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Christmas.

The holiday of good cheer and lights.  The morning of presents under a tree, wrapped and ready to be opened.  It’s the one day when most everything business-related comes to a screeching halt and people can just relax.  For millions of people, it’s the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who is easily the most influential person that ever walked the planet.  We sing Silent Night and, for a day (and night), many folks actually do sleep in heavenly peace.

For the Alamo Scouts, December 25, 1944 was a day of peace.  The Scouts had been formed in November of the previous year and operated in the Southwest Pacific Theater, primarily around the Philippines.  As you might expect from the group’s name, their job involved reconnaissance and occasional raider activity.  And since that first scouting mission to Los Negros, teams had been sent out forty-nine times.  And forty-nine times the teams had come back intact – not a single man killed.  The most recent mission, conducted by the Sumner Team, had returned on the 21st after forty-seven days in the field.

The men were treated to a lavish meal with all the fixings.  Next Christmas, with the war over, the Alamo Scouts would be just a recent memory.  But on this day, it was time for thanks and celebration.

Merry Christmas everyone!!  Be safe and joyful.

Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle

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It’s been a really long time since we visited the Second World War battleground of Guadalcanal.  Of course, it’s been a while since we discussed any topic at all on these pages.  But I’m around this evening, so we should look at something.  As you probably well know, Guadalcanal (the largest of the Solomon Islands) was the site of a pivotal six-month battle during 1942.

The First Marine Division had come ashore on the 7th of September – exactly nine months after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, achieving a measure of surprise of their own – and, with a bit of help from the Navy, had taken command of the situation.  But the cost had been high.  The cemetery on Guadalcanal held the bodies of 650 Marines.  Nearly 1,300 had been wounded, and more than 8,500 had suffered through crippling tropical disease, namely malaria.  They, along with their leader General Alexander Vandegrift, were ready for a rest.

And on December 9, 1942, that rest began.  Transports unloaded the last of the Army’s American Division, and General Vandegrift turned over command to Army General Alexander Patch.  The ceremony had little fanfare.  Richard Frank writes that the departing General read “a concise letter that paid generous tribute to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who had worked, fought, and died side by side with his marines.

For another two months, Americans would still fight and die on Guadalcanal.  But for the First Marine Division, the end of this battle was drawing to an end.

Recommended Reading:  Guadalcanal

Well, that’s over.  Of course, I’m referring to the 2012 election.  As you may know, my wife and I live in Iowa, which in recent times has been one of the swing states.  That means our TV, radio, mail, and phones were inundated with reasons to vote for a candidate and reminders to vote.  At 6:30pm on Tuesday night, the last political ad aired on one of the local TV stations.  It was cause for celebration.

Other than the election, the airwaves have been dominated by talk of Hurricane Sandy.  The havoc it caused on the East Coast and the destruction it left in its wake are sobering reminders of weather’s power.  In the Midwest, we are accustomed to tornadoes and the awesome force they possess.  But hurricanes are on a different level, particularly with the rainfall and storm surges they bring in tow.

With these thoughts of foul weather, I am reminded of the Great Lakes Storm of 1913.  On November 9, 1913, a pair of powerful low pressure systems collided over the Great Lakes, creating a monster blizzard-storm with hurricane-style attributes.

Storms on the Great Lakes in November are not all that uncommon.  “November Gales” (as they are often called) happen rather frequently.  We’ve actually talked about it before.  If we quickly fast-forward sixty-two years and one day, we’ll be at November 10, 1975, the day the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost in a very similar (though somewhat less powerful) storm.

The November 1913 storm, however, is considered the grand-daddy of Great Lakes storms.  Most storms blow in, knock things around for a couple of hours, and depart.  This particular storm did its worst damage over the course of sixteen hours.  Snowfall around the Lakes was measured in feet, paralyzing numerous communities.  Ice and wind took down power lines, leaving many of those folks in the dark and cold.

But the greatest disaster was on the Lakes themselves.  Hurricane-force winds of 80 miles per hour created 35-foot waves that battered ships and crews without respite.   Nineteen ships were sunk or destroyed with another nineteen stranded.  More than 250 lives were lost.

Recommended Reading: Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald – The most famous of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.

This is one that I remember pretty well…

In May of 1991, Gang Lu received his Ph. D. from the University of Iowa.  On November 1, 1991, this young man was dead, along with five others.  Gang Lu, who studied physics and astronomy, was a pretty smart guy, but he was apparently pretty angry as well.

When Mr. Lu was awarded his doctorate, it did not come with special recognition.  The D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize was much coveted by Lu and, while the monetary prize it offered was modest, he believed it would smooth the path to a professor’s position at the University.  Instead, the prize went to Linhua Shan, at one time Lu’s college roommate, and Lu was not offered a job at Iowa, mostly due to the economics of the day.

His frustration and rage at his supposed rejection grew until it exploded.  On this morning in 1991, Gang Lu attended a physics department meeting and, shortly after it began, Lu took out a gun and shot four people dead.  Three of them were members of his dissertation committee (the ones that evaluated his doctoral thesis).  The fourth was Linhau Shan, the winner of the prize.  He left the building, walked to another, and killed Anne Cleary, an academic affairs officer.  Gang Lu had talked with her on numerous occasions about his failure to win an award for his work.  She died the next day.  He also shot a temp student in the office for good measure (who lived, but was left paralyzed), then shot himself.

I was in my final semester at Iowa State University, working (kind of) feverishly to finish my degree in Computer Science, and I was a member of the Computer Science Club.  We happened to be meeting that afternoon and I still can remember sitting with them and discussing the incident, trying to grasp what would make someone act in such a heinous manner.  As a club, we sent a card of condolence to Iowa City, and I seem to recall that we were sorry for the tragedy.

But looking back, it wasn’t a “tragedy” at all.  Yes, it was terribly sad, and a bunch of families were forever changed.  But Gang Lu’s actions were despicable…a horrific crime committed solely out of selfishness, greed, and envy.  The dissertation committee had to make a choice, and it didn’t go one man’s way.  So rather than accept the decision, that one man let his fury control his life…and his death…and the unwarranted deaths of others.

I still shake my head over this, 20-some years later.

Tonight, the country is focused on the East Coast.  And that’s as it should be.  The storm that hit (and continues to pummel) has devastated parts of that region and left an incredible mess for lots of people to try and clean up.  Some of the images bring to mind the tsunami that struck Japan not quite two years ago.  So tonight, we’ll do a little bit of homage to the Big Apple.

Let’s talk about Ben Bailey and Cash Cab, since its home is New York City.

Now when you first think of game shows, your mind’s eye might conjure up images of a fancy set with a pretty hostess.    Maybe there’s a wheel that gets spun by some contestants, or maybe there are prizes on which people bid.  We might hear Johnny yell, “Come on down!!”  Or maybe it’s doors and deals that flash before you.  You can name that tune in just seven notes.  You want big bucks and no whammies.  You can be a millionaire.  What you see is a high-dollar production.

Cash Cab takes place in a taxi.  It’s a minivan taxi and its high-dollar production is limited to a series of small cameras placed throughout the taxi’s interior, a “video bonus” monitor, and a cool light panel mounted in the roof.

And game shows always have a host.  It’s usually a guy with a coat and tie.

Cash Cab has Ben Bailey.  Bailey, who was born on October 30, 1970, is a stand-up comedian turned game-show host extraordinaire.  He wears a shirt and jeans and looks to be the farthest thing from a traditional host.

Unsuspecting people climb into his cab, which then explodes with lights and music and Ben saying, “Welcome to the Cash Cab…it’s a game show that takes place right here in my taxi.”  The show is really just a very up-to-date (and very entertaining) version of Trivial Pursuit.  As contestants are driven to their destination, Ben asks trivia questions.  Every correct answer wins the group money.  Incorrect answers earn a strike.  If a question or two is particularly challenging, contestants can either phone a friend for help or use a “street shout-out”, where a person on the street has the ability to help.  But be careful!…three strikes and Ben pulls the cab over and kicks everybody to the curb.

There is also the fun “red-light challenge”.  If the Cash Cab reaches its destination, the contestants can either take their winnings or risk it all on a single double-or-nothing video bonus question.

The premise is simple, but it’s incredibly entertaining to watch.  Ben Bailey is charming, witty, and really gracious with the folks that get in his cab, expecting nothing more than a ride.

Cash Cab is a great trivia show built on a totally unsuspecting premise (a cab ride), and Ben Bailey is the perfect host.  Kudos to the Discovery Channel for running with the idea.

Happy Birthday, Ben Bailey!!

I think I’ve been gone long enough.

My surgery (way back on the 2nd) seems to have been successful and, though I’m still a bit stiff and sore, I’m getting better every day.  The surgeon removed a thumb-sized chunk of disk (ok seriously…is it “disk” or “disc”?) that was sitting on the nerves.  As soon as I woke up in the recovery room, I could tell the pain in my left leg was gone.

That’s a great feeling, even though I hurt from being cut open.  And I was home by 2pm the next afternoon…though not very functional.

My wife was extremely helpful and patient throughout the recovery.  It’s somewhat humbling to say that I don’t think I was nearly as good with her when she had surgery.  In my defense, I had no idea what surgery does to a body, and I blame TV for giving me a really distorted view of the whole surgical process, though that excuse is pretty flimsy in its own right.  I will do better with her next time.

Oh, and morphine is lousy…I learned that, too.

I’ve talked about authors once or twice in this forum.  Right off hand, I can remember Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.  Let’s do it again.

I met Michael Crichton’s work in the exact same fashion as I did books by Robert Ludlum.  A lady with whom I worked at my first job out of college knew I liked to read, and loaned me a book.  I recall that it had a white cover and a dinosaur skeleton on the front.  The title, Jurassic Park, meant nothing to me, but I figured I’d give it a go.

When I returned the book to her the next morning, her initial thought was probably that I had read a few pages (maybe even a chapter or two), and then given up on it.  Or maybe she noticed my general state of lethargy, the bags under my eyes, and my dragging feet.  I don’t know, but that tells the true story.  I had found another “glue” book (once it gets in your hands, it’s stuck there until it’s finished).

Of course, the premise of Jurassic Park is completely implausible.  Most of you have probably seen the movie (which does a respectable job of honoring the book), so you know the plot.  A rich guy builds a prehistoric park with real dinosaurs created from DNA taken from ancient mosquitoes.  Then the whole thing collapses in spectacular fashion.

What captured me was the realism with which Crichton wove his tale.  Premise?…like I said, completely implausible.  Delivery?…totally believable.  The book was written with an authenticity that sucked me in.  There was almost a nonchalance with this intricate scientific…stuff…that lent credibility to the story.  I simply couldn’t put it down and had spent the entire night reading.

And while Jurassic Park may be Crichton’s best-known work, it certainly wasn’t the only one.  I was suddenly interested in what else this guy had written.  I purchased a copy of Jurassic Park for my own, then followed it with copies of The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, The Lost World, Timeline, Airframe, and Prey.

And while I thought some of them were less good than others (I really had to work to get through Congo), each was really interesting.  Prey was a sort of nano-technology/artificial intelligence story that I found fascinating.  The Andromeda Strain (one of Crichton’s earlier books) was completely engrossing until the final ten pages.  At that point (in my opinion), it simply fell apart.

But Michael Crichton, who was born October 23, 1942, did more than write books.  If I recall, he was actually a Harvard-educated medical doctor, though I don’t know that he ever practiced medicine (the books and the movie rights probably made him a healthy living)…maybe he did.  This fact alone makes his success even more remarkable because, as you know (if you’ve visited the doctor’s office), most doctors can’t even write their names in a legible format.  Anyways, he came up with the screenplay for the movie Twister (which is familiar to many of you), and of course, was the executive producer of the very popular TV series ER.

Crichton passed away in 2008, a victim of cancer.  But like Ludlum, his writings survive, and continue to entertain readers the world over.  If you’ve never read anything by Michael Crichton, you should.

Happy Birthday, Michael Crichton!!

Recommended Reading:  Jurassic Park – If you haven’t seen the movie, this is a great place to start.  Otherwise, I really liked Airframe and Prey.

I can’t believe it’s already October!  This year has rocketed by.  The fall colors, which we suspected would be pretty dismal due to our super-dry summer, have exploded in an array of colors I never would have imagined.  The reds and yellows and oranges are spectacular, offset by skies as blue as azure and temperatures that have been perfect.  We still aren’t getting any precipitation, but this weather has been awesome.

So it’s a bit of a shame that I’m still laid up.  The herniated disk (disc?) continues to frustrate me some, but at this time tomorrow morning (~7:30am), I’ll be heading into surgery.  The surgeon predicts a “LensCrafters” performance (success…in about an hour).  It’s my first time under the knife (not counting wisdom teeth), so I’m a bit nervous, but if they can get things squared away, that would be great.

October 1, 1947.

It was on this day that test pilot George Welch took to the skies in a revolutionary new aircraft.  Well, it was revolutionary for the United States.  The XP-86 was North American Aviation’s first serious jet fighter, and it was the first American jet to be produced with swept wings.  But we got a little help on this one.

North American’s P-51 Mustang was, quite probably, the pinnacle of piston-engine aircraft.  Range, speed, climb, maneuverability, the Mustang had it all.  As the Second World War wound down, it dominated the skies, regardless of theater.  But by 1944, even it’s most ardent fans knew the proverbial writing was on the wall.  Jet power was the wave of the future, as it promised far better performance.  And what’s more, Germany’s Luftwaffe was already putting jet power to use.  The Me-262 and the even faster (though much less practical and less safe) Me-163 entered production before the end of the War, putting the world’s air forces on notice as to what was possible.

So it’s somewhat understandable that the Allied race to Berlin (Russia from the east, the U.S. and Britain from the west) was about more than securing territory and ending the fighting.  Each side, while warring against Germany, was in a battle to capture these German scientists before the other in order to gain a competitive advantage in what was shaping up to be a post-war “falling out of the Allies.”

Back to our story.

North American’s first attempts at jet aircraft involved basically hooking jets up to Mustang wings and airframes.  But even with piston engines, the P-51 had reached the limits of its potential.  The straight wings simply created too much resistance as it was.  There was no way jets could be used.  But the German scientists had figured out several years prior that swept wings allowed for higher performance by greatly reducing drag, and any loss of low-speed stability could be countered by the simple addition of leading-edge slats.

The engineers took these ideas, headed back to the drawing boards, and revamped their design.  The aircraft that took to the skies on this day was the beginning of yet another remarkable product from North American.  Though initially under-powered, the XP-86 would evolve into one of the finest fighters of its generation.  It flew with great distinction in the Korean War as well as dozens of conflicts around the world in the service of other air forces.  There were numerous variants produced, both here and in other countries under license, and they served for years, with the last Sabres being retired from the Bolivian air force in 1994.

The United States Air Force dropped the “P” (for “Pursuit”) designation, replacing it with “F” (for “Fighter”).  So our XP-86 became, in production, the North American F-86 Sabre, and more Sabres were produced (upwards of 10,000) than any other jet-powered U.S. fighter.

And one other thing…

There are unsubstantiated claims that Welch’s first flight also included the first trip beyond the sound barrier…achieved in a shallow dive.