Monday, December 15, 2008

Hell yeah, Virginia!

If you believe that the deeds of one man can resound through hundreds of years and make the world a kinder, more giving place, if only for a season, then you can believe in Santa Claus!

About 245 AD in the town of Patara, a port in Turkey, was born a man, destined to become a saint. His name was Nicholas. At an early age, Nicholas’ father died, leaving him a great fortune. Anonymously, Nicholas gave much of the money away to those in need and to children in particular. But there was one feat of generosity that would become legend! A legend that stays with us today.

A poor man had three daughters but no money for their dowries and so they had no prospect of marriage. And an unmarried woman, in those times, would have a bleak future of prostitution or slavery. Upon hearing of the family’s plight, Nicholas visited their home in the dark of night and tossed a small bag of gold into the window. This was enough for the eldest daughter’s dowry. The next night, a second bag of gold and the second daughter was saved. On the third night, the window was closed. What to do? Up on the rooftop went Ol’ Saint Nick and down the chimney went the gold. Stockings had been hung over the embers of the fire to dry and some of the gold fell into them. Once the story of the third night got out, other people in the town starting hanging stockings about the fireplace to catch any gifts or gold that just might ‘drop in‘.

Ok, ok, so Santa does not shimmy down the chimney, even the REAL Saint Nick didn’t do that. But as long as your family, friends, and you, yourself, follow Nicholas’ example and give gifts to those you love or to those in need, then… yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus… and there always will be.

As for holding to the theme of my blog, I think that one man taking on the whole “me” oriented world constitutes the courage and long odds that are at the core of all of my stories.

Merry Christmas to all! And “God bless us, every one.”

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Niche

Everyone has a talent. A thing they excel at. Sometimes we don’t know it or we consider it too unimportant to be called a “talent”.

The Wildcat. My favorite fighter of the second world war. Little, kinda tubby, a very important plane but mostly forgotten because she didn’t have the flash of the Thunderbolts, Corsairs or even her younger sibling, the Hellcat. She was loved by her pilots and mechanics but when she faced the nimble Japanese Zero, she was dubbed awkward and sluggish by her critics. Never mind the list of pilots who became aces (shooting down 5 planes) in the cockpit of a Wildcat, a couple of which got their 5 in a single engagement. It was a mere 4 Wildcats that helped the Marines stave off a Japanese invasion for almost two weeks on Wake Island. But she was being replaced, by the faster, the more agile.

The British used the Wildcat in combat before the U.S. did. They called them Martlets and scored their first victory on Dec. 25, 1940. Now, the British had a responsibility and that was to supply the Russians by ship convoy. The German navy felt it was their responsibility to sink these convoys and they took this responsibility quite seriously. The British had to think of something. Air cover would be best but the Royal Navy could not spare any of their aircraft carriers to escort the convoys. The answer? A captured German cargo ship, slap a 368 x 60 ft. flight deck on top and say hello to HMS Audacity, the first escort carrier. New problem: the Audacity’s flight deck was about half the size of a conventional carrier. What plane could possibly launch off of that? Why, yes! You’re right! The British, who had brought us the Spitfire, the finest fighter in the world at the time, chose the U.S.-made Grumman F4F Wildcat. Six of them to be exact. Chosen not just for their size but for their reliability. You see, another drawback of the Audacity was… no hanger. The planes lived at one end of the flight deck, exposed to the sea air and salt water, which made the mechanics grind their teeth a bit. But the Wildcat was easy to repair and maintain from the start, so she could take more abuse than her “high performance” contemporaries. The plan was, the Wildcats would take to the air to fend off the dreaded German Condor aircraft or to seek a submarines’ shadow, then, by radio, guide the submarines nemesis, the destroyer, straight to it’s prey. So how effective were our two underdogs, Wildcat and Audacity? Well, they gave the mighty German navy enough trouble that Admiral Donitz himself gave the order to sink the escort carrier and her bothersome Wildcat squadron.

It was December 21st, night time, when Audacity’s planes could not take to the air and no escort could be spared for her. She started a zig-zag pattern to make herself less vulnerable to submarine attack. A merchant ship got spooked and sent up a snowflake flare, lighting up the iron ore ship Annavore, which was sunk immediately and there was the unmistakable silhouette of Audacity, alone and unprotected. Just four minutes later a torpedo hit her engine room aft and flooded it. Her stern dipped into the water causing her Wildcats to slide off the deck and she floated like that for about 20 minutes, giving the crew a chance to abandon ship, all except the gun crews who stayed to try to protect her. But to no avail. Two more torpedoes hit her and blew the little carrier in half. The fact that the Germans made such a specific effort to target the Audacity and her Wildcats for attack, was a compliment that did not go unnoticed by the allies. Many more escort carriers were built, and the plane of choice for almost every one? The Wildcat. The tubby little fighter went on to protect more convoys and gave air support for most of the island hopping in the Pacific. In the Atlantic, flying off of escort carriers like the USS Bogue, she hunted submarines.

Everyone has their niche, the Wildcat had found hers.

“Fate has a niche set aside for us all.”

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Posture of Courage

Some aspire to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them.

Two situations today. One where the underdogs marched boldly to their fate, the other, the disadvantaged became heroes reluctantly. Question; which one displays more courage?

Most of us have heard of, if not seen, the movie “300”. It is a telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, where, in 480 BC, a force of 300 Spartan soldiers, united with a small number of troops from other Greek city-states, took a stand at a narrow pass and held off, for days, an invading Persian army of 100,000, before being wiped out to the man. In selecting his men, King Leonidas only chose those who had sons to carry on their family name. These were men who knew they were going to make a difference… but not a return trip.
No question of courage here.

On the other hand, 1879, Rorke’s Drift, South Africa. Somewhere around 100 fit British soldiers and some 30 sick and injured in Hospital, were put upon by about 3000 Zulu warriors. After a battle that spread over two days and got down to hand to hand and spear to bayonet, the Zulus withdrew and Rorke’s Drift survived. But only because of men like Private Hitch who was shot through the shoulder but continued to defend the barricade. Even after he was unable to fight, he distributed ammunition to the other men until he was too weak from loss of blood. He survived the battle. The Victoria Cross is awarded to only those showing the most exceptional valor. 12 were given out at Rorke’s Drift. In the face of such odds it would be easy to curl up into a ball and wait for the end. These men chose not to.

I think it takes as much courage to live as it does to die.

They say that “Life is a grindstone. Whether it wears you down or polishes you up, depends on what you are made of.”

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Clear Your Mind of Can't

On my refrigerator door is a note pad that says “Clear Your Mind Of Can’t”. Granted it’s easier said than done but it’s a good thing to file away in your noggin, you may never know when it will come in handy.

The Battle of Britain is one of those uneven battles I mentioned that I would speak of, and I will
but not just now. One of the insanely courageous men who fought in that battle is my focus at the moment. His name was Wing Commander Douglas Bader. I may be related to him (my mother says yes, my aunt says no) . For those of you not raised in England, Bader was quite a prominent name in that famous struggle for air supremacy over Great Britain. But only because he cleared his mind of “Can’t”.

Young Douglas was in the Royal Air Force before the war but there was a plane crash, in 1931, that almost cost him his life… and did cost him his legs. That would have been that for most people, but Bader, instead of choosing to get around in a wheelchair, a walker or even a cane, he chose a Supermarine Spitfire, the finest fighter in the air at the time and he proceeded to procure one. By 1939 he was back in the air as a fighter pilot and then promoted to command. He was shot down in 1941 and as a POW made several escape attempts. In 1976 he was knighted and then on into legend.

If someone tells you “It can’t be done”, it just means that they can’t do it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Let's start this baby up!

One of the sayings that I live my life by is one I made up myself.
“No one knows everything but everyone knows something. Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach.”

I never look down my nose at anyone because I am aware that they know things I don’t. Are those things important? Who’s to say? Is a single nail important? For want of a single nail a horse shoe comes off and renders a single horse lame. That horse would have made the difference in a battle, if that battle is crucial, it could mean losing the war. Looked at in such a way, that single nails importance becomes monumental!
I’m afraid I have a fascination for history, military history in particular, and to narrow it down even further those engagements where the odds are stacked brutally to one side. In many of those cases the underdog became the top dog through ingenuity, a keen understanding and a boatload of courage. For those who shy away or yawn at stories in uniform, remember it’s people who wear those uniforms and it is their character that can make a situation an abomination or a mercy. I told my friend Karen, who has no interest in history or the military, the story of the beleaguered B-17 bomber called Ye Olde Pub and a lone, compassionate, German fighter pilot. At tales end, she smiled and said, “I like that story!”.

Knowing their strengths, realizing their limitations, recognizing and exploiting
both in whatever person or force of nature assailed them.
That is what made these “underdogs” examples to be held up.

Now not all my tales will be of wars and battles, I have a fondness for the Old West as well. Not all my tales will be of people. There are things that have been judged inferior that rose far above that classification. I will speak of Great Britain quite at bit, not just because I was born in England, but because the UK so often finds itself in the category of uneven conflicts. As my friend Mark said once, “The British cannot win a battle unless they are grossly outnumbered.”

Well, to quote the Disneyland ride, Pirates of the Caribbean,
“Properly warned be ye says I”.