Posts Tagged ‘1968’

It’s been a pretty quiet month, that’s for sure!  Well, not quiet in terms of everyday life, but certainly in terms of my presence on these pages.  I’ll aim to do a bit better going forward.

Let’s check back in with Dick Proenneke, because if anyone knew about quiet and solitude, it was Dick.   As you know, he had begun building his own cabin and carving out a “retirement” existence on the shores of Twin Lakes, south and west of Anchorage, Alaska.  The summer of 1968 was super-busy, as it was spent completing his new home.

And then it was done, but there was still work to do.  Other than the few basics that Babe Alsworth brought in by plane (flour, salt, eggs, etc.), Dick had to fend for himself.  So there was hunting and hiking and chopping firewood for the chim…

Hmmm…Proenneke’s finished cabin didn’t have a chimney.  And now it was September, and the brutal cold of winter wasn’t all that far away, particularly in Alaska.  But if we’ve learned anything about our retiree, it’s that he planned ahead.  Part of his summer chores included gathering a pile of bigger rocks from the nearby stream, and ordering some bags of concrete mix that Babe flew in with the T-Craft.

And on September 6, 1968, Dick Proenneke began building his chimney.  The first step was to cut a hole in the rear of the house.  It was a bit sad, he thought, to cut up what he had so carefully laid in, but warmth in frigid temperatures (that approached -50°) was paramount.  And once the hole was cut, he was committed to finish.

As you might expect, the job was done before the cold arrived, and when it was -45° outside, the inside of the cabin, with the help of the fireplace, stayed a relatively balmy 40°.

But don’t take my word for it.  If you haven’t already, go buy the videos (I hear rumor that a 3rd video is in the works) or read the book.  You’ll get the full scoop.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness

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“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace.  I was alone – just me and the animals.  It was a great feeling – free once more to plan and do as I pleased.  ‘Beyond’ was all around me.  My dream was a dream no longer.  I suppose I was here because this was something I had to do – not just dream about it but do it.  I suppose too I was here to test myself – not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination.  What was I capable of that I didn’t know yet?  Could I really enjoy my own company for an entire year? And was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me?  I had seen its moods in late spring, summer, and early fall, but what about the winter?  Would I love the isolation then, with its bone-stabbing cold, its ghostly silence?  At age 51, I intended to find out.”

And with those words, I was introduced a couple of years ago to the world of Richard Proenneke (pronounced PREN-ick-ee).  Born in the southeast corner of Iowa in 1916, his greatest adventure wouldn’t begin for a half century.  He was (unlike me) very skilled with his hands.  His carpentry skills served him well in the Navy, and his ability as a mechanic and repairman made him the person people called when a fix was needed.  His skills were so in demand that, by the age of 51, he had socked enough money away to retire.

But his retirement would be very different than what many of us might imagine.

Dick Proenneke chucked civilization, with all its convenience and comfort, and headed for Twin Lakes, Alaska.  Located roughly 130 miles southwest of Anchorage, it may not seem at first blush to be “the middle of nowhere”, but it was.  There was no electricity, no running water, no gas lines, no grocery stores, and no neighbors (if you don’t count Spike Carrithers’ cabin situated on the upper lake).  There wasn’t even a road.  If anything or anybody got to Twin Lakes, it required walking over the mountains or an airplane with floats.  But this was the pristine setting Proenneke sought.

Proenneke first arrived in 1967, when he stayed long enough to cut down and trim the spruce trees he would use to build his cabin as well as select his cabin site.  He returned the following May to begin construction.  Not wanting to carry a bunch of luggage (remember, transportation was a tremendous issue), he brought only the most basic hand tools, and most of those without handles (for easier packing).  His first job was to fashion handles for the tools he would need.

And then he was ready.  Four days after his arrival, on May 25, 1968, Dick Proenneke made the first cuts in the first logs of what would eventually become his cabin.  Once completed, he would live in Alaska for more than a year, after which he returned home to visit family.  He would come back to his cabin in the spring of 1970 and would remain there, living mostly in complete solitude, until age and health issues forced him to leave in 1998, at the age of 82.  Proenneke has passed on, but the cabin remains, maintained with its owner’s care by the National Park Service.

One of the coolest things about Proenneke’s time in Alaska is that he filmed it and kept journals.  Those records have been turned into several videos and at least one book that chronicles his first year alone in the wilderness.  My wife got me the complete video set (and the book) this past Christmas and I’ve already watched the videos several times.  I found the book to be equally fascinating.  Public Television shows these videos on occasion, but it’s way better just to buy your own set.

For me, there’s something very intriguing about watching a man use his hands and his wits to solve a problem.  What makes it more compelling is the fact that this particular man did it in a place of such magnificent beauty, completely unaided by modern technology and helping hands.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness – A diary of Dick Proenneke’s first sixteen months in Alaska.

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I started writing my farewell post this morning.  I believed I had reached a point where I wasn’t writing enough to justify continuing the process.  It seemed that (at least) a temporary vacation of a month – or maybe a couple of months – would either re-kindle the cooling desire or confirm that Today’s History Lesson had indeed become a part of history.

But then I looked at my upcoming calendar, and there were several topics (like this evening’s) that captured my attention.  Maybe this place wasn’t so dead after all.  So I shelved that “farewell” post…for now.

I’ve talked about rallying on a couple of occasions, and I will again tonight.  It’s a fascinating sport, the ultimate test of man, speed, and machine.  All forms of auto racing require skill – yes, even NASCAR, which involves mostly left-hand turns on concrete…I’ve often said that NASCAR stands for “Not AS Cool As Rally”, which merely displays my bias – but top-level rally drivers are, without question, the finest car-control experts on the planet.

Maybe it’s navigating a highly-powered car through the high-speed gravel tracks and “yumps” of Finland.  It could be the twisting, narrow roads of Corsica.  Or maybe it’s the famed Col de Turini of Monte Carlo.  Whatever the venue, rallying requires a certain amount of panache and flambouyance, an appearance of “disregard for personal safety”, and a splash of “nuts”, all mixed in the proper proportion.  And did I mention the need for unparalleled car control?

Few drivers displayed these characteristics more than Colin McRae.  The Scotsman from Lanark, born August 5, 1968, was a madman behind the wheel, giving an appearance of throwing caution to the four winds, and taking “maximum attack” to new heights.  The talent was there in spades.  The outright speed was astounding. He was brilliant at the controls of every rally car he ever drove.  Colin was (and still is) the youngest driver to ever win the World Rally Championship title, conquering that plateau at just 27 years old.

But along with nearly 150 rally starts, 25 outright victories, and 40+ podium finishes (driving for the Subaru, Ford, and Citroen factory teams) came the inevitable shunts.  Now most rally drivers will tell you that if you don’t ever crash your car, you’re not pushing hard enough.  But rally legend Jimmy McRae’s son often put himself out of the competition in spectacular fashion, earning himself the nickname of “McCrash”.  A couple that come immediately to mind are his crash in 1999’s Rally Australia, where Colin carried too much speed over a sixth-gear jump on day 2 and put his car into the trees.  The other was his crazy end-over-end crash in 2001’s Rally Great Britain, where Colin hit a big hole that was hidden in a right-hand bend, destroyed his car, and ended his shot at a 2nd championship, handing it instead to Richard Burns.  There were dozens of others, and his fans always remember a few.

As 2003 ended, so had Colin’s career…for the most part.  He picked up occasional drives for the next couple years, but as the WRC entered something of a “dry season”, opportunities were few and most of them went to up-and-coming drivers.  But Colin didn’t stray far from motorsports, trying his hand at the Dakar Rally, the 24 Hours of LeMans, and even Britain’s version of NASCAR racing.

And all along the way, there was the Colin McRae Rally video games, introducing millions of gamers not only to the sport of rallying, but also to the man behind the box’s title.  Other than maybe American rally legend John Buffum, no other man of rallying is better know in the United States (where a WRC event will probably never come again) than Colin McRae.

Having cheated death so many times behind the wheel, it’s somewhat ironic that McRae’s death in 2007 came behind of the controls of his personal helicopter.

McRae had just celebrated his 39th birthday the month before.

Happy Birthday, Colin McRae!!  You’re rallying magic is sorely missed, but will not be forgotten.

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The General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark was one of the more controversial aircraft to enter the U.S. inventory.  The Secretary of Defense, desirous of buying a single airframe for both the Air Force and the Navy, told both services to work together toward a common platform.  They gave it a go, but couldn’t make it work.  So the Navy went to Grumman, taking delivery of the F-14 Tomcat.  The Air Force (and ultimately the Strategic Air Command) continued on with the Aardvark.

The F-111’s “F” designation may give some the impression that it possessed fighter capabilities.  But don’t be fooled.  Much like the F-105 it replaced, the Aardvark was not a fighter in any sense of the word.  It could turn and roll and shoot a cannon and fire a missile, but a fighter it was not.  It was a high-speed, low-altitude medium bomber.

As testing progressed and neared completion, the conflict in southeast Asia gave the Air Force a venue to confirm the abilities of its latest acquisition in the heat of battle.

On March 15, 1968, six Aardvarks departed for Tahkli Royal Thai Air Base, located in central Thailand.  The operation was named Combat Lancer, and involved low-altitude, night-time missions against targets in North Vietnam.  These missions, flown at high speed at only 100 feet or so above the ground, would put the swing-wing technology, the terrain-following radar, and the all-new Pave Tack targeting system through real-world paces.

The first mission was successfully flown on the 18th, but things went south pretty quickly, with a pair of F-111’s lost in the first two weeks of operations.  Two replacement aircraft were sent to Tahkli, but one of those was lost.  By April 22nd, Operation Combat Lancer had been halted.

The Air Force was unhappy with the results, General Dynamics was mystified as to what was happening to its aircraft, and politicians back home were angered at the Defense Secretary for procuring an aircraft that apparently couldn’t defy gravity with any consistency.

Discovering what was wrong was a difficult process, largely due to the mission profiles themselves.  The Aardvarks were flying at high speed, at night, and at very low altitude.  Any mistake or loss of control would put the aircraft into the ground almost instantaneously.  It was only the fortunate event that one crew was able to eject and survive their crash that reports could be made.

It turned out that the advanced swing-wing junction boxes were not as strong as they should have been, and the combination of high speed, low altitude, and g-forces served to stress the junctions beyond the breaking point.  It really came down to the fact that the F-111 was an incredibly complex swing-wing aircraft meant to handle an extremely dangerous, specialized mission, and had entered service before it could really be fully tested.

Once General Dynamics found and addressed the issues, the Aardvark’s reliability was vastly improved.  The aircraft returned to the theater in 1971 and participated in both Linebacker offensives, flying over 4,000 sorties with but six losses, all combat-related.  Missions were flown in bad weather, without countermeasures aircraft, without tanker support, and against some of the more difficult and well-defended targets…and the F-111’s performed brilliantly, each carrying the same payload as four F-4 Phantoms.

Years later, the Aardvark continued its good work in Operation Desert Storm.  In fact, it was just about the most reliable weapon system in Saudi Arabia.  But those first 55 missions that comprised Operation Combat Lancer left an indelible stain on General Dynamics’ creation.

So when the Aardvark was finally retired in 1993, it did so with a remarkable record of service…and a tarnished reputation.

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Over the years, the Olympics have provided us with some really memorable moments.  Of the various Games I’ve seen, there are some I recall with varying degrees of clarity.

There was Bruce Jenner’s improbable Gold Medal in the decathlon.  Nadia Comaneci, the young Romanian whose perfect 10 stunned the gymnastics world.  Remember the diminutive Mary Lou Retton screaming down the runway and launching herself off the vault?  Or maybe you’re a speed person, and your mind’s eye paints Carl Lewis, working to match Jesse Owens’ 4 track-and-field Gold Medals.  Or maybe it’s the Miracle on Ice…the U.S. Hockey Team’s stunning defeat of the Soviet Union in 1980.

Younger folks might focus more on Michael Phelps’ 8 Golds…a staggering achievement.  Or how about Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man?  Just wait until he really turns it loose.

There are dozens of other moments…those are a few that really stand out to me.  Moments that I actually remember seeing.

But Today’s History Lesson will look at one that I haven’t seen except in replays.  And when it occurred, it rocked the track and field world.

The 1968 Olympic Games were held in Mexico City, and many world records were broken throughout the event.  But more than 40 years later, there’s really only one event that’s remembered:  the long jump.  And to say Bob Beamon won the Gold is to completely miss what took place on October 18, 1968.

At the Olympic level, the caliber of athletic ability is so high and the competitors are so evenly matched that records are generally bested by inches or by tenths (or even hundredths) of a second.

But when the 22-year old Beamon took the 19 steps of his approach and launched himself, it appeared that he had achieved low-Earth orbit.  Reaching a height of 6 feet, he sailed almost to the end of the long-jump pit.  Bouncing out of the pit, he rabbit-hopped a bit and made his way back up the track.  When the distance was announced, 8.90 meters, he didn’t immediately react.  But when a teammate did the metric conversion for him, he collapsed to the ground.  8.90 meters translates to 29′ 2.5″.

Beamon was not only the first man to jump more than 29 feet, he was the first man to jump more than 28 feet.  The previous record, 27′ 4.75″, had not been bested.  It had been shattered…by nearly 2 feet.  In the 6 seconds required to start and complete his record-breaking jump, Bob Beamon had gone from world-class long-jumper to Olympic legend.

Of course, there were detractors quick to point out how Beamon was aided.  Mexico City sits at nearly 7500 feet above sea level, which means there’s a lot less atmosphere when compared with other locations, and he made his run with a significant tailwind.

But in his defense, all the athletes competed in the same conditions and were assisted equally…it was Beamon who set the record.  And his record would stand for 23 years, only to be broken by Mike Powell (by about 2 inches) in 1991.

Bob Beamon would never match his 29-foot effort again.  In fact, he would never even reach 27 feet again.  But on this day, Beamon soared into the record books in incredible fashion.  His jump and reaction to learning he had broken 29′ are one of the great moments in Olympic history.

Recommended Viewing:  Bob Beamon’s incredible leap.

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