The Norvell Boys Write to the President

In the 19th century, Americans often wrote to the chief executive asking for jobs or advice on how to conduct their lives. Two such letters were sent to Thomas Jefferson by members of the same family. The first one was from John Norvell dated May 9, 1807, who wrote in part:

“It is well known that your time is employed in more important and beneficial concerns, but it is fondly hoped, that you will find a leisure moment to confer a benefit and favor on a an individual…

It would be a great favor, too, to have your opinion of the manner in which a newspaper, to be most extensively beneficial, should be conducted, as I expect to become the publisher of one for a few years.”

Today is it hard to fathom anyone writing the President of the United States for career advice, let alone a 17 year old boy from Kentucky. Jefferson’s 1807 response to him focused on the value of the press and was his most famous pronouncement on the role of the press in American democracy. Which he did not hold in high esteem at the time.

Given John’s success in reaching Mr. Jefferson and luck in getting an answer, his younger brother Joshua Norvell wrote to Jefferson in 1808 asking for a job.

“Dear Sir

This may at first excite your surprize: but when you see its contents, I am more than certain that you will feel for my situation.

Knowing that you are about to retire from the cares of the nation; and seek repose and happiness in the bosom of private and rural life, I have taken upon myself to ask a favor; which, if granted, will throw me under every obligation conceivable. Having always had an anxious desire to acquire knowledge, and never yet having had means to effect that desire, I have formed a plan, which if carried into execution, will serve every purpose. As old age and bodily decay have naturrally crept on you, I have thought it probable, that after you remove to Monticello, you may want some person to execute your writing, and other little things which may not be convenient for you to attend to. If this should be the case, I would freely come after the session of congress is over, and assist you in every department of which I am capable; and throw myself into your hands for instruction in such subjects as you thought proper to give it, and such clothing &c. as you deemed necessary. I am, to be sure, blessed with health sufficient to labor for a subsistence; but a bare subsistence is all that can be obtained in this country by labor. Should I live till the next spring, I will be eighteen years of age. My character is untainted as far as I know, for the truth of which you can enquire of Mr Boyle, a member of Congress from this place. The above contains the substance of my request: I submit my case to your own known generosity. That you may always be happy and prosper, is the sincere prayer of your very Humble Servant,

Joshua Norvell

P.S. If you would write as soon as possible, that I may arrange affairs, I would be more than obliged to you.

Is is not known if Mr. Jefferson responded. Especially since Joshua implied he was “over the hill.”





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A Letter Home

Stevens Thompson Norvell (1835 -1911) enlisted in the army on January 23, 1858 as a private in Company A 5th U.S. Infantry.

One of his first assignments was as an infantryman in the West; later he would fight with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, commanding a unit of Buffalo Soldiers — but that is a story for another time.

A letter from 1859 that he wrote to his sister Emily Virginia Norvell details life in camp – and is a classic account of how military life can be filled with boredom when there are no battles and also how inventive soldiers can be.

Camp Floyd, Cedar Valley, U.S.

January 12, 1859

My Dear Emily,

Your letter of November 28th [1858] came to hand on the 3d instant- with incredible quickness for this season of the year, but wonders will never cease…. I am sorry to see that you -and from your account, the rest of the family are ins such low spirits, you should try to be more cheerful. I have no doubt , but that your trip to Virginia will do you good; and if it does not – and I can easily tell from your next letter- I shall immediately desert, and go to Virginia and give you fits: so look out….

I am in great hopes that we shall go back to the States next summer; although rumor has fixed upon Mexico as our destination – one thing is certain that there will be a scattering in the spring, and the 5th is bound to go somewhere. Uncle Sam will never allow this large force to remain idle here.

So far, the winter has been very mild – at least it has in this valley-although, ten miles from here, there is two feet of snow – if you will take three thousand men and throw them into a wash basin and you will have our situation exactly. We have drills and parades constantly, besides school at which , we non-commissioned officers -study tactics three times a week. So that our time is entirely occupied. The officers occupy themselves in gambling, and other innocent amusements such as drinking and getting court martialed – you have my idea of how dull it is. The same thing over and over every day – and – and what shall I write about next week.

Oh yes, we have a theatre capable of holding two thousand persons, and at which Shakespeare and the English language are murdered every night. Private soldiers are the “stars.” Richard III cooks for Lieutenant Stith, Hamlet has a situation in the Post bake house, King Lear is engaged in tailoring for his companions, and I actually saw Henry IV and Cardinal Woolsey mixing mortar for the masons.

I wish you could send me some papers ; if you get a chance. It is seldom I can to look at one, and when I do, it is sure to be six months old . When you write to mother give her my love and the rest of the family. Congratulate Isabella on her marriage [ to Capt Angus Keith] … send this letter to Grosse Isle, that mother may know I still live. Be sure and write soon.

Your affectionate brother,


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Faded and cracked

They are all similar – old, cracked and sometimes faded; the newer ones in washed out color.  There is a commonality to them that may not be readily apparent.  They are photos of young American men and women in uniform.

Sometimes they are serious, sometimes smiling.  One can sense a feeling of pride beneath the surface images –a calling to be part of something bigger.   I have seen them in Civil War, WWI, WII, Korean, and Vietnam era uniforms.  I have one of me before I went off to fly in the Vietnam War.  It shows me on the wing of an F4 proudly smiling.  I think of it today as the photo that would have been used if I had been shot down.  I wonder if these folks felt the same way.  My photo is a stark reminder of the seriousness of all these images, no matter how old they are.

Did the men in their formal Civil War dress understand what lay ahead, did they in WWII, Korea, Vietnam or overseas today.  I venture to say no.   Entry into combat is an exercise in denial.   One never exercises the slightest thought that they won’t come back.   They will do their time and return home.  Yet as we remember them and what they did, we know that this is not true.

These were young Americans who went off to war for a variety of reasons:  love of country, adventure, the need to escape from their home,  a feeling to be part of a larger cause such as saving the Union, and much more.   They arrived in the service still naive, but that didn’t last long.   The realities of service and war intruded quickly and they suddenly understood the seriousness of it all.

At home their folks looked at these snaps and thought about them, hoping that they were well.   For many they remained the only link to the loved one; they became icons displayed in a special place in the rooms of those left behind.  Of those who came back, they  changed in many ways:  some had PTSD a great many, some were injured seriously, some in Vietnam had Agent Orange exposure, the ways that they were wounded in body and soul are too numerous to mention. Some didn’t return.   The photos now  linked to large granite or limestone markers; names carved on a wall or war memorial.  Names now visible to many  but whose stories are known to only a few.

The photos remained and the years went on, Americans  forever frozen in time.   Forever young and proud, forever anticipating a future that never came.   Those who mourned them now gone; but they living on forever in a moment so long ago.

These are the folks we honor each year on Memorial Day, but really need to think about them every day.


Posted in American History, American holidays, Social History, US Army, US Army Air Corps, US Navy, Veterans, Vietnam Memorial, Vietnam War, World War Ii, WWI | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

When Ohio and Michigan Went to war

In 1834, my great-great grandfather John Norvell found himself embroiled in a controversy that involved Michigan with her neighbors.

Ohio and Michigan had long claimed a disputed section of land which included the Toledo area. The dispute over this area had first arisen in 1802 with the admission of Ohio into the Union. But in 1805, Congress declared that the Michigan boundary was a line drawn due east from the southern extreme of Lake Michigan to Lake Erie. This had remained the boundary for more than twenty-seven years, but now Ohio gradually began to press for Toledo.

As the rhetoric grew heated, Ohio sent surveyors into the disputed area and Ohio Governor Lucas ordered 10,000 men to protect the boundary surveyors. In turn, opposing forces under the command of Governor Mason of Michigan marched to resist them.

Although both militias mobilized, no actual fighting occurred.

This was due to two things: first, President Andrew Jackson informed the two states that the U.S. would have to defend its territory of Michigan against the State of Ohio; and second, Jackson threatened to remove territorial Governor Mason from office if he persisted in military actions against Ohio.

So the “Toledo War” ended, at least militarily

In 1835, Michigan adopted a new state constitution and John Norvell was elected, along with Lucius Lyon, as one of Michigan’s first two U.S. senators. Because the Ohio-Michigan controversy had not been resolved, admission to the Union was delayed; the two new senators were not seated and found themselves labeled “observers” to the Senate’s proceedings.

The controversy continued politically for two more years as Michigan attempted to gain statehood. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois opposed admission into the Union if the issue was not resolved. Both Ohio and Indiana were uneasy over the legality of their own northern boundaries. Into the mix now rose the question of free versus slave state. Many Southern Congressmen would only approve admission of Michigan if a “slave state” joined the Union to maintain the status quo. In the end, Michigan lost the Toledo strip but gained the Upper Peninsula in return, which was in the long run a better trade because of the vast mineral wealth of the area.

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Grandpa’s Home Repairs

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, as I have mentioned before.

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.

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A Day in the Life….

Today is Vietnam Veterans Day — March 29, as such I thought about how I would have spent this day during the war.

Most days in combat began early.

F4 sunrise over Cambodia 1973

There was what we called an “0 Dark Thirty” wake up.

Then it was breakfast.  For me it was always Steak and Eggs, perhaps a ritual, but certainly one of assurance about the day to come.

Then an intel briefing where the targets of the day would be covered, followed by a crew brief, then to the crew bus –out to the revetments to preflight the bird.

At this point nearly 3 hours would have passed since that early morning call to get up.

It was on the crew bus that often folks turned introspective, but if they were thinking about what was to come they never discussed it.    Still on many mornings, in those long ago days, I could not help but think about how many men had boarded the crew bus never to return that night.  It was a  thought not entertained for long.

Still it was an inward acknowledgement of the brotherhood in which I found myself now which would shape me and my life for the years to come.

Years later I raised this with another fighter jock and he said he thought about this as he began a  mission but then “It was pretty quiet on the crew vans. I think most of us were engrossed in tactics, freqs, call signs, headings, settings, etc until the last moment or so at the van approached the jets. Had moment again on the taxiways and arming area after all the checks were done. Then after that the mission was the only thought.”

For men in combat there is only the moment of the mission ahead.

The British poet Sigfried Sassoon, a WWI officer, put it this way:
“Soldiers are citizens of Deaths’ Grey Land,
Drawing no dividends from Times Tomorrows”

They are trapped in the moment of their existence. There is and can be no other place to be.  It is really an existential moment.   Yet, if I ever thought I might die that day, I never voiced it to anyone.  That was OK.  All, who ever went into combat no matter when or where, has thought that.   It crossed the mind and then was gone.

Another day in the life of the war lay ahead.   






Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Air Force F4 Tech Supplement to High Flight


Air Force Supplement 1

(Surly bond slipping will be performed only by two ship IP-led flights)

(Dancing the skies will be performed on the wing only)

(Aircraft cleared sunward will climb within the horizontal boundaries of their assigned air space)

(when joining the tumbling mirth apply techniques outlined in 55-4, “Rejoins.”)


(Aircraft may disregard use of position lights when entering clouds believed to be sun-split.)


(When wheeling and swinging are combined in one maneuver, 4.1 symmetrical G’s will be kept on the aircraft)

(High in sunlit silence is defined as that airspace above Fight Level (FL) 290 from 1 hour before official sunrise to 1 hour after official sunset.)

(Chasing the shouting wind along is restricted to weather ships with specific DO approval.)

AND FLUNG (Aircraft will be flung subsonic only.)

(Should either crewmember experience delirium while in the burning blue, proceed with emergency oxygen procedures.)

(If windswept heights cannot be topped prior to reaching the area gate advise center.)

(When larks and eagles are flying the SOF will coordinate with RAPCON to insure adequate separation and that bird strike plan is implemented.)

(Nothing prevents VFR civil or military aircraft from transiting the high untresspassed sanctity of space under visual flight rules.)

(Crewmembers will not sacrifice aircraft control or exceed canopy operating limitations attempting to touch God’s face.)

–author unknown, I got the copy of this about 1974 while assigned to the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf AFB Alaska.

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