Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Today's gripe

It's 23 degrees out, it's snowing, the wind is howling. I'm walking to the bank and the mailbox, and the icy chill is penetrating my flannel-lined jeans and my hooded overcoat. But then there's this guy standing on the sidewalk wearing nothing more (above the waist) than a T-shirt.

I can't figure this out. It's not unusual; you see people all the time dressed like this, and you know it's not because they can't afford a coat. Is it the blubber on them that keeps them warm? Or are they just plain stupid?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Complaints and questions

More proof that Christmas is over...

We received a couple of letters in the past few days from folks who have had to go out of their way to find something to be miserable about. One was from a woman who had attended a local choral concert. "The conductor, whoever he was, never expressed any recognition to anyone or anything. In all my 71 years of seeing concerts, recitals, plays, etc., have I ever witnessed such insult to all these hard working individuals that made the evening possible."

Another came from a reader who had just seen the film, "Marley and Me." She wrote: "I did not think the movie was funny in any way, and it was actually rather cruel to even portray this as a funny family movie to be seen over Christmas. After I left the movie, I cried a lot and it ruined my evening."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Questions and comments

Q: I have noticed that some arrests are listed in the police reports and some are not. Just wondered why that is? -A.A.

A: We publish all the arrests that we know about. Problem is, so many municipal police departments and the state police are making arrests, and some of those are not reported to us. And of those, unless we run across the arrest at a district judge's or read of someone being admitted to the county jail, those arrests can go unnoticed. We generally do not publish routine D.U.I. arrests unless they involve a vehicular accident or some unusual circumstance, because there are so many of these, and we actually hear about only a fraction of them, and many of the charges are withdrawn. We do, however, publish all of those cases when they are adjudicated in county court.

Whine, whine, whine

I guess the Christmas Spirit has left town, pulling out from the Wal-Mart parking lot and speeding out I-70. Got a phone message this morning from a livid reader who wondered how I could dare use such a cartoon on the editorial page as the one appearing today. It depicted Santa Claus hauling a bag of coal toward the stockings of Cheney, Bush, Blagojevich and Madoff, all snug in their bed.

Goodness me! A political cartoon that pokes fun at politicians, the rich and the powerful? What was I thinking? I must call cartoonist Pat Oliphant right away and tell him not to draw any more cartoons that might hurt the feelings of people like the governor of Illinois or those nice men who gifted us the Iraq War.

Friday, December 26, 2008


My old boarding-school roommate, Dean, wrote today to wish me and my family a Merry Christmas, to remind me that I had once again sent a card to him and a long-defunct address, and to pass on this yuletide observation:

"What I find most interesting and outstanding at Christmastime is the sudden and soon-to-be fleeting politeness of other drivers. Too bad most do not apparently remember that, after all, we are all in this together."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Just a few of us Bob Cratchits still toiling away at Marley & Scrooge, Inc. Just a few more lines to punch and numbers to crunch. Outside, the rain is falling and the few people left on the street are scurrying to their cars, or to the bars, eager to join friends and family.

It's so peaceful now. The phones have fallen silent. The police scanner softly hisses, occasionally pausing on a channel inadvertently opened or for something as mundane as a license check. It's time to go home.

There were no calls of complaint today; no one upset about a misspelling or the Peanuts cartoon being on the classified pages, or the Wall Street bankers getting away with murder. Today, there are other things to be concerned about. There are stockings to stuff, and church pews to fill, and calls to make to family far away. For a day or two, Peace on Earth will be the main concern. Would that the rest of the year be half as nice.
Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Today's gripe

I know it's not fair to pick on professional athletes for the language they use; they're paid to be athletic, not articulate. But I just can't help myself.

What really annoys me is what I like to call the sentence softener. Just like the liquid you add at the end of the wash cycle, it's meant to take the harshness out of what you've just said. Here's an example:
A pro football player interviewed after his team had crushed another said, "We dominated them a little bit."

I suppose the player did not want to sound boastful, but criminy!... you can't dominate anything "a little bit." There's nothing at all little about domination. This is just as silly as saying "the defendant murdered his victim a little bit."

Monday, December 22, 2008


Measure twice, cut once. That's a good rule in carpentry and journalism as well. In the case of the city wage tax (see previous gripe and comments), we needed to measure three times. Turns out that nonresident workers who already pay a 1 percent wage tax to their municipalities will only be stung by the city for .15 percent of their earnings. Everyone else will have to surrender to the city $1.15 for every $100 they earn.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Today's gripe

If you happen to work in the city of Washington but live elsewhere, as I do, you already pay the city $52 a year for the privilege of working here. People bitched when this was raised from the old $10 per year fee, but really, one dollar a week is not a lot to pay for city services like fire and police protection. Because the city is in such dire financial straits, I'd even be willing to pay twice that.

The city, has a more lucrative idea, however. Council has just enacted a 1.15 wage tax on not just its citizens but on all people who work in the city. To put this in comprehensible terms, if you gross $50,000 a year at your job, the city will take $575 of that, in addition to the $52 it already takes. And you'll still have to pay the income tax to the municipality where you live.

Now, the township where I live claims 1 percent of my salary. However, I have a voice in township government because I get to vote for the supervisors. But because I don't live in Washington, I don't have the right to vote there, and don't have a voice in its government. So, what we have here is a case of taxation without representation.

Many companies are struggling to keep their employees. Some have managed to give their workers raises in the neighborhood of 2 percent to help them keep up with the cost of living. Now the city has taken half that raise away from those workers. How long do you think it will be before those companies begin voting with their feet and moving out of the city?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Today's gripe

Great. Just great. I take a week off, hoping that I might get one - just one day, hey even a half day - when it is not freezing, raining or snowing so I can finally get these damned leaves raked. Forget Christmas shopping; there's that white fungus growing under the layer of leaves and killing the grass.

And today? Today it's raining as it rains in Hollywood movies, as if my yard is a set surrounded by assistants pointing firehouses at the sky.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


"Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," is yet another book recommended to me by my boss, publisher Tom Northrop. It's the second book by Malcolm Gladwell, whose earlier work, "The Tipping Point," explored how little things can create enormous social change.

This book examines unconscious thought and how important it is in making decisions. Gladwell proposes that having an abundance of information may not help in making a decision, say, to go to war, or to accept a job offer, and, in fact, too much information can lead us to bad decisions. Being able to focus on a few key pieces of information and relying on our unconscious mind and our instincts may lead to better choices.

I would love to hire Gladwell as a reporter for this newspaper. He has the ability to take complicated philosophical, psychological and scientific concepts and explain and illustrate them in the clearest and most understandable language.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the incentive it produced to think about the way I think; how I make judgments and how I can avoid prejudice when making decisions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

About a week ago, a guy who works here at the newspaper in another department asked me, "Why in God's name did you put that story about Mrs. Gordon's dog on the front page of the paper?"

What he was referring to was one of our regular Monday front-page features, "What's Up With That?" The story was about a lovable mutt named Shiloh who is quite the ham and loves to entertain the neighborhood with his extensive repertoire of tricks. The large photo was so good (it showed the dog looking down on Mrs. Gordon from a tree he had just climbed) that the night editor chose to place it at the top of the page.

"Wasn't there something going on in India, or something more important to put there?" he asked. "I mean, Cheee-rist! Mrs. Gordon and her dog!"

Of course, there is always something important happening in the world, even on Sundays, but we editors get the feeling that our readers don't appreciate being beaten over the head with it, day after day. And the truth is, although we try to report on what is happening all over the world, national and international news is reported more thoroughly by others; our specialty is local news. And when you get a local dog who climbs trees... well, it's just too much to resist.

Nevertheless, this is not a silly complaint. Many readers have come to trust our judgment about what news is most important. Every day, we take about 10 percent of the news that comes to us and print it, roughly in a sequence of importance. This is a valuable service that will be in demand no matter how the news is communicated in the future. And when we throw a wrench into the works - like printing a story about a tree-climbing dog at the top of the front page - we create disorder that makes some of our readers uncomfortable.

Yet, we continue to throw wrenches. We do that so as to remain unpredictable, because in this business, the predictable die.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Today's gripe

Got a letter the other day from "Shadow Shopper Inc." You've probably heard about this scam; it's all over the Internet. But this is the first time I've seen it in the U.S. mail. I guess I was targeted because I am old, or at least getting there, and presumably feeble-minded, bereft of my senses and drunk with greed.

The letterhead gives a Maryland address and a fax number, although the area code for the fax is in Los Angeles, Calif. Enclosed with the letter is a check for $3,980. The check, issued by LSG Technologies of Dallas, Texas, looks legitimate, but it's easy enough to create these forgeries with a computer and printer. LSG is a large defense contractor. The letter asks me to first call the company for instructions before depositing the check. (The area code of the phone number is for Montreal, Quebec, by the way.)

The procedure is to deposit the check in my account, go to Wal-Mart and buy $100 worth of goods and evaluate the experience, and then mail the evaluation back to them and send them $3,400 by Money-Gram. I get to keep the $100 worth of stuff I bought, plus $380 for my troubles.

Well, my troubles will begin about five days later when my bank calls to tell me I'm overdrawn because that $3,980 check I deposited was phony.
I don't know how anyone would be stupid enough to fall for this, but I suppose there are plenty of suckers out there who actually believe that they can earn big money by doing nothing more than going shopping.

This is mail fraud, and it's a crime that ought to be vigorously prosecuted. It's not, and maybe that's because some of us feel anyone stupid and greedy enough to be taken by this scam deserves to lose his money.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Early Bird, Epilogue

DeLloyd Thompson is buried in the family plot in Washington Cemetery, next to his mother, Sarah. Behind him is a large tombstone for his grandfather, David Haggerty, but Dutch's grave is marked by the flat stone shown above, visible only if your brush away the fallen leaves.
Quite fittingly, just south of McKennan Circle, where the plot is, is a tall obelisk resembling the Washington Monument, around which Thompson had flown one night in 1916, dropping "bombs" and creating a national sensation.
More curious, though, is the inscription, particularly the year of birth: 1887. The bronze plaque that once adorned the memorial gates at Washington Airport gives his date of birth as Jan. 21, 1889. To make matters more confusing, police reports concerning his near-fatal auto accident in 1945, presumably relying on his driver's license, listed his age as 57 at the time, making his year of birth more likely 1888. So when, exactly, was Dutch Thompson born?

I have learned in doing research like this that history is rather approximate. In this case, exactly which year the great aviator was born is not critical to his life's story. But there are other dates that matter a great deal, and once an historian misjudges a date, historians who follow him are likely to repeat the mistake, so often that it assumes the disguise of truth.

I relied upon many sources in the writing of "Early Bird," including articles appearing in this newspaper written by Earle Forrest and Robert Campbell, both deceased, and by Harriet Branton. I also learned much from an article about the Cicero Flying Field by Carroll Gray; archival information posted online by the Early Birds of Aviation Inc.; and Thompson's own scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photos, preserved by the Washington County Historical Society.

Here's an example of the long life of a false assumption:
Forrest wrote often about Thompson's achievements. Knowing that Wilbur Wright and Walter Brookins had staged a flying demonstration at the fairgrounds in Arden in October 1910, Forrest wrote that Thompson was inspired by the demonstration to attend Brookins' school and learn to fly. It seems logical. Reading this in Forrest's articles, Campbell and Branton repeated the story. The Internet did not exist when Forrest was alive, of course, and so he had no access to the records of the flying schools of St. Louis and Chicago and the wealth of information preserved by the pioneers of aviation. Researchers today do. And the truth is that Thompson had learned to fly and had flown solo for the first time several months before that demonstration in Arden, on Aug. 6, 1910. Had Wilbur Wright actually come to Washington, Pa., at the suggestion of Dutch Thompson? We don't know. But assuming so and putting it in print might create another problem for future historians. That Thompson was not inspired by Wright's visit, but might have actually inspired Wright to come here is quite a different interpretation of history.

I think what this illustrates is the importance of preserving the historical record. The Washington County Historical Society is doing its best to do just that, but it takes much time and money. They deserve our support.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Early Bird, Part 16

Two weeks after his death, The Reporter began a drive to raise money for a memorial to DeLloyd Thompson. "...He did as much, or possibly more than any resident of the City to bring honor to this community, as everywhere he went he made certain that people knew he was from Washington and proud of it," read an editorial promoting the fund.

July 13, 1949, was proclaimed DeLloyd Thompson Day by Washington Mayor Elmer Wilson, and more than 5,000 people attended the air show and ceremonies at Washington Airport that day, when memorial gates with bronze plaques honoring Thompson were unveiled and the airport itself dedicated as DeLloyd Thompson Memorial Field. Dignitaries representing the military and the Early Birds, a group of air pioneers that all flew before 1916, were in attendance, as was Col. Roscoe Turner, the great air racer.
"DeLloyd Thompson changed the course of my life when he permitted me to touch his airplane at Memphis, Tenn., in 1914," Turner told the crowd. "I always remembered his kindly attention and during my career tried to be as attentive to other youngsters. You never know when one of your acts will shape the course of some other person."

From the time that Dutch Thompson set the altitude record in 1914 until the end of his life, so much had happened in the development of aircraft. Thompson had lived to see the day when air power decided wars and airplanes flew without propellers. Just 12 years after his death, another local aviator – Joe Walker – would set the altitude record of 169,600 feet, flying the X-15 rocket plane.

The airport grew and went through many changes over the next 20 years, and the memorial gates were abandoned. But in 1969, the plaques were rebronzed and hung in the administration building, and the Washington County Commissioners officially rededicated the airport in honor of Thompson.

The plaques were later removed, however. "I rescued them," Margaret Thompson, widow of the aviator's son, joked. "I think they wanted to melt them down as scrap." She also acquired a wooden propeller from one of Dutch's planes and donated them along with an altimeter, scrapbooks and old photos to the Washington County Historical Society. They are now displayed in the military room at the LeMoyne House.

(Margaret Thompson donated memorabilia to the Washington County Historical Society.)

Few of the pilots who now hang out at the Washington County Airport terminal have even heard of Dutch Thompson, let alone know that it is his memorial field from which they fly. None of those who knew him are still living. His great achievements have disappeared from our consciousness and exist only in piles of crumbling newspaper clippings. One of those clippings is of an editorial tribute, under the headline, "Aviator 'Flies West'," written for The Reporter three days after Thompson's death by Cecil Northrop, once vice president of the newspaper:
"As an old aviator, it is with deep regret that I have been informed of the death of DeLloyd Thompson. His passing removes from the aviation scene one of the very early pioneers of flying, and a most colorful personage in the ever changing development of aviation. "Dutch" Thompson fortunately lived long enough to see his faith and hope in the future of flying vindicated; and his belief and dream that the ability of man to fly would change the course of men and nations 'in our time.'
"That "Dutch" derived little, in a material way, for his early courage and daring in the beginning of aviation, is of small consequence, for seldom indeed, have the pioneers in any field in the past died rich men. Without such men, however, this world of ours would be a sorry place in which to live. Intrepid souls, men of vision and courage, ever have paved the way for a great achievement and progress in every field of endeavor."


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Early Bird, Part 15

Through the worst years of the Great Depression, DeLloyd Thompson was still rich with dreams and schemes. In 1937, he took to the air for the last time, flying the airplane he had designed and built, the Deloyd Cabinaire, from a field in Meadow Lands. Featuring a completely enclosed cabin, the two-seater monoplane was said to be safe and easy to fly and land. But production of the plane ended at two. It was the Depression after all, and the market for leisure aircraft was nil.

Thompson's next venture was not up the air but into politics. Hoping to capitalize on his fame and the familiarity of his name, he filed as a candidate for mayor of the city of Washington in 1939 Democratic primary. He bought no newspaper advertising and was soundly defeated, placing third with 773 votes. J. Brady Marble won the nomination with 1,756 votes and went on to lose to Republican George Krause in the general election.

The 1940s found Dutch working as a bartender at the Green Tree, a tavern and restaurant in the basement of a building on the east side of North Main Street. His social life, much of it involving gambling, revolved around the Green Tree and his circle of friends that frequented it.

On the night of March 27, 1945, Thompson and three of those friends were on Route 40, headed for Wheeling. Just after midnight, a short distance from the West Virginia line, their car slammed into the back of a truck of the Pittsburgh-Wheeling Warehouse Co. Dutch, who was driving, was the most severely injured, with lacerations to the head and internal injuries. Jack Athens, 45, had a fractured arm and head injuries; Mike Renovich, 51, had head and facial lacerations, and Sherman Rankin, 54, suffered head injuries, lacerations and contusions. These were the days before safety glass and seat belts.

Two days later, the Washington Observer reported Thompson's condition as "poor" and that he had been placed in an oxygen tent. He did recover, but never fully.

After his wife left him, he was not close to his son, Bob, who was shy and so different from his gregarious father. The two would not build a relationship until Bob returned from the war, after serving in Europe with the 81st Airborne and being taken prisoner.

That brings us to that cold January morning in 1949, when Mary Patterson went to her boarder's room and found DeLloyd "Dutch" Thompson, once billed as "America's Greatest Aviator," dead in his bed. His business ventures, his marriage and his political ambitions had all ended in failure, and he died alone and broke in a rented room. But all that disappointment was nothing compared to those six glorious years of fame and fortune.

As sad and tragic as his end may seem, Dutch Thompson was not forgotten. In the months following his demise, his friends and admirers came together in an effort to create a fitting memorial to him. And Time would take its toll on it as well.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Early Bird, Part 14

In 1922, DeLloyd Thompson came home for good and flew his last exhibition at the fairgrounds in Arden. One of those to watch the dashing pilot perform his “undertaker’s roll” was a teenage tennis sensation by the name of Naomi Parkinson. The daughter of a prominent local attorney, Naomi had graduated from the Washington Female Seminary and had enrolled at Carnegie Tech.

At 19, Naomi had already racked up a number of amateur tennis championships and had a promising academic future ahead of her, but all that would be put aside when she fell for Dutch. He was 33, and their elopement was scandalous. Their son, Robert, was born in September 1923.

Thompson purchased an interest in a coal mine, and later took on building projects as a contractor. He was involved in the construction of the Sunset Beach pool near Claysville, which opened in 1926. According to the late Robert Thompson’s widow, Margaret, Dutch lost a good bit of money on construction equipment he purchased. “From what I know, he was never much of a businessman,” she said.

By the late 1920s, Thompson’s wealth was all but gone. He and Naomi were living with his mother, Sarah, in their home at 140 Shirls Avenue, and money problems were beginning to eat away at their relationship. Sarah died just before Christmas 1928. The marriage would dissolve a few years later.

Naomi would pick up single life where she left off. By 1933, she was ranked 19th in the nation among female tennis players. She returned to college in 1937 and made the Carnegie Tech tennis team – the only woman on the squad – and captained the team in 1939. She earned two bachelor’s degrees from Tech, one in voice and one in music supervision.
She began teaching music, but when the war began, she joined the Red Cross and served for two years in India, Burma and China.
After the war, she continued to collect trophies for both tennis and golf. She remarried, to Robert Kenward, and died in 1995 at the age of 92. Her life is a story in itself, perhaps for another day. This is, after all, the story of Dutch Thompson, and although his daredevil days were done, he would have one more chance to cheat Death.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Early Bird, Part 13

On March 29, 1917, DeLloyd Thompson, then in Los Angeles, wrote to his friend, Lawrence Stewart, an editor of the Washington Observer, with a proposal. Thompson wanted to recruit America's greatest automobile drivers, train them to fly, and then form a crack squadron to join the war effort. He had already received commitments from 18 of the top 20 drivers, who would all be assembling in Uniontown, Pa., in May for the first big races of the season.

Thompson wanted to start an aviation school back east, but he needed planes suitable for training. Because both he and Stewart were members of the local Elks lodge, Thompson wondered if the lodge might be able to come up with the $3,000 he would need to build a trainer. He suggested that "Donated by B.P.O.E. Washington, Pa." Could be painted on the machine's wings.

The Elks reacted enthusiastically to the proposal and even offered to raise money for a second plane, but Thompson said that was not necessary because he expected the U.S. government to provide him with one.
Thompson's effort was in response to a complaint the American public had with athletes, celebrities and race-car drivers about their lack of enthusiasm for the war effort. On April 26, Thompson made headlines by proposing to train in Uniontown the great Australian middleweight boxing champion, Les Darcy, right, to fly for the U.S. Darcy had left Australia in a controversy over its draft. But a few days later, Darcy, 21, fell ill. He died of pneumonia on May 24.
At the Uniontown races, Dutch Thompson entertained the crowds with a flying exhibition, and on May 9 narrowly escaped a crash when his engine stalled at 3,000 feet.
The U.S. entered the Great War and established the draft. In the tumult of the war effort, Thompson's flying school never really got off the ground.

Griffith Borgeson, in his book, "The Golden Age of the American Racing Car," writes of another scheme Thompson pursued late that year:
"After the death of Lincoln Beachey, DeLloyd Thompson became America's most glamorous aviator and a very wealthy man. He approached (Harry) Miller in 1917 with the proposal that they pool their talents in the development and promotion of a large and powerful military aircraft engine which, if successful, could make them both immensely rich. He offered Miller a check for $50,000 just to get things off the ground, and a partnership was born."
But after they built a 12-cylinder, 500-horsepower engine and gave it a 100-hour test in Daytona, Fla., Miller walked out on the project to pursue other interests.

Faced with another failure, Thompson turned again to his old friends on the car-racing circuit – Barney Oldfield and Tommy Milton – and starting out in Wheeling, W.Va., returned to the driving thrill of his youth. He would travel around the country for a couple more years, but return home in 1922 and find something that would keep him here for good.

Her name was Naomi.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Early Bird, Part 12

DeLloyd Thompson enjoyed the company of women, on the ground and above it. It was with Marian Tichner seated in front of him that he broke the air speed record on April 29, 1916, at New York City's Hempstead course. His plane traveled a mile in 33.2 seconds, or 108.4 mph.
Five days later, Thompson was seated in the passenger seat of a plane flown by test pilot Harold Blakely from Garden City Aviation Field when the craft went into a spin at 600 feet and plummeted to the ground. The right wing struck the ground first, shattering the heavy wooden frame. The 125-horsepower engine was buried a foot into the earth, and Thompson, riding in the front cockpit, was flung forward, his right leg catching in the passenger seat. Both men survived the crash, but Thompson's leg was broken in two places below the knee and his foot and ankle were badly crushed. He spent weeks in a Manhattan hospital and suffered from blood poisoning and other complications. Despite nearly constant pain, he was back at the controls of a plane while still walking on crutches.

Thompson never really recovered from the crash, however. He walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life, but just as importantly, other pilots and aviation technology seemed to pass him as he recuperated.

The United States was soon to enter the war in Europe, and Thompson would have liked nothing better than to fly planes for the military, but his injuries would make that impossible. He would serve as a lieutenant in the reserves, instructing American pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps, but broken and disheartened, remained in that capacity only briefly. He had reached the apex of his magnificent career and had begun his descent.

The war made heroes of the new young pilots, and the planes they flew were now faster, more powerful and maneuverable than anything Dutch Thompson was flying at fairgrounds before diminishing audiences.
He had accumulated great wealth as a barnstormer, but Thompson would need to find other things to do with his time and money. And he would return home to do that.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Early Bird, Part 11

(International Film Service photo, published in the New York Tribune April 24, 1916)

On the night of April 16, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson, contemplating the war in Europe and the threat from Germany, strolled to the widow of his White House office and witnessed a flash of light in the sky. It was the first of a series of explosions that brought traffic to a halt on Pennsylvania Avenue and panicked the residents of Washington, D.C. The explosions continued, and then the sky was alight in a trail of fire above the Washington Monument.
DeLloyd "Dutch" Thompson had just "bombed" Washington.

A group calling itself the "National Security League of America" persuaded Thompson to drop onto 20 American cities imitation bombs that carried this message: "This is a fake bomb – but suppose it contained nitro glycerin – what would you do?" Thompson was intrigued by the project, the object being, "to wake up the country... to the dangers of unpreparedness."

His stunt created a national sensation. His purpose, he said, was "to employ the most effective method of impressing officials and members of Congress and the Senate how absolutely at the mercy of hostile aircraft are the great cities of our country.
"I could have blown the White House and Capitol off the map had I been armed with the most deadly explosives, instead of fireworks bombs timed to explode 1,000 feet in the air."

Thompson had been interested in the idea of air warfare ever since two Bulgarians for the first time dropped bombs from a plane on a Turkish railway station in October 1912. It was just a few months later that he and Andrew Drew staged a dogfight and dropped flour bombs during a show in San Antonio, Texas.

The next city to be bombed was New York, two nights later. This time, the war Department was involved in Thompson's plan, having given its blessing for his departure from Governor's Island, even though local officials had not been informed. He dropped five explosive devices, each containing about an ounce of dynamite. The fifth bomb, however, exploded close to the plane and damaged the wing, making it necessary for him to return for an emergency landing.

(Ruth Law in her Curtiss plane with Wright controls)

Thompson bombed Chicago on April 23, in a show that included Ruth Law, the first woman to perform a loop and to fly in darkness. She did two loops over the city that night.
The object of the demonstration, Thompson said, was to alert Congress for the need for as much as $40 million to build an air force and train pilots. But his efforts on the part of national defense would soon be interrupted when his luck came suddenly to a crashing halt.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Comments and complaints

A subscriber and acquaintance of mine confronted me last night at a dinner meeting about the front page of yesterday's newspaper. "What in the world was that story about that murder in Ohio doing there?" he asked. It's a good question that deserves more than one of my typically smart-ass answers.

The story, accompanied by four photos, that took up just more than half of the front page of Monday's edition detailed the explosion of a family after the father, 74, was accused of hiring someone to kill his wife. Written by Meghan Barr of the Associated Press, it was a long story that also took up most of Page 2 and contained no local angle. My short answer was a question: "Have you ever heard of a slow news day?"

Mondays are particularly tough for us. Government, local and otherwise, shuts down on Friday afternoon. Although police are active over the weekend, their reports are often inaccessible until Monday morning. We do try to save some local news for the front page; that's why you'll always see our "What's Up With That?" feature there.

Our night editor is given discretion to choose news from around the state, nation and world to fill the rest of the front page. The editor looks for articles that are - ideally - both important and interesting. Sometimes, there aren't any, so the editor opts for stories that are either very important or very interesting, but not both. A story about nuclear arms negotiations with the Russians may be very important, but not exactly riveting reading. And a story like "A death in the family" might be not the least bit important but is nevertheless fascinating. The night editor on duty Sunday night chose "interesting" over "important."

Like it or not, newspaper readers are attracted by sex, death and crime. This is not some anecdotal assumption but rather a cold, hard fact. Take, for instance, the statistics on page views of our Web site for the week of Nov. 16. The most-read story for that week, at 4,071 page views, was about a rape in Canonsburg. The top 10 stories for that week all involved homicide, drugs, arson, traffic accidents or crime. Coming in at No. 11, finally, was an article about gas drilling.

So, on a slow news day, you can't really go wrong with a well-written tale of murder, sprinkled with sex and greed.

Sometimes, I hate this business.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Early Bird, Part 10

Glamour and mystique enveloped Dutch Thompson, and his popularity grew around the country. His every action and word in public was recorded. When the local dignitaries of Huntington, Ind., greeted him in June 1914, they implored him to come have a drink with them. "No, I never drink when I am in the air," Thompson was quoted in the local paper. "Give me a chocolate ice cream soda."

The newspaper went on to describe the pilot's routine: "He climbed into the narrow, enclosed seat of the bi-plane and strapped himself in. He then strapped an aneroid barometer, an instrument for measuring altitude, to his thigh, where it is in plain view. He turned his cap backward and without placing goggles over his eyes announced that he was ready to commence his flight.
"Just before he gave his final word Thompson extracted a pouch of chewing tobacco and took a huge chew. He said he always chews when in the air."

After Beachey's death, Thompson began a two-year tour of fairgrounds with the great auto racer, Barney Oldfield in April 1915. Oldfield, 11 years older than Thompson, had started out racing bicycles in 1894. The cigar-chomping showman became the first man to travel a mile in less than a minute. He and Beachey had performed 35 shows together.

The Thompson-Oldfield spectacles drew tens of thousands to witness a race between the holders of speed records in the air and on the ground. Thompson would never be more famous – except for one night in 1916, when his antics would attract the attention and wonder of none other than the president of the United States.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Early Bird, Part 9

(Thompson displaces his barometer)

On the clear afternoon of Aug. 6, 1914, in Overland Park, Kan., DeLloyd Thompson climbed into his Day-Gyro plane, dressed in a sheepskin suit given to him by the polar explorer, Admiral Robert Peary. He strapped a barometric altimeter to his thigh and began his ascent into the blue sky. When his airplane finally ran out of fuel, a shivering Thompson put the craft into a spiral glide and descended to the field.

The Aero Club of America officially certified that Thompson's altitude had reached 15,256 feet. It smashed the record that Lincoln Beachey had set three years earlier at 11,678 feet. The achievement was noted on the front page of The Reporter, Thompson's hometown newspaper, the following day, but only briefly. Stunt flying, that had so captured the imagination of the public, was now pushed aside by the news of the Great War – a war in which air power would come into its own.

Thompson and Beachey both toured the country demonstrating in show after show their high-flying dives and loops. But they noticed that these stunts could be viewed from a distance, making it difficult to sell tickets to their performances. So the two began racing their planes close to the ground against automobiles, Thompson facing off against Joe Briggs and Beachey racing Barney Oldfield, then considered "the fastest man on Earth."

Although a number of pilots could claim to have flown upside-down, the position was but brief, at the top of the loop. Beachey wanted to fly upside-down over a distance and had a monoplane with an 80-horsepower engine built specially for the purpose. On March 14, 1915, before a crowd estimated at 250,000 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Beachey pulled the plane into a loop to achieve the inverted position. Realizing that his altitude was too low, he pulled the controls to right the plane. The wings snapped off from the force and the fuselage plunged into San Francisco Bay. An autopsy revealed that the "World's Greatest Aviator" had survived the crash and had died, at age 28, from drowning.

Suddenly, Dutch Thompson was the man to see.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Early Bird, Part 8

(Lincoln Beachey performing "no-hands" flight)

In 1913, a Russian pilot performed a loop for the first time. That's when a plane goes into a steep climb and does a backward somersault. Until then, no one had attempted the stunt because of the tremendous force the wings would be subjected to. A few weeks later, a French pilot successfully looped the loop. The big question here was: Who would be the first U.S. aviator to do it?

"I have been experimenting with this feat and have about made ready to try it," DeLloyd Thompson told a reporter for the Illinois State Register on Oct. 6. "I never have yet completely performed it, but I believe it can be done in a biplane and I am having a machine specially strengthened and prepared for the feat. I hope I can get away with it."

Meanwhile, Lincoln Beachey was thinking the same thoughts. Beachey, unquestionably the most famous American stunt flier, had recently retired, citing the morbid curiosity of the crowds who came to witness the deaths of young pilots. But the loop had gotten to him.
Glenn Curtiss, who at first refused to build a plane strong enough to loop for Beachey, relented. Beachey returned from retirement, and on his first flight in the new plane, misjudged its speed. A wing clipped the top of a tent and the landing gear struck two young women sitting on a shed roof to watch the flight. One of the women died, and Beachey once again quit flying. He could not stay away, however, and on Nov. 25, he completed his first loop.

Thompson would not be the first American to fly upside-down, but he was not about to be outdone. In the first major air show of 1914, on March 25 in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, Thompson made his first loop. On April 13, he set a world record by making eight loops. And five days later, with female passenger Lillian Biorn on board, he made the first loop with a passenger.

Lincoln Beachey was still a more familiar household name in America, but Thompson was determined to change that.

(At right, a photo of Lillian Biorn, from a scrapbook kept by Thompson's mother.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Early Bird, Part 7

(DeLloyd Thompson, left, and Max Lillie in Chicago, July 1913)

Max Lillie designed a massive flying boat meant to carry three passengers, and DeLloyd Thompson had planned to fly it in competition in July 1913, according to Carroll Gray, author of "Cicero Flying Flield." But there were some problems...

Gray quotes flier Otto Timm, who witnessed the test of the WALCO Flying Boat: "...(It) was a large amphibious monoplane finished in fine mahogany with deep leather upholstery. It was extremely heavy and powered with a 50 h.p. engine. A large crowd gathered to see the test flight. Four men were holding onto the fuselage as the engine opened up. When the signal was given to let go, the plane did not move, so the men pushed it and got it started. When they stopped pushing, however, it rolled to a stop. It not only wouldn't fly, it wouldn't even taxi."

Lillie and his good friend and assistant Thompson were busy all summer making passenger flights and giving flying lessons, and then, in September, disaster struck again.
Just before 2 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 15, Max Lillie, performing at an air show in Galesburg, Ill., was flying at 1,000 feet past the grandstand when the right wing of his Lillie-Wright Model B biplane collapsed, and the machine flipped over and fell like a spear into the ground. Lillie's wife was watching in the stands and was heard to cry, "My God, he's dead! He's dead."

An investigation into the crash would reveal that the airplane was poorly maintained and inferior metal parts had been used, a surprise given the climate of safety at Cicero.

Lillie's death must have been particularly hard on Dutch Thompson, who drifted away from the school by the end of the year. He would leave the "safe and sane" instructional aviation behind him and begin an odyssey that would propel him nonstop around the nation and lift him to heights man had never before reached.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Early Bird, Part 6

The Lillie Flying School moved down to Kinloch Park in the fall of 1912, and then on to San Antonio, Texas, for the remainder of the winter. There, DeLloyd Thompson showed off for the locals, becoming the first person to fly over their city on Jan. 5. The next day, flying with Andrew Drew, he performed a spectacular spiral dive from 3,500 feet.

On March 16, 1913, the San Antonio Express reported, "Since Lincoln Beachey of Chicago has retired from the aviation game, San Antonio, in DeLloyd Thompson, claims the foremost aviator in the country." The next day, Dutch and Drew staged an exhibition of air "warfare," dropping "bombs" made of bags of flour and staging a dogfight. Later that day, Thompson would receive word of the death of his father in Kansas City.

A couple of weeks later, Max Lillie and Thompson packed the planes on a train and returned to Chicago while Drew remained for a while to cover the Mexican Revolution for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Shortly after Drew returned north, the following news report hit the Cicero fraternity hard:
"Lima, Ohio, June 12 – Andrew Drew, amateur aviator and pupil of Orville Wright, dashed to his death in a blazing aeroplane here tonight as a result of a 'little joy ride.'
"Drew fell 200 feet after being in the air but a short time. Drew shut off his motor and those waiting saw a red tongue of flame shoot from his machine as he fell to his death."

Two months later, while flying over Chicago, the propeller of Thompson's Day Tractor biplane snapped in two, damaging a wing. He was able to save his own life, however, by performing a maneuver he first executed with his late friend Drew. "Spiral Drop of 2,500 Feet Saves Aviator," read the headline in a Chicago newspaper on Aug. 2, 1913.

It would hardly be the last time that Dutch Thompson cheated Death.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Today's gripe

We have crappy e-mail service here at the O-R. Our provider apparently is not able to afford spam filters, and we are inundated with the stuff. You can leave your computer for a moment to go to the toilet, and when you return, about 20 pieces of spam have been deposited in your in-box.

I am weary of the message lines meant to grab my immediate attention: "I've found you a job!" and "someone has a crush on you" are a couple of them. I know that the ones that begin "Dearest one..." are from the widow of an African dictator wishing to share $48 million with me. And of course, there are the ones targeting my sex and age - the Viagra ads.

I can handle the Viagra spam, but lately, I've been peppered with new ones for snuggie blankets and motorized wheelchairs.
Hey! I may be at the point in life when I'm thinking sex might be overrated, but I'm not ready to roll into the solarium of the Old Editors' Home for a nap with a comforter on my lap!

Early Bird, Part 5

Chicago's Cicero Flying Field had become the center of American aviation, and in 1911, DeLloyd Thompson was pulled into its vortex. This was where most of the flight instruction and experimentation with aeronautics was taking place, and where a fraternity of fliers was forming. Thompson became close friends with Andrew Drew and Max Lillie, the gregarious Swedish immigrant who began the Lillie Flying Station and School at Cicero, later to become the Lillie-Thompson School.

Dutch Thompson, the long-legged six-footer with an engaging personality, typified the daring and dashing young men attracted to the sport. But the flying fraternity was not restricted to men; the romance and danger drew women like Katherine Stinson and Julia Clark as well.

Thompson was still learning tricks and had yet to compete in an air show when he returned home to Washington in November 1911 to visit his mother and brother, then living on South Lincoln Street. But the visit of the aviator was notable enough to be mentioned in the society columns of the Washington Observer.

The first big Chicago-area aviation meet opened on May 30, 1912, when Thompson flew before a large crowd for the first time. That was the same day that Wilbur Wright died in Dayton, Ohio, of typhoid fever at age 45.

A few days later, Thompson received his Aero Club of America instructor's certificate, and in early July, he was hired as the assistant instructor of the Lillie school. At the September meet, marred by the death of fellow pilot Howard Gill, Thompson was one of the top prize-winners ($995) in events before a throng of more than 100,000 in Chicago's Grant Park. And on Oct. 5, he received his Expert Aviator rating, only the third at Cicero and eighth flier in the country to receive it.

The young auto mechanic from Washington had risen to the top ranks in aviation and did so under the tutelage of Walter Brookins and Max Lillie, who both favored a style that stressed safety first and precision maneuvers. But Dutch Thompson's fame would come from testing the limits of his machines and tempting death, which would claim so many more of his friends and colleagues.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Early Bird, Part 4

Aeronautical happenings were big news in Washington, particularly in the weeks following the Centennial air show at Arden. Several of those events did not immediately involve DeLloyd Thompson but would have profound effects on his career.

It is likely that Thompson was at Kinloch Park in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1910, when Col. Theodore Roosevelt decided to hop on a biplane for a ride. Arch Hoxsey (right), one of Thompson's fellow Wright pilots, assured the former president that he would be completely safe, and Roosevelt delighted the crowd, waving to them from above on his 3-minute jaunt.

Meanwhile, the plane that flew at Arden had been shipped to Belmont Park, N.Y., for an international air show that would go on through the end of October. It was there, on Oct. 25, that Walter Brookins, in an attempt to break the altitude record, crashed and was slightly injured. Unable to compete for the grand prize, the $10,000 would go to Chicago aviator John B. Moisant (left) for flying around the Statue or Liberty. Moisant shocked reporters, predicting that "within a few years we may expect to fly from America to Europe in aeroplanes, we will soon have metal airships which will fly at the rate of 100 miles an hour."

On Nov. 1, Ralph Johnstone would fly his "baby" Wright roadster to a world record 9,714 feet.

It seemed to an excited public that there was no limit to what these daring birdmen could do, reaching record heights nearly every week. But the higher and faster they went, the greater the peril. Just 17 days after setting the altitude mark, Johnstone, while performing with Brookins and Hoxsey in Denver, died when his damaged aircraft plummeted from 500 feet. His death stunned the nation, but it would become just one in a dismal series.

On Dec. 30, in Los Angeles, Hoxsey coaxed his biplane to 11,474 feet to set the world record. The very next day, trying to top his own feat, Hoxsey's plane fell 7,000 feet, ending his life at age 25.
And on that same day, in New Orleans, Moisant would die in another crash witnessed by thousands of spectators.

Dutch Thompson's day was arriving, by the ghoulish process of elimination.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Early Bird, Part 3

Walter Brookins (at left) grew up in the same Dayton,Ohio, neighborhood as did Orville and Wilbur Wright, and he was taught at school by the Wright brothers' sister Katherine. "Brookie," from the age of 4, began tagging after the brothers, who promised to build him a plane when he grew up.

In 1909, Orville Wright made Brookins his first pupil, and he performed his first solo flight after only 2 and a half hours of instruction. He flew with the Wrights in exhibitions but soon began making a name for himself. On July 10, 1910, in Atlantic City, N.J., he flew to a height of 6,175 feet, a world record.

At about that time, Brookins, had established his own flying school in St. Louis, Mo., and one of his first students was DeLloyd Thompson, an auto mechanic from Washington, Pa., who, like Brookins, was 21 years old.

(Dutch Thompson at the controls of a Wright biplane, circa 1911)
Thompson was also a quick learner. He made is first solo in a Wright biplane on Aug. 6, 1910. It must have been at about that time that Dutch had his photograph taken at the controls of the biplane, his tweed cap tuned rakishly backward and his upper lip bare of the mustache that would later be his signature for the remainder of his life. And it was at this time that the Wright company agreed to participate in Washington's Centennial celebration Oct. 3-8 with six consecutive days of flying demonstrations.
On Sept. 22, the Washington Reporter announced: "Wilbur Wright and Ray Knabenshue, the famous aeroplane men, have selected a large tract of ground on the Washington and Canonsburg trolley line as an ideal aviation field, and they believe that with fair weather conditions they will be able to break some records during the six days they will fly. Walter Brookins, the young aviator who has accomplished so many sensational flights during the past few months in Atlantic City, Asbury Park and on other aviation fields, will be one of the star performers at the Washington Centennial."

The next week's papers were peppered with flying firsts, including Brookins' winning of a $10,000 prize for smashing the distance record with a flight of 187 miles. On the day Wilbur Wright and Brookins arrived in town, a local reporter gushed: "Mr. Wright is very unassuming. He is just an ordinary man, of course, and never boasts of his achievements. Mr. Brookins is a very young man, pleasant to talk to and is overflowing with aviation enthusiasm."

The Reporter of Oct. 4 described Brookins' first demonstration: "… as the youth at the levers circled about the field in gigantic figure eights the crowd cheered and applauded. Just before Brookins started on his return to earth the afternoon train of the Pennsylvania railroad passed the aviation field and the engineer appreciating the situation greeted the birdman with a long series of toots from his whistle. Every window of the cars was filled with eager faces watching the conquest of the air."

Whether Dutch Thompson returned with Brookins and Wright to his hometown for its celebration and watched these flights is not clear. In all of the articles that week about the demonstrations, his name is not mentioned. He was still an unknown.
But that was soon to change.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Early Bird, Part 2

(David Lloyd, left, and Clyde Jackson Thompson in 1891)

Sara Thompson gave birth to her second son on Jan. 21, 1889, at the family's home in Coffey's Crossing, just west of Washington in Buffalo Township. She and her husband, Samuel, named the child David Lloyd Thompson, in honor of her father, Capt. David Haggerty.

The family moved to Kansas when David and older brother Clyde Jackson were still not in school. However, Sara and the boys returned to Washington several years later to live with her father. Sometime while attending Seventh Ward School on Shirls Avenue, David picked up the nickname "Dutch." A little later on, he would abandon his first name and start calling himself DeLloyd.

By the time the Wright brothers achieved the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903, Dutch was nearing his 15th birthday and already fascinated by the automobile and the speed of these new machines. School was not much to his liking, and when David H. Swart opened the first automobile garage in Washington County in 1905, in an old factory building on West Maiden Street in Washington, Dutch went to work for him as an apprentice. Swart went on to become a prominent auto dealer, selling Packards and other makes until his death at 81 in 1947, and his young apprentice, having learned to be a mechanic, graduated to racing autos.

But for Dutch, racing cars on dirt tracks and over rutted roads and fields was not thrilling enough. Orville and Wilbur Wright, and now many other mechanics, were designing flying machines that were more reliable, sturdy and could cover longer distances at higher altitude and greater speed.

And so, making what would become the most important decision of his life, in the summer of 1910, DeLloyd Thompson headed west, for St. Louis, to find a man named Walter Brookins.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Early Bird, Part 1

A wind whipping the air into a static of snow flurries rattled the windows of the clapboard house at 86 West Beau Street on the morning of Saturday, January 29, 1949. At 11 o'clock, Mary Patterson answered her telephone. It was George Herd, owner of the drug store on Main Street, wondering why his employee had not shown up for work.

Mary, who had rented out a room after the death of her husband, told George she would wake her boarder. It was not unusual for the man upstairs to sleep late, because in addition to working at Herd's (and running the poker game in the back room there, or so it was said), he also tended bar at night at the Green Tree on North Main Street, also owned by George.

Mary entered the man's room and found him in bed, ashen, apparently dead for several hours. As distressing as this sight was, it did not come as a great shock; her boarder was not in the best of health, walking with a pronounced limp, suffering from the effects of a bad car accident several years earlier and laboring for breath from a bad heart. Still, it was such a shame for him to die alone like that, poor man.
Mary rushed downstairs and called George and told him to come down the street right away. Mr. Thompson had passed away, she said.

Born 60 years earlier just a few miles west of the rented room in Washington where he died, DeLloyd Thompson's sad and quiet demise was in ironic contrast to much of the life he led: flamboyant, daring, adventurous and punctuated by great fame and fortune. An aviation pioneer, he made sensational headlines from coast to coast as he smashed speed and altitude records, and outlived most of his fellow stunt pilots in the early, crazy days of flight. An idol to millions of children and adults alike, he thrilled crowds at air shows and speedways, amassed great wealth, and convinced a nation of the dangers and advantages of air warfare.

His rise was meteoric, and his fall a long glide that ended on a cold and windy January day in a town where his very name once caused shivers of pride. In the great technological rush that was the 20th century, his reputation and fortune would dwindle and his memory would be left by the side of the road.

This is the story of "Dutch" Thompson, the bird man, and the spectacular arc of his life.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A new story

After writing "Life of Enos" on this blog and later publishing it as a weekly serial in the newspaper, my wife, Alice, suggested that I find other forgotten people and tell their stories. And as it turns out, there are many fascinating characters in our area's long history whose achievements have been lost in the sandstorm of time.

I did not need to wander too far from the banks of Catfish Creek or too far back in time to find our next subject. He was born here and died here, alone and broke, 61 years later. But in between he achieved great fame and fortune and reached heights, literally, that no American had ever reached before. The mightiest military force on Earth owes much to his pioneering efforts, yet his name is hardly recognized in the town he would not leave.

We'll call this story "Early Bird." It begins Monday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Falling Man

Don DeLillo's 14th novel, "Falling Man," is the story of how several lives were affected by the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Because this is the first DeLillo novel I've read, I feel rather sheepish criticizing it.

I found most of the characters flat and undeveloped, and as a result, had difficulty understanding their motivation. Why does Keith, a lawyer who is injured but escapes from one of the towers, decide to become a professional poker player? Why is his wife prone to uncharacteristic episodes of violence? Why does their child withdraw from them when his fear should make him seek comfort in them?

Maybe these are flaws in the story; or maybe I have just not been able to connect the dots. This is a complex book, and it may be just a little too complex for this reader.

DeLillo relies heavily on the "pronoun lead," a device I urge writers for this newspaper to avoid. Often, the reader is left wondering who the "he" or "she" is that the author is writing about in the beginning of so many passages. Nevertheless, DeLillo is a superb writer with a talent for the uncommon metaphor and unconventional description that brings new understanding of the most common experiences.

I may not have thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but I certainly will read more of his books. "White Noise" will be next.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rant, rant, rant

(I won't print the beginning of this message, out of respect to the family of the South Strabane Township policeman whose death this message refers. The writer also took exception to our dropping the comic, "Ollie & Quentin," a strip about a seagull and a lugworm that never took off with readers. Here's how it the message ended...)

C: ...Shutting down a town for 1 person's funeral while ignoring other funerals are wrong.

A: Dear Mr. Lugworm,
Honestly, the newspaper had nothing to do with planning the funeral. We just reported the accident, and the 1,000 cops showed up on their own. - G.O.E.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

We made a number of changes in our comics Sunday and Monday, dropping two comics ("For Better of for Worse" and "Ollie & Quentin") and adding four new ones. "Opus" also is history, but that wasn't our choice; his creator quit drawing it.

Already the calls are coming in from people whose lives have been destroyed by these changes, which one reader called "disgusting." Even after just two days, one caller has decided that the new strips are all stupid and worthless. And to have to go to the classified section to read "Peanuts" and "Family Circus" is apparently too taxing for some subscribers. "Why can't you put them all on the same page?"

We can't because we have added comics and they can't all fit on one page anymore. And we dropped "For Better or for Worse" because its creator has reached the limits of her imagination and decided to go back to the beginning of the serial comic and retell it. We'd like to give other cartoons a chance instead of offering reruns.

"Why don't you just keep the same comics?" a reader asked. We might, if we kept the same readers, but our readership changes every day. How many of our new readers would be satisfied with "Snuffy Smith," "Alley-Oop" and "The Katzenjammer Kids"?

Friday, November 7, 2008


In case you are interested in learning what happened after 1969 to the characters I mentioned in "How to Break and Ankle," here's a listing:

- Richard, the friend who shared my North Avenue apartment and whose melancholic guitar outbursts so upset the neighborhood, married a girl from Johnstown, went on to become a stone mason and fathered three daughters. Hobbled by a fall from a scaffold, he endured constant pain until about 20 years ago, when he took his own life.

- Fred, Monroe's affable roommate, after flunking out of W&J went on to school and jobs all around the country but was never able to break free of the gravity of Western Pennsylvania. He died here, at 56, of complications from diabetes.

- Monroe served in the Air Force in Vietnam, after which he settled in San Francisco, where he worked as a waiter. "Monroe has decided to become a homosexual," Fred told me at the time. He later moved to New York City, where he now owns two trendy Manhattan restaurants.

- Regis also served in the Air Force in Vietnam. I returned to Perrysburg in 1972 to be an usher at his wedding, but I don't think he will ever forgive me for abandoning him and our plans to emigrate to Australia. As far as I know, he's still living in Perrysburg and working in the family business.

- Bim, my father's half brother, had a bad heart but didn't know it. He collapsed and died during a family gathering of the California clan at age 64.

- I last saw my paternal grandmother, Dorothy McCully Burroughs Achenbach, in the late 1980s. She and Harry had by then moved from Bancroft Street to a double-wide. When my wife, Alice, and I visited them, Gram was dressed in a neat blue suit, but wore enormous, pink, fuzzy slippers. She was still counting her cigarettes. "We are so old!" she complained. Harry died first, and Gram followed a year later.

- My mother lived long enough to see me stop gallivanting around the country and settle down, and to enjoy her first grandchild, but not her second. She died of cancer at age 52.

- My father remarried and remains in Florida and in good health at age 83. He did indeed drag me to a barber shop in August 1969. It was the last time I entered a barber shop. Because…
…the girlfriend I mentioned when Bim and Jeannine arranged my blind date started cutting my hair. She did such a good job of it that I married her, and she has been cutting my hair ever since.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 13

From the window of the plane I saw the dark shapes of seals slipping along on the waves of the bay before we banked and headed into morning sun, bound for Phoenix, then New Orleans. My cast was an obstruction in the aisle over which stewardesses stepped gingerly. Bim had written on it in blue Magic Marker a message to my father: "Sorry we broke your kid, Al."

I was headed to Florida – home, if you could call it that. My parents had moved there only recently, to a house I had seen only once. There was nowhere else to go; it would be weeks before it was possible to walk without crutches or drive a car. My romantic, adventurous quest, my dream of hitchhiking across America and accumulating all those life experiences, which my grandmother said I so sorely lacked, was over. Crashed and burned. I was completely defeated.

As the jet cruised above a rusted, empty, waterless landscape, I foresaw the near future. The wandering son would return, penniless and crippled, to the protective custody of his parents. His mother would tap an angry foot on kitchen linoleum and dab tears from the corners of her eyes, bemoaning her child's tattered clothing and foolish behavior, "gallivanting" around the country instead of toiling at a summer job. His father would deliver him to a barber shop for a "real haircut, not just some damn trim." Lectures.

It was necessary to change planes in New Orleans for a flight to Fort Lauderdale, and the layover was a long one. A wheelchair awaited me as we disembarked. I protested, but a stewardess cut me short. "Sorry, company rules," she said.
The wheelchair came with an attendant. I can't recall his name; let's say it was James. He was a tall, middle-aged man in a blue captain's cap and white, short-sleeved shirt that contrasted sharply with his black-almost-purple skin. He spoke softly and slowly and seldom. Yes suh. No suh. Where can I take you suh?

I had no sense, no experience, no understanding of the South, and I felt embarrassed for James, forced to serve this master, this reckless, scruffy white boy.
He rolled me through the airport, to the toilet, to the newsstand, humming discreetly.
"Can you take me outside?" I asked him.
"Lawd, no suh!" he chuckled. "Why, you be parboiled out der in dis heat."
"Just put me by the window then. You can leave me there. I'll be all right." I wanted to free him of this menial task, emancipate him.

My eyes grew heavy watching planes land. I watched shadows move and lengthen. I dozed.

Sometime late in the afternoon, I awoke to the gentle shake of James' hand upon my shoulder. "C'mon suh, it time for you to go home."
And so it was.


Whine, whine, whine

C: I wanted to let you know that I was very disappointed in todays headline. I was wanting to keep todays paper for its historical value. Instead of it saying something like "History is Made" or "First African American Elected President" it says "Barack Rolls". Im sorry, but I really don't even know what that means. Todays paper should have had a much more powerful headline and I think you really blew it with this. There is nothing here that makes me believe that anyone won the presidency. I mean, did he make "rolls", did he "roll" down a hill. Please do better in the future to keep me with your paper. - D.K.

A: For such an event that occurs shortly before press time, the headline writer strives for brevity: short words that can describe the event in very large type - large enough to be seen in a vending machine from across the street. But "Obama wins" doesn't cut it, because it's boring and doesn't describe the degree of victory. To roll, or cruise to victory is more descriptive. There's also a subliminal connection between "Barack rolls" to "rock 'n' roll."

I've said this many times before: We are in the business of selling newspapers. We wouldn't be in business at all if our objective was to create nostalgic keepsakes for scrapbooks.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My fellow Strabanians...

I got a call yesterday from a young woman, a journalist, who said she was calling from Strabane... but she pronounced it "stra-ben." I was confused. Then, she added, "... in Northern Ireland."

Her name is Aine (pronounced On-ya) McCarron, and she writes for The Strabane Weekly News. She was interested in knowing how the presidential voting was going in her town's American namesake. I explained to her that there was a village of Strabane, located in the township of North Strabane, and that we also had a township called South Strabane, all named after her own town by the Scots-Irish who settled here in the late 18th century.I told her I didn't know how the Strabanians would vote, but I'd let her know today.

(Unofficial vote totals for North and South Strabane townships combined were 6,262 for McCain and 4,634 for Obama.)

Aine wrote this article for her newspaper's Web site, illustrated by a photo from our Web site of voters standing in line at a polling station in North Strabane.

I told Aine yesterday that most people were sick of the campaign at that point, and she replied that even though the election was not even in her country, people there had heard so much of it that they were sick of it as well. Asked who Strabanians of Ireland favored, she said Obama was the better choice, for them and the rest of the world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 12

The California clan was large, but no one was my age. All my cousins were younger, all my aunts and uncles older. After a week, they didn't know what to do with me. I was too old to take to Disneyland, too young to take to take to nightclubs. The novelty of my presence began to wear off.

The whole family got together for a picnic in Balboa Park. There would have been no picnic if it were not for my visit. I decided then to leave the next morning. Feeling ashamed about chickening out and flying from Chicago, I decided to buy a real pair of shoes and hitchhike back east.

The adults were playing canasta at the picnic tables, and I was playing soccer with my cousins, trying to dazzle them with smooth moves and crafty dodges. I would dribble circles around them, and they would fall down, mostly from laughter. But moccasins from Kmart that were actually bedroom slippers were not the best footwear for soccer. I stepped on the ball to bat it backward, my foot slipped off and came down hard on something not my foot, and I heard a snap, a muffled crack like a twig crushed under a boot, and felt a lightning strike up my leg.
I got to my feet and hobbled over to the picnic tables. No, it’s OK, just need to catch my breath, I told them. But when I rose, I could not put weight on the leg. I sat, and the ankle swelled.

I left the clinic on crutches with a cast – one of those old-fashioned thick plaster things – from my knee to my toes. The broken bones did not worry me as much as how and when I could leave California. Maybe a cast on my leg would be a good lure for rides, but I kept imagining standing along, say, a remote and lonely stretch of road in northern New Mexico, hungry, thirsty, my hands blistered and underarms raw and chafed from crutches, saying to myself over and over again, "You idiot!"

Monday, November 3, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 11

It can be brutally hot in the desert just east of San Diego in August, but not in town, where the breeze passes over the cool waters of Mission Bay and sways the tall palms on Bancroft Street, and wafts over the dahlias coming into bloom in the front yard and caresses us in the shade of the porch.

We were sitting on the swing, Gram and I, in the early afternoon, drinking lemonade and talking about my future.
"So after college, what?" she asked.
"Well, it's not like I have much of a choice. Can I have one of your cigarettes?
"No, dear, I'm counting these."

She was always trying to cut down on smoking, restricting herself to a certain number of smokes per day; either that, or trying to keep people from mooching cigarettes from her. They were Parliaments, in a blue and white box.
"Well, I suppose I'll be drafted, and then shipped off to Vietnam, and then shipped back in a box," I said, trying to be flippant, even though my post-graduate prospects were scaring me to death.
"Oh, don't think that way," she said, waving her bony hand dismissively. She had been a Navy wife for many years, moving her family all over the country and to Panama and back. She said the military was a vast place, and a good place to accumulate life experience, and if I really wanted to be a writer, I would need lots of that.
"You're so young," she said with that deep, halting laugh of hers. "What have you got to write about?"

She talked about her mother and her grandmother and their writing regimens. And she told me I had to read more if I wanted to become a good writer. "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" were a couple of the books she suggested.

(Just the other day, I found in my box of mementos a list she had mailed me later, written in her neat, left-leaning script on an index card, 10 books to read right away. "The Black Rose" and "Green Dolphin Street," are among them. Regrettably, I have yet to read any of them. But I will.)

"Here, go ahead, have one of my cigarettes," she said. "I'll resume quitting tomorrow." She watched me smoke, smiling contentedly, her head cocked to one side.
Read the good authors and learn from them, but don't pay any attention to what is fashionable and contemporary and novel, she said.
"Write about what you know."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Today's gripe

I've tried as hard as I can to avoid politics in this space, but something I heard on television this morning crawled under my skin. Both the presidential candidates have said some pretty stupid things over the past few months, and I just can't take it anymore.

At a rally in Ohio yesterday, John McCain introduced Joe the Plumber as "an American hero."
Now wait just a minute.

This is the guy who asked Barack Obama a question which was, essentially: If I were really a licensed plumber, and if I weren't already a tax delinquent, and if I wanted to start my own business, and if that business were successful enough to make more than $250,000 in profit, would my taxes go up from 36 percent to 39 percent?

So, now he's an "American hero," just like the brave and unselfish soldiers who have thrown themselves on hand grenades to save the lives of their comrades.

What a sad denigration of heroism this is.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 10

(Grandmother Dorothy and my father, Bronxville, N.Y., 1957)

My mother's family history is simple and straightforward: They came to this country in early 20th century from Poland, where my mother's parents were born, peasants, like countless generations before them.
My father's family tree is more complicated and mysterious, its trunk and lower branches obscured in the ground fog of time. What little we know about the paternal line is something we'd rather not know at all. You wouldn't either if you found out Booker T. Washington was a slave on your ancestors' Virginia plantation. While Booker T. was working for The Man - James Burroughs – my father's mother's Irish and Scottish ancestors were on the Oregon Trail. They became pioneers in Oregon, Washington and Alaska and seafarers who sailed the China route. At the time my mother's mother was boarding a steamship for America, my paternal great-great-grandmother, Ada Woodruff Anderson, was churning out novels about adventure in the Northwest. Her daughter, Great-grandmother McCully, would become a writer, too, mostly of gardening books and articles. Her daughter – my grandmother Dorothy – never published but was a writer at heart, an avid reader and the composer of great letters. She would have a profound influence on my career, although this would not be apparent until years after that summer of '69 in California.

She lived on Bancroft Street in San Diego at the time, an old, quiet neighborhood, with her second husband, Harry, a retired Navy man. It was a house I still walk through and around in my dreams: a garage stacked with dusty curiosities, a miniature house where Gram did her sewing, a lemon tree, a shuffleboard court, and a garden that Harry was constantly tending and watering.

Gram was pencil thin with a constant and broad smile that made her top-heavy. I remember her, there and when she visited us on the East Coast, as delicate and sophisticated, a cigarette and cocktail balancing in her hands like weights on a scale.
I spent a couple of days at their home that August, poking around the garage, playing golf with Harry, and sitting in the porch swing with Gram, and that's where it happened. No, not the broken ankle, but her influence on me: what she would say that would set my course.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 9

Although Bim sold insurance for a living, most of his friends had real-man jobs: policemen, firemen, career Marines. He took me to their weekly poker game for some cigar smoking and whiskey sipping and gambling, although these guys played with nothing but pennies. Sorry, but it's not so impressive when the motorcycle cop in a muscle shirt and flat-top pushes a stack into the pile and says, "I raise ya 15 big ones," and a hush falls across the table, even though he's talking about 15 cents.

It was this group of he-men who taught me to play Indian poker. This came late in the evening, when they had had too much to drink and were acting silly. In Indian poker, everyone gets a card that he holds against his own forehead so that everyone can see the player's card except that player. It's a game that seventh-graders find hilarious; for drill sergeants and San Diego's Finest, it's pathetic.

Bim let me ride his motorcycle around the neighborhood, and he promised that he would borrow a friend's bike and the two of us would ride out into the desert and spend the day. But when Saturday came, his friend did also, and I found myself riding passenger on Bim's bike, which was more than disappointing; it was mortifying, because there is nothing so pointless as being a passenger on a motorcycle. It's like watching someone eat a good steak while your jaw is wired shut.

Nevertheless, the day was enjoyable, exploring wilderness which today's is probably a housing development or a shopping mall. Bim's friend pointed to a cliff from which a trickle of water fell smashing on the rocks below. He said that he had seen a girl standing at the top of that cliff two weeks earlier, stark naked except for a string of beads around her neck.

For a young man in 1969, that was an exciting thought. I kept my eyes peeled for naked women, but we saw almost no one the whole day. Exploring around the base of that cliff that afternoon, I found a bead necklace among the wet rocks and put it in my pocket. Years later, I would take that necklace out of a box of mementos and recall that vision of unclothed beauty, that vision that I never experienced other than in a tale told under the canopy of tall aspens on a hot Southern California day.

Whine, whine, whine

C: We love Beth Dolinar's column but if she continues to inject political barbs in them we will cancel our subscription. - M.O.

A: What? Did I miss something? You're talking about Beth Dolinar, right? The woman who writes about her kids and after-school treats and hair extensions and such things. Sponge Bob Squarepants isn't running for Congress, is he?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How to Break and Ankle, Part 8

Bim and his wife, Jeanine, had three little boys, the oldest of which was 9. Perhaps it was for their sake, because my presence would be an influence on them, that Bim was determined to make a man out of me.

My hair wasn't all that long at the time, but it was long enough to make my aunt and uncle worry that I might be one of those kind, you know, "light in the loafers," as he would say, a Nancy-boy. So the first thing they did was to arrange a blind date.

"I already have a girlfriend," I pleaded, but they ignored this as imaginary nonsense and summoned one Debbie, a neighbor girl who stood about six feet-two in flat shoes, and add another four or five inches for the teased hairdo. I kept this photo of us, Debbie and me in the backyard of Bim's house with my cousins and their dog. Jeanine had sent it to me and had written some quotations on the back. Apparently, I had said, "Boy, are you tall!" And apparently, Debbie had said, "Don't you have any other shoes?"

I can't recall where we went that night or what we did, but I do remember the crick in my neck I got from looking up all evening.

Bim's next manly endeavor was to take me to San Diego Stadium to watch the Chargers play and exhibition football game. Our seats were in the top row of the highest section, the steps to which were so steep that it was nearly impossible to carry beers up to them without spilling them. We carried many beers. We cheered with such enthusiasm that the few other people sitting below us in our section found other seats where they could remain dry. The top section of seats was so steep that when after my fifth beer I lost my balance and tumbled forward, I landed five rows away.

If you think that here is where I finally broke my ankle, you are wrong. I landed as relaxed as a laundry bag filled with lingerie, and got up laughing like a jackass.

No, I would get my punishment, but it would come later.

Monday, October 27, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 7

Back in 1969, the airlines offered student discounts, and you could fly standby for half price. I used to fly to New York from Pittsburgh for $12, and that included a meal and a complimentary cocktail. So, flying from Chicago to California, rather than hitchhiking, was a no-brainer. I probably paid no more than $40 for the flight to Los Angeles and the connection to San Diego.

I called Bim from the airport in Los Angeles and told him when I would be arriving. Bim was my father's half-brother, just eight years my senior. As a child, visiting relatives in California with my family, I had idolized Bim, the rollicking teenager with a stack of comic books in his closet as high as my head.

Back then, the entire clan would come out to the airport in San Diego to greet us – all my father's siblings and cousins and all of their children – cheering us as we emerged from the baggage area as if we were movie stars. Coming in for a landing, I wondered if I would get the traditional welcome, even on such short notice. But only Bim was waiting for me. I saw him before he saw me, touching up his neatly coiffed hair with a pocket comb, standing in the bright sunlight in a white dress shirt and black slacks, looking so adult.

And then he saw me, sauntering toward him in an old work shirt and bell-bottoms I had altered myself by slitting the legs and sewing in triangles of bandanna cloth; a knapsack flung over my shoulder, the long hair and muttonchops, the aviator sunglasses. Then he recognized me, although his face was screwed into a question mark. He said my name, but it was a question. We shook hands, and he tentatively touched my shoulder. He could not mask his disappointment.
"Jeez! Look at you," he said. "You got so tall, and… I just didn't expect… I mean, what's with the costume?"

He had expected me to appear clean-shaven and clean-cut, dressed appropriately for travel, a younger version of my father, the brother he idolized. I was a shock, from which he would recover, but he would spend the next week or so trying hard to make me "normal."

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 6

I trotted after the white Chrysler that had stopped on the ramp. I could see three men in the car. The back door swung open. I took a quick look. It looked like an episode of "Ozzie and Harriet."

OK, for all of you not old enough to get that, I'm not talking about zoned-out rock and reality star Ozzie Osborne, but rather Ozzie Nelson. That old TV show featured the real-life Nelson family in make-believe situation comedy. The two boys, Ricky and David, were the handsome, athletic, respectful, white-bread ideal sons with no nonsense about them. David's fraternity brothers were always dropping by the house for large helpings of milk and cookies. It was a show about typical America that exists only in the wishful thinking of chuckleheads.

Well anyway, David's fraternity brothers were offering me a ride, which I took. The guy sitting next to me in the back seat was wearing a short-sleeve madras shirt, white jeans with neatly ironed creases, and Docksiders. They all looked as if they'd just come from a barber shop. Where was I going? Why? Where was I from? What did my father do for a living? Did I enjoy sailing? They peppered me with questions, and all three, even the driver, felt compelled to look at me and make eye contact when they spoke. It made me nervous.

"Do you smoke pot?" the one in the backseat, the youngest, asked me. He seemed fascinated with my clothes and long hair and sideburns. I realized that they had picked me up out of curiosity. They had seen hippies before, but they'd never really talked to one. "Sometimes, but I don't make a habit of it," I answered. They all looked very disappointed.

By afternoon we were rolling across industrial Indiana. The questions kept coming: "How long do you think it will take you to get to California?" "Where will you sleep along the way?" "Aren't you afraid of being stranded in the desert?" I hadn't thought about these things, and although I tried to be nonchalant, the questions rang in my head like alarms. I unfolded my map and studied it. Hmmm. I thought Iowa was a small state, but on the map it looked enormous, vacant, frightening.

David's fraternity brothers were headed for their homes somewhere north of Chicago. Earlier, I had told them they could drop me off just beyond Gary, Ind. I thought about the 1,750 miles of hot pavement ahead of me and considered the bottoms of my moccasin slippers, purchased just a week earlier but already sprouting holes.
"Do you guys pass O'Hare Airport on your way home?" I asked them. "How about just letting me off there."