1979: The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter

It was topic common enough for the end of any spring semester. While  recording grades for the first critique of the semester our instructor  asked everyone in turn what their plans were for the coming summer:

  • Karen was going to intern at a magazine in Salt Lake City.
  • Dan would be taking a remedial math class during the summer term.
  • Bob had scored a sweet  gig doing backgrounds at an LA animation house.
  • I would be flying helicopters for the Army at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Total silence

There’s nothing quite like being surprised by someone else being totally surprised. Even though I’d  been an ROTC cadet the entire time at BYU,  Sarcastic Instructor1 was quite startled at the prospect of me actually raising my right arm, swearing in and becoming a second lieutenant. To be totally frank I wasn’t too sure about the decision either –  bridging the gulf between creativity and controlled mayhem had been fuel for many sessions of anxious introspection during my years as a college student but I’d always figured that one of the two options would nose ahead of the other  by the time I finished with school.

…at least that’s what I thought the previous summer when I’d hit creative roadblock of such magnitude that the military seemed my only viable option but in a perverse twist of fate I’d made an artistic comeback and was well on the way to building a truly magnificent portfolio. Unfortunately I still had to complete Sarcastic Instructor’s 400 level Illustration II class, and his response to my announcement about “summer employment”  was a rolled-eye glance in my direction as he announced the subject for our mid-term project.

The assignment was to rework an existing lack-luster record album cover for which I was given “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” by the Incredible String Band.  As I went through all the tracks on the album the group’s reedy vocals and use of medieval wood-winds backed by contemporary instruments suggested a marriage of artistic vision. I felt  a combination of Patrick Woodruffe’s rich textures and trompe l’oeil effects with Jim Sharpe’s punchy linework and airbrush backgrounds would work, , but what I ended up with was a mish-mash of stylistic inconsistency. The background worked out nicely but my effort to hork Mr. Sharpe’s styles devolved into an indifferent main-figure, which Sarcastic Instructor referred to during the preliminary critique as my “quasi-comic-book style”.

I returned home in a foul mood – I had a 48-hour respite before the final critique but attending to all the details of graduation and commissioning had already put me under the gun time-wise. Starting over from scratch was not an option so I masked off the background and started to airbrush white ink over the main figure with a vague plan for re-penciling the image – and that’s when the magic happened. The notoriously fugitive Dr. Martin’s dyes I had used to color the original figure began to  bleed into the white ink and in the process a  wonderfully ethereal figure began to emerge from the panel.

It was so. Totally. Cool.

In a perfect world I would have gone back to the final critique to be met  with effusive praise from Sarcastic Instructor but the best I got was “Well Deitrick, you pulled it off”. Six weeks later I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army. Another six months later I was flying TH-55 helicopters in basic flight training.

…and forty years later “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” occupies a place of honor on my living room wall, carefully angled away from the front window and the UV light which would permanently fade-out the Dr. Martin’s Dyes that accidently changed the painting from a disaster to a masterpiece all those years ago.

HangmansBeautifulDaughter


 

1: See 1978: Superman With A Paunch

Music: “Hello It’s Me”

 

(Dig back far enough in the archives and you’ll find a similar post to this one. Music was a favorite topic when I first started blogging, but those first posts were pretty skimpy, so from time to time I will be re-visiting songs rather than re-running them.)

Consider the following:

  • KFQD
  • KRSK
  • KCSY
  • WSKW

What do they have in common? All of them were moderate-to-low powered AM radio stations playing a mix of current and “recent oldie” pop music when I listened to them in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In addition they all staffed their non-prime-time hours with brand-new talent still learning the trade so on-air gaffes were not uncommon…but of the four it was KRSK (Rexburg ID) that had the worst problem with gaps of silence between songs.

1973

The hiss, pop, and sometimes music on my old clock radio had been good company while I studied the afternoon away, but it was the clock that had my attention as I closed my art history book and sat up on my bed. It was 7:00 PM – time to get changed for a visiting artist lecture, but as I stood up there was an extended  moment of dead air on the radio,  then out of that silence came an unmistakable bass-backed-by-organ introduction followed up by the first crystal clear line of lyrics in Todd Rundgren’s mid-range tenor voice.

Hello, it’s me I’ve thought about us for a long, long time

Maybe I think too much but something’s wrong

There’s something here that doesn’t last too long

Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine

It was the first time I heard the song and I was captivated, standing in that exact spot until music was over. Unlike many songs where  I consider vocals to be little more than another instrument, lyrics had an almost physical impact on me  and I became very curious about the song. I subsequently found out that Rundgren had first recorded Hello It’s Me in 1972, but it didn’t start charting until the fall of 1973, a point in time that was also shaping up as one of the best and worst years of my life. During the previous spring I went  through what can described as a (take your pick) Road to Damascus/Alma the Younger conversion that put me on track for the best semester of my collegiate career, making the Dean’s list and achieving a number of important personal goals…to include the upcoming reunion in six weeks with My Best Friend when everything in my life would be perfect.

Seeing you Or seeing anything as much as I do you

I take for granted that you’re always there

I take for granted that you just don’t care

Sometimes I can’t help seeing all the way through

I was struck by how beautiful the melody was but  unsettled by the bittersweet tone of the lyrics in the same way that the beauty of a majestic anvil-topped thunderhead lit by a sunset could often hide a vicious storm… like the emotional thunderstorm that had swept through earlier that week.

The letter read: “I miss you so much, but I get afraid that all this waiting will come to nothing. It’s a big step to try and start over again when things are going so well here in Fairbanks. We’ve got a whole new group of Young Single Adults including a G.I. from Eielson who is really nice. He kind of reminds me of you.”

I was in the process of learning two  important facts about life:

1) Life changes. There are times when I’d love to settle in, break the cosmic channel selector and just keep Life the way is. I wouldn’t have complained one bit if my sophomore year of high school would have gone for eighteen months instead of nine. (That actually happens. It’s called “flunking”). At a later time, our little family of four house-sat for my parents in Sterling from 1987-89 and it was such a pleasant interlude that I wished we’d never left…but eventually you have to move on, sometimes to happier situations but just as often to sadder conditions.

2) Personal history and temporal landmarks don’t always mesh with the timetable the rest of society uses. An old friend and mentor called his own unique periods of time “boxes” and felt that the boxes could be dictated by age, events or experience – and that our boxes don’t always line up with other people’s boxes. For example the textbook teenage “box” for  a young man is assumed to run from 13 to 19  but all things considered, my teen-age years went from age fifteen to age twenty, and I didn’t know it but Hello It’s Me was marking the end of that  box for me, no matter how I kicked, clawed and dragged my figurative feet.

Rundgren hit a resonant chord, his melancholy resignation very similar to the way I had also been “seeing all the way through” for the entire semester starting in August when I boarded the 727 in Fairbanks and the thought flashed across my mind that she won’t be there at the other end. I’d briskly pushed that premonition aside, preferring life on a Cairo houseboat (living in de Nile), and continuing to brush off doubts brought on by letters with sentiments similar to the one quoted above.

At some level I knew that Rundgren’s haunting lyrics were preparing me for a big change in my life, and while I dreaded the prospect of a relation-ectomy without anesthesia, I  knew that if and when a break came I had to be able to walk away and leave my Best Friend with a clean slate.

It’s important to me
That you know you are free
‘Cause I never want to make you change for me

1979:

“ Hey everybody in the Tidewater area – this is Wally West  and that was Todd Rundgren and  Hello It’s Me from 1973 followed by England Dan & John Ford Coley singing another Rundgren tune Love is the Answer – and the time is (bing-bong) five minutes past the big hour of five o’clock!”

If the admin clerk had actually been on time with my orders I would have cleared post and been out of town before hearing that announcement  – and those songs, and even then the significance didn’t hit me until we were half-way across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. Todd Rundgren’s work had been the signpost directing me through that first transition from teenager to young adult, and now his creative voice (albeit second-hand) was guiding me through yet another transition from the student/cadet/young father phase to (GASP) adulthood.

I drove along the elevated causeway, the sunlight glinting on the wavetops at each side. Lori and Conrad were both asleep and I was alone with my thoughts. On one level the connection with the abrupt end to my first engagement made Rundgren’s “greatest hit” very  difficult to listen to, but at another level the song was very dear to me. When that early heartbreak happened I momentarily thought of flying back home and making a violent scene, but the simple lyrics had had a calming effect and I saved the price of airfare to Fairbanks as I walked away in my best grown-up fashion,  leaving my (former) Best Friend with a clean unencumbered slate to build a future on.

Think of me

You know that I’d be with you if I could

I’ll come around to see you once in a while

Or if I ever need a reason to smile

And spend the night if you think I should

…and as I glanced over at my Beautiful Saxon Princess and my infant son realized given the way things had worked out I’d ended up with more than just one “reason to smile” .

1979: Look Before You Land

Another lesson from the “can’t tell a book from its cover” manual.

I was a flight student at Fort Rucker in the fall of 1979. The course of instruction was a little different then than it is now; each class wore a different colored hat (my class wore green) and our primary flight training was conducted in the TH55 – a small two-place helicopter manufactured by Hughes that was powered by a reciprocating engine and equipped with a manual throttle that you had to roll on and roll off as you changed power settings.  Taking to the air in the TH55 was not so much matter of sitting in an aircraft as it was strapping one to your back and then taking off.

Individual classes would fly either in the morning or the afternoon, taking off from a large central airfield and splitting up between various stage fields all over post to avoid the hazards inherent in overcrowding an airfield.  During primary phase we would receive dual instruction, then solo flights, all of which would continue for about a month or so when we’d get a check ride and go into the next phase of training

Our class ended up taking a bit longer to complete primary flight training as bad weather broke our flying time up with several days stuck on the ground. After being cleared for operations after one lengthy stretch of weather days we were dismayed to find that our class had been switched to another location – Toth Stage Field. Normally that wouldn’t have been so bad – except on the first day back flying I was scheduled to fly solo to this new stage field. Bear in mind that at this point we were yet to be taught cross-country navigation, I hadn’t flown solo since my second supervised solo three weeks earlier and I hadn’t flown at all in over a week.  I was a bit nervous, but as a newly-minted second lieutenant flying with a class of warrant officer candidates I put on a very brave face and set out firmly in control of both that TH55 with the pesky manual throttle and situation.

I had planned my route carefully, taking notes of landmarks to help me find Toth Stage field, enter the traffic pattern safely and land but unfortunately I failed to take in consideration the prevailing winds from the south which were much stronger at the new stage field (at the southern edge of the reservation) than they were at our old field (at the very northern edge). I flew along blissfully unaware, starting into a long loop far outside the stage field which I had planned to set up at the correct angle to enter traffic.

Unfortunately those prevailing winds had pushed me back towards the field and that long loop around ended up much closer to the stage field than I realized.  All of a sudden a crisp voice came over the radio “AIRCRAFT ON DOWNWIND, PLEASE BE ADVISED. TOTH IS LANDING TO THE EAST. TOTH IS LANDING TO THE EAST”. “I looked around and sighed, thinking “They told us this might happen. Some bozo got turned around.

The radio crackled again – this time a bit more urgent: “AIRCRAFT ON DOWNWIND, PLEASE BE ADVISED. TOTH IS LANDING TO THE EAST. TOTH IS LANDING TO THE EAST”. “Just at that moment I saw another TH55 coming straight at me, barely missing me as it buzzed by. I casually lifted the collective up as far as I could, the airspeed dropped to almost zero and I popped up several hundred feet before I regained control of the aircraft, got myself reoriented and landed safely.

All hopes of my not being found out were dashed as was met by a very stern flight commander at the door to the ready room.  He then took me immediately to the instructor-pilot that had been in control of the helicopter that barely missed me and I prepared to have a length of my hide torn off….

To my surprise this crusty old aviator- who were all kind of afraid of- coolly talked me through the whole process. Instead of “tearing that strip of hide off of me”, we went over what I had planned versus what actually happened. With a smile he calmly explained what I should have done, then ended with the assurance that he bore no ill will towards me and I wouldn’t be written up. It kind of surprised me because this particular instructor pilot was even more scowling, scruffy and hard-bitten than usual – from his demeanor my buddies wondered if maybe he had a collection of ears from his two tours in Viet-Nam.

I always thought I could “figure people out” fairly well just through observation.  It’s a second-child-in-the-birth-order trick; you sit back and watch while your older sibling happily walks into whatever minefield Life has set up at the time. Maybe it was because I was now functioning in a very different world where I had little to no experience, but it prompted me to “observe” a little longer before making a judgment.

1979: Green Hat For A Green Horn

Living in Clarksville (TN) conjures up more memories than you’d expect for a town that I had never been prior to moving here in late 2007. I have no doubt the memories are conjured up by the frequent rotor noises;  we’re right next to FT Campbell, home of the 101st Infantry Division (Air Assault) and the sound of helicopters in flight  fills the air every day. The 2007 move here was our “third try”; we were on orders for FT Campbell when I resigned my commission in 1983 and I had also on orders for FT Campbell before I was medically grounded for vision problems at FT Rucker in the spring of 1980.

I was a “green hat” there at “Mother Rucker”, a student in Officer Rotary Wing Aviator Class 44-79.  That term might be a little confusing; I’ve learned since moving here that flight students no longer wear colored baseball caps during flight training at FT Rucker.  I’m not sure what prompted the colored ball caps in the first place – most likely it was a morale/cohesion measure as there were badges that warrant officer candidates could add to their hats upon completing certain phases of their training.  A lot of other things were different back then- for instance we got our primary flight training flying  the Hughes TH55 instead of the Bell UH-1 (Huey) , the TH55 being so small that it felt more like you were strapping it on your back that flying it.

Unfortunately I received a medical disqualification between the instrument phase and night flying phase for vision problems, specifically lack of convergence and fusion. COmmo0nly known as “amblyopia”’ what it means in plain English is my eyes have a hard time simultaneously zeroing in on the same point  at the same time …and during times of fatigue and great stress it would get  worse with my left eye drifting all the way over to the side. It made instrument flying problematic what with all the dials and gauges to keep track of.   About the only good thing about the condition was that it made me  really good flying with a partial panel – an emergency procedure simulating an electrical malfunction in which pilot has to continue to hold course, altitude and airspeed as the blind flying instruments are turned off one by one . The fewer instruments I had to look at the better I got – to the point that when I was flying with just the altimeter, compass and airspeed indicator I could keep all of those needles nailed to their proper places on the dials.

(It was kind of like the old WKRP in Cincinnati episode where Johnny Fever and Venus go on the air with an Ohio State Trooper to do a controlled alcohol experiment showing how a person’s reactions slow down with every drink they take – only with Johnny is reactions got better with more alcohol)

I bear no one any ill will about the grounding but my company commander could have been a bit more committed in helping men fight the grounding but unfortunately he was more concerned about completing a successful troop command. Looking back it was probably the best thing – had I gone on to graduate and serve as an aviator I would have been competent enough….but I would have never known how well I could work with people had I spent most of my time manipulating collective and cyclic.

As disappointing as the grounding was it was almost a relief – the other shoe dropping. It had been extremely tough learning to fly at the same time I was learning to be a lieutenant.  Sometimes I felt that my head was going to quietly split open like an over-ripe cantaloupe on a hot summer day. Being pushed to the limit like that meant that it didn’t take much to push me over the edge.

Sometimes that last little push could involve something as trivial as a watch.

… an LCD digital watch to be precise.  While they’re common now, in 1979 they weren’t; especially the one I bought in the summer of 1979. Among all the other bells and whistles it could display 24 hour format military time, which was pretty important to me because I kept getting 7:00 P.M. mixed up with 1700 hours – which is 5:00 PM.  That was a big chunk of time at a pretty important part of the day to be so unsure about so for me that 24 format option was more than just a novelty.  Unfortunately programming it to display military time – as well as getting it to perform most other functions was confusing and required pressing four prominent buttons in a precise order.

The novelty soon wore off – but not the confusion, some of which I was the cause of. Flying in the mornings meant getting a weather briefing at 6:00 which in turn meant tumbling out of the rack at 4:00 AM. One particular morning my classmates and I were sitting quietly listening to the assistant flight commander talk about warm fronts and imbedded thunderstorm cells when I was jolted to full consciousness by the piercing beep of a watch-alarm. I looked around at the room full of student officers and warrant officer candidates with disgust, wondering which bozo didn’t know how to turn his watch-alarm off …

….until I realized it was MY watch. I clumsily tried to punch the four buttons in the sequence required to turn the beeping off , then finally surrendered and shoved my watch under my leg in a vain attempt to stop the noise.

As if…