A Feature, Not a Bug: An Essay on Unruliness for the Fourth of July 

There is something profoundly American about walking to a New England town green, handmade cardboard sign in hand. Something profoundly American about not walking alone.

That day, some people had warned of violence and damage; there had been enough the weekend before in America. Neither came to be. Just a crowd, much younger than me, perfectly within their rights of self-expression and mildly unruly.

Unruliness is as American as apple pie, bald eagles, and inequity. It is baked hard into our DNA as a feature, not a bug. The deeply flawed, brave, unruly (White) geniuses who committed to “hang together or, most assuredly, hang separately” on July 4, 1776, took on the world’s most powerful empire, could barely stand each other, fumbled greatly, and somehow won, creating this new kind of nation.

In the place of an oppressive monarchy, they put a republic weighted on the side of liberty and the individual citizen over the government, and then specifically oppressed anyone but White men. These unruly upstarts guaranteed a difficult life for our nation and horrors for its citizens.

Long may our government come second to its citizens.

Long may our growth require difficult times, for they create opportunities.

Long may we remain unruly. Long may we doubt actions to make us less so.

We lost some of that unruliness during the pandemic, perhaps out of justified fear of the virus, perhaps out of manipulation, perhaps out of growing softer, perhaps a combination. But we generally gave it away without a whimper, and that’s troubling, because power doesn’t go back in the genie’s bottle easily. You can see it manifested in China right now against Hong Kong or the Uighurs. You can see it in the actions by many here: left and right, elected, bureaucrat, and “expert,” wearing blue, a suit, a lab coat. You can see it in history, ours and humanity’s. You can see it kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8:46, hands in pockets, blankly looking at people screaming for decency. People and systems don’t give up power naturally, or consider they even have to.

Unruliness is important. Malcolm X described it as swinging instead of singing, standing instead of sitting. King said that cooling off was a luxury we can’t afford. Worthy of note that they were also two revolutionary men in the same struggle, and they hanged separately. Whites hanged them both, metaphorically, and many more, literally. To pull right from the powerful Kimberly Jones video that recently went viral, we are fortunate that Black America is looking for equality, not revenge. They’re not the only ones who are owed.

Slavery, civil rights violations, power struggles, and a forced, brutal inequity are not American inventions, nor exclusive to us or our history. But our ideals make them more painful, more of a scar. We need to be and do better toward those ideals. Progress, and I’d argue historically fast progress, is undeniable but it’s not enough. It never can be.

Because I post about politics so infrequently, some friends will be shocked I marched, or shocked to read all this. Aren’t I conservative? Oh, I sure am. Other friends will be shocked I marched, or shocked to read all this. Aren’t I liberal? Oh, I sure am.

I think for no one but me. Did I agree with everything expressed that protest night on the Southington Green, prior, or after? No, of course not. Do I always agree with parties or politicians I have voted for? No, of course not. Do you? I’m frightened if so.

I’m allowed to think for myself, the last I checked, although I do question that from time to time. It’s very likely I was the only person on the Green with a sign that spoke in terms of liberty. King said people like me “come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.”

I see no contradiction between the yings of “Molon Labe” and the yangs of belief that ”the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leads to justice. ”

I see no contradiction in having complex thoughts on complex issues. We shouldn’t fear that.

We do, though, partly because of how media and information is created and weaponized, and because it’s easy. The default.

We have to choose our buckets, I’m told. Have to strut our purity like peacocks to other people in our camp. Have to unleash an online mob on the enemy we don’t know and with whom we make no pretense of personal, actual dialogue. Shut up and comply, we’re told.

We will surely hang separately on this path. We already are.

I’m privileged in every way. Well-off. White. Male. Straight. Healthyish. Have every structural and personal advantage one could want, and so many that so many fellow Americans do not. I understand the feeling of unease at the world right now, at disruption, at change. A dear friend often shares a quote she likes: “When you’re privileged, equality feels like oppression. It’s not.”

Be unruly. Be uncomfortable. Speak face to face. Engage. Listen. Learn. Stand for a better America. Yours looks different than mine, and different from others’, and that’s OK. The marketplace of ideas should be open and free. Dialogue should be heated and uncomfortable. There should be a gut-level wariness of forced consensus, of the control of thought. Opposing views should be welcomed, considered, and debated. Your beliefs challenged. Orwell, who, with Huxley, could be the narrator of 2020, said it best. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.”

If they’re not violating another person’s natural rights, I’ll proudly stand by any American sharing in the mix of ideas, and hope we can give the oppressed ideas the greater benefit of doubt in that intellectual marketplace. The oppressed, dangerous, unruly ideas are the ones that move us forward. Always have. The oppressed, dangerous, unruly people are the ones who do it. Always have.

There will be pain in this process. Liberty is painful. Justice is painful. Freedom is painful. Honesty is painful. Knowledge is painful. It’s also the only hope for mankind, and the spark of it all drives me. I’m a proud, unapologetic patriot for the ideals of America, and part of that means an uncompromising look at how I have contributed to and benefited from our failure to reach them.

Don’t tread on me. Don’t tread on us. Those opposed to the principles of this nation see today as a period of American weakness. It’s not. They’ll seek to take advantage of it. They’ll lose.

But we cannot walk alone through it to make that so.

So, walk.

Happy Fourth of July.

Share Your Strength

“We weren’t poor growing up. We didn’t have to look for coal by the railroad tracks, like some families did.”

My grandmother—of the Great-Depression-and-crushed-fascists generation—used to say this all the time, and what rolled my eyes as a teenager now seems to me to be a pretty good benchmark. These are desperate times, for sure, and while we almost certainly won’t sink to a Great Depression, that it’s even on a radar screen of remote possibilities for the first time in my life is striking.

Despite the endless histories of “the Greatest Generation,” I am of the opinion that they waited too long to tell their stories—certainly on an individual basis. They’re mostly gone now, and with them are millions of untold lessons of how to survive desperate times.

Don’t let this happen today. Tell your story, and tell it from a position of strength, because if you’re able to tell it, that means you’re still alive, and if you’re still alive, that means you’ve got strength…of health, of your personality, of your beliefs.

Write or record daily. A paragraph. A sentence or two about the most remarkable thing you saw or heard or witnessed. A 30-second video. Save them all.

My story yesterday involved a cucumber. We’re more than prepared at home with staples, but I was craving fresh vegetables, so did an off-hours grocery run. Of course, there aren’t “off hours” any more, and it was busier than I’d have preferred. I avoided people, grabbed some peppers and tomatoes, bagged some cucumbers, and headed to the register.

The bag broke, and the cucumbers fell to the ground. I swore, because that’s what I do, and a very kind older woman bent over to retrieve one.

“DON’T TOUCH IT!,” I barked, embarrassed at myself as soon as I spoke. The cucumber is on the ground, for god’s sakes, so we’re already well past the point that a woman who likely wiped her carriage twelve times is going to add to my premature demise.

She stopped, and I apologized and thanked her. She said, “Oh, I get it. Believe me.”

The register lines were crowded, so I picked a self-service one and kept my distance from a younger mom rushing to check out, the belt full of young kids’ food. The machine got an error, and a flashing light signaled for staff assistance. She started shaking. She looked back, eyes reddened and crying, and apologized.

I was chastened from my behavior earlier and said something like, “It’s no problem. We’re all in this together.”

She smiled, said thanks, and we wished each other good health as we went our own ways.

They were two very human moments in very inhumane times.

If you spend any time in nature, I mean really in nature, you know this: it is brutal and harsh and unforgiving.

As nature’s most advanced creation on this Earth, we do not have to be.

These are the stories we can tell. So tell them. Tell them to your children. Tell them to your grandchildren. Somewhere down the road, it will cause rolled eyes.

Until it doesn’t.

Until future generations look back and see solidarity, preparedness, acceptance, sacrifice, kindness, science, new thinking, and the individual actions of billions got us through 2020. We will lose too many, and we will learn so much.

We have been too slow this time. Nature’s most advanced creation is reeling from one of nature’s tiniest. Telling your story will help it be different the next time around.

Because there will be a next time around. And they will need our strength, as we need that of those before us.

 

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Keep Them Flying

“How old is this kid?”

“Older than my grandfather was in 1944.”

I didn’t intend to be a wiseass to the reporter, but these things happen, and it was also true. Standing in front of us was Rob Collings, 25, our pilot for the day, taking us on a shuttle flight between Hartford and Oxford, Connecticut in the Collings Foundation’s B-24 Liberator bomber. He is the son of Bob Collings, founder of the organization, and is, today, very likely one of the highest-hour rated B-24 pilots alive.

But this was 20 years ago–this week–standing on the tarmac at Hartford’s Brainard Airport, after a dismal, rainy Saturday had turned into a gorgeous fall Sunday. I was a new dad, an aspiring writer, and I was knee-deep in establishing a relationship with my paternal grandfather, who’d flown 50 missions over fascist-occupied Europe in a B-24. We’d almost never talked until 1999, when, meeting my daughter for the first time, he saw the news on TV and said, “Huh. We’re bombing Yugoslavia again. Some things never change.”

The following months, and later years, turned into a family history project, perfectly merging my love of words with my love of history with my love of aircraft, and that October day seemed an alignment of stars, taking a flight on the only B-24 left flying as a bomber of the more than 18,000 made.

Bob Collings had been a kind soul, hearing my story and offering a seat on the shuttle flight. I was planning to write a freelance article about the experience, and the rainy Saturday the day before had moved me to tears, connecting with dozens of veterans and families who braved the elements to see Collings’s magnificent flying machines and talk about what the aircraft meant to them.

At the time, the flight, and the overall experience of that weekend, was second only to the birth of my daughter as the most moving experience of my life.

Along with the reporter covering the planes’ visit for the local paper, I was flying with a wonderful vet named Walt, who is a volunteer for Collings and was taking his family on the flight to show them a bit of what he did over the Pacific in the war. The Collings Foundation B-17 Flying Fortress, “909,” flew in formation with us from Hartford to Oxford. It was stunning.

Soaking up the experience of men like Walt, I’d recently joined an online community of WWII bomber crew and their families, led by a kindred spirit from Texas who was also knee-deep in the connection to his own grandfather, a B-17 crewman over Europe.

Dear friends we became and remain, and also friends with dozens of “bomber boys.” Gene, John, Jim, Lloyd, and so many more. Young men who climbed into their imposing but fragile machines, gathered over their bases into metal storms of a thousand planes, and hurled themselves into a frozen hell at 25,000 feet.

Death and dismemberment greeted them at every turn, from the savagely random flak, fierce, slashing attacks of enemy fighter planes, mid-air collisions with damaged planes, bombs dropping from above, collisions in fog over their runways, mechanical failure, hypothermia, fire, smoke, falling, and more. Their pilots nursed damaged planes home for hours, missing engines, smoke trailing behind them, gashes in their metal skin, fuel leaking, cursing pain and loss around them, alone in the sky over an angry enemy. If they were lucky, they saw the next morning, but it also brought empty bunks, empty chairs, around them.

The young men, in machines made by young women, rained war onto the cities, the citizens, the machinery, the soldiers of the Third Reich, Italy, and Japan, in a way not repeated since. It was as raw and brutal combat as has ever existed in mankind’s perpetual history of combat. A total war we could not and would not replicate or tolerate today.

This mighty generation–Depression babies and young builders and warriors–today rapidly slipping the surly bonds of Earth, leaving nothing but legacies and memories.

Oh, Lloyd.

The online conversations frequently veered into politics, and into debate. Lloyd was a sharp debater, a good man, and a passionate advocate for his beliefs. He left us in early 2002.

———

Fast forward nearly two years from that day in Hartford, and to the first anniversary of 9/11.

It was a brutal time, a gut punch. So raw. So real. You randomly burst into tears during the day.

I was home in my kitchen, thinking about cleaning up after dinner but really thinking about writing something for the anniversary. I cleared the table, and my two kids were running around underfoot, doing kid things.

I wondered how I would explain this crazy world to them, and worried what they’d have ahead. Who their heroes would be. I know who mine had been: astronauts and pilots. I started thinking about how the events of the past year would look, say, 20–25 years from then. I couldn’t help but think that the guys who fought WWII came home victorious, built this country in good ways and bad, committed the whole post-war world to rebuilding, and watched 25 years later as the nation seemed to rip apart. Would my kids look back at 2001–2002 as some bygone era they never really felt? Just a chapter in history, as distant as the Romans? Would they find strength and purpose? Did we understand, as a nation, what was ahead? Could we?

I was thinking about these things, and also specifically about Lloyd and what a decent man he always seemed to be. What his generation went through. I hoped that we would be as strong and give our kids as much of an example. His death, still raw, hurt.

And the house shook.

I ran to the front door and looked out. Then up. The Collings Foundation bombers were in town, soaring low overhead, eight magnificent radial engines roaring, skin shining in the setting sun.

Lloyd was with me. So were all the bomber boys. It would be OK. We’d been through this before. We knew these times. We knew worse.

———

I don’t know any of the people on Wednesday’s doomed flight of the Collings B-17. I may have spoken to some, as I’d often seen the Collings birds on their annual stops in the fall. Got my dad to do a flight like mine. Ran in similar circles. The loss was personal and real and raw when I saw the headline and the photo of the black smoke. I checked in with people I knew close to Collings. My friend in Texas checked in with me.

I also don’t know what happened on that emergency approach to Runway 6, although I have a theory. But I can guarantee that the crew was doing what the bomber boys were doing in 1944 when their planes were hurt: everything in their power to fight Newton’s damned laws. Flying the plane through the crash, to the end. No computers. Just strength, cables, metal, and thousands upon thousands of accumulated hours of experience with their baby. There would have been no one better in the cockpit than the crew that was there. You can’t understand the passion of organizations like Collings in maintaining and flying these aircraft until you see it for yourself.

There have been calls to ground warbirds like “909” for years. They will get louder in the wake of the crash; some already have. They are misguided.

These birds are pieces of our complex history, flying museums, touching thousands of lives a year, connecting generations, connecting a nation to its past. There is no static display that can replace them. Flying on them is a visceral experience. Feeling their engines near you, imagining the two bombers times 500, to imagine what a raid looked like, to see what we did, leaves you awestruck, in the literal sense of the word.

There is a cost to keep them flying, of course. Wednesday showed us. But risk has cost. So does knowledge. So does freedom. So does laying waste to concepts like fascism. It’s worth paying.

Keep them flying.

Flying the Dragon – A Day With The Collings Foundation

Originally Published October 14, 1999. Republished on October 2, 2019, in memory and honor of the lives lost at Bradley International Airport this morning.

All images in the main story below are thumbnails only

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It was Hartford, Connecticut, USA, but with the low clouds, cold rain, and fog, it seemed like it could have been Thorpe Abbot, Deenethorpe, or any of the other notoriously foggy WWII bomber fields scattered across England in 1943.  Looking out at the tarmac and seeing a B-24 Liberator and a B-17 Flying Fortress weathering the dismal sky just seemed to transport myself and everyone else into another era.

Rain or no rain, several hundred people came to Brainard Airport on this raw New England day to get a glimpse of history, courtesy of the Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts.  Although it also runs a museum and a number of classic aircraft restoration projects, the Foundation is best known for its duel touring bombers.

It’s pretty hard to miss them, too.  The B-24, “The Dragon and His Tail,” is painted up in the complex, plane-length design replicated from the famous Liberator in the 43rd Bomb Group with the same name and artwork. The Collings B-17 is replicating the Nine-O-Nine, a famed 91st Bomb Group Flying Fortress that flew 140 missions and 1,129 hours, including 18 trips to Berlin, without the loss of a crew or a mission abort.  Both pretty easily stand out among the Cessnas, Mooneys, and Lears of the modern world they are stranded in.

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The Nose and Tail of “Nine-O-Nine”

I was scheduled to take a ride in the B-24 this day, but as I walked from the sheltered building out into the rain, it was obvious we weren’t going anywhere.  After introducing myself to some of the Collings crew, I decided to make the most of it and spend some time admiring the planes, especially after reading so much about them in anticipation of the flight.

As I blended in with the crowd, it didn’t take long to realize that there were a lot of older men here, many with their children and their children’s children.  Always looking for a story, I moved my way close to several, hoping to catch those fleeting images of history from the old crews themselves.  As the rain got heavier, the crowds began to migrate under the wings and any other cover they could find.  I did the same, praying that the rain wouldn’t ruin my notes or camera, both of which were busy capturing the scene.

It was during one of the heavier downpours that I saw him.  Frail-looking, hunched over, and drenching wet, an old man stood right in front of the Liberator, staring straight into it.  Even from a distance, I could see he had the shoulder patch of the 15th Air Force on his jacket.  I had to walk back that way anyway, so I moved over to him and struck up a conversation.

“You fly in the 15th?  So did my grandfather.”

“Yep.” He slowly turned towards me. “Where’d he fly out of?”

“Spinazzola, Italy,” I answered, stumbling over the pronunciation of the town.

“That’s close enough,” he replied.  “I was in Italy too.  Flew in one of these.  Left waist.”  His voice lowered a bit as every word came out with a purpose.  When he was finished, there was a long pause, and I quickly got the hint.

“It was very nice meeting you,” I said as I stuck out my hand.  “Thank you for serving.”  As I started to walk away, he spoke again.

“Great airplane, the -24.  No one gave it enough credit.”

“Definitely.  No one gives you guys enough credit either.”

He smiled a crack.  Another long pause.  By this time the rain had died down a bit, and another vet, this one sporting a B-26 hat, came over to talk and listen.  The B-24 vet spoke again.

“I got shot down the mission after we hit Ploesti.  A Focke-Wulf snuck in behind us.  All but one of us got out.”

“I’m very sorry.  Were you captured?”

“Spent a year as a POW.”  His eyes never left the plane.  “Yep.”

The B-26 crewman was now fighting back tears.  By that point my eyes were wet too, and it wasn’t from the rain.

“Did you do OK while you were a POW?” he asked.

“Well,” the man answered with a quiet voice and a smile, “I’m here.”

“God bless you, buddy,” the B-26 crewman choked out, and then he grabbed him in a bear hug and cried.  As he walked away towards his own family, the B-26 crewman turned to me, pointed with his finger, and said, “Don’t you ever forget….this man is a hero.  Don’t you ever forget.”

He was one of many at Brainard Field that Sunday.

Over the course of two days, I spent almost six hours with the volunteer crew from the Collings Foundation and their visitors.  Besides the birth of my child, I have never had a more moving experience.  From the way the Collings folks talked about their airplanes, to the courageous modesty of the vets, to their bewildered family members, I was moved by the genuineness of it all.

For four hours that Sunday, I stood under the wing of the B-24 with Collings volunteer pilot John Rising as he collected a small fee which allowed the visitors to walk around and through the planes.  Along the way, he and I talked with almost everyone who came by to see and touch these rare aircraft.

If you can envision a WWII bomber pilot from the movies, Rising, 35, fits the bill.  Tall, fit, and confident looking, he flies an Airbus 320 for a living, although he’s been with the Foundation for 12 years in both a full-time and volunteer capacity.  Fresh on a four-day break from his “real job” at a charter airline, Rising is the Foundation’s B-17 pilot for this leg of the trip, heading along the East Coast down towards his home near Atlanta, where his family and two cats (“Pratt” and “Whitney”) are now.  He’s got about 5,000 hours of flight time under his belt, including about 1,200 hours each in the B-24 and B-17.

“I never get bored,” he says while taking the money and stamping hands, although at times it’s hard to imagine how he couldn’t.  On this day, Rising is the Collings crew member front and center, and he’s being bombarded with questions from visitors are simple as “Which one is the B-24?” to “How does the wing aspect ratio of the B-24 compare to the B-17?”  He handles them all in stride, although I pitch in to deal with the basic ones after a while.  Other Collings crew members are working around the planes, checking and rechecking their supplies, coordinating today’s scheduled rides up in the bombers that are now likely to be rained out, talking to the visitors, or working a table inside.

In between visitors, John tells me of how he first became involved in the Foundation, during a summer break from college when he helped coordinate media relations for the tour as a volunteer.  After that, the “bug” bit; he got his pilot’s license and worked his way up the Collings ranks through flight engineer to copilot and pilot / captain of both the B-24 and the B-17.

“They’re my mistresses,” he says with a laugh and a shrug.

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The Nose of “The Dragon and His Tail”
(nose art nudity)

Talking to almost everyone, we’re both susceptible to goosebumps numerous times this afternoon.  One vet brings up his leather bound photo album, ready to show us the Pacific War seen from his camera.  It could fill a history book.

“Here’s Charles Lindbergh.  Geez, he turned his head right when I took this picture, but that’s him,” he points out, tapping at the picture of a man in a P-38.  Howard was an armorer assigned to B-24s and later P-38s, and along the way captured some incredible moments in the war on film, like a photo of the original “The Dragon and His Tail” and the Japanese “Betty” bomber that flew the surrendering Japanese delegation into Ie Shima.

Later, another older man comes up and pays for himself and for “someone else.”

“Is he coming later?  Tell him to mention to me that you paid,” John points out.

“No, I don’t think he’s coming later.  My brother died on a B-24 in the war.  He would have wanted to see this.”

John and I are at a loss for words as the old man brings up his daughter and granddaughter and starts to show them the planes.

“I never get bored doing this,” John repeats as he dodges another drop of water seeping through the wing of the Liberator.

Another person who doesn’t get bored is Phil Haskell.  Phil started with the Foundation in 1986, helping to restore the B-24.  In 1992, he decided to join the planes for their annual 10 1/2 month tour…that was seven years ago.

“I don’t do the work; I just make sure other people do theirs,” he smiles, after delivering the understatement of the year.  Phil is the guy who keeps the operation running on the road and when he’s not talking to the mechanics and pilots, he’s lugging boxes of oil out for the planes, coordinating the visits with local FBOs and airports, making sure the local Foundation volunteers have found rooms and restaurants for the crews (while they’re generally not paid, they get room and board while on the road), ensuring the airport has fuel, tracking the planes’ supplies of spare parts, and generally keeping things running smoothly.

This isn’t easy even if you own a small plane, not to mention two beasts that burn a gallon of oil per hour per engine and which run up an $1,800 fuel bill after a half-day of flying.  The Foundation’s bombers are remarkably self-sufficient logistically.  With the exception of a full engine and a spare tire, the crews carry everything with them that they may need on the road: spare magnetos, plugs, starters, the whole works.  It’s all crammed into tight corners of the planes, up in the nose, or wherever there’s room.

Phil’s not a pilot with Collings (although he flew fixed wing planes in the Army in the early ’60s) but he is as vital to the planes as the flight crews.  Each of these bombers costs $2,000 per hour to fly, and the Foundation relies on paid 40-minute “flight experiences” and ground tours to pay their bills.  Phil makes sure the crews and mechanics have what they need to keep the show moving safely and reliably.

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Touring “Nine-O-Nine”

Any nonprofit organization needs volunteers, and Collings seems to have found some of the most devoted in the world.  Between 6 to 12 volunteers are with the Foundation’s planes at any one time, and Bill Strawn of Florida is a classic example.  After taking one of the paid rides in the bombers in 1996, he quit his day job and joined the Collings crew, volunteering for the last three years to work on the planes and help with visitors.

“Eh, you can always find another job,” he shrugs.

The man who made all of this possible is Bob Collings, who coordinates the entire Foundation from a farm in Massachusetts.

From an organization that started out in 1979 to support “living history” events as diverse as antique car rallies and winter ice-cutting festivals, the Collings Foundation has turned into one of the world’s most prominent restorers of classic aircraft.  In addition to the B-17 and B-24, Collings operates a Bleroit, Fokker DR-1, PT-17 Stearman, AT-6 Texan, TBM torpedo bomber, A-26 Invader, B-25 Mitchell, Fiesler Storch, F4U Corsair, and most recently, an F-4D Phantom dedicated to Vietnam veterans.

The Foundation depends solely on private funding and receives donations from individuals and groups from across the country.  A number of companies have donated gear for the aircraft, including the rare spark plugs, an original Norden bombsight, and other hard-to-find components.

The planes are Collings’ babies.  After buying the B-24 from an English aircraft collector, he shipped the plane across the ocean by ship.  The 64-foot-long fuselage and center wing were set on cradles, and two forty-foot containers contained the reminder of the aircraft.  The restoration involved the complete disassembly of the B-24 and work on about 80 percent of its 1,200,000 parts.  More than $1.3 million, 97,000 man hours, and 420,000 rivets later, the B-24, which had previously served the RAF in the Pacific Theater and later the Indian Air Force, took off as the “All American” (her name was changed to “The Dragon and His Tail” in 1999).  She is believed to be one of only about ten B-24s in the world and the only true B-24 Liberator flying.  More than 18,000 B-24s were produced.

The Collings B-17 has had no less of an amazing history.  Produced too late to see war duty, she served as an Air/Sea Rescue plane and later in the Military Air Transport Service.  In 1952, the aircraft was instrumented and subjected to three different nuclear explosions.  After 13 years of “cooling down,” #44-83575 was sold as part of an 800-ton scrap pile and restoration began.  For the next 20 years, she pressed on as a fire bomber before being sold to Collings in 1986.  In 1987, she suffered a non-fatal crash landing in Pennsylvania which caused substantial damage to the nose, landing gear, wing, nacelles, bomb bay, fuselage, and ball turret.  With nacelles from another B-17, thousands of volunteer hours, and donations from individuals and corporations, she proudly took off again.

Today, the planes are on tour, making stops in more than 125 cities in 35 states across the continental United States this year alone.  In the past decade, they’ve made more than 1,200 stops.  They’ve been out since January 1999, and are currently on their way back south, where the bombers receive a thorough annual inspection and overhaul for almost two months in Florida.  They have no fixed base or hangar anywhere in the US.

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The Waist Gunner’s Position on the B-24,
Boarded Up and Facing Aft

Proceeds are raised on the road, between the $7 admission ($3 for children) to tour the planes, which basically is gas money on a good stop, as well as the $350 “flight experiences.”  Various sponsorships are also available on the aircraft itself, and you can see those names painted prominently on the bomb bay doors and near the positions often manned by the sponsors themselves during the war.  At each stop, a PX is also set up, selling B-24 and B-17 memorabilia.

On this particular day, the PX supplies are running low, since a lot of people came to see the planes depart at 2 PM and were stuck inside.  As the weather goes from bad to worse, the crowds start to die down and the Collings crew does one final check of the weather at our planned destination, Waterbury-Oxford Airport.  There is no bravado here; although the planes are capable of IFR flight and all of the Foundation’s 30 volunteer or paid pilots are IFR-rated, there’s no need to risk flying in bad weather in planes as priceless as these two.  Even with the visibility improving, John does a last minute check of the weather and tells me that it’s a no-go. The new departure time is 8:30 AM the next morning.

I should have been disappointed….I had waited for this moment seemingly forever.  Part of me wanted to go. Part of me wanted to play it safe.  But as I looked through my notes of the day, I realized that the conversations I had heard and participated in were as precious as a ride in these planes.  Somewhere along the way, the planes, the Collings Foundation, and the visitors all blended into one fantastic experience.

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“The Dragon and His Tail”
(nose art nudity)

As my wife and daughter drove up to the terminal to pick up this cold, wet reporter for a hot shower and a cup of coffee, I felt a connection.  Not just to the planes, or to the men who fought in them, but to the past.  The armchair quarterbacks will always second-guess history, and the memories of what happened 50 years ago will fade and die away with each passing day, but nothing can ever repay the men who flew, fought, and died in these in the war.  However, thanks to groups like the Collings Foundation, what those planes and men did will live on, hopefully well into the future.  They deserve the support of anyone vaguely concerned about freedom, aviation, and our history.  They are American treasures.


PART TWO:  FLYING THE DRAGON


 


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The front that had delivered all of the rain had passed through over the night, and the scene at 7:30 AM at Brainard Field was calm.  As the sun struggled to break out of the remaining clouds, “Nine-O-Nine” and “The Dragon and His Tail” were there on the tarmac as I expected them to be…part of me worried I would pull into the airport and find the Collings crew had moved them already.

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Nine-O-Nine and “The Dragon And His Tail”
(nose art nudity)

A small crowd, mostly people who came to see them take off yesterday, was already gathered.  There were two workers from nearby Pratt and Whitney who kept checking their watches, since they had to be at work at nine.  A father brought his two young sons.  A couple of passengers waited for their corporate pilot to arrive.  They all couldn’t help but look at these two magnificent planes almost daring the sky to ground them again.

The Collings gang rolled in around 8:15, as they told me they would.  As they unpacked their rental SUVs and started to preflight the planes, B-17 pilot John Rising came into the terminal to check on the weather at Waterbury-Oxford and other nearby airports.  As he walked by, he gave a big smile, looked up at the clearing sky, and asked me, “So, you glad we waited to fly NOW?”

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Preflighting the B-24

Preflight went smoothly, and crews climbed up on the wings, removed covers from the B-24’s cockpit and turret, checked the fuel, rotated the props around by hand, and did everything else you need to do to get a 50-year-old airplane up and running.  Others loaded their gear in and strapped everything down.  I was happy to see them remove the covers from the B-24’s waist positions and swing the .50 caliber machine guns out into position.  There was never any doubt which plane I wanted to fly on, and seeing the open ports now made me want it even more.  For the first time in 54 years, a Sponauer would fly on a Liberator.

There’s an old story about the B-24 first being designed as a seaplane.  However, when the designers saw how much it leaked, they made it into a bomber.  As the electric motors for the bomb bay doors whined, a small amount of water poured out of the bay.  Given how wet I got the day before standing UNDER the wing, I wasn’t totally shocked.  When I asked one of the Collings crew if I should wear a jacket for the flight, he smiled back, “Yeah, expect some wind and water inside.”

There would be five passengers on this hop from Hartford to Waterbury-Oxford:  myself, B-24 vet and Collings volunteer Walt Hushak, his daughter, and two others.  A reporter from a local paper was due to fly with us too, but as we stood around waiting, Dee Brush, who coordinates the paid “flight experiences” for Collings, reminded the crews that there were already people waiting in Waterbury for their rides, since so many had been rained out the day before.

With that urging, Bill Strawn gave us the briefing…  Fasten your seatbelt for takeoff and landing.  Stay in your seats until you’re airborne and you get the signal that it’s OK to move about.  When we’re about to land, you’ll get another signal…get back to your seats and buckle in.  When we land and taxi, get ready to move and disembark quickly.  When leaving the aircraft, walk aft and not forward.  Avoid walking into spinning props, as it tends to ruin your clothes.

Bill told us that our B-24 pilot for today was 25-year-old Rob Collings, son of Foundation President Bob Collings.  With more than 800 hours of flight time in the B-24, Rob is probably one of the highest-hour Liberator pilots in the world today under the age of 70 and may even be the youngest. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: Any thoughts you may have that Rob is too young to fly this plane should be put to rest when you recall that many, if not most, of the crews who took the Liberator to war were 25 or under.]

With those words, and after informing us that there would be neither an in-flight movie nor peanuts, he led us to the B-24’s open bomb bay doors.  One by one, we crouched down, shimmied under, and stood in the bay itself, right next to a rack of several “show” bombs.  With a small step up, we each climbed up onto the narrow catwalk that ran the length of the bay and which separated the rear gunners from the crew in the front of the aircraft.  Turning aft, I squeezed my 6 foot 6 frame through a 2-inch tall opening (OK, so it was probably 4 feet tall, but it felt like 2 inches!), up a step, and into the comparatively open aft section of The Dragon.

The first thing that struck me from being inside was the small size of the whole airframe.  I had always assumed that room was tight inside, but looking at these planes from the outside, you don’t get an appreciation for how close the crew were to each other.  Being in one sets you straight.

Three of us were asked to sit on a small bench seat / shelf above the small door we just came through, with our backs to the aft bulkhead of the bomb bay.  Being the tallest, I took center seat, with my legs dangling down into the doorway.  Walt grabbed the seat to my right, his daughter to my left, and the other two passengers were placed next to the waist guns, facing aft with their backs against a board mounted as a backrest.

Bill came up as well, giving us some more words of warning.  While we’re in flight, you are free to move around from the tail turret to the front of the bomb bay.  Do not step off the catwalk and onto the closed bomb bay doors…they will not support your weight and you will have a long next step down.  Do not step on anything marked with “No Step.”  Hold onto something solid as you’re moving throughout the fuselage.  You can step on the rear access door, as it will be locked and will support your weight.  Call out when you are buckled in and ready for takeoff.  The seatbelts are military-style straps, and the seat, while padded, is not something you’d want to sit on for a 15 hour flight.  We all found our respective straps and adjusted them to fit.

As I soaked it all in and buckled up, I looked around much more closely than I had on the walk-through the day before.  The yellow oxygen containers were easy enough to see the first time, but now I also noticed the small green handheld oxygen canisters the crew would use when they had to walk from the front to the back of the aircraft.  I had also always known that the ball turret gunners were small, but looking at the retracted turret, I couldn’t even imagine how anyone could fit in that thing.

From my seat, I had a limited vantage point out the waist ports, but I could also bend down and see out two smaller windows near my knee level.  Walt politely offered me cotton for my ears, but this was one sound that I didn’t want to miss.

Walt and I started talking.  A B-24 pilot, he flew several missions in the Pacific with the 7th Air Force, and spent some time after the war in trainers.  He politely pointed out little features of the interior new for me….the ammo boxes for the waist guns, the turret mechanism, and the control cables that snaked out from nowhere and led to the tail of the plane.  Forget “fly by wire,” this is “fly by cable!”  I was amazed how vulnerable the cables were…in fact, I was amazed how vulnerable the whole interior felt.  The thin skin of the B-24 was easily pierced by bullets, flak shrapnel, and debris, and it didn’t take much to imagine holes being punched through the dark green paint, letting in sunlight and wind and trailing destruction as the rounds passed through.

Catching me by surprise, the four Pratt and Whitney 1,200 hp engines roared to life, and I felt a sensation unlike any jetliner, helicopter, or small plane I have flown in before.  I vibrated……I don’t mean shook rapidly, but instead my whole body became part of the plane, rocking gently back and forth as the engines screamed louder and loader.  With a small jolt, “The Dragon and His Tail” lurched forward, leaving the crowd and Nine-O-Nine behind.

I leaned forward as we taxied out and saw the beautiful sight of the B-17 lining up behind us, all four yellow-tipped props spinning madly.  It was an awe-inspiring sight and one that will stay burned in my mind for a long time.

Rob brought the Liberator to the end of the runway, and let Nine-O-Nine pull up alongside to my right (the port side, since I was facing aft).  Looking out the window and seeing the grass behind us moving in waves from the eight mighty engines sent chills down my spine, and as he edged the throttles forward, the noise became deafening and beautiful.  The plane lurched back, like a sprinter waiting for the starting shot.  In an instant, the brakes were off, the engines roared louder, and The Dragon was unchained.

I was stunned at how quickly the B-24 responded, shooting down the runway, reaching 110 mph and lifting off, wings grabbing the air and pulling us skyward.  Looking down through the gap around the ball turret below me, I watched the ground slide away as we climbed.  We rapidly reached altitude as we crossed the Connecticut River, and Walt was the first one to unbuckle his belt and scamper back to the waist guns.  His daughter and I trailed, struggling to find our footing as the plane bounced around a little and banked to the west.

Reaching the starboard gun, I looked out at the City of Hartford as we drifted by.  I had briefly considered taking my camcorder up on the flight, but ultimately decided against it.  I immediately realized what a good decision that was….some things have to be seen with the eyes, not through a small lens.  The view was breathtaking.  Because all five of us were crowding in the waist positions, I moved aft and down the narrow walkway to the tail turret, crouched and holding on tight for the four or five steps to the turret.  The plane rocked, much like a boat, and thankfully there were nonskid pads on the floor.

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Hartford, CT

There was no way I was considering climbing into the turret, as it suddenly seemed so much smaller than it appears on the ground.  I was surprised to see a several-inch-wide gap between the turret and the fuselage…somehow I had envisioned it fitting more snug than that.  From my vantage point, though, I could see the tiny shape of Nine-O-Nine just getting airborne, already several minutes behind us.

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B-24 Tail Turret

Turning around and moving forward into the waist section, I looked at the others huddled around the guns and could see in my mind the gunners of 50 years ago, swinging their mounts around at the slashing enemy fighters.  At that instant, it was easy for me to hear the thumping of the fifties firing and envision the brass flying from the guns, shining briefly in the light, and cascading across the floor.

I recalled that the day before, a vet had told me a story about one mission when he and the other waist gunner found themselves up to their shins with spent casings and how when they landed, almost all of the gun barrels had to be replaced and repaired, since several had actually come close to melting from the sustained firing.  

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From the Walkway to the Tail, Looking Forward
at the Waist Positions, the Ball Turret Mechanism,
and Behind It, Our Bench Seat.

As I looked down, I realized that I was stepping on the floor hatch door, and that uneasy feeling was slightly diminished by the amazing sight of a highway below through a small circular window in the door.  I couldn’t even imagine a tale that the POW vet had told me in the rain the day before.  After the Focke-Wulf’s cannon shells ripped into his plane, the B-24 spiraled down from 25,000 to 10,000 feet.  With all of his might, he crawled and grabbed his way to this very same hatch and hurled himself out into the European sky.  Today, I don’t think I’d have the foresight to even look for a latch, but all but one of his crew had somehow escaped their certain death in the out-of-control B-24.

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Long Way Down…the Floor Hatch

I worked my way back to the waist and soaked in the sights as we gently rocked up and down, left and right.  For the next 35 minutes, we essentially flew southwest along Interstate 84, passing the University of Connecticut Health Center, New Britain, and over to Bristol, home of ESPN and Lake Compounce Amusement Park.  Both were clearly visible from our altitude, which I never got for sure, but guessed to be about 2,000 feet.

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Bristol, CT (ESPN at center near fork in road)

The view was great because the fall foliage was just reaching an early peak, and I soon realized that we would pass almost directly over my house.  Within seconds, we were over it, up past the long glacial ridge that overlooks our town, and heading towards the Brass City…Waterbury, Connecticut.

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Southington and Wolcott, CT

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Waterbury, CT

In a matter of minutes, we were over the city, with all of us snapping photos wildly.  Along I-84 above the picturesque town of Middlebury, I climbed back into the tail section, and noticed that Nine-O-Nine had caught up to us.  I swore to myself when I saw that I was down to two shots on this roll of film and when I realized what was happening….she was moving into a formation with us.

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I-84 in Middlebury, CT

I quickly shot two pictures of the floor, slapped another roll of film in the camera, and scrambled back to the waist, where everyone was now busy shooting the B-17 moving in closer.  Having a slight height advantage, I got my camera up just in time to see it move in behind our starboard tail…two awesome machines moving as one.  I remembered my grandfather telling me his awe of the sight of hundreds of B-24s in formation heading towards their target, and I got a small, small taste of it at that moment.  It was humbling and gave me a chill that I still have as I write this article.

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Nine-O-Nine Catching Up

Nine-O-Nine pulled away slightly, and we got the klaxon that it was time to buckle back up.  None of us rushed, but we all made our way back to the seats, fastened ourselves in, and watched the beautiful foliage get closer and closer to our precious airframe.

With a very slight thud, the wheels screeched a little, the nose settled down, and “The Dragon and His Tail” belonged to the earth again.  As we came to a stop, the bomb bay doors opened and Bill came knocking, urging us to move out quickly.  I made sure I had everything with me and got out the way I came in;  through the small door, onto the catwalk, and down a small jump to the tarmac below.

As I crouched under the bomb bay doors and looked out at the crowd assembled, I got choked up at the site of about 50 vets standing there, many in their unit hats, American Legion caps, or unit shirts.  I considered how lucky I felt today going up in the B-24, and imagined how unlucky they may have felt more than 50 years ago, flying into the enemy’s teeth day after day after day.  As I walked towards them, a group was already assembled to head out to The Dragon and go for their ride.  I turned around and caught Nine-O-Nine taxiing in behind.

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On the Ground at Waterbury-Oxford Airport

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“The Dragon and His Tail” Taking Off

As I made my way to the crowd, a wide-eyed little boy, maybe 10 or 11, asked, “How was it?”

“Awesome.”  At the same time I said it, a vet next to him did as well.  His B-24 hat proudly had a number of pins on it, and I knew in my heart that only someone like him could really understand how incredible I felt at that moment.

It’s one thing to read about history, but the flight on board “The Dragon and His Tail” was living a small piece of it.  I would encourage anyone who has the chance to see or ride these magnificent aircraft to do so while they can.  Thanks to the folks at the Collings Foundation and our active vets, today we have the chance to get a small taste of how it was to fly in the skies over World War II.  I have not a sliver of doubt that we’re all the better for it.


For more information about the Collings Foundation and its aircraft, contact them at:

The Collings Foundation
River Hill Farm
Stow, MA  01775  USA
(978) 562-9182

Or visit their web site at:  http://www.collingsfoundation.org

 

 

Connections

“I’ve got 4G. Three bars.”

NO.

It was the first thought that came to mind. I saw my son looking down at his phone, as shocked as I was that on this rocky island off the coast of rural Maine, we had steady cell coverage for the first time in three visits.

“That’s unbelievable. Put it in Airplane Mode.”

“Yeah.” He agreed without even a second word.

We dropped our heavy packs and got to work, setting up camp under tall pines in a routine now familiar from years of doing it. Stake, tie, hitch, gather, chop, light, organize. Food over there. Flashlights by our sleeping pads. Lines tightened up. We wordlessly helped each other by instinct, and the two phones sat over by the fire ring while we worked.

But they were on my mind the whole time.

This changes things.

We’ve camped together since he was a toddler, but in the last five years—the last of his youth—the destinations have been more remote. Baxter State Park in northern Maine and Isle au Haut in Acadia National Park had been, previously, near-total escapes. Our trips have been exercises in getting back to basics and each other.

Long after you lose cell coverage on the drive to Baxter’s North Gate, you’re bluntly reminded by a wooden sign that help is many hours away and you are responsible for your own safety. Isle au Haut, while not as remote, is six miles off the coast, and reachable only by a mailboat that makes daily runs to the island’s small village, four miles to the north of the campsite.

Once you’re at either, it’s you and what you chose to haul in on your back. At Baxter, I learned to carry dollar bills and Post Its so that I could pay a buck to any outgoing visitor I encountered if they’d text my wife that we were safe. Trivia: all but one held up their end of the wilderness deal. People are generally good.

On Isle au Haut, there previously had been a large rock on the shore where, if you stood still for a while, you’d get 3G and one bar. Not great for anything but texting home you were safe, but that was all I’d need.

Now, with 4G, the time away would be changed. Home, world news, texts, work, emails were all there if we wanted them.

The week before we’d left, I told a colleague about the remote nature of our camping. She said, “That’s good. Get your kids off their phones.”

It’s not really that simple. I’m as guilty as anyone of being glued to my screen, and if you look around any idle crowd, it’s clear phone time is an equal opportunity distractor. They’ve got us, these companies. This technology.

We talked about it at dinner that night, Triscuits and pepperoni grilled over smoky, hot coals. The rule would be, aside from texts home that we were safe, no phone for anything but photos. I took a photo of dinner, because of course I did, proud of my perfectly charred cracker.

That ban on data lasted 45 minutes. A storm rumbled and I found I could get radar for the island.

Ok, just this one other use. Other than that, Airplane Mode.

And then the notifications popped up every time I turned data on. An acquaintance joined Duo (!). A person I don’t know would like to add me to their professional network on LinkedIn. Google asked me to review the campsite. Facebook wanted me to know a friend posted pictures of her trip. My daily activity level was reported to be excellent (Yeah, no joke, I’m almost 50 and that pack almost killed me walking uphill to the site.). Starbucks was offering a deal. Capital One let me know my breakfast that day at shore charged to my card.

Off, off, off, off their switches went in Settings, one by one, until I finally just decided they were all getting turned off. I had no idea how many apps I even had set to notify me of something.

The icons remained and I realized they still tempted. Laying on my sleeping pad that night, I moved everything social, everything news, everything but camera, phone, messages, and voice recorder to the farthest right screen, five swipes away from home. Deleted others. Made a home screen shortcut for radar. All of the rest of it…out of sight, out of mind.

And my brain changed. I lay in the dark, and what had been a low-level state of worrying about what I was missing turned into serenity.

They can’t reach me now.

I fell asleep.

I woke up and found my always-spinning brain, well, still. My phone alarm didn’t wake me, because the morning sun did. Listening to the birds, the distant sound of a lobster boat checking its traps, and the wind. A quick text home to assure that we were still alive, and back it went back into Airplane Mode and back in my pocket.

I didn’t miss it. At all. For four days.

I don’t regret keeping the radar icon. A nasty storm blew in on Day Three, and it was good to know how long we had to get back to camp and hunker down.

But other than that, what did I miss?

Absolutely nothing.

On the trip home, my son took a shift driving, I mentally prepared myself, flipped on data, and checked my apps. Dozens and dozens of posts, comments, updates flooded in. But if I’d suddenly died in the second before I checked, I’d have died no poorer.

The president said what?
How many people were killed in the accident?
We’re doing what now?
My friend really posted that?

It reinforced to me that the connection we have through our little dopamine devices is mostly fake, and mostly unhealthy. I could feel my anxiety increase, I could feel my focus to here and now fade.

After what seemed like five seconds but actually was 22 minutes, my son chimed in, “Hey what exit do I need to look for?”

I looked up. I’d been connected to the world in those 22 minutes but profoundly disconnected to what was around me. It was startling, and totally unlike the experience on the island, when I noticed things…the way the wind shifted leaves, the subtle and perfectly rhythmic pattern of waves, how green the trees appeared, the deliberate manner in how a squirrel checked out our campsite.

It was no different than if I’d been at home on the couch, honestly. A house full of people, near each other but far away.

We’ve lost so much. And gained so little.

I made a social post about my trip the next day. Of course I did. Posted my favorite pictures. Of course I did. It got a lot of likes. A few loves. Some nice words. I’m glad people enjoyed seeing and sharing in the beauty of the island. One friend may go there with her own kids sometime. That’s nice. They’ll love it.

But the island they’ll visit, or the woods they’ll see, won’t be the same as the one I did. Certainly not the one I had been used to seeing.

I’m no luddite. I embrace technology. But you can embrace something and still realize how harmful it can be.

There’s no profound lesson here; no call to action. The technology of connection will advance as quickly as our lights have blotted out the natural night sky. This connection is, largely, good. Lives will be saved.

But when we each take our last breaths, what will matter won’t be any of that. It will be in the connections–the real connections–we make. Technology can support but not replace it.

And the two should never be confused.

Try the Triscuits and pepperoni over smoky, hot coals some time. So good. Tastes better when you’re disconnected to the world, yet so connected to what’s around you.

Think Ten: Entering the World of NCAA Rifle

I’ve seen countless, wonderful posts about baseball, softball, basketball, wrestling, hockey, football, gymnastics, swimming, band, track, volleyball, robotics, cheer, lacrosse, dance, ski team, drama, karate, and soccer. Now that the season is done, and my boy is a man, I’d like to share a largely unknown bit of our life, to educate and share my pride.

Throughout high school, Ryan has competed in air rifle and smallbore rifle against hundreds of other youth across the state, region, and nation. Next year, he’s earned a spot on the NCAA rifle team at the University of North Georgia, and will be one of only about 300 student-athletes competing nationally at that level. Perhaps one of 75 or so freshmen. It’s an amazing honor.

Rifle is fascinating. It’s a rare NCAA sport where D1s, D2s, and D3s compete directly, and where men and women compete side-by-side, with and against each other for individual and team scores, which is awesome. Women dominate. Also awesome.

The NCAA champion this year is an all-women’s team. Eight of the top ten individual scores this season are held by women. A woman shot a 599 (out of 600) in the NCAA Championship this year, breaking a six-year record…held by another woman. Ryan’s coach the last two years, as well as his coach at UNG, are women who were top shooters themselves. It is wonderful for Ryan to see and experience all this.

Rifle is also one of the original sports of the modern Olympics, dating back to 1896, and remains one of more than a dozen shooting events in the winter and summer games. Also pretty awesome.

So, this is really, as someone once asked me, “a thing.”

From cold morning practices to clinics and matches across Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the last few years have seen his weekends and summers centered on the zen of marksmanship.

Like all disciplines, it’s a mental activity first. Anyone can pick up a target rifle and shoot decently. They’re amazingly precise instruments.

But it takes a dedicated person who can regulate their breathing, clear their mind, focus on the precise placement of every element of their body, and hoist a 13-lb rifle onto the target, 20, 40, 60, sometimes 120 times in a row, with standing–the most challenging rifle position–saved for last, when you’re exhausted, running out of time, and fighting your own mental battle about how you’ve done so far.

You’re wearing a rigid jacket, boots, gloves, and pants, whether it’s 30 degrees in the ventilated range or 95 outdoors. You’re covering your nonshooting eye, limiting your field of view with visors and contraptions, watching your sights weave and bob over the two-inch target with every minor movement. When everything is aligned just right, you gently squeeze the trigger and follow through. There’s a light crack, a small tap of recoil, and lasers and computers calculate your precise accuracy. You get instant feedback on a small screen next to you. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that isn’t. The unforgiving, running sum of basic addition up to a perfect 600 taunts you. You reload and do it again. And again. And again. And again.

It’s a discipline of intricate, near-obsessive attention to detail. The difference between the perfect shot and a mediocre one is barely bigger than a pinhead. Everything matters, every shot.

Rifle requires maturity, smarts, discipline, strength, fine motor skills, judgment, sharp vision, muscle, mindfulness, focus, and patience. It’s an unfair generalization, as much as any other stereotype, but rifle seems to attract a fair share of Eagle Scouts, as well as top students.

Is it dangerous? Define “dangerous,“ but no. It’s been yet another injury-free season on the team, but Ryan’s coach records plenty of missed practices because of football, soccer, or skiing injuries.

I worry about Ryan driving to practice far, far more than practice itself.

There are several local junior rifle teams. Yes, here in Connecticut. Many private schools, but some technical schools and even public high schools. When you look at the NCAA shooters from Connecticut and Massachusetts, you’ll generally find a connection to Ryan’s home range, Blue Trail Range in Wallingford, “home of championship shooters.” This year, to experience a top-notch electronic collegiate range, we joined a league that shoots at West Point; so humbling to walk its hallowed ground.

Although the sport is on the upswing nationally in recent years, there used to be many more teams. Explore old high school basements and you may find a rifle range, now sheetrocked into offices or storage. People barely older than me recall bringing their rifle cases on the bus to school for practice. Some local tournaments are proudly going on 80+ years.

I know this discipline zigs where some people zag. I’d say I understand but I truthfully don’t despite trying. Nonetheless, we have been aware of the need to be discrete, which is why I’ve generally not mentioned it. A shame that we’re at that point in conversation and society.

The misconceptions have been enlightening to clarify. No, his team is not “training to be snipers” any more than someone who does javelin is training to spear things, someone who plays hockey is training to shove people into walls, someone who does robotics is training to make a Terminator, or someone who dances a perfect Swan Lake is training to become a bird.

The coaches and facility at Blue Trail Range have been wonderful, steered him in profound directions, and connected him to interesting, caring people. I’m grateful. He’s found some good friends and mentors. He got a great part-time job, coaching younger shooters and doing physical work at the range. He comes home dirty and tired, but enjoying work. May we all be so lucky.

Never an immature kid, his better personality traits of responsibility and inquisitiveness have been strengthened, and coaching has helped him to grow, speak up, and lead. Not the type of “leadership” accolades we give out to kids like trinkets, but real responsibility to serve others through guiding them in serious matters.

Most importantly, because of rifle, he found colleges below our radar that offered him significant merit aid unrelated to the sport, as well as a few scholarships for collegiate shooters. It opened doors he didn’t even know existed.

Because of his aspirations to shoot at the NCAA level, he got practical experience interviewing and communicating with four very different coaches, selling himself, and working toward big goals.

There have been some fun and some not-so-fun moments, like everything. But it’s a great little community, in general, and it’s been a great experience.

It provides challenges for a lifetime, and his local league has more than a few men and women his grandparents’ age. Who, I should add, often outshoot the kids. He’s learned that asking “an old guy” for advice usually gets you pretty good advice, and they’ve been universally gracious with their time, guidance, and lived wisdom.

One inspired me, sharing that he thought the sport aligns perfectly with the quote from Browning (Robert, not John), “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” A writer, I couldn’t love that more.

The lessons learned on the range will stay with him for a very long time, which is why people pursue interests, isn’t it?

Think 10, as coaches say. Every moment, every shot, is a chance for perfection and redemption. And in target shooting, as in life, the small stuff is the big stuff.

A Study in Failure

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster 
and treat those two impostors just the same” 

“If—“ by Rudyard Kipling 

In the last few months, I’ve been invited to several alumni-student networking events at UConn, my alma mater. At the rough halfway point of my career, how seemingly far I’ve come from my 1.3 first-semester GPA.  

The event planners gave me guidance for topics of discussion; a consistent one was to tell students about the path I took to get to today.  This exercise caused some thinking and reflection, which uncovered some trends.  

It is,  of course, nice to be framed as an example of a “successful” alumnus for future Huskies. In my prep, though, I came to realize that I’m a study in failure.  

  • I entered UConn as an engineering major—hence the 1.3—studying computer science, and I left computer science just as the need for that skill was about to skyrocket. I changed majors twice more.
  • I received my degree in journalism at the dawn of an era when everything sustaining journalism—circulation, business models, public trust—was about to collapse.
  • I did a double major in political science and was taking a class in Soviet political systems when the Berlin Wall literally crumbled. The professor came in the next morning, grabbed our textbook, threw it in the empty metal trash can, and said he’d support us trying to get our money back.
  • I went for my MBA later in life and was sitting in a corporate finance class in 2008 when, in the span of a semester, the markets spasmed like never before in my life, and the Great Recession began.  

By any rational measurement, my educational choices had been extremely unlucky, essentially following one fiasco—or missing one opportunity—after the other. On one level, I should be distraught. My education could be viewed a waste. Maybe my career in tatters, or never getting off the ground.  

That’s not happened so far, more or less. What I took from my experiences was an appreciation of complexity. I have learned to be nimble in some respects. Semper Gumby, “Always Flexible.” To pick my fights as things fall apart. And they have. And they will. 

Twenty-five years into my career, I have also learned that life is rarely linear and certainly not animated bluebirds and a glowing, well-lit path. “Success” and “failure” are ying and yang; two sides of the same coin.

Kipling was on to something. 

The art of failing that first semester had value. I’d never failed anything. Graduated near the top of my high school class, did good activities, all that. But I failed and failed hard when I hit college. I wish it was because I was having fun; the truth is I just wasn’t smart and adaptive enough. 

It was good training for everything since. We fail at a lot: jobs, the compasses that guide us, friendships, marriages, parenting, health, life goals, wants and needs. I fail in varying degrees in each of those on a daily basis. We let ourselves down, we let others down, and others let us down.  

I told the students to get used to failure, that failure is essentially the default setting for life. I don’t think they were expecting to hear that. Perfection provides few lessons for improvement. Failure provides them in buckets. Most of the time, I’ve learned. Sometimes I haven’t. I’ve tried. 

Failure is an important lens for me to explain my college experience and “path” to them.  My degrees made me who I am, in profound ways. 

In my liberal arts classes, I learned about so many topics I’d never even heard of. Anthropology, for one, which was far from my suburban upbringing. After that 1.3 GPA, it gave me the notion that perhaps engineering, all I’d ever known, was not the only subject I could study. The knowledge of the wider world opened my eyes. 

My political science education taught me that we are not all that special. That while not all systems of social and cultural organization are equally successful or worthy of emulation, the view of our own horizons is a limited one, which misses so much else.  

My MBA has been invaluable to whatever real or imagined degree of “success” I’ve had professionally. It opened doors, connections and opportunity. Whatever else comes in my career, I’ll always have those three letters after my name. On a personal note, I was a good ten years older than most of my MBA classmates, and I am exceptionally proud that I went for it, although it came at a price of missed Little League games and family dinners that I can’t ever get back. More failure. 

I spent the most time at these student events talking about my journalism experience at UConn. I am who I am because of this small department. I learned so much, like… 

  • Words matter. My professors were relentless in their criticism. Articles I thought were completely fine were judged far lower than completely fine. I was not rewarded for mediocrity. I was told to respect the reader.
  • Details matter. When you had a typo in your article, Professor John Breen took off a full letter grade. We were using very early Macs, and spell-check was turned off. You used a dictionary and the AP Stylebook, and you lived in fear of a typo. The small things are the big things.
  • Dedication matters. Breen told a story about a class assigned to cover a local town meeting. Most of the students left after the main agenda item. One student stayed for the whole meeting and was there to witness and cover a serious medical emergency. Everyone else took the easy path; this student was dedicated to the unglamorous work.
  • Emotion matters. Professor Wayne Worcester taught us feature writing and would play his favorite music for us as we wrote. Work and emotion are intertwined. It’s hard to do anything well without emotion.
  • Passion matters. These were hardscrabble reporters at their core. John Breen was about as close to a movie reporter as I’d ever seen. He used a manual typewriter. He smoked in his office. There were stacks of newspapers literally piled around him. All he needed was a fedora with a piece of paper labeled PRESS sticking out of it. He didn’t “phone in” to teach us. He was a reporter at his core and it showed his passion.
  • Critical thought matters. Breen was my professor for Newswriting 101. In the very first class, he told us, and I quote, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check your sources.” Think for yourself. Dig. Accept nothing at face value. In this day and age, when we are repeatedly lied to, manipulated, allowed to easily retreat into the warm bed of thought that is just like our own, this is a jarring statement. I would argue it’s the most powerful single sentence I’ve ever heard. 

Critical thought, passion, emotion, dedication, attention to detail and clear communications are invaluable in any life or career.  

I never became a reporter, never got into politics or law, and never made a fortune in business. But I learned to leverage different parts of all of my experiences to the point where I have had what seems on the outside to be a moderately successful life at mid-point. To that, I can only shrug and say, “We’ll see.”

Success takes many forms,  and the journey of life is defining what the word means.  

I’ve failed. A lot. I routinely do. Hopefully always will.

For better or worse, it’s made me what I am. 

 

Photo source: http://obstacleracingmedia.com

Together: An Essay of Tough Mudder, the Eclipse and a Tragedy

Image credit: Obstacleracingmedia.com

It started, quite honestly, with an off-the-wall idea, not the first one I’ve had with this longtime friend.

“We should do a Tough Mudder.”

Neither of us was in peak, or even great, physical shape, but one of us had done a few similar events, and the other had completed a half triathalon.

We both decided the Tough Mudder was a little bit scary, which, true to form, made it more appealing. We opted for the five-mile version, which seemed reasonable and still challenging.

Six months later, after countless runs, workouts, and videos watched, we joined thousands of others at a sprawling racetrack in central New Hampshire to test ourselves.

Neither of us knew what to expect.

I, certainly, never expected how much it would affect me.

TOUGH MUDDER

What transpired over the next several hours left a mark. Not only on my body, but on my outlook toward life and the challenges I face.

Some disclosure first.

It needs to be said upfront that Tough Mudder isn’t some benign social movement but, rather, a business and a marketing success story. It’s a physical manifestation of countless approaches to self-care that drive home the point that we have wildly untapped power within us.

I think it’s also fair to say it’s an escapist event for those with the privilege to indulge in it. The entry and assorted fees are not insignificant, more than a full day of work if you make minimum wage, and it’s well worth noting that within living memory, there was a time when something like it could not happen in our society. Countless people suffered—truly suffered, not the kind of suffering we experienced on the course—to allow all of us the privilege to participate together as one group. I don’t intend to make it seem, and it should not be implied, that the event is some social panacea, an afternoon of sweat that undoes everything else around us in this day and age. It isn’t.

And while Tough Mudder doesn’t particularly play up this particular angle, many other similar runs do focus on the military nature of their obstacles, implying subtly that it’s like going through the rigors of a warrior’s life. It isn’t that, either.

What it is, though, is truly amazing.

I cannot think of another lived experience that featured so much communal work and reward, with so many different types of people. Rarely in my daily life have I experienced so many slices of society as in the mud. It wasn’t a representative cross section of America by any means, but the Mudders I saw were a pretty eclectic group: young, old, all body types and abilities, and I presume a wide range of backgrounds, religions, political views and ideologies, working together toward a common goal of taking another step forward on the course, then another, to completion.

I expected pride in finishing. I didn’t expect pride in simply being there. The Mudder Oath, which we all took as a group, was a touchstone for a life well-lived: Help those who need it. Put others’ needs before your own. Don’t whine. Tackle the things you believe you can’t. Life is not a race toward the end, but a challenge to overcome your fears. Those fears will appear daunting and insurmountable and, often, when you have nothing left in you. No one can do it alone.

In the mud, like in life, little else matters but these ideas.

The course was painful, like life itself. Over obstacles higher than we thought we could scale, in disgusting muddy water up to our necks, with legs, lungs, hearts and muscle straining, we pulled each other through. No one asked who you voted for before lending a hand. No one pondered if the person next to them was worth their trouble; they were. No one forced or shamed us to help each other. Arms, legs, shoulders, bodies and words were freely offered to each other for support. My proudest moments were not when I overcame an obstacle—and I overcame every one with the group’s help—but when I helped others do the same.

It was a fantasy world, for sure. When we finished, we got our finisher t-shirt, headband, and beer, deservedly patted each other on the back, took some pictures, made some social posts, then got in our cars and drove back into our realities.

But if it’s a fantasy, it’s one I’d happily live in. It’s one I’m extremely proud to have finished. It’s one I will certainly indulge again. It’s one of the few moments in my adult life when I looked across a diverse crowd and felt…together.

In this vulgar, contentious day and age, it felt charmingly right.

A TRAGEDY

After a celebratory lunch outside of Boston, we returned to the parking lot where I’d left my car that morning, said goodbye, and made our respective ways home.

As I got on the highway, traffic stalled and then stopped almost immediately. A wall of lights flashed ahead. For a generally impatient person, traffic is frustrating. Add in mud, soreness and a long drive, and it’s over the top. I thought back to the Mudder Oath, and its “I will not whine. Kids whine.” provision.

The helicopter swooped down onto the blocked highway so quickly that it took a moment for the brain to process what was happening just yards ahead. This clearly wasn’t just a minor accident—the highway was now closed, in both directions. Car engines were turned off, windows rolled down, and slowly people opened their doors and got out onto the pavement.

We had nothing in common other than being stuck here, in a random spot on a random highway in a random town. Some left. A junky sedan and a luxury SUV were the first I saw to hit the grass and try to backtrack against stopped traffic to reach the previous exit. Perhaps someone was in labor. Perhaps someone just didn’t want to wait.

The rest of us talked and watched and, if they’re like me, pondered the costs of having one more bite at lunch, or one fewer joke with a friend, and being that person loaded onto the helicopter instead of a spectator, just by a sheer luck of timing.

The driver to my right railed on about aggressive drivers and did everything short of blaming the accident victim for society’s ills. To my left, a guy whom I learned worked in Manhattan talked weather with a young person with a Red Sox shirt and a neck tattoo. We marveled at how polite most people were…clearly those before us had let many emergency vehicles through, and there were now dirty looks given to the cars who set off on their own. Mostly, we looked on in awe at the fast and fluid motions of brave life-savers as they went about their business. The chopper loaded up, lifted off and soared over our heads. The conversations stopped, everyone returned to their cars, and we all set out on our myriad ways, rolling by a tangled heap of metal that had inadvertently and tragically brought together strangers.

THE ECLIPSE

If the Tough Mudder was togetherness by choice, and the tragedy was togetherness by random happenstance, the 2017 eclipse was togetherness in the context of our insignificance.

Astronomy is a humbling hobby. The vastness of the cosmos exceeds our tiny brains’ ability to ponder it. However, it can sometimes seem so removed from our life as to be disconnected. A supernova, for instance, one of the most powerful forces in nature, is merely a new and temporary dot in the sky. We can’t even see black holes. For most people, most of the time, astronomy is just something scientists study, nothing easily accessible to them in any dramatic fashion.

What I loved about the eclipse was that it was a stark reminder of the forces so much larger than ourselves or our species. We are, to quote Sagan, a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. A small moon momentarily moved in front of a small star, and the most powerful nation that’s ever existed was darkened, humbled and awestruck.

Together, we looked up at forces that we couldn’t control if we tried.

Together, we saw our source of life blotted out.

Together, we shared our experiences and our awe.

And, if we chose to think about it, together we could see with very little effort how completely fleeting and meaningless our existence is, and incongruently, how important our choices are in the brief journey of life.

THE CHOICE

My point to these three stories is that, ultimately, we all have choices every time we act. We choose to be helpful, divisive or inward-focused. We choose our tribe, our actions and our fates. We can choose to acknowledge differences, brought about by our respective lived experiences that no one else can understand, or we can imagine others are governed purely by irrational thought. We can choose to be humbled by life, or not.

We all have different frameworks around our choices, those frameworks limit our choices, we don’t have an equal set of choices or frameworks, and sometimes there are no good choices. But there’s always a choice. Always.

You can choose to help or you can walk by. You can choose to wait for others or you can believe you are more important. You can choose to understand your own cosmic insignificance or you can think you are bigger than it all. You can choose to tackle your obstacles or you can not.

And we can choose to be together, with all the good and bad it brings. Or not.

In the lexicon of Tough Mudder, there are “No Excuses.” That day on the course, every step, every hurdle, I had to examine the excuses that popped into my mind and mentally move beyond them.

I’ve since been struck by how often I think about my excuses elsewhere, at work, in life, as I go about my day. Excuses are easy. They can easily drive my choices if I let them.

What are yours? And why?

And what’s our role together?

Light

A joy of working in marketing is the chance to be creative, and I’m exceptionally proud of a series of new commercials that a talented team of professionals put together. It’s incredible to watch this process unfold, moving from child-like sketches of concepts to 30 seconds of “Hollywood” at the end. I think there’s a fascination of this among the general public; the ‘making of’ features bundled with movies give testament to it. It’s as if we want to see how the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat. I never feel diminished joy in seeing the artistry behind video production, though. Rather, I feel a sense of awe.

This year’s commercials were shot by our trusted advertising agency, GO, with a crew that we’ve used before, so there was a certain degree of comfort involved. However, the day of shooting is always a draining process, starting before dawn and going until it’s done. Stuff goes wrong, you get in each other’s personal space a lot, the varnish comes off a bit, and because of the time and money involved, you all give everything for every second of film to count. There’s mumbled swearing, hopefully not much breakage, and a lot of coordinated and uncoordinated movement.

One of the professionals we hired was the lighting director, Chris.

Some analogies with light are easy. You light your own darkness in life. Sunshine makes the best disinfectant. Those are all true, but the beauty in light to me isn’t the power, but the subtlety. You can see it in Chris’s work and all around us.

I’m a morning person. I love to get up before dawn, make some coffee and watch the sun rise. My son and I recently camped, which I always appreciate but my sleep doesn’t. I’m dirty and uncomfortable and restless all night and almost always awake long before the sunrise. On this particular morning, I watched the eastern sky gradually change from dark blue to hues of red to a truly spectacular orange, pink and red mosaic. Photographers call this the golden hour, when the sun is low, soft and filtered through a thick layer of atmosphere.

Then, in the span of just a few seconds, the show is over and the sky bright from our star 93 million miles away.  The earth turns some more and the sun is risen, beating down with brilliance.

Chris’s work had that mix of brute force and subtlety. The brute force is the easy part. We shot the commercial’s last scene after sunset, in a glass-walled lobby, but we needed the room to be lit as if it were day. You throw enough wattage on something and you’ll re-create daytime. But the artistry and handiwork came in the tweaking; his constant adjustments to ensure the light was balanced, the right temperature, the right diffusion, coming from the right direction, with just the right amount of power.

He’d walk into a room that would appear to be your average space, make a few adjustments, pull out a few bulbs, add a few of his own, and the scene was transformed. Over the last few years, I’ve seen him in the pouring rain, balancing a giant light coming into the windows 15 feet off the ground to recreate full sun, or up on a table, removing a hanging light fixture altogether. In between adjustments, he’d hover over the monitor that showed the camera’s view, coordinating with the rest of the team and critically eying light in a way that seemed to be from the perspective of another dimension. It was awesome to witness, in the same way that it’s awesome to watch a craftsman make something out of wood, metal or material.

His professional world is fake and real at the same time. He manipulates the power that surrounds us, warms us, allows us to live, and reveals beauty, and he is also very much a person who gets his hands dirty, a trait I admire from my time outdoors and my own work experiences. At one point, as the crew tried to resolve a technical issue with the digital equipment, someone asked if he had any suggestions. He shrugged, said, “I don’t know. I deal in light, mud, rocks and rain,” pulled up his hood, and went back outside to check on rain-drenched gear.

In the end, the team made the magic. The camera operator, producer, director, actors, and technicians pulled off fourteen hours of work, grabbing twelve scenes at seven locations in two towns, which was all sent off to post-production, where another set of professionals worked on it for weeks. Thousands of minutes of work turns into fewer than two that the public actually sees. Chris and the team moved on to the next job. Maybe a huge rock concert, as was the case last year. Maybe an infomercial. Everyone needs light.

There were multiple lessons in that exhausting day. There’s craftsmanship all around us when we look. There’s beauty in natural light. There are countless subtle changes we can make to improve what we see in any situation. Brute power reveals—but experience adjusts the revelation of—the good and bad in everything.

And, sometimes, just like in camping, we should understand that great things can be seen through the lens of some sweat, light, mud, rocks and discomfort.