Excerpt from the True Crime book I wrote with Larry Atteberry, "Family Blood, The True Story of the Yom Kippur Murders." Available on Amazon Barnes & Noble Kindle Kobo iTunes. For more info and reviews, click here.
After gobbling his steak, Jesse, who ate at Delores’ often, wanted cherry pie, baked fresh daily. All three men ordered a piece. Jesse bolted his piece down in four bites, scarlet juice dribbling out of his mouth to stain his beard. Because there was work to do, Steve had forbidden even a single beer, so the trio washed the tart-sweet pie down with cups of coffee. As he had several times during the meal, Steve glanced at his watch.
Seven-thirty. Time to rock and roll.
While Sonny and Jesse went to urinate, Steve tossed three singles on the table for a tip, nodded to the waitress, then strolled to the cashier and paid the bill. Sweeping everything into his pocket, e scarcely noticed if the change was correct, his mind racing nervously through his plan for the night.
Steve wished he had better radios. Those damned walkie talkies the Professor had loaned him were next to worthless. Maybe he’d better try them one more time before the job. They might work better at night.
Mike Dominguez was at the motel, a few blocks away. Steve decided to pick him up about eight-thirty.
Dominguez, sometimes known by his prison handle, “Baby A,” was a fleshy, olive-skinned, dark-haired man of average height who appeared younger than his twenty-six years. He was a burglar, but occasionally worked as a roofer.
Steve decided to go over things with Dominguez one more time, just to make sure he had it right. Mike was a good man, within his limitations, but he didn’t always understand things the first time.
Dominguez didn’t do a lot of deep thinking. He hid his shallow intellect behind a wall of silence, earning a reputation as an enigma. Unlike Steve, who rarely missed a chance to expound upon his many adventures, Mike did not boast about his night work. In fact, he said very little about anything.
Steve liked that. Dominguez’s silent quality gave Steve confidence that no matter what dirty little job Mike was asked to do, if the cops ever nailed him for it, Mike would never roll over and snitch on Steve, not even to save himself. Steve seldom bet, but he would put his life on that.
On the other hand, Steve knew that Mike wasn’t up to handling a real big job on his own. He’d fucked up the hit on that broad in Vegas, put five into her boyfriend and the guy just ran away to call the cops. Mike was lucky to have gotten away with that, but he had cost Steve a fat fee. So Mike’s punishment was to be demoted to lookout this time.
Before picking up Mike, Steve decided, he’d have to deal with Jesse. Now that he’d gone and rammed that car, Jesse was out for the actual hit. No way he could let him near the condo when it went down—Jesse had to stay away. That meant Steve and Sonny would be in the underground garage with no lookout. No warning. They’d have to risk it.
Finally, he reminded himself to double-check the guns.
After a brief huddle in the restaurant’s narrow parking lot, Sonny, following Steve’s orders, went across the street to Steve’s rented gold Camaro, took one of the Professor’s radios from the trunk, and handed the other two to Steve. Steve climbed into the passenger seat of Jesse’s battered blue-green 1960 Buick, shoving empty cardboard boxes into the backseat with the others.
“How the fuck can you live like this?” growled Steve, angry again at how his brother managed to screw up everything he touched. “When are you gonna get rid of this damn trash,” he raged, indicating the boxes piled high in the backseat.
Jesse mumbled something about recycling, then wisely shut up.
Majoy, driving the Camaro, pulled up behind the Buick, ending the conversation, and Jesse made a right out of the parking lot onto Purdue, then stopped at the corner of Santa Monica to wait for the light. The boulevard was jammed, as usual, and it took them almost five minutes to reach Sepulveda, less than half a mile away. Threading their way through the heavy traffic near the Federal Building, they turned north and drove stop-and-go alongside a freeway still choked with traffic headed for the Valley.
With the Camaro following, the Buick turned right on Moraga Drive, then swept up the long, curving street until they reached a set of massive wrought-iron gates some twenty feet high. A uniformed security guard, a revolver in his polished leather holster, was visible inside the booth.
Jesse drove almost to the booth. Without stopping, he pulled the car into a U-turn. Majoy followed. At the bottom of the street, Steve told Jesse to turn left into the parking lot of the Chevron station next to a restaurant on the southeast corner of Sepulveda and Moraga. Jesse parked the Buick while Majoy got out of the Camaro, walked around, and eased into its passenger seat.
Jesse got out of the Buick and Steve handed him a walkie-talkie. He ran Jesse through the routine again: when he saw the beige Mercedes turn south on Sepulveda, he was to call Mike on the radio.
Steve slid behind the Camaro’s wheel. In his mirror he watched Jesse standing in the parking lot, the radio crammed into the pocket of his shorts, with only the plastic-coated antenna sticking out. It looked like a cellular telephone. Jesse looked like a bull kicked out of a china shop.
Steve pulled into traffic as a well-dressed, middle-aged couple in a big new car pulled off Sepulveda and into the lot. The woman riding in the front passenger seat glanced at Jesse curiously, then at the battered Buick with the Nevada plates. Jesse ignored her.
Steve drove a half mile down Sepulveda to Church Lane, where he turned right and went under the freeway, then curved around and drove to Sunset Boulevard, where he turned right. Sunset here is a four-lane blacktop meandering toward the Pacific Ocean, following the contours of foothill canyons in broad, sweeping curves. This is Brentwood, a genteel community extending from the canyons down to Sawtelle and filled with expensive single-family homes, pricey condominiums, and high-security apartment buildings.
At Barrington Avenue, Steve turned left through Brentwood Village, a series of low, rambling brick buildings housing a post office, specialty shops, and restaurants. Passing a Little League field and tennis courts, he drove carefully through the heavy traffic. At the stop sign guarding San Vicente Boulevard he halted. He eyed the bus shelter across the street.
After waiting for traffic to clear, Steve turned right—west—on San Vicente Boulevard and drove two short blocks to Bundy. Sonny’s car was inconspicuous in the parking lot in front of Vicente Foods, a local supermarket. Steve pulled into the lot to let Sonny out.
“Nine o’clock, Westgate and the alley. Got it?”
“I’ll be there,” said Sonny.
“Gonna leave your car in the lot, or put it on the street?”
“Nobody will notice it in the lot.”
“Sure you can find your way back here on foot?”
“No sweat,” said Majoy. “Walked it once, drove it twice. See you in the alley.”
Two blocks below San Vicente, the former creek bed now called Bundy Drive takes a hairpin turn, twisting from due east to southwest. In the middle of this arc, on the left, is the mouth of Gorham Avenue, which leads back two blocks to San Vicente. In the Buick, Steve turned left from Bundy onto Gorham, coasting to a stop three buildings from the corner, in front of an ostentatious, three-story, twenty-seven-unit condominium. Brentwood Place is at 11939, on the north side of Gorham. Steve held the walkie talkie to his lips, pressing a button. “I’m here, can you hear me?”
“I hear. You hear me okay?” Jesse’s voice crackled through the tinny speaker. It wasn’t clear like the TV cop shows, but Steve could understand what Jesse was saying.
Steve found a place to park and walked up Gorham, turning to climb a few steps to the front door of 11939. The glass door opens into a spacious vestibule; access to the interior is controlled by an electrically activated inner door that can be buzzed open by residents. The vestibule wall is lined with twenty-seven doorbell buttons, one for each unit.
Squinting in the dim light, Steve peered at the rows of names, looking for “Woodman.” Finding the right button, he pressed it and waited.
Nothing happened. Waiting a few minutes, he pressed again. Still there was no answer. The Woodmans were gone, just as they were supposed to be.
© 2013 Marvin J. Wolf
It was too late in the day to go to Personnel for in-processing, so the company clerk sent me to Supply for bedding. A member of Third Platoon showed me to my new home, a third-floor squad bay with forty bunks lining the wall on one side.
In the morning someone pointed me at Personnel and I delivered my sealed records packet. To my great surprise, included in this slim stack of papers was a set of orders awarding me the Expert Infantryman Badge. The clerk helped me pin the badge, a silver flintlock on a narrow field of Infantry Blue, over my left pocket and congratulated me.
As my jaw was wired shut, I could thank him only by writing on a small pad I carried.
When I returned to Delta Company, I was almost immediately set upon by SFC Tabor, my new platoon sergeant. Why was I wearing the EIB? I wasn’t wearing it when I reported in! Did I have any idea what a terrible crime it was to wear an award I hadn’t earned?
Writing on my pad, I asked Tabor to call Personnel to confirm. He didn’t understand why I didn’t know I’d been awarded the EIB, and I didn’t want to tell him.
A week earlier at Fort Ord, California in my last week of infantry training, I went to the grenade range to throw practice grenades. They differ from the deadly variety only in that instead of four ounces of flaked TNT, they held a tiny bag of black powder, and instead of a steel plug on the bottom, a practice grenade has a cork.
That day someone tampered with a practice grenade, filled it with black powder and replaced the cork with a steel plug. It exploded and split into four big fragments. I was about seventy yards away when the largest fragment hit me square in the mouth, knocking out three teeth.
Hours later, after an oral surgeon had splinted two of the teeth back in place and wired my jaw shut, my company commander ordered me to remain in my quarters except for trips to the latrine and mess hall, where I could sip soup and a milkshake through a straw.
I didn’t want to remain in quarters. The next day was test day. Everyone in the company and men from several other units would take sixteen different skill tests. Those who scored 75% on each of the sixteen tests would be awarded the coveted badge. Historically, less than two percent of those who took the exam won a badge.
I wanted the badge, and although my head swam and I was in pain, after the company marched off that morning, I left the building, took a shortcut through the woods, and joined another unit about to be tested. I wrote on my pad and bared my teeth to show the sergeant at each test station that I would have to answer spoken questions in writing.
After the last station, I ran back to the company, took a shower, and went to sleep.
Two days later I was summoned to the company commander’s office. For an hour the C.O. and the first sergeant took turns chewing on my hind end. The C.O. finished by saying that under usual circumstances I would now face a court-martial, followed by a year in the stockade, followed by a dishonorable discharge, for disobeying his orders.
He couldn’t do that, however, because my aggregate score on the sixteen stations was the highest ever recorded at Fort Ord, and to bring charges against me would make my C.O. look very bad and force him to answer many questions.
My punishment, then, was that he, my company commander, would never award me the EIB. He handed me a trophy from the post commander commemorating my test score and threw me out the door.
Four days later, when my records were unsealed at Fort Lewis, I saw that the EIB award order was signed, not by my former C.O. but by the post adjutant.
I prayed that Tabor or my new C.O. wouldn’t call Fort Ord.
The next day Tabor called me into his tiny cubicle in the Arms Room and said that none of his squad leaders wanted me in his squad.
Was it because I was eighteen, looked fifteen, and was only an inch over five feet tall? Or that they didn’t trust me? Either way, it was an arrow through my heart.
When my jaw was unwired, Tabor said, I would report to the mess sergeant for duty as a permanent KP. Until then, I would spend my time removing chewing gum from the undersides of tables in the mess hall. But I would remain with the platoon and stand all inspections.
The first was the following day. I laid my unused field gear atop my bunk and arranged it, and my wall and foot lockers in accordance with the mimeographed chart provided. Tabor found no deficiencies, and when he examined the few items on my personal shelf he spent several minutes lingering over the small trophy from Fort Ord.
Following inspection and lunch, we were off duty. I, however, remained in quarters because of my injury. About 2:00 pm, fully dressed and dozing atop my bunk, I was awakened by the entrance of my platoon leader, Lt. Townley. I jumped to my feet and stood at attention.
Townley was a tall, slender, handsome West Pointer and an Olympic medalist in two sports. He had me sit on the edge of my bunk. He found a chair somewhere and dragged it to sit facing me. He then began to question me, in a quiet, conversational way, about all sorts of things, few of them having to do with the Army.
I laboriously wrote out my answers to each question, tore off the page, and handed it to him.
This went on for an hour or more.
Then he got up. I got up. He extended his hand, and I shook it. He left.
Monday morning my jaw wires came off. At mid-morning I reported to the mess sergeant, per Tabor’s order. The mess sergeant waved me to a chair and called Tabor.
Thirty seconds on the phone and he hung up. “Tabor wants to see you in Lt. Townley’s office.”
I found the office, with both Townley and Tabor in attendance. “The lieutenant and I talked it over,” began Tabor. “You are now the platoon messenger,” he said. “In the field, you will carry the lieutenant’s radios, his telephones, and a doughnut roll of wire. When we are in defensive positions, you will connect the squads to the platoon CP with telephone wire. Otherwise, you do whatever either of us tells you. Questions?”
“No, sergeant,” I said.
“When we are not in the field, you will clean and maintain all platoon radios, telephones, and other signaling equipment. If you need help, see the company commo sergeant. And one more thing,” Tabor continued, “Normally you would make PFC at eight months service. But all your duty was in training units. You haven’t proved yourself in a line unit. Don’t expect that stripe anytime soon.”
Platoon messenger in a mechanized infantry unit was a tough job—at least as hard as any of the riflemen, grenadiers, or machine gunners. But it kept me in platoon headquarters in the field, six feet from the lieutenant when we were on the march and listening to the platoon and company radio nets almost 24/7. It was an education in the fine art of running an infantry platoon that I couldn’t have had any other way.
The rest of the platoon, however, assumed that I was informing on them to Tabor.
About two months after I arrived, I was tapped for the overnight duty of CQ runner. The Charge of Quarters was a sergeant who, when his name came up on the duty roster, took over the orderly room when the first sergeant went home to his family every night that we were in garrison. His runner ran errands, answered the phone when he was making hourly rounds after lights out at 9:00, brought midnight snacks from the mess, and whatever else he was told.
In the morning I had breakfast and returned to my platoon to sleep. Before I could brush my teeth, I was told to report to the first sergeant.
Top, as he was often called, said that Delta Company was required to send one man to attend the division Noncommissioned Officers Academy, a leadership course required for promotion to sergeant. Few wanted to go because it was all spit-and-polish and field exercises. “You just volunteered,” Top said. “Class starts tomorrow.”
“Yes, First Sergeant,” I replied, my mind racing.
“They only accept men in the rank of PFC or above,” he said and handed me a set of orders and a pair of PFC stripes. “Get those on before I change my mind,” he said.
Sleep was out of the question. I was an accomplished seamster and often sewed on chevrons and patches for prices ranging from a dime to a quarter. I did so because I needed the money—of my $78 a month before taxes, $25 went home to my family, $18 went for the purchase of an obligatory US Savings Bond, and the rest didn’t stretch to cover haircuts, laundry, toothpaste, and shoe polish. I made an additional five or six dollars a month from sewing. and needed every dime. Now I needed seven more sets of PFC stripes but had no money to buy them at the PX. So I spent most of the day going around the company begging them from recently promoted specialists.
A month later I returned to Delta Company wearing the rank of a specialist, my reward for finishing first in my class. The company’s senior PFCs were aghast, even after I explained that my promotion did not cost Delta any of its monthly allocations. They didn’t care.
Tabor decided that I was now too senior to be the platoon messenger. He assigned me to Second Squad as the Browning Automatic Rifle gunner. The BAR weighs twice as much as the M-1 rifles everyone else in the squad carried. And I was obliged to tote twice as much ammo. I didn’t care—I was finally an infantryman.
My new squad leader was Staff Sergeant Juan Cruz, a swarthy, handsome Korean War veteran and a proud Chamorro from Guam. My duties included helping Cruz do weekly inventories of the arms room and assisting him in writing semi-annual performance ratings for the rest of the squad. Although I was only a high school graduate, Tabor had decided that I had the requisite skills to pen anything and everything that SSGT Cruz needed to put in writing. Cruz was a smart guy, a gifted small-unit leader, but English was his second language. I was also the only man in the platoon who could use a typewriter.
Cruz and I got along well, and after a month I handed off my BAR and became one of his two fireteam leaders.
And then I came down on orders for Korea.
I spent a year there, was promoted to sergeant, spent another eighteen months at Forts Benning and Jackson, and took my discharge.
In 1965, certain that we were going to war in Vietnam, I re-enlisted. Three years of civilian life meant the forfeit of three stripes, and I was obliged to serve in my previous occupational specialty, infantry.
Through enormous good fortune, by the end of 1965, I was in Vietnam with duty as information specialist/combat photographer with the First Air Cavalry Division. Early in 1966, Army Digest, as the service’s official magazine was then known, requested that our section provide them with images for an expansive, four-color cover story about the division and its men and machines. They sent several rolls of color film—we had none—and suddenly I was no longer the kid at the camera store who rang up film and processing purchases. I was a photojournalist on assignment for the US Army’s most prestigious publication.
I made a bunch of images of our flying machines in action, then went to the field, looking for shots of men at war. One afternoon I hopped off a helicopter and looked around the landing zone. In the distance, a column of troops made their way downhill through thick elephant grass.
I chose my borrowed 300 mm telephoto, turned the image into a vertical, and waited until the man at the head of the column swam into focus.
Sergeant First Class Cruz recognized me. As I gently released the shutter, he smiled.
Decades after that image appeared in Army Digest, his daughter became a Facebook friend.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
For over a century, Columbus, Georgia has been a GI town. Although the City of Columbus has grown steadily since Fort Benning was established in 1909, for many decades the fort’s military population greatly outnumbered the civilians of Columbus. The city’s strait-laced, church-going citizens tolerated soldiers on its streets, allowed a few saloons to flourish, but left the most wicked dens of iniquity to Phenix City, Alabama, its neighbor across the Chattahoochee River. During World War II, General George S. Patton famously parked a tank on the bridge leading to Phenix City to discourage GIs from contaminating themselves with the wickedness of that community.
In 1960, my first stationing at Benning, I bought a second-hand Minox camera in a pawn shop and began taking pictures more or less surreptitiously on my infrequent visits to Columbus. Coming out of a movie theater late one night, I saw a soldier accosted by a pair of cops. Safely inside my old Chevy I took a quick snap of the scene and drove away. The Minox uses 16mm film, and its negatives are the size of an adolescent’s fingernail. My image was fuzzy and grainy, but somehow compelling. Decades later I came across the negatives in a long-forgotten envelope. It remains an image that invites more questions than it answers: What happened to this soldier? What was his offense? Did the police treat him fairly? I was thereafter always extra cautious on my infrequent visits to Columbus.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
Next from the Blog: A new series of excerpts from some of my books, and from some of my yet-to-be published work. I begin with a taste of my latest in the Rabbi Ben Mystery Series, "A Tale Of Two Rabbis." For a longer peek at the book, click on the cover wherever it’s offered for sale (Amazon, Kindle, B&N. iTunes, Kobo, Smashwords). For more info and reviews, click here.
The kid under the bridge looked to be about ten, nicely dressed in slacks with a white shirt and tie under a sports jacket. A yarmulke graced the top of an oval head covered with dark curls. His skin was cocoa, with carmine highlights, and his face was so finely featured that at first glance Ben took him for a girl.
A trio of white boys in jeans and running shoes had shoved him against a wall beneath the bridge. The smaller two were almost Ben’s height, about five feet, seven inches, a head taller than yarmulke boy. The third kid, old enough to sprout a few sparse hairs on his upper lip, was six feet tall and well over 200 pounds, soft in the middle, and working on a second chin. He was going through yarmulke boy’s backpack, dropping books and papers on the ground, tossing an orange to one of his henchman, a bagged sandwich to the other, and then pocketing a cell phone.
Taking this in at a glance from the top of a gentle slope above the bridge, Ben started forward, feeling weak and shaky, but unwilling to be a spectator to what was obviously a robbery or something worse.
It was his first Tuesday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Five days earlier, he had kissed Miryam goodbye at Ben Gurion Airport, swapped hugs with her maternal grandparents and a phalanx of cousins, and boarded a plane for Boston. After a night in his Cambridge apartment, Ben had packed his four-year-old Honda Accord and drove straight through to Pittsburgh.
And on the previous morning, Ben had gone to a university clinic to give a bone-marrow sample and the first of what would be a year-long series of weekly injections and blood tests. Afterward, he took a cab back to his rented room in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where he slept all that day and night. At noon Tuesday, weak but hungry, he had made coffee and toasted a bagel. Unable even to consider the five-mile run that for years had launched his daily routine, Ben had settled on a walk, a leisurely exploration of the community where he would live until he learned if the Human Immunodeficiency Virus had been eradicated from his body.
And now this. Three big kids robbing a smaller boy.
Instinctively, he reached up to remove his glasses, fingers fumbling on his face until he remembered that two weeks earlier, in Tel Aviv, he’d had Lasik surgery.
Ben no longer needed glasses.
He lengthened his stride, still walking but now with a purpose, and as he came into earshot, he heard the big kid laughing.
“Hey, you know what this is? It’s a kigger—a kike and a nigger.” The big kid laughed at his own joke, and the other two joined in.
Yarmulke boy didn’t seem to see the humor.
Ben said, “Hey!”
Four kids turned their heads as Ben approached.
Ben said, “I’d ask what’s going on, but I can see that.”
The tall kid said, “Nothing going on. Just hanging out with my bros.”
Ben said, “You’ve got one minute to pick up all that stuff, take what you’ve stolen out of your pockets, and put everything back in this young man’s backpack. And then you’ve got one more minute to get out of my sight.”
One of the smaller kids asked, “Or what?”
The tall kid smiled. “Yeah. Or what?”
Ben said, “Or I kick all your bully boy asses.”
Yarmulke boy said, “Go away, Mister. You’re making everything worser.”
The tall kid said, “Yeah, go away before we kick your ass.”
Ben said, “You’ve wasted half your minute.”
The tall kid advanced on Ben, balling his fists, menace etched into his fair face. Ben waited, hands loosely at his side, until he was six feet away.
Then he danced forward on his toes, whirling to his left, bending at the waist and bringing his right foot across to land solidly in the kid’s midsection.
The kid went down like a sack of onions. Gasping for air, he writhed on the ground.
One of the boys fumbled under his shirt and produced a 9mm Beretta.
Ben snatched it away before the kid could thumb back the safety catch.
Ben said, “Pick up all those things and put them back in the pack.” The smaller of the two boys knelt, stuffing papers and books into the bag. Ben turned to the still-writhing juvenile giant and hauled him to his feet, then pulled two cell phones, an iPod and a wad of cash from his pockets.
Ben turned to yarmulke boy. “These yours?”
“Not the silver one. The phone, I mean. The black one’s mine. I think the iPod is Joey’s.”
“Who is Joey?”
“Joey Gordon. He’s in my class.”
“And the money?”
“No, sir. Not mine.”
Ben handed him his things, then turned to the three boys. “You’ve exceeded my store of goodwill. Get out of my sight—and if I ever hear that you bothered this young man, I’ll come after you and make you regret it for the rest of your lives.”
He feinted a kick at the tall kid, who turned and ran, the others on his heels.
With a few swift motions, Ben checked to see that the gun was unloaded, removed the magazine, then detached the barrel assembly from the receiver and distributed the pieces among his pockets.
He turned back to yarmulke kid. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Mister.”
“What’s your name?”
“How ’bout I walk you home, just to make sure you get there in one piece?”
Midway up the incline, Ben’s adrenaline rush began to wear off. The toll of his exertions had to be paid. He grew lightheaded and nauseous. Spots appeared before his eyes. Each step became an effort. Ben realized that he couldn’t go on.
“I have to rest,” he gasped.
Yarmulke boy said, “You don’t look so good, Mister. Are you sick?”
“Is there a bench… I… sit… a minute?”
“It’s only a little ways more.”
Ben opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out. Breathing became a labor. The sky revolved. The world grew dark and fuzzy.
Ben staggered toward the bushes lining the sidewalk.
Zach screamed, “Mister!”
© 2017 Marvin J. Wolf
publicly confess their shortcomings, and to beg for God’s mercy. In The Pale of Settlement, it was long the custom for the rabbi himself to note both his own shortcomings and also to rebuke the most prominent men in his congregation.
It is these prominent men who serve as the congregation’s leaders, and who raise the money to pay the rabbi and other employees. As one may imagine, rebuking these men is asking to be fired when a rabbi’s contract comes up for renewal.
Having a noted maggid lead the services, deliver the sermon and rebuke the unworthy is therefore often advisable. This particular maggid had become widely known for the quality and intensity of his sermons.
When he mounted the bimah, a raised platform in the synagogue from which he could address congregants, the maggid brought along a tiny silver snuff-box, which was far from unusual. As he began introductory remarks, he accidentally dropped the box, then surreptitiously kicked it under the Torah table, which was covered with an ornate cloth that reached almost to the floor.
Turning here and there, looking for his lost snuff box, the maggid soon threw up his arms in exasperation, then turned to the congregation. “My snuff box is gone—it’s almost as if the earth itself has swallowed it…
The rabbi’s expression changed, and he put aside the papers with his prepared remarks. “Swallowed by the earth! We must be reminded of Korah….” And the maggid was off on a rant about Korah, who in Exodus led a revolt against Moses and Aaron, and for this heresy was swallowed by the earth. Thus he created an opportunity to preach against the community’s wealthy and powerful, unsparing in his contempt, and faithful to the reason for his temporary employment.
The following year, in another town, he would again lose his snuff-box and sermonize on the lessons of Korah.
See? It’s not that hard.
Thus I now attempt to connect two photographs, taken thousands of miles and many years apart:
One of the most challenging skill sets taught in Army Basic Training is bayonet fighting. While we drilled in ranks holding our bayonet-tipped M1 rifles to practice the basic strokes of this ancient weapon, safely putting these skills into practice by fighting other men similarly equipped required replacing the bayonet with a thick pole with heavy padding on either end to simulate the bayonet and the rifle butt, respectively. This was called pugil stick fighting.
On a grassy athletic field on a warm spring afternoon in 1959, our platoon stood in a circle. We recruits were clad in fatigues; we each wore padded gloves, a football helmet and an external diaper with a thick rubber groin protector. Two drill instructors moved behind the circle; each selected a man. On command, both fighters rushed toward the middle of the circle and mixed it up with each other, lunging and parrying. We were encouraged to be as aggressive as possible and to try to “kill” an opponent by driving the red-colored tip of our pugil stick into his chest. While so engaged, “butt” strokes with the other padded end of the stick might be used to stun or disable our opponent.
A DI stood behind me, put a restraining hand on my shoulder, and whispered instructions in my ear. I was the shortest man in the unit, so he told me to use that, to stay low, lunge upward with my stick, making my strokes more difficult to parry. He added that a hard blow to my opponent’s shoulder or helmet with the butt end might disable him for long enough to stab him.
Then a whistle blew and I found myself running headlong into the center of the ring toward a man I immediately recognized as my bunkmate. We were all sleep deprived, but Robert Paolinelli, occupant of the bunk beneath mine, kept me awake hour, maddening hour after hour with his deep, resonant snores. This was our third week of training, and other than asking him many times to do something about his snores, we had barely spoken.
I hated him.
Running right at him, my mind focused on what I had learned to do, and a desire to punish him for my lost sleep. I whacked him on the shoulder, and when he staggered backward, I brought the butt end of my stick up and caught him squarely under his chin.
His helmet flew off.
He went down.
Instantly whistles blew and I backed away, suddenly contrite, and worried that I might have hurt him badly.
Paolinelli suffered two cracked teeth.
When I apologized to him, he laughed it off.
We became best friends. He bought me my first beer. He invited me to meet his mother and sister, who lived in San Francisco. On our first weekend pass, I did, and his mother stuffed me with pasta fazool.
Robert remained my friend for the rest of his life.
We both left the Army in 1962. He took a job with an insurance company, and I sold books, and then cameras, and then, in March 1965, I re-enlisted.
I returned from Vietnam on November 16, 1966 and took a bus from Travis AFB to San Francisco. As promised, Robert had left his key in a potted plant. While he was at work, I soaked in his tub for two hours, then collapsed on his sofa and slept. When he came home, we went out for dinner.
I had packed civilian clothes before leaving for Vietnam, but when I opened my duffel bag saw they were terminally mildewed. Robert was a few inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, so wearing his trousers and shirt required some adjustment.
But it was San Francisco in the Sixties. People dressed as they chose, and nobody gave me a second look in his baggy trousers and rolled sleeves.
The next day he was off. We took a streetcar to the Haight-Ashbury district. We walked around, gawking at the hippies smoking pot on the sidewalk, painting each other’s midsection, selling handicrafts and enjoying a brisk day with warm sun and a chilly ocean breeze. I took a few photos. And then, quite suddenly, I saw a young man with two small children and a woebegone expression on his handsome face. Behind him was a wondrous store window. In seconds I composed and exposed.
The image remains one of the strangest and most haunting photos I have ever made. Who was that man? What became of him and his children?
My friend Robert, he died at age sixty of a heart attack.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
Introducing a new type of (occasional) blog post, Photo Backstories. The idea came when I got an email recently from the son of a dear friend whom I hadn't heard from in a decade or more. He inherited a poster from his older brother, who had taken his own life at age sixteen. I had produced this poster in 1984 and personally bestowed it on the departed brother. Now the younger brother is 35 and wanted to know how the image and poster came about. After sending it to the young man, I realized others might be interested in the stories behind some of my pictures, and fleshed it out a bit to share with readers here.
Webmaster note: Please do let us know if you would like to see more of these photo backstories. I will pester Marvin gently.
also employed skilled craftsmen who used tiny brushes and color dyes to remove unwanted items from the secondary image by painting over them. That was how, for example, trash on a lawn became green grass, and scratches on the original color image vanished.
Some years later, when I was a freelance photographer, I became the vice president of the Southern California Chapter of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Among my duties was creating and arranging four of the ten monthly programs we put on annually. Free and open to the public these programs often consisted of a well-known photographer showing images from his or her portfolio, talking about these images and about their career, and taking questions from the audience. Other programs dealt with technical subjects such as lighting or recent technical innovations.
I had learned by then how hard it was to shoot a picture that looked as good on a page as it did in the camera, and as many ASMP members shot for magazines, I thought that they would be interested to know what I had learned about correcting color, retouching, and preparing an image for the printing press. This was, I hasten to add, decades before the advent of powerful home computers and photo editing software such as PhotoShop.
I created a two hour program around a printer, a color correction specialist, and two art directors. To publicize this program, I needed a poster that would be distributed to camera stores, art galleries and at other retailers where photographers, including amateurs, might see it. Eventually, my poster would be seen around Hollywood, West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Santa Monica, West Los Angeles, Venice, and several other Southern California communities. We also left 200 copies on a table near the door of our rented hall. All but a few went home with attendees.
The image I selected was one that I had made years earlier.
In 1984 I learned that the Chinese government offered very inexpensive tours to media people. I applied. When I got to the San Francisco Airport I discovered that nearly all others were septuagenarian publishers of small-town newspapers and their wives. There were a few younger people, all photographers, including Mikki Ansin and John Livzey. We flew directly to Shanghai, and from there went by canal boat, train, and bus across China’s central section, arriving at last in Beijing. At every stop, we were reminded of the glories awaiting us at The Great Wall. We rarely left our bus, train or canal boat except to go to a hotel or spend an hour at some tourist destination, which always included a Friendship Store. We spent much more time in Friendship stores, each offering inexpensive, duty-free imports from France, Italy and the United Kingdom. And lots of local products—silks, carvings, paintings and other artwork, clothing, and a large selection of unusual tchotchkes at very good prices. And everywhere we went we were promised the wonders of the Great Wall at the end of the tour.
Alas, at our tourist destinations, there was no time to just walk around and explore. Mostly we had no opportunity to take photos except through the window of a moving bus.
Eventually, we youngsters, all in our forties, became the Gang of Five and jumped ship. For example, when the old folks were shopping in Shanghai, we descended, sans guide, on a factory and spent an hour or two photographing the children in its childcare facility.
We got to the Wall on a typical northern China February day: It was very cold, with overcast skies and a stiff breeze from the Gobi Desert. We were promised half an hour on the Wall, and then an opportunity to visit a very special Friendship Store before returning to Beijing.
Half an hour? The Gang of Five revolted. We decided to spend as long as we liked on the Wall, and then find our own way back to our Beijing hotel.
Our guides held a rapid-fire discussion in Mandarin and gave in.
To our surprise, we were joined, briefly, by an older woman who had informally but very emphatically taken charge of all the passengers on our bus. She, too, wanted to spend more time on the wall and hoped her legs were up to it. We learned that this lady had once been the sergeant-major of an all-female anti-aircraft battalion in London during the Blitz.
Anticipating Northern China’s winter drabness, I had brought along a bright red knit watch cap. When I got to a likely spot in the window of one of the many watchtowers dotting the wall, I asked one of others, whose name I have forgotten, to don the cap. I positioned him on the Wall below me.
When he was in position, and while I was fussing with my tripoded camera, the sergeant-major stepped into my frame and demanded in her parade-ground voice that I take her picture.
How could I say no to a lady sergeant-major?
She wore a thick gray overcoat, a white fur hat, and her new Gucci scarf.
I shifted my frame to the left to re-compose the picture.
Clutching her handbag, she smiled at the camera. A gust of wind blew her black scarf across her face. For an instant, the Gucci logo became her third eye.
I made the exposure without thinking. Then the wind paused, the scarf fell, and I took a few more for the sergeant-major’s scrapbook.
Flash forward to my poster project. I had decided to call the lecture “The Color Enigma,” because to most photographers the information my panel would present was new. Few of us had any notion of what happened between the time we handed in our transparency and its publication in a magazine, or how to make exposures that better lent themselves to lithography.
I designed the poster, which included both a title and a line of explanation, plus the time and location of the event, and found a printer who agreed to run a thousand copies gratis, as a donation to the nonprofit ASMP.
Color printing on an offset press requires that each sheet make multiple journeys through the press, each time accepting a new layer of color, laid down as tiny ink dots on the paper. Usually, the last pass was black or, following that pass, a lacquer of some sort that made part of the image pop off the page.
The printer agreed that after printing the ASMP’s posters, he would remove all the type except the word “Enigma” on the red layer, burn a new printing plate, and make 500 copies of the poster for my own use, all at his cost, which was less than $100.
I gave the poster to my clients and prospective clients. I had about twenty left when I moved to North Carolina, but they were dusty and wrinkled, and I threw them out. That chapter of my life closed long ago.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
I seethed. A relatively diminutive person, I took this song personally.
Eventually, I realized that Randy Newman's pop hit was parody, that Newman was lampooning bigotry, showing that discriminating against people on any basis is not merely ugly but stupid.
Still, I wince whenever I hear "Short People."
I was an inch over five feet when I joined the Army. Following tradition, our training company was "sized," tallest men in the first platoon, next tallest in the second, and so forth. I was in Fifth Platoon, the so-called Mickey Mouse Platoon. The six-footers in First told jokes at our expense. Drill sergeants berated us for low altitude and demanded extra pushups. When Fifth Platoon took company honors on the end-of-cycle proficiency test, our pennant was presented with yet another give at shortness. "The Mickey Mouse Platoon had to stand on boxes so we could see them all at roll call every morning," said our CO. "But somehow they got the top score."
I felt cheated of a hard-won triumph. We had proven our soldierly skills -- what more could these people want?
A year and an inch of growth later, I sewed on sergeant's chevrons. Almost immediately a pair of six-foot MP privates, sneering that nobody that short could be an infantry noncom, demanded to see my ID. Instead of apologizing for their mistake, they cracked a short joke. Outraged, I went to the MP desk sergeant, who spread his palms. "Well, you are pretty short, Sarge," he grinned.
In America, height is a valued physical attribute. As author Ralph Keyes documented in his book, The Height Of Your Life, most Fortune 500 companies are run by men of more than six feet, while those at the helms of Fortune 100 firms, on average, are even taller. In most corporations, each inch over six feet correlates with significantly higher salary.
That this cultural imperative is bigotry is easily overlooked. During President Clinton's first term, pundits derisively noted what they termed his "predilection for surrounding himself with short appointees," naming among his Cabinet and senior staff the diminutive Robert Reich, Donna Shalala, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey. That they are brilliant and accomplished people was less remarkable, it seems, than that they are short. Their short stature seemed to be fair game, but not even the most indecent of administration critics would have observed that the president also had surrounded himself with dark-skinned appointees, including Togo West, Ron Brown, Henry Cisneros and Federico Peña, among others. Race is not an acceptable measure of a person's worth. Why is height?
I topped out at 5 feet 4 inches, and I have felt a sense of powerlessness, of being discounted, reduced to insignificance for reasons beyond my control around pretty much everyone.
Being small was worst in the arena of romance. Growing up, girls towered over me; through high school I had a total of two dates. I thought this would change as I grew older, but it didn't. in my late 30s, a woman whom I had courted for more than a year finally told me that she enjoyed being with me, admired my qualities and accomplishments ... but she wanted tall children and could not marry a short man. On the long trip home from her house, I fantasized about driving off the winding road.
There were women with even less tact. I have been rebuffed by dozens whose first question on seeing me was, "How tall are you?" Others laughed in my face. "I won't date short guys," they said. Never mind that they are superficial, and beneath my attentions. It hurt then, it hurts now.
But bigger is not always better. My daughter entered my life shortly after her first birthday and inherited no genes from me. From kindergarten onward, she was tallest in her class, reaching her ultimate elevation of 5 feet 6 inches at age 10. Because she dwarfed playmates, teachers assumed that she was smarter, more mature, more able. Her test scores, however, were just above average, far beneath teachers' heightened expectations. They expected her to lead, but she was more comfortable following. Pedagogues pouted that she was lazy, that she did not perform up to her capabilities, that she was immature and often behaved childishly.
Well, yes. She was and she did. She was 6 years old.
For reasons unrelated to size, I was divorced when our daughter was 5. Eight years later, a gawky teen hiding behind punk-rock pancake, my child came back to live with me. Learning about parenthood, I grilled her beaux when they came calling. Craning my neck to look them in the eye, I asked such penetrating questions as, Where do you live? What are your parents' names? What are your plans after high school?
One day my daughter objected. "Pops," she wailed. "You are like, sooo intimidating! My friends hate coming here!"
Me, intimidating? I was taken aback. "But those kids are taller than me," I said.
"It doesn't matter!" she sniffed. "You've written books! You go on TV! Your picture is in newspapers! You were a drill sergeant in the Army! You were in Vietnam! You interview famous people! You can talk to anyone about anything!"
Suddenly I felt tall. It felt good.
"But we have our own problems, and you just don't understand us," she said.
I turned that over. She was right: Everybody has problems growing up. The tallest boy feels the stares, and fields lame jokes about playing basketball. The acne-scarred geeks hide their faces. The overweight bury the world's disdain under layers of protective adipose. The thin hide behind baggy clothes.
Thanks largely to my experiences as a short person, by middle age I had learned to accept rejection. That's valuable to everyone, but especially to writers. I know that negative responses are part of the cost of doing business, every writer's emotional overhead.
In adulthood, we come to learn, there are plenty of handicaps. Everybody has one. Me, I'm short. And if some people in our Taller-Is-Better world can't get past that, then they ought to move on.
* * *
Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
First published in TWA Ambassador, February, 2000, with this notation:
"Marvin J. Wolf, the author of nine nonfiction books,* was the only U.S. serviceman to arrive in Vietnam a private and depart as an infantry lieutenant."
*Update May 23, 2018: Marvin J. Wolf is now the author of eleven nonfiction books, three novels, and a made-for-television movie script.
AT THE JET PROPULSION LABORATORY, SCIENTISTS ARE BUILDING ROBOTS TO EXPLORE THE SOLAR SYSTEM--AND EVEN MAKING PLANS TO SAIL TO THE STARS.
Cover Story, Los Angeles Times Magazine
November 14, 1999
Marvin J. Wolf's last piece for the magazine was about his father, a junkman in Los Angeles
So here's young Frank Malina out of East Texas, slim and dark, mind quick as a prairie twister, studies engineering at Texas A&M and makes ends meet playing fiddle in his daddy's band for hick-town dung-stompers, and graduates in 1934, a Depression year.
When Caltech offers him a scholarship, his family is busted so flat that he's got no way to Pasadena. So his college teachers pass the hat and durn near the whole town of Brenham, mostly Czech immigrants like the Malinas, scrapes together $300. Comes 1936 and Frank, after earning two Caltech master's degrees--you ready for this?--decides that he wants to build a rocket. Not a spaceship to reach the moon--that might come later--Malina's modest missile would merely haul instruments to plumb Earth's upper atmosphere and measure cosmic rays at the edge of space. But when he tells his professor, Clark Millikan, son of Nobel laureate and Caltech president Robert Millikan, that he wants to write a doctoral dissertation on rocket propulsion and high-altitude rocket characteristics, the prof tartly suggests that Malina leave academia and find a job in the aircraft industry.
Forgive that man. It was 1936, only nine years since Lucky Lindy hopped the Atlantic, and those who set America's science agenda saw rocketry as pulp fiction. Certainly no one would expect that fiddle-playing Frank Malina out of East Texas was destined to cross paths with three hugely eccentric characters--a Hungarian Jew, a Chinese mandarin and a self-taught chemist--to give birth to the institution that has become mankind's window for exploring the universe.
Malina, who had gulped down Jules Verne in Czech and had big dreams, did not give up. He went to Theodore von Karman, director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and one of the world's leading scientists. Sharp-featured and elfin, irresistibly charming, a confirmed bachelor perpetually suspected of seducing colleagues' wives, amusing in half a dozen tongues, intellectually fearless, terminally curious, Von Karman liked to lie in wind tunnels to feel the air rushing over his body. A Hungarian descendant of Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th century Prague mystic who is said to have created the Golem, a mechanical man brought to life with sacred writings, Von Karman was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. There he devised a tethered helicopter to replace observation balloons and redesigned Anthony Hermann Gerhard Fokker's device so Austrian machine guns could fire through aircraft propellers. After earning wide recognition for pioneering the physics of flight turbulence, he came to Caltech during Hitler's rise. Von Karman knew that German scientists were interested in rockets; he gave Malina a green light. In this uncharacteristically unwitting fashion, he ensured his own legacy.
Word of Malina's project got around town, and Pasadenan John W. Parsons offered help. Parsons, unencumbered by knowledge of higher math or molecular processes, was a cookbook chemist obsessed with things that go bang. Tall, beefy, insouciantly handsome, he was a mama's boy who hated authority and detested societal mores but gave no outward hint of the inner stirrings that soon would propel him to leadership of an unlikely cult.
Parsons and a childhood sidekick, mechanic Ed Forman, had tinkered with black powder rockets, and had backyards littered with craters to prove it. With Von Karman's blessing--but no school funds--Parsons joined Malina's project. Forman helped by turning Malina's designs into hardware. Between jobs and studies, for months the trio prowled junkyards and used machinery shops, trying to patch together test equipment. Desperate for funding, Malina and Parsons set out to write a movie script about mad scientists building a moon rocket; they hoped to sell it to a film studio. They worked in Parsons' kitchen until Malina realized that the bags, boxes, bottles, cartons, jugs, tubes and vials piled everywhere were filled with assorted explosives, combustibles and chemical accelerators.
Malina began designing a firing chamber and exhaust nozzles--tasks that, before computers, required laborious hand calculations. In October 1936, the first motor was tested in the Arroyo Seco, three miles north of the Rose Bowl. Fueled by a brew of gaseous oxygen and methyl alcohol, after a few false starts it burned for three seconds, until an oxygen hose burst into flame and began snaking across the rocky ground. The rocketeers scattered in panic. They returned to the arroyo on Nov. 28 and got the motor to run for 15 seconds.
In January 1937, an improved motor ran for 44 seconds, and Malina invited another grad student to join: Tsien Hsue-shen, among the first of a generation of Chinese to benefit from educational reforms. A voracious and far-ranging intellect, committed to modernizing his backward homeland, he presented himself as a mandarin, a regal presence who in public could not err or display weakness. He agreed to help Malina and another grad student with the critical equations for a more powerful engine.
Upon reviewing Malina's written analysis of the experiments, Von Karman allocated campus lab space to the effort. Following a nitrous oxide leak, however, the group, now dubbed the Suicide Squad, was forced to move all equipment outdoors. Weld Arnold, a 40-ish lab assistant, asked to photograph the experiments. Told that there might be no more unless some funding was found, Arnold pledged to raise $1,000. The first $100, ones and fives, came wrapped in old newspaper; no one questioned the source, which remains a mystery.
Near the end of 1937, Malina, with the assistance of grad student Apollo Milton Olin Smith, published his first paper, "Flight Analysis of the Sounding Rocket," which so impressed Von Karman that he sent Malina to New York to present it. With the right motor, Malina told open-mouthed listeners, a rocket could reach an altitude of 1,000 miles. Time magazine and the New York Herald-Tribune reported Malina's speech, the Associated Press sent his photo to newspapers nationwide, and the Los Angeles Times editorialized for more rocket research. A reporter who observed test firings wrote imaginatively about rocket ships blasting off from the Los Angeles Civic Center.
In May 1938, a new motor with a graphite lining and copper exhaust nozzles ran for a full minute. But then the money did run out, and the group dissolved, briefly. A few months later, with Hitler rattling sabers in Munich, Army Air Corps boss H.H. "Hap" Arnold popped into Caltech to update himself on aeronautical research. Fascinated by what the Suicide Squad had achieved on a shoestring, he asked a National Academy of Sciences committee to give the lab $1,000 to study rocket-assisted aircraft takeoff.
In early 1939, Parsons and Tsien rejoined Malina. In June, the committee disbursed another $10,000. With a wary nod to the rocket-phobic, Malina's group was later designated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
On a sweltering summer day this year, a small team of scientists attempts the unimaginable: Working among the 150 structures on JPL's 156-acre home in La Canada-Flintridge, they are dreaming of a voyage to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, a journey that would take the most advanced existing spacecraft tens of thousands of years. The JPL team hopes to design a vehicle to fly at one-tenth the speed of light, cutting travel time to less than 40 years. If such a journey seems unfathomable, consider this: These scientists and engineers are devoting their careers to a mission that won't fly until long after they are dead.
“It's like the 15th century explorers who set out for the Americas, for Africa, says Dr. Charles Elachi, the ebullient but low-key Lebanese-born scientist who heads JPL's Space and Earth Science Programs. They didn't know, step by step, how they would explore new continents, he says, but they had the confidence that they would figure out ways to overcome the hurdles.
In the half-century since JPL's genesis under Von Karman, Malina, Parsons and Tsien, JPL has grown into the jewel of the American space program. It is Earth's leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system and the universe beyond--a place where scientists and engineers like Malina spin ideas that most people would dismiss as science fiction, then turn them into technologies, experiments and spacecraft. "You have to be kind of a rogue scientist, with harebrained ideas," says Dr. Andrea Donnellan, a JPL geophysicist. "People here support that because they can see the value of an idea that may seem crazy elsewhere." If such ideas can be related to one of JPL's missions, "it may get cultivated."
Donnellan's most recent brainstorm: uses computers to process hundreds of Global Positioning System satellite measurements of fixed points on Earth's surface. Backed by hundreds of sensors, the same system that allows motorists to determine their location on the map within a dozen yards lets geophysicists track daily movement of California's fault lines by tiny fractions of an inch, data that someday may help forecast the probabilities an earthquake will occur.
Another JPL project, the Topex-Poseidon satellite, measures sea surface heights and ocean temperatures, providing a scientific basis for understanding the El Nino phenomenon that affects weather patterns worldwide.
With a planning budget of $1.315 billion for the year, some 5,000 employees and hundreds of on-site contractors, JPL is now close to three times the size of its Caltech parent, and with about 1,000 "JPLers" holding PhDs, it is arguably the world's greatest concentration of technical brainpower. "One thing you see here is that nothing is impossible," says JPL's 63-year-old director, Dr. Ed Stone, a University of Chicago-trained physicist.
Starting with America's first satellite, Explorer I, in 1958, most of the news of our solar system in the last 40 years has come from data obtained by JPL spacecraft. The twin Voyagers, launched in 1977, beamed back the first close-ups of the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Other missions have found Venus' hothouse atmosphere; mysterious reverse landslides on Mars (mounds of soil that appear to be climbing a crater rim); an ice-topped ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa; colossal volcanoes on Io, another Jovian satellite; Neptune's Great Dark Spot, which boasts the strongest winds in the solar system, and hundreds of other discoveries. JPL engineers also built the Wide Field and Planetary Camera that enabled the Hubbell Space Telescope to peer deep into interstellar space.
Yet despite its successes, and occasional failures, until recently JPL had a history of spending vast sums on a small number of projects, a practice that brought criticism and uncertainty. "When I first came here, JPL was focused on survival," says NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin, who took office in 1992. "They needed a big project every 10 years to feed them." At the time, that was Cassini, a $1.5-billion effort that began in 1989 and went up in October 1997. Named for the 17th century French-Italian astronomer who discovered the gap in Saturn's main rings and found four of its moons, the spacecraft will reach and explore Saturn's amazing system in 2004. At JPL, Goldin found angst, with scientists wondering, " 'What comes after Cassini?' And it was paralyzing them. Their programs were so expensive that running a thermal vacuum test or a shake test became a political event, and because they were so worried about failure, they would use old technology that was proven, instead of blazing a path like they are doing today and leaping ahead 10 years."
Goldin would not have this. "Between 1980 and 1992, NASA's budget doubled, but we had only two interplanetary missions," he says. He issued a decree: "From now on, we do things faster, better, cheaper." It has transformed the lab into the proverbial beehive, a frenetic place with "dozens of small- to medium-sized projects," Goldin says, "where young kids who don't even shave yet or haven't combed their long hair are in charge." Most of JPL's 18 mission project managers, 24 experiment project managers and 10 pre-project managers are relative newcomers to these jobs. "The innovation is unbelievable. These boys and girls--there are none better."
Among the dozens of projects now underway is an orbiting infrared observatory that would offer astronomers views of previously invisible phenomena. It is scheduled for launch in 2001. A 2003 mission, Space Technology 3, would place two concave mirrors in solar orbit. Deployed up to a kilometer apart and linked by computer, they would resolve star images up to 40 times better than the Hubbell, detecting the telltale star wobbles that suggest the presence of planets. The Terrestrial Planet Finder, a space interferometer scheduled to fly in 2010, would use this data to examine earthlike planets. Both are part of NASA's Origins Program, aimed at learning how life has evolved in our and other solar systems.
The purpose of JPL missions also is changing. Stone carves space exploration into eras. The first was meeting the engineering and science challenges of getting to another planet, he says. Once we learned how to get there, the next era was finding what was out there. Now NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" credo coincides with Stone's third era of space exploration: bringing back to Earth samples of distant worlds. Stardust, launched in February to encounter the comet Wild-2 in 2004, will return some of its dust to Earth. Why spend megabucks on comet dust? Because comets--small, fragile, irregularly shaped mixtures of particles and frozen gases--are thought to contain the primordial material from which our solar system was fashioned. Stardust also will return samples of mysterious interstellar dust streaming into our system from the direction of Sagittarius.
While JPL has earned an exalted reputation for navigating billions of miles with split-second timing and surgical precision, spaceflight remains a risky business. In July 1962, when JPL attempted its first interplanetary voyage by sending Mariner 1 to Venus, the Atlas-Agena launch vehicle veered off course minutes after liftoff and had to be destroyed. The reason: A single hyphen had been omitted from a computer program. In 1993, JPL's Mars Observer probe disappeared just before its scheduled rendezvous with the red planet. Engineers concluded that something probably went wrong while its fuel tanks were being pressurized, causing the craft to spin out of control. More recently, JPL's once lengthy and detailed peer review process, streamlined by "faster, better, cheaper," failed to note a critical oversight in the lab's Mars Climate Orbiter. Orbiter's mission failed in September as it neared the planet because contractor Lockheed Martin Astronautics sent data for the critical orbit maneuvers in feet and pounds, while JPL uses metric units. Nobody caught the error.
Another measure of JPL's evolution is its technology-transfer program. In the 1930s, aviation pioneer Donald Douglas asked Von Karman for help designing the DC-1, forerunner to the famed DC-3. Von Karman's analysis reduced drag and turbulence and enabled the aircraft to fly faster with less fuel. Also in the '30s, Von Karman had a "water wind tunnel" built to redesign archaic Metropolitan Water District pumps to bring water over the Tehachapis more efficiently. And in the '50s, a JPL group under Dr. Solomon Golomb, now a USC professor, sought a way to prevent enemy jamming of missile-guidance systems. The result was a digital coding system that became the basis for cell phones, commercial cryptography and radar.
Today JPL's Dr. Merle McKenzie and a small staff seek commercial applications for new lab technologies. For example, Caltech, which holds JPL's patents, licensed Ford to produce a "neural networking" computer chip to detect tiny variations in engines. Other JPL technologies have led to a collision-avoidance system for small aircraft, infrared ear thermometers, and digital cameras on a single microchip. JPL also rents out its formidable expertise. "We don't do any work that could [be done] by another U.S. company," explains McKenzie. JPL works only "in areas that are unusual and unique," where the lab has special competence.
When a proposal is accepted, JPL is reimbursed for salaries, materials, facilities usage and other expenses. Even so, she explains, this amounts to a tiny fraction of what it would cost a company to do the work on its own, if it could find scientists and engineers with the right skills. McKenzie is looking now for private-sector partners to design and build an interplanetary Internet. JPL's own contribution, taking shape in the next few years, is Web sites where earthlings can surf in to see what's happening on Mars as it happens, with pictures from satellites and ultralight aircraft soaring over Mars.
JPL's fourth era, in stone's epochal view, will be building robotic outposts throughout the solar system so that instruments, imaging systems and local exploration vehicles can gather data. In his view, that will begin early in the new millennium. Someday there will be a fifth era, the era of leaving our solar system, of visiting the stars--and JPL already has begun to plan for it.
A few hours before Pathfinder landed on Mars on March 4, 1997, Goldin was at JPL to dedicate the Carl Sagan Memorial Wall on the lab's mall. He recalls that a few JPL staff members "who were discomfitted with change, came up and said, 'Hey Dan, why don't we get another Pathfinder mission?' " Goldin recalls. "The blood drained out of my face. Been there, done that. We are not about repeating things." Later, speaking extemporaneously at the ceremony, he challenged JPL to build and launch a probe that would travel 10,000 Astronomical Units (an AU is 93 million miles, the distance from Earth to the sun) into space within 25 years. In the audience, "three out of four were dancing on air--and a couple were gasping and wheezing," Goldin laughs.
In the months ahead, Goldin's notion evolved into a true interstellar mission, a probe to visit the sun-like stars nearest our solar system: Alpha Centauri A, B and C. All three may have planets. They are some 4.3 light-years (270,000 AU) distant, about 9,000 times the distance from Earth to Neptune, which is as far as any spacecraft has yet flown.
Early this year, Art Murphy of the lab's Technology and Applications Program met with Sarah Gavit, manager of the Deep Space 2 project, a microprobe designed to penetrate the surface of Mars in search of water ice. Murphy reminded Gavit of Goldin's interstellar ambitions and offered her the chance to oversee a study, the necessary precursor to a mission. "He said, 'We need somebody to run this, to bring it down to reality, to make a real program out it, rather than just science fiction,' " recalls Gavit, 37. In her heart-of-hearts, says Gavit, "I thought, 'You guys are nuts.' Interstellar? Interstellar? Going where? Right."
As an 8-year-old vacationing in Michigan, Gavit was playing kickball on a sultry summer day when her parents summoned her to watch television. She dutifully sat down to see grainy black-and-white images crawling across the screen. "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," said Neil Armstrong. It was July 20, 1969. When the other kids returned to their game, Sarah sat spellbound. Later her family moved to Fort Meyers, Fla., and Sarah visit Cape Canaveral. After high school, she enrolled at MIT. Before graduating with a masters in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1985, she was an Amelia Earhart Fellow and co-led development of a five-person bicycle that attempted to break the human-powered land speed record. After receiving the James Means Memorial Prize for Space Systems Engineering, she went to work for Martin Marietta Corp. on Magellan, which JPL launched in 1989 to radar-map Venus. When Magellan was over, JPL hired Gavit for Cassini.
"Sending a probe to Alpha Centauri will require enormous advances in three areas," Gavit explains. First, since it would take 4.3 years for light to travel between Alpha Centauri and Earth, communications with a spacecraft flying between them would be difficult. For that reason, any spacecraft must be able to repair itself, evaluate data from sensors, devise missions to suit this data and reprogram itself to execute them.
Interstellar voyages also will require vastly improved communications. JPL uses radio, which requires elaborate enhancement of incoming signals. Since radio and light waves obey a physics law, the inverse square rule, signals from a distance of two AU arrive with one-quarter the strength of those from one AU; from three AU they are only one-ninth as powerful. So radio or light waves from Alpha Centauri arrive with only 1/81,000,000 as much energy as they would from Neptune.
Enter Dr. James Lesh, 55, who has spent most of his 28 years at JPL studying lasers and now manages communications technology development. Intense and articulate, comfortable explaining complex scientific notions to the unschooled, Lesh personifies JPL's workaholic, mission-oriented culture. When he goes home at the end of a long work day, he generally drags a thick briefcase along. "Going home for the weekend, I sometimes feel like I should be doing more; that might cause me not to do some big [household] project that I would if I felt totally free," he says. JPL is full of people like him. Many times, working at home at 2 or 3 a.m., he has sent someone an e-mail--and gotten an instant answer. "There is an appreciation for those who are committed, who seem to live it, who have a passion for it."
Lesh thinks lasers might be the answer to interstellar communication. "Voyager's radio beam is about 1,000 Earth diameters wide when it reaches here," he explains--and 20 billion times weaker than the power needed to operate a digital wristwatch. "If I take a fair-sized telescope and transmit visible light through it from the same distance," says Lesh, "the spot size is about one earth diameter," which translates to a million-fold increase in power concentration.
As daunting as the communications question is, the biggest problem with getting to Alpha Centauri is getting to Alpha Centauri. "At present speeds, if either Voyager were headed for Alpha Centauri, it would take 74,000 years to arrive," Gavit says. So JPL has turned to Charles Garner, 47, whose lab moniker is "Mr. Solar Sail" because he is an expert at a once-mythical form of travel--sailing the stars on solar energy. "A solar sail is a giant, lightweight mirror in space," Garner explains. Instead of catching wind, however, this sail is powered by photons--light particles--from the sun. Unlike chemical rockets, which burn for mere minutes, this sail will boost the spacecraft for months or years--but only if its sail weighs almost nothing. Garner thinks he has solved that with ESLI Microtruss, a three-dimensional material made of carbon fibers that are 10 times stronger than steel but 10 times thinner than a human hair and weigh less than one gram per square meter. Manufactured by Energy Science Laboratories in San Diego, the material will be covered with a reflective aluminum film. "You can support a square meter of this on your finger, yet you can bend it and it is so stiff that it will spring back on its own," Garner marvels.
Gavit's team, armed with these and a handful of other fantastic ideas, has proposed that NASA take an essential step toward funding an experimental interstellar mission by listing the project in its long-range Strategic Plan. Gavit's group wants to launch such a mission in 2010 with a goal of reaching the heliospheric boundary--the line in space separating material from our sun from the material of interstellar space--by 2025. That means building a spacecraft to travel 15 AU a year, about five times as fast as any of the Voyager spacecrafts.
The 2010 mission envisions a spacecraft of just 220 pounds with a science payload of 55 pounds. To accelerate this craft to 15 AU per year requires a solar sail nearly five football fields across, but weighing a mere 270 pounds.
All this, however, is just a warm-up for a true interstellar mission. For that attempt on Alpha Centauri, Dr. Stephanie Leifer, an advanced propulsion expert, talks about a sail miles in diameter driven by an array of lasers more than 600 miles across. The system would power a payload of 2,200 pounds, including the sail, to a tenth the speed of light--many times faster than the most advanced propulsion system currently in use. But even this would require "more energy than is produced by human civilization in a month," Leifer sighs. And even at a tenth the speed of light, a simple fly-by of Alpha Centauri would take close to 40 years.
"There are so many problems to be solved before we can even think of going to another star," Leifer says. "People in the space program have been screaming about launch costs for decades. The reality is that we can't conceive of a small interstellar mission. We don't know how to build anything that tiny to go to another star." Leifer thinks that before a true interstellar mission can be launched, NASA will most likely be able to put a base on the moon or on an asteroid, from which it could build the infrastructure to mine raw materials and manufacture the spacecraft. "This is really far-out stuff that it's hard to imagine doing in the next 50 or even 100 years," she says. "It would be really neat if I could live to see a lunar base or long-term human habitats in space, where people can live and work. Those are the kinds of things that excite me."
Nor does Gavit imagine she will live to see an Alpha Centauri launch. "Maybe my nieces and nephews will," she says. "When I first took this job, it wasn't my first choice. One day when I was grumbling about something, my boss said, 'Sarah, did you ever, in your wildest dreams think that you would be the first person to start an interstellar program for NASA?' " And then it hit me. And every now and then it just blows me away. Because I don't do this for the money. I do it for the dream, to explore, to know more about ourselves. Ask any kid on the street: They're full of dreams, they don't know what can't be done. And I don't feel alone--not at JPL. I don't know how we will get to the stars, but I think we can, that we will."
Frank Malina, the student who started it all, did live to see his dream realized. As JPL's chief engineer, he headed the effort to develop Army guided missiles. WAC Corporal, launched Oct. 11, 1945, at White Sands in New Mexico, soared to more than 205,000 feet.
Jack Parsons was not on hand to share this triumph; he left JPL in 1944. A year earlier, he had assumed leadership of the Agape chapter of Ordo Templi Orientis, a cult featuring priestesses rising from alters in diaphanous gauze to perform gnostic masses. Parsons dabbled with peyote, mescaline, marijuana, opiates and hallucinogens. In 1946, his friend, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, documented a ritual, including frenzied copulation, which Parsons claimed evoked the "goddess Babalon [sic], mother of harlots." Soon afterward, Parsons began using the name "Belarion Armiluss Al Dajjal Anti-Christ." He died in June 1952 in a mysterious explosion, perhaps an accident--but maybe murder. Malina credited him, after Von Karman and himself, with the greatest contribution to JPL's start. The crater Parsons, named in his honor, is on the moon's dark side.
As a Caltech don and a premier JPL consultant, Tsien Hsue-shen was regarded by 1949 as Von Karman's peer and probable successor. His blueprint for a passenger rocket linking New York and Los Angeles in less than an hour drew enormous media attention. Less than six months later, however, the FBI revoked his security clearance, suspecting he was a Communist. Angry, he made plans to visit his ailing father in Shanghai. Soon after, war erupted in Korea. His baggage was searched, and when classified documents--his own papers--were found, he was imprisoned as a spy.
He was released on condition that he remain in the United States; paradoxically, the INS began deportation proceedings. Despite the many scientists who vouched for his loyalty, in 1955 he was one of two prominent Chinese exchanged for U.S. Korean War POWs. He went on to become one of China's most revered scientists, overseeing development of ICBMs, weather and reconnaissance satellites and the deadly Silkworm anti-ship missiles exported to Third World dictatorships. He lives near Beijing.
Von Karman, through his friendship with "Hap" Arnold and participation in World War II scientific planning, had a profound and lasting influence on the U.S. Air Force. At his suggestions, promising young officers attended graduate schools to receive rocketry training and the federal government committed to funding fundamental research. He was honored with America's first National Medal of Science in February 1963, and he died a few weeks later at age 81.
After World War II, Malina grew uncomfortable with designing weaponry and with the national obsession for rooting out Communists. When the FBI began investigating Sidney Weinbaum, a Caltech professor and gifted musician, for Communist Party membership, Malina began to worry. With his wife, Liljan, Malina often had visited Weinbaum's home. Along with enjoying music, they had discussed politics and the works of Communist writers. Before Malina's security clearance came up for renewal in 1947, his home was searched by a methodical burglar who examined the contents of file cabinets but took nothing. Soon after, Malina left JPL and accepted a position with the U.N.'s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, in Paris.
After a second marriage, he left the U.N. to create striking kinetic art and to found the arts magazine Leonardo. In 1959 he rejoined the world scientific community when Von Karman asked him to become part of the International Academy of Astronautics. As dean of American rocketeers, he roamed the world, speaking of rocketry's origins and envisioning its future. He spoke eloquently of exploring our solar system--and of eventually journeying to the stars. He died in Paris in 1981.
© 1999 Marvin J. Wolf
Published in The Los Angeles Times
February 20, 1983
Hunch down, let the cool smoothness of the polished planks seep up through your stockinged feet and peer through a narrow slit set low in the thick stone wall.
Look down at the dark, still waters of the moat a hundred feet below. Let your eyes sweep across the water. Now look past the flowering cherry, plum and apple trees. Look toward the snowcapped, saw-toothed mountains that crowd the horizon from every direction. Imagine that your fingers grip the rough wood of a crossbow, and you may have some idea of what it felt like to be a Sixteenth Century samurai warrior defending your feudal master's fief from a firing slit atop the five-story donjon of Matsumoto Castle. Donjons are the fortified inner towers of Japanese castles.
Many call it Karuso-jo, Crow Castle, because it's thick stone walls are black. This is Japan's oldest surviving fortress tower. It's walls and moat were built in 1504, near the beginning of a turbulent era of civil war. Perhaps it was spared the repeated attacks that destroyed most of the country's other castles because Matsumoto is so remote.
"The roof of Japan," it was called. An island in a sea of forbidding crags, a landlocked island on Honshu Island. Not even 200 miles from Tokyo, but worlds distant, it is accessible only through high, steep, mountain passes or over dangerous, narrow rivers churning noisily over rocky rapids.
Life was hard here. The growing season is short, the winters cold, the altitude takes its toll in human energy. The tough survived, nurtured their culture, valued their land, defended it.
Perhaps it was only the remoteness that made outsiders covet this region. Or perhaps soldiers cannot resist the lure of fortresses, even natural ones. So in 1504 the warrior Sadanaga Shimaduchi built a fort here. After 90 years and innumerable intrigues, coups, successions, marriages of alliance and not a few battles, Kazumasa Ishiwaka, a famed fortifier, became lord of this district. He remodeled the castle completely. It is the work of his men that is the Crow Castle of today. But now the brooding stone walls of the donjon, walls that intimidated generations of warriors, can be breached for a mere 200 yen, less than a dollar.
Remove your shoes and climb the steep wooden stairs and ladders toward the castle keep, the steps worn smooth by generations of tourists, emperors, foreign plenipotentiaries, schoolchildren, local politicians and, not recently, soldiers.
The samurai used clumsy, oversized firearms; a few remain to impart clues to what sort of fighter could use them: tough, strong, patient men.
The castle walls are lined with wood hauled down with great effort from the dark forests that still mantle the mountains. Now the wood is dark and smooth, worn by legions of hands and stained by soot and smoke and sweat.
The lords and ladies of the donjon lived here with their retainers and their soldiers. They slept on thin mats much like those used by modern Japanese. They cooked their daily rice here, they ate and drank, slept and made love; they conspired, confided and cleaned; they lived out their lives in the low-ceilinged rooms of this castle, and traces remain to remind us.
Most of their artifacts, perhaps 50,000 items, are on display at the Japan Folklore Museum within the ancient outer walls of the original castle grounds.
Once the castle moats were the last line of defense; they kept an invader just out of bowshot while defenders, allied with the force of gravity, could still hit them.
But that was before firearms. Now the moat is the reflective centerpiece of a lovely central park peopled by strolling lovers, families, swarms of tourists. Matsumoto is no longer remote.
Now the tallest buildings of this city of 200,000 crowd against the skyline and overshadow the medieval magnificence of the castle. The fortress is a monument to defense of clan, region and animistic religions; the city buildings are castles of commerce, the new religion. They are hung with microwave towers, huge curved shields that connect Matsumoto with Tokyo with the rest of the world, instantly, effortlessly.
At the center of the new city is the train station. Japanese National Railways trains roll in from Tokyo and Osaka and from outlying towns and villages, bringing workers, tourists and foreigners on pilgrimage to the industrial mecca that is the Matsumoto of the Twentieth Century. A trip that once took weeks, a trip fraught with danger, a trip for the bold, is now a pleasant, often entertaining, four-hour train ride from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station.
The tracks descend through the mountains between small villages, and through manicured fruit orchards and immaculate miniature vineyards from which come delicious varietal wines, some sweet, others rather close to California or European dry vintages.
An English priest and alpinist, Walter Weston, was the first Westerner to visit the splendid alpine plain where the city of Matsumoto sits in Nagano Prefecture. Around the turn of the 19th century, Weston looked over the mountains, climbed many of them, and decided that this part of Japan reminded him of the Swiss Alps. And in a curious, East-imitating West fashion, the region is now more than ever like the Switzerland Weston fancied.
Perhaps because of Weston's influence—but also, perhaps, because of the many swift mountain streams that once provided industrial power—Matsumoto and environs became the center of the Japanese watchmaking industry and lately its computer industry, too. The factories are quiet, clean and non-polluting; they're all but hidden among the densely populated towns and still upland valleys.
You will not be invited inside these factories. If you come to buy products for export, you will be led to a display room, offered o-cha, green tea, shown spec sheets and samples. But behind the factory walls legions of uniformed workers, the lowest indistinguishable from the highest, make electronic marvels in spotless, dust-free rooms.
Often they attend tireless industrial robots or work in rooms illuminated only by dim, narrow-spectrum yellow fluorescent lights. Or assemble complex components with deft motions on hushed assembly lines. You know the names of their products: Seiko, Citizen, Epson. These Japanese workers and technicians are very much aware of who buys most of their products.
Matsumoto's watches and computers, and some products that seem to be both, are among the world's best and have found markets all over. Many foreign businessmen come here. Much business is conducted around the low tables of traditional restaurants, at the swivel stools of sushi bars or in the comfortable booths of Western-style coffeehouses or discos. So it should be no surprise that the city offers an astonishing variety of dining. It has passable Continental food—Italian, German and French—and the whole panoply of Japanese cuisine to choose from, from local delicacies such as pickled honeybees to traditional meals of sukyaki or tempura, as well as the more modern shabushabu.
Matsumoto has no huge, modern hotels. Instead there are dozens of smaller places, many of them recently upgraded with Western-style private baths. With true Japanese efficiency, this was often accomplished by inserting a multipurpose bath module containing miniaturized versions of the all necessities.
The oldest Western-style school building in Japan, now a museum, was built in 1876 and is a leisurely 10 minute walk from the castle. Its whitewashed walls contrast with beautiful blue roof tiles topped by a graceful weathercock. Restored classrooms and an auditorium are on display, along with period school books and Japanese versions of Victorian educational materials.
Near the swift, koi-filled mountain stream that loops through the city, and not far from the castle, is an enchanting Shinto temple, still very much in use. While sightseers rarely enter, the traditional façade of the temple is surrounded by small outdoor shrines. By local custom some worshippers fulfill religious obligations by singing cantos in a haunting, melodic chant. Their paeans address the rock cairns wherein, they believe, live powerful but benign spirits.
In the square before the temple, fearless pigeons flock to gather crumbs scattered by visitors. Some allow themselves to be caught by youngsters, who stroke them fondly for blessings of good luck before releasing them to the spirits of the wind.
Matsumoto is famous throughout Japan for its pickles and its many sweetshops. Virtually anything grown locally is available in its pickled form here. The sweetshops offer a variety of tempting traditional sweets and Continental-style pastries; neither are nearly so sweet as the Western palate might expect from their appearance. They are subtle, without the overpowering sugary taste—or the calories—of their Western lookalikes. In Japan, baking is regarded as an art form, and many of the shops offer baked goods that truly look much too good to eat.
Many of Japan's most noted artists and artisans live in the alpine region. Displays of 600 wood, glass and bamboo items representing their finest works are at the folk craft museum in Shim-Kanai, about 20 minutes away by bus. The most admired local crafts include beautiful yet functional lacquerware; a bamboo ware known as misuzu zaiko; a decorative cloth incorporating silken threads, Matsumoto tsumugi, and lovely birch carvings. An ornate, embroidered ball called the Matsumoto termari is the most famous alpine craft product; the best are available only in this region.
Most visitors come to Matsumoto from Tokyo by train for about $70 round-trip, first class. There is also a daily Japan Air Lines flight from Osaka. It offers a breathtaking view of the roof of Japan, the mountains that once made Matsumoto a fortress, that kept it safe from foreign invaders.
Foreigners are welcomed now, but the dark fortress of Crow Castle remains, evoking the spirits of the past and fortifying the present with its links to an intrepid era.
© 1983 Marvin J. Wolf
Give credit where it’s due: This was Barriga’s idea. But Staff Sergeant Al Barriga was a cartoonist; he just didn’t have the creative writing chops. Besides, even with over 20 years in uniform, there’s no way he could have pulled it off on his own.
Like Dirty Harry says, a man’s gotta know his limitations.
So Barriga came to me – his boss.
It was 1968, we were stationed in South Korea, and we were bored out of our tiny minds. “We” was me, the Seventh Infantry Division’s public information officer, Barriga, and the five other soldiers who worked for me.
Not that we had nothing to do. We put out The Bayonet, the division’s weekly newspaper. While this was widely ignored as Army propaganda — you can’t fool the troops — we still tried to make it as interesting as possible. We also pulled field duty, maintained our equipment, froze our butts off and suffered the same lack of creature comfort as everyone else at Camp Casey. And like every other red-blooded American soldier, we endured a lack of off-duty attractions beyond those offered by the venereal disease distribution center outside our gates, better known as the village of Tongduchon.
While working in a warm office is way better than dragging a rifle and combat gear up and down frozen mountains or through icky, sticky rice paddies, we were bored with putting out a newspaper that nobody read, filled with “news” that everybody either already knew or didn’t care about.
The single exception was sports. Guys liked to read about intramural competition. There were bragging rights in sharing a Quonset hut with a member of a championship team.
But now it was late winter. Football was long over. Basketball was finished. We had no hockey rink and it would be months before baseball. Our sports page dwindled to almost nothing; troops got their only sports fix from Stars & Stripes, the semi-official Department of Defense daily, which along with world and national news, carried pro and college scores and wire service features.
Then Barriga thought of a way to fill our sports page.
With assistance from the whole office, he invented a sport. Barriga’s parents were from Peru. His ancestors, he firmly believed, were Incas. So we dubbed it “grumaché” and said it was the “Sport of Inca Kings.”
We began by reporting the results of the first round of the [mythical] Mayta Cup, the [mythical] international grumaché tournament held in Cuzco, Peru, and named for the Inca athlete king, Mayta Cápac.
There really was a Mayta Cápac — 750 years ago. Sports-wise, nothing much has happened in southern Peru since 1533, when Pizarro sacked and looted Cuzco.
We began with the assumption that none of our readers spoke Quechua, the native language of the Central Andes. Not that Barriga did, either, but he knew a smattering. To color our reports, we sprinkled game highlights with whatever words and phrases he could recall. For example, we called the grumaché field rit'i qewa, which means snow-covered grass. [Maybe]. Other grumaché terms were mostly words used by Barriga’s dad when he was drinking. Or by his mom when his dad drank too much.
In reporting a baseball game, no contemporary sportswriter would explain stuff like “strikeout,” “infield fly rule” or “no-hitter.” So while we used assorted grumaché terms, we rarely explained them. Nor did we describe the object of the game or the field it was played on, except in passing or with Quechua words. And of course, we made up rules and changed them as we went along.
Think about what it would be like to read an account of a hockey game if you’d never seen one, and didn’t know the rules or even what equipment players used — that was the fun of it, knowing that our readers would be scratching their heads and for the first time talking about something they read in our paper.
Not until our report of the third round of the semi-finals did we let slip that grumaché was played on a sunken hexagonal field about half the size of a basketball court. There was a simi rumi [stone mouth or goal hole] in each of the six sides, alternately defended by two opposing teams. The idea was to throw, kick or stuff a rumi pupu into an opponent’s simi rumi. The rumi pupu could be thrown or bounced but never carried or rolled; a rumi pupu, we eventually mentioned, was a 15-pound, leather-wrapped stone.
All these game details, and others, were slipped into stories, a few at a time in no particular order. Eventually, discerning readers understood why, while fielding only seven men, a [mythical] squad needed 30 players. And why so many players suffered [mythical] bruises and serious [mythical] hand, head, leg and foot injuries. Except we didn’t say anything about it being mythical.
In our third piece we mentioned in passing that Special Service officials were discussing plans for a [mythical] Seventh Division grumaché tournament.
I should explain that every story we published, as well as every news release, was reviewed by my boss, Major Matero,* the civil affairs officer. But by 10:00 am most mornings Matero had sipped so much bourbon-laced coffee that he would approve anything, including a test piece I submitted reporting that Amelia Earhart was found working as a Tongduchon bar girl.
We had planned four stories, ending with final playoff results from Cuzco, which would get us almost within spittoon range of baseball spring training.
But then came a telex message from Stars & Stripes in Tokyo; I’d forgotten that they were on our distribution list. Stripes editors browsed our pages looking for stories that they could expand or report more widely. The sports editor asked me to send scores and highlights from our grumaché tournament, the Chicha Cup. In Quechua, Chicha [actually] means beer.
Obviously, Stripes was just as desperate for sports news as we were.
So as grumaché disappeared from The Bayonet, weekly tournament roundups appeared every Saturday in Stripes. A million readers from Pearl Harbor to Hong Kong, from Sydney to New Delhi, scratched their heads over the mysteries of grumaché. Twice editors telexed requests for explanation of terms; I ignored these until an irate editor telephoned, then had Barriga create a skeletal grumaché lexicon in faux Quechua.
Desperate to end the hoax without giving ourselves away, we dreamed up a tournament grand finale: A prolonged, scoreless struggle between the 2072nd Radio Research Group and the 9th Ordnance Depot team. These were, of course, nonexistent units. We did have a small Radio Research detachment, but their mission — mining North Korean Army radio traffic for useful intelligence — was classified. Anybody attempting to contact any unit called “radio research” was routed to a counterintelligence officer who scared them off. We sort of had an ordnance outfit, but its men and equipment had deployed to Vietnam, leaving behind a skeleton force. They rarely answered their phone; I suspected that they all hung out in the PX cafeteria drinking coffee.
To tie things up in a bow, we created an exciting finish that we hoped would forestall all further requests for grumaché news: Through four scoreless periods, the Radio Research guys would hold off several clever asnu [donkey] sonqo-suwa [heart-stealer] feints by the Ordnance team. With only minutes before sunset — grumaché play is suspended until daybreak so that qolqe [money] could be erk'eta munay [given affection] — the 2072nd‘s qoyllor [star] songollay [sweetheart] fractured his knee while attempting the difficult munay usa [love louse] maneuver.
With both sides out of ambulatory replacements, the kura [priest] ran onto the field yelling “Soq'oita q'owai,” [“Give me something to drink!”] to halt play. He then declared am urubamba [a plain of snakes, e.g., a draw], whereupon both enraged benches limped onto the rit’i qewa and pelted each other with ukuku wiqsa kuna [bear heads, e.g. worn-out rumi pupu]. After MPs restored order it was decreed that grumaché would no longer be played in the division.
Just as we were ready to ship this masterpiece to Tokyo, Major Matero’s liver failed; he was evacuated Stateside for treatment. Until a replacement arrived, the chief of staff’s sharp-eyed master sergeant, a veteran of decades proofreading personnel orders, would review our press releases for style and punctuation. The chief of staff himself would spot-check content.
There was no way we could sneak even a single rumi pupu past the master sergeant, and the chief of staff would have kittens the first time he encountered a phrase like “Soq'oita q'owai.”
I decided to cancel the last piece.
Then the Stripes editor called from Tokyo. He’d planned to run our final piece as the lead story in Sunday’s sports roundup. When I started making excuses he asked for my boss’s phone number. I faked static interference as an excuse to hang up, but it was plain that he'd call back.
We were screwed.
Barriga was scheduled to rotate Stateside and then retire from the Army; I arranged for him to leave Korea immediately. Cleaning out his desk I found a letter he’d written in which he accepted all responsibility for the hoax. I might have been tempted to keep it, except that it was so full of misspelled words and make-you-cringe grammar that no one would believe that this particular cartoonist could have written anything published in Stripes.
In any case, as senior officer, I alone was responsible. I made an appointment to see the chief of staff, a humorless, no-nonsense full colonel, and confess all. If by some twist of fate I was spared a court-martial, I could expect immediate reassignment to infantry duty on the DMZ.
I began packing.
And then the weather turned unseasonably warm; a forecasted blizzard became an intense, slow-moving rainstorm that washed out roads and bridges from South Korea’s Yellow Sea coast to the Straits of Tsushima.
I telexed the sports editor in Tokyo that due to severe weather, our tournament was cancelled.
I heard no more about grumaché until a few weeks later, while attending a conference in Tokyo. The last day’s events included a tour of Stars & Stripes. As I traversed a top-floor corridor en route to a briefing, a flinty Marine colonel hailed me through his open office door.
The new commanding officer.
“Seventh Division?” he said, eying my shoulder patch.
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Then you’d be the public information officer?”
“Grumaché – that was pure, unadulterated, bull, right?”
“Tell me that it wasn’t a hoax.”
“No sir, I can’t tell you that.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Captain, you just made me $100 richer,” he said. “A bet with my predecessor.”
“Glad to be of service, sir,” I said, choosing my words carefully.
He turned my blood to ice with a withering glance.
“Pull something like that on my watch and I’ll see you in Leavenworth,” he growled.
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is home to the Army’s maximum security prison.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I mean, no, sir.”
“At the Naval Academy I took four years of Spanish,” he said, studying me. “So when I graduated, in 1939, and chose to serve in the Corps, my first duty station was the embassy Marine detachment in Lima, Peru.”
I was beginning to understand.
“Spanish is useful in Peru,” he continued. “But back before the war, the locals mostly spoke Quechua. There isn’t a helluva lot for a young man to do at night in Lima, so the first Quechua every embassy Marine learns is ‘Chicha’ — beer.
“And the first phrase we learned was ‘get me a drink’ —‘Soq'oita q'owai.’
“You really can’t [salty euphemism for excrement] the troops, Captain.”
My heart went down faster than the Titanic.
“Grumaché!” he said, barely able to contain his mirth. “The sport of Inca kings! Really — the very idea!”
Still laughing, he waved me away.
* Deceased 1969
Copyright (c) 2014, Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.