Tuesday, December 29, 2009

ones and zeros

A nearly tragic story in the air this week as a Northwest Airbus 330 was very nearly brought down by a tiny amount of liquid explosive secreted in a terrorist's underwear. Disaster was apparently averted by a defective firing device and the passengers, in our era highly energized, attacked the man and diffused the situation. He is unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon, and the public is stunned by the realization that something so small could bring down an airliner. But thirty seven years ago today, a brand new jumbo jet was lost over something much more insignificant.

There wasn't a bomb aboard Eastern Airlines Flight 401 as it flew toward Miami on the night of December 29, 1972. The airplane itself was a Lockheed L-1011, brand sparkling new. Here I digress and interject that I refer to the L-1011 as the binary airliner, not only because her name is made of ones and zeros, but also because they featured the most sophisticated flight controls in the air at that time. The plane was full of ones and zeros.

This particular airframe had been delivered to Eastern on July 30, 1972 and was not yet five months old. She carried serial number 1011 (a most interesting and binary coincidence) and was the tenth passenger airframe completed. All of the earliest L-1011's went to Eastern, she carried tail number N310EA (one-zero again) in sequence with her sister ships. She had completed just 501 landings prior to that morning, when she departed Tampa to New York's Kennedy airport as Flight 164 where she would then turn around and return to Florida that evening.

The flight was by all accounts comfortable, luxurious and uneventful. The big L-1011 departed JFK at 9:20 PM and headed south. Captain Robert Loft put the bird in the sky and then turned on the autopilot, whose ones and zeros controlled the plane for most of the trip. The big Rolls Royce engines purred along, so silently that Eastern referred to their L-1011's as "Whisperliners". At only two-thirds capacity, the passengers stretched out. The L-1011 has always been one of my personal favorites- the power of the Rolls-Royce engines, the spacious cabin whose very high ceilings and wide aisles provided a great environment for flying. The night was clear, the winds calm. The passengers were Holiday travelers, returning from Christmas and preparing for the New Year.

Upon approach to Miami, a minor problem occurred. The landing gear was lowered, but the green nose gear light did not illuminate. Probably the bulb, the flight crew decided, but not wanting to risk their brand new airplane, they abandoned their approach. First officer Bert Stockstill increased their altitude to 2000 feet and turned the Whisperliner west over the Everglades. Captain Loft instructed him to reengage the autopilot, so the ones and zeros flew the plane while the flight crew diagnosed the problem. Soon the pilot, first officer, flight engineer and an Eastern L-1011 maintenance specialist were engrossed in attempting to replace a failed light bulb. So engrossed that no one noticed that First Officer Stockstill had nudged the control column and unknowingly turned off the altitude hold. The flight crew realized their error seconds before the big L-1011 flew itself into the swamp.

Amazingly, of the 176 souls on board, seventy five lived. One hundred and one perished, including the three man flight crew who became so obsessed with a failed light bulb that they somehow forgot to fly the plane. Survivors and victims seemed almost randomly disbursed, as if a computer were randomly assigning ones and zeros. In the end, there were seventy five ones, and one hundred and one zeros. One brand new fifteen million dollar aircraft, absolutely airworthy in every way except for a failed light bulb was destroyed. In the Florida swamp, investigators found the nose landing gear. It was down and locked.

In Miami tonight, the survivors will gather to remember the experience, give thanks to the rescuers and honor the victims. They will reflect on how their lives were affected by the massive convergence of ones and zeros. Among those attending will be Flight Attendant Mercedes Ruiz, who wrote the poem below in February 1972 when the accident was still fresh in her memory:

Because I've been granted the gift of life
I want to live each moment to the fullest
I want to submerge my being much more than before
Into the wonders of nature and love.
I want to reach and feel,
because feeling in itself is a way of loving.
I want to tremble at the wildness of the storm,
and bathe myself with rain.
I want to touch the clouds
and hold the blue within one word.
I want to cry before the ocean waves
because they rush to me and kiss me
and then they leave.
I want the wonder of the starry night above,
the moon, a sigh, and each of all my silences.

The ones and zeros can change the course of our lives in an instant. Let us remember all of the souls flying back to Miami on that clear December night- those that returned safely to earth, and those for whom fate had other plans.

For those who desire to read more, here are three excellent sites:

Eastern 401 Homepage
Eastern 401 Survivors Mark 37th Anniversary
Remembering Eastern 401

Friday, December 25, 2009

fairytale of new york

Why does it work so well? It's a Christmas tale about the struggle of immigrants, about alcoholism and drug addiction, about failed dreams and broken relationships, anger tempered with the memory of love. An exquisite tale. No "all our troubles will be far away", no "chestnuts roasting on an open fire", this one's real- a remembrance set in pain. Take the Pogues, add in the the haunting and inimitable Kirsty Mac Coll, set it against the magical twinkling lights of New York and you have Fairytale of New York. Stunningly beautiful, a holiday switchblade from 1987 that still cuts to the bone.

You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.

Savor it:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

love darlene love

Another holiday icon. Every year the amazing Darlene Love shows up on Letterman to sing "Please Come Home for Christmas". Yesterday was her twenty-third annual performance. So take it away, Darlene:

aminated gem

So lovely I had to repeat it this year. A tiny treasure. From CBS, first shown for Christmas 1966. Stunning in its simplicity, this little gem embodies the spirit of Holidays. Designed by R.O. Blechman and animated by Willis Pyle. Hand drawn, if you can imagine a time when such gracious things happened. Music arranged by Arnie Black. Shown well into the seventies. Lovely. May your holidays be as exquisite. Love to all of you.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

oi to the world

Okay, trying to kick in some holiday energy here. Here is my favorite contemporary Christmas number, originally recorded by the So Cal Punk Rock band The Vandals, but my fondness for Gwen Stefani, jockstrap drummers and elephants compells me to use the version recorded by their close friends No Doubt in 1997. Complete with racism, rumbles and near death experiences, check out some Oi to the World:

Monday, December 21, 2009

clipper maid

A very sad anniversary to recognize- it was twenty-one years ago today that a Boeing 747-121, bearing s/n 19646 and registered to Pan Am as N739PA took off from Heathrow and ascended into immortality. Clipper Maid of the Seas as she was known was the third and final flight of the day from London to New York and was filled with passengers anxious to return home to the states for the holidays. Among the two hundred fifty nine aboard were thirty five students from Syracuse University returning home after a semester abroad.

The fifteenth 747 ever assembled, Clipper Maid was delivered to Pan Am in February of 1970. Now well into her middle age, she had circled the globe for almost eighteen years without incident. That morning she had arrived at Heathrow from San Francisco and parked at Kilo 14 from which she would depart as Flight 103. She pushed back at 18:04 PM local time and was given take off clearance at 18:24. Pilot Captain James Bruce "Jim" MacQuarrie, a Pan Am veteran with over 4,000 hours of experience at the helm of the 747 pushed the thrust levers forward for the final time and three hundred tons of aircraft raced down the runway and lifted off.

Clipper Maid climbed to 31,000 feet and entered Scottish airspace at 19:00 GMT. Air control at Prestwick, Scotland contacted the craft. Captain MacQuarrie radioed back "Good Evening Scottish, Clipper One Zero Three. We are at level Three One Zero."

Moments later First Officer Raymond Wagner requested oceanic clearance. Pam Am 103 was flying normally at flight level 310, compass direction 316 magnetic, and airspeed of 313 knots. Everything was exquisitely ordinary. And then at 19:02.46.9, PA103 disappeared from radar.

Of course we all know what happened, that a cowardly act of terrorism literally blew the 747 apart. And as tragic and horrifying as it was, today is a day to remember the victims and their families and not the perpetrators.

Twenty one years ago today, Clipper Maid of the Seas fell from the sky taking with her two hundred seventy souls heading home for the holidays. May their memory be part of us now and always.

Monday, December 14, 2009

patriot act

Reposted from January 2008. Merry Christmas, Mom

I can't watch "I Love Lucy" anymore. It reminds me too much of her. The same strong will, the sheer determination. Nothing stood between Lucy and her crazy scheme. They were so much alike.

Like the time with the cookies. It was Christmastime 1990 and thanks to a Bush in the White House, we were building up to a war- Desert Shield, it was called at that time. Mom was seeing TV reports of all the troops away from home for the holiday and she wanted to do something nice for them. Somewhere she stumbled across a cookie recipe that was approved by the Marine Corps. It contained no processed sugar, instead it used fruit juice for sweetener. She baked a trial batch and declared it "not bad". She decided that instead of holiday cookies for the family, she would forego that this year and bake cookies for the troops instead.

I admit I encouraged her, I thought it was a cute little project that would give her something fun to do. I guessed she would make ten dozen, maybe twenty at the outset. It would give her something to talk about to the card club.

The cookies seemed to take a long time to bake. Every day it seemed she was mixing dough, or had a batch in the oven. Mother always thought big, I began to wonder exactly how many cookies she planned to bake. But it was her gig, I didn't interfere.

Finally the cookies were ready to ship. At that point I asked her point blank how many she had made. "Eleven Hundred" she said somewhat sheepishly. ""Eleven Hundred Cookies?" I asked. ""No" came her reply. "Eleven Hundred Dozen".

Eleven Hundred Dozen. Eleven Hundred DOZEN. She baked Thirteen Thousand Two Hundred cookies to send to the desert to feed to troops that she would never meet. She spent more than a month on the project. The Marines had to send four trucks to pick them all up. She received a Commendation from the Marine Corps Commander.

I told this story at the time to a client who chuckled and said, "Your Mother is quite a patriot". Yes, she was. And she was quite a Mom.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

come fly with me

Exciting news out of Seattle as the long awaited and agonizingly delayed 787 Dreamliner is about to fly. The plastic fantastic airliner (carbon fiber, you know) has completed all its static testing and the wing to body side fix has passed its computerized testing. Today all eyes are on ZA001 as she completes runway tests.

The long delayed airplane is so close to flight that her nose wheel lifted up for six seconds during a high speed runway test and her giant wings started to flex upward. Pretty bird wants to fly:

This is the third time the entire future of Boeing depends on a single airplane, the 707 jetliner and the 747 jumbo were both "all or nothing" propositions. May the new bird be as successful as those two were- I can't wait to see her in the air.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

if hermey were gay

Reposted from December 2008. Too funny not to.

Although Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was my favorite Christmas special, it nonetheless gave me nightmares. The passive aggressive Santa, seeing poor Rudolph forced into the closet, and Hermey. Where did he get that hairdo?

Well, kids, this is just about the funniest thing I have ever seen. Imagine what would happen if Hermey the Elf and Avenue Q crashed head on and there were no survivors..The bedroom scene alone is simply brilliant. Check it out...

Monday, December 7, 2009

muriel and binky

By the time I met Lee, she had already used at least seven of her nine lives. She was a silver haired lady whose deep blue eyes betrayed the wisdom of many pasts. Still a very dashing woman, it was obvious she had been a great beauty in an earlier time.

And what a time she had. Private school, finishing school, a debut, a career as one of the hottest fashion models in New York all by the age of twenty two. She told me how she was making so much money that she was able to keep a second apartment for a year so that her parents would not realize that she was living with her penniless artist beau.

He had been the love of her life, although it was not for lack of opportunity. Her romances were many and included none other than Henry Luce, Jr, for whom she retained great feelings even sixty years later. And she amassed a lot of experience in both love and life.

Her second husband, an top ranking executive at CBS, stole her away from her first in a scandal worthy of Mad Men. They shared residences in Sutton Place and Bermuda. She claims she drove both her first two husbands crazy and was taken to Bellevue twice in strait jackets herself. Then to top it all off, she married her cousin.

She had long retired from romance, a game to which she realized that she was not particularly adept, when she met John in the mid-seventies. He was twenty years younger and coming to terms with his orientation. He dressed outlandishly in order to deflect attention from his gayness. She was the perfect foil, Karen to his Jack. They became great friends and hosted fabulous parties. They had dinner party nicknames for each other, she was Muriel and he was Binky. They had a grand and rich friendship which endured some thirty years. There were dinner parties and fun and trips and boyfriends and heartbreak and texture, texture that wove them tightly together in a way that only old friends understand.

And there was comedy. We all sailed the Caribbean aboard the brand new Queen Mary 2 in the spring of 2005. After the ship returned to port, there was a memorable weekend in New York. The highlight of the weekend was Saturday night at the Rainbow Room. John wore his finest suit and Lee a two piece sparkling dress, the skirt of which, in the middle of a dance with John, suddenly fell to the floor. At that moment she revealed her disdain for undergarments. John was mortified, and rushed her to the door, although recalling it subsquently made them both roar with laughter. To this day I somewhat wonder if it had been accidental.

One cold December night Ken and I took her to dinner at Windows, atop the Transamerica building in downtown LA. Ken had his chauffeur Michael and his deep blue Rolls-Royce for the event. We were dressed to the nines. Ken decided to stop for an after-dinner drink at the Abbey, a We Ho gay nightspot. Michael wheeled the Rolls-Royce up to the front door and we piled out. Lee looked and acted like a movie star, so we decided to let her have her fun. We gave her a sufficiently vague movie star name, Helen Taylor, and began fawning over her. "Is there anything you would like, Miss Taylor?" The crowd did the same. People began whispering to me "Should we know her?" "She's done films" was my reply. I neglected that they had been primarily Super 8's in her own backyard. She danced in the center of the room surrounded by mesmerized gay boys. It was magical. We howled about it on the way home.

One Bastille Day we all met for dinner and I was asked to drive her home. On that journey she told me about her life as a model in New York after the war, and her life with the artist. They lived together for over a year, maintaining two apartments as a ruse to keep her parents from discovering. They were both deeply in love, although he was struggling with a deep depression caused by his wartime service. The relationship ultimately failed, she observed, because he had seen so much death, he couldn't see life. She ultimately had to choose life, she said.

She was shattered when her Binky died, but did not lose her own will to live. At age eighty-four, she looked me on the eye and said "I'm not done living yet". That following spring we rode Ferris Wheels at Santa Monica park. She was as feisty as ever.

But the last year her health declined and her will faded. She began to let us all know that she was ready to move on. She passed away quietly on Saturday. Last night I made an exquisite Martini and drank a toast to Binky and Muriel. They're together again. I wonder if Heaven knows what it's in for.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

easter parade

Originally posted April, 2007. For Lee- Rest In Peace, Beauty.

Michael won a stuffed dog playing Wack-A-Mole. I named it La Wanda after the black hooker he picked up in Pebble Beach last August. I have pictures of her smiling on his lap in the back seat of the Duesenberg. We were certainly the talk of the Concours that day.

Easter brunch with the Clan turned out well. Betty wanted to get all of us together for the first time since John's passing. We scattered to the winds at Christmas- Ken was in Paris with his Mom and daughter, Lee and Jordan went to Rome, Betty was in Montecito, everyone was everywhere but here so as not to have to face the empty house. But Easter, bringing with it the promise of spring and rebirth, seemed perfect to reassemble. We all knew each other because of John, but today was not for him. It was for us.

We arrived at the restaurant on Ocean Avenue in two immaculately polished Rolls-Royces and a strategically synchronized Minivan. Heads turned. Our little party of twelve, equally balanced between ladies and gentlemen and ranging in age from fifteen to eighty-four streamed inside and were directed to a lovely table on the patio with an ocean view. The brunch was enormous. There were tables and tables of food. The seafood was in hiding, but Lee and I managed to find it (and everything else). We made two trips for mussels. They served bottomless glasses of Champagne. We lingered over brunch and talked about a hundred different topics. Anita and I waited in the dessert line behind three paper thin supermodels attempting to resolve their food angst and "just have a little bite" of the Creme Brulee and pecan tarts. We asked for one of everything.

In the near distance we could see Pacific Park, which is an amusement park on the Santa Monica pier. Anita commented that she had never been there, and we soon realized that none of us had set foot on the pier in simply ages. So we decided to take a walk.

Our resident mother hen, Bruce, asked Lee (our senior most member) if she wanted to relax on a park bench with him. "Nothing doing", she replied. "I'm gonna ride the Ferris Wheel". And she did ride the Ferris Wheel, dressed to the nines, accompanied by seven of us in two gondolas. We took goofy pictures of each other while aloft. Ken bought a giant handful of ride tokens, so in recombinant pairs we rode the Roller Coaster and the Monster, and played midway games. We were conspicuously overdressed and laughed like teenagers. It was a great spontaneous time. John would not have been amused. Perhaps that was part of the fun.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

god-damned fudge

I had company over Thanksgiving. Fellow blogger Texaco was in town to escape the Idaho winter and check out the sights of sunny Palm Springs. Cabazon dinosaurs, Alexander homes, walking tours of historic downtown commercial spots, all of the mid century madness that one little town can offer.

On the last morning, he admitted that he had never tried a date shake. A quick look at Chowhound, and off we trotted to the Palm Springs Fudge and Chocolate Shop on Palm Canyon, just across from the Historical Society. There we indulged our craving for Date Shakes (which are awesomely delicious but headache-inducingly sweet) and were also offered a sample of home made fudge, which is their other specialty in some 40-odd varieties.

I was reminded of my college days in Flint. It was the late 1970's and the City of Flint had bet the bank on a downtown redevelopment including a brand new Hyatt Regency Hotel, major expansion of the downtown U of M campus, Windmill Place Food Court, and last but not least a Roush Development called Water Street Pavilion.

Roush was well known by then for their Festival Marketplaces- a series of downtown retail spaces which opened to fanfare, but as we later learned, seldom succeeded financially. We held out high hopes for Flint's version when it opened.

Because of its close proximity to the University, I was a frequent visitor. A giant structure with walls of glass, the focal point upon entering was a Fudge Shop where young employees made fresh fudge daily in front of a glass wall. And more than that, they sang. Out loud. I recall their youthful enthusiasm on my first visit. "Homemade Fudge! We're making Homemade Fudge" they gleefully sang out.

In the same manner that the Festival Marketplace failed to catch on, the fudgemaking seemed to become less joyful and more like drudgery as the season wore on. "More Fudge", they glumly sang by winter to a much slower beat. "We're making more fudge".

By spring they were venting their anger. "The God-Damned Fudge" became the song of their labors. "We're making the God-Damned Fudge". It had the tone and timbre of a funeral dirge, and most certainly did not inspire one to try their wares.

On my next visit, there was no singing, only glum little faces rolling fudge on the marble tables in total silence. The Fudge Shop closed shortly thereafter, and the entire marketplace dwindled to bankruptcy, and was sold off to the University of Michigan in 1991.

And as hard as I try to recollect, I don't think I've had any god-damned fudge since.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

lily girl

Originally published Dec 2, 2007. For Mom, on what would have been her seventy-sixth birthday. Sadly missed and much beloved.

The slender volume of dark maroon leatherette was on the stand next to her bed. The cover said "Senior Memories 1952" in silver debossed lettering. Inside were many casual photographs of her- playing sports, clowning with her best friend , skating in an exhibition.

Her senior portrait showed off a modest smile. She wore her brunette hair not unlike Audrey Hepburn's. A single strand of pearls accented her sweater. Her intense blue eyes stared out into a world full of promise. Each graduate's picture bore a caption, hers was "A lily girl, not meant for this world's pain". It would prove more prophetic than anyone could have imagined at the time.

She endured more than her share of this world's pain. Her years of skating as a teenager, compounded by pregnancies, caused severe back problems in her young adulthood and a premature onset of arthritis. Medical science responded in imperfect ways, including the introduction of pain medications whose presence caused dependency. Her mobility diminished with each passing year but her spirit did not.

There were emotional pains as well. Two miscarriages, including one which would have provided a badly wanted daughter. A failed marriage later in life, the loss of her own mother to whom she was extremely close. And yet her will to live was undeterred.

We spoke briefly on Friday. I had gotten in too late on Thanksgiving to call from California. When I reached her, she seemed sleepy. I told her to rest, and that I would call her later. "I love you, Mom", I said as I hung up the phone.

We found her on her sofa with her hands peacefully clasped, as if she had laid down for a nap and simply did not awaken. Five days short of her seventy fourth birthday, her pain finally ceased.

I've returned to Michigan in the winter for the first time in fifteen years. I always come in the summertime. She's commented before how I've been back for Dad's birthday but not hers. The irony was not lost on me as I boarded the plane on December first- she finally got me to come back on her birthday.

She is laid out in pink, because she loved pink. She was a girly kind of girl at heart. She'll be wearing her Macewen sash, honoring her Scottish heritage. My brother has arranged for a piper to play for her. Following services on Monday, she will be laid to rest alongside her mother. Both my darling girls will be together.

Rest well, lily girl. There will never be another like you.