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Stories from My Life: To Russia with Love

My beautiful picture


Becky and I married on the 12th of August in 1984. As serendipity would have it, a few weeks later, I was scheduled to attend the 9th International Cloud Physics Conference in Tallinn, Estonia. As you recall, 1984 was still five years away from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the beginning of the breakup of the USSR that led to Estonia’s independence in 1991. Looking back, we had a unique opportunity to experience the effects of communism first hand. And so, with opportunity in hand, Becky joined me in Helsinki; from there we ferried across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn. After the conference, we extended our trip for two weeks to visit Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow. The purpose of this blog is to provide a few reflections from that trip.

At the conference I presented a paper entitled “A Numerical Simulation of Stratus Breakup.” Steve Payne, my colleague from Monterey, was co-author. Below you see a picture of yours truly (in front of my poster) obviously making some astute comment to another conference participant. Although Becky spent time touring the city while I attended the conference, she did attend a session or two. She told me that her most memorable moment was the session on Nuclear Winter, where scientists discussed the expected atmospheric effects resulting from an all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and the USSR. She remembers a solemn gathering where the west and east somberly pondered the utter catastrophe that would result from such an event.


My beautiful picture


Probably our most memorable moment (in Tallinn) outside the conference was an evening dinner we had with another colleague, a friend of mine, David Johnson. Becky was determined that we experience at least one dinner outside our hotel. She had painstakingly (involving an inordinate amount of time interacting with Intourist, the official Russian travel agency) made a reservation at a local restaurant at which we arrived with paper voucher in hand. Security at the door was such that Becky had to block it open using her shoe and then shove the paper reservation into the face of the proprietor. Once inside, we discovered beautifully set tables, each with hors d’oeuvres to eat. But what we quickly learned was that very few menu items were available and that the proper question we should have asked was, “What do you recommend tonight?”

Our above experience represented the tip of the iceberg in a Soviet society that allowed nary a trace of capitalism. The contrast between Helsinki and Tallinn, only a ferry ride apart, was remarkable. For example, in Helsinki on the docks were fish vendors, selling—what else—fresh fish. On the Tallinn side, there wasn’t a fresh fish to be found. All fish for sale had previously been salted at sea. There are a few descriptive adjectives that convey the differences we sensed between Helsinki and Tallinn: bright, cheerful, and vibrant compared to colorless, unhappy, and dull. It was a revelation.

We next trained to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) where we stayed in a “western” hotel. Our most memorable impression there had to do with the Soviet society’s appreciation for those lost in war. And you can understand why. Consider World War II: the United States suffered 419,400 fatalities, 0.3% of our population, according to Wikipedia. IN COMPARISON, the Soviet Union lost about 24,000,000 (figures above and below are quoted, but they’re all horrendously high), a staggering 14%! The photograph below shows a newly married couple placing flowers at a war monument. We saw this type of activity occur over and over again.


My beautiful picture


Following Leningrad, we trained onward to Moscow. The joke among our tourist group was that our rooms were bugged and that we were being followed. This suspicion was belied somewhat when our Russian guide turned us loose in the center of Moscow, ordering us to find our way back to our hotel by ourselves. That wasn’t hard because of their excellent subway system. We imagined the mischief we could have gotten ourselves into by playing spy.

Looking back, our trip was memorable and educational. In 1984, we came away with two primary conclusions. First, the Russians were no different than we are; they are a proud people who had suffered greatly from the effects of World War II. And second, compared to the opportunities we enjoy in a democratic and capitalistic society, communism exerted an ever-present drag on individual expression and achievement.

If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail me at



Stories from My Life: Close encounters with the grim reaper


U.S. Navy Lockheed WC-121N Super Constellation; photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I can remember two occasions in my lifetime that could have resulted in my early demise. I’ve had other scary incidents, such as red-light runners passing within inches of my car, but they are less memorable.

My first frightening event occurred in 1967 (during a summer trainee program in Colorado) when a burst appendix put me in the hospital for 15 days. The situation was so dire that my parents were called and told to fly immediately (from Pennsylvania) to Colorado; Mom had never been on an airplane. The second incident occurred two years later. I can now laugh at what was nothing more than a harrowing incident. At the time, however, it seemed serious indeed.

In 1968, I began work for the Navy Weather Research Facility in Norfolk, Virginia, my first job after graduating from Penn State. A year later, I had the opportunity to participate in Project Stormfury, a government experiment to seed hurricanes. Without going into technical detail, the goal was to decrease hurricane winds to minimize storm damage. (Afterward, it was determined that the effects from the seeding were far too weak.)

I traveled to the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico where I was trained to be a Radar Advisor. Basically, that meant that I took pictures of the radar screen on the Hurricane Hunter WC-121 aircraft, a four engine propeller-driven plane. This aircraft was a “weather” version of the Navy and Air Force early warning and control radar surveillance aircraft, the EC-121; it featured two powerful radars.

I’ve forgotten how many times we flew during my stay. But I do remember one mission to investigate a tropical disturbance. You must remember that back then we did not have continuous satellite imagery like we have now, and “Hurricane Hunters” were essential observational tools. Flying at around 250 MPH, our aircraft had a range of over 4000 miles. As I recall, this mission was in the 8-10 hours in length.

Long story short, we flew some 1000 miles only to discover that the disturbance had weakened, with not much to look at or take radar pictures of. So, we headed home.

I may have been the first person on the aircraft to notice the smoke. Soon everyone knew, especially the people flying the plane. Fire on an aircraft is not a good thing, and perhaps more worrisome on one first put into service in 1954. From our 10,000-foot cruising altitude, we immediately descended to our “ditching” altitude, 1000 or 500 feet as I recall. I remember thinking that landing in the water some 1000 miles from my hotel room would make me late for dinner. Further, my swimming skills were minimal at best. To compound my fears, one crew member told me that there had never been a successful ditching of that particular aircraft. I couldn’t help but wonder what his definition of “successful” was.

At that point, excitement reigned. One of the pilots rushed back into the aircraft and began tearing away sections of the fuselage, revealing various electrical panels, trying to locate the source of the smoke. Meanwhile, the smoke was still there.

After maybe fifteen minutes of panic (on my part), it was over as quickly as it began. The smoke abated, we returned to our 10,000-foot altitude, and flew home uneventfully. To my knowledge the source of the smoke was never determined.

Please write and let me know about your most memorable close call.



The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 14: War’s End/Reparations/Final Thoughts

VE Day_gov.uk_27Jul15

Victory in Europe (VE) Day Celebrations–image courtesy of

As noted earlier, no sooner than the internment process began in the spring of 1942, did it become obvious that the whole operation had been a mistake. Of course, by then, the damage to the West Coast Japanese American community had been done. As early as January of 1943, at the same time that the government decided to allow Japanese Americans to serve in the armed services, various programs arranged for their release back into the civilian community. As reported in the July 30, 1943 Tulean Dispatch (the newspaper for the Tule Lake camp), some 76,000 “loyal Japanese” were to be returned to civilian life, a significant fraction of the 120,000 initially interned. That was the good news, but it was accompanied by significant bad: no one could return to those West Coast areas deemed militarily sensitive. WHICH MEANT that very few internees could go home (at least until the end of the war) to California or Washington. Consequently, many internees (mostly the young) moved to other western states and the midwest.

Most of the internment camps closed by the end of 1945, with Tule Lake being the last, in March of 1946. Sadly, many internees (particularly the elderly) did not leave their camps until they were forced out. Why? They had nowhere to go.

Japanese Reparations_Wikipedia_27Jul15

 Photograph courtesy of

In 1988, after decades of efforts to seek redress for the internment, President Reagan signed into law the “Civil Liberties Act of 1988.” This piece of legislation provided monetary reparations but, more importantly, a statement that said what happened was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” and not the concern over national security as had been trumpeted at the time.

Final thoughts? I think that the World War II internment debacle serves as a reminder to us all to remain ever watchful of our own personal tendencies toward prejudice. Sometimes, outright fear (such as experienced during the horrors of World War II) can make us do and say things that we know are wrong. None of us is immune, and we must be ever vigilant to new challenges and prejudices that face us in this 21st century.

This blog completes a fourteen-part series that I’ve written to accompany my historical novel, How Much Do You Love Me?, a mystery/love story that revolves around the Japanese internment of World War II. Feel free to share this blog and e-mail ( me if you have any questions.



Stories you can listen to, #14: The Errant Ricochet: Max Rayburn’s Legacy

 Public Domain, courtesy of F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923) In my continuing series of short stories, The Errant Ricochet: Max Rayburn’s Legacy, is probably my favorite. Why? Probably because of the effort it took me to write it: from beginning to end, it took about four years to finish. The original version was longer, too long, with unnecessary detail… View Article

Stories from My Life: Memories Made and Memories Lost

  Public Domain, courtesy of the Library of Congress I’m probably the most nostalgic, sentimental person I know. I save old letters and reread them. I enjoy reminiscing with relatives and retelling old family stories. And, I like to visit places that remind me of years past, often from childhood. Sometimes, though, the physical connection… View Article

The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 13: The 442nd Regimental Combat Team

The 442nd in France in late 1944; image courtesy of US Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Following the Pearl Harbor bombing on December 7th of 1941, many patriotic Japanese American citizens wanted to enlist in the armed forces. It wasn’t long, however, because of anti-Japanese hysteria, before their Selective Service classification as IV-C, Enemy… View Article

Stories you can listen to, #13: Heaven First

In my continuing series of short stories, Heaven First is sentimental and schmalzy. I may be wrong, but I think I got the idea for the approach for this story from a James Bond book; after a dinner party, Bond hears the fascinating story about a guest who had been sitting next to him. If you… View Article

Stories from My Life: Lessons learned from inside Nittany 40 at Penn State

Photo courtesy of During my first year at Pennsylvania State University in 1963/64, I stayed in Nittany Halls, also known as Nittany Barracks. These structures (built after World War II to accommodate the influx of returning GIs) were spartan and small. Sometime after I left Nittany, rooms became “singles.” But while I was there,… View Article

The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 12: Yes/Yes or No/No?

Significant news came from the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson at the end of January 1943. “The War Department announced today that plans have been completed for the admission of American citizens of Japanese ancestry to the Army of the United States….” In addition, there was a simultaneous decision to allow Japanese citizens to… View Article

Stories you can listen to, #12: Millie’s Dilemma

In my continuing series of short stories, Millie’s Dilemma could best be described as a fantasy.  It is probably the most esoteric and abstruse (read: strange) story I’ve written.  Along with her boyfriend, Millie has participated in a crime that involves the very jewelry story in which she works. The two of them are now… View Article