Arctic Survival

F4s near Mt McKinley

F4s near Mt McKinley

The cold air rushing down from Canada today, its about -3F as I write this, reminds me of when I attended Arctic Survival School in Alaska.

From 1974-1978, I flew air intercept missions in the F4 Phantom II out of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. This entailed flying over some of the most dangerous and unforgiving terrain on earth. To the south, off the main runway, lay the Cook Inlet and Turnagin Arm; to the North the Chugach Mountains which bordered the city.

Anchorage from the air showing the Chugach Mountains and Turnagin Arm.

Anchorage from the air showing the Chugach Mountains and Turnagin Arm.

Most of our training areas were over the interior where temperatures could drop to -55F in the winter. These areas were marked with high craggy peaks, glaciated valleys, and large areas of barren tundra. Additionally, as we were charged with intercepting Soviet bombers over the Bering Sea, we had to be prepared for ditching in the icy waters.G16


As a consequence all new Fighter Jocks had to attend Arctic Survival held near Eielson Air Force Base, outside of Fairbanks. This was usually done in December and each year about a dozen new guys were sent there to freeze. In December 1974, I was one of those new guys. For the previous year before I arrived in Alaska, I had flown combat missions in Thailand, where the lowest temperature in the winter was about 55F, which I Thais thought was “freezing.” Think about this, Alaska in the winter -55F  versus Thailand +55F; a 100 degree difference.

Now I had grown up in the snow belt of New York, near Oswego where winter storms could drop as much as 102 inches – as it did in the Great Blizzard of 1966, 50 years ago. So I was a pretty hardy type, who I thought, was used to cold and snow.

But still -55F can given anyone pause.

So it was not without some trepidation that I flew to Eielson that long ago December day in 1974.  Now most Air Force Survival Schools consist of a classroom and a field period.  For basic survival the school took about two weeks, several classes, a mock POW camp, debriefing and then classes followed by a grueling three day survival trek.  For Arctic, the school was 5 days, a day and one half classes, insertion into the wilds, two nights out, and then a debriefing.  Survival schools were never fun, they were tough, extremely tiring, and demanding.  But they were about the most valuable thing I ever did in the Air Force, apart from learning to fly.G11

So we went to the wilds, the first day we learned to gather and build a fire in the wild (even though I didn’t smoke, I always flew with a Zippo lighter – the aircrews friend), then how to build a shelter-basically a snow cave constructed from fir branches and covered with snow, and survive the night at about -35F (it was a warm night).  And then, as the Air Force believed that repetition was a good teacher, do it all over again.  During the second day we learned to make signs “SOS” tramped in the snow and how to use flares – different colored flares were in our survival vests, and then spend another night.   Then we “Graduated”; it was my forth and last Survival school of my Air Force career.  I will say this Uncle Sam does prepare you well (shortly after I was married we camped at the Grand Canyon and spent the night in a shelter constructed from a parachute).

Then back home to fly again providing “Top Cover for America.”

And as they always ask at the Superbowl:  “What are you going to do now?”

I could eagerly reply “Go to a Mexican Restaurant and eat the hottest food possible.”

Posted in 43 TFS, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, Alaskan glaciers, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Grandpa Wires His House, or Electricity 101

My grandfather was a remarkable man.  But he almost met his match and burned down the house when he decided to wire it himself in the 1930s.   Grandpa' house

I defer to his own words on this:

“When I bought the house there wasn’t any electricity. I had to wire it up.  My brother Leo had a friend, and he and I got to be good friends.  The friend, “I’ll wire the house for you, I’m an electrician and I’ve got lots of extra stuff. Maybe we’ll have enough.”

I said, “Fine, if you’ve got enough for the downstairs. When can you do it?” He said “I’ll be here tomorrow night.” He worked until about 10 o’clock and I was around watching him. But he really only had enough materials to start the job and couldn’t get back to it for a while, as he had other paying jobs to do.

Well I thought I  had seen what he did,  and now thought it wasn’t that hard to be an electrician.  I wanted to wire everything.  I wanted to put as many wires out of one box as I could as they went the way I wanted to wire.

But I kept blowing fuses.  I can’t remember how many wires I ran out of that box.   Vi [his wife] said to me, “Eddie you are going to burn down the house.  There are sparks coming from the outlet.”  I ran over and pulled out about six plugs we had connected there.  Nothing happened, but I almost burned down the house.

Of course electricity wasn’t used for everything.

We had a gasoline-powered washing machine. I paid about $185 for it. In those days, people didn’t wash clothing every day, just once a week and you had a lot to do. Well, the gas engine wouldn’t run; most of the time it was a problem with the sparkplug since you had only one. The dealer told me if I had any problems to let him know, but he was too busy to come. So that’s how I found out it was the sparkplug–but when we got electricity we got an electric washer.”

When they got electricity it really brought them into the modern age.   Most rural areas didn’t have electricity.   But that wasn’t the only thing.  There was no indoor plumbing, except for a pump in the kitchen.   All the water had to be heated on the stove.  In fact they didn’t have  indoor plumbing until 1953 and used an outhouse and chamber pots in the winter.  The year I lived with them when my father was overseas in the Korean War was the first year that we didn’t have to use the Privy.

Most people  now in the second decade of the 21st Century  have  no concept of what rural life was like back then.   Farm life was tough, no doubt about it.  Ask anyone who has used an outhouse in the winter.


Posted in American History, New York, New York State History, Norvell Family History, NY, NY History | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Leaving Home

John Norvell F4 Backseat

I have been reading a great memoir of the Second World War: Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser. It details his experiences in the Burma Campaign as a 19-year old private in the Border Regiment fighting the Japanese during 1944-45. I mention it because he deals with many of the universal experiences of men in combat.

It is however his brief discussion of his family that recently resonated with me.  He speaks of his mother and aunts seeing him off to war, and how about 30 years earlier they had seen their brothers and cousins off to war in 1914.   As I read this I had a WOW moment.

Here he was talking about me leaving for South East Asia in 1973 being seen off by my wife, mother and aunts. Just as they had seen their own brothers and husbands off to war in 1942.   Now I have seen in programs such as Ken Burn’s The War, a lengthy look at WWII,  women who spoke movingly of their loved ones going off to combat.   One in particular said that as an officer’s wife she had to hold it all in,  to put on a brave face and that under no circumstances could she cry.   So she did it.

I flash back to my leaving in 1973, surrounded  by my wife and mother and aunts and uncles.  They all hugged me and my wife kissed me and then I was gone.  I went down the ramp to the commercial airliner that took me to San Francisco where I would leave from the military air depot at Travis Air Force Base.  It was the gateway to the Pacific in those days for all men departing for the Vietnam War.    I began what in my mind was clearly a new phase of my life, I didn’t dwell on it, it was my job and my duty to do so.

It was only years later that I learned that my wife broke down and cried as soon as I was out of sight and hearing.

I can only imagine my aunts and what went through their minds.   Here they had witnessed a similar scene in 1942, I suspect stoically sending their husbands off to defeat Hitler and going home to deal with their loved ones leavings in private.   They would then put on a brave face in public.

Fraser says in his book he doesn’t know how these women did it.  I agree with him.  How did they make it through each day: wondering what was happening so far away, fearing the knock on the door and the delivery of a telegram or the visitation of a military officer and chaplain.

When I flew combat missions, each day had an artificial veneer of normality to it.   Get up, do the mission, and return to base, and then do it again, and again, and again.  I was in my mind in control of my life, at least on the surface.  How did my loved ones handle the uncertainty of each day?  Did they try to push it out of their minds?  Did they rely on a strong faith to sustain them?  Or did they crumble.

I will never know, my wife and I have never shared this. I suspect it is like combat something she can never share just as I cannot share my experiences in warfare.

Perhaps, that is for the best.

Posted in American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F4 Phantom II, Family History, Norvell Family History, SEA, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War, World War Ii | 1 Comment

The Real “Postmaster” of Detroit

When John Norvell was elected one of the first U.S. Senators from Michigan, he was faced with a serious problem. Although he was a lawyer, his income came mainly from his position as postmaster of Detroit in the early 1830s.   JNorvell

After the War of 1812, he returned to Philadelphia.  By then he had built his political base and was viewed as a loyal party man.  So it was not surprising to see him receive a political post from Andrew Jackson. Through the efforts of “Old Hickory” he moved to the Michigan Territory and became the Postmaster of Detroit.

On April 11, 1833, John Norvell assumed the duties of postmaster. On his arrival, Judge James Abbott, the outgoing postmaster, was not pleased to see him. Being postmaster was a very important job in early America and involved a great deal of patronage and power in these communities.

After becoming Postmaster, Norvell moved the office to a small brick building that had belonged to Mr. Hunt, the former Mayor of Detroit. The Norvells occupied Hunt’s cottage on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Wayne Street, which adjoined the little brick post office. This soon proved to be too small and the post office moved into the family home. There the operations came frequently under the supervision of Isabella Freeman Norvell and son Joe.  For those few years, “when the . . . post office was moved into its new quarters, Mrs. Norvell and Joe were the captains. It is needless to say that the public were admirably served by this charming lady and the son Joe.”

Interestingly Isabella and her sons would continue to run the Post Office while her husband was in Washington.  This was due to the difficulties of the new state of Michigan in gaining admission to the Union due to territorial land claims with Ohio over the Toledo strip.  It took more than two years for all these issues to be settled and during this time Isabella was the real “postmaster” of Detroit as John Norvell had not yet resigned his position.

Isabella Freeman Norvell portrait attributed first to artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later,to the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842).

Isabella Freeman Norvell portrait attributed first to artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later,to the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842).

Norvell was often criticized for not resigning by his political foes.   The issue was not black and white.  The post office, while providing a great deal of political influence, was the only source of income for his very large family at a time when the economy of Michigan was very limited.  Detroit in 1833 was only a small village of about 1,800 residents with only 30,000 in the entire territory of Michigan,  So he held onto the job, which was done by Isabella and her sons, until Michigan was admitted to the Union and he could finally take his seat as a senator.  Being a senator was perhaps not what he expected it to be, but that is a story for another day.

It would seem that husband and wife political teams are then nothing new under the sun.


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

In Times Square

New Years

In 1969 two of my friends and I went to welcome in the future in Times Square.   This is something that everybody has seen on TV year after year, but few have experienced.   In those more innocent times there were no metal detectors, no bomb sniffing dogs, and for the most part no restrictions on anything.  It was a WILD AND CRAZY TIME.  It was the 1960s,  but more on that.

I actually had no idea to what to expect.  I had grown up in the 1950s and the most exciting thing I remember about New Years Eve was watching Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians and then seeing the ball drop.  For those of us, of a certain age, that really was all there was to New Years Eve.  If you lived in a small rural town, as I did, there was nothing to do except stay home and watch the festivities on a black and white TV.   For me as a kid, the future was 1970 and to find myself in Times Square to welcome the new decade was a great thing.

I had a good friend from college  who was teaching high school math on Long Island, so I took the train to New York from Washington DC to be there for New Years.  I had often driven up to New York, but the train took the same amount of time and had the advantage of leaving you in downtown Manhattan, without having to drive in traffic there.   So there I was in Penn Station meeting my friends on December 31, 1969 to welcome the future.

It was an extremely cold New Year’s Eve, about 10 degrees and clear.   We decided since we had some time to kill to stop at the bar in the old Americana Hotel for a drink and then it was on to Times Square.   We got there about 10 p.m.; the crowd was large but not huge. Once we got there, however, there was no leaving.  I guess I had better bladder control in those days as more and more people began to arrive and we literally were trapped there.

Now a funny thing happened:  while it was about 10 degrees outside the area, the temperature quickly rose it seemed to about 90 in the Square.  We had our heavy winter coats on and we ditched them; some folks stripped down to bare skin.  I never thought I would be standing in Times Square at 11:45 at night with half-naked people.  It was now a mob, people yelled and screamed and the mob grew and grew. Bottles were passed around, yes it was more innocent time.  With no crowd control, people continued to press into the area until you could not move even if you wanted to.

Another funny thing, I don’t remember seeing the ball drop.  I think there were so many people it was hard to see the top of the Times building.   The crowd roared and then it was over.

Almost as quickly as people pressed in to fill the square — they left.

The temperature dropped.

It was 1970.

The future was here.



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Christmas in War Time

Christmas is such a family time, its easy to forget that there are folks who will not experience it with loved ones.

For me that occurred during the Vietnam War. My wife and I had not even been married a year, when I went off to combat.

The small tree my wife mailed to me so long ago.

The small tree my wife mailed to me so long ago.

It was hard for her and it was even harder for me.   The family sent me a care package and my wife mailed me a box with a Christmas tree in it.  The photo of the tree at left ties me to that day so long ago, but I have very few memories of Christmas.  Note the fake snow sprayed around the mirror – why the PX had fake snow for sale is beyond me.   Behind the tree is a photo of my wife that –and the fake snow — tied me to home.   The only other reminder of that Christmas is the Squadron Christmas Card, below, which I kept.

13 TFS Christmas Card

13 TFS Christmas Card









From the standpoint of the ground soldiers, our time in combat was very limited,  maybe 5-10 minutes or if you engaged with a MIG fighter maybe longer, although each mission could be as much as 5 hours long.   You dropped your bombs and then went home.

Since we were in Thailand, the Poinsettia Trees on the base were in bloom, another reminder of the holiday, but like shiny tinsel on the tree they only suggested Christmas.    The calendar said December 25, but we hardly felt like celebrating.  In those pre-email, internet, and cell phone days we really were isolated.

Poinsettia trees at Udorn.

Poinsettia trees at Udorn.

On Christmas Day we aimlessly wandered the base.   I had it easy, if you contrast it with others in my family.    My Dad was in WW II and Korea missing several Christmases.  My uncle who died last year spent Christmas 1944 in the Battle of the Bulge.  This was a particularly grim episode of the war. The army had expected a quick push and when the advance stalled, the men were ill prepared for the December weather.  Though he never, ever talked about his time in combat, he did admit that it was tremendously cold and that there were great losses.  I don’t think he even celebrated Christmas.

My third great grandfather Lt. Lipscomb Norvell  spent Christmas 1780 as a POW of the British.  Enough said on that – but he did survive.

All these Christmases were terrible.   There is no such thing as a good Christmas in war.   The men and women who find themselves swept up in war try to cheer themselves up in whatever manner, but it is very, very hard to do.

When I say that we restlessly wandered the base on Christmas, it was just that.  It was like we were disconnected.   We were rootless and we didn’t really understand why.

This year many young Americans will again find themselves far from home.  They will try to be happy, but the joy will be missing.   They will be rootless and not know why, cut off from family and friends and all the things that make Christmas special.

Please keep them in mind and think about all that they do for you to keep you safe.




Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Christmas, Veterans, Vietnam War, World War Ii | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Special Gifts


Did you ever get a really special Christmas ornament?

Now this can be a good or bad question.

For example, when our children were small they often made “special” ornaments in school. Like most parents we displayed them on the tree for a few years and then they were carefully stored away for the future. Actually, that is true as my wife saved almost everything that they made.   We had a friend who told her children that they should put their school made ornaments on the back of the tree near the window so the people outside could appreciate them. A pretty slick ploy if you think about it.

Some ornaments truly are good, I still have a large red ball that I got when I was 5, about 66 years ago, with my name on it. My wife has hand-painted snow scenes of Alaska on several balls that are on our tree. We also have many ornaments that are from areas where we lived: Alaska, California (San Francisco), Virginia (the White House), Colorado (AF Academy)… well you get the idea.

Then there are the ones that people give you.

My mother went through a series of Campbell Kids ornaments that she gave us each year. We finally had about 12 of them. Why she picked them is beyond me, but we graciously accepted them.  My wife thought it might have been a Campbell’s promotion, send in so many soup labels and get an ornament.   And of course we put them on the back of the tree near the window, so the people outside could appreciate them.

Actually this was not the first time my mother gave us many, many of the same items.   The first was “THE GREAT OWL CAPER.”

When we lived in Alaska, our friends had given us a small owl candle holder, which we had in our bathroom.  After my mother visited in 1975, she began to give us more owls.  We got owl lanterns, owl statues, big owls, small owls, owl towels, and even an owl toilet seat cover.  It went on and on for several years until she shifted gears.

And so we now had the famous OWL Bathroom which always amazed our visitors.   This was a dangerous thing.  They saw the owls and began to give us more owls.   Now I am not of the opinion that if one is good a million is better.   So we issued the great Owl Moratorium which prohibited the giving of Owls to us, our children, siblings, aunts and uncles,  and anyone we may have ever known, lest they come back to roost in our home.

So the ongoing Christmas ornament craze was nothing new to us.

Then mother turned to sending ones from Hershey Chocolate.  I am not sure where she found them.  I surmise in those pre QVC and Home Shopping Network days, she probably saw an ad in a Sunday paper magazine.   Parade often had ads for very special gifts such as elaborate nativity scenes featuring the peanuts gang or various pop culture items as Elvis dressed as Santa.   Now grant you, we probably weren’t easy to buy for — so to her this seemed like a nice gift.  We had after all taken the children several times to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.  So a Hershey ornament or two or eight seemed to be a great gift.

I hate to sound like an ingrate, but after she passed on we felt that all these “Special Gifts” were too good for us to have alone.  So we decided to share them with others in yearly garage sales.  It was either that or continue to place them on the back of the tree for those outside to see.  That said we did keep one to remember her and all those other special things she did for us over the years.

After all in the words of my mother:  “You can never have too many Owls.”

Ho Ho Ho

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