Thursday, December 26, 2013

They grow up much too fast

I drove through a fairly thick fog recently on my way out to the Plains Conservation Center to lead a naturalist walk, and it reminded me of a trip my son Al and I took one day years ago. I was in Socorro, NM, for a meeting at New Mexico Tech, and Al drove up from El Paso where he was working as a field geologist doing remediation work at a refinery there.

One of Al's favorite books during his undergraduate days was The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and it turned out that the weekend we were in Socorro was one of two weekends each year when the AEC opens the Trinity Site to visitors. We drove out there and were both in awe of the history of the place where we stood. I took some photos which I've since lost, but Al has framed on his wall at his home in Casper.

When we left the Trinity Site, we drove into fog and decided to climb up to the west of Socorro onto the Plain of San Augustin to the Very Large Array, a series of 27 radio telescopes that was featured in the Jodi Foster movie Contact way back in 1997. We drove up in fog through Magdalena Gap onto the high plateau and were still in fog. Anyway that thought triggered a poem in my mind that I've been working on and probably still needs some tweaks.

A Foggy Morning at the VLA

Thick fog rolls up through Magdalena Gap
and spills out onto the high desert Plain  
of San Agustin. The fog spreads beyond  
the low buildings at the center's parking lot.
A light breeze stirs and the thick fog thins.
The angular shape of a giant dish antenna,
a Cyclops, slowly appears. Soon another
and another appears until all twenty-seven
are there. They listen for faint radio signals
from the dark beyond the sun. Scientists
here watch and record the birth and death
of galaxies from millions of light years ago.

Those scientists also listen for alien voices,
hoping to discover life on distant planets.
But if we hear them, will we understand
them any better than those we hear today
from our own planet?

And then, as if by some sort of influence of the stars, I recently read a poem that talked about a son's voice breaking as he tried to sing, a sort of first sign of that terrible affliction called puberty. It reminded me of that time in Al's life. So I sat down and worked out a poem about that time in Al's life. Some sweet nostalgia for me here. 

The passing of innocence 
A chance reading of a poem this morning 
brought back a memory of my son when 
he sang in a middle school musical. 
His voice was pure and clear and high. 
He sang a minor part, but sang it well. 

On those nights during the drive home 
from visiting family, we would play 
a tape of the Nylons, a male group with 
one voice that reached falsetto highs. 
My son could sing there with him. 

One night we sang along as always, 
and at the point when we would quit 
and our son would sing up the ladder 
of notes, his voice faltered. We knew 
the age of innocence was behind him

And all this of course reminded me of a couple of pics of Al when he was still singing falsetto--almost said castrato, but that would embarrass him--so I'll say falsetto. In this first pic, he's standing on a rock by a waterfall during one of our favorite hikes. In the second pic he's fishing in the reservoir at the top of that hike, I think on a different hike. We got the tent set up on that hike just in time to hide from a hail storm which covers the ground and causes fog in the second pic. And yes, that's a fro on his little ole blonde head. I had one too then. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Visiting with an old friend

As we got ready to head for Denton, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving with our daughter, Barbara, her partner, Lisa, and our grandson, Louis, I thought I'd check on aviation museums in the Dallas area. I remembered reading somewhere that a museum or two in that area had Vietnam era airplanes. I wanted to find an O-1 or O-2 to show my family.

I discovered that the Cavanaugh Aviation Museum in Addison, a Dallas suburb, had a newly restored to flying condition O-2. I wrote to the museum and made arrangements to visit the museum and see the airplane. I was given a name of the maintenance director to meet on Friday. He was the man who oversaw the restoration of the bird and got it back into flying condition. He flies it in air shows and takes passengers on rides.

So, I visited the Cavanaugh on Friday after Thanksgiving and met with Russell Martin, the maintenance director. We spent about two hours looking at the O-2 and talking about flying the airplane and the missions we flew. I brought my logbook because I had flown this very airplane at Pleiku on a couple of night missions in early November, 67. I wanted to show Russell that I'd flown his airplane 46 years ago in Vietnam. That made the visit so much more meaningful for me and my family.

Here's a picture of me with 21334, the tail number of this O-2. It matches entries in my log book.

Barbara posed this picture to try to get me to look like a picture we've had of my in front of my O-1. 

Here's a picture of me and Kath during an emotional moment. I'm flooded with memories of those days of flying into Laos and getting scared and shot at regularly. 

Kath was emotional because I had been talking with Russell about some of the missions and the craziness of them and some of the really scary stuff. 

Here's another picture of me standing at the cockpit door. I had forgotten how small this bird is and how cramped we were flying for four or five hours in the pitch dark over the Laotian jungle looking for trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 

I've set up a nice relationship with this museum. I gave Russell a copy of my new book of poetry, We Leave the Safety of the Sea. The title poem in that book describes a mission I flew in North Vietnam in an O-2. And I will provide them some pictures and other materials to help them make their display more informative. All in all, a good visit to a museum. Now if I can sleep again, things will be better. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

The view from the middle of November

Monday was Veterans's Day, a day I spend remembering my brothers-in-arms who didn't come home, or who now have reached their "sell by" date and have left us. I've been having some trouble lately getting started with on poems, not being able to come up with ideas. And my muse seems to have been furloughed with the rest of the government and didn't come back yet.

So, I was reading a weekly poetry gathering called The Weekly Avocet, put together by a fellow poet, Charles Portolano. He suggests using a quote or a line of poetry as the starting point for a new poem.
The Writer's Almanac, a newsletter put out daily by Garrison Keillor mentioned the speech Shakespeare had Henry V make to his troops at Agincourt just before they are to go into battle against a far superior French army. One line from this speech "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" you'll recognize as containing the title of a fine movie about the infantry in WW II.

Henry V

"This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day." 

I thought I'd use that line as a point from which to write a poem for Veteran's Day. I took several days writing it, and it probably still needs some tweaks, but I'll post it here for now. I hate to put my poetry in the same post as lines from Shakespeare, but at least I used a good man for inspiration.

My band of brothers 
I meet them in the grocery store 
parking lot or the hardware store. 
I recognize them by a license plate, 
a window decal, a bumper sticker, 
the baseball caps they're wearing. 

We stop briefly to chat, sharing 
where we served, Quang Ngai, 
Can Tho, Cu Chi, An Khe, Saigon. 
We were there at different times 
and had very different duties, but 
we share a bond, we served our 
country and we are brothers. 

It was an unpopular war in which 
those called to duty came home to be 
spit upon, called vile names, shunned 
in polite society, never welcomed, made 
to suffer in silence and all alone. 

So today when we meet, and mention 
those days, backs straighten, eyes take on 
a look of pride, and we remember those 
we fought with, those who did not return. 
A nod and on our way, but not without 
saying, "Welcome home, Brother."

Middle of November is packed with meaning for me. November 10th is my mother's birthday as well as the birthday of the Marine Corps. And the 11th is Veteran's Day, and two weeks later from my mother's birthday, the 24th is the anniversary of her death, seven years ago this year. I wrote one of several poems about her death last year to remember it.

The Last Leaf to Fall 
The shadows of desiccated leaves, 
hanging from winter-bare branches, 
fluttered on the hospital floor 
the day my mother died. 

She was the last of her generation, 
outlived the rest by a dozen years. 
She often said "I want to be with Dad." 
Her last days were painful, hellish, 
spine curled, head bent to her knees. 
She was surrounded by other shriveled 
women and men, who, like the leaves, 
were barely hanging on. 

Perhaps she waited for us to visit her 
one last time. We held her hands 
all morning, begging her to let go. 
She did, but only after we left.
The same way a leaf will let go 
when no one is watching it.  

I'm also working on a poem that builds off a quote from Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, but that's for another time. We'll be off for Denton, TX, for Thanksgiving with family. Should be a good trip. Later! Probably some time in December. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The joyfulness of a beautiful fall

It's the last Sunday in October and we're about halfway through fall. It is probably the most beautiful fall I've seen here in Denver. Perhaps it's that I'm getting older and taking the days more slowly and enjoying them more. Perhaps it's all the rain we had a couple of months back, rain that washed towns away, flooded farm fields, and ruined crops that had finally grown after several years of drought. Nature sure can be fickle.

I saw a neighbor walking back to his house, camera in hand, earlier this afternoon and decided the fall was pretty enough to capture it with my camera. This first picture is from our front yard across the street to a fire red maple in that same neighbor's yard. The golden leaves in the foreground are from the maple in our yard. And the elm to the right is still green

Here's a haiku I wrote about that blood red maple:

blood red maple tree
bright among the pale gold elms
princess and her court

My neighbor Andrew across the street, has a burning bush in his yard that is as brilliant as I've ever seen it. We have a couple of small ones, but nothing like this.

Our maples are not red at all, but a wonderful gold when in the full sunlight. Here are two at the front of our yard flanking the house. Note the lawn is green, except covered by the fall leaves from our maples and linden. 

I drove to the Air Force Academy a couple of weeks ago to help celebrate the 90th birthday of Jesse Gatlin, a retired brigadier general, who was my boss at the English department at the Academy. I used to drive that stretch of I-25 every day when I lived in the Springs and worked in Denver. On the way down that day I noticed the wonderful carpet of gamble's oak on the sides of the hills and buttes along the way. I've never seen all the leaves turned a the same time. Usually some are already brown and falling when others reach their peak. On this trip all were at their peak. Absolutely breath taking. 

red yellow rust hills 
brilliant in afternoon sun
summer says good bye 

And the birds are fleeing south now. I was out on the prairie, leading a tour along a grassy trail in a arroyo when I happened to look up to see a flight of large birds. I yelled for everyone to look up, and we watched and listened to this:

eighteen sandhill cranes 
warbling south against strong wind 
they slide to the west 

And this occurred to me as it does every time I hear cranes overhead: 

sandhill cranes fly south 
their calls reach some ancient need 
we want to join them 

And early one morning outside my favorite Starbucks as I walked in and happened to look up at a movement in the sunrise that caught my eye:

light brushes crow's wing 
feathers gilt by rising sun 
an instant of joy

And this fall has been a long instant of joy for me. But summer hasn't completely turned its back on us. Here, in Kathy's garden is a blooming rose bush. Leftover joy. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The return of the prodigal son

I have been away from this blog now for a year, the last post coming at the end of October last year. I thought I'd pose as a member of congress and do nothing for a year. I'm just a junior member, of course, so I've only been at this doing nothing for a bit. And I don't have the flair of a Ted Cruz to make sure no others can do anything either. As a result of the dithering of our congress, my son, Al, and his wife, Les, and other friends we have at BLM in Casper, WY, are on furlough. And the national parks are shut, leaving one of the two routes into and out of Estes Park in Colorado closed--the route goes through the park on Trail Ridge Road.

During a large part of this past year I have been stuck with my poetry, only recently getting more written. One of the first ones I did write, came to me as I read something about the Cuban Missile Crisis way back in October, 1962. I was in the Air Force then and flying KC-135 Tankers then. We were on alert almost constantly and when we weren't, we flew missions to refuel B-52s who carried nuclear bombs and were constantly aimed at the USSR and it's allies. Here's a picture of a refueling.

We did all our refueling then at night because of the dictates of those particular mission. Doing this in the dark over the Atlantic Ocean was exciting, to say the least.

The days were tense because of the quarantine our Navy put around Cuba to stop Russian cargo ships carrying missiles to Cuba. The missiles were capable of putting nuclear warheads on the US, and the tension between the two nations was severe. Here's the poem I wrote to try to capture the feelings we crew members had then.

October 24, 1962, 3:45 AM 
We’re headed west at forty thousand feet 
above the blackness of Atlantic cold. 
A tiny light on the ocean miles below 
marks a freighter bound for who knows where, 
and blinking red and green lights just ahead
come from another tanker just like us. 
An hour ago, we each were pumping fuel 
into an eight-jet bomber with a crew 
of six and bellies crammed with atom bombs. 

While thousands of miles away, directly south,
a fleet of Russian boats draws near a line 
of US warships who have quarantined 
Cuba’s ports. If the ships don’t turn around, 
the bombers we refueled will fly on east, 
descend, and level Russian cities with 
their nuclear bombs. And as their bombs explode, 
Soviet missiles will land on bases we 
are headed for, and vaporize them, with 
our loved ones, in a sun-bright flash of light. 

We cruise along this quiet night, maintain 
our altitude, our thoughts, unspoken fears,
and pray the light we see this coming dawn 
will be the peaceful sunrise in the east. 

My poetry has picked up again lately. Events have been triggering events from my past and they have formed the basis of my work. A friend and I were talking about how our dogs behaved and I remembered a husky we had years ago. She was about the size of a coyote and not an indoor dog or even much of a family dog. But she and I used to run together, miles and miles on weekends. Here are my memories of her and our having to put her down when her arthritis got too painful.

Tara's Call of the Wild 
I lift our husky onto the vet's table,
careful not to put pressure on her 
arthritic hips. she lays quietly as if 
knowing what's about to happen.
I speak softly, hand on her flank. 
The vet holds the needle, searches 
for a vein and slides it in. He looks 
at me and I nod. A few shallow 
breaths and then a long, last exhale. 
I cry as I feel her go still, something 
she never does on our morning runs. 

Tara pulls hard on the leash 
to get me to run faster to the spot 
where I slip off the leash to let her 
run freely. She runs through meadows 
finding things to investigate, coyotes
to play with, Hereford bulls to chase 
away to protect me. 

She often doesn't come when I 
call her to slip the leash back on. 
She gives me her Mona Lisa smile 
and runs off to spend the next three 
or four days visiting ranches. 
A call. Tara is at their ranch. 
She smiles as I put her in the car, 
happy with her days of freedom.  

When I feel her relax, her last breath 
gone, I know her wild animal spirit 
is now free to roam meadows, forever 
smiling, running, chasing, never 
coming to my call to go back home. 

I think another reason I was stuck--and stand by for some shameless self promotion--is that I had a chapbook accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press in Georgetown, KY. The poems are those of my days of combat in Vietnam and the memories and flashbacks and nightmares those days triggered over the years.

The book is called We Leave the Safety of the Sea and can be ordered directly from Finishing Line at When you get to the website, search for Elser in the search field at the top of the page.

It is now fall, we've had our first frost--I spent part of the morning cutting down the tomato bushes that have given us lots of yummy fruit for the past weeks. They were slow getting started because of cool weather, but then a burst of high 80 degree and some 90 degree days got them ripe.