost his leg.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
Father Kelly is a rumpled, elfin, Methuselah straight out of Central Casting for a supporting role in a Spencer Tracy or Bing Crosby movie. He cleared his throat with a large sigh, waited for silence, and recited Psalms in a lilting tenor from someplace betwixt Limerick and Cork. He made the obligatory references to faith in Jesus and to eternal life, to Gertrud and Tommy reunited in The Next World. With surpassing eloquence, Kelly reprised the hoariest of Irish jokes dealing with the Resurrection — the one about poor Paddy, who had had a wee too much at the pub, and on his way home took a wrong turn through the cemetery and stumbled into an open grave. He told it with such earnest grace that we all chuckled anyway.
At my age I am as often invited to funerals as to parties. Every few months, it seems, some friend or kinsman loses a parent or sibling, and I interrupt my schedule to honor another completed life, as my friends did when my own parents died. So when Marianne, a treasured friend and softball teammate, telephoned at midday —she knows that I don't like calls when I'm writing — and said my name, I heard the catch in her voice and I knew that her mother was gone, that the agony had ended.
I knew Gertrud O'Neil as a stout, graying grandmother with a German accent thick as a Munich bratwurst, and a zest for nickel-ante poker. Marianne brought her to team parties, where she ate sparingly and nursed a single beer for the entire evening —but eagerly pulled up a chair the moment we set up the card table. If Gertrud never quite grasped the nuance of betting a winning hand to build a pot, or even knew with certainty that a full house beats a straight, she nevertheless delighted in the wagering and table talk, winning or losing a few dollars with equal enthusiasm.
Over the years that we have played on teams together, Marianne told me a bit about her mother. In her teens, Gertrud had served as a spotter on the Luftwaffe base where Messerschmitt tested the world's first jet fighter, and had survived several Allied attacks on that airfield. She was one of the so-called war brides, escaping the poverty and devastation of postwar Europe by wedding a G.I. She must have been desperate, I thought, to find the courage to marry among her former enemies, to come to a foreign land where she knew no one and barely understood the language.
I learned also that Gertrud had endured epic tragedy: A husband who took his own life, leaving her to fend for two children. A son rescued from death's door after a horrific traffic smashup, but minus a huge chunk of his gray matter. Tommy O'Neil, more than a vegetable but far less than the vibrant, likeable young man who had delighted almost everyone whom he met, spent 22 years on a VA hospital ward in Westwood. One day an attendant left him alone in a bathtub, and Tommy was scalded by near-boiling water. He lingered three days before death brought its mercy.
I came to appreciate Marianne as the rarest of friends, entirely dependable, an unselfish soul who genuinely cares for others. Early in our friendship she volunteered to help me convince my own mother to sign herself, yet again, into a mental hospital, a heart-breaking, daylong task that for decades my ailing father had handled, and an effort that left me exhausted and forlorn. It came to me on that day that Marianne could only have learned such devotion from her own mother. And sure enough, I found that every single week over all those years that Tommy had languished in his private hell, mother and sister spent hours with him, trying to communicate, trying to ease his suffering and fear.
But not until her funeral did I have a real sense of the woman Gertrud O'Neil had been. Under the midday sun in Santa Monica's Woodlawn Cemetery, an open grave awaited her unadorned coffin. People drifted in to cluster near the casket, dozens of Marriane's teammates and opponents from decades of play, a handful of relatives—and three generations of Gottleibs, near a dozen strong, some from as far away as Texas and North Carolina. The Gottleibs had been Gertrud's employer.
After the priest spoke, Marianne described Gertrud's last months, when despite the agonies and indignities of diabetes, amputation, heart disease and finally, unspeakably, cancer, she never complained, never cried out, never felt sorry for herself.
Then, one after another, a succession of Gottleibs spoke about their cleaning lady. Through tears and sobs came anecdotes of the humble, hard-working immigrant who for some thirty years had scoured Gottleib floors and toilets, scrubbed Gottleib dishes, dusted Gottleib curtains, vacuumed Gottleib rugs, polished Gottleib furniture, changed Gottleib diapers, washed and ironed Gottleib clothes, cooked Gottleib meals, cared for sick Gottleibs, bandaged Gottleib toddlers' skinned knees, sang fretful Gottleib infants to sleep, comforted troubled adult Gottleibs, advised and counseled and chastised and encouraged adolescent Gottleibs.
Determined to support her children but with few marketable skills beyond the ability to scrub and sweep and polish and vacuum and wash, Gertrud had begun her association with the family as a once-a-week cleaning lady. In time she granted the Gottleibs a second day a week, then a third. As the years slipped by she gradually gave them all her working hours, laboring on weekends and holidays to help out with social events or to deal with minor catastrophes. The Gottleibs were a two-income family, comfortable but far from the wealthiest in their part of Beverly Hills, and they paid Gertrud a fair wage, probably more than she could have earned dividing her time among several families, but not enough, until the passage of decades, to afford her own car. And so a succession of teenaged Gottleibs took turns chauffeuring Gertrud to her South Bay home at week's end. Gertrud, I learned at graveside, often took these occasions to share her views of acceptable behavior. "One day you'll have children of your own," she told one rebellious teen. "Until then, think about how you would feel if your own daughter behaved the way that you have toward your mother."
An older Gottleib recalled sharing with Gertrud the despair that she felt after divorcing her husband of many years. "She took me in her arms and comforted me as though I was her own child," recalled the woman who paid Gertrud's wages.
Over decades of this enamored servitude, Gertrud became the central figure in this family, more than a servant, more even than a second mother, the matriarch in all but name. Standing next to her coffin, the children whom Gertrud had helped to raise, now parents and spouses, revealed that as babies they had been unable to pronounce "Mrs. O'Neil." Parents and children had called her "Neil." Not her own name, nor even that of her late husband, but good enough for Gertrude.
As Gertrud became family, the Gottleibs provided. They bought her a serviceable car, paid her medical insurance, gave her assurances and peace of mind. Even when she grew too ill to work, the family continued to pay her salary, invited her to weddings and family gatherings, treated her with respect and deference.
On my way home from the cemetery, I passed a small brown woman wheeling a fair-skinned baby in a carriage, one of the many who spend their days working in my upscale Westside neighborhood. They are from Mexico and Guatemala, from Korea and Thailand, from Lebanon and Armenia, economic refugees from around the world, and as Gertrud did long ago, each has struck a bargain. In exchange for cleaning house and tending children, for allowing their employers a higher standard of living and the other satisfactions and rewards of pursuing their careers, these housekeepers are able to support their own families and to live in relative safety. How many of these immigrant women, I wondered, give themselves to their employers as wholeheartedly as Gertrud had? How many will help shape the mores and values of a generation of upscale Angelenos with the wisdom and attitude of a Third World émigré?
And then I realized that maybe I was asking the wrong questions. What I really need to know is, How many Gottleibs are there out there?
The Cleaning Lady, Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
# # #
Dad twisted the valve and the torch hissed acetylene. He clicked the sparker, and orange fire blossomed in the wind. Pulling down dark goggles, he adjusted the oxygen, then the fuel, lit a Winston off the side of the blue flame, and bent to his task: cutting huge steel bulldozer tracks into sections small enough for me, Ted and Matthew, my brothers, to wrestle onto the lift gate.
Our truck sat on a river of earth 20 feet high and hundreds wide, stretching miles north through the Valley toward the sere heights above Sylmar. Ahead of us, open-topped semis dumped dirt for a fleet of bulldozers to push around. Enormous yellow trucks towed ponderous rollers, tamping, compacting. Behind us, dozers spread gravel, carpenters hammered together forms, a parade of cement trucks filled them with gray slush.
They were building the San Diego freeway.
For reasons I never understood, when the rubber cloaking the steel treads wore out, it was cheaper to replace them than to send them to Caterpillar's factory for reworking. In the late Fifties, freeways were a growth industry, and when Dad could find a foreman to sell him worn-out tracks for beer money, we went to work.
Sparks flying, molten metal snapping, his flame melted the steel links between treads while we dragged, pushed and rolled still-smoking sections onto the gate. Ted operated the lift while I, who had a driver's license, cranked the starter. When the gate stopped, I popped the clutch, the Dodge spurted ahead, I hit the brake, and the steel slid or tumbled forward. Then I backed up and we did it again until the slat springs beneath the battered stake body were bent nearly flat. If there was more to cut, Dad stayed while I drove the load to Terminal Island, seven or eight tons on a ton-and-a-half. God help me if I had to stop suddenly because the brakes were never intended to restrain that much weight.
At the waterfront, a Volkswagen-sized magnet sucked steel off the scarred boards, swung it sideways to drop into the hold of a Japanese freighter.
Long before people spoke of recycling, my father the junkman bought almost anything that could be melted, smelted, shredded, compressed or otherwise turned into a buck. He began when we lived in Chicago, patrolling tenement-district alleys behind a tired nag dragging a battered wagon. "Rags! Old iron!" he cried. "My wagon's broken! My horse is croakin'!" Husewives and janitors brought bundles of rags and newspapers, beat-up pots and pans, broken appliances, patinaed plumbing. Dad replied to everyone in what sounded to a child's ear like the same language he was spoken to--Russian, Polish, German, Armenian, Spanish, Italian. Growing up, however, I slowly discerned that he actually knew only English and Yiddish; his gift was mimicking accents. By my teens it made me cringe.
We moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and for a time Dad tried to make a living at his trade, sheet metal. But as soon as he scraped together enough for a down payment on the venerable Dodge, he went back to junk. I worked with him on Saturdays and school vacations, looking for things discarded, used up, worn out, left over, broken. He followed electricians and telephone crews to the housing tracts sprouting beside the new freeways and bought color-coded communications spaghetti and short lengths of house wiring. He battered old coal furnaces into heaps of iron and ash with a sledge hammer, and carted cast iron window sash weights from demolished homes.He sniffed out back-alley machine shops and out-of-the-way factories to buy barrels stuffed with the shredded aluminum, brass, bronze, or stainless-steel turned by lathes and metal-boring machines. He cultivated hospital janitors and bought threadbare sheets and battered plumbing. He found auto-repair shops and schmoozed men with grease-stained hands into parting with strips of wrinkled chrome, crumpled fenders, dead lead batteries, chipped gears, worn-out generators. He bought buckets of blackened motors and switches from electricians, and cajoled or bribed purchasing agents into telling him how much to bid at closed auctions for aerospace effluvia: rejected circuit boards with gold-plated connectors; obsolete prototypes and models, bars, rolls, plates and sheets of exotic alloys, exhausted machinery, outmoded fixtures.
Increasingly deaf, he refused a hearing aid, ignoring unwanted answers, repeating his offers until people said yes. "Yes," he always heard.
Dad dropped out of high school during the Depression, but he taught himself cookbook metallurgy; he could identify most metals by scratching or tasting or smelling them, by watching what a drop of acid did to them. He knew the uses of many alloys, and when to suspect that a plate might be of nickel, a shaft of bronze, a pipe of zinc, a panel of some little-known stainless steel.
My father often said that making a living from junk meant buying right. "Any fool can get a newspaper and see what number-one steel sells for at Wilmington," he'd say. "You have to know what you buy, and then how to buy it."
Dad never weighed a purchase if he could avoid it. He was not quite five-foot seven, and never weighed over 150, but he'd lever a 55-gallon drum brimming with scrap over his knees to lift it off a factory floor. Face purple, veins popping from his neck, he'd gasp, "Two hundred and sixty, maybe 270. Call it 300," he'd offer, magnanimous, and pay for that amount. At the yard where he sold his gatherings, the scale would groan and settle at 530, 540.
If a customer insisted on a weighing, Dad unloaded an old balance beam scale and wrestled each barrel aboard. Handling the iron weights, he'd secretly slip a small magnet beneath the bottom; when the scale read 100, the barrel held 120. When he bought his first new truck, he concealed a pair of 80-gallon water tanks beneath the bed. Water goes eight pounds a gallon; filling tanks before loading his truck, and emptying them before stopping at a public scale, he made off with well over half a ton per load. He knew no algebra, but multiplied eight-digit sums in his head faster than most people could crank the adding machines of the day. He did the longhand on a scrap of envelope under the seller's nose, and made a math mistake most every time. I never saw anyone catch him, and when I questioned him he just grinned. "If they see it, I apologize, and I screw them double next time," he said.
I came to resent this. He lectured me on right from wrong, sent me to Sunday school to learn moral values, and beat my backside for lying to him or Mom--but bragged at taking bronze for the price of brass, at stealing half the weight, at buying a load out the back door from someone who shouldn't have sold it. There came a day when I called him on it, and though he grew angry, he never raised his voice."In business, only the gonif feeds his family," he replied. "If I don't screw them, they'll screw me. When you have your own little bellies to fill, when the landlord comes to put you in the street, you'll understand."
Dad's greatest disappointment was that none of his six children--and especially me--had joined him in business. Near the end of his life, broke and trapped in a nursing home, he fantasized about returning to the streets, buying scrap, making a buck, regaining his independence.
After he died, struggling to make sense of his junkman's life, I thought back to the heart attack he'd suffered years before. Medical expenses took every cent that he'd saved, so I put up money and became his silent partner. I soon discovered that sellers concealed worthless steel under valuable aluminum, yardmasters unloaded his truck, then found pretexts to shave prices, smelters reneged on deals after melting his scrap, competitors slandered him shamelessly to steal customers. Finally I understood Dad's ethos: When everyone was a thief, joining the fraternity was his only option. I saw, too, that in salvaging the ordinary and the exotic, he'd helped turn them into new and different objects that were again valued. To this day, I cannot see a new car without wondering if it might contain a few molecules from one of those dozer tracks that he cut up.
And I see now that my writer's work is much the same: I support myself finding value in ideas cast off by others: ephemeral words and fleeting thoughts. Recycled and reworked into my own observations, they become components of articles or books, amusing or enlightening many more than the few who first heard or saw them. I am the junkman's son, and in a curious way I have, after all, followed in his footsteps.
Copyright © 1999 by 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.