Sunday, May 29, 2011

Martin Caidin remembered

Camp Connell, Ca -- Back in the days when Pat and I were newlyweds living the good life on the beach in Florida, we had an unlikely neighbor named Martin Caidin.
We all lived in a beachfront apartment on Cocoa Beach, next door to Cape Canaveral. The Twin Towers was close to everything: the beach was a hundred yards away; the pool was outside our window; the NASA office where Pat worked was next door, and there were a half dozen bars and clubs within easy distance.
And Martin lived just above us.
He was hard to ignore, a man who worked hard at being colorful. He was loud, profane, funny and very entertaining. And smart.Martin at the broadcast console

Once when Martin saw someone trying to break into a car in the parking lot three stories below his balcony, he grabbed a pistol loaded with blanks, shouted "STOP THIEF!" and proceeded to blast away. The apartment was in an uproar, but the neighbors agreed the thief probably would never bother us again.
One night we heard Martin's voice, yelling at everybody, but it seemed to be coming from up in the air outside. It turned out he was flying his bi-plane that night, decided to cut the engine and float between the six-story towers and wake up his neighbors. He thought that was really funny.
Another time when Pat and I walked into Wolfie's, the local eating and drinking spot, Martin stood up and shouted to everyone that Pat -- who had great posture and a dancer's body --had "the best-looking damned legs in the state of Florida." He also climbed up on a table to yell for service when the waiter failed to show up.
According to Martin he had written and published over 60 books at the time, mostly non-fiction military and aviation books, as of the mid 1960s.
He was always working on a new novel. He was not rich at the time, churning out books that sold a few but not a lot, but he managed to keep a junky old car running and his alimony paid. And his airplane.
Junkers JU52 restored by Martin, who claimed it was used by Hitler

Martin worked for various news agencies, mostly doing broadcasting during launches of manned space missions. He was the "color" expert, rattling off personal tales of encounters with astronauts or technical details of giant rocket systems with ease. When I was drafted into doing radio broadcasts by my newspaper he offered me great advice: "Act like you know what you are talking about and everyone will believe you."
He was successful enough at the time to rent two one-bedroom apartments, knock out a wall between them, and created a living work space.
Martin's background was a little fuzzy. Everyone knew he was a pilot, and he let people think he had flown in the war (WW 2 or Korea was never clear). When I pressed him one time, prompted by a picture of him in fatigue uniform in the Pacific, he said he had been a sergeant in the Army Air Corps.
In later years he became recognized as an expert on warfare, aviation, nuclear weapons (including a stint on the Tonight Show), biomedical research, and a world of other stuff. He could sell himself to anyone, and even if you suspected some of it might be BS you enjoyed every moment.
He was extremely smart, and his expertise came from a mind like a sponge. He read everything he could get his hands on, and used his great memory and work ethic to develop a writing technique I'd never seen before. In his home/office he had a giant wall unit with cubbyholes, maybe fifty of them, filled with technical papers, notes, government handouts, clippings. Once he decided on a plot for a novel, he began collecting everything he could find on the subject and popped it into a cubbyhole with a chapter number.
For a novel involving terrorists building a nuclear weapon, he collected government handouts from a wide range of agencies.

For a science-fiction novel about a man with artificial parts ("Cyborg," the basis for the TV series The "Six Million Dollar Man") he collected all the biomedical and technical data he could find on bionics.
When he had enough data collected, and the plot in his brain, he would sit down at the typewriter and start pounding out the book. He said he could type 20,000 words in one day, but I never had a chance to test that. I know he could write a novel in about six weeks, particularly if he was broke.
His system worked. The books were not great art, but he told good stories well.
I treasure one novel where he gave me credit in the foreword for a description of the wilderness surrounding the Cape Canaveral launch pads, based on a magazine article I had written. He didn't ask permission, of course, but he gave me credit.
By the time Martin died he had written at least 80 books, including "Marooned," made into a movie with Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna. The money from movie rights was enough to improve his situation financially, and then he did "Cyborg" the television rights and royalties made him wealthy for the first time. He was even hired to write two books in the Indiana Jones series.
After we left Florida Martin married the young daughter of a British witch, and eventually moved to the University of Florida as a writer in residence. He died there of cancer shortly after finishing the Indiana Jones books.
Not a bad ending for a hard-working orphan boy from New York City.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Boat People

"Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
— Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows)

Berkeley Marine Center, Berkeley, CA -- Kenneth Grahame knew what he was talking about.

Pat and I just spent the better part of two and one-half weeks working on our boat "Good News." And we are not done yet.

It is currently sitting on the hard in the boat yard, a nautical term for dry land, while a final few chores are being done by experts(a nautical term for "bring money").

A boat is a very personal thing, and we feel very attached to ours. Even the name has personal, professional and spiritual meaning to us. More important, it was named in a group effort with four good sailing friends and a bottle of champagne on a New Year's Eve in San Diego's harbor.

For various reasons the boat has been somewhat neglected for the past year, and as everyone knows, you always pay the price for deferred maintenance, and things do break on old boats.

Every four years or so we pay to have the boat hauled out of the water by a giant crane. The bottom is cleaned and sanded and then painted with a creepy-critter-and-grassy-stuff repellent paint .

We always have a few other chores taken care of at the same time, just so we can spend some more money.
"BOAT" stands for "Bring Out Another Thousand."

This year we began the process by beginning our personal chore list first. That always involves cleaning, painting and varnishing.

This year it also entailed a plumbing job (almost four days standing on my head swearing), lying flat on my stomach and/or face to reach down and check the bilge pump, building a rack for a propane tank, greasing the valves in the through-hulls, repairing a broken drawer (it probably has a nautical name I can't remember), painting a cabinet, installing new batteries (black wires go to black, red to red), repairing and re-repairing a reading light that mysteriously turns off in the middle of an exciting chapter of a murder mystery. And still does.

I changed the oil which is a really big deal on a boat with a diesel engine, for me at least, and started cleaning up clamps and hoses and stuff -- until part of the engine broke off in my hand.
Sometimes things are better left alone.

Pat spent a lot of time sanding and varnishing, the re-sanding and re-varnishing.
Anyway, after ten days or so of that sort of thing we finally got the boat to the boatyard. But even that was an adventure. I was single-handing from Alameda to Berkeley across San Francisco Bay, about ten miles, when the engine started going flaky on me, smoke appeared to be coming from the engine compartment, RPM dropping, and the electrical system threatened to fry my new batteries.

I made it to the boat yard, an hour or so late, fire extinguisher in hand, and just added the new mechanical/electrical mysteries to the list for the experts to deal with.

I am now on a first-name basis with my new-best-friend Howard the certified marine electrician, who discovered a potentially serious problem with the dock connection (as in OMG it is a FIRE HAZARD!), fixed that, and then diagnosed the source of four years worth of electrical weirdness, and fixed that with a new alternator/regulator. Bless him.

Then Carl, the wonder worker yard boss, cleaned up the heat exchanger (think radiator on a car), repaired the device that actually makes the engine stop, and pointed out various worn hoses and clamps and valves and thingys that needed replacing.

Meanwhile Dave (in the framed photo) finished off the detailed work on the hull while Omar watched Dave with an amused grin and polished our propeller and consulted expertly with Pat on the proper cleaning materials for waxing and polishing.

Pat and I spent what seemed like a month putting wax on, taking wax off, putting wax on, taking wax off. Very labor intensive, but worth it when you consider it costs about $700 to have an expert do it.

Pat is now an expert.

After one week in the boatyard we came home to take care of some other business.
Carl, Dave, Omar and the rest are still doing things to the boat. Howard the electrician, smarter than average, took off for Zihuatanejo (my favorite town in Mexico) to go sailing.

Pat and I are now at home watching the snow melt, and planning the trip back down the hill to retrieve the boat when we get the call that it is ready. We may have to rent a trailer to carry the money to give to the yard, but what the heck, it's our boat and we love her.

"Good News" is a 1979 Hunter sailboat, 37 feet long and 8 tons, cutter-rigged and designed by John Cherubini. It is solid, easy to sail, and comfortable. Our boat was the first of this model in San Francisco Bay back in '79. There are still several around.

The original owner was an anal engineer, which tells you all you need to know about the quality of workmanship he applied to every chore. (I was a liberal arts major, which says a lot about my mechanical skill level.)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Soaking up Culture in San Francisco

San Francisco, Ca - Pat and I spent a lovely day at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park last week, a welcome change of pace from what had become a daily diet of either boat chores or snow shoveling.

This is the "new" de Young, which replaced the old one with much fanfare a few years ago. It seems we have been to the Academy of Science across the park often enough to watch the albino crocodile grow old, but haven't visited the city's art museums in a long time.

Two major exhibits are being offered right now, one on the Olmec culture's art (big carved stone heads, no photos allowed) and the other on Balenciaga's textiles (lots of red dresses and handbags, not my thing).

Pat and I enjoyed most the great sampling of art we experienced on three guided tours: a look of the entire museum's highlights; a detailed tour of the American art collection, and the Olmec sculptures and carved icons, a convergence of art, archeology and history.
And, the building and grounds are among the most thoughtful anywhere, from the ironic cracks in the courtyard (fault line art) and the greening copper sheathed structure, to the spectacular views of art, architecture and scenery everywhere you look.

Our volunteer tour guides made the day, particularly the serendipitous presence of one docent who turned out to be a neighbor of our old friend Frank McCulloch. (Frank, one of my journalistic heroes, happened to be my boss and mentor at The Bee in the 1980s.)
The guide, named Joan, was knowledgeable, witty, clear-voiced and friendly. She was as delighted as we were to find out we have a great friend in common, and I was able to tell her a few Frank stories she had not heard. Pat sent a hug back to Santa Rosa with Joan for Frank.

Joan was particularly knowledgeable about early American portraits, telling stories about the people and their place in history. Every painting seemed to have a story, whether it was how the subject was too cheap to have his or her hands painted (that cost extra) or why drapes figured so prominently in the background so often (cheaper and easier to paint than detailed landscapes or interiors). Even artists have to make a living.

I enjoyed hearing, for the first-time since Fourth Grade Art Appreciation Class, the role that painters played in different eras of our history, whether reflecting Manifest Destiny, sanctifying John Brown, or preserving a Boston Sea Captain's vanity.

The most surprising moment at the museum for me came when were looking at an abstract sculpture (construction?) made of burned pieces of wood suspended from the ceiling into a giant hanging cube. Not much to look at.

A museum guard, standing against the wall, quietly told me that the pieces of wood came from the African American Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were murdered by a racist bomber in the 1960s. The museum's official description of the work discussed the work in abstract terms, but he made it more real than he could have known.

I lived in Alabama in the 1960s, briefly covered Civil Rights as a journalist in that era. The ashes of that destroyed church, and four lives destroyed by hate, will never be an abstraction for me.

It never occurred to me to take a photo. I just looked and thought about where it came from, and where we came from and where we are heading.

The art wasn't all that moving. There were satirical paintings, grand landscapes, and a very nice portrait of George Washington made from one dollar bills.

One of the world's ugliest vases (pictured at the top) was adorned by a bird singing his or her heart out.

The museum is far too full of delightful stuff to go into more detail, but you owe it to yourself to visit the next time you are in the Bay Area.

And the view from the observation tower is one of the best you will ever see anywhere in San Francisco.