In Search of the Haunted Tombstone

In honor of Halloween a tale best told twice…..

An American Family

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

50 years ago this October several of my friends and I went in search of a haunted tombstone.

It was October 1964 and we were juniors at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y. The idea to look for the stone came to us after a couple of hours at the Twin Oaks, a local college watering hole. At this point it is not clear how we knew about the stone. But one of our group knew it and this is the legend of the stone as he told it:

“A woman was dying, it was not clear from what, but as she lay on her death bed, she told her husband that if he remarried she would return to haunt him. Her face then appeared on her grave stone. The stone was replaced but each time the outline of the face returned.”

Googling this story now shows that it is a…

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The First Time I flew the F4 – 45 years ago this week

In the fall of 1972, I arrived at Luke AFB to upgrade to the backseat of the F4. I had come to this point late in life, 28 and a captain, having been a ground pounder (non-rated or non-flying officer)  for first 4 years of my career,  then going to Navigator training. I had always wanted to fly jets when I was a kid so when I was selected to fly the F-4, after nav school, it was a dream come true.

The F4 Phantom II was the primary Air Force fighter of the Vietnam War. It had entered the inventory in 1960, so in 1972 it was relatively new. It was not a small fighter, it had two big GE J 79 engines that could blast it off the deck and the bird could weigh in at nearly 60,000 lbs when fully loaded with fuel at take-off. When the afterburners were cooking, the thrust was its biggest advantage, it could push you out there away from an enemy or help you engage him in combat.

Training began at Luke with ground school. There I learned the aircraft systems, practiced emergency procedures, and spent about a month in training before I even got to fly “Big Ugly,” as we affectionately called the bird. As a WSO (Weapons Systems Officer) you don’t fly in an F4 — You Wear it. The cockpit was very small and so tight I could hardly move. I had on a G Suit to handle increased G forces, an oxygen mask, and was tightly strapped to a rocket ejection seat.

Which brings me finally back my first flight.

For weeks we had practiced in the simulator to make all of the checklist procedures second nature. On September 22, 1972 the weeks of preparation and classes came together in that first flight. I remember it as if it were yesterday. We went through the preflight, started the engines, I completed aligning the INS and turned on the radar, and the Aircraft Commander (AC), who was an instructor pilot, made his call : “F4D- 010, requesting permission to taxi.”

Our F4 taxied out of its parking space and slowly moved into position. While Hollywood has accustomed Americans to think that there is a lot of banter between aircrew members, in actuality there is usually strict radio discipline. In the back seat I finished my checklists as the AC got permission to take off. I wasn’t excited or even nervous – actually I really didn’t know what to expect – just did what I was trained to do.

Now on the runway, the AC pushed the throttles which had been idling in what was called “Military Power,” past the detent into afterburner, and released the brakes. The Phantom jumped off the runway. There is no other way to describe it. It was like being shot out of a cannon strapped to the shell. In the back, I called off 100 kts as we passed that speed and began to rapidly lift off.

All by the book.

Once in the training area, the AC put the big bird through its paces, I practiced with the radar, and we accomplished our training objectives. Then, the AC told me “You’ve got The Stick.” And I shook the stick, “Saying I’ve got The Stick.”

Here I was a kid from a rural small town with my hands on the stick of a top-level Air Force fighter.  Its hard to put into words my feelings of that moment, now 45 years later. It was mixture of pride, awe, excitement, and an extreme adrenaline rush that lasted well into the night (as my wife can still attest).

Over my years in the Phantom I would have The Stick on almost every mission. I would fly combat missions in South East Asia, see sights of amazing beauty in the air, and do things in the air that most folks can not dream of. And I would be changed in many ways.

Yet that first time that will be always the most special.

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Luke AFB, SEA | Tagged , | 3 Comments

September 11 – Some Thoughts

Another September 11th Anniversary; another set of memories.

Its funny how each year this anniversary brings to the surface something different about this day and how it affected me. At the time I was serving as the Alumni Director at Hobart College in Geneva, New York. 1 I remember it so well, a glorious fall day with azure blue skies that soon turned dark as the horrors of the day unfolded.

As I sat there in my office stunned by what I had witnessed on TV when the second tower was hit and later as the two towers fell.  Then,  I was immediate drawn to the task at hand – dealing with other alums who wanted to know if their friends were safe. So I put aside my concerns for my daughter, a William Smith graduate, who worked about a block from the White House and my colleagues and I began the task of compiling a list of alums who worked in the World Trade Center or in its nearby environs.

Those of us who live in New York remember the coverage in subsequent days in the New York Times. For weeks after the event pages of pictures appeared almost daily of those lost. It was spiritually numbing to see those faces cut down in a senseless act of terrorism.

Two of our alums were lost that day, which brings me back to my job.

When I was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War I had on a couple of occasions to accompany a chaplain to deliver the news of a loved one lost in the war. This was not the chaplain’s news to deliver it fell on the officer with him to break the news. In the aftermath of the Twin Towers, I now had to confirm the loss of three men that died who were alums.

And more sadly to call the families of those lost and offer condolences on behalf of our College.

In many ways it was much easier to approach a stranger. But to talk to a parent or spouse of a Hobart man who was lost was very hard. These were men who had walked the streets of Geneva, had spent time on the Hobart Quad, who had, like the men of my time, looked at the beauty of Seneca Lake on a crisp fall morning. We were brothers even though we had never met. Now they were gone and the emotions of September 11 were high. What could you say to a parent? How could you convey the deep sense of loss you were feeling for these men and for all the others? Looking back now from 16 years I have little memory of what I said, all I know is that I truly shared their pain and loss.  And in the end, I did what I had to do that day.

Americans measure their lives by events – sometimes happy, sometimes sad. For every joyous occasion there is a counterpoint. September 11 for me will always be such a moment. A time to take stock, to review the past, and remember those who perished- whether they were those lost in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, or in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Whether they were the first responder heroes who, like so many military men and women I have known, died doing their duty. They were all Americans, not divided by any causes or politics, but Americans who when they were called did what they had to do. And that is what I think I will remember this year. Not the sadness of September 11, but how the country came together.

And that is a good thing to focus on in these difficult times.


1 Hobart College is the men’s college of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.   William Smith is the women’s college.  For more information on HWS see Wikipedia



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Its time to write about Tomatoes. We suddenly find ourselves inundated with them. Of course we knew it was coming; tomatoes do not ripen one then another. They ripen en mass. So we picked not one or two, but 67 tomatoes all at once.

When I was a kid, my dad always put in about 25 tomato plants. No exotic varieties, just plain old big red tomatoes. So I grew up believing that no summer garden was complete without some tomato plants. I suppose he went to the local GFL store and got his plants. No catalogues for him.  They spent the summer lolling on the ground and by Halloween were nice and rotty in case we needed them for pranks.

Today I begin my search in the winter when the first catalogs arrive. That used to be in mid to late January, but in the last few years, like Christmas decorations in stores, they arrive earlier and earlier each year. I am really not ready to think about them before Christmas, but often they arrive with the holiday cards, so I put them aside until January. While I know basically what I will order – red and yellow varities, I spend some time reading the copy and looking at the photos, all of which promises abundance to come. And as I said above, this is usually the case.

So what does one do when 60 or 70 tomatoes arrive on your counter.   Well if you are my wife, you eat them two or three times a day.  Then you call all your friends and offer them some of the bounty.  While this sounds easily done, since we live in a rural area, most of our friends have more tomatoes than they need.   Garrison Kellior the noted American humorist once commented in a monologue that in Lake Wobegone, his small fictitious town,  people would sneak around at night and leave them bags of tomatoes on the steps of neighbors to get rid of them.  They also did this with zucchinis and other squashes which had grown to the size of bowling pins.

My mother always canned her tomatoes.  It was a very labor intensive process and I remember the hot, steaming water bath.  The great care my mother took to ensure the jars were hospital clean, and then filling the jars with the tomatoes and putting them in the hot water bath to complete the canning process.   When this was done, down they went to the cellar to join the jars of green beans, corn, and other produce to be savored in the cold winter months ahead.  To me each jar was a veritable time bomb – I had read about people getting botulism from canned vegetables in the Reader’s Digest in an article which detailed the many ways that home canning could do you in.  What if the seal was not in tact, what if the processes didn’t work, what if we ate a deadly stewed tomatoes cocktail and all died. Well luckily that didn’t happen.  My mother was a master of the canning arts and all went well.   When we were first married we tried to some canning, but the old spectre of botulism always loomed on the horizon and after a couple of years we moved to freezing them.  That worked when our daughters were home, as the frozen tomatoes could be turned into spaghetti sauce and other dishes.  But as we are now in an empty nest, that too has passed.

So we have sliced tomatoes, BLTs, tomatoes on pizza, fresh tomato and basil salads, and other treats, knowing full well that not all will get eaten.  We give many away to folks with no gardens.   And end the summer thinking that every tomato we eat is a million times better than the small, hard ones from the store that we will be faced with all winter.

And we are content.



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A Three Hour Tour…

45 years ago my wife Bonnie and I were married.  We then went on our honeymoon. She went to Arizona and I….   Well, as I was training to fly F4 combat missions in South East Asia, I went to Florida for Water Survival training.    The course was conducted at Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida and took 5 days.  The curriculum was designed to provide you with the skills necessary to survive a crash landing in the water:

Escape from underneath a parachute– AKA don’t drown

Drag through the water on a harness–AKA don’t drown

Parachute into the ocean–AKA don’t drown

Climb into a bobbing raft on the sea–AKA don’t drown

Wait in a raft to be rescued for several hours–AKA don’t get too sunburned (or drown).

At this point you are probably sensing I went into this with some apprehension.  I was never a strong swimmer, the crawl was not my best stroke, I mainly did the dog paddle combined with floating on my back.  Not really a combination for a long swim at sea.  Besides I figured I didn’t go into the Navy– being at sea on a ship was not my dream job. Yes sir, no taking off on runways that went up and down.  No landings that sometimes allowed you to use the skills you learned in water survival.  That’s why I was in the Air Force, which brings me back to learning those skills.

The first phase included classes discussing signaling, life support gear, and how exposure at sea could affect an aircrew member.  The concept was to make this information so familiar that if you ejected you were prepared.  It was the same training philosophy used to train the NASA astronauts and it is still used today. The motto of the school was “Forewarned is Forearmed.”

The second phase was the actual practice sessions.

Escaping from beneath the parachute was done in a pool.  Once in the water, the chute dropped over us as if we had landed there.  It was a challenge to find the lines and use them to move to the edge of the chute and emerge.  I had heard stories of men panicking under the chute, but it seemed to go well.   One down–many to go (and not drown).

Next we moved to the “Drag” phase of training.  At this point the apprehension level rose a bit.  Picture this: being on a large boat, standing on a “plank” for lack of a better word, in full parachute harness, and then being dropped 25 feet into the Bay of Biscayne.  I stood there and the NCO looked at me–he was really enjoying dunk the captain–and down I went.  The trick was to keep your head up, not swallow most of the bay water, find, and finally release the harness while being dragged along behind a boat.  Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

Actually, the parachuting was really fun.  Hooked to the chute, we got a running start, and sailed up to about 200 feet above the bay.   My good friend Al, an F-4 back seater from Thailand, later shared his experiences with me:

“We had our F-4 seat package strapped on, which included the one-man raft. We were expected to hit the water, release the chute, and escape from underneath it. Then deploy the raft, climb into it, and await the pickup from the instructors in the boat while bobbing in Biscayne Bay.    All went well, and in no time I was enjoying the sun from my little yellow raft.  Suddenly from the north came a speedboat with the driver and passengers enjoying the surf. They spotted me and turned with a big splash a few feet away and slowed down, long enough to say, “Here, have one of these!” and heaved a cold can of beer in a tight spiral which I caught with my left hand!  My joy at my luck was quickly tempered by my guilt, thinking that a court-martial or worse would happen if I was seen glugging down a beer during an official training exercise. So I remorsefully put the can into my flight suit leg pocket to be used at a later time.”

Al had all the luck; I had no boats handing out beers.

For me it was floating, floating, and floating–like Gilligan waiting to be rescued.  All I could think of was “a three hour tour, a three hour tour, a three hour tour…”

And back in Arizona my bride, on her honeymoon, I was sure was in the air conditioning of our home and awaiting my return…

The sacrifices we made in the war for Uncle Sam.


A version of this story appeared in the Geneva NY Finger Lakes Times, Aug 20 2017

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Mach 2

Found this little pin in a box recently. Not much to look at from a distance. Small F4 on it, but its the caption that catches the eye: Mach 2 Club, Phantom II.  The first reaction might be: “Is this a joke?”  No its not a joke.

Back in the 1970s, as a backseater, I did fly Mach 2+ in the F4 when I was a member of an FCF crew.   FCF – Functional Check Flight – crews took recently repaired F4s up and put them through extreme flying challenges to ensure that they were repaired before the next crew flew them.  One part of the FCF profile was to fly at speeds exceeding Mach 2.  Mach 2 is approximately 1,535 knots (nautical miles per hour) or 1522 miles an hour.

Now if you have seen the movie, The Right Stuff, you remember Chuck Yeager’s attempt to break the so-called “Sound Barrier.”   Breaking the “barrier”  was exceeding the speed of sound, about 761 miles an hour.  In the movie, Yeager is buffeted and banged about.  Its very dramatic, the small Bell X-1 is tossed around the sky and looks like it is entering a vortex of some sort.  Ominous.   On October 14, 1947, the Bell X1 – nicknamed Glamorous Glennis  after Yeager’s wife– became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound.  In the movie it looks very dramatic.

So when people invariably ask: “What was it like to fly more than Mach 2?”   I answer:  “Its fast.”  But also very routine.   Fying the F4 at Mach 1 or Mach 2 didn’t have the same drama as Hollywood portrayed.  Much of the flying of a high performance jet is by the book.  Checklists govern every thing the crew does.  That includes flying Mach 2.  Both crew members are very busy performing the tasks assigned, checking to make sure that the plane performs as it is supposed to.    There is a shock wave but the crew doesn’t feel it as they are going faster than the speed of sound and ahead of the movement through the air mass.  The real indication of the speed is watching the horizon and the Mach meter and feeling the power of the two F4 J79 engines, the  inertial reel locking and being pinned to the seat.  FCF flights also include very high altitude flying, pulling Gs, and other stresses on the air frame.   I remember flying above 50,000 feet, the oxygen mask ballooning against my face, seeing the curvature of the earth.  Its the closest I ever came to being in space.  Then when it was over the AC asking on the ground, “how did it feel to go Mach 2.”If this sounds dry and prosaic, it’s the typical aircrew member take on what it was like.

It takes a poet to do justice to the experience.

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. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— High Flight by John Magee

That is what it’s like.


Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

POW training – Getting ready for the Vietnam War

45 years ago this week I was in the POW camp run by the Air Force, it was an Eye Opener.

An American Family

Captain John E. Norvell, Urdorn RTAFB, Thailand, 1973

When I selected the F-4 aircraft as my choice to fly, I knew that I had selected SEA  as an assignment.   The F-4 was the workhorse fighter of the Vietnam War and virtually ensured that I would find myself in combat soon.   To prepare for combat, I arrived at Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington for two weeks of basic survival training.  The training taught the basic skills of how to deal with bailing out over a wilderness area, but since the U.S. was in the middle of a major air war in Vietnam, it also included a mock POW camp to prepare aircrew members for the possibility of capture.

The Training was officially called — SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.  Survival and Evasion and Escape were taught in the wilds of Washington State.  You were taken to the field and trekked for several days while trying to evade…

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