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 , , , , , | 1 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.  There was Colonel Robin Olds’ F4 from the Vietnam War, 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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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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Moose Recce and other Alaskan sports

Alaska1My wife was a big cross county skier when we lived in Alaska. Luckily Anchorage had an extensive series of trails.  So every winter, she and a friend would load the dogs — hers a Malamute, ours a Samoyed– into the car and drive to the local park where they could pick up the trails.  One day as they were skiing, the dogs suddenly took off and ran ahead of them.  As they crested the top of the hill they could see two brown figures in the distance –a mother moose and her calf.   They corralled  the dogs and quickly returned to the car.   You did not go near a mother moose and her calf.

When I arrived at Elmendorf, they gave us a briefing on this subject.   The point was that when you saw a calf his mom would be nearby.  Then they told the story of an Air Force man who had stopped to see a calf along the road and made the mistake of leaving his WV bug to get closer.  He barely made it back into the car, which the mom demolished.

Moose were a fact of life in Alaska.  We often had them in the park behind our home.   Our back yard was fenced so we felt fairly safe as they browsed in the park and occasionally leaned over the fence and looked into our yard.  However, as soon as we could see them in the park, Niki, our Samoyed, came inside for her own protection.

Niki 1976

Niki was either fearless, or stupid, as she barked and barked at them — she also barked and barked at snowflakes coming down.   She was a beautiful, but not too bright a dog.   When we left Alaska, I was initially assigned to go to the fighter tactics school at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas, so Niki went to live with a new family.   Later my assignment was changed to teach at the Air Force Academy, where Niki would have been right at home in the mountains.  She was our last dog, as with moving frequently in the Air Force it was too hard to ship pets.   udn35

Often when we flew we engaged in a sport called “Moose Recce.”  The object was to fly the F4 low  at about 1,000 feet down valleys and look for Moose.  That way when members of the flight went hunting they knew where the moose could be found.   A variation on this sport was whale recce where we flew low over the inlets in search of whales.   The best time to engage in this was when we flew two ship training missions.  Each F4 flew an extended tactical formation while looking for game. Usually this was done on the way to sit alert at one of the remote sites.  If this sounds as if it was a big game, it probably was.  Still all flying training served a purpose, even Moose Recce, which sharpened not only your stick and rudder skills, but challenged your eyes to find a small target on the ground against an often dark background.   Moose Recce was unique to Alaska and I never encountered it elsewhere.   Then again where else did I encounter Moose?



Posted in 43 TFS, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, Alaskan glaciers, American History, Anchorage, Anchorage Alaska, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Travels with Auntie B

About forty years ago, we began camping with my late aunt, who had just lost her husband to cancer. This occurred the first time she and my mother visited us in Alaska. We decided it would be fun to take the auto ferry from Whittier to Valdez, Alaska. This entailed being loaded on the train, which at the time was the only way to get from Anchorage to Whittier, then boarding the ferry for a six hour cruise to Valdez. Since the sun didn’t set until after 11 p.m., we would be at our terminus while it was still daylight.   af11

The ferry trip was spectacular, we saw much of the wildlife found along the coasts, came close to one of the major Alaskan glaciers, where the ferry blew its horn, and huge chunks of blue ice fell from a height of about 200 feet above us into the inlet. We got to Valdez at dusk after a very long day, the sun was setting and I decided to turn on the headlights – no lights. Well that didn’t matter as the sun never really sets in Alaska, just dips below the horizon and pops back up about an hour later.  These trips always seemed to be marked with some sort of minor disaster. On the long drive home, the camp stove decided not to work, and I have previously written about how the car’s electrical system died later in the week. That was trip #1.

In 1978, while stationed at the Air Force Academy, we took to the road again to drive to the Grand Canyon. The trip to the Canyon was in reality a lot longer distance than we anticipated. The western states are so big, it is hard to translate what looks like a short distance on a map into the reality of driving it. It was to be done over Labor Day Weekend, as I had to be back to teach on the following Tuesday.

Our route was to drive to Bryce and Zion Canyons in Utah, snake down to the north rim of the canyon in Arizona and go back to Colorado Springs. The first night the tent pole broke, but I was able to jam it back together and we continued on with my wife, a one year old baby, and aunt in tow. At Bryce all seemed to go well.    Br16 Then it was on to the Canyon. We arrived late in the day. We walked to the edge of the canyon and my aunt suddenly said “I can’t do this.” She refused to go near the edge and wouldn’t even look in. I don’t know why, but after two long days on the road, I was ready to chuck her over the edge. The whole purpose of the trip was so she could see the Canyon.    gc21We spent the night in Page Arizona at a very noisy campground filled with many folks in a labor day party mood. The last day was – to be honest – brutal.  We left at dawn and didn’t get back to Colorado Springs until well after dark, probably about 15 hours on the road.  I think we, read that as I,  had driven about 1800 miles in three days.

That doesn’t mean we stopped traveling and until nearly the end of her life, we had one adventure after another. Some trips were more calm than others:  on one she left her luggage in her foyer of her home, she assumed we had put it in the trunk, on another the electricity in our cabin didn’t work, on a trip to Yosemite in November we forgot it snowed at high altitudes in California.  cay3As she became older it became more challenging to travel with her as she fell under the spell of Alzheimer’s.

Now that she is gone we think back and smile. All  of  these ups and downs became part of a special relationship with our own “Auntie Mame.”  And in the end, I am glad I didn’t chuck her into the Grand Canyon so long ago, but at the time, it really seemed like a good option.

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Night Flight

There is a belief among some aviators that there is “no lift” at night, therefore night flight is not possible. Clearly this is not true, and regarded as a joke among flyers, but it does reflect an unease among many about flying in the dark.

From takeoff to landing night flight is a very different world.

Even the takeoff is dramatically different as the afterburners kick in and there are concentric rings of light along the cone of fire from the rear of the aircraft.

Afterburner on F4

Once airborne there is also a seeming “cloak of invisibility” around the fighter.  The darkness hides you and somehow gives you a sense of security that is not there in the light. Now granted, this really is a false sense of security as you are clearly visible on radar and anti-aircraft SAM systems.  Still it feels more calm.  There is a stealthiness to this not felt in the day.  Perhaps there is a feeling of invincibility not present in the bright light of day.  (This feeling also manifested itself when we turned off the SAM warning indicators as they had become very annoying with their constant beeping – out of sight out of mind perhaps.) Such was the feeling at night, if you couldn’t see it how could it hurt you.

The F4 is barely visible in the photo below;  only a white light to mark its passage.




If the night is clear, above you is an amazing show of stars seldom seen on the ground anymore.   Instruments become even more important as the horizon vanishes and you are forced to leave behind the normal visual clues that flyers rely on.   This really can be dangerous as many an inexperienced flyer has wrongly thought he was flying straight and level, but in actuality was descending into a mountain range ahead.   The artificial horizon is your most important aid in night flying and not to be ignored at your own peril.

During the Vietnam War, there were squadrons that only flew at night because of the very different conditions.  It was hard to transition back and forth, and much safer to fly either at night or in the day.

One of the best accounts of flying at night was written by Richard Bach, himself a pilot, and author of “Stranger to the Ground.”   He is better remembered for his 1970s novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,”  but his account of flying alone off the coast of Europe at night in the 1950s is a classic.  Outside there is only a dark landscape below, punctuated with the occasional bright lights of a city, and little else.  The night flyer is a ghostly presence, gliding over the darkened world below.

Night flight is more introspective.   The mind and skills are shrunk to the cockpit only, the red glow of the instruments dominate the world of the night flyer.  Gone are the distractions of clouds, landscape, and all the highlights of the day.

If the eagle is the swooping and soaring king of the day, the bat represents  the flyer of the night.

While it is indeed great fun to be the eagle, personally I loved to be the bat.  Silent but deadly, swooping in for the kill, and then gone into the darkness.


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An Officer’s Lady on the Frontier

Elizabeth Proal Norvell

Elizabeth Proal Norvell (1848-1931) was the wife of Colonel Stevens Thompson Norvell, an officer of the 10th Cavalry, one of the famed Buffalo Soldier regiments on the great plains.    Life for these women who accompanied their husbands to the prairie and south west forts was often difficult.

Even something  meant to lift their spirits such as an outing could be come a trial for them as evidenced in this story written by Alice Kirk Grierson, about her experiences on the frontier (From The Colonel’s Lady On the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson, University of Nebraska Press, 1989)

Fort Sill I.T. Nov. 5th 1871.

The Ladies Raid.—Five Ladies and Six children all went to a camp down on Cache Creek on a gloomy morning.

So of course one of them was Mrs. Norval [Captain Norvell’s wife]. It was ten miles. Before they got down there it began to rain and blow a regular Norther very cold. When they got down there all the Officers had to give their tents to the ladies.

The next day Major Schofield rigged a government wagon up with blankets and buffalo robes for them. Lieutenant Orlaman (Orlemanj was drunk and he went to put Mrs. Myers into the wagon and he turned her heels up and her head down. Mrs. Myers said I’m afraid you can’t put me in. He said oh yes I put you in…

They got in here in the evening and it was so muddy that Dr. Kilburn had to carry Mrs. Norval in his arms from the wagon to our porch. Mrs. Norval said she enjoyed the trip very much.  — Alice

Even this semi-disastrous break in the bleak life of the frontier, seemed welcomed.

Like many military wives of the time she endured great hardships, often left alone with her small family at one of the many forts that dotted the mostly empty American south-west.   Her husband was often gone on long patrols to keep the frontier quiet.   Sometimes these patrols encountered very real dangers and there was often the possibility that they would find themselves widows with no further means of support.

Sarah had four children all born on the frontier. One, Walker Norvell, died three days after his birth in November 1873 and is buried in the Ft. Sill Cemetery.

Walker Norvell Grave

The others all survived and found their lives entwined with the military.  Guy Stevens Norvell (1875-1958) was an Army Colonel like his father;  Sarah Hodgkiss Norvell (1872-1961) married two military men, the first one died from yellow fever contracted during the Spanish American War, the second one she divorced;  the last Alice Walker Norvell (1879-1971) also married an Army officer.



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