Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why You Should Watch MAN OF STEEL


I finally got around to watching Superman MAN OF STEEL on DVD. I had intended to watch it in the theater but it came and went with the speed such movies do these days. We can no longer count on even a few months run in local theaters anymore. Too bad because this is the sort of movie that should be seen in a big screen to be fully appreciated.

My HD computer monitor and surround speakers did a pretty good job of presenting the movie anyway.  However you watch it, make a point of seeing this movie at least once; it should not disappoint.

No Spoiler Alerts

I hate it when people try to be clever or gain more attention to their blogs by spilling the beans about great movie elements meant to be a surprise. In this case there aren’t any. Anyone already familiar with the Superman mythos from the comic books or having seen the previous movies knows all of the things in this movie storyline. You might even recognize some parts of previous films woven into this movie.

One thing you likely have not seen before is good, quality acting. Most of the previous incarnations of Superman were either campy or deliberately comic. Not so this time. MAN OF STEEL was put together by people who respected the story and respect the audience. I am long past tired of Hollywood morons who want to “humanize” a superhero. Kind of negates the whole “escapist fantasy,” doesn’t it?

But this acting – I don’t usually care much for it in action films but this is so much better because of the dedication and effort the actors put in. Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent: works. Russell Crowe as Jor El: works. Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White: works. The biggest treat for me in the whole film is, Amy Adams works as Lois Lane.

My Least Favorite Character

I have not like Lois Lane in any of her incarnations, whether animated, sketched or performed live. She comes across as an arrogant, reckless brat who thinks she is always right but invariably gets trapped in lethal situations. Most of the time I wished Superman would be too busy saving someone else to get around to saving that woman again for like the 90,000th time.

Ms. Adams’ Lois is not so brash. When she is in danger here it is natural to the story and her profession. More than that, her reactions to the various reveals in the movie are natural, the way most people would react when confronted with the reality of an alien living amongst us. I simply like her—that’s a first.

Not So Special Effects

One of the things that jumps out at you about the MAN OF STEEL is the way the effects seem to fit in the story. What I have termed “Organic Effects”, the way Superman’s powers and the technology of Krypton appears in the movie is interesting without being gaudy.

Since the advent of the STAR WARS phenomenon we have endured decades of big budget sci fi adventure movies with special effects storming the screen with all the subtlety of a carnival huckster. The movie pauses while the effects showcase their dazzling presence. The MATRIX movies were perhaps first to weave the effects into the movie but they were still a bit too eye-popping. When the movie ended most conversation revolved around the effects. Story and acting lagged far behind.

Krypton, My Home

I have to applaud another change brought to this movie. The creators made an effort to fill out the Kryptonian homeworld. Gone are the widespread, sterile crystal spires of the previous film. It looked like an advanced world a sci fi reader would expect to see. A world possessed of native flora and fauna, topography and most importantly, a culture.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67IsappPu1QAdditionally, Kryptonians had passion. Like humans, they suffered from ambition, arrogance, self-delusion and other failings sentient beings can fall prey to. No matter which side you agree with, it is nice to see plausible arguments and protests presented. The villains in the story didn’t see themselves as villains but as beings possessed of a singular, noble vision. The story is more real for it.


Clark Kent

There is nothing else to add about the movie except to address the most glaring failing of all other versions of the story. Everyone in our world wonders how nobody in his world could make the connection between Clark and Superman. In this movie, some do – and the story is better for it.

There are a few nods to past versions of the Superman
story. However, the scenes are much more subtle and only noticeable by devoted fan boys. Instead of the heavy-handed homage to STAR TREK II: The Wrath of Khan seen in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK: Into Darkness, we see the shadings of the characters from SUPERMAN II on screen here. I liked it. I like the nod to the previous characters and like the fact that they did it without flashing a big blinking arrow at each of them.

In summary, the movie works – works far better than all other movies on this topic combined. General Zod talks about building a new Krypton on the foundation of Earth’s ruin. This movie will be the foundation of a series of very well made movies certain to please, certain to thrill and certain to be as exciting as anything else you are going to see. Someone has finally done justice to the man who fought for -

 

“Truth, Justice and the American way.”

Remenberances of Christmas Past

I have listened for days now while people shared the list of modest but welcome Christmas gifts. It's all we can afford now.

I think back to the "bad old days" when America was ruled by those "Evil Republicans" - you know, the guys who only cared about making the Rich Richer. So the Democrats told us constantly in their attacks on Bushes and Reagan.

I also remember the Christmases we endured back then. When all we had to look forward to was a new XBOX, Nintendo, PC or car. When lines at the store were long and the cash register constantly rang. The economy buzzed along and new gadgets came out just in time for the holidays. It was overt consumerism, true, but was that worse than it is now?

Liberals want you to think rich people take too much from society. They have a lot, yes, but they also employ a lot of us. We lived a pretty good life with our share of the American pie. Liberals simply could not stand to see so many of us content to merely have a comfortable life with families living together, loving each other and peace in our homes. They had to do something.

They gave us Hope and Change. Obama's plan to make all employees government workers and the rest government dependents has left us in this state. And next year will be worse. Once Obamacare kills the remaining industrial sector you can best believe there will be no paychecks to buy products, no workers to make products and no carriers to deliver products.

We will have taxes on what we make and fines heaped on what's left. The government will have the whole pie and we will have nothing left. The only place Merry next year will be Washington DC. The rest of us are screwed unless we take action before then. I'm not placing my faith in the American people to do what is necessary; they are too easily distracted.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A (Navy) Way of Life


Doing Simple things the Right Way

I always fold the clothes after they come out of the dryer a certain way; the same way every time. When I get up in the morning I put the bed together neatly with all the seams aligned to the edges of the mattress. I feel good starting my day in a neat, orderly room without a lot of clutter. That certainly makes it easy to find what you are looking for most of the time.

Once in a while I reflect on why I maintain these habits. It would be easy to credit my career in the Navy but it is actually much deeper than that. I have been cleaning my room like this since I was old enough to stand up and open a drawer without help.

I can remember standing in my pajamas next to the foot of our bed, my older brother on the other corner as we did our juvenile best to stand at attention. My brother would call “Atten-hut!” in his best voice as dad came in the room. Sergeant Johnson, 101st Airborne, (“Daddy” to us), would enter the room and conduct an inspection. All toys were neatly put away, the floor swept and the bed was folded down ready for two little troopers. After we passed inspection our NCO would pick us up and tuck us in for the night. Lights out and we faded off to sleep before Taps sounded on the base.

The Navy Way

Almost four decades ago I reported for boot camp at Orlando, Florida. The whole experience was not as big a shock to me as it was for virtually all of my bunkmates that first night. I grew up in an Army family and took three years of AJROTC at a Department of Defense Dependents School (DODDS) in West Germany. (That's me, 2nd from the right, not yet at attention before the photo snapped.)

That experience made my classmates and me acutely aware of the state of politics in the world. We were mere hours away from the Iron Curtain and only a few minutes by missile flight time from being vaporized. All of the bases we called home were under the shadow of nuclear annihilation.
 
American civilians had the luxury of thinking they might not be hit; we were certain the Russians would hit us before the world even knew war had begun. That was our reality, our shared backdrop to the turbulent decade of the seventies.
Naturally, I wanted to sign up for service as soon as I was of age. I looked around at the sloppy, slouching, uncaring generation back in the States and knew they wouldn’t lift a finger to defend their country. Thus it was that while Barack Obama was killing brain cells with pot on some Hawai’ian beach I was in boot camp learning to do things the Navy way.
“There’s the military and there’s the Navy, don’t get the two confused.” Someone told me that while screaming in my face that humid fall in Florida. I didn’t need the reminder. The culture in the sea-going service is a far cry from the olive drab reality of my life up until that point. It was more than the strange rank structure (petty officer third class instead of corporal, for instance), it was the whole attitude.

Even before marching in formation at graduation I noticed the whole class distinction that came with Navy rank. Men of the same unit but different ranks seldom socialized like they did on Army posts. My suspicions were confirmed a few months later at “A” school up in Illinois.

Machinist Mate “A” School in Great Lakes was an unremarkable period in my life. It was self-paced back then and I breezed through the various phases as quickly as they could find an opening for me. Only seating availability and the blizzard of 78-79 slowed me down. That and having my wisdom teeth pulled. And I still took a final exam in Basic Engineering before the school would let me go back to the barracks and sleep off the pain-killers (that 93% grade wrecked my GPA; but I’m not mad.)

The lower ranks in the Navy—the E-1 through E-3 pay grades—were called “non-rates” where ratings mean a specific job skill. They are the ones who did menial tasks like mowing lawns, washing dishes and (in the winter) shoveled snow.

On graduation day for my “class” (self-paced, remember?) I sat sewing on my Machinist Mate 3rd Class patch on my shirt for the day1.  A chief petty officer came through the barracks grabbing everyone in sight to go out and shovel the sidewalks. He peeked in my room, saw what I was doing and took all of my roommates leaving me comfortably warm inside. Rank hath its privileges in every service; nowhere more so than in the US Navy.

Underway – All the Time

Eventually I got out in to the “real Navy,” that is on a ship that sails away. All of that boot camp nonsense about folding clothes “just so” actually had a real purpose. As an enlisted Sailor I lived in a very tiny piece of a very large ship.
My bed (called a rack) was one of three in a stack on either side of a very narrow space. Racks are generally enclosed on five of six sides with curtains covering the one open side for what is jokingly called “privacy.” It is barely longer than I am tall and a couple inches wider than my shoulders. For good reasons Sailors call the racks coffins.
Our personal space included a locker the same area as the rack about six inches deep. Add a tiny stand-up locker and you have all the space you could have to store uniforms, toiletries and a few items of civilian attire required in many ports of call. By folding clothes the Navy way you could maximize the space and tightly pack all of your items yet still have them accessible.
This also permitted you to have more space for personal items like books and videos (VHS in my day—electronic toys for the modern fleet). We could also pack away the goodies purchased in foreign ports for family back home.

Home is where your Geedunk is

I don’t miss the Navy life. The hours were too long, the separation from family was no treat for anyone, and I won’t comment on the food. After fifteen years I hardly think about it at all until someone mentions a ship at the VA or on Veteran’s Day when people pretend to care. It is when I get up in the morning and start putting hospital corners on my bed. When I open a drawer of underwear and see them stacked in a vertical row like slices of bread – that’s when I think how much Navy is still a part of me even when I don’t think about it.


[Note1: for those curious about how I could have gotten promoted so soon after joining, I was in an advanced technical field that guaranteed E-4 after completion of “A” school.]

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS


I finally went to see this latest offering from JJ Abrams in the theatre with my wife. I have been hesitant to view any of the rebooted series since I saw Chris Pine as Kirk in the first movie. It is not that the movies are not entertaining or even visually appealing. There are serious flaws in the way science is done in these new movies and that offends the sci fi writer and reader in me.
Hardcore Trekkies

We are a mature group. Many of us have been fans of STOS since it aired in 1966. Others have been born into the series in the past four decades. Many scientists and engineers joined NASA as a result of watching many hours of episodes growing up. We talked about the show, discussed the ships, politics and personalities at length.
The show is at heart about using science to move people through space and help them accomplish their tasks. People have published serious papers discussing the technology of STAR TREK. Much of our technology in use today was inspired by Kirk flipping open a communicator and Spock wirelessly communicating with the server with his tricorder PDA. Dr. “Bones” McCoy using noninvasive scanners to perform medical diagnoses led to CAT scanners and PET scans.

A Non-Rant

Bloggers love to spend pages bloviating about their pet peeves. I am not going to do that here (or anywhere, that is only interesting to the person ranting). I just want to point out that the new movies have introduced some technical leaps that are going to present problems in the future.

One problem is Warp Speed. The movies make it look great! I get a speed demon’s thrill every time the Big E leaves glowing skid marks across the heavens. The problem is too much speed. If the ship can sail from Earth to Kronos (capital world of the Klingon Empire) and spend hours there and still make it back to Earth in the same day, then that is one fast ship!
What is all this speed going to mean for the series going forward? What is the point of going on a “five-year mission” if you can be back on Earth by tomorrow morning from anywhere in the galaxy? Even in the Next Generation traveling between stars still took a long time and they had moved beyond what was called trans-warp in Kirk’s day. Suffice it to say “they got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

Non Spoiler

They did a good job keeping the identity of the villain of the show a secret before release. And it is a rather good moment in the movie when you find out who he is. I am not going to ruin that here by spoiling the surprise; I’m sure there are plenty of blogs out there shouting it from the title forward, but this isn’t one of them. All I will say is I liked the way the character was portrayed and how he fit into the story. He has almost a Darth Vader quality to him (before Lucas wimped the character out by making him a whining, love-struck teenager).

A point about the Starfleet characters. They are new versions of the old familiars ones. I feel they are sometimes a bit overdone but they are slowly growing on me. Lt. Uhuru is featured more than Nichelle Nichols ever was but this outing is a bit over the top. My favorite is "Bones" McCoy, the cantankerous doctor. He has made every scene memorable with skillful performances instead of obviously "acting the part."

Still waiting for Kirk to man up and stop being a punching bag for the galaxy. Captain Pike even commented on it in the movie.
My Ship

Almost every trekkie feels like a member of the crew. As someone who has actually served in the engineroom of one the real ships named ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) I feel a special kinship with the red shirts.
Abrams does a good job of capturing the industrial, utilitarian feel of a large ship meant to sail in hostile environments. It’s a far cry from the comfortable opulence of the Galaxy-class ENTERPRISE-D for the Next Generation.
My one complaint is: Stop tearing up my ship!” Even Scotty has that complaint after returning to the ship after a brief absence. Please, guys, she cannot take much more of this.

Go or No Go?

Definitely go see it. Some movies work just as well over a tablet or a giant flat screen home theatre system. Unless yours is a monster 60’+ you just won’t capture the scope and feel of the movie. Whether you are an old trekkie like me or just coming around from Harry Potter you’ll have a good time with this movie. Just don’t think too deeply about the science until after the show.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Black Culture in America: Who Did This to Us?


There was once a time when young Black men like me were taught the importance of getting an education, getting a job and maintaining a neat appearance. We emphasized good grooming and tried to present a neat appearance at all times. (“No one wants to hire a bum, especially not a Black bum!”)

Whenever we got off the ship during my Navy days it was called “liberty.” Once in a while, the required standard for liberty dress was raised without warning. The typical White Sailor of the time preferred the same outfit most of the time: tee-shirt, ball cap, jeans and sneakers. Sometimes that didn’t cut it and they had to scramble to find suitable attire.

These men glared angrily at the Black Sailors as we were let off the ship. We were not being given special privileges, we were simply appropriately dressed. Rewind two hours earlier before liberty call. Down in berthing the Black Sailors were shaving, showering, selecting a proper outfit for the evening and of course, trimming our hair.
The White Sailors were slouched in the lounge waiting for the clock to run down to freedom. No, it wasn’t favoritism; it was being properly groomed no matter the occasion. Our mothers and fathers taught us that.

Little Jayvon

I saw a handsome young boy in McDonald’s today. He must have been about six or seven years old. He had that calm, placid observant look that naturally intelligent children have. Watching the world, waiting to see what it holds for them as they journey through life.

He also had a head of long, intricate braids pulled back into a ponytail cascading down his back. I wasn’t sure if it was his natural hair (it was not his natural color-light brown tending towards blonde) or if someone had taken him in for a very expensive bonding session. He looked good but I have been plagued by questions from the moment I saw him.

What is expected of him now? What can he do? Looking back over my own childhood I can hardly imagine running, playing, climbing rocks and trees with such things in my hair. Neither do I think the women who coifed him would be pleased if he came home sweaty and dirty as boys his age are inclined to do. So I wondered, “What does he do?”

What is the future for this boy?

He is maturing around women, no male role-model in his life to mentor him, dressed like a doll in someone’s collection and not allowed to play or encouraged to study. He is being taught the importance of looking good at all times and praised for it daily. But nowhere is he being taught the value of being a man.

I see older versions of him walking around the streets daily. Sagging pants, stoop-shouldered and tattooed; they walk aimlessly from one uninteresting place to no place in particular. Life after high school is empty for these boy-men. Unless they have a woman willing to care for them as the single mothers and aunts have done in the past, these lost souls have no future.

Go back to the boy with the braids then look at the 19 year old behind bars or serving food at KFC and wonder “Is this the best we can do?”

Corporate Role Models

The nation is full of successful Black men for these boys to look up to, but nowhere are they presented where they can have a positive effect. Tattooed thugs, gangsta rappers, wild athletes and criminals dominate the media. Even the highest paid, most talented Black men don’t make the news for long unless they are involved in criminal or sexual behavior.

Tiger Woods, for example dominated the gentile sport of golf for a decade. He was only really in the paper when he won some tournament or made a great shot but the limelight quickly faded as he was simply too “clean cut” for the masses.

Once his marriage exploded and his sexual misconduct came to light then Tiger Woods had a place in our culture. How is that possible? Why is it a Black man cannot do anything significant unless it involves screwing someone?

Our culture sexualizes Black people. We never talk about it, here at least, but foreigners see it clearly and are not shy about discussing the topic. I have been told quite a lot by the people I have met during my own global travels. From Asia to Europe and everywhere in between, the people see Black Americans held up as a sexual ideal and examples of physical perfection. So why do we not see or hear that here?

Sidney Poitier

According to his biography, Sidney Poitier is "a native of Cat Island, the Bahamas, (though born in Miami during a mainland visit by his parents), Poitier grew up in poverty as the son of a dirt farmer. He had little formal education and at the age of 15 was sent to Miami to live with his brother in order to forestall a growing tendency toward delinquency. In the U.S., Poitier first experiencedthe racial chasm that divides the country, a great shock to a boy coming from a society with an African American[sic] majority. A determination to find and create opportunities for African Americans was born in him because of the poor treatment he received on the streets of Miami."

Sidney Poitier went about changing the perception of Blacks in America through the characters he portrayed in his movie roles and in how he conducted his personal life. He is no saint but he is more remembered as a dapper, handsome, well-spoken educated Black man which is far better than the thug and clown roles more common for Black actors of his era.
 
I remember him as most people do in his roles as an educated man in a suit. Clean and intelligent; he looked like he belonged no matter the setting. His smart demeanor removed all excuses for exclusion. The White majority was forced to fall back on their own simple prejudices to block his progress. Many chose to release their bigotry rather than embrace it.

That was a contribution to our cause. And it was an example of how racism can be fought successfully. Not with violence or rebellion but with passive excellence in the style of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was also a man of character and stature.

Life was not easy or perfect for either one – certainly not for Dr. King – but it was a sacrifice they made for us to have a chance at a better life today. And what has become of that chance? Sagging pants, tattooed faces, missed education, broken families and crime are all we have to show for the opportunities bought by the pain of Civil Rights.

Dathans Among Us

I will address who a “Dathan” is in another article. Suffice it to say, he was a character portrayed by Edward G. Robinson in the movie THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. His goal in life was to live comfortably among the Egyptians by helping to keep his own people in slavery. Once they were freed, he did all in his power to deliver them back to Pharaoh so that he could go back to his privileged life.

Black Americans have many such people laboring daily to ensure Blacks never rise to a level of excellence rivaling their White neighbors. Russell Simmons, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and the entire hip hop industry exist to market failure in the Black community. What is sold as “our style” is really nothing of the sort. More often than not, the Blacks portrayed on screen and the media are molded to fit someone else's perception of what it means to "be Black."
We had a glorious past filled with influential musicians who made the world that much better for everyone. Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and other songstresses made a career without sexualizing themselves. Great music came out of our homes and clubs through labels like STAX and MOTOWN without one mention of the “n-word.” The songs were not pure or puritanical but they certainly did not serve to degrade the morals and self-esteem of an entire generation. The worst fears of Whites who opposed “Jungle music” when rock and roll was being born have now come to fruition.

What now?

I worry less about the moral decay than I do about the simple lack of drive, the lack of vision. When asked where they expect to be in five years most young Black men today would answer “Jail.” Many would be surprised if they are still alive.

What future does Little Jayvon have and who will be in his life to help guide him to it?

One thing I do know is what happens to the Black community eventually spreads to everyone else. Young White boys sag their trousers without the slightest idea where the practice came from (prison – with its purpose of making homosexual rape that much easier and escape for the victim that much harder).

I would rather we had a new fade of emulating the best of our predecessors instead of the worst. Imagine if high school boys embraced a fad of wearing suits to school regularly and getting high grades. The worst thing that could happen is they would find themselves fit for hire and (much better) capable of starting their own companies.

It always comes down to numbers. A tall, talented boy with a basketball has a 2% chance of making it in pro sports. But a boy of any size with a love of books has a good chance at going to college. A boy with an engineering degree has an 80% chance at a high paying job and almost 100% chance of avoiding poverty.

Don’t give Jayvon braids, give him a book.

Friday, December 7, 2012

I am a Writer

Seems funny to say that after so many years of trying to develop. At first it was only an affirmation of desire, an attempt to bolster flagging confidence. Then it became a reality. I published a book and people bought it. Not enough to make me rich (not even close!) but enough to see there is a market for the kind of writing I like to do.

Recently a dear friend's daughter chose to do a bio piece on me for a school project. I was flattered and happily complied. Since we lived far apart I took her questions online. I would draft an autobiographical essay of sorts to address a category of interest.

One essay concerned growing up an Army brat in the Vietnam War era. Another dealt with my experiences as a Sailor in the Navy while yet a third covered my post service life. The following gave her insight into how I came to love sitting in front of a glowing screen clattering away at the keys in my own way trying to tell yet another story in an interesting way. This is my journey to being a writer.

I am a Writer
 

Writing is something I love to do . . . now. I didn’t always feel that way about it. Growing up I didn’t like it much. I preferred drawing and speaking; I told my stories verbally and with pictures. Writing was too slow for me.

Yes I loved to tell stories. It grew out of my love for books that predates kindergarten. Our parents were denied access to education and recreational reading material. Here in the South the prevailing attitude was that a Black person (“neegrah” if they chose to be polite in those days) should have only as much knowledge as they needed to perform the functions assigned to them. My parents both thirsted for more and read everything they could get their hands on. When they got married they seemed to have a pact that their children would never lack for stimulation from the written word.

 

The Process

            How the story gets on to the page varies from writer to writer. Some are meticulous planner. They create a detailed outline and only then begin to build the story. Some imagine the story in their minds first, then sit and pour the story out in one continuous first draft.

I fall somewhere in between. I begin with a basic framework for a story and as I write I fill in the gaps as needed. Writing is a journey of discovery for me. I know where I am going but not exactly how I am going to get there. The way I described my writing to my wife is “I am not the writer exactly, I am the first reader.”

I recall writing my first novel, marketed [as a trilogy for the KINDLE] under the title of TULA WARS. I needed to move the main character with a group of officers across a university campus. I could have simply left it there but life is seldom simple. There is a dynamic tension between people in everyday life. All that is needed is a word or a look to spark an encounter for good or ill. Placing military men on a campus is a scene pregnant with impact that should be examined.

I set up a confrontation between anti-war protesters and the service men and wrote it through. I imagined a young man speaking rashly to the officers then losing his nerve. I had a woman step up defiantly only to be stunned by what she heard. I left her to ponder what she now knew.

Much later in the book (note: published  in book three in the series) I wrote about my character back in the military and forming a company of soldiers. He got a group of the first female soldiers to be trained in the use of battle armor. He and his staff interviewed the women to identify those who had the greatest potential for leadership to place as squad leaders. One very impressive candidate stood out above the rest. When Captain Alex Phelan asked the final question, “Who in the galaxy talked you into doing anything as silly as running around in powered armor getting shot at by giant insects?” She answered “You did.”

I was as surprised as my character as I wrote the words. She goes on to explain that she was the student from the college campus so long ago. She looked different now. Her hair military short; older, wiser and much fitter than she’d been as a civilian student. She had matured, finished her studies and graduated. She had never forgotten the words he had told her and was disgusted that so many of her male friends just did not have the courage of their convictions. Even the professors seemed to shy away from putting body behind word when it counted. If those men would not do their duty to protect the species then she needed to be around a better class of men.

Often my stories stem from my vivid dreams. I feel fortunate in that I dream in color and can retain large portions of those dreams when I wake up. The dreams are also experiential. That is I exist inside of the dream, sometimes as an invisible observer of other “people” and sometimes as myself participating in the events. I can also be others in my dreams.

Another source of stories is the “what if” question. What if the Russians had attacked in 1962? What if I had joined the Army instead of the Navy? What if the South had won the Civil War?  That is called speculative fiction and is popular in the Alternate History genre now. I ponder a “What if” question and let the story flow from there.

 Writing for fun and profit

One of the biggest obstacles to writing was technology. I could not drag a clunky typewriter around the world as part of my kit and I did not like the idea of trying to keep track of reams of handwritten manuscripts. Just the thought of creating a 200-page novel by hand still makes my wrists ache.

My early development was stymied by that problem, slow and painful hand writing manuscripts. That is why I started out with short stories. In 1988 I wrote my first sci fi short. Worst piece of fiction, ever! Fortunately, I was dating a very good editor at the time that tore it to pieces! I started all over and got better with each try. Before I went back to sea I bought a “small” portable electric typewriter with a tiny, 1-line LCD screen. It could display an entire sentence (if it were short) so I could proof it before printing. It was primitive but a huge step up.

The neatness and appearance of my writing also improved. After I left the Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, I went to a tender in the Repair Department. I found I had plenty of time to write when we were at sea. We had no repairs to do while underway and I did not have to stand engineering watches. It was like a vacation for me after three carrier tours.

We had a journalist on board and he started going over my writing for me. One evening while I was delivering my latest sci fi piece to him I passed the captain sitting in his office. He was a nice guy and I was pleased when he called me in. He was pleased to see that I was pursuing a writing career and asked to read my work as well.

He said, “I sit here largely bored because everyone is terrified to tell me anything.” Fortunately, I am not intimidated by anyone and love to talk to everyone. From that night onward I would stop by with my latest work and sit and chat with him about it.

Not long after we began the XO, the second in command, came during one of our chats. The captain explained he was proofing my writing. The XO thought some of the other officers would like to pitch in to help me develop. Now I had to print three copies of anything I wrote and deliver: one to the captain, the second to the wardroom and the third to the journalist. That got expensive for ribbon until we got a copier! But I greatly improved my style in that year on board which I consider a good thing.

I long for that quality of feedback today now that I am more established. The captain usually sent his copy back with comments. The most common being, “Great story, but too short. Make it longer!”

With his encouragement I increased a short story (On Sparta) from 3,000 words to 32,000. Now I have gone back to that story and made it the background of a novel currently in progress.

Game Master

I came to writing through two paths. The first was most obvious. I was a military brat and writing letters was a big part of our youth. We didn’t have texting or emails in those days. The only way to keep in touch with dear friends from our last post was via snail mail. It was also often our only link to our fathers who were often deployed to the war.

At one point I had a lot of pen pals all over the world: four in the Philippines, four in Germany, two in New Zealand, two in France and five more in other countries (all girls, of course!) I kept getting compliments on how my letters seemed like mini stories. I later took that to heart and considered the profession.

Also, during that time we had little to do with our time while on deployments on the ships. No video games, no DVD players – we barely had computers them. One of my coworkers brought a Commodore 64 with its massive 4” screen. Not much to do so we did what most people in my age group did, we played Dungeons & Dragons. We didn’t know as much then as we do now.

Fortunately, that was not the only RPG around. More games came out over the next few years. The ones I enjoyed the most were space-based sci fi games like TRAVELLER, RIFTS, ROBOTECH and STAR TREK.

Sometimes it was hard to find a game to join even on a crowded ship stuck at sea. One of the main things you look for in any games is a consistent game master whose style you were comfortable with. All too often you had a person running the game who enjoyed the “god-like” power over the domain he created and the poor souls submitting to his authority. Having a longtime character killed off on a capricious whim from some smirking idiot soured many people on gaming.

It didn’t take long before people realized I had potential to be a game master. I subbed for the GM a few times and was widely praised. I invested in a few books to learn what was actually a subtle art of game mastering with a light touch. The best GMs were actually nearly invisible to the game itself. The players played their roles and their decisions shaped the course of the game. I only provided the framework of the world their characters inhabited.

My most memorable experience was my single adventure run as a STAR TREK game master. I set the characters on a frontier world inhabited by a group of disenchanted Black intellectuals. They had fled Earth a century earlier and set up an advanced society based on the sciences. In time their world became important to both the Klingons and the Federation. It was a world that could not be easily conquered so diplomacy was important to resolve the challenge.

The players spent the next three days dealing with the locals, justifying the Federation claims of peace while having a long history of war. They also had to discover and foil a plot by younger scientists to overthrow their government (aided by the Klingons).

At the end of each session each player had homework. It was usually in the form of questions asked of them by the scientists. They didn’t have to do it. But the success of the mission depended on each member doing their part. So no one could sit back and say, “I’m only the communications officer” and role dice once in a while to see if they managed to make a phone call. Everyone had a part to play.

At the end of the long last day the players were exhausted; and thrilled! They said it was the best game they had every played of any kind, ever! They never saw my hand guiding events, never heard ominous dice roles after any given decision. It was simply a face to face encounter with fate every time we chatted. To them it was gaming; to me it was storytelling.

That is how I began building stories. I start with a premise, the question of “what if.” I build a framework for the setting. Then I set my characters free to explore the world and create their fate. All of their successes add up but challenges always loom. There are a few basic rules I have for writing that apply no matter what genre I am writing in:

1.      never kill a character unnecessarily

2.      make each death count

3.      only stupidity is instantly fatal and

4.      people learn more from their failures than they do from successes

 That last can be understood simply. If what you do works, you’ll do it the same way next time and the time after that. If what you normally do fails then you are forced to reevaluate your strategy and formulate alternatives. You have learned something new, overcome an obstacle and become more flexible. That is character development, in writing and in life. Those are the most successful stories to sell and the most satisfying of lives to live.

The Beginning

Writing is a tough road to travel. Ask anyone who has ever tried to pursue it. The percentage of "overnight successes" in this business is the same as hall pf fame quarterbacks in the NFL compared to the number of total boys playing high school football; far less than one in a million.

Still it is my chosen life. I do it not just for the money but because I love it. I have lived an interesting life and have always enjoyed relating stories about the people, places and odd things I've seen. If I never sold another book (Lord above forfend!) I would still do this. That makes all the difference between wanting to be a writer and being a writer.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

USS ENTERPRISE Nuclear Chemistry Emergency


I served four tours on three ships in my Navy career: USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) twice, USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (CVN-72), and USS SAMUEL GOMPERS (AD-37). I traveled to many parts of the world, mostly in Asia, though I rode the Enterprise through the Suez Canal for my first return trip to Europe. Out of all the “adventures” the Navy gave me, I consider this one the defining moment of my career. Now, with twenty years of perspective I wonder if I handled it properly.


Let me start by saying no radioactive material leaked out of the reactor plant and no one was injured in this incident. The main goal of maintaining the state of chemistry in the water in a nuclear power plant is so the parts of it do not rust or wear out. In addition, tiny bits of rust passing through a reactor core become dangerously radioactive.

So it is in the best interest of the operators and the general public to keep the water as pure and as free of acid as possible. I worked in the division (shop) whose job it was to monitor and adjust chemistry when needed for the eight reactors powering the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65).

            We add several different chemicals to adjust the pH or the water and to scavenge oxygen. When pH is high (well above 7) and no oxygen is present then metal is much slower to rust despite being in close contact with water. That is why the Enterprise has lasted with more or less the same engine rooms and reactor plants for coming up on 52 years!

Background

I joined the Navy’s nuclear power program before I graduated high school.  I shipped out to boot camp in Orlando, Fla. at the end of the summer. Nine weeks later I went to my first school in Great Lakes, Illinois. I completed that school and three more besides in the next two years in Orlando and New York before finally reporting to the ENTERPRISE in the shipyards in Puget Sound, Washington.

By the time of this incident in 1984, I was on my second tour on the ENTERPRISE and attained the rank of first class petty officer. I was in charge of the Aft Chemistry Group; that is the two plants near the back of the ship. We had responsibility over four of the reactors and 16 of the steam generators. Six teams of two rotated keeping watch over the operating plants in each group around the clock every day the ship is on its own power.

The Incident

One day while the ship operated in coastal waters near California I received a call from my team on watch in the morning. The Top Watch (the senior member of the team) informed me that he had an out of spec chemistry problem. He gave me the numbers and told me he had made a mistake. The plant was supposed to go online earlier that day and he had prepared chemistry to support it.

Now when you open the steam valves of a reactor the chemicals in the water seem to disappear. They don’t really but they are not in the steam the way you want them to be. So after we bring a plant online we add more chemicals, which my team did.

Unfortunately, the plant shut down immediately after that which brought all the previous chemicals out of hiding. It took more than three hours for all of my teams working together to get things back to normal.

Aftermath

Normally when incidents happen a report has to be filed. The supervisor gathers the logs and statements and submits a written report that makes its way to the high offices of the Navy Yard. However in this case, the Chemistry officer insisted I give an oral report to the senior navy staff on board the ship. I suspected his intent was to place me in the awkward position of explaining something that few people truly understand. That officer was one of those given to letting personal biases affect his leadership (or lack thereof). He chose the wrong person.

I was fully versed in the vagaries of nuclear chemistry and had worked on those plants for years. Endless days and nights of watch in the chemistry shack left me closely attuned to the plants and how they behaved when conditions changed.

I had a day to prepare my report which was plenty of time despite my fatigued condition. I did extra research to find out the latest theories of crystal formation in water under intense neutron flux. That was the key. I won’t explain that here because it is esoteric chemistry that few people understand as I later discovered.

The Presentation

            The content of my report is still classified decades later (75 years by government policy). The audience consisted of my entire division, its officers and several members of the naval reactors inspection team. Normally, those men do not attend these reports but again, I suspect my boss was trying to increase the pressure on me. No problem.

            I spent the next twenty or so minutes giving a lecture on where the chemicals go when temperatures and pressures change, how radiation affects crystal structure and the response to changing power levels.

            When I was done the room was silent. I asked my Chemistry officer if he was satisfied with the answer. I could tell he was lost. I asked his boss, the Chem-Radcon Assistant (a man with an advanced biology degree), he seemed likewise lost. No one seemed to understand enough to know if what I had just explained was accurate.

            Except Master Chief Bowers, one of the greatest chemists in the history of naval nuclear power. He had authored much of our Chemistry manual and the fleet’s top expert on all things chemistry. I asked if he thought I gave an adequate explanation for the unexplainable. He said, “Yes, but you got it backwards.”

            I looked over my equations and charts for a moment. Master Chief prompted me on the open-ended crystal formula; I had it! It took several minutes to work it back but I was able to give the correct chemical process to his satisfaction.

            The meeting ended and all of my notes left with the officers. Master Chief gave me a pat on the back before leaving. No more challenges to my competence came up again for that tour at least. Regardless of why the officer placed me in that position I enjoyed it. Not because it gave me the chance to show off, but because it was a challenge to figure out what the engines of my ship were doing. In presenting my report I gained greater knowledge of how chemistry works.

            The lingering thought, the final loose end for me is  . . . what if I was right in the first place? What if Master Chief was testing my confidence in my report? I don’t think I will ever know. If I had more time to prepare or maybe had more rest before standing in front of that crowd I would have been more certain. Nonetheless, I am pleased with the way I handled the challenge from an officer whom I later learned was racist(never a good thing in a military officer but all too common). He threw down the gauntlet and ended up eating it. That in itself was good enough for me.