Thursday, April 17, 2008

2 by 4 Miles of Nothing

Shemya is about 1,500 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, a tiny dot near the end of the Aleutian chain of islands that points toward ... where else? ... Russia, or, at that time, the Soviet Union. Specifically, the Kamchatka Peninsula and their continuation of our Aleutian islands, the Komandorskis (Командорские острова). Technically it is part of the Semichi group of the Near Islands of the Aleutian chain.

Shemya, from space
 Near what isn't specified. It's so far west that it's actually east, at Latitude 52.723193N, Longitude 174.10643E. The International Dateline bends around the end of the chain (at Attu, about 40 miles further west) to keep the islands in a U.S. time zone. Here's what it looks like from space, courtesy of Google. In 1969 it was supposed to be supersecret. Now, with Google, you can zoom right down on it.

Don't let the top picture fool you. This is not a tropical isle. Shemya is tundra. That is, there are no trees on its 2 miles by 4 miles of waste. The only tree I saw in the 11 months, 22 days and some hours that I spent there was the dead Christmas tree on a trash heap behind the NCO club.

Welcome to Shemya
The island had been more-or-less continuously occupied since World War II, when a base was built there while the Japanese were occupying Attu. It is said that 20,000 men were stationed there at one time. We had about one-tenth that number, so proportionately about 1,000 of those guys went completely nuts. For a long time it was a refueling stop for Northwest Orient Airlines flights to the far east.

I saw 4 different women during that year. One was a 70-year-old Aleut librarian, a couple were whores who came out on the weekly mail plane, and one came with a USO show. The saying goes that there's a woman behind every tree on Shemya. Lame joke.

A barge that didn't make it
The island was supplied once a year by barge, and weekly by planes of Reeve Aleutian Airways. Robert Reeve started the company years ago as a famed bush pilot, and, at least while I was there, he must have still been hiring bush pilots. Weather on Shemya was atrocious at best. I once watched a 4-engine Reeve plane come in over the sea to the south of the island and land by moving almost laterally in the wind.

Reeve Aleutian Airways
It never got really cold on the island, for the same reason that we rarely saw stars or blue sky: the warm Japan current on the south meeting the cold air over the Bering Sea to the north made for clouds low and high, and lots of wind (which, for some reason, never seemed to blow the fog and clouds away). We had snow, but little of it ever stayed on the ground, because the wind blew it all away so quickly.

Look Ma, no trees!

We 7 actually arrived there on an Alaska Airlines 727 out of Elemendorf AFB; I never actually got to ride on a Reeve flight. We collected at Fort Richardson next door to Elmendorf until it was time to go west. We were at Fort Rich at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when we could play softball at midnight. The takeoff from Elemendorf was memorable. It was early in the morning and we flew by Mt. McKinley (now Denali) as the sun came up behind it. It was almost the last sun we saw for a year.

Related to what we did, in winter
That was still part of the cold war, but I can't say that we did anything remarkable to help win it. I don't suppose I'm allowed to talk much about what we did there even now, although there's plenty on the Internet, and the technology we used was obsolete even then (but so was the Russians'). The Veteran's History Project doesn't want our stories; the cold war wasn't interesting enough. I think we got an extra $16 a month for being out there. Given that it was cold and there were no women, it's astonishing that more guys didn't volunteer to go to Vietnam.

Would you have wanted to come back ...

The Army didn't like to give anyone leave during a Shemya assignment, since they were often very reluctant to go back to finish the year.

... to this?
(Besides, it was officially an Air Force station, and the birdmen didn't get leave either.)
One of our small group did get off the island, back to California to deal with a family problem. He actually re-enlisted to keep from going back, even though he was one of the least military of the bunch.

In later years I met several people who had been on Shemya at various times. I worked with a programmer who had been there with General Electric as a civilian not long before I was there. The civilian support people were paid very well to go there, and, since there was no place to spend it, they left comparatively well off.

Typical scene

The island was literally a dump. Anything that was shipped there stayed there. It was too expensive to remove it. So there were enormous piles of 55-gallon oil drums, and huge dumps of expensive electronics. I understand that in recent years there has been an effort to clean it up. What for? Nobody wants to go there.

Rivetball down
Remember Korean Airlines flight 007, shot down by Soviet interceptors in 1983? It was apparently mistaken for one of the reconnaissance planes that flew out of Shemya. There were two based on the island when we were there, and both of them crashed that year. One went down in the Bering Sea with 19 aboard, all lost.

Boozer at his post
I watched that one take off that morning. I remember it because it was a beautiful, almost clear morning. The other plane skidded off the 10,000-foot runway and broke in half. Boozer also died that year. 1968-1969 was not a good year for Shemya.

Typical smokehouse

During WWII, most everyone was housed in quonset huts out on the tundra. The way the tundra grass grows in the short summers out there, by the time we got there most of the huts had sunk into the permafrost. Some of them had been renovated and were used as "smokehouses" for various groups on the island. A smokehouse was really a small, private bar.

We all lived in one humongous structure called the "composite building." There were other buildings in the complex for the NCO club, the bowling alley, movie theater and craft shop (I still have a ceramic Buddha Tom made).

Shemya fox

There was a modest amount of wildlife on the island. Walruses could often be seen on the "beaches," but weren't often approached closely; they could be mean suckers. There were also the tundra foxes, small, dark foxes with bright orange eyes. Most of them were quite tame. They liked french fries and often hung around the back door of the NCO club waiting for handouts. Unfortunately, a finger looks a little like a french fry to a fox, so we had a few bites.

About 12 miles to the south, part of the Near Islands, but not in the Semichi group, floated Aggatu, uninhabited, but mystical to me. It reminded me of Laputa, from Gulliver's Travels. Aggatu seemed to float in a cushion of cloud on the sea.

Wildflowers - It wasn't like this!

We wore uniforms all the time up there, of course. Why bother with anything else? Otherwise, it wasn't terribly military. How could they punish us? Send us off the island for court martial? We had one exercise when we were issued rifles (no bullets) to go sit on the cliffs on the island's north side to watch for Soviet invaders.

Feel the cold!
That was just plain dumb, since we knew that if war came we would be considered expendable anyway. We also had an opportunity to re-qualify with the M-14 rifle (with bullets). That was dumb, too. The wind was so strong that you couldn't hit anything more than 16 inches away. So we shot at seagulls.

Otherwise there wasn't much to do but work, eat and sleep. And when it was over, we flew back to Anchorage on an Air Force C-141 (sitting facing backwards) by way of Adak. Adak was a much bigger island, with a Navy base, and families. The plane came out to Shemya first, and on the ride to Adak we had our first look at little people in a year (not to mention their mommies).

A few days in Anchorage, again on the longest day of the year—and one of the hottest in many years, with not an air conditioner in sight—and we were flown to Fort Lewis, Washington, and from there immediately to Sea-Tac airport for flights elsewhere. Tom and I flew back east together. It was a Sunday flight, so we had the Sunday funny papers. The plane was nearly empty, so we slept a good part of the trip. And to be awakened for landing by a lovely stewardess offering orange juice was heaven.

Those of us from Shemya, and a few others of the original 27, were collected together again for the final 9 months until discharge in the Spring of 1970. We worked as uniformed personnel at National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.

I was mustered out at Fort Meade exactly 4 years from the day I joined up.

We were Soldiers Once ... and Young

There were 27 of us: Darrell and Dhale, Dennis and Dwight, a few Toms and a few Bobs, a Bruce, Larry and Lee, Harry, Steve, David and John, two different Als, Gary and Ray, Steve, Tony, Joe and Marc, Carl and Karl ... and me.

Lee holding forth

We went through a second 9 months at DLI (now called the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center) in Monterey together, wearing the uniform during the day but otherwise all but forgetting that we were really in the Army. Most had some college, a few had degrees. We had an accomplished violinist and a

Госпожа Чебышова and Ray

talented pianist, and Harry could play almost any instrument after only a few hours practice.

Harry and Bob
Sittin', Shittin' and Singin'

Harry on bass

These were all interesting and interested young men. All of them took the instruction seriously, not for what it might do for the Army, but for what it might do for them. Most of us have continued to use the Russian we learned there in one way or another, off and on. Larry became a professional translator. Dhale hosted a Russian family or two at his home in Scarsdale. A couple of them continued to use it in government service. Tom married a woman who became chair of a university Russian department. I dated a Russian girl for a while, and have recently acquired some new immigrant friends from Russian and Ukraine. Bob married a Ukrainian woman and, last we knew, was in Georgia (the country).

They were all (or, like me, became) readers. Harry loved singing and its poetry. Al was a troubled actor, but a fairly good one; he was in love with the theater. One made the Army a career and went back to Monterey to teach.

These guys taught me a lot, every one of them. They were from everywhere, and they went back to everywhere when they left the Army. I don't think there are more than two in any one state now. A few of us got together a while back to indulge in nostalgia. Darrell retired about the same time that Tom fell off a ladder and was forced to retire. Together, with their wives, they tracked down almost all of the old crew using the telephone and the Internet. A few didn't want to be found; a few others quickly disappeared once they were found. They're older, but just as interesting as they were 35 years ago.

Sadly, Harry, Tom, Al and Lee are no longer among us.

Friday, April 11, 2008

This is Home

Tingley Lake in Autumn

This is where I feel most at home. Tingley Lake, north of the tiny village of Harford, in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

Tingley Lake in Winter
I had been coming here since 1950 or so, when my family rented a cottage in the summers. In 1957 my parents bought the cottage and some extra acreage. Until about 1988 I could only visit the place once in a while, and, since winters are long, dreary and bleak in this part of the world, that usually meant only for short stays in the summer.

You can see it from space on Google. It is located at 41.800239 north latitude and 75.723739 west longitude. It looks like this from a little closer to the ground ...

I inherited the place when my father died and have since replaced the cottage. There have been a lot of other changes on the lake in recent years. When I was growing up, all the cottages were just that: summer cottages. Now there are about a dozen year-round homes, and they get grander all the time.

Hallstead and the Great Bend
in the Susquehanna River
I don't live there in the winter, but in nearby Hallstead.

Susquehanna County is mostly rural, and, by many measures, one of the poorest regions in the state. It is part of Appalachia, after all.

The Susquehanna River (seen in the picture) enters the state in Susquehanna County, and then abandons it again for New York State. It reenters Pennsylvania in Bradford County from whence it continues through the center of the state from Wilkes-Barre to Harrisburg.

This is Republican territory, but has a high poverty rate notwithstanding the number of well-off retirees who settle here. My father was born at the county seat of Montrose, a picturesque little Victorian town out in the middle of nowhere.

California Dreamin'

If you had to be in the Army, there couldn't have been many better places to be stationed than the Presidio of Monterey, California. It's changed a lot since the late 1960's. But when I went there for the first time at age 19, never having been west of St. Louis, it felt exotic. I loved the salt air, the iceplant, Fisherman's Wharf, Pacific Grove and the bay, and old downtown Monterey. Monterey has since gone considerably upscale. In the 1960's remnants of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row were still visible. Today Cannery Row is a tourist mall, with a focus on the wonderful Aquarium (or here).

I went there to attend the school at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast (DLIWC) to study Russian for 9 months. It is now called the Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) and is only one "tenant" of the Presidio. We were also waiting for our security clearances to come through. We didn't really know what that meant yet, but in the course of time we were cleared for SIGINT.

We studied Russian 5 days a week, 6 hours a day. And we had homework, mostly in the form of dialogs that we had to learn so we could speak them to one another the next day. We weren't supposed to actually memorize them, but I did, since it was the only way I could get through them. I got pretty good at it: I could memorize a couple of legal-size sheets of Russian dialog—both sides—over a cup of coffee before class.

We didn't do much writing. Our goal was to learn to listen to Russian enough to understand it (more about that later, too). In the process, we also learned to speak it.

Our instructors were Russian immigrants who had left Russia (or the Soviet Union) mostly before WWII, so most were elderly by the time we got to know them. And they were a fascinating bunch of people. There was "Shakey Jake," who must have been suffering from some form of Parkinson's in addition to advanced age. And there was Mme. Chebyshova, a very funny lady. There were a couple of poets among them; I have a couple of slim volumes by one of them who wrote under a pseudonym. General Rastikis was actually Lithuanian, a short, stocky little guy with a stiff, military bearing, who had to deal with Stalin when his country, along with the other Baltic states, was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940. All of them were pleasant and tolerant of our youthful antics and unmilitary behaviors, probably more tolerant than the Army appreciated.

Those of us deemed good enough with Russian could apply to live in the "Russian Barracks," also known as "B5," the designation of the building on the lower DLI campus. These were WWII-style wooden barracks; our classrooms were the same structures, but modified for classroom use. Toward the end of my stay in Monterey a whole new collection of buildings on the top of the hill were completed for housing and classrooms. I attended only a very few classes up there in the new buildings. The old buildings on the lower campus (including the NCO club and all the other facilities) were eventually torn down. I have visited Monterey a few times since and, while the Presidio looks similar from the outside, it is quite different. Until 9/11/2001 there were a couple of town roads that crossed the Presidio, which was pretty much open to anyone. After 9/11, the Presidio, as a military installation, was locked down, and guards stationed at the gates.

These are Air Force weenies some years later,
but they're doing Russian.

The basic Russian language course was 9 months long. During that time the Army decided to experiment with an advanced course for another 9 months, to see if the additional training improved effectiveness in the field. The first class to get the second course had only 9 students; at DLI the student-to-instructor ratio was 9-to-1, so they had only one class. They decided then to take the best from two introductory classes to form another advanced course for 27 students. I just barely made it to the second course; one of my instructors warned me that I might not make it unless I worked harder, so I did, one of the few occasions that I have accepted a teacher's advice, and it worked.

Following a short leave, I returned to Monterey for the second course. It was really just more of the same, but we felt special in some ways. We were on more intimate terms with our instructors, and we already had 9 months of experience in Monterey, Carmel, San Francisco and all the other delights of California. Plus, we had been promoted to Specialist 4th Class (E-4), so we outranked most of the other enlisted men at the school.

DLI looked like this some years later

Next: The 27

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Becoming a Geek

Way back before I quit engineering school at Stevens Tech (in 1965, just before I would have flunked), we had to write a program in Fortran II for an IBM 1620 computer. This was a decimal machine whose operating system was a deck of cards. Our programs were small decks of a few cards tacked onto the end of the operating system and the compiler.

Computer time in those days was expensive; it was added to the cost of tuition. I don't remember the actual prices, but when a program went out of control, it mounted rapidly.

At the time I wasn't aware that dividing by zero was undefined/impossible/not a good idea. The computer didn't know it either, because if your program did it, the computer would compute endlessly. There were also the infamous "DO loops," loops that never exited. My program did both at successive times. The operator suggested I run a trace to help debug the thing. But what I got back as a trace was a full tray of cards that, when printed, produced page after page of hexadecimal gibberish. I wrote a letter to my girlfriend on the backs of some of those cards; the trace listing papered the walls of my dorm room.

It was almost 15 years before I came back to computers. I was working at the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. FRD was only nominally part of the Library, doing most of its work for the Defense Intelligence Agency using primarily open-source materials. The Library was a great place to work because we had access to the stacks and all of the resources of Capitol Hill and the Washington area. FRD, on the other hand, was a stifling environment run by narrow-minded bureaucrats who hired young college graduates in area studies (like me) doing largely useless work on the public dole. We were Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, but without the glamour (or the danger).

Being a government agency, however, we had to spend any leftover money at the end of a fiscal year or we risked not getting it next year. We had a small (two-person) engineering group which purchased an IBM 5100 table-top computer with some of these excess funds one year.

The engineers never used it; one of them soon quit and the other preferred a slide rule.

I was bored, however, and I had always liked gadgets, so I started playing with it. The machine weighed about 50 pounds and had a top cover with a handle, as if it was supposed to be portable; for those days, I suppose it was. Fully-equipped, it had 64K of RAM (we called it "core" back then), a high-quality tape drive, and two languages in ROM, BASIC and APL. Disk drives didn't come along until the 5110 model. It had a 5-inch black and white screen. We also had the accompanying dot-matrix printer.

I started out with BASIC and finally discovered arrays, and how to program a loop properly. This machine knew enough to teach me that dividing by zero was forbidden. But I soon became bored with BASIC and punched the button that switched to APL.

The Game of Life in one line of APL

This was a challenge, and great fun! After all, why iterate through an array when you can operate on it in one swell foop? IBM was heavily into APL at the time, and I worked with it a lot, off and on, for the next 10 years or so. At FRD I programmed an indexing system in APL on that computer. Sorting and storing, say, 2500 names in alphabetical order on a machine with only 64K of memory and a tape drive was an interesting exercise. I learned later that they replaced the 5100 with a DEC mini-computer.

By that time, however, I had become a programmer.