I have been to Arlington many, many times and it never fails to move me.

The first time I visited this hallowed place was as a senior in high school.  It is amazing to me all these years later the effect it had on our group.  We left our bus, a typical group of high school students, chattering and pretty much doing what “cool” kids did in 1962, and then the place hit us.   Hit is a good word as the group immediately quieted down as the vista of row upon row of stark white markers lay before us.

My next visit was not until  June 1968 after  I had moved to Washington as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force.   On June 6 1968 Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.   As the story unfolded, it was announced that RFK’s body would be flown back to New York for his funeral on June 8, and plans were made to bring him to Washington by train for burial in Arlington near his brother’s grave.

On Sunday June 9, 1968, I decided to go to Arlington to visit the Kennedy grave sites.  It was a warm, sunny morning and despite all the recent events of the previous days, the area around the graves was deserted.  I climbed the hill to the graves to spend a quiet moment and pay my respect.

As I turned to leave there, to my surprise, were Jacqueline Kennedy, John Jr., and Caroline coming up the hill.  The Kennedy children had come at this quiet moment to visit their father’s grave and pay respects to Uncle Bobby.

Now this is the amazing thing. When I arrived at JFK’s grave there was no one there; two seconds after Jackie arrived a huge crowd appeared literally out of nowhere.  I will never know where this group materialized from.

Jackie Kennedy at JFK's grave 1968

Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s grave 1968

Jackie and the children walked to John’s grave knelt down, prayed, and then moved slowly to Robert’s freshly dug resting place.  Jackie carried a single rose which she placed on the grave, and turned and left, passing by not more than a foot from where I stood.

Kennedys at RF Kennedy grave 1968

Kennedys at RF Kennedy grave 1968









In 1985, we returned to the Washington DC area when I was  assigned there  again,   By then, we had two teen age daughters and  one of the first places we took them was Arlington to the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Kennedy grave sites.  Spots that we often took others to as well — all were overwhelmed by the power of this place.

But it is that long ago visit in 1968 continues to stay with me.

It was a special moment in one of the truly special places in America that I will never forget.


Posted in Air Force, American History, American holidays, Holidays, Norvell Family History, The Kennedy Assassination | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

When we were in the Service

Refueling over SEA

I’ve noticed in recent years, I often refer to the time that I was in the Air Force as when “we were in the Air Force.”

This is not surprising as being an officer, 50 years ago,  meant that your wife was for all practical purposes in the service as well.  To be promoted 50 years ago, one had to be married and have an active spouse who participated in the various activities that officers’ wives were expected to do.   That meant being a member of the wives club and being active in community services on the base such as helping with the child care and chapel. This really was the old military when a wife was expected to devote herself to her husband’s career, it was  a partnership and while many today will not understand this, it was the accepted norm for military service almost from the founding of the nation.

That is not to say this was a good thing.  Many women wore their husband’s rank:  they were Mrs. Colonel Smith and one did not forget this fact.  Nor did they let you.  They had devoted so much of their life to the military, they expected to be treated well.  They sacrificed a great deal in their lives to achieve the status of Mrs. Colonel.

To be blunt, the pay of most  junior officers was very low, and the housing provided was only the most basic, cinder block quarters.  Many of these women had to put up with their husbands being gone for long times, when they were left alone to deal with children, homes,  and any problems.   During our “career”  we moved seven times in 21 years.  That meant picking up, moving children in schools, and setting up a new household.  This was something that most civilian wives never had to deal with.

Lastly, if a military wife was married to an aircrew member there was always the chance that when her husband went to work — he would not return.  I have written about our time in Alaska when a captain assigned to my unit flew a training mission, had fuel problems, and had to dead stick the F4 in.   He survived the landing, but in the process, the ejection seat blew and he was fired up through the canopy of the aircraft and died from a concussion.   This was a peacetime mission, not combat.   How many civilian women saw their husbands off at the station  in the morning at the “Kiss and Ride”  and didn’t pick them up that evening.  When one flew, one was never certain what the day would bring. And if the person died, a wife was expected to not show emotion, but soldier on.

So there were in effect an unwritten set of expectations  that were entered into by the military and the men and their wives.   If Mrs. Colonel Smith wore her husband’s rank; she felt that she had earned it.   And  the military in turn provided a group of like minded friends who understood the situation as no outsider could.   In the old military that still existed until the 1980s, it truly was a case of “we” being in the service…





Posted in American History, Bolling AFB, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, Military history, Norvell Family History, US Army, US Army Air Corps, US Navy, Veterans | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Death and Family History

Sleepy 005Over the years researching family history I have read stories of terrible deaths.   There are murders, accidental deaths, and of course medical issues that run in families.

Murders are the most sensational.  In my own family, there was William Walker Norvell who came home one afternoon and stabbed his wife to death in Beaumont, Texas in 1928.  This became the O.J. Simpson trial of that part of the country as  Norvell was tried and then declared insane, retried, sent back to the insane ward, released again to be tried and finally let go.   Other Norvell family lines have poisonings, members who are gunned down, and stabbed as above.

Accidental deaths take many forms.   There is death in battle,  which touches almost every family I have researched.   There are the sad deaths of children.  Sometimes these are very poignant.  In one case, a newspaper story reported the accidental death of a young girl who had suffocated when she hid in an old refrigerator playing hide and seek.  Her family found her lifeless body– she was unable to get the door open — entombed in the yard.   Sometimes they involve  children and adults.  The train wreck of 1906 which killed the husband and two sons of Emily Norvell Belt near Washington DC is one example.    Fire was also one of the most common ways to die.  My cousin’s aunt died a small girl when she played with matches and set her dress on fire.  Other stories tell of whole families who perished when a chimney fire ensued.  Then there were accidental drownings which seem to take children frequently in the 19th century. Carriage accidents also were a common form of death in this period as well as steamboat explosions.   I have come across several Norvells who died as a result of a carriage mishap and at least one who died when a steamboat boiler exploded.  Interestingly, I have read of no Norvells at this point who died in an airplane crash, but many have died in automobile accidents.

Finally there are medically related deaths.   In the 18th and 19th century it was rare for a family not to have members who died of cholera, diphtheria, or small pox.  Early in the 20th century, the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919 took my great-grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell.  If a person died during this period, there is a good chance that flu was the cause.  My wife had an uncle Arthur who died of the flu.  A young man, he seemed to recover, but took a turn for the worse and then was gone.  One of his brothers died of diphtheria, about the same time.   There were many, many ways to die in the 19th century.

Some medical issues run in families.   Long before genetics, family histories tell of person after person in one family who died of cancer.   My maternal aunt’s husband died at the age of 54 of cancer, his mother had died of cancer, and all of his siblings died of cancer. Heart issues seem to run in other families.  Sometimes something as innocuous as psoriasis, which I have and my grandmother had, can lead to a worse situation.  My sister also suffered from this condition.  It is an auto-immune disease which can lead to more significant problems as arthritis and in her case a complete immune system failure leading to her death.   I suspect that there are immune system issues going back a long way in our maternal lines.

If this story seems morbid, it is not.  Death of course is part of the story of a person.  You cannot tell  the beginning of the a person’s life with the end of the story as well.

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Moving to the Country


About 1905 my grandfather Hamilton Redfield Norvell moved his family from Buffalo to the small village of South Wales, New York. It was about this time that he took a position as head printer at the Roycroft in East Aurora.  My Aunt May Norvell, about 17 at the time, chronicled this move in her journal:

“That summer morning, my brothers and sisters rose from their childish and innocent sleep. We were to go by train; father and mother were to come later in the summer. Father inquired and learned that the train would leave at 8:30. This journey was, to our imaginative minds, like going around the world. Actually, the trip would last only an hour, about 30 miles, but to us this was high adventure.

Finally all aboard, all counted, and seated on the red plush seats, we were moving out through the outskirts of the city and soon saw the first of the country sights. Our eyes grew wide with surprise at cows munching grass in the green fields, horses hitched to the plows with farmers walking behind guiding them in long furrows. There were old unpainted houses and barns, little one-room schools, and women in farm yards pumping water. We were city children. We had never known life like this. We had gas lights, a telephone, running water, and a bathroom. Out houses were something we had never heard of; neither pumping water, learning to prime a pump, or filling a wood-box or making kindling. But, we were happy that morning for all this lay ahead and we had no way to know what life would bring.

Almost immediately, the conductor came into our car and said, “South Wales next.” The Washington Flyer had stopped at South Wales. This was something that even the oldest inhabitants couldn’t remember happening before. Their eyes were popping and their mouths were open. Who and what were these people that caused a great R.R. to stop its most important train?

Father had given us the directions and a description of the house. Slowly we started down the hill from the R.R. and shortly came out upon the main road. At a little cemetery on the corner we knew we must turn left and go on. The distance was only a mile, but the morning was hot, the dirt road dusty, and we were tired and hungry. So we trudged along looking for the square white house father had described.”

To us a trip of 30 miles is nothing today, but to the people of a century ago it was like moving across the county.

In 2009, we went to South Wales to find the house, armed with a photo, shown at the top, from about 1910, which to our amazement was exactly where Aunt May described it.   


Posted in American History, Elbert Hubbard, Norvell Family History, NY, NY History, Roycroft | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

In Search of Heroes

F4 sunrise over Cambodia 1973

F4 sunrise over Cambodia 1973

This spring I have been doing a great deal of research to identify those men who died in Vietnam from my alma mater — Hobart College.  Hobart is a small mens’ college in upstate Geneva, NY that had only about 200 students per class in the 1960s.

I have written in the past about Major Ted Shorack, my ROTC instructor, who died in Vietnam three days before my graduation from Hobart.   As a result, my class (1966) will dedicate a new memorial to those who served in Vietnam at our 50th reunion in June 2016.   Thorough a great deal of research we were able to identify a total of five who will be honored:


Major Theodore J Shorack Jr — Honorary Member of 1966
Air Force ROTC 1961-1965
Date of Casualty: June 9, 1966
Died in Plane crash on patrol


PFC Thom T Osborn 1961 USA
Date of Casualty: January 28 1966
Died on Patrol SVN

PFC James K. Kirkby 1968
Corporal USA Medical Corps USA
Date of Casualty Feb 02, 1970
Cause  Explosive Device in Quang Tin, SVN

Major Charles C Winston III 1961  USAF
Date of Casualty: August 1, 1967
Led a flight of two unarmed and unescorted RF-101 photo reconnaissance aircraft against one of the most heavily defended target areas in North Vietnam

Captain Robert Beale 1961  USMC
Date of Casualty: March 17 1967
Died Quang Nam SVN  aircraft crash.

There are also several men from the Geneva New York area that are listed  on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. *

SP4 Ronald Charles Boothe USA
Date of Casualty: May 28, 1969
Ground casulty in Vietnam

PFC Kenneth James Helstrom, USMC
Date of Casualty:  November 7, 1967
On patrol Explosive Device

2nd Lt John Bigelow Moore, USMC
Date of Casulty: December 21, 1968
Booby trapped explosive device.

CPL Steven Blaine Riccione, USA
Date of Casulty: September 27, 1967
Small Arms Fire Quang Tin province

Captain Charles Edgar Wuertenberger, USA
Date of Casulty: January 17, 1968
Hostile action small arms fire

They all died young in service to their nation, leaving behind families that mourned their loss and never understood why they were taken.  At least they were remembered by loved ones.

It took the nation a long time to come to terms with Vietnam and these sacrifices.   Any one who served in the military in the 1960s and 1970s knows what a terrible time it was.   Service men and women were spit on,  people moved away from them when seated next to them, and in some places signs appeared in windows:  “No servicemen allowed.”   The frustrations of a divided nation were vented on those who simply did their duty and in some cases paid the price, as did the men above.

The names of all these men are on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.

These men all were heroes.


*Names provided by the Geneva New York Historical Society

Posted in Air Force, American History, AntiWar Protests, Hobart College, SEA, US Army, Veterans, Vietnam Memorial, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Watch out for the flying Bucket of Water

Each spring in Thailand, there is a festival called Songkran.  13th TFS patch

This is the traditional Thai water festival celebrated with the Thai new year in April.

According to Wikipedia:   The Songkran celebration represents purification and the washing away all of their sins and bad luck.  As a way to show respect, younger people often practice water pouring over the palms of elders’ hands. On the same occasion, paying reverence to ancestors is also an important part of Songkran tradition.

th17However, in modern times, the ritual splashing of water had evolved into water fights. Celebrants, young or old, participated in this tradition by splashing water on each other.

Thais had the habit of sneaking up on you and dousing you with a bucket of water.  This was not a light splash.  It didn’t matter if you had just landed and wearing all your flight gear, you had to watch yourself and remind the merry makers it was “Number 10,” very bad,  to throw water on someone who was coming back from a flight.

Being a fighter wing, it didn’t take long for the jocks to get into the spirit of the thing. Elaborate practical jokes were played involving water.  But the granddaddy of them all occurred when I was there in April 1974.  And like so many things, which began at Happy Hour in the bar, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

Happy hour had a way of beginning for some folks at about 5 and lasting well into the night, when they were indeed very happy.

During Songkran 1974, someone got the idea to fill a large trash can with water and prop it up against the door leading into the bar at the officers club.  The idea was to balance it so that when the door was opened outward, the can would fall and inundate the unwitting dupe who had opened the door.

Now this plan might have worked out ok if anyone had bothered to watch the door just in case the wrong person opened it — say the Three Star General who was the overall commander of the Air Forces in Thailand.

Well, dear reader, I can tell you know already who opened the door.    And was doused with a lot of water and was not amused.   Perhaps he didn’t appreciate being ritually cleansed; perhaps he didn’t respect Thai Traditions; perhaps he wasn’t all that Happy at about 9:30 at night to be wet all over.   We will never know.

But the operative word was NOT HAPPY.

Well if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t be in a strange foreign land surrounded with people who dump water on you.

And that as far as I know ended US Air Force involvement in Songkran at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force base for all time.  U Dorn Main Gate


Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, SEA, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

April Fool from the Cadets


My time teaching at the Air Force Academy was one of the high points of my Air Force career. The cadets were bright, motivated, and highly engaged in all that they did. Not the least of which was playing pranks on April Fools and other occasions.   I have previously written about “LCWB,” the ultimate cadet prank, when the last all male class had these letters inscribed in their Academy  rings — LCWB meaning Last Class with Balls.

But  the first time I encountered their inventiveness was about the first year I taught there.  On April Fools Day the dome of the cadet planetarium was disguised to look like a giant  8 Ball. Some time during the night they had covered it will what appeared to be black material and a white circle with a big 8 in it.   From talking with other instructors, I learned that this was not the first such prank.

In a previous year one of the small aircraft that was on static display moved from the main plaza, called the Terrazzo, into the court yard of the academic library area.  This was not the first time an airplane had been moved from location to another– one was reassembled on the roof of a building.  On another occasion, the weekend of the annual Army – Air Force football game, the office of a visiting Army professor was transported to an elevator, where it was re-assembled.  ac5

These activities were dubbed “Spirit Missions,” and I suspect were carried out by the basic cadets called “Doolies” – in honor of General  James Doolittle – under the direction of various upper classmen.  Spirit missions were not limited to just April Fools, but could occur throughout the year to build esprit de corps and camaraderie in the cadet squadrons.  Almost any thing was fair game, strange items appeared on the Terrazzo,  airplanes were repainted, and various cadet squadron emblems graced the doors of other squadrons.  Doing these pranks became in effect institutionalized and  were seen as indicators of cadet morale and identification with the wing.   There were few cadets who graduated that some time during their four years did not undertake a “spirit mission.”  a21

Some times cadet pranks took a very unexpected direction.  In November 1978 after the movie, “Animal House,” was in the theaters, one night some one yelled “food fight,” and the entire cadet wing of 4,000 had the mother of all fights.  While it was later determined that only about 50-60 cadets were really involved, it didn’t matter.  The entire wing was restricted to the academy grounds   The local newspaper reported that the menu that night consisted of mashed potatoes,  peas, stuffed peppers, and cherry cake that was heaved with abandon.  I remember hearing about it from other instructors, and then later in class when my students vented about the unfairness of all being punished for the actions of the few.

Cadets pranked officers as well.  When ever an officer was outside on the Terrazzo, the cadets were required to salute him.  It didn’t matter if they were 300 yards away, they saluted and you had to return the salute.

Chapel and Terrazzo area.

Chapel and Terrazzo area.

I remember going from the academic area to the cadet chapel, and I am sure that the cadets waited in ambush to catch officers out in the open.  By the time I had walked the gantlet, I must have saluted about 300 cadets. Where they came from is beyond me.   It was as if they waited beyond the Lance Sijan Hall, one of the cadet dormitories, and then emerged in a steady stream to catch me — an unsuspecting officer on the Terrazzo.  I quickly learned to time my trips to the period when the cadets were in class.

It really was a matter of survival.







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