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 We generally do not publish routine D.U.I. arrests unless they involve a vehicular accident or some unusual circumstance, because there are so many of these, and we actually hear about only a fraction of them, and many of the charges are withdrawn.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.