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Friday, April 11, 2008

AN UNLIKELY COMBINATION OF EVENTS

I don’t know the truth of what happened to Yuri Gagarin, and it is unlikely I ever will. And if it seems strange that someone so famous could die so mysteriously you must remember that he was a hero of the Soviet Union, a place and a time where truth and lies were so intermingled as to make reality as thin as tissue paper. On March 27, 1968, so the story goes, Yui died in the crash of a training jet, and not even his widow or daughters will ever know with certainty what really happened to him. In the Soviet Union, rumors were part of the disguise. It was a very different world.
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In 1961 the average yearly income in America was $5,315.00 and gallon of gas cost 27 cents. The city of Seattle completed the tallest structure west of the Mississippi river, the Space Needle. The 200th McDonald’s opened in Southern California. The hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls produced electricity for the first time. An X-15 rocket plane reached the edge of space at 31 miles high, and President John Kennedy asked Congress for $531 million to “…put a man on the moon in this decade.” And on April 12, the Soviet Union launched the first man into space.
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His call sign was “Cedar”. The 5’ 2” cosmonaut was a typical fighter jockey, self confident and cocky, described as “virtually unflappable” by his instructors. He was launched from the dessert steppes of Tjuratam, Kazakhstan, just after 9AM (Moscow time) and he whistled a tune during his 90 minute orbital flight. “The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows, Where her son flies in the sky.” But unlike the American astronauts who landed at sea, Yuri had to eject from his Vostok 1 spacecraft at over 15,000 feet. And instead of an aircraft carrier, on landing Yuri was greeted by an old woman, her granddaughter and her cow. But once the Soviet leadership was certain he had survived he became a prop in the propaganda wars. And like Alan Shepherd, America’s fist man in space, Yuri longed to fly again, this time to the moon. He was trying to get there, when he died.
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The Soviet leadership showered him with medals and awards. He was made a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, the rubber stamp congress. But all the glittering medals soon grew dull and he was allowed to return to Star City, the home of all Cosmonauts, in the Moscow suburbs. But he was not allowed another space mission. He worked on spacecraft design, and was eventually promoted to the rank of a full Colonel. He became deputy training director for the cosmonaut corps, and in 1968 he began the process to re-qualify as a fighter pilot, perhaps as his first step back to flight status.
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On January 10, 1968 the U.S. lost its 10,000th military airplane over Vietnam. The average income in the U.S. was up to $7,850 a year, and gasoline was up to 34 cents a gallon. On January 23rd, North Korean naval boats captured the US Intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, and its 83 man crew. On January 31, 70,000 North Vietnamese troops launched the Tet offensive by briefly capturing the U.S. embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, and during just the second week of February the United States suffered 543 dead and 2,547 wounded in Vietnam; for that week alone. And on March 27 at 10:17 AM Yuri Gagarin climbed into the front cockpit of a MIG-15UTI trainer with Colonel Vladimir Seryogin in the rear seat. On takeoff they pushed the throttles to 9,000 rpm’s and headed for Kirzhach, 30 miles to the Northwest of Moscow.
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The weather was horrible, and a heavily overcast quickly enveloped the Korean War era fighter/trainer. The Mig 15 was small by modern standards, just 33 feet long, with a 35 ft. swept back wing span. It was capable of well over 600mph and had a ceiling of over 50,000 feet. But the “Babouskha” (grandmother) also had a tenancy to stall and go into a tight spin at anything under 160 mph. In fact, according to one pilot who recently flew a similar two seat Mig 15UTI trainer, “Turning at that speed could be a delicate exercise, and inadvisable at low altitude. The Mig didn’t seem to care for doing anything under 250 knots.”
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Minutes after take off Seryogin requested permission to alter course. It was granted. But those were the last words heard from the aircraft. Fellow Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was flying a helicopter in the area and he heard two loud booms. An investigation reported that a Sukhoi 11 was also in the area, also in the overcast, and had gone supersonic. That would have accounted for the first boom Leonov heard. The second was probably Gagarin’s Mig slamming into the ground. So great was the impact that no human remains could be positively identified. The plane’s clock was stopped at 10.31 AM. Yuri Gagarin was only 34 years old. He left behind a widow and twin daughters.
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Two hundred officers and technicians conducted a thorough investigation. But because of the Soviet obsession with secrecy the report on the crash was never released to the public. And so rumors filled the void. Rumor said the pilots must have been drunk, the plane must have been sabotaged by a jealous superior, the parachute cords were cut and the ejection seats were disconnected, the plane had hit a weather balloon or a bird or someone had forgotten to close a vent or the Mig had been caught the turbulence of another aircraft. There are a hundred theories, and you can argue that, like the Kennedy assignation theories, an open investigation would never have refuted them all. And given the provable conspiracies that governed the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century, it will likely never be possible to say with any absolute certainty why Yuri Gagarin died. But there does seem to be a most likely sequence of events.
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The SU-11 had been intended as an all weather interceptor, and was capable of almost twice the speed of sound. But the Soviet design bureau considered it a failure, and it was no longer in production. The most likely assumption is that the Sukhoi pilot was disoriented by the dense overcast and was lower than he thought when he lit his afterburners. The radar system that was supposed to provide altitude information to all pilots in the area was out of order for the day. So the SU-11 might have roared past within 2-300 feet of Gagarin and Seryogin’s jet, maybe even closer. The turbulence produced by the SU-11 would have robbed the wings on the smaller Mig-15 of their lift, particularly if it was flying slower than 160 mph, and dropped it into a flat spin. In the overcast, whoever was piloting the Mig would have unable to orient himself before impact in the trees. If either plane had taken off a minute sooner or later they would have never come close to each other. So the death of Yuri Gagarin was most likely a combination of unlikely events; a bad day for a radar system to be down, a bad day to fly, a nasty combination of flight characteristics and some very bad timing. Combat pilots like Yuri call such combinations of unlikely events just plain bad luck.
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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

TILL DEATH DO US PART

I blame the Romans for what happened in New Hampshire last September, and the nearly fatal disaster last weekend at Dante’s in Queens, and, in fact, for all of the shattered expectations and bruised hearts and broken knuckles over the last 3,000 years. True, it was the ancient Egyptians who invented the wedding feast, with the music and the dancing and the drinking, and it was the Greeks who used to chant a prayer to the Goddess Hera as the wedding party left for their honeymoon; “Ho, Hymen! Ho, Hymen! Hymen Alous! Ho!” And that is not a prayer designed to lower expectations. But it was the Romans who put it all together into a full day potent with rising tensions, distant relations, recriminations, pretensions and hypertension that, by evening, whips everybody, including the bride and groom, into a frenzied drunken breakdown of all civilized behavior. This is the joining of man and women in holy matrimony. And you should always remember that the word woman comes down to us from the old German “yifmann” meaning a wife, and the old Norse “hus” (meaning a house) and “buandi” (meaning to dwell in) being the schmuck that she marries, from the Old French “maritus” (meaning to be martyred). Allow me to give you an example or two from recent history.
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We will begin just after midnight on Sunday, September 9, 2007, in the small village of Hampstead, New Hampshire (population 8,297). A 911 call of a man stabbed drew the police to the Granite Rose Function Hall at the top of Garland Drive. There officials found between 50 and 100 members of a wedding party whaling away on each other in the front parking lot. Having a small police department (their annual budget is barely half a million dollars), Hampstead called on neighboring communities for assistance: Sandown, Danville, Fremont, Kingston, Newton, Brentwood, Plaistow, Atkinson, Salem, Derry, and the State Police. Once all 30 officers were in place they charged into the melee. They found no one stabbed, and only one individual injured seriously enough to be taken to Parkland Medical Center in Derry for treatment. But the police did find lots of black eyes, cuts, bruises, scrapped knuckles and busted lips. The cops did not find out who or what started the fight, and, frankly, once it was over they didn’t care. By 3AM the parking lot had been cleared, and another young couple had gotten a cheerful start to their new lives, with the loving support of their families. John Gotti would have been proud.
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Not long after things calmed down in Hampstead, they started heating up in nearby Salem. Officer Jim Fox was were called to Margarita’s on Keewaydin Drive. The restaurant and bar was jammed with another wedding party, with a large group waiting outside because of capacity limits. According to the staff 34 year old Terry Eaton took offense when the bartender cut off his alcohol supply. Working his way through the crowd, Officer Fox confronted Mr. Eaton and asked him to step outside to discuss the situation. Mr. Eaton became physical and Officer Fox was forced to Taser him. As he was handcuffing the stunned man, a drunken woman leapt onto the policeman’s back and began to scratch him. Officer Fox was able to dislodge her, but she then disappeared into the drunken rowdy crowd. Then, as Fox was leaving the restaurant with his “perp” he ran into the angry crowd outside and decided he ought to call for backup.
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Four New Hampshire State Troopers, two officers from Windham and one from Pelham responded and with Officer Fox quickly brought the crowd under control. And, then, just when it looked like things were about to calm down for the night, a bus carrying one of the warring factions from the rumble at the Granite Rose pulled up at a neighboring hotel, and Salem police were forced to roll out yet again in response to noise complaints. Still, the evening ended with only Mr. Eaton under arrest, but he made up for lack of support by trying to kick Officer Fox during booking procedures. Eaton was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and two counts of assault on a police officer. He posted $5,000 bond and was out of jail by Tuesday afternoon. It must be every bride’s dream to have their dream day celebrated in such a gay family fashion.
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The Online Etymology dictionary tells us that the word bride comes from the Old English “bryd” or “bruthiz” meaning “a woman being married”, while “bridegroom” comes from the Old English “brydgruma” meaning “suitor”. And this week, a wedding party in Vallejo, California got so out of hand that police arrested both the bryd and the bruthoz. The second time the cops were called to the party they Tasered and arrested the bridegroom and his cousin, (from the French word “couisner” meaning a relative who encourages you to get plastered and act like a jackass), for resisting arrest and the bride for public intoxication. Or I could tell you about Kevin White of Chicago who traveled to Cincinnati to marry Jetaun Wilson. Problems arose however when Kevin decided to raise a little cash for the honeymoon and is now under arrest, charged with possession of heroin with a street value of $200,000, driving with a suspended license and running a red light. (Why do people carrying drugs always break the traffic laws?) The bride is also under arrest and charged with “permitting drug abuse”, and the wedding is on hold until they can come up with $510,000 in bail; ten grand for Jetaun and half a million for Kevin.
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But I don’t want to give you the impression that all weddings end up in jail. Sometimes they just end up in the hospital. This past weekend 22 year old Sharon Strack was finally married to her longtime boyfriend, 28 year old George Quenneville, at Dante’s Catering Center, “…a family owned establishment with over 35 years of experience” located at the corner of 75th Street and 31st Avenue in Queens, New York. As the company tag line promises, “Share your dreams with Dante…They’ll make them come true.” But what came true for Sharon and George had a little too much in common with Dante’s Inferno. The actual ceremony went fine, at least until the happy couple was about to cut the cake. Then, according to Sharon, “…all of a sudden his mom went down.”
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The groom, who had stepped out for a cigarette, was notified by his new brother-in-law that “Your mother is down.” (They make her sound like a horse.) He rushed back inside. A few minutes later Sharon’s sister passed out in a bathroom. Other revelers became dizzy, complained of headaches and began vomiting. The staff of Dante’s called the fire department, and they found the hall had filled with carbon monoxide from a faulty dryer in the basement. George’s mom had to be treated in a hyperbolic chamber to force the odorless gas out of her tissues, and the newlywed couple’s 2 year old daughter had to be kept on oxygen for three hours. All told 38 members of the party had to be treated at hospitals. The bride, still dressed in white gown, tiara and oxygen mask, also took a ride in an ambulance. The next morning Sharon could afford to be philosophical. “They say everything’s going to go wrong on your wedding day. But…my whole wedding party was in the hospital!”
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As to be expected the New York Tabloids had a field day. The Daily News labeled Sharon “The Bad Luck Bride”, and headlined the story, “Bride Fumes Over Gas. Spent Wedding Night in Hospital”. And the Post went with “Fume Doom for Honeymoon”. The owner of Dante’s promised to install carbon monoxide detectors and reimburse the customers. He even offered to throw another party for Sharon and George, free of charge. But Sharon said she really didn’t want to go through it all again, taking Dante’s at their promise that a wedding held there would be a “…once in a lifetime experience.”



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Monday, April 07, 2008

READING IS NOT DEAD, IT'S JUST SICK

I believe it was parapsychologist, scientist and Ghostbuster Dr. Egon Spengler who pointed out in 1984 that “Print is dead.” But I still read all the time: poems, books, magazines, assembly instructions, photo captions, the credits at the end of movies and the underside of toothpaste tubes. The only thing I won’t read is “graphic novels”. I’m sure they are a valid art form but I simply refuse to read a comic book that takes itself that damn seriously.
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I read fiction and non-fiction, short stories, novellas, novels, and blurbs. I have read “Moby Dick” (the whale did it), and “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (The Christians did it), and I have even read Ernst Hemingway’s unnamed shortest short story ever written. It is, in its entirety – “For sale, one pair of baby shoes, never worn”. And if that doesn’t convince you that Hemingway was a genius you simply have no heart or imagination. But I confess I am not tempted to read “I Was Tortured by the Pygmy Love Queen”, by Jasper McCutcheon. It’s a real book, published by Nazca Plains Corporation, and it is followed by Mr. McCutcheon’s next great tome, “Go Ahead, Woman, Do Your Worst! Erotic Tales of Heroes Chained”. I doubt that the hero of Mr. McCutcheon’s two works, Captain Henry Mitchell, is even a distant relation to Hercules, chained or unchained. And thus, I have no interest in his adventures. The hallmark of all true literature is continuity. And some snob appeal.
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The “…Pygmy Love Queen” was the runner up in the 30th annual “Diagram Prize”, awarded by “The Bookseller”, first a magazine and now a web site, dedicated to all things about the book industry: and yes, it is still an industry, mostly held together these days with glue and staples and Harry Potter editions, but still strong enough to include such diverse titles as, “Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice” (1978) and "The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today "(1984). Both of those were previous Diagram award winners.
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This year’s winner was "If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs", written by Mr. Big Boom Freeman (notice the lack of parentheses). The publisher describes it as “…a self help book for women written by a man”, and, says The Bookseller, “So effective is the title that you don’t even need to read the book itself”. Still, one reader suggested the book might be useful only “If you were Whitney (Huston), and you were dating Bobby (Brown)” As for myself, I would simply label this as a self-help book for the illiterate, written by one of their own. But let Mr. Big Boom justify his no doubt healthy advance from Simon & Schuster in his own words. “Since what I used to do didn’t work, I asked God to help me determine what I could do for him since nothing detrimental happened to me when I was being deceptive and doing wrong in my life. The Holy Spirit revealed to me that God saved me for this journey I am now embarking on. Since I am a bodyguard for the stars by trade, I have decided to protect the ones (women) I’ve been hurting. So now people can just call me “Boom, the Bodyguard for Women’s Hearts.” It brings tears to your eyes, doesn’t it? It sure as hell did to mine.
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But my own pick for worst (meaning the best) title would have been ‘the writing guide to end all writing guides”, "How To Write “How To” Books & Articles. Cash in on your hobbies, interests and activities by letting others in on what you know". The book was unofficially awarded third place in the Diagram prize, but to the author, Brian Piddock, that was “…an insult…. My book is not odd. It is perfectly sensible. It is the most sensible writers’ manual ever published…In fact it is entirely and utterly lacking in oddness.” He is so unabashed in his outrage that it almost seems petty to point out he was actually awarded third Place, and was not the winner. But, as his website proclaims, “Remember: he’s only there to help you help yourself”. (info@brianpiddock.co.uk)
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(However, I must admit to some suspicions concerning Mr. Piddock. His web site includes a review of his book (“Piddock’s stories of past girlfriends, present friends, and his tragic marriage are riveting.) written by Mr. Bernard Pollack. And there is also a blurb from the “Association of British ‘How To Write’ Writers” (“The story of his rivalry with a fellow How To Write writer, which led to a major miscarriage of British ‘justice’, still haunts me. Surely the best book ever written. Everyone else, stop writing now. There’s no point. Brian’s said it all) supposedly written by Mr. Paddy Brinnock. But Google can find no such British ‘How To’ association. It also occurs to me that Mr Piddock, Mr. Pollack and Mr. Brinnock have very similar names, and after several hours of intensive labor over their anagrams I can now state that Mr. Brian Piddock is in actual fact Mr. Bandy Porn Dick.)
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The Diagram prize, based on the mythical book “A Diagram of Diagrams”, has been awarded since 1978, (“…Nude Mice”), and has included such classics of designation nomenclature as the 1986 classic, "Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality" by Glenn C. Ellenbogen. The 1990’s were kicked off by Pat Califa’s guide "Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual", 92’s "How to Avoid Huge Ships", by Captain John W. Timmer, and the 1996 classic of obscura "Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers", and finished off with the mass market classic, "The Joy of Sex, the Pocket Edition" in 1997. The new millennium saw "The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories" in 2003, and in 2005 "People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It" by Gary Leon Hill.
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This last tome violates one of the unstated conventions of the Diagram prize in that it is based on the conceit that “members of the psychiatric community are capable of laughter.” A true Diagram winner should be, in my opinion, honestly loony and sincerely believe in the validity of its premises, such as previous years’ runner ups, "Tattoed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Baghestan", and "Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium", and this year’s runner up, "Cheese Problems Solved" edited by P.L.H. McSweeney, and described as marketed for “…the dedicated cheese enthusiast, this $250 guide promises to answer 200 or so of the most commonly asked questions about cheese…” I can’t even think of 200 questions about cheese, let alone be interested in the answers!
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The publicity surrounding this year’s prize has, of course, a mercenary point. The Diagram Prize has a book in the pipeline, to be titled "How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books" to be published in September. Such notoriety is an impressive achievement for a prize awarded by something less than 8,500 votes world wide, and that reveals one of the underlying truths about publishing; writing about books is mostly simple plagiarism.


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