4th of July long ago

More than anything else, the holidays we celebrated together demonstrated and defined our sense of community. In our little town of Hannibal New York, each holiday had its own special rituals and observances, this was especially true of the 4th of July.  I had not thought much about family and family traditions. Most children don’t, you just do what your parents do, never realizing how much had been passed down from one generation to the next.

The 4th of July was a big occasion and as such merited a parade. Since I was a Boy Scout I always marched in these parades, some years carrying the US flag, other just in the ranks. As marchers we were a motley crew, all different shapes and sizes, some with uniforms, most without and seldom in step; which now strikes me as also true of the adult leaders, but we seemed to fit in nicely with the rest of the parade.

The parade usually formed the school, marched down Cayuga Street, around the town square and sometimes down Fulton Street or back up Auburn Street to the school. The Hannibal Central School band led the parade. George Tripp, the director, had molded the varying degrees of talent into a remarkably good marching ensemble. Following the band came the scouts, some floats pulled by tractors, some kids on colorfully decorated bicycles that invariably won the rider honorable mention. Finally, the town firetruck brought up the read blowing their sirens, as the firemen threw out candy to the kids along the curbs.

4th of July at our home today

4th of July at our home today

One year, 1960, the parade marked the centennial of the founding of Hannibal and was particularly a big deal with two or three times the usual number of participants from all over the area. The Hannibal Centennial was not only celebrated with a parade, but also with fireworks.  Finally, a time capsule was buried in the town square to be opened in 100 years. Alas, now since most of the beautiful, old square is gone, the time capsule is probably buried under pavement.

These events seemed to bring out everybody, which surprised me as every parade was always the same. I was a teenager and found this amusing. People would come early to get a seat, often bringing lawn chairs or sitting on the top of cars. I couldn’t understand why, as the parade would last all of five minutes.

Now I realize that these events were the cement that held our small town together. People came not only to watch the parade or the band concerts and plays at the school, but also to see each other and be seen– to gossip, to talk, to inquire about family and friends, and to let their neighbors know that they cared about them.

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Washington in the 1830s

JNorvellWe often see politicians as living exciting lives today filled with much media attention. It wasn’t always so.

In a letter dated December 18, 1835 John Norvell, soon to be a US Senator, wrote to Kate Mason commenting on his life in Washington:

This city is miserably dull to me. I find no one to supply the endearments of home and of friends in Detroit. The show of the fashionable life, the glare and splendor of office and power; even the anticipated seat of a senator of the United States, come when it may, gratifying as they may be to the eye, or to ambition, afford but a poor (substitute) for domestic and social enjoyments: for wife, children and friends. They would be more desirable, if they could be participated in by all that we love and esteem….

Norvell’s confirmation as a Senator continued to be delayed.   He was granted the title of Observer in the Senate, but yet a member.  The fledgling Michigan statesmen discovered that other states did not view the admission of Michigan into the Union in simple terms.

Almost immediately the Ohio and Indiana members brought up the border controversy and tensions began rising. Newspapers in Detroit demanded the return of the “Toledo Strip.” which had been the cause of the so-called “Toledo War” between Michigan and Ohio.   Some in Detroit felt that it might be better to remain out of the Union.  Norvell clearly set forth his position in a letter written on April 27, 1836 to Catherine “Kate” Mason, the sister of Stevens Thompson Mason:

. . . Your view of the pending subject of boundary and admission into the union is correct. If we could better succeed in the final attainment of right and justice by remaining out of the union, than by coming into it, I should unhesitatingly reject admission upon any other condition that the retention of our southern boundary. But to refuse admission would, I fear redound to the more certain the ultimate hope of that right and possession. By accepting admission as a state, with a declaration of our determination hereafter to adopt all legal and constitutional means to regain our desecrated and violated territory, we shall be in a position better to accomplish that object, than by remaining out of the union.

The debate over the admission of Michigan would drag on and on creating a major financial crisis for the Norvell family.

Since he was not yet a Senator John Norvell refused to resign as postmaster of Detroit.  Never a wealthy man, this was the only source of money that the family now had.  Norvell was is such dire straits that he borrowed money from Stephens Thompson Mason, the former territorial governor, so that his family could survive.   The postmaster job was a prime political appointment and Norvell was criticised for not resigning and opening it up to others.  He simply could not, as he had a family of 10 to provide for.   This lack of wealth would come back to haunt him when he was finally named a senator, but for the moment he remained in limbo — not yet a senator and not a private citizen and stuck in Washington as the debates dragged on.  And seemingly miserable.

Posted in American History, Detroit History, Family History, John Norvell, Michigan History, Norvell Family History, US Senator | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Up in the Air so Blue


When you fly in the military there is a path that you follow.  All do it.   You start as a student flier, earn your wings, become qualified in a certain aircraft, move on as a squadron member, and then if you are proficient, and do well, become an instructor for others.

From there you might become a member of the unit’s Stan Eval shop –or Standards Evaluation – which is the group that annually checks that fliers to make sure they are qualified and certifies their abilities in the air.

It  also should be noted that flying in the military is not just strapping on a fighter and taking off.  There are countless jobs that are done in addition to the primary duty of flying: Administration officer, schedulers, flight commanders, operations officers, supply officer, and the list goes on and on.

And if you are really crazy enough  you become part of a Functional Check Flight crew.

FCF is a very specialized type of flying which involves the most experience fliers.   And you get to experience the type of flying that is the closest to being an astronaut and is the most fun.

“How does it feel to go up in the air
Up in the air so blue
Oh I do think its the most pleasantest thing
That ever a child can do.”

Flyers take a child like joy in flight and are really big kids at heart, and FCF flying is the ultimate experience.

Another poem by John Magee,  that is less well known to most Americans,  captures the feeling:

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of –
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.”

Late in my time in the F4 I came to FCF flying.


The FCF crew takes planes that have been grounded for mechanical problems and after they are “fixed” takes them up and tries to break them again.

Yes I said we were crazy, but boy was it fun.

And as the poem above says, we did a hundred things you have not dreamed of.

We pulled G forces in excess to try to rip off the wings, we flew at the height of the envelope on the edge of space at nearly 60,000 feet and were as free as anyone can ever be.  We swooped and turned on a dime, as the adrenline and speed built.  We pushed the bird to nearly Mach 2, then we landed.  “OK, she’s fit to fly,”we told the crew chief, and signed off the forms.

And then… we went back to your other jobs as a squadron planner or ops officer, which was never as much fun.   And we all know how that feels when we are bound to a desk for 8 hours a day.

I would choose slipping the surly bonds any day.

Posted in Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Yellow Fever takes a Life

DetroitYellow fever was a major killer in the 19th Century.   It was often called the American plague.  New Englander Cotton Mather described it as “turning yellow then vomiting and bleeding every way.”   It was spread by a species of the female mosquito and repeatedly killed thousands in the 19th Century.    A  yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia alone killed 5,000 people .

In August 1858, The Detroit Free Press reported the death of Barry Norvell, son of John Norvell and his third wife Isabella Hodgkiss Freeman Norvell at the age of 29:

“Death of Mr. Barry Norvell

Intelligence was received yesterday of the death of Mr. Barry Norvell, formerly a resident of this city and well known to all of our old citizens. He died on board the steamer John Bell, on the Ohio River being at the time on this way home from Arkansas. . . . He remained (in Detroit) until 1850, when, having perfected himself in the profession of civil engineering, he entered the service of the United States in the capacity of assistant engineer, under Col. Long of the Topographical Engineers. 1

He was afterwards transferred to the South, where he was placed in charge of the improvements on the Red River Raft, in which capacity he remained until his death. He was on his way home, with the intention of visiting his mother and brothers and sisters at Grosse Isle and in this city.

He was seized with yellow fever soon after leaving New Orleans and never recovered from the disease. It was not alarming in its developments and he was in no fear of losing his life during any time of his illness.

After leaving Cairo, however, the black vomit set in, and in a short time hurried him out of the world. The seeds of disease, implanted in his frame by the pestilence which now broods over the metropolis of the South, were too vigorous to succumb to the invigorating influence of a northern climate and he was struck down when he least expected it. He was twenty-nine years old.

His bereaved mother expected to meet him yesterday morning, alive and well, after an absence of two years. Instead of the familiar countenance, there came over the wires the intelligence of his death in a strange land, far from friends or home. Those only who have suffered such bereavement can realize its effect. His friends and relations have the sympathy of a large circle of acquaintances both in this city and elsewhere.”

Today we tend to forget how many people died young from such diseases as Yellow Fever, Smallpox, Cholera, Influenza, diphtheria, polio, TB and a host of others.  It was rare then in any family for all the children to reach adulthood.  Barry Norvell was my great-uncle, of his immediate family four children did not reach adulthood.

In reality the “Good Old Days,” were not so great.


1 Of note his death notice says he trained under Col Long, this was Stephen Harriman Long, his uncle.  His mother Isabella’s sister Martha Hodgkiss had married Col Long in 1819.  For more information on Col Long see his Findagrave memorial




Posted in American History, Detroit, Detroit Free Press, Detroit History, Military history, Norvell Family History, Philadelphia history | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

How does it feel…?

So there I was flying combat missions daily in the F4 over Cambodia in 1973 and a letter comes from my sister and she asks “How does it feel to kill someone?”  To say it pissed me off at the time is an understatement . Refueling over SEA

Hollywood makes being in combat seem so easy in the movies.  The hero pulls the trigger and then moves on.  Of course it is seldom that easy.

I have known many veterans, from family members to good friends and comrades in arms.   Many of them have been in combat,  many have fired weapons in combat, or dropped bombs in combat,  they are and were brave men.    They talk about flying, they talk about assignments and shared times with each other.   They talk about their service.

What I have never heard them talk about is the act of killing in combat.

To ask someone how it feels to kill someone in combat cheapens their service.  It negates their personal  sacrifices.  It puts them in a position of trying to explain it to someone, who can’t even begin to fathom it, what they have gone through.

Even if they have gone through a similar situation, Vets don’t ask other vets about combat. They know this instinctively.

When I decided to fly in the Air Force and selected the F4 for my aircraft, I also accepted on some level that I might be called up to kill someone.  Granted I didn’t think about it much; even after I arrived in Thailand, the thought seldom crossed my mind.  Even today more than 40 years later, I do not dwell on this.  I also know that in the course of the bombs that were dropped in war so long ago, this may have happened or it may have not.

I recently was at an event, and someone  innocently said to a friend, whose son was serving in Iraq, “that he was too good for cannon fodder.”    Perhaps the person meant it to be a positive statement.   This upset my friend terribly, a man who had himself served in Vietnam.  He did not view his son’s service this way, he saw it as an honorable thing.  This disparaged his son’s service in a very clueless manner.  He had every reason to be upset.

When my sister wrote to me all those years ago, I don’t know her motivation for asking me about killing.

But I do know this:  there are things that are not said and areas that are not entered lightly.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Combat, Norvell Family History, NY, Thailand, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

My Grandfather and the “Ghosts”

Sleepy Hollow CemeteryMy mother’s father was quite a story teller,  when we were kids he often told us of his youth in the northern part of New York State, here is one of his tales about  so-called “Ghosts.”  He explained it this way:

There was a man I called a “ghost” since he didn’t have any hair.   I said to him, “How come you haven’t gotten any hair, you’re the first man I’ve ever seen that didn’t have any.” So he told me.

He said that he had fallen into a trance, where he couldn’t talk and move, but he could hear what others were saying. Everybody thought he had died. In those days they didn’t have many methods to tell whether you were dead or not. They kept him four or five days and then they put poison all over him instead of embalming him. Here he was in a trance, but everybody thought he was dead. They decided it was time to bury him–they made a box, but since his brother was coming to see him they decided not to nail the cover on until they got to the cemetery.

Maybe meanwhile, his brother might come. Just as they were about to put the cover on, they heard horses and the brother finally showed up. They took the cover off and the minute they did the man sat straight up. He was all confused because he heard all this and he knew that they were going to bury him, but when he looked around he was the only one in the cemetery. He didn’t know what to make of it. The long and short of it was the poison that they had put on him made him lose all his hair. That was my “ghost!”

On one other occasion I met another “ghost.”  Well back then, and I don’t know why, they always opened a window around the casket and they always had candles lit near it.  One of the relatives got too close to the window and the wind blew the candles and set the curtains on fire.  They had to get water and by the time that they did, the corpse in the casket had gotten pretty well disturbed.  While this was happening, we had just gotten there.  During this rumpus nobody offered to take us in to see the deceased and I went in alone.  Well the body wasn’t anyway near the way the undertaker had laid him out.  

I took his hands and straightened him up and went out.  About that time other relatives went in and they got very excited.  When they saw the body, they started to holler and jump in the air, scared to death–“Daddy’s alive.” After a while they went back in to look at him and see if there was anything moving and of course, there wasn’t.  I started to laugh and they looked at me and asked what I was laughing at.  I said, “I straightened him out”–and that was the end of this ghost.

Posted in American History, Family History, Genealogy, New York, New York State History, Norvell Family History, NY | Tagged | Leave a comment

News from Afar: With Gilligan and Spiro Agnew in China

In the fall of 1973, as a member of the 13th TFS,  I had the opportunity to ferry an F4 from Udorn RTAFB in Thailand to Tainan, Taiwan, China.   The Air Force used a system of central depots to perform upgrades that couldn’t be performed at our base. F4 Phantom II  We were at the time beginning the era of laser guided munitions and several of our F4s were being outfitted to drop laser guided bombs.

Flying there required a stop over at Korat RTAFB, in Central Thailand, where we spent the night and then picked up the birds to go to Tainan, which was located in southern Taiwan on the Strait of Taiwan.

View from the back seat of tanker

View from the back seat of tanker

From Korat we flew north, refueling several times and constantly monitoring any air activity from Mainland China, in case we were being tracked (of course we were) by Chinese radar.  I could tensely see the coast of China on the radar, but nothing happened and we landed safely.  From Tainan, we took a helicopter north to the capital Taipei where we had a boondoggle good deal – a Chinese national celebration  would keep us there  three days .  Then we would catch a C-130 back to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, pick up F4s there and return to Thailand.

My pilot was a real fighter pilot if there ever were one.  He didn’t come to Taipei to visit the museums, and  on the first day he went off in pursuit of  the “special pleasures” the orient had to offer.  I was more straight arrow; I had heard too many stories about VD that couldn’t be cured and other bad things that happened to GIs on the loose in a strange city.  Taipei , however, was a safe city to tour and I went off on my own with no problems.   I simply held up a card with a destination printed in English and Chinese to the taxi driver, we called it a Pointee Talkee, and off I went.  I think now that it was a very trusting thing to do, but the country was under martial law at the time.  I guess the red light districts where my pilot chose to go were not a problem either, and if he contracted something he never let on.

I was sitting in my hotel room  on October 10, 1973, the second day of our layover, watching Gilligan’s Island with ch6Chinese subtitles on a small black and white tv, when a news bulletin interrupted the program and there was Spiro Agnew.

The announcers explained the story in Chinese, but I had no clue what was up.  For all I knew he might have become President of the United States, although there were no pictures of Nixon, so that thought quickly faded.     Many, many questions swirled through my mind.

Was Agnew dead?   Would the Professor finally develop a way to Gilligan and the crew off the Island?  Where did the sexy Ginger get all those amazing dresses?  Why did Thurston Howell III sound like Mr. Magoo?  Why would they interrupt Gilligan’s Island to talk about Spiro Agnew?   Was nothing sacred to these people?

Several days later, back in Thailand I would finally get the news of Agnew’s resignation.

When you are overseas, you are “Out of the World,”   no way around it.  You are not in your own world and not part of the world you are in.  Yes “Out of the World,” clearly captures it, and I guess that’s how Gilligan felt as well.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Military history, SEA, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment