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December 2017
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© 2004-2017 Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

Seven Words

I’m assuming everyone is up on the story of the Texas lady with the “Fuck Trump and Fuck You for Voting for Him” sticker on her pickup truck and how a local sheriff threatened to arrest her for displaying it, and later did arrest her on another pretext, and how she’s back on the streets now with a new “Fuck Troy Nehls and Fuck You for Voting for Him” sticker next to the “Fuck Trump and Fuck You for Voting for Him” sticker on her truck, Troy Nehls being the name of the sheriff, and it’s all funny and shit, right?

Yes, this lady and those stickers. Judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, she’s a free speech hero.

Lady, I’m with you, but I’ve got a problem with saying or displaying obscene words in public. Everyone knows we can’t say certain words on television or the radio (say ’em with me, George Carlin fans: “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits”). If someone starts screaming “Fuck!” at the top of his lungs in Safeway or Starbucks, few of us will stand up to protest when the cops haul him away. Everyone understands, or should understand, that certain obscenities are looked upon as “fighting words,” and that such words, depending on when and where they are spoken or displayed, do not fall under 1st Amendment free speech protections.

Are there laws against obscene speech? Surely there are. Are they enforced? Not so much, these days. If the teenagers in line behind you at the local cineplex start saying “cocksucker” and “cunt” over and over, and you’re with your kids, what are you going to do? Call the cops? You know they won’t come. Maybe ask them to stop talking like that? Good luck. Maybe take your kids and leave? We pretty much have to rely on one another to know how to behave in public.

The military is still hard-core on this sort of thing. It has rules, and they’re written down. Here’s a sample, from Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson:

Obscene/provoking markings. No motor vehicle operated upon the public highways or on DMAFB, shall bear upon any part of such vehicle or its attachments any plate, stickers, card, tag, lettering, markings or pictures of an obscene, vulgar, racist, or sexist nature.

Here’s another, from Naval Base San Diego:

Bumper stickers or other vehicular displays that are prejudicial to good order, discipline and morale, or are of a nature deemed by the ICO to bring discredit upon the Naval service are prohibited. For example, bumper stickers or other vehicular displays that are sexually explicit, and/or advocate unlawful discrimination based on sex, race, religion, ethnic ornational origin are prohibited. In addition, bumper stickers or other vehicular displays that symbolize affiliation with gangs, supremacist or extremist groups, or advocate illegal drug use are prohibited.

When you’re career military, certain attitudes die hard. Military life is socialistic, far more so than civilians realize, from the care and feeding of troops to housing to military-run exchanges and commissaries, not to mention medical and dental care and ongoing professional education programs. I’ve been a socialist ever since, because the military taught me that it works (so long as slackers don’t get a free ride, that is).

Ditto proper comportment and behavior around other people. You just don’t talk like this. You would never think of putting an obscene sticker on your car. Take another look at that DMAFB rule. “No motor vehicle operated upon the public highways or on DMAFB. …” It applies to USAF members driving their personal vehicles off-base as well. That may seem like a stretch to you, but it reflects the military ethic that service members represent their country whether on- or off-duty.

Tell you what, if I was a cop I’d be tempted to pull that lady over. If she worked for me and I saw her truck with that sticker in my company’s parking lot, she’d be fired.

Just between you and me, fuck Trump and fuck everyone who voted for him. When it comes to my car, though, a simple “RESIST” decal is enough for me.

My other decal says “CURMUDGEON.”


Gone to the Dogs

2017-11-17 08.41.13 HDRI walked Mr. B around the neighborhood this morning. Donna, who was watching from the family room as we came up the street on our way home, saw a coyote stalking us from behind. I never had a clue. I’d better start training myself to check six again.

Our new dachshund is a standard, considerably larger than our miniature dachshund Maxie. With his long body, he can stretch far enough to snatch stuff off the kitchen counter. A few days after we brought him home he pulled an uncooked veal cutlet from a pile of freshly breaded wiener schnitzels ready for the frying pan … don’t think the irony of that escaped us … and ran off with it. We caught him before he could scarf it down, fried the purloined schnitzel separately, and cut it up in small pieces to mix with the dogs’ dry food.

The lesson we should have learned then is to keep food well back from the edges of the countertops. Did we? Of course not. Two nights ago he scored again: this time a pound of ground beef, still in its wrapper. I don’t know how much of the plastic wrap he ingested, but he wolfed down all the meat before we realized what he was up to.

Mr. B was in a food coma all night. I tried twice to get him to poop before we went to bed but he couldn’t. Later that night, though, he could, and did. In the living room, because by then we had the doggy door closed for the night. The next day one of the dogs had diarrhea in the house; we assumed it was Mr. B, still recovering from his rich meal, but now we think it may have been Maxie, who just threw up her breakfast (out on the patio, mercifully).

And now for a different breed of dog, the human male.

There might be a photo of me as a second lieutenant, in uniform, drunkenly leering at naked strippers simulating lesbian oral sex on the bar at the Vance AFB Officers’ Club. If I were on active duty today, that photo would be enough to end my career. I know for a fact there are photos of me participating in all manner of vulgarity at Hash House Harrier events; those photos too would be career-stoppers.

How many men, still of working age and dependent on their paychecks, can confidently say there’s nothing in their pasts that might cause them trouble if photos were to surface? How many men, in today’s climate, could survive accusations of sexual abuse or worse, whether or not the accusations are true?

The general rule is that where there’s smoke there’s fire, and damn it, when it comes to men and accusations of sexual abuse, it almost always proves true. There’s no doubt in my mind Donald Trump and Roy Moore are guilty of everything they’ve been accused of. So too Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, and on and on. And now, of course, Senator Al Franken, my personal great white hope for 2020, shot out of the sky or at least badly winged. Damn it.

Politically? I hope Franken guts it out à la Bill Clinton. He’s a good senator, just as Clinton was a good president; his party and his country need him. He has apologized and offered to cooperate with any investigation Congress may want to conduct; he can dedicate the rest of his public service career to good works.

Then too, there’s this: prominent Republicans like Trump and Moore are almost certainly guilty of far worse crimes than Franken; unlike Franken, they not only deny the accusations against them but threaten their accusers. Democrats have largely condemned Franken and urged him to resign; no Republican has spoken out against Trump, while Alabama Republicans have doubled down in their support of Moore. If Franken gives in the Democrats lose and the Republicans win. It’s a basic political calculation, Bannon-like in its simplicity.

So hang in there, Al Franken. It’s disappointing to realize you have feet of clay, but so do I and so does almost every man I know.

It’s no wonder I’m starting to like dogs more than people.


Paul’s Book Reviews

In this edition of Paul’s Book Reviews: a disturbing memoir, a Cold War spy novel, untaught history, escapist thrillers, a political expose that doesn’t live up to the hype.

Waco“When Kiri added the graphic quote she claimed came from David—’Jeannine Bunds had the type of pussy that really hangs onto my dick’—Bill McCollum’s prim mouth went into spasm, and he immediately warned the TV audience who might be watching the C-SPAN broadcast to beware.”

A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story
by David Thibodeau

I was asked by a publisher to read & review “A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story.” I wondered why, given that David Thibodeau’s memoir was published in 1999. Now I see a TV mini-series titled “Waco” is set to air in January 2018. In an new afterword to the paperback edition, Thibodeau himself makes the tie-in clear, describing his excitement over meeting members of the cast and production crew.

The memoir is well-written, though windy and repetitive between the parts readers will come for: the sections about cult leader Koresh’s sexual infatuation with underaged girls; about the initial assault on the Mount Carmel compound by ATF agents; about the final siege and assault by the FBI and ATF 50 days later, about the fiery deaths of men, women, and children trapped in the compound with Koresh.

Thibodeau was an aspiring rock musician in Los Angeles when he fell in with members of a Christian rock band led by David Koresh. He gradually fell under Koresh’s sway, and after some dithering found himself a committed member of the cult, living full-time at the compound, yet not a member of Koresh’s inner circle, the “mighty men.”

I wish Thibodeau had made more of an effort to describe Koresh’s “teachings,” which from the bits he does reveal seem to be utter nonsense, as most Revelations-based apocalyptic cult preaching is. When it comes to Revelations and the End Times, I take my spiritual guidance from a fictional character, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, who in one novel makes the commonsense observation that Revelations has been breathlessly promising the imminent arrival of Armageddon every day for 2,000 years.

Was Thibodeau, despite his half-hearted denials, an all-in member of the cult? There’s no doubt in this reader’s mind: with a straight face, Thibodeau recounts Koresh sidekick Steve describing his own background this way: “I went from England to Hawaii, changed into a heathen, lived a swinging life of booze and broads, partying with the fast crowd, the likes of Pat Boone and Clint Eastwood.” One feels one is inside the addled mind of Jack Chick, reading something like that. Cultists mimic normal humans, but there’s always a tell to let us know they’re from an alternate universe. Pat Boone?

Thibodeau is honest enough to question some of what he thought he knew about Koresh. He drops hints of Koresh’s perfidy here and there while simultaneously downplaying them, but my impression is that Thibodeau, afterward, came to see Koresh for what he obviously was, a charlatan who frightened willing believers with tales of mystical Seals, Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the cleansing fires of God’s wrath; but mainly a creep who perved on pre-teen girls.

Even if your motivation for reading this memoir is hatred of the jack-booted thugs of the ATF and FBI and their murderous assaults on Koresh’s compound, you cannot avoid concluding that Koresh was guilty on many counts, from bedding ten- and eleven-year-old girls and cracking jokes with insiders about the tightness of their vaginas, to claiming God told him in a vision only he was allowed to have sex with Branch Davidian women (including the wives of married couples), to amassing an arsenal of semi-automatic and automatic weapons, to browbeating his band of believers into staying with him to the fiery end, to murder and worse.

Take this for what it’s worth: in the last chapter Thibodeau recounts congressional testimony from a 14-year-old girl who was 10 when Koresh first had sex with her, who went on to repeat Koresh’s crude remark about another pre-teen girl’s vagina. While Thibodeau is honest enough to include this damning information, he immediately backpedals by casting doubt upon the girl’s credibility. I wonder if he’s been following the news lately, and if he has, whether he thinks the women recounting their experiences with Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore are lying as well. That is where I lost what little sympathy I had for David Thibodeau.

Of course there’s a solid link between the disastrous federal assaults on civilians at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the growth of domestic right-wing militia terrorism, starting just two years after Waco with Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, all the way to the Bundy militia today. Thibodeau forthrightly discusses the link in his memoir, detailing as well his own post-Waco involvement with the movement as a speaker at militia and survivalist rallies.

If you bring prejudices to the book you will leave with them intact, as I did. I guess I’m glad I read Thibodeau’s memoir. I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know, but I better understand my own conflicted view of federal authority now that I know the details of what the ATF and FBI did to women and children at Waco. Nevertheless, I remain repelled by cultists of any stripe, particularly end-times hucksters and the people who believe them. There is something wrong with their brains.

A final note: I read the Kindle edition, a digitized version of the original paperback plus the author’s more recent afterword. As is too often the case, the Kindle edition is loaded with formatting errors, but still readable.

legacy of spiesA Legacy of Spies
by John le Carré

From my review of an earlier le Carré novel, “A Delicate Truth”:

“Le Carré long ago moved on from the Cold War espionage era of his classic George Smiley character to the post-9/11, counter-terrorism, civilian contractor-dominated intelligence world of today, his later novels featuring mid-level actors in Britain’s foreign office and intelligence ministries. … You can feel le Carré’s anger with the direction covert intelligence-gathering has taken since the days when the Americans, led by Dick Cheney and his puppet George W. Bush, subverted and politicized the process, dragging Britain’s spy services down with them into a Keystone Kops frenzy of cherry-picking intelligence from favored sources, special rendition, torturing innocent and guilty suspects alike, and achieving nothing but failure after failure. Le Carré’s anger shines with a special intensity when he describes the yes-man atmosphere within Britain’s intelligence services today.”

I’ll say this, le Carré keeps us on our toes. His latest, “A Legacy of Spies,” returns to the Cold War era, populated (if in some cases at one or two removes) by his best-known characters, men like Peter Guillam and George Smiley. It expands on the tale originally told in le Carré’s most famous novel, “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.”

I grew up in the Cold War; I served during the Cold War; I visited East Berlin multiple times during the Cold War. “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” defined that era to readers of my generation. I don’t know about my fellow Baby Boomers, but I was terrified of it all; this is why I so admire the understated panache of le Carré’s spies as they fearlessly move about in Soviet-occupied territory, observing and being observed, playing targets and being played themselves, ever alert to the life-and-death stakes of the game they play. I love the attention le Carré lavishes on the Circus and its army of full- and part-time minders, technicians, and “housekeepers.” I hope such selfless servants of democracy exist in the real world, despite the depredations visited upon intelligence agencies during the Cheney-Bush-Blair era; le Carré almost convinces me they do.

“A Legacy of Spies” is entirely satisfying; the spymaster has lost none of his power.

warmth of other sunsThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
by Isabel Wilkerson

“The Warmth of Other Suns” examines the lives of three southern black Americans who moved north and west during the period of the Great Migration. The two men and one woman Isabel Wilkerson focuses on are good representatives of the 6 million who made up the whole: one follows the seacoast from Florida to New York City; one follows the well-worn path from Alabama and Mississippi to midwestern cities like Chicago and Detroit; one heads west to California, as so many from Louisiana and Texas did. The stories of these three people, along with the stories of their wives, husbands, and children, are told in separate and short biographical chapters.

Isabel Wilkerson’s book also recounts the overall history of the Great Migration. She fills in the gaps between biographical chapters with broad-brushed chapters about the South the migrants came from; vivid and chilling examples of the increasingly draconian Jim Crow laws southern blacks had to navigate in every aspect of their daily lives; the routes and patterns followed by black migrants from different parts of the former Confederacy; the nature and types of discrimination they faced in the North. I knew about the North and the historical patterns of segregation there; I had no appreciation of the scope and extent of the Jim Crow laws in the South. These chapters in particular opened my eyes and will stay with me for a long time.

I will note, as I see other reviewers have before me, that absolutely none of this was taught in school to anyone in my generation. I am willing to bet it isn’t taught now. There is thus great value in this book and others that examine the experience of black American citizens and their struggle. I salute Isabel Wilkerson. She made an impact on me.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” feels like one of those books challenged by parents and sometimes yanked from school libraries and reading lists by timid administrators looking to avoid confrontation. I searched for information on challenges and bans and found nothing. Perhaps, as I speculated above, this book is infrequently taught in middle and high school, if it is taught at all. That would be a shame.

Now for my only quibble:

There’s a pattern to most of the 30-minute automotive shows on cable TV. Each consists of four or five short segments, broken by commercials. During each segment, we see a preview of what’s to come in the next segment. When each new segment starts, we see flashbacks to the previous segment. Thus, minus commercials, 22 minutes of car show contains roughly 12 minutes of content.

There are no commercials in “The Warmth of Other Suns,” of course, but each biographical chapter previews the next, while each new chapter repeats details we already digested while reading earlier chapters. This is the repetitiveness so many reviewers complain of. It is unnecessary and I wish Isabel Wilkerson had cut out the previews and flashbacks … her great work would have been tighter and more impactful without constant repetition.

the rangerThe Ranger (Quinn Colson #1)
by Ace Atkins

There are many character-based thrillers out there, and everyone who reads them has his or her own favorites. I, for example, am reading the Jack Reacher novels in order, and normally that would be enough for me, but on the recommendation of a friend I picked up the first Quinn Colson novel by Ace Atkins, “The Ranger,” and quite liked it.

I didn’t think I would. The novel is set in rural Mississippi, and with one exception its characters are rural white Mississippians. I am hopelessly bound up in memories of Mississippi as a bastion of slavery, Jim Crow, race hatred, lynchings, illiteracy, and all-around backwardness. In short, I found Quinn Colson and his small circle of friends too good to be true, out of place among the toothless, livestock-fucking, pride-of-the-Aryan-Race denizens of the deepest pit of the Deep South. I’m not proud of my prejudices, but I’m not disowning them either. I know who Mississippians voted for.

Of course one has to suspend disbelief with any fictional righter of wrongs; Jack Reacher is an even more improbable character than Quinn Colson. Thrillers live and die by the quality of the writing; the ability of the author to capture the feel, smell, and taste of a place or time; the vividness of the characters; the craftsmanship of the plot. Ace Atkins nails it.

My friends continue to push their favorite thriller series on me; I must resist. Jack Reacher and now Quinn Colson are already eating into the time I have left to read all the great and promising books on my very long list.

bad luck and trouble
Bad Luck and Trouble
by Lee Child
nothing to lose
Nothing to Lose
by Lee Child

“Bad Luck and Trouble,” the 11th Jack Reacher novel, seems pared down, almost minimalistic. In an earlier review I said I liked Jack Reacher best when he’s in a military setting; in this one he works with former members of the Army special investigative unit he once ran. They’re civilians now, back together to find out how and why other members of that unit have been tortured and murdered, on the trail of the perpetrators, bent on vengeance, because by god you do not mess with special investigators.

Two women members of the team featured in previous novels, where they were fleshed out better; they’re more or less just there in this one, along with a male member who we don’t really get to know well at all: all three are foils for Reacher. The treatment of these characters isn’t all that different from the treatment of side characters in previous novels, but I noticed it more in this one. As I said: pared down & minimalistic.

“Nothing to Lose,” the 12th novel in the Jack Reacher series, is darker than previous ones, but it’s good Reacher.

Writing Jack Reacher reviews is a matter of diminishing returns: what more can one say about the character after the first dozen novels? In this novel, Reacher drifts into a pair of rural Colorado towns, Hope and Despair, as different as day and night, the one named Despair truly hellish.

You have to swallow a mighty big improbability pill to believe anything Lee Child tells you about the town of Despair and its zombified inhabitants, but the plot as always moves along smartly and Reacher stays in character. In this one, Reacher calls in no favors from former military or FBI associates; with the exception of Hope’s deputy policeman, the by now obligatory good-looking, strong-willed, intelligent woman sidekick, he unravels Despair’s complex, multi-layered, devilish mystery on his own.

what happenedWhat Happened
by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Did not finish: no rating.

I bought Hillary’s book after reading the same widely-publicized excerpts everyone did, the ones where she wrote frankly about significant campaign highs and lows and her reaction to the bewildering election of the losing candidate. Several chapters in, what I was reading reading instead were thanks to senior staff and campaign workers who struggled alongside her, individually singled out by name and fondly recalled, like some ultra-long version of an Oscars speech.

I began to flip ahead, looking for the chapter where she finally began to discuss “what happened.” Realizing flipping ahead meant I was losing interest, I moved Hillary’s book to my “reading episodically” stack and re-opened another from the same pile, David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”

Now I have moved Hillary’s book from my “reading episodically” stack to the “did not finish” pile. A recent New Yorker contained a comprehensive review of “What Happened.” After reading it and other reviews, I decided to abandon ship. The New Yorker confirmed my own observation about the Oscar speech start, alerting potential readers (as I am doing here) that HRC’s discussion of the campaign (the presidential campaign and the media/FBI campaign against her) does not start until halfway in, and you’ve already read all the important parts anyway.


Emotional Blackmail

Screen Shot 2017-11-15 at 9.01.46 AMCut & paste Facebook cancer posts. You know the ones I’m talking about, the ones that lead off with an implied threat. Like this: “I’m going to make this bet, without being pessimistic, I wish ‘my friends’ would put this on their wall. Just have to copy (not share)!!! I want to know who I can count on … And I’m sure it will be less than 5.” Or this: “I’m going to say goodbye to some of you … now I’m watching the ones who will have the time to read this post until the end. This is a little test, just to see who reads and who shares without reading!” Or this: “I’m not mentioning names, but I’m gonna take care of those who are gonna take the time to read this post to the end.”

I never read past the threat. The implication that I’m not making the cut as a friend or that I might be unfriended if I don’t follow instructions makes me see red. As far as I know I’ve never been unfriended for ignoring these posts, but the threats keep coming. And I keep ignoring them.

Damn, I get enough emotional blackmail from my dogs. Right now I’m being pressured to take Mr. B for a walk, and I’m still in my bathrobe. Will I get dressed and do it? Of course I will.


You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.


YCRT! News

A public library in Lexington Park, Maryland, observed Banned Books Week with a display of 34 banned and challenged books, covering each book with brown lunch bags labeled “Do Not Read This. Lift to see the banned book, you rebel, you.” Parents lifted the bags and discovered that 9 of the books addressed sex, including one titled “The Little Black Book for Girlz; a Book on Healthy Sexuality,” and are now accusing the library of “enticing children to cross comfort lines like having sex with each other, same-sex partners, kinky sex and sex with anyone.”

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates recently stepped into the lions’ den with this tweet:Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 7.47.00 AMThe backlash from offended Mississippians was instant and severe, but I quite take Ms Oate’s point: if parents in Mississippi are upset over eighth-graders being exposed to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you’d think they’d go through the roof over the far more adult novels of William Faulkner. Conclusion? Either they haven’t read Faulkner, or Mississippi schools don’t teach the novels of their favorite literary son.

Speaking of the challenge against “To Kill a Mockingbird” in Biloxi, Mississippi, I’m happy to report that the school board reversed its decision to pull the book and has decided to keep it in the curriculum. I’m less happy to report they compromised, and that students will now have to have parental permission to read it.

The school board president in Lawrence, Kansas, insists the district is not banning “Huckleberry Finn,” but merely searching for the proper way to present it to students. Uh huh.

Hey, librarians, teachers and timid school board administrators, here’s an idea for you! If it works for Warner Brothers (when was the last time you heard of parental challenges to old Looneytunes cartoons on TV or YouTube?), it should work for “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


The Washington Examiner, a conservative newspaper, takes Trump to task over the “impotence and ignorance of [his] threats” to impose censorship over liberal media. I guess they realize censorship of the left might eventually result in censorship of the right. If so, bully for them.

University of North Dakota professor quits after being forbidden to conduct seminars on the Dakota Access oil pipeline protest. The professor “did not specify who turned down his requests but said he was told that the university’s ‘senior administration’ feared the state Legislature would retaliate against the campus if lectures on the pipeline protests proceeded.” Hmmm … this threat to free speech seems potent enough. What happens when Trump’s threats to censor liberal media quit being impotent?

Politics Culture War at Play when Banning Books. There,, I fixed your headline for you.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund joined protests against an Illinois school board’s banning of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” after one parent asked that his child be given an alternate reading assignment, a gross over-reaction that also bypassed the school board’s own challenged book review policy. The book is now back in the curriculum.

Before we celebrate winning one small battle in the unending war against “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” consider a new policy proposal being considered by California’s Conejo Valley school board, prompted by a recent challenge to that book, that will “require district teachers to alert parents before their children are assigned to read books that have been identified by the California Department of Education as having mature content like depictions of rape, violence and suicide.” Now that the policy has been floated, parents are demanding it be applied across the curriculum, to include health, science, history, you name it. Any bets on how conservative activist parents will use such a policy in their battle against the teaching of sex education, evolution, and the history of racism in the United States?

Would it surprise you to learn that Breitbart, the infamous white supremacist media outlet, is opposed to a Mexican American Studies (MAS) textbook being considered by the Texas State Board of Education, which, if adopted, will be used by schools with MAS programs around the country?

YCRT! Banned Book Review

This is an older banned book review, reposted for my 13-year-old niece Alex in Illinois, an avid reader who recently told me how much she loved this book. I told her I read and loved it too, and promised to repost my review in my next YCRT!

glass castleThe Glass Castle
Jeannette Walls

Oh my gosh, I couldn’t put this book down! I read it straight through in two evenings; I’d have stayed up to dawn to finish it the first night if I were younger and didn’t need my sleep. That’s how readable this memoir is.

Walls’ memoir is divided into roughly three parts: the first covers her itinerant childhood in Arizona, California, and Nevada, from the time she is three until early elementary school age. The second deals with her family life in a poor coal mining town in West Virginia, lasting until she finishes the 11th grade, at which point she tears herself free of her family and strikes out for New York City to make her own life (the third part).

Reviewers always comment on what a rough life the Walls children had, living with a self-absorbed and mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father. If anyone in this vale of tears has whining rights, it is Jeannette Walls, yet she never does, not once. She describes the good and the bad of her life dispassionately and with clarity, and, especially in the first part of the book, conveys what it is to be a happy kid, oblivious to the hardships she has to endure, oblivious to her parents’ shortcomings (and rarely will you behold parents with so many of them).

I had a normal family life, but I knew plenty of kids with lives like Jeanette’s when I was growing up, and I believe everything she says. I don’t think she embellishes the hardships one bit.

I actually frightened the dog while I was reading this book, exclaiming out loud as horror after horror unfolded. In the second part of Walls’ memoir, she describes how she began to see the truth about her parents, and how, though she still loved them and felt loved in return, she realized what awful parents they really were, finally confronting their utter uselessness. I quit talking out loud during this part of the book, because that’s when things got serious.

Were this a novel, one might expect a more dramatic break from her family in the third part, accompanied by some sort of moving denouement or confrontation. But no, this is a memoir. Jeannette merely moves away and makes her own life, one that has turned out to be quite successful. She continued to see her parents off and on while her father was still alive, she still sees her mother, she remains close to her siblings. It’s life, and she resolves herself to it, as we all must.

What can I compare “The Glass Castle” to? “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is the obvious answer. I loved it, I was moved by it, I couldn’t put it down.

Since “The Glass Castle” was published in 2005, a number of high schools have assigned it in advanced placement English courses. Since the memoir is frank and graphic in places, describing alcoholism, prostitution, and sexual and physical abuse, schools generally offer alternate reading choices for students who aren’t ready for real life. Nevertheless, parents from one side of the country to the other have repeatedly challenged “The Glass Castle,” trying to have it banned for all students.

The complaints revolve around Walls’ use of profanity, alleged criticisms of Christianity (I didn’t see any), and the aforementioned accounts of sexual abuse and prostitution. I’m happy to say that teachers and school administrators have, for the most part, defended keeping the book on AP English reading lists, but it keeps popping up in the news as different parents in different parts of the country continue to try to have it banned. One teacher responded to a parental complaint with these words:

“I chose the text because it is commonly taught in AP Language and Composition classes as part of a memoir unit. Teachers and critics have praised the memoir for Walls’ honest account of positive life experiences as well as difficult incidents, citing her resilience and success in spite of such challenges as inspirational.”

I am not the only reader to find the memoir inspirational: “The Glass Castle” spent 261 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list. In its first two years, over 2.5 million copies were printed and sold. It’s been translated into 22 languages and has received the Christopher Award, the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and the Books for Better Living Award.

My life is better for having read it, and I wish I’d been able to read something like it when I was surrounded by kids just like the Wall children when I was a junior high school student.


Veterans Day 2017

rejoinIn 1984 a KC-135 tanker squadron from the Tennessee Air National Guard deployed to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. My F-15 squadron took full advantage of the visit, scheduling aerial refueling on every mission. The ANG tanker crews invited our wives to fly with them: that’s a photo my wife Donna took from the boomer’s compartment as I led a four-ship of F-15s to a rejoin on the tanker (I’m flying the second F-15 from the left).

After refueling and a 2 v 2 air combat training fight in a nearby working area, I led my flight to King Salmon Air Force Station in the western part of the state, where we landed and debriefed. Later that day we took off from King Salmon, refueled again, had another 2 v 2, and landed back at Elmendorf to debrief. It was a long day, and I didn’t get home until seven that evening. There was a blue flight line van in front of our base housing unit, and all the lights were on. Donna had invited the crew of the tanker over, and the house was full of tanker pilots, co-pilots, flight engineers, and boomers. In the morning there wasn’t a drop of booze left in the house. It was a party, and a good one.

It’s not all bad, being a veteran.

My family is full of them. Woodfords fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. Some of those who stayed behind in England came over as Redcoats; those who emigrated to America, my branch of the family, fought against them.

Later generations of Woodfords fought in the Civil War. Fay Woodford, my grandfather, was a doughboy in France during WWI (mom’s family had a military tradition as well, mostly Navy; her father, my grandfather Estes, enlisted as a sailor during the Great War). Dad’s older brothers went off to WWII after Pearl Harbor so he did too, forging a letter of permission from my grandmother because he was only 16. He was a Navy gunner in the Pacific and was there for the Battle of Okinawa. Dad mustered out at the end of the war, taught school for a while, said “fuck this” and went back in, this time as an Air Force officer.

Even though I grew up in it, the military and my family’s ties to it weren’t things I thought about until high school. I liked the life of a military brat, but I was becoming politically aware, and later, in college, I vowed to break the chain. I was going to be a college professor. That didn’t work out, though, and after a year of teaching school I too said “fuck this” and joined the Air Force.

Here’s a sketch of my military history, if you’re interested. I’m working on a memoir, but you can’t see that yet, even if you are interested, because it’s nowhere near ready for prime time.

Like most Baby Boomers, I was raised to believe my country did the right thing in WWI and WWII, that we fought the good fight against enemies who, had they prevailed, would have made the world a far more horrible place. I still believe that today.

I believe my own Cold War service was necessary and good, that my country once again did the right thing opposing and containing communism, and that the world today is a better place for it. I was absolutely opposed to the Vietnam War, and had a lot of misgivings about joining the USAF while that war was still on. I was on board for Desert Storm, even though participating at a remove, doing my part to keep the lid on North Korea as a fighter pilot on Okinawa while others fought in the desert. I’ve been against nearly every military action my country has carried out since Desert Storm. Things are more muddled now. North Korea and ISIS aside, there are few clear enemies, and no point to the endless suffering we’ve caused in different parts of the world.

Overall, though, I was happy in the Air Force. It was a rewarding career. I’m proud of what I did for my country. I’m proud of the military, in particular its leading role in racial integration, and the culture of professionalism and selfless service it embodies. I’m proud to have been part of a profession people look up to.

As in most Western countries, our military is firmly under civilian control, and one thing we’ve never had to worry about in the United States is a military coup, or the hereditary military dictatorship that follows. I wish I could say our military is not corrupt, but corruption has long been a part of military procurement, encouraged and abetted by politicians and contractors on the take. I wish I could say our military takes sexism and sexual abuse as seriously as it takes racism, but I can’t. I wish I could say today’s volunteer force represents a cross-section of American society, but it has become increasingly separate and insular, and I worry about that. I wish recently-retired general officers were not part of the Trump administration. I really worry about that.

Sacrifices? In my case, they were few and trivial. There were times I worked harder than I ever thought possible, and for little reward, but who hasn’t? Over the years friends and colleagues died in aircraft crashes, but apart from those traumatic moments I was happy.

And in that spirit, I wish all my military brothers and sisters a happy Veterans Day.


Air-Minded: PASM Photoblog IX

I was looking through iPhone photos in a break room at Pima Air & Space Museum, inside a metal-walled building that blocks cell phone reception, and realized I’d have to wait to post them until I got home. Since I couldn’t go online and catch up with my little Facebook friends either, I started looking through the contents of my wallet for something to read … yes, that’s how bored I was. Seeing me pull out my pilot license, another volunteer told me to check out the one on display in an adjoining room. I did, and was no longer bored:

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The US government began issuing pilot licenses in 1927, so Joan Shankle’s ticket, dated 1931, is an early example. I knew Orville Wright had signed pilot licenses in his time but hadn’t seen one before. The Department of Commerce’s Aeronautics Branch offered Orville U.S. Pilot License #1, even going so far as to give him a pass on the written and flight tests, but he turned the honor down on the grounds that he no longer flew and didn’t need a piece of paper to prove he’d been the first to do it.

The pilot of PASM’s Il-2 Sturmovik flying tank ditched it in a lake during the siege of Leningrad in January 1944. It remained underwater until the 1990s, when it was retrieved and purchased by an American, who later donated it to the museum. That so much of the Sturmovik survived is due to its construction: the cockpit section was made of steel plate to provide protection to its crew; it and the engine section were still intact when it was fished out of the lake. The wings and tail, made of wood and fabric, were long gone, but the restoration section is building new ones from original blueprints. Even though more than 30,000 Sturmoviks were built during WWII, making it the most produced plane in history, only about a dozen survive today.

Here are some photos of the Il-2 coming back together in the museum’s Area 51 restoration hangar, along with a shot of the Sturmovik’s Mikulin V-12 engine, soon to be reunited with the airplane it powered.

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The latest project to come out of restoration is an EC-121T Warning Star, the Vietnam War era’s AWACS. The latest aircraft to go into restoration is our weather-beaten F-15A Eagle, and not a moment too soon.

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Finally, here are two selfies I took at the museum yesterday. I’ve been working on my memoir, in particular a chapter about earning USAF pilot wings in the 1970s, so I sought out the two training aircraft I flew in flight school, the Cessna T-37 “Tweet” and the Northrop T-38 Talon. The Tweet, introduced in 1959, was retired in the early 1990s, but the Talons are still in use and will be for some time to come. The USAF is looking for a new advanced trainer, but hasn’t even picked the prime contractor yet, so the T-38, which began its Air Training Command career in 1961, could conceivably stay in service into the 2040s, when it’ll be in its 80s. Orville Wright didn’t live that long!

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p.s. Before you start making cracks, I was only two years old when Orville died in 1948.


Saturday Morning Updates

We were to have a full house for Thanksgiving, so we started cleaning the dining and living room for company. By “we” I mean Donna, but I’m helping with furniture, moving it around while she tackles different sections of carpet with a shampooer. By “were” I mean Donna’s sister Georgianna and her husband Don have now postponed their visit to Christmas, and our son Gregory has started a new job and may or may not be able drive down with our daughter-in-law Beth and grandson Quentin. We’ll have a clean house and a great feast anyway, even if it’s just us and our daughter Polly … and we don’t have a commitment from her yet.

So there’s that. So far today I’ve been busy filling bird feeders and backing up blogs. Next comes more of the afore-mentioned furniture moving, then a trip to the dog park with the pups (it’ll be Mr. B’s first visit). Living life at a jet-set pace, that’s us.

My sister Sue felt bad and short of breath and went to the doctor. Next thing she knew she was in a hospital bed with lung cancer, and then she died. The very same week a Tucson friend, Mike, felt bad and short of breath and next thing he knew he was in a hospital bed with pancreatic cancer, 80 pounds lighter than he’d been a month ago, and now it looks like he’ll die soon too. Donna and I went to visit him Thursday but he was heavily sedated and out of it. They transferred him to hospice yesterday.

This sucks and I want it to stop. Tell you what, I start to feel bad and short of breath, I’m taking aspirin and hoping for the best.

I wanted to share a couple of photos with you. That’s the real reason for this post.


With my sister Sue a few days ago at the hospital in Belleville, Illinois


The Woodford kids sharing a moment of badly-needed levity


With Sue in happier times


With Mike & his girlfriend Liz last spring

More soon. Thank you for visiting my little blog. Remember to keep a bottle of aspirin handy, kids.