How Groceries Won the Cold War

After President Reagan died, biographers could be heard giving him  and his Strategic Defense Initiative credit for bringing down the Soviet Union. But the truth is, it was a visit to an American grocery store that did it.

In September of 1989, shortly after Boris Yeltsin was elected to the Soviet parliament, he paid a visit to the Johnson Space Center as part of the lead up to what would become the International Space Station. Afterward, he and his entourage made an unscheduled visit to a nearby Randall’s grocery store. c9ecce7cc5726cbee36386989caf707d

According to Houston Chronicle reporter, Stefanie Asin, he “roamed the aisles nodding his head in amazement.” He told his fellow Russians that if their people could see this store “there would be a revolution.” He asked customers about their purchases and about prices. He talked to the store manager and marveled over the frozen pudding pops. “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,” he said.

Yeltsin was all smiles, but according to his biographer, he became despondent during the plane ride to his next destination. He couldn’t stop thinking about the plentiful food at the grocery store and what his countrymen had to subsist on in Russia.

Two years later, he left the Communist Party and began making reforms to turn the economic tide in Russia. The rest, as they say, is history. You can blame the Cold War or the Moon landing or bootleg Beatles LPs, but in his own autobiography, Yeltsin wrote:

“When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people. That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it.”

So there you go. The mighty Soviet Union survived Stalin and Hitler and the Cold War only to be brought to its knees by pudding pops. Something to keep in mind as our own nation’s wealth is condensed into the pockets of an ever smaller elite, who complain that somehow restoring the minimum wage to its time-adjusted value during our heyday will somehow cripple the country.


That We May Have Wings

Thirty years ago today, I stepped up to get a hamburger and saw this on TV:ap8601281739

Two weeks before this, I had mentioned to my mother that I read a NASA report in our school depository library saying that solid rockets were not suitable for manned spaceflight because they could not be aborted and had too high a failure rate.

Six months later, we learned that the accident had been caused by leaky seals between solid rocket booster segments. The SRBs had been choosen for political reasons, to keep work flowing to the manufacturer and ensure the support of its state representatives. The danger of flying these boosters in cold weather was known, and urgent please from the engineers had been suppressed–for political reasons.

A tragedy, to be sure. The more tragic because it could easily have been prevented.

A tragedy made far, far worse by what happened eight years later, when the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost after suffering damage to its thermal protection system ceramic tiles at liftoff:


Nobel Lareat, Richard Feynman described the root cause of the Challenger disaster thusly (the same exact cause was at the heart of the Columbia loss)”

“They are warnings that something is wrong. The equipment is not operating as expected, and therefore there is a danger that it can operate with even wider deviations in this unexpected and not thoroughly understood way. The fact that this danger did not lead to a catastrophe before is no guarantee that it will not the next time, unless it is completely understood. When playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next. … In spite of these variations from case to case, officials behaved as if they understood it, giving apparently logical arguments to each other often depending on the “success” of previous flights.”

Feynman was right. Absolutely right. Chillingly right. And his conclusions speak to us all, everyday, and everything we do. The stakes are not always life and death, but the lesson is alwars the same. “Common sense” evolves on the African Savanna. It is no substitute for empirical evidence, scientific rigor, and tested understanding. When we deviate from these proven tool, we tread on broken ice.

As American, as humans, we owe it to the 14 men and women lost to these two disasters to take this lesson to heart. Not merely to patch a few procedures as NASA, but to embrace as a culture this reality: Science is how you know things. Anything else is guesswork.



Happy Anniversary America, I Got You On My Mind

I used to work with a very British chap with the very British name, David Noble. Once, in the lead up to the long July 4th weekend, I asked him his plans. “Ah, July 4th,” he said. “That’s the anniversary of the date you lot kicked us out. We don’t celebrate that.”

No, but he took the day off.

Happy birthday, anniversary, kick-the-Brits-out day, or however you choose to think of it. As troubled as the world is, I am pleased to live in a time when most of it’s people view one another more as neighbors and friendly rivals than as enemies. May we all continue the trend, educate the laggards, make amends for past indiscretions, and remember that the culture we bequeath to the future is at least as important as the skin color genes—or the flags.


To Our Veterans

Soldiers don’t declare war.

They don’t set policy.

They aren’t always set on a righteous path.

They show up when they are called, they do the job, and if they are lucky enough to come home, they carry the baggage with them for the rest of their lives.

Whether my daddy setting fire to the jungle, my wife training men who wouldn’t listen, or my great uncle who jumped in a garbage pit and brought home a catholic idol instead of his baby brother, we owe them, all of them, all of us, every day.

That is all.

A Roar in the Darkness

It is difficult to describe the sound made by a turbojet engine, but I’m a writer; I can do it.

Imagine a couple of little girls clowning in the bathroom, screaming at the top of their lungs as only little girls can do, their screeches reverberating off the tile and running together like a skewer through your eardrums. Now imagine that as a steady sound, modulated by a fan spinning a thousand revolutions a minute and amplified by six foot speakers of the sort employed by a well-funded heavy metal rock band. Now multiply that by eight, one for every engine on a B-52 bomber, and by the six steel and concrete interior surfaces of a military hanger, and if you imagine for a moment that a rabid ice pick is grinding its way up through the fractured remains of your vertebrae and into your skull, then you’ve got the picture just about right.

When I was five or six, my mother pulled me out of bed one night and whisked me and my brother and sister off through the moonless darkness to pick up our daddy. He’d been gone a long time, and though I didn’t quite understand it at the time, he had been on temporary duty in southeast Asia, dropping cluster bombs and napalm from a machine engineered to save the world from godless commies or kill us all in the effort.

Men in blue uniforms and green nylon flight suites met us at the car and ushered us into the darkened hanger, a big, gray building on a big, gray sea of concrete. My mother put me down and conferred with one of the uniformed men and led me to believe that daddy had just landed. We were in one of the original hangers built during the forties when the base first opened, a line of which stood as a sort of bulwark between the streets and buildings where the people lived and worked and the tarmac where the flight machines strutted and preened. I knew the hanger was much too small for Daddy’s Stratofortress, but I expected any moment that the great jungle-green beast would poke its nose under the roof and the door would open and down would come a yellow adder and daddy’s leather boots and a trunk full of coconuts and gifts from Japan and Thailand. What I didn’t expect was the sound.

Presently, we heard the sing-song whine of the jet approaching through the ubiquitous backdrop of aircraft engines in motion, at idle, and lumbering on their test stands. Outside the giant telescoping doors, an airman waved flashlights with colored plastic signal cones. Another stooped to retrieve something from the shadows. Still others ran about purposefully, then darted back into the hanger. All of these men wore hearing protection, and not mere earplugs or the meager earmuffs one might see on the shooting range, but serious, bulky units in military gray.

The whine shifted and moved, then rose in pitch and broke into the coarse, disharmonic roar of jets under power, as if Niagara falls had gone on a bender and come to tell us off, shouting from the parking lot till the ground shook and the metal walls rattled—or perhaps my eardrums did. Then a flashing red light cleared the rolling doors and the sing-song whine returned, reverberating through the suddenly tiny hanger till the black shadow of the airplane came to rest and the engines spun down, all but one, and finally, through I felt I must have blood pouring from my ears by then, the last engine spun to a stop.

We were glad to see daddy, and I think he was touched, though he still had paperwork to do and was too exhausted from the flight to show much emotion and would probably just as soon have swung by the O-club for a drink before heading home. When we pulled back into our driveway after midnight, the neighbor had set out a great illuminated sign: “Welcome home Maj. Hardwick,” and I could still hear the turbines drilling through my head.

I’m not sure whose bright idea this all was. It is distinctly possible I suffered permanent hearing loss. For as long as I can remember, I’ve avoided loud noise and worn hearing protecting around machinery. When I was in college I carried ear plugs in case I got invited to a club or party.

That was a long, long time ago, but I’ll never forget the grating feel of the jet roar conducted through my bones. We called it a cold war, but it was fought with real jet fuel and explosives. It was fought by real soldiers, tired men and women whose families waited just beyond the flight line, the front line in a new and endless kind of war.


Even the Gestapo Were Impressed

This is my new all-time favorite story from WWII:

On March 24, 1944, RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade opted to jump to his death rather than burn up without a chute after his plane started spiraling in east of Schmallenberg, Germany. He did neither, though. After plummeting 18,000 feet, he crashed through some trees into a snowbank and survived with only a sprain.

That’s not the good part.

He was then captured, whereupon the Gestapo verified his story and, suitably impressed, gave him a certificate attesting to the fall.


In Memorial

In honor of memorial day, I give you Quint’s speech from the movie Jaws, the speech that led indirectly, and decades after the fact, to the posthumous exoneration of Captain Charles McVay.

Hooper: You were on the Indianapolis?
Chief Brody: What happened?
Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte – just delivered the bomb, the Hiroshima bomb.
Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about half an hour – a tiger – thirteen footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail.
What we didn’t know was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know, it was kinda like old squares in the battle like that you see in the calendar named ‘The Battle of Waterloo.’ And the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man and he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’. Sometimes the shark go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya, right into your eyes.
Y’know, the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes after ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’ until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white, and then – aww, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and rip ya to pieces.
You know, by the end of that first dawn, we lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand. I don’t know how many men. They averaged six an hour. On Thursday morning, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boatswain’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up, down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.
Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us. He swung in low and he saw us. He was a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and he come in low and three hours later, a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know, that was the time I was most frightened – waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a life jacket again.
So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

On Borrowed Time

On the prairie, there was no roadside assistance.

When I was little, my family hiked the wilds of South Dakota without a gun or a phone. The road signs claimed “Last Chance Gas – 100 Miles,” and they meant it. We crossed the Sioux reservation, explored an abandoned copper mine, and hunted fossils and fairburn agates in the badlands and rock flats. There were rattlers and wolves in the hills, and bears and cougars too, but you didn’t worry much about them. Once you understand an animal, you can generally stay out of its way.

Our first order of business was to find a stout stick with which to alert snakes to our movements. Then we kept our eyes open and let Daddy lead the way. He ever carried a weapon, but he always had a hatchet, a plastic bag, and a handful of fencing nails. When we encountered modern trash, we generally packed it home. When we found a loose strand of barbed wire, we secured it. When a fence was down, we stacked rocks or driftwood as best we could, to hold it till the rancher came along.

We didn’t do these things for Jesus, or because of federal law. We did it to be neighborly, to make sure our weekend adventures at least left the world no worse than we found it, to ensure that somewhere, some landowner we would never meet was treated the same way we would want to be treated.

When Iron-Eyes Cody stepped into our living rooms, dressed like Geronimo, to shed tears over highway litter, we stood easy by his side. We’d crossed paths last blazed by Custer’s infantry or the fleeing Lakota people. We’d found shells grown in an ancient sea as long before the dinosaurs time as that era was before ours. It is impossible to confront history on that scale and not be awed. One cannot camp beneath the infinite black of the prairie sky and send orange sparks sputtering up into the jeweled canopy of the Milky-way without feeling connected to the whole of creation, to those tiny bands who have trod here before, and to those whose wonder is yet unrealized.

We are visitors here, all of us. We are blessed with an uncommon gift, a mind that can literally move mountains and yet find beauty in the gentlest breeze. We would do well, all of us, to remember that our time is borrowed, individually and as a race, to care for our world even we are alone, to try always to lift one another up, to look on creation and say not “Thus, it is written,” but “Hey! Look at that!”



I’m left handed. This is not a choice.

Like many lefties, I am actually mixed-dominant, which means that I bat and eat with the left, but fast-pitch and shoot with my right. These are not choices. Although I can train myself to perform adequately with the wrong hand, it requires constant, exhausting effort. Unlike you strong dominants, I have had to stop for a moment before beginning each and every manual task I have ever learned and ask myself “okay, which side does this?”

For a long time, lefties were tormented, forced to write with the wrong hand, even killed by people who saw us as an abomination. I watched my naturally left-handed friends at school trying to write with their right hands hooked into an unnatural position. My mother’s teachers would smack the left hand with a ruler until the child was forced to relent. However well intentioned, this was abusive; in fact, it was torture.

I live in a world in which certain people think that certain other people have chosen a sinful path simply for seeing the world as they see it. They tell themselves that these sinners could walk the righteous path if only they would accept the will of God. I have no dog in this fight, but it occurs to me that when a man says a lifestyle is a choice, he must see it as so. I wouldn’t know about that, for I could no more choose to be gay than I can choose not to perceive the bands of the rainbow. But wherever you fall on the spectrum, ask yourself for a moment, what if the leader of some foreign church declared that you could be gay if only you accepted the loving will of his God into your heart. Imagine if you lived in fear that your tricolor vision would be discovered, and the ignorant color-blind bastards around you, convinced of your demon wickedness, would deny you employment, human dignity, even life? Imagine if you feared having a left handed child, lest he be denied opportunity.

If God made me at all, he made me left handed. If he made you, he made you with your sexual orientation. If this is so, then HOW DARE YOU PRESUME TO PLACE YOUR VIEWS ABOVE THE WORKS OF GOD? How dare anyone rationalize the ignorant notions of iron age men into the justification for prejudice and discrimination in the name of God? We ate from the tree of knowledge and knew shame for our nakedness. Now, as we pick apart the very tree of life, we should understand the shame of ignorance, and that we will never again see the garden unless we build it ourselves, together.


A Bolt From Her Quiver

It is said that early experiments in electromagnetism were inspired by hikes in the Austrian countryside, where rough terrain made the magnetic compass indispensable, and where sudden thundershowers are common. Soon it was noticed that when lightning flashed nearby, the compass needle would jump, which led naturally the experiments that changed our world forever.

I once had a similar experience. I was walking across the open campus of my university when the persistent mist that had besieged our weekend suddenly resolved into rain. The campus was large and sudden storms not uncommon, and though I had brought along my faithful umbrella, I could not take much pride in the provision as the electrical ferocity of the storm blossomed overhead. Within a minute, the afternoon glow still warming the dripping foliage around me was transformed by stroboscopic lashes from above. I hurried, but before I could reach the stairs leading down to the street and the safety of the nearest building, I felt a jolt through my hand and was shaken, bodily, by a massive concussion of palpable thunder.

“This is it,” I thought as the giant plate glass windows rattled in the nearby natatorium, “I have stepped into a charge leader and am about to be struck by lightning.”

As a dedicated geek, you see, I was well aware of research, recent at that time, of the stroke-counterstroke nature of the lightning strike–which begins with an invisible trace of airborne current snaking between the cloud and ground. I reckoned the metal rod of the umbrella had contacted such a current, conducting a high-voltage pulse through the plastic handle and into my hand.

“But,” I thought next, “I should already be dead.”

I knew, after all, that any conscious realization forms in the brain much more slowly than a lightning bolt. My heart raced ahead of my feet as I hurried under cover, but I soon realized my mistake. The bolt had never come near the ground. It, like all of the impressive discharges around me that afternoon, had been from one cloud to the next. What I had felt was but a tiny side current, an eddy, induced into the metal rod of the umbrella by the enormous MAGNETIC FIELD moving perpendicular to the bolt.

As far as I know, not a single bolt struck the ground that day, so it would be fatuous to say I was lucky to survive. I was lucky though, just a bit, to catch nature flexing her muscle.