September 11 – Some Thoughts

Another September 11th Anniversary; another set of memories.

Its funny how each year this anniversary brings to the surface something different about this day and how it affected me. At the time I was serving as the Alumni Director at Hobart College in Geneva, New York. 1 I remember it so well, a glorious fall day with azure blue skies that soon turned dark as the horrors of the day unfolded.

As I sat there in my office stunned by what I had witnessed on TV when the second tower was hit and later as the two towers fell.  Then,  I was immediate drawn to the task at hand – dealing with other alums who wanted to know if their friends were safe. So I put aside my concerns for my daughter, a William Smith graduate, who worked about a block from the White House and my colleagues and I began the task of compiling a list of alums who worked in the World Trade Center or in its nearby environs.

Those of us who live in New York remember the coverage in subsequent days in the New York Times. For weeks after the event pages of pictures appeared almost daily of those lost. It was spiritually numbing to see those faces cut down in a senseless act of terrorism.

Two of our alums were lost that day, which brings me back to my job.

When I was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War I had on a couple of occasions to accompany a chaplain to deliver the news of a loved one lost in the war. This was not the chaplain’s news to deliver it fell on the officer with him to break the news. In the aftermath of the Twin Towers, I now had to confirm the loss of three men that died who were alums.

And more sadly to call the families of those lost and offer condolences on behalf of our College.

In many ways it was much easier to approach a stranger. But to talk to a parent or spouse of a Hobart man who was lost was very hard. These were men who had walked the streets of Geneva, had spent time on the Hobart Quad, who had, like the men of my time, looked at the beauty of Seneca Lake on a crisp fall morning. We were brothers even though we had never met. Now they were gone and the emotions of September 11 were high. What could you say to a parent? How could you convey the deep sense of loss you were feeling for these men and for all the others? Looking back now from 16 years I have little memory of what I said, all I know is that I truly shared their pain and loss.  And in the end, I did what I had to do that day.

Americans measure their lives by events – sometimes happy, sometimes sad. For every joyous occasion there is a counterpoint. September 11 for me will always be such a moment. A time to take stock, to review the past, and remember those who perished- whether they were those lost in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, or in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Whether they were the first responder heroes who, like so many military men and women I have known, died doing their duty. They were all Americans, not divided by any causes or politics, but Americans who when they were called did what they had to do. And that is what I think I will remember this year. Not the sadness of September 11, but how the country came together.

And that is a good thing to focus on in these difficult times.


1 Hobart College is the men’s college of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.   William Smith is the women’s college.  For more information on HWS see Wikipedia



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Its time to write about Tomatoes. We suddenly find ourselves inundated with them. Of course we knew it was coming; tomatoes do not ripen one then another. They ripen en mass. So we picked not one or two, but 67 tomatoes all at once.

When I was a kid, my dad always put in about 25 tomato plants. No exotic varieties, just plain old big red tomatoes. So I grew up believing that no summer garden was complete without some tomato plants. I suppose he went to the local GFL store and got his plants. No catalogues for him.  They spent the summer lolling on the ground and by Halloween were nice and rotty in case we needed them for pranks.

Today I begin my search in the winter when the first catalogs arrive. That used to be in mid to late January, but in the last few years, like Christmas decorations in stores, they arrive earlier and earlier each year. I am really not ready to think about them before Christmas, but often they arrive with the holiday cards, so I put them aside until January. While I know basically what I will order – red and yellow varities, I spend some time reading the copy and looking at the photos, all of which promises abundance to come. And as I said above, this is usually the case.

So what does one do when 60 or 70 tomatoes arrive on your counter.   Well if you are my wife, you eat them two or three times a day.  Then you call all your friends and offer them some of the bounty.  While this sounds easily done, since we live in a rural area, most of our friends have more tomatoes than they need.   Garrison Kellior the noted American humorist once commented in a monologue that in Lake Wobegone, his small fictitious town,  people would sneak around at night and leave them bags of tomatoes on the steps of neighbors to get rid of them.  They also did this with zucchinis and other squashes which had grown to the size of bowling pins.

My mother always canned her tomatoes.  It was a very labor intensive process and I remember the hot, steaming water bath.  The great care my mother took to ensure the jars were hospital clean, and then filling the jars with the tomatoes and putting them in the hot water bath to complete the canning process.   When this was done, down they went to the cellar to join the jars of green beans, corn, and other produce to be savored in the cold winter months ahead.  To me each jar was a veritable time bomb – I had read about people getting botulism from canned vegetables in the Reader’s Digest in an article which detailed the many ways that home canning could do you in.  What if the seal was not in tact, what if the processes didn’t work, what if we ate a deadly stewed tomatoes cocktail and all died. Well luckily that didn’t happen.  My mother was a master of the canning arts and all went well.   When we were first married we tried to some canning, but the old spectre of botulism always loomed on the horizon and after a couple of years we moved to freezing them.  That worked when our daughters were home, as the frozen tomatoes could be turned into spaghetti sauce and other dishes.  But as we are now in an empty nest, that too has passed.

So we have sliced tomatoes, BLTs, tomatoes on pizza, fresh tomato and basil salads, and other treats, knowing full well that not all will get eaten.  We give many away to folks with no gardens.   And end the summer thinking that every tomato we eat is a million times better than the small, hard ones from the store that we will be faced with all winter.

And we are content.



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A Three Hour Tour…

45 years ago my wife Bonnie and I were married.  We then went on our honeymoon. She went to Arizona and I….   Well, as I was training to fly F4 combat missions in South East Asia, I went to Florida for Water Survival training.    The course was conducted at Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida and took 5 days.  The curriculum was designed to provide you with the skills necessary to survive a crash landing in the water:

Escape from underneath a parachute– AKA don’t drown

Drag through the water on a harness–AKA don’t drown

Parachute into the ocean–AKA don’t drown

Climb into a bobbing raft on the sea–AKA don’t drown

Wait in a raft to be rescued for several hours–AKA don’t get too sunburned (or drown).

At this point you are probably sensing I went into this with some apprehension.  I was never a strong swimmer, the crawl was not my best stroke, I mainly did the dog paddle combined with floating on my back.  Not really a combination for a long swim at sea.  Besides I figured I didn’t go into the Navy– being at sea on a ship was not my dream job. Yes sir, no taking off on runways that went up and down.  No landings that sometimes allowed you to use the skills you learned in water survival.  That’s why I was in the Air Force, which brings me back to learning those skills.

The first phase included classes discussing signaling, life support gear, and how exposure at sea could affect an aircrew member.  The concept was to make this information so familiar that if you ejected you were prepared.  It was the same training philosophy used to train the NASA astronauts and it is still used today. The motto of the school was “Forewarned is Forearmed.”

The second phase was the actual practice sessions.

Escaping from beneath the parachute was done in a pool.  Once in the water, the chute dropped over us as if we had landed there.  It was a challenge to find the lines and use them to move to the edge of the chute and emerge.  I had heard stories of men panicking under the chute, but it seemed to go well.   One down–many to go (and not drown).

Next we moved to the “Drag” phase of training.  At this point the apprehension level rose a bit.  Picture this: being on a large boat, standing on a “plank” for lack of a better word, in full parachute harness, and then being dropped 25 feet into the Bay of Biscayne.  I stood there and the NCO looked at me–he was really enjoying dunk the captain–and down I went.  The trick was to keep your head up, not swallow most of the bay water, find, and finally release the harness while being dragged along behind a boat.  Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

Actually, the parachuting was really fun.  Hooked to the chute, we got a running start, and sailed up to about 200 feet above the bay.   My good friend Al, an F-4 back seater from Thailand, later shared his experiences with me:

“We had our F-4 seat package strapped on, which included the one-man raft. We were expected to hit the water, release the chute, and escape from underneath it. Then deploy the raft, climb into it, and await the pickup from the instructors in the boat while bobbing in Biscayne Bay.    All went well, and in no time I was enjoying the sun from my little yellow raft.  Suddenly from the north came a speedboat with the driver and passengers enjoying the surf. They spotted me and turned with a big splash a few feet away and slowed down, long enough to say, “Here, have one of these!” and heaved a cold can of beer in a tight spiral which I caught with my left hand!  My joy at my luck was quickly tempered by my guilt, thinking that a court-martial or worse would happen if I was seen glugging down a beer during an official training exercise. So I remorsefully put the can into my flight suit leg pocket to be used at a later time.”

Al had all the luck; I had no boats handing out beers.

For me it was floating, floating, and floating–like Gilligan waiting to be rescued.  All I could think of was “a three hour tour, a three hour tour, a three hour tour…”

And back in Arizona my bride, on her honeymoon, I was sure was in the air conditioning of our home and awaiting my return…

The sacrifices we made in the war for Uncle Sam.


A version of this story appeared in the Geneva NY Finger Lakes Times, Aug 20 2017

Posted in American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mach 2

Found this little pin in a box recently. Not much to look at from a distance. Small F4 on it, but its the caption that catches the eye: Mach 2 Club, Phantom II.  The first reaction might be: “Is this a joke?”  No its not a joke.

Back in the 1970s, as a backseater, I did fly Mach 2+ in the F4 when I was a member of an FCF crew.   FCF – Functional Check Flight – crews took recently repaired F4s up and put them through extreme flying challenges to ensure that they were repaired before the next crew flew them.  One part of the FCF profile was to fly at speeds exceeding Mach 2.  Mach 2 is approximately 1,535 knots (nautical miles per hour) or 1522 miles an hour.

Now if you have seen the movie, The Right Stuff, you remember Chuck Yeager’s attempt to break the so-called “Sound Barrier.”   Breaking the “barrier”  was exceeding the speed of sound, about 761 miles an hour.  In the movie, Yeager is buffeted and banged about.  Its very dramatic, the small Bell X-1 is tossed around the sky and looks like it is entering a vortex of some sort.  Ominous.   On October 14, 1947, the Bell X1 – nicknamed Glamorous Glennis  after Yeager’s wife– became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound.  In the movie it looks very dramatic.

So when people invariably ask: “What was it like to fly more than Mach 2?”   I answer:  “Its fast.”  But also very routine.   Fying the F4 at Mach 1 or Mach 2 didn’t have the same drama as Hollywood portrayed.  Much of the flying of a high performance jet is by the book.  Checklists govern every thing the crew does.  That includes flying Mach 2.  Both crew members are very busy performing the tasks assigned, checking to make sure that the plane performs as it is supposed to.    There is a shock wave but the crew doesn’t feel it as they are going faster than the speed of sound and ahead of the movement through the air mass.  The real indication of the speed is watching the horizon and the Mach meter and feeling the power of the two F4 J79 engines, the  inertial reel locking and being pinned to the seat.  FCF flights also include very high altitude flying, pulling Gs, and other stresses on the air frame.   I remember flying above 50,000 feet, the oxygen mask ballooning against my face, seeing the curvature of the earth.  Its the closest I ever came to being in space.  Then when it was over the AC asking on the ground, “how did it feel to go Mach 2.”If this sounds dry and prosaic, it’s the typical aircrew member take on what it was like.

It takes a poet to do justice to the experience.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— High Flight by John Magee

That is what it’s like.


Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

POW training – Getting ready for the Vietnam War

45 years ago this week I was in the POW camp run by the Air Force, it was an Eye Opener.

An American Family

Captain John E. Norvell, Urdorn RTAFB, Thailand, 1973

When I selected the F-4 aircraft as my choice to fly, I knew that I had selected SEA  as an assignment.   The F-4 was the workhorse fighter of the Vietnam War and virtually ensured that I would find myself in combat soon.   To prepare for combat, I arrived at Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington for two weeks of basic survival training.  The training taught the basic skills of how to deal with bailing out over a wilderness area, but since the U.S. was in the middle of a major air war in Vietnam, it also included a mock POW camp to prepare aircrew members for the possibility of capture.

The Training was officially called — SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.  Survival and Evasion and Escape were taught in the wilds of Washington State.  You were taken to the field and trekked for several days while trying to evade…

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Questions never answered

Had a great experience over the weekend. I visited David Garbe who lives about ½ hour away and has reconstructed the front part of an F4 D aircraft which had flown with the famed 555th Triple Nickle at Udorn. It took him several years to buy the fuselage and other parts from dealers all over the county and then he clearly, lovingly put the bird back together. He returned it to the state it would have been when I last flew in the F4 nearly 40 years ago.

I sat there in the back seat, my wife was in the front, and talked with David who explained how he had accomplished the restoration. Then I moved to the front and we talked about my time in the F4. It was a very thought provoking discussion. It later struck me as one of those moments out of time – a universal experience that anyone who has been in combat experiences. Me the old warrior sitting there and he the young man asking questions about what it was like.

What it was Like.

As I talked with David for more than two hours my mind drifted back to those long ago days. And we shared some thoughts that I have not shared with many people. Bonnie sat there I sensed hearing these things and perhaps gaining a new understanding of the complexities of flying and being in combat.     

Combat, of course, is one of the things that men never talk about. Oh Fighter Jocks kid each other, and shoot the bull on many flying-related subjects, but they never share their inner most thoughts on going into combat. They sit in the bar after a combat mission and drink and talk late into the night, sometimes too late and too much. But they never share a deeper conversation.

Of the men I flew with I never knew how many combat missions they had flown; if they had a close call, or if they had been decorated. It simply was never discussed. Years later I learned that my old boss in Alaska had flown more than 250 missions over North Vietnam and was highly decorated. But I found it out only when he was featured on the History Channel program Vietnam in HD.

Men never talk about if they are afraid or have even thought about it before a mission. Once a former F4 jock shared with me that on the crew bus he sometimes, as I did, thought briefly about what the day might bring. Then he swept it aside and focused on the tasks at hand. The mission was all important.

Another thing men never ask of fellow fliers who did not go to war: “Did you feel left out?”

This is something that I have always wished to ask; but never did. Of my F4 class, only about 1/3 of us went to SEA and were in combat. I have a good friend who didn’t go to SEA but remained stateside.

I wonder did he feel he missed a great adventure or was he glad.

Americans have always wanted to be part of the great adventures. Going to war in the 19th Century was called “going to see the elephant.” Did my friend in his heart feel that he missed seeing the Elephant? I will never know.   And those of us  who saw the Elephant in the skies over Vietnam seldom talk about it.  All this has come back to me from the weekend; throughout the last few days these thoughts have come and gone.

These are thoughts that will never fade, they are linked to a time and place that changed me and many others. Sitting in David’s wonderfully restored F4 backseat again took me to that place. And I thank him for returning me to a time when I was young and the runway stretched far ahead of me.


To read about David’s work see


Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, SEA, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Mystery Solved

My father never knew what happened to his brother Hamilton Redfield Norvell Jr, — shown below in one of  his only photos.

Perhaps not on the scale of what ever happened to Amelia Earhart, but in our family in many ways just as important. And certainly very convoluted in its own way.   About 1940 my uncle disappeared.  When I was a kid, that was all I knew.   For many years I had hoped to solve this puzzle, but with little luck.   And then. About two weeks ago I had the long-sought-for break through. But I get ahead of myself.

Hamilton Redfield Norvell Jr was born in 1892, nineteen years older than my dad. As a result my dad really didn’t know him well. By the time my dad was a grown man — “Ham,” or “Reddy” as he was sometimes called, was living in the Cleveland area. This was about all my dad knew. But there was a lot more to Ham’s story.

Ham first moved from the Buffalo area to Indiana where in 1917 he married Elizabeth Dorrier.   She is listed on his WWI draft registration record (a wife we never knew about). This didn’t last long then they appeared to divorce in 1921, appeared is the operative word in Ham’s case.

Next Ham pops up in Cleveland, where he married Estella Wolfe in 1922. They had two children – Lila and Genevieve. It was this family my dad knew about. Not the short-lived first marriage.   Then Ham abandoned them.  A letter from one of my dad’s aunts mentions him in about 1936 only in passing, but that is all. No clue where he was.

He next turns up in WWII registration materials in Toledo in 1942 with another wife. Their Ohio marriage document from 1940 lists him as a widower. As far as we know he was still married to Estella Wolfe Norvell.

His new wife was Mary Louise Heath. She was previously married to two other husbands: Norman Hope and Arthur Wood. She divorced Hope about 1928;  the marriage to Wood was short when he died in 1929 in an electrical accident.   Before their divorce Norman and Mary had a daughter in 1927, Margaret Cecilia Hope.

This fact was the key to solving my uncle Ham’s disappearance.

Margaret Hope’s marriage license record in 1947 shows her listed as Margaret Cecilia Hamilton — did a light bulb illuminate,  it did for me.  Hamilton.

Her birth parents were listed as Mary Louise Heath and Norman Hope.  However, the parents who gave consent for her underage marriage were Charles Hamilton and Mary (Heath) Hamilton.

Even better they had to sign the document.   It was an easy task to compare the word Hamilton on the marriage document to Ham’s WWI draft registration.   Both seemed to be signed by a left handed person and both were nearly identical in penmanship.

So there it was.  After 1942 when he vanished from Toledo uncle Ham began using the name Charles Hamilton, which is on the records in 1947.   A search of the Social Security records finds a Charles Hamilton aka Hamilton Redfield Norvell who died in Ohio in 1963, with the same birth date.  Mystery solved.

Mary Louise Heath Hope Wood Norvell later pops up in California where, using a different name Teresa A. Heath,  she married and divorced Francis R. Pople.   If there were any question, is it she, her parents and birthdate  are identical.  Further there is no record of her having a twin sister.   She died in 1987.

As stated perhaps not on the scale of Amelia Earhart but from our standpoint finally solved after 50 years of searching.

And much more satisfying.


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