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.







Posted in Air Force, Air Force Academy, Air Force lingo, American History | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Elephant Walk

13th TFS patchAs the war in SEA wound down, plans were put into place for an aggressive training schedule. Whereas during the war, training consisted of basically OJT – i.e. learning to drop bombs was the act of actually dropping bombs. Now schedulers were faced with actually having to plan training, not just assume it would happen in the course of daily events. It was an odd thing to be flying combat one day and the next acting as if it had never happened.

With the end of the war there were few opportunities to see if the entire wing could go through a surge exercise. That is actually generating a combat scenario where all the F4s would be loaded and taxi as if they were being launched for a combat mission. While this had been common during the war in such large scale events as Linebacker II, it hardly happened in the new peacetime environment.

So it came to pass that one evening the entire wing was scheduled to do a surge, or as we called it the “Elephant Walk.”

It got its name from the long line of F4s that were loaded with live ammunition and missiles, taxied down to the arming areas at the end of the runway, and then instead of taking off, taxied down the runway and back to the revetments. It tooked like a long line of elephants on the move, large lumbering beasts.  F4 on Taxiway

I am not sure why this was held at night. Perhaps to make it more stressful to the crews and the loaders, but any time things occurred at night, Murphy was bound to be there. Yes, if anything could possibly go wrong, it did.

The arming areas were located at the end of the active runways. On the other end there was a location called “Mobil” where an officer was assigned to observe the takeoffs and landings and relay any problems he saw to the tower and ground control. Mobil was essentially a trailer with a generator for power and was manned all the time that flight operations were being conducted.

The night of the Elephant Walk, one of the lieutenants from our squadron was assigned to Mobil. It was his job to basically sit there and simulate the role he would have played in an actual launch. It was a pretty boring thing to do, given that the aircraft were not taking off only lumbering down the length of the runway, turning off and then going back to the revetments where the crews would put them to bed.

After about an hour of this, things took a turn in a very different direction. As the crews pulled the safety pins on the missiles on an F4, a stray voltage surge launched one of the heat seeking “Sidewinder” missiles. The missile flew off the F4 and as the Mobil officer watched it through his binoculars, made a beeline for the generator at Mobil.

Now picture this, you are sitting in Mobil, bored out of your mind, watching one after another F4 lumber down the runway, then  one of the Phantoms launches a missile at you.

Needless to say the lieutenant dove out the door of Mobil — expecting the worse. Fortunately for him, the missile didn’t arm. It needed to go a longer distance. but it did guide on the generator, where it hit Mobil.

That was the last “Elephant Walk” that was conducted at Udorn.

Posted in Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, U Dorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Criminals in the Family

Every family has a skeleton in the closet. In our family, Willard Smith Norvell and Bayard Boyd Norvell fit the bill. They were the sons of my great uncle Edwin Forrest Norvell, who had served in the Civil War, as an aide to General George Armstrong Custer, and Margretta Smith Norvell.

Margretta S. Norvell

Margretta S. Norvell

Edwin had survived the war only to die in 1876 in a carriage accident in Cleveland.   This left his widow with three small children to raise.   Willard Smith Norvell born in 1868,  Bayard Boyd Norvell, 1869, and  Emily Walker Norvell, 1871.  It was Emily, whom I have previously written about, who lost two of her sons and husband in a train crash in Washington DC in 1906 (see below for details).

Sadly, Edwin’s widow Margretta would have her hands full with the two boys.   By young adulthood, it seems, they had become involved in all kinds of petty crimes.  By 1891, the family was living in Washington DC where Margretta was a clerk at the Treasury Department.  It was at that time, that Willard, who also worked in the Treasury Dept was arrested for theft of government funds.    While his brother was engaged in this manner, Bayard was arrested for passing a forged check.  By 1893, both men had enlisted in the Marine Corps.    They then disappear for a while, until 1897 when Bayard next appears in an article in the Detroit paper which details how he had conned a woman in Chicago out of money and faked his own death.   She sent men to look for his body and the paper reports “they found it in a gambling den where he was betting on the horses.”

Baby Willard S. Norvell, long before his life of crime.

Baby Willard S. Norvell, long before his life of crime.

About the same time Bayard was engaged in forgery as reported in the Washington Press.   The last record of him, it seems appears in the 1900 census when he is listed as a resident of Joliet Prison in Illinois.  No other records can be found which leads to the feeling that he may have changed his name when he was released.  It is something we will never know.

Willard Smith Norvell, however, does not appear until his death in Ohio in 1926.  His activities after leaving he Marine Corps remain a mystery.   He was listed on the Marine Corps rolls in 1902 and no other records exist until his death.  One can assume given his past activities he was not up to something good.


How these two brothers might have turned out if their father had not died young we will never know.   It is clear, however, they were too much for their poor mother Margretta.  She survived them both, dying in 1931, living with her widowed daughter Emily Norvell Belt near Washington, DC.    There she remained, a sad figure having lost her husband, two sons to a life of crime, her son-in-law and two grandchildren in a train wreck.

The two boys, Bayard and Willard, never seemed to marry.

Which given their track records is probably a good thing for society.


For more details on the death of Dr. Edward O. Belt and his sons, see “A Family Torn Asunder.”

Posted in American History, Detroit, Detroit History, Genealogy, Norvell Family History, Washington DC | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Norvells in World War I

Two of my uncles, Jack and Steve, and an aunt Emily served in World War I.

John "Jack" Bower Norvell

John “Jack” Bower Norvell

They were the only ones of that generation to do so in my family.  My Dad, the baby of the family, was born in 1911 and would later serve in both WWII and Korea.  It was up to his brothers Steve and John and sister Emily to do their service when American called.

USS Rhode Island Wikipedia

USS Rhode Island








Uncle Jack [ John Bower Norvell] served in the United States Navy from 1918-1919 as a seaman second class aboard the R.S. Norfolk, the USS Rhode Island, and the USS Delaware.   When the war ended, he returned to Buffalo where he worked for the Pullman Company, until he retired.

Jack, Steve, and Emily

Jack, Steve, and Emily

Emily was a particularly interesting person.  She was one of the first women officers in the U.S. Army.   Emy, as she was called in the family, was assigned to Walter Reed Hospital where she became a nurse in the officer’s Medical Ward. Misfortune came her way. While nursing a general with spinal meningitis, she contracted the disease.  About the time that she had meningitis, a patient kicked her and damaged a kidney.  The kidney became tubercular and sometime in late 1928 or 1929 it was removed and she was hospitalized for more than a year.  After the war, she became one of the first school nurses in Michigan and later worked as a county nurse. In those days the lumbermen and miners were a lusty lot, so along with her medical bag in her model T Ford, she carried a snub nosed 38 revolver, just to play it safe.  She always said that she attributed her recovery from tuberculosis to prayer, but she carried a 38 just to “play it safe, as God helps those who help themselves.”

The final serviceman was Uncle Stevens Thompson Norvell, he was the third of that name in a line going back to the Stevens Thompson Norvell, his great uncle.  During the First World War he served in the Rainbow Division, 3rd Engineers.  The 42nd  Rainbow Stevens T NorvellDivision was the first US combat division sent to France. They fought at the battles of theMarne, Chateau-Thierry, and Meuse-Argonne, suffering heavy losses of more than 12,000 casualties in 264 days of combat operations out of 457 days of service on the front lines.  Steve never talked about his time in France.  After the war he obtained degrees in Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Chemical Engineering at Tri-State College in Indiana.

John B. Norvell's WWI Victory Medal

John B. Norvell’s WWI Victory Medal

For their service, they received the World War I victory medal.   Like so many of their  contemporaries then, and now, they did their duty and returned home as a good citizen soliders to serve there as well.

Posted in American History, Buffalo, Norvell Family History, US Army, US Navy, WWI | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment