Some Flying Memories

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Me on the wing of a Beechcraft Skipper. (Photo by Jeff Wills, circa 1988)

Like many teenage boys, after seeing Top Gun, in the spring 1986, I wanted to be a naval aviator. The thrill of flying jets, of being a flyboy with those cool Ray-ban sunglasses, wearing those flight suit coveralls, and hanging out drinking and singing at officers clubs with nice looking women, captured my juvenile imagination: “That’s the life! Sign me up!” I mean, what a job!

Anyway, I was 19 years old, which speaks for itself, and I happened to live in a military town—Virginia Beach, Va. My dad, before I was born, had served in the Navy. The Hampton Roads region had approximately 15 military installations, to include the largest naval station in the world (Norfolk) and one of the Navy’s only 4 master jet bases (Oceana). I’d grown up and gone to school with a lot of military kids. For me, the military option just always seemed a natural one. If by chance that wasn’t going to work, my second option was attempting to swindle my way into a law enforcement job. My uncle and the brother of a former girlfriend were cops, and it kind of had a similar appeal and looked like fun (yeah…I was 19), and so that idea was also floating around. But getting to 21 to get hired for police work was taking too damn long and so Top Gun gave the military idea the momentum…for the moment.

Somehow I was able to talk mom and dad into letting me take flying lessons. Amazing swindle as I look back now. I sold my parents on the idea that if I already knew how to fly—had my private pilot license—my chances of being selected by the Navy after I graduated from college were much better. They bought it. Don’t get me wrong, being a licensed pilot certainly would help in getting picked up by the Navy, but there was obviously a lot more to it than that. My luck here, and thank God for it, was that I had wonderful parents who believed in me.

I can still remember driving over to Piedmont Aviation, which was part of Piedmont Airlines (bought out by USAir in 1989), to check out the pilot training school. Piedmont’s charter division, administrative offices, and private pilot training school, were at Norfolk International Airport, not too far from where I lived in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Piedmont Aviation had its own building and aircraft hangers on the south side of the airport, opposite the main terminals. Pulling up in my car to the Piedmont facility, I remember pausing to take in the word “Aviation” on the sign at the main entrance. My thoughts raced from the image of winning the Top Gun trophy to a ball of flames after slamming into a mountain. Oh, how the possibilities were expanding!

Piedmont Aviation: July 25, 1987
Piedmont Aviation at the time I was taking lessons there. (Photo by Scotch-Canadian’s, July 25, 1987)

This was a decision that could significantly change my life’s trajectory…or allow it to simply follow its set path, depending on what you believe. I had no idea (not much has changed on that front) what the future would hold, but ready or not, I was going to go ahead and nose dive into it. Youth just added a greater level of naiveté, a degree of enthusiastic ignorance, and a bit of angst over making something of your life. Looking back now, and currently having a 19-year-old son, I have a greater respect for the uncertainties and struggles he feels at this time in his life.

Entering the flight school on the 2nd floor, I was greeted by Joe Russo, one of the instructors. He was a tall, medium-build guy with salt and pepper hair and a dark mustache. He had the air of a man determined not to get killed by a student pilot in a fiery airplane crash. He’d spoken to me originally when I called to talk about taking lessons. Joe, as I recall, was a little late coming to the game. He’d started out doing something else, I don’t recall what, but then, say, 10 years into driving an ice cream truck (just joking) he decided he wanted to be an airline pilot. So here he was. For most of the instructors, Piedmont Aviation’s private pilot school was a way of racking up hundreds of flying hours toward the goal of becoming an airline pilot. Of course, surviving all those student pilots was a part of the challenge in getting to the cockpit of that Boeing 777. (Please note that both of my instructors survived and went on to fly for the airlines.)

Joe showed me around the school and discussed what was involved in getting my pilot’s license. At the time I remember thinking it seemed rather easy…yeah, 19 years old.

Joe: So, just to be sure, have you ever flown in a airplane?

Me: Sure. An airliner.

Joe: Did you like it?

Me: Hmmm, it made me a bit nervous.

Joe: So you’re a little scared to fly?

Me: Oh no. It’s not the flying that bothers me, it’s the crashing.

Me making some calculations during ground school. (Photo by Jeff Wills, circa 1987)

And so it began. I took 1 to 2 lessons a week. Lessons lasted about an hour to an hour and a half and would consist mostly of flying time and/or some ground schooling. The hardest part of ground school was learning navigation. In the air, the hardest part wasn’t actually flying the airplane, it was learning how to land the aircraft. Taking off was nothing. You throttled up the engine to full power, keep the plane straight down the runway, and at a certain speed you started pulling back on the yoke. The plane would lift off almost effortlessly. After takeoff, you kept the power up, the angle right, and you climbed out to your cruising altitude. Not that hard really. But landing was an entirely different story. Continue reading “Some Flying Memories”

The Ghosts of Gettysburg

This post is mostly about my love for history, but it’s also partly about being a memento for my youngest son to remember our trip by. 

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream.” — Joshua Chamberlain at the Dedication of Maine Monuments, Gettysburg, PA, October 3, 1888


Looking out across the Fields of Pickett’s Charge from the Federal Army position on Cemetery Ridge

This past October 29th my friend Rich, my youngest son and I, visited the Gettysburg, PA, battlefield. It was a beautiful fall day for being outside. The temperature was perfect and the skies were clear. The autumn colors were near peak. It was a lovely day “to ponder and dream.”

Like with any meaningful place, there’s a unique spirit-of-place to Gettysburg that stills the soul and leaves a lingering presence, haunting the corners of your mind long after you’re gone.

The impetus for this particular trip had three things behind it:

First, my love for history and biography. I’ve read and learned a lot about the Civil War and the leading characters of this epic historical drama. The battle of Gettysburg was the biggest, mostly costliest battle ever fought in this hemisphere. At the end of 3 days of savagely intense fighting, there were upwards of 51,000 casualties between the two armies. Consider that for a moment. Over an approximately 72 hour period, there were almost as many casualties incurred at the Battle of Gettysburg as there were U.S. troops killed (59,000) in the entire 10 years of the Vietnam War. For any student of American history, you can’t learn enough about the Civil War or what happened at Gettysburg and how it changed the direction of American history. Authors like Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote have produced some of the finest literary histories ever written on the Civil War. Stephen Sears wrote one of the best, most comprehensive histories of the Gettysburg campaign. And who can forget the absolutely absorbing, pulitzer prize winning, historical novel by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, and the movie based on it. There’s a lot of great literature about the Civil War. Any aspiring writer can learn his or her craft just by reading Catton and Foote alone.

The study of war is so much more than a study of strategy, maneuvering, and the calculated application of violence. The history of warfare (as all history does) teaches us many things, but it’s an especially good tool for teaching leadership, whether it’s for the personal or professional domains of our lives. Violence, to be sure, is the shroud of war. But within this covering fabric is the vast interweaving of human qualities, both base and noble. To study and learn from this collision of circumstance and character is one the best educations about human nature, human excellence, and human folly you’ll ever get. “History is,” Lord Bolingbroke once said, “philosophy teaching by example.” Hopefully this type of liberal education, as it was intended, inspires each of us to emulate the virtuous and the noble; to be guardians of civilization and civilized values. An education in any of the Liberal Arts is ultimately about improving the heart and mind, but historical study in particular provides the best laboratory for examining what human beings have actually done, said, and suffered. Literature, historical or otherwise, has the potential to greatly expand our empathetic and intellectual horizons. It’s a never ending journey of discovery. It has the potential to positively transform your life.

Donald S. Fuller, 1981, Kempsville Junior High School

This brings me to a brief aside. I think it’s important to remember the great teachers of our life, those who helped make us who we are today. I date the beginning of my lifelong fascination and love for history to my time in Donald Fuller’s history class at Kempsville Junior High School (now Kempsville Middle School) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Don Fuller was a retired Naval Officer and teaching was his second career. He had a real passion for teaching and he really knew how to make history interesting and relevant to my understanding of the world. I can still remember how I’d approach him after class to get more details about a famous person, battle, or event he’d discussed during class. He would take his time with me and often draw on the chalkboard to illustrate his point. I can still remember him drawing the details of Hannibal’s “bending bow” strategy at Cannae. He knew so many interesting things about the battle and the characters involved. I remember being fascinated by the depth and breath of his knowledge, and thinking to myself how I’d like to be that knowledgeable about history one day. I can still recall the sound of his unique voice. About a decade or so after attending his class, I visited him at Kempsville Junior HS, where he was still teaching. He remembered me at first sight and was glad to see me. We had a good long talk standing in the hallway. He was still the teacher, and I was still the admiring student. He was a big influence in my early life and certainly a big reason history has been one of the passions of my life. In its original Latin derivation, the word inspire means “to breath into.” Don Fuller inspired me. I really admired him, and I will never forget him.

At the Penn Memorial

I also wanted to visit Gettysburg because my good friend Rich had never been there, and he wanted to take some pictures (I didn’t know at the time, that another motive for Rich wanting to go was his secret mission to help get me out of the house so my lovely wife could prepare for my surprise birthday party, that afternoon, when we got home!). And lastly, but most importantly, I wanted to go to Gettysburg so I could spend some quality time with my youngest son, Seth. This would be his first trip to Gettysburg and hopefully one among many to historically significant places over his life.

Pennslyvannia Memorial

Our first stop that morning, after touring the visitor center (where I bought my son a toy musket and canteen), was the federal army’s position along Cemetery Ridge. Union or federal army troops had retreated to this position (the high ground) and formed defensive lines during the 1st day of battle (It was a 3 day battle, July 1-3, 1863).

The battlefield, especially the federal army side, is replete with monuments and memorials. The largest and most impressive is the Pennsylvania memorial. All around the outer edge of this massive stone structure are large bronze tablets with the memorialized names of approximately 34,000 officers and soldiers from the Pennsylvania regiments that fought in the battle.

While walking around the Penn memorial, Seth and I discovered that it had an upper level for viewing the battlefield, so we headed up. My son was nervous about being up so high. He leaned against me protectively and held my hand tightly, as we climbed the narrow spiraling stairwell. As we continued up I heard his shaky voice, slightly strained with fear, say “I’m afraid of heights dad.” I’d never heard him say this before, so I pulled him closer and we continue up. We emerged onto a circular viewing platform and a magnificent view. From this position we were near the center of the federal army line. To our south the line runs to Little Round Top—the far left end of the federal army line— and then turning our gaze northeasterly, we saw Culp’s Hill, which is the far right end of the federal army line. Directly to our West was the confederate army position in a tree line along Seminary Ridge.

Atop the Pennsylvania Memorial

We lingered a little while and I took some pictures. We waved to Rich who was still in the parking lot below getting his camera equipment together. He took a picture of us waving from the top of the memorial. My son didn’t want to linger, so we walked around the memorial dome, taking in the view from all sides, and then headed back down.

We moved from the Penn memorial to another part of Cemetery Ridge known as the “bloody” Angle. This is the point confederate General Robert E. Lee focused his main attack (known as Pickett’s Charge) on the afternoon of July 3rd. Pickett’s Charge, comprised of about 12,500 men, was ultimately repulsed (with over 50% casualties), but not before a brigade of Virginians led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead breached the federal line at the Angle. Armstead’s men fought bravely, but there simply wasn’t enough of them to exploit the breakthrough. There’s a plain stone marker at the spot where Armistead was hit and fell during the close quarter fighting. That spot is known as the High Watermark of the Confederacy.

The “Bloody” Angle

I stood there staring at Armistead’s memorial stone, my glance moving from the stone to the vast distance beyond it, where Armistead’s men would have started out from, and imagined what Armistead must have been thinking and feeling that warm afternoon. Certainly Armistead had talked to his commander, Lieutenant General Pete Longstreet, who’d told General Lee during the planning of the assault, “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”* Longstreet thought the attack was doomed from the start. Those feelings would have been hard to hide. Continue reading “The Ghosts of Gettysburg”

The Dictionary Project

I picked up my youngest son at school the other day. After getting in the car, instead of immediately buckling up, he started searching his book bag for something. I sat patiently and waited util he was ready to go. He found what he was looking for and got buckled up. I started driving toward his favorite restaurant, where I’d promised to take him the day before. As we were driving, I noticed in the rear view mirror he was reading through a book. Great, I thought. We stopped at a traffic light and he asked me to turn and look at a map and a sign language chart in the book. He had the air of a kid who knew his dad liked books and so he wanted to show this one off. I was happily obliged to let him.

After parking the car, my son quickly unbuckled and started showing me sections of the book. At first, because he showed me a section with short bios of U.S. Presidents and a section of U.S. state maps, I thought it might have been some type of encyclopedia but I still wasn’t sure yet. After about my third question, my son finally handed me the book. The cover of the book had me immediately.


There in vivid color were the starry heavens, mother earth, an a profound quote by one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. I have to say the quote of Ludwig Wittgenstein really sealed the deal. It’s one of my favorite quotes, and for a dictionary meant for 3rd graders this philosophically enlightening statement on the cover was just the type of display in intellectual presumptiveness I find very encouraging. A quote like that ignites reflection before you even open the book.

Books should, at a minimum, be a value added experience, an in some cases, like this little dictionary, a potentially mind stretching (“world” expanding) one also.

This Dictionary was given to my son as part of The Dictionary Project (DP). The DP’s goal is to “assist all students in becoming good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” There are many great causes in life to dedicate yourself to, but this has to rank as one of the most important. So much of the personal and professional success that young people ultimately have in life stems directly from the quality of their education at the primary school level.

In the opening pages of this dictionary there’s a short, concise essay that cuts to the central reason why students (at school and throughout life) need to use and refer to a dictionary regularly:

To succeed in school and in life, you must be able to use the English language effectively. You simply cannot learn all that you need to know without being able to understand the words you hear and read, and without knowing how to use the right words to convey your thoughts and ideas clearly.

For someone who admires intelligence, creativity, and the artful use of language and the power that words can carry (as I’m sure you all do), it was a nice little reminder that there are so many people and groups—teachers, parents, and private Foundations—constantly striving, in big and little ways, to improve the lives of our most precious resource, our children.

What Our Book Collections Can Tell Us About Ourselves

“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” — Mark Twain


From my Collection

I have a small study in my house. Well, it would be better to say I have a room in my house with books on shelves, books in boxes, and books stacked on a French Avignon desk that I don’t use. We moved into this house over a decade ago and I told my wife then, patient and tolerant woman that she is, that “You go ahead and decorate and finish all the other rooms first and then we’ll do my study last.” Well, as with various other projects around the house, I never followed through. I had grandiose ideas about my new study and what it would mean when we moved into our new house. “I would,” as Michael Dirda quipped “of course, wear a velvet jacket at my desk, take breakfast in the conservatory, and in the late afternoon go for long walks on graveled paths.” I know, that’s pathetic.

Anyway, the truth is I’m either sitting at the kitchen table or in a chair in our bedroom when I write (or read) at home. Oh, and I don’t have any graveled paths to walk on either. My study, or “bookroom” really, is just storage space for me to wander through (or trip), while searching for a book or just casually picking up books and dipping into them to get a taste of the author’s prose or find some inspiration. My bookroom ramblings remind me of a fine quote by Churchill, that nicely captures my state of mind:

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.” — Winston Churchill

Part of my Biography Collection

Recently I decided to organize my books a little better. Instead of strictly by author, I organized them into large categories like history, philosophy, economics, etc, etc. A novel idea, I know. Of course this process, as I sifted through the boxes and shelves, forced me to see (by stack size, and word count) exactly what category had won my interests and taxed our budget over the years. In my case the winner, by sheer numbers and thickness of books, is biography. I’ve definitely read a lot of them over the decades.

Maybe it’s partially in the blood. My mother loves biographies and has a small collection herself. For me, I don’t know exactly when biography became my favorite genre, but I can remember two books that probably had the biggest influence on me early on in my reading life. Many years ago I read James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. Yes, I read the entire unabridged 1402 pages of the Oxford World Classic edition. I’m a slow reader, so believe me that took a while! But it was a great reading experience. Boswell’s biography was full of wit—which Johnson excelled at—and wisdom and fascinating details about 18th century English culture and art. It’s definitely a classic. I came away totally fascinated by Johnson’s unique life and powerfully quick, creative, and intelligent mind.

Boswell’s biography led me to Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson. This was an absolutely absorbing book and a captivating literary experience. I had no idea, at that point in my reading life, that biography could be so compelling, instructive, and psychologically insightful. I completed Bate’s biography of Johnson feeling my perspective on life and the dynamics of human potential had changed. It was, properly speaking, literature that inspired a reverence for the power of literature to alter how we see the world. The book, by the way, won all 3 of the major American literary prizes, something that rarely happens.

The next biggest book category in my study appeared to be classical history, followed by literature (mostly essay collections), general history, leadership, psychology, civil war, and economics. And of course I have a large collection of what can be called general non-fiction. Books by, say, Malcolm Gladwell would fall into the category. My collection of novels is not what it use to be. I actually don’t read that many novels anymore I’m sad to admit. My time is limited, as you can tell by the rather spare postings on this blog (hoping to change that), and so I need to prioritize my reading to make room for writing.

If there is anything I’m reminded of from reorganizing my bookroom, it’s that the books we collect don’t just represent what we like to read, but also through what discipline (or category) we enjoy discovery. For me, I’m attracted to biography, the story of people’s lives. It’s this form of literature that’s had the biggest influence in shaping how I’ve learned about the world. “I esteem biography,” Samuel Johnson said, “as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.” I for one have always loved this quote and, as my bookshelves can attest, taken it to heart.

Remembering John Glenn (1921 – 2016)

Senator John Glenn
The morning mists at Arlington National Cemetery were still visible as I stood watching the slow precision of the officers folding the U.S. flag. Everyone stood completely still as the ceremonial team of the United State Capitol Police (USCP) carried out this final symbolic act of a grateful nation. This funeral took place in the early 1990s. I don’t recall who it was for. But I do know the deceased had served in the armed forces and then completed a second career with the USCP, protecting and serving the U.S. Congress.

When the two officers completed folding the flag, the officer holding the flag turned and ceremoniously stepped toward a man in a gray suit who was standing at attention waiting to receive the flag. The officer handed Senator John Glenn the flag and saluted him. Senator Glenn saluted the officer back. Senator Glenn then turned, walked around the casket to a woman seated in front of the casket, bent down toward her, and with both hands gently handed her the folded flag. As she grasped the flag Senator Glenn spoke: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. State Senate and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and the United State Congress.”

I had watched this entire event from my position about 25 yards away, standing quietly by myself near a parked police van. When Senator Glenn was done he walked over and stood next to me. I hadn’t expected it. It was just him and I standing there in silence as the ceremony continued and the burial team’s bugler began playing taps. As the sad and final note of taps began to fade, the Senator broke the silence: “You know,” he said in a quiet and solemn tone, as he stared out across the sea of gravestones, “I’ve heard that many times, and yet every time always seems like the first emotionally.” The Senator had come here to Arlington that morning because he had known the deceased U.S. Capitol Police officer and volunteered to present the flag.

As the ceremony ended, the Senator asked me where I was from and we began talking. I’d seen the Senator around Capitol Hill a number of times since I’d arrived in 1991, but I’d never really had the chance to talk one-on-one with him, so I took this opportunity. I knew what most people knew: that he’d been an astronaut and, of course, a Senator. But I didn’t know much more. I remember at one point asking him about his military career:

“So you were a Navy pilot?”

“Oh no, I was an Marine Corp Aviator.”

“Oh, so the Marine Corp actually has Aviators too?”

Turning toward me and speaking through a playful smile, “I didn’t know there was any other type of Aviator.”

I chuckled at this good humored shot at the Navy. The rivalry was still alive with this retired Marine Corp Colonel. We stood there talking for about another 5 minutes, and during that brief time I remember feeling a deep sense of admiration and inspiration.

Until he left Congress in 1999, I would see Senator Glenn around the Hill on a number of occasions. He was always friendly and always seem to remember me and our brief conversation that morning in Arlington. He would typically stop for a moment to shake my hand and exchange a few words. It was always a real pleasure.

John Glenn was a true American hero and a powerful inspiration for any aspiring leader. In this uniquely uncertain time in American history, we need to look to the lives of people like John Glenn as the example of what truly made America a great nation.

He will be missed.

(John Glenn passed away on December 8, 2016. He was 95)