Santa is Sad this year

For nearly 45  years my old Air Force friend and I  sent the same Christmas card back and forth in an ongoing tradition.  This began when he sent the card to me, before I was married,  when I was in flying training in 1971.   I  decided then that Santa would return to his sender the following year to wit:  “ A special card should be passed along each holiday – a living tradition for Xmas – 1972 – J&B.”  I was married by then.  Santa came to me in 1973 in Udorn Thailand, where I had spent part of the year flying combat missions.  He simply said:  “As they say in the military, we concur -1973 J&K.”  

Each year Santa went back and forth with a short message about the events of the year. Some years it was about new children, jobs, or movement, as we relocated from one Air Force base to another.  Each  year the visit of Santa was met with great anticipation to see how another message could fit on an already full card.  The last time I sent Santa was in 2014 and expected him to return in 2015.

When Santa CardSanta didn’t come back I suspected something had happened. Today I “Googled” my friend and found that he had passed away in 2015.

My friend was a gifted writer who ran the “Bolling Beam” Air Force Base newspaper when we were both lieutenants back in 1969. He had a great and mischievous sense of humor and was not above making me the center of a joke in the paper.

At the time, I was the head of the plans office and had the responsibility for running base parades and ceremonies. Then there was a parade each month to honor retiring service members and I routinely sent out a memo about the event, which reminded people of the date, uniform, etc and also cautioned that sunglasses were not to be worn.

He turned the memo into a tongue in cheek piece in the paper couched as an interview with me, fictitious, and I kept it all these years. You can almost see The Beam interviewer, my friend, smiling as he wrote it.

Parade Clip

Needless to say, I read this today wistfully remembering my old friend and all the good times we shared back then. He was one in a million, one of the friends that come your way once in a life time. The friends of one’s youth are special and precious not ever to be forgotten.

Both Santa and I are diminished by his passing.


To read some of the messages over the years see Santa Claus is coming below




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F4 Crash in Alaska


In Alaska, December is a bitter month.

I have previously written about attending arctic survival school outside of Fairbanks when it was -50F and the techniques I learned to survive.  Still it gave me, and every fighter jock I flew with, great pause to think about dealing with the Alaskan winter on the ground. There was no worse feeling than to see emergency lights, such as the Master Caution (MC), illuminate when one was over the Alaskan interior during the cold months.

Master Caution is a misnomer, it implies a sort of benign warning.  There is nothing benign about it.   mcl It could mean many things, most were very bad.   The Apollo 13 crew saw the illumination of the MC light in their capsule just before things went south.   There is absolutely no good news when the MC light comes on.

Once while on a training mission far over the interior,  we had the MC light come on.  It appeared we had reverse transfer flow of fuel.   This meant that fuel was flowing out of the main tanks  in the F4 fuselage back   G16into either the wing tanks or a center line tank.   First we checked the emergency procedures checklist, then if various switches were in the wrong position, and  finally if any circuit breakers had popped.   Then seemingly the situation was corrected and we returned to base with no more problems.

Still there was that moment when we talked about if we would have to eject over some of the most forbidding landscapes on earth.

“Have to eject.”  The three worst words any aircrew member can ever contemplate or hear.  The diagrams in the tech manual made it seem so simple.


Which of course it never was.

Ejection is  the last resort.   The absolutely last thing a fighter jock ever wants to do is eject. The credo of the fighter jock is “Never Leave a Perfectly Good Airplane.”  (Actually that applies to about any airplane which is in the air — good or otherwise.)  In many minds it was better to ride the plane in than eject,  and riding it in was often not a good choice either. In either case, many, many, many things could go wrong.

Which brings me back to December.   In December of 1973, just before I arrived in Alaska an aircrew was lost over the interior.   Captain David M. Grimm and Captain Frank M. Mutolo disappeared  while on an air combat maneuvering training mission.  Air combat maneuvering is a very demanding type of flying — think the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds.   Usually it involved at least a two-ship formation, and sometimes four. G4 Wingman Captain Lawrence Hoffman later reported that the other aircraft containing Grimm and Mutolo turned into a cloud bank and disappeared.  At speeds approaching Mach 1 there is absolutely no room for error.

It is not hard to imagine that they hit a peak in the cloud or that some catastrophic event occurred, which was heralded by the illumination of the MC light.  Although an intensive search was performed for the next two weeks, no trace of the aircraft was found.   This was still fresh in our minds that day the MC Light came on and we had the fuel problem.

Probably the most famous case of a missing aircraft in Alaska was the disappearance of Congressman Hale Boggs.  In 1972, while he was still House Majority Leader, the twin engine airplane in which Boggs was traveling along with Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich  vanished.  As with Grimm and Mutolo, it was presumed that the aircraft crashed.   And it too was never found.   G11

To go down in the wilderness, to hit a peak, to disappear  into the crevice of a glacier and be lost seemingly forever is hard to imagine.  Harder still for a wife at home to contemplate.  In what other profession does a wife kiss her husband and send him off to work with no assurance that he will return that evening.

Flying a jet fighter offers a freedom seldom experienced by 99 percent of the American people.  It can exact a price.

December in Alaska can be a bitter month.



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

My Mother and the Turkey — A Thanksgiving Fable



My mother wrote the following story many years ago:

“When I was young, our neighbor came home with a parcel of turkeys and chickens. Since there wasn’t much traffic on our road, he let them run wild.   This was not unusual as most farm chickens and other poultry were loose in those days.    And it would have been of little consequence to me except I had to walk to school and back, which took me by the neighbor’s farm.   My parents thought that I had asthma and that walking to school would strengthen my lungs.  I was short and pudgy and my mother believed that it was necessary to keep me warm, so I was bundled up to the Nth degree.

Well, most of all the turkeys were killed or disappeared.  However, one didn’t die.  He was a skinny tom with spurs, which to my childhood mind seemed at least two feet long.   This turkey for some reason hated me!  And he was a killer!!!

Dad said, “it was all in my mind,” and if I stood still he wouldn’t bother me. My father’s principle was that if you sat still nothing would harm you. Mother was always getting stung by bees, Dad said, “If you sit still and don’t move they won’t sting.” Famous last words.

Well, in the case of the turkey this didn’t make a difference

If I stood still he flew over me.  When I ran he hit me with his spurs. With my little legs I couldn’t get very far without him swooping down on me.  It was about 2 miles from our one room school back to the farm.  That turkey could be way up the tree and in the field and when he saw me coming, he headed for me as fast as he could. He’d only chase me as far as the chestnut tree and he wait for me hiding by the chestnut tree. I tried every ruse I could think of, but even if I went way around that turkey would get me.

Of course all the local kids got a big kick out of this.   They waited on the hill near our house for me to come along.  I am not sure if they rooted for me or the turkey.  But to them it was great fun.  To me, it was “not funny” as Molly used to say to Fibber Magee on the radio.

They laughed and laughed as I tried to evade my tormentor.   It was mostly a draw with the turkey clearly on top in most of the contests. This went on all fall.

Finally Thanksgiving came, and unknown to me Dad bought the turkey.   He didn’t say it was my Tom, but I knew it was that turkey and I wouldn’t eat it. To this day I eat turkey, but I don’t like it.”   turky

To her last days my mother was convinced that the Tom was out to get her.



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Stories from the family Vault

Families often have stories that are not shared with younger members, one such story concerned my grandfather.    Hamilton R Norvell

My grandfather Hamilton Redfield Norvell was born in Detroit in 1863, when his father died in 1881 leaving the family with a mountain of debts, Hamilton and his mother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell moved to Buffalo. Buffalo at the time was the dynamic center of commerce on the Great Lakes. Hamilton, it can be supposed, hoped to recoup some of the family’s fortune which had been lost in bad investments. As is often the case, it didn’t work out that way. By the late 1896, he was now a clerk in the local post office.

At this time a strange event occurred, as reported in the local press:

Buffalo, May 13. H. R. Norvell, who acted as a postmaster in charge of a substation on Walden avenue, is missing and is said to be in Canada. He was last heard of in St. Catharines. The postal authorities have examined Norvell’ s books, found a shortage of less than $500 and have removed the office Norvell was under bonds, which can be collected. His friends have ineffectually tried to induce him to return.

May 21 1897 Auburn NY
Hamilton R. Norvell, convicted of embezzling money order funds from substation No. 4 in Buffalo of which he was superintendent, comes to Auburn to remain eighteen months and to pay a fine of $481.22 before he will be able to remove his checked suit.

PARDONED BY McKINLEY. – Dec 27, 1897
H.R. Norvell, a United States man doing a sentence of one year and six months at the Auburn prison with a fine of $460 for misappropriating postal funds at Buffalo, was discharged from the prison today on a pardon signed by President McKinley. Norvell was received here May 17 last and has been employed as a clerk in Clerk Winegar’s office since John Beaugert was released from the prison. Eight other US men in various parts of the country were also pardoned along with Norvell.

Hamilton R. Norvell, a convict in Auburn prison, was made happy Christmas day by a full pardon from President McKinley. Norvell was sentenced last May to serve one year and six months for embezzling postal money order funds from the Buffalo Post officer, where he was an accounting clerk.

Later it would come out that he had been drinking and took the money for a spree.  Not something often told to younger family members.

There is one more twist, on September 6, 1901 the Norvell family journeyed to the Buffalo Pan-American Expostion hoping to thank President McKinley for the actions in pardoning Hamilton. As the Norvells moved through the grounds en-route to where Mckinley was receiving visitors in the Temple of Music, the news swept the exposition that he had been shot. President McKinley died two weeks later the victim of an assassin’s bullet.

My grandfather later turned to printing as a career at the Roycroft in East Aurora for Elbert Hubbard.  See At the Roycroft

Posted in American History, Detroit History, Elbert Hubbard, New York, New York State History, Norvell Family History, NY, NY History, Roycroft, Social History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Halloween House

When I was small my father carved a large Jack O’Lantern for me. It was a very special bonding moment. One that I will always remember.  Perhaps that is why I have always liked Halloween.

It started out innocently enough.

After we were married, in Alaska I painted a large plywood board with a Halloween scene and we hung it on the front of the house in 1974.


Then I decided to build a coffin for a small haunted house in our garage the following year.



From that point it seemed to spiral out of control, so much so that in 1989 there was an article in the Washington Post calling me Mr. Halloween.  Yes in 15 years, I had developed a reputation among our friends, neighbors, and family as being slightly mad about the holiday.

So we decorate — some might say to excess — each year.

In fact our home is called “The Halloween House” in the town where we live.

In 2008 we were on local TV when a station came and did a series of spots from our front yard one morning as part of the local news.







It usually takes us about a week to set it up … And then on November 1 it is gone.

Those holidays when you are young are always the most special and stay with you the rest of your life.

Posted in Air Force, Alaska, American History, Anchorage Alaska, Halloween, Hauntings, Holidays, Norvell Family History, NY, NY History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

You can go Home Again

Last week I spent a great day at the Air Force Museum in Dayton Ohio. It was amazing to see all those aircraft — every version of Air Force 1 from President Franklin Roosevelt to the 707 aircraft that took the body of JFK from Dallas back to Washington; a B1 Bomber, the XB70 Bomber, various versions of every type of fighter, pursuit, incerception and Bomber ever made.

XB 70 nose and vista of AC in museum

Yet it was an unexpected moment that really resonated with me.

I was eager to get to the F4 and was not disappointed.  In the SEA Vietnam War zone, Colonel Robin Olds’ F4  appeared in an area that suggested Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, where I had been stationed.

Robin Olds' AC at AF Museum

I turned the corner to find an F4 crew cockpit on display with a ladder so that you could go up and climb in and sit in the crew positions.   Now I have not flown in an F4 since 1978, when I left to teach at the Air Force Academy, but I was compelled to sit in the cockpit.   Compelled it exactly the right word.  I had to do this.  I can’t explain it; it was an emotionally charged moment that drew me into a place that I had spent probably more than 1200 hours of my life in war and peace.

The problem of course was that while I was still 28 in my mind.

F4 1972

My body was 73.

So I mounted the steps and climbed down into the seat.  My first reaction was that I didn’t remember it being so far down in the plane.  But after gingerly lowering myself into postion, I settlled into a place of great familiarity to me.  I truly felt that I had come home.

F4 Cockpit AF Museum

So hard to explain, but it meant so much to me to be there.   It gave me a new appreciation for the men of WWII who flew the big bombers and how they must have felt when they entered a B-17 or B-29 years later after the war.  Yes it was a very special moment.

I suspect that many folks have the same moment.  There is a time or place in their lives that is special in a way that they cannot begin to share with others.   When they think about or revisit the place, they are taken back.   Back to a time when their soul was touched in a way no one can ever know.

Being in that cockpit again was such a moment.

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Washington Sep 11, 2001

FlagAlthough we had lived in Washington, D.C. for many years, by 2001 we had moved to the Finger Lakes area of New York, where I had taken a job as alumni director of my college. Both of our daughters had grown up in the DC area and our oldest couldn’t wait to get back there.  And as soon as she graduated from college, she did go back in 2000 to work about one block from the White House.

So it was with great trepidation as the news of September 11th  reached us that we heard there had been bombings in the city near the White House.  These stories later proved to be rumors, but at the time in the wake of all that was happening, it was easy to believe the worst.  Those who were not alive in 2001 cannot imagine the horror of any parent who feared their child had fallen into harms way.   The flaming towers and collapse was so fresh in all our minds.

So as I tried to call my daughter in DC, and as the news of the plane hitting the Pentagon echoed in my ears, I truly worried about her.   I didn’t reach her, but I left a message on her cell.   I am sure as she listened to it she could hear that I was barely able to hold it together.   The news was so grim.

It took several hours before she was able to reach us.   As the events of the morning unfolded, she and others from her office had fled DC.  First in her car, but as the streets gridlocked, she left the car and made it to a Metro station where after an extended time she was able to catch a subway to Virginia.  There she and her friends pulled themselves together.   So when she finally called it was late in the day.   A day where I sat at my desk at work, dealing with many alums who had friends in DC and New York and wondered if the college knew any news.   It was also a day, where I basically functioned on auto-pilot, going through the motions until I could make it home to a cocoon of safety in a world suddenly in upheaval.

In the  evening my daughter was able to retrieve her car from the city.  She and a friend retraced their route back to where they had left it.  But now troops cordoned off the area near the White House and told her that she couldn’t enter it.   With some persistence she was able to get an escort to go with her and got her car. Finally bringing to an end, a day that she will never forget.

If this seems anti-climatic later that week after the awful events of Sep 11, I would call the families of two men who died in the Twin Towers and offer condolences on behalf of the alumni of our college.    These were families that were not as lucky as I was.   They had no happy ending as I did.  For them the nightmare would continue for many years.

It was their legacy of that awful day.


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