Every year Santa came until 2015

Since 1971, Santa Claus has come to my house.   That was the first year that a 12 inch-tall standup Christmas card of Santa, holding a pipe with a heart applique in the billowing smoke, arrived in the mail. It was sent by some close friends that I had worked with as an Air Force lieutenant in Washington, D.C.

Now I was a Captain in flying training in California, with likelihood of being in combat soon and the stresses that the Vietnam War had placed in my path.   Then Santa arrived with this cheerful greeting:

“If Santa loaded up his sleigh and found room inside,
For someone who’s been nice all year to take a Christmas Ride.
He wouldn’t have to check his list or think it over twice –
He’s just say, ‘I’ll take Johnny ! Because you’re so EXTRA nice!’”

Kathy and Joe

with the engaging postscript: “Show All of Your Friends!”

A Christmas card for a 5-year-old, but still, Santa made me feel good.

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) and in flight training in the F4 Phantom fighter in Arizona.

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.”

Over the years Santa traveled from Alaska, where he announced to our friends:

“Surprise we are expecting – and you thought Santa might not be coming – 1976 J, B, and baby.”

As the service moved us to Colorado, Alabama, California, Virginia, and finally after retirement back to New York, Santa came on his merry way to witness the changes in our lives.   As the years passed, he also began to develop on a more topical bent to his greetings:

“1975 was the year of Recession, this old friend wouldn’t think of receding, that would be a trangression.” JK

“An old friend to help the Norvells ring in a new decade, (No Johnny, just because he has a beard, it doesn’t mean he’s an Ayatollah). -1980.”    

“To Cheer you after Princess Di, and Old Friend Comes to offer ‘Hi’!” -1997.”

“I’m glad to back with the Norvell clan, I know their Y2K bash will be grand- 1999.” JKLN

“ The presidential election never ends, but here’s your Merry Christmas Friend -2000.” J&B

 

 

After commenting on more than 40 years of births, deaths, moves, retirements, and even Y2K, Santa is creased, and wrinkled, with some yellowing tape to hold him together. He barely has a spot left that isn’t covered with greetings, but hasn’t stopped. I surmise, that he will find a way to continue for many years to always have the right words to say.

And once again – in 2014 he was sent on his merry way for another year, but he didn’t return in 2015 as my old friend had passed on.  I learned this in 2016 when I googled his name and found an obituary.   That might have ended the tradition, but google led me to locate his former wife and sons, one of which had the card.   So last December Santa came back for his last trip.

In the future he will make the trip only on Facebook, and he is ok with that.  He has traveled enough.

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Posted in Air Force, Alaska, American History, American holidays, Anchorage Alaska, Christmas, Christmas Card traditions, Christmas Cards sent back and forth, Family History, Norvell Family History, Social History | 2 Comments

When Johnny Comes Marching….

Popular music has often served as a useful mirror of our perception of veterans since the founding of the republic. The Civil War resonated with songs that were meant to support the war effort and the Union. As the success of the Union cause filled the North, the people looked to the boys return:

When Johnny comes marching home again
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah! …
When Johnny comes marching home. (Patrick Gilmore, 1863)

The praise of Johnny and support for the troops remained strong for the next 50 years. There was a sense of invincibility attributed to the American military. When 100 years ago the U.S. mobilized over 4 million military personnel during World War I, people were sure that the Americans would quickly bring an end to the war:

Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming
The Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming
Everywhere…. (George M. Cohan, 1917)

In WWII this was very much the same pattern. If the men went “Over There” again, they realized that it would be a much tougher fight this time to defeat the Nazis in Europe and Japan in the Pacific. Suffice it to say, this was the last war for a long time that popular music would support the American military. At the beginning of the Vietnam War, a song such as the “Ballad of the Green Berets” celebrated our military forces:

Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret (SSgt Barry Sadler 1966)

But it would increasingly be drown out by other voices as the war dragged on:

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die. (Country Joe and the Fish, 1970)

The anger of these words quickly transferred to the veterans who fought the war. In the 1970s, the veterans returning did not receive Johnny’s hearty welcome home.  It would take more than a decade for the country to begin again to show strong support for our veterans.

Will support of our veterans continue to be strong? It’s hard to tell.

Wars such as Vietnam in the past were unpopular because they dragged on and on. As the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan continues with no satisfactory resolution, Americans may again come to feel that this is a lost cause and the mirror will darken again:

Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction. (Barry McGuire, 1965)

Only time will tell. But, for the present, we take great pride in our men and women who have chosen to serve our nation:

And I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.
And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land God bless the U.S.A. (Lee Greenwood, 1984)

And this is as it should be.

__________________________

A version of the post appeared in the Sunday Nov 12, 2017, Finger Lakes Times newspaper.

Posted in Air Force, American History, Military history, Union Army, US Army, US Army Air Corps, US Navy, Veterans, Vietnam Memorial, Vietnam War, World War Ii | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Speech Given at the First Annual Veterans Dinner at Finger Lakes Community College

Remarks by  Lt Col John E. Norvell (USAF Ret.)  November 10, 2017

President Nye, Dr. Pierce, ladies and gentleman and members of the College community,  thank you for inviting me to speak tonight.

As a former history professor I routinely lectured for 50 minutes so I asked President Nye how long I should talk – He Said SHORTER ….

In 1966, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant.

Now admit it some of you may be thinking – , oh great another OLD VET talking about ancient history. And you know what, I probably thought the same thing in 1965 when they trotted out an old veteran to speak to our ROTC class, and I suspect that guy thought the same thing when a veteran from a previous war talked to him.

To be honest, the name of that Vet who spoke to me is long gone. And I suspect that soon you won’t have a clue about who spoke here tonight. – Probably within the next 2 hours. And that’s OK its not important that you remember who speaks here tonight

What is important is that a Veteran does it, just as one spoke to me more than 50 years ago. It’s the connections I represent that are really the key to my talk tonight. So I want to tell you some stories.

Every Vet has a whole collection of stories that he or she tells. Some are very funny, some are exciting, some amazing, and some sad. There are stories so personal that they shared with only a few close friends. These type of stories seem to fit this category:
“If you’ve been there you understand…” Tonight I want to share some of my stories with you. As I tell them I think you might identify with them because as I said “you have been there and you understand.”

Many Americans, outside this room tonight would not understand because they have had little personal contact with the military and war. Today, it is estimated that less than 1 percent of the American people serve or are associated with the military. So in the minds of most Americans being in the military is a foreign thing. They truly have no idea of what we as members of the Armed Services have done for our nation.

Combat is even more remote. War has not touched most Americans lives since Vietnam. After all, in many people’s mind, war only happens to others. Today in Afghanistan: It is the soldier’s war. It is not the ordinary American citizen’s war; it is not their experience.

It is only when war intrudes into a person’s life that this experience changes. And war does intrude into lives. And that is my first story.

My Uncle Harold was a private in World War II. His story in many ways is very similar to the one depicted in the book and TV series – Band of Brothers.  He went through basic training in the south, was assigned to the infantry, and was shipped overseas where he immediately found himself in the Battle of the Bulge.

Today historians characterize the Battle of the Bulge as one of the most brutal episodes of the Second World War. The Americans who fought at the Bulge were ill prepared for the rapidly approaching winter weather.  The operational planners thought that they wouldn’t need winter gear as – the war would be over soon   – THE WAR WOULD BE OVER SOON  – let that sink in for a moment. This is a common phrase from every war in history.  Funny that is not the way things work out.

During the battle, the push toward Berlin was stalled by the last German offensive of the war and in the end more than 20,000 Americans died.

My uncle never talked about this experience even to the end of his life, all I knew was that he had been at the Bulge.

But he did write late in life about an event that touched him deeply:

April 1945 – As we pushed through Austria we were notified that there were two German Concentration Camps near by.

The two concentration camps turned out to be Gusen and Mauthausen. They contained about 2500 prisoners held by the Nazi’s.   My unit arrived at Mauthausen the day after it was liberated by the Third Army.   All around the camp was a high electric fence. In the camp and on the road were many people, men, women and children waiting to be picked up and sent to hospitals for treatment.  All were in very poor health and looked starved but so happy to be rescued. Down below we saw a brick building with two high smoke stacks.

Mauthausen was a death camp. The ovens had been working 24 hours a day but could not keep up. There were piles of bodies along the road out side.   Action had to be immediately taken to restore order in the camps and to provide medical assistance to the starving inmates.  Conditions were beyond belief and we did every thing possible to help these poor people.

In the end my uncle was not only a brave soldier who survived a terrible battle,  but also a man who helped to save many lives. To him I say well done.

Next I want to share the story of Major Ted Shorack.

Ted was one of my ROTC instructors at Hobart in the 1960s. If there were ever a man who exemplified what it meant to be a good officer it was Ted.   He had the military bearing and positive attitude that motivated young men.   Ted was approachable and often counseled all the Hobart men who went to him for advice and help, whether they were in ROTC or not.   Further he was active in the Geneva community and well liked by his neighbors. One of his neighbor’s sons remembered flying with him.

He wrote:  My parents were friends of Ted and Elva Shorack. My older brother and I remember him fondly as he gave us our first airplane ride. I was 10 at the time. He took us to the local airport and rented a small plane and took us around the pattern a few times. He might as well have hung the moon in the sky for me.

Ted had flown the F-84 and the F-101 fighters. He was a pilot’s pilot. And more importantly, Ted led by example.   As the Vietnam conflict heated up, he volunteered for service there. Ted left Hobart in the fall of 1965 to fly missions in the A-1 Skyraider in South East Asia.  The following year I was set to graduate on June 12, 1966.

On June 9, 1966, we received the news that Ted had been lost when his plane went down over North Vietnam.

To me his loss brought home the realization war could touch ordinary lives.  Ted had been a mentor to me. He had given me confidence in my abilities and encouraged me to pursue a career as a pilot.   It was because of Ted that I decided to make the Air Force a career.

Today I often think of Ted and say well done.

Well, my entry into the Air Force was not without some bumps.  I had received permission to go to Syracuse University for my master’s degree, but during graduate school my vision had deteriorated and I could no longer qualify for any type of flight training.

So when I went on active duty –  the Air Force assigned me to a Security Police Squadron in Washington DC.

This to my surprise turned out to be the Air Force Honor Guard.   The Guard serves at the White House, Arlington, the Pentagon, and at all major US ceremonial events.   So I was assigned to the Air Force Honor Guard for about …..15 minutes .   Why you may ask, – well – members of the honor guard are very, very – TALL And you may have noticed: I am not.

So I became an operations planner and worked in the command post on the base. After after three years writing operations plans, it was time to move on.

By 1971, the Vietnam War was needing more and more aircrews and I found that I could again qualify to fly.  For me that meant going to Air Force Navigator Flight School, earning my wings and being selected to fly the F4.   After Nav School in the fall of 1972, I arrived at Luke AFB outside Phoenix to upgrade to the backseat of the F4.

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.  I have to tell you, I fit the F4 perfectly, it was where I was meant to be.

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.  As a Weapons Systems Officer – a WSO in the backseat, I didn’t fly in an F4 — I Wore it.

Which brings me to my first flight.

Training began 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 the bird.  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 my checklist in the back 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.  I wasn’t excited or even nervous – actually I really didn’t know what to expect – I just did what I was trained to do.  Now on the runway, the pilot pushed the throttles into afterburner, and released the brakes.   With a ROAR of those two big engines, the Phantom accelerated rapidly off the runway.   To me, in the back, it was like being shot out of a cannon strapped to the shell.

To understand how this affected me, you need to know that the T-29 – a propeller powered trainer I had learned on, cruised at a speed only slightly faster than the F4 took off.  So I was playing catch up right from the start.

But as we approached our training area, things finally began to settle down. Once there we did maneuvering and I learned how the radar operated on real targets.

Then, the instructor told me “You’ve got The Stick.”

And I shook the stick, “Saying I’ve got The Stick.”

I tried to sound confident – but, to be honest it had never dawned on me that I would be flying the bird on any mission let alone the first one.

Here I was a kid from a rural upstate New York 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 the years I would have The Stick on almost every mission.   And from May to August 1973, I would fly combat missions in South East Asia. It was in South East Asia that Ted Shorack’s war would become mine.

In the spring of 1973, Congress had mandated the end of all air combat missions on August 15th.  That day over Cambodia, as a member of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, I flew on the last F4 fighter combat mission of the Vietnam War. It had not been planned that way.

As the end of combat approached, a lottery was held among the colonels in Thailand to see who would fly the official last mission of the war.  Our crew, two lowly captains, was on alert that morning and after the “official last fight” had taken off, we scrambled at about 10:30 a.m. and dropped our bombs just before noon.  At noon, combat missions ceased and the war ended.

Right at noon, a message was broadcast over Guard, the command channel,  “Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge,  I repeat, Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge.”

We thought, what does that mean, wondering if it was a coded message announcing the end of the war.  Then we heard the sound of a toilet flushing.

That was how eight years of air combat ended.  A sad, symbolic end to a long war that cost so much –

Today I salute those men who flew those missions so long ago and say well done.

So that in the end is what I want you to remember, when you have long forgotten who spoke here tonight, I didn’t tell you some old war stories.

I told you how I gained confidence in my abilities to do my job and in the end participated in a historic moment.

I told you about Ted my mentor and friend who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

I told you about my Uncle Harold, a WWII vet who had experienced some terrible and amazing things that most Americans never will.

You know those men and women of the second world war were called the Greatest Generation and in many ways they were.

But I like to think that all veterans and members of the Armed Forces on active duty now are the greatest members of their own generations.

So in closing I ask you – all the Veterans and members of the armed forces here tonight to stand and receive the thanks of your fellow Americans.

And I say to you “Well done” – Well done Indeed.

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, American History, Bolling AFB, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, New York State History, Norvell Family History, Ontario Co, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , | 2 Comments

At the Wall

With Veterans Day, my thoughts often turn again to the Wall in DC

An American Family

WallIn the 1980s we moved to the Washington DC area and lived there nearly 9 years.

It was almost inevitable that I would visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as “The Wall.”  One of my ROTC instructors at Hobart College had died in Vietnam – Major Theodore “Ted” Shorack in 1966, and a good friend of mine Pvt James Kirkby was killed on an Army patrol in South Vietnam about 1970.

Early on I decided to go to the Wall to search for their names.     On one of my manyvisits I found the names and stood silently for a moment and remembered these men.

It is hard to put into words the impact of this place on the first visit.   In many ways the place is very disarming.  It starts as a low black granite panel on each end and gradually rises, in a dramatic V to an apex of…

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Scenes from the Halloween House 2017

Growing up in rural upstate New York, Halloween was the biggest holiday of the year.  A small town with old brooding houses, bridges over winding creeks, and old cemeteries full of worn and leaning stones is the perfect setting for Halloween.  Late in the day, as the leaves fell from the trees, the sun would sink low on the horizon bringing the kind of special fall light that sharply etches everything in contrast.   Perhaps that is why we celebrate Halloween each year.  For the past 45 years my wife and I have decorated for Halloween.

Here’s a sampling of the house this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even a visit from the Ghostbusters and some evil spirits

 

 

 

Posted in American History, Halloween | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

 

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 detente 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