Sunday, December 22, 2019



That was my first thought this morning.  Even as I emerged from the bedroom, half-drugged from a long sleep, I had this feeling, made worse as I looked down our silent, back-bedroom hall.  “Where are they now?  How can I make it through the day—knowing they won’t be waiting for me up in the World Cafe?  Starboard Side, of course.” That Rob and I will have breakfast without them—and nearly as bad, Whatever we eat, I will have to make most of it. Darn. 

“Yeah, it’s a shame,” said Rob. “The place does seem kind of empty, doesn’t it?”  And then, “When are you going to start our egg and toast, Babe?”  Which brought me up short, along with yesterday’s early evening statement, “My suitcase is empty.” 

Well, unlike prior trips, mine wasn’t.  

And thus came the Day-After-The-Trip.  A cruise.  But no ordinary trip, you see, because there were twelve of us aboard the Viking Sea, cruising the distant Caribbean. Eight of whom were grandchildren and their various spice . . . (what else works as the plural of “spouse?”)  

What to do except start calling their various households—bent on telling them how much I missed them.  Nine a.m., should be safe enough.  Well, it certainly was. Turns out they’d all been texting each other since four this morning.  “Can’t believe I’m doing laundry at 4:30 a.m. ”  “Went to the grocery store—I was the only one there.”  “The car wash was empty.”  “Too bad you don’t text, Grandma,”  said Christy.  “We had quite the chain going.”  As she read me their comments, I couldn’t have agreed more. As a texter, I’m the world’s slowest, and even worse, my quietly-beeping phone is never where I am, so it’s no use being on anyone’s chain.

As to the trip, it had dozens of great moments: all of us at dinner together in a small, twelve-person private dining room, joined by the ship’s four-stripe, chief Engineer from Bulgaria, put together because Zhanina, Dane’s fiancĂ©, is also from Bulgaria.  Thanks to his heavy accent, Rob and I couldn’t understand a word he said, but he kept everyone else laughing.

The moments when we got to know various spice a lot better. There’s Matt, the computer whiz who, the day before the trip, finished a project for Oracle.  I knew Matt mostly as the guy who performed miracles whizzing his distant mouse across my rebelling computer screen—but never as the quiet listener who reveled in the ship’s classical violin duo performances. Rob and I spent hours with Kelly and Matt in after-dinner hours of rapt, pleasurable silence.  We’ve agreed he’ll now attend some of the local classical music events (as members of a music support group), that take place in homes blocks from ours.  

Then there was Mike, whose vacation hair across the breakfast table at first made me yearn for a comb. But eventually I came to appreciate the hair—and all because of the smart, funny, intense guy who was under it. We spent hours with Mike in lively conversation.

Then Dan, who’s always been noteworthy as unusually kind—but not as our gang’s resident  best-dresser, second only to Tracy’s Paul—who himself is notable, with Rob and me, as the family’s clothes horse and “man we can’t do without.”   

Throughout the trip there were grandkids and spice who jumped up to bring Rob and me various servings from the cafeteria—and at other times to help us with luggage or merely our own faltering feet . . . on and off tour buses, in and out of taxis, or simply on and off the ship itself.  However, I must add there was no help possible for the dozens of trips the two of us made the length of the ship—from our stateroom in the bow to the dining rooms in the stern. We kept repeating the same mantra: “God, this hall is damn well endless. Down there at the end, I can’t even see our room. I can hardly believe it.”  And then, “I’m glad this walk is so good for us.”      

Though Rob, as always, made instant friends with all the waiters, discussing their countries of origin and learning to say ‘thank you’ in their language. . . because of our larger crowd we made no friends, beyond passing Hellos, with any of the other guests. However, there was one such moment that stands out: Near the end of the trip a steel band performed out near the pool deck. Thanks to the music’s lively beat (and no doubt helped by the rum drinks). . . our family, sitting as a unified group, kept jumping up to dance.

Our daughter, Tracy, quickly helped form a Congo group which rounded the deck. Then, one by one, the grandkids forced Rob and me to our feet.  Bob did a “cane dance,” jumping about as he twirled his cane, while two young males took each of my arms and forced me to dance with them.  Several times.  Each occasion I kept going until I ran out of breath. Those moments were both fun and exhausting—understandable to anyone in his or her ninth decade. 

Later that day Mike was stopped by a spectator who’d been leaning over a balcony, observing. The woman said to Mike:  “I was watching your family.  What a bunch. They made me cry.”  I, for one, had never heard a more touching comment.           

Wednesday, December 4, 2019



This critique for my book,  “The Tail on my Mother’s Kite,” came as one
of those wonderful surprises you can only hope for as you’re writing the book. 

Here are the words from the judge for the 27th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. 

It’s long.  My penance is, I’ve got to type it all—or leave out some wonderful stuff.  Well, here goes: 

“Lovely sense of setting at the start, with the narrative leading us right up to the aforementioned fire that the author used so successfully as a grab for the reader’s connection. Very well done.  We can see that the author knows her way around descriptions, and as such, we’re present in the scene and eager for all of the action to come. Very well done. 

“Beautiful phrasing and sense of movement throughout. “stood there alone, poking at the sky,” stands out for its imagery and we also get a sense of movement in her actions. This is where the author flexes mighty narrative muscles, going beyond simple physical description to what makes an action or observation come alive: multi-layered details in the sensory realm. Excellent choices here.

“The author spent time on every sentence, crafting without the effort showing. “I wanted to peel off my skin to get cooler” is another of the sensory details that grabs the reader. My heart dropped at, “I need a father.”  We’re getting very deep into emotions. Pace is stellar, with no bumps on the path, engaging transitions between chapters, dialogue is fully fleshed-out, with differentiated voices for each of the characters, and I loved that the author cared about sentence structure in each character’s voice. Impressive.

“’The harm that came to him was mostly because our mother stopped being a mother” stands out as a dramatic wallop at the end of a chapter, one of the finest cliffhanger insights I’ve seen in this competition. The stomach sinks when the truth is put out so plainly, and brutally.  All through the middle third of the book, we’re immersed in dysfunctional scenes, and now we see that the flame has turned up gradually, so that we might not even have noticed, but the laser-focused truth in the author’s voice shows that she has been changed by the progression getting this far along.  Subtle tone intensity has led us expertly here, and we’re at the point where we are changed as well.  “Even our mother was not able, ultimately, to ruin a basically sound son.” Nice!  A statement of strength, realization, and a Glass Castles-like overcoming story.  Very well done.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019



Here is a word-for-word blurb from THE WEEK  Magazine, November 15 issue:   Page 8. 


Barr backlash:  British officials were taken aback by the Trump Administration’s request that they help it investigate American intelligence agencies, British media reported last week.  Attorney General William Barr is overseeing a criminal investigation into the origins of the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. U.S. intelligence concluded unequivocally that Russian hacks and covert social media campaigns were aimed at helping President Trump win the election; some commentators have speculated that Barr wants to discredit that conclusion. “They are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services,” one diplomat told Independent.co.uk. Barr has also asked Italy and Australia to investigate. 

Attorney General for the United States—or personal servant of President Trump?           

Monday, October 28, 2019




 Robert V. Wills

Unless the Democratic party can accomplish impeachment or come up with a more appealing candidate next year, we run the risk of repeating the ugly scenario of the 1930’s Third Reich.     

No one under 90 personally remembers how a charismatic house painter hypnotized a great country by slogans, racism, doublespeak, and war on the press, the courts, and the intelligentsia. But I do, and I am astounded that this America is as vulnerable to an  unhinged, unprincipled, demagogue as it has proven to be. And very worried, because as evil as Trump is, he is also a clever showman and charlatan when dealing with uneducated and worried segments of the United States.  

It’s no coincidence that Trump admires only dictators and hates the press.  He is truly a dictator-in-training.

Rick Steves of PBS Travel has seen the ugly trend and produced a DVD titled, “The Story of Fascism in Europe,” describing the rise of the Third Reich from start to finish. I recommend that sooner or later every reader of this blog see that DVD.  It plays often on KCET and lasts only one hour.    


Monday, October 7, 2019



Trump is nothing if not cagey. 

When he fights, he does it with a pugilist’s knowledge of what he can get away with, how far he can go with no consequences.

This was evident years ago when, as a builder of massive hotels, he hired construction crews who were never paid what they were owed.  When the bills came due, Trump “shook down” the contractors, offering them some lesser fraction of what he owed, knowing most of them couldn’t afford to sue him.  And he was right.  A protracted and expensive undertaking in court would ultimately cost the contractors more than they’d get by simply accepting Trump’s offer of a sharply reduced final payment. 

Lots of people knew what he’d been doing—but apparently he never suffered any reprisals.

He’s conducted his whole life that way. 

We Democrats imagined we had him when he was caught secretly asking Ukraine for a favor—that they, as a foreign government, assist him by “digging up dirt” on his political rival, Joe Biden.  It took an unrevealed whistle-blower to catch him. His moves all appeared underhanded, covert, and at last worthy of a long-overdue impeachment.  He broke laws established as presidential limits way back . . . well, centuries ago.   

And then Trump did the wholly unexpected.  In full view of reporters with cameras, he  asked China to investigate the sins of the Bidens.

Some of us caught on immediately.  O.M.G.  By repeating his formerly sneaky act in full view of everyone, he’s making it appear normal. No big deal.  With that he also revised his motivation . . . “I’m just going after corruption everywhere. As a president, I can do that. I don’t care about the politics.”  Another of his several thousand lies.

All but a few Republicans were ecstatic; they bought Trump’s surprising and clever public re-enactment of a sin.  For most he made the “sinfulness” all but go away.  I hear Republicans on numerous TV shows depicting his latest crimes as not “worthy” of impeachment. I’m beginning to think Trump’s wildest declaration might have a grain of truth: “I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.”   

Still, I’m convinced of my own private truth: most intelligent Republicans find our president personally repugnant; they stick with him only because he’s managed to give them what they want--tax-reduced incomes, right-wing judges, and less government.   

Sadly, the opposing party doesn’t see what the rest of us see—that massive immorality at the top will ultimately filter down and doom the country that allows it. It happened in Germany, and in certain ways, like political denigration of the press, it’s already happening here.   

Monday, September 2, 2019



                                        By Robert V. Wills

As I indicated at Discussion Group Saturday night, I don’t see why the endless string of gunshot massacres in the United States is such a complicated question. It really boils down to the one obvious factor present in the United States and absent in the rest of the globe.

All of the elements present in U.S. massacres are present all over the world—all except one. Angry racists, furious fired employees, and nobodies seeking notoriety are present in every country. So are violent video games and movies. So are schizophrenic loners and social rejects of every stripe. Of course we have psychopaths and oddballs. But so does every society, and murder is as old as Homo Sapiens’ history and will always involve humans wracked by stress, rancor, or delusion . . .

No, the pure and simple cause of American massacres is our one unique factor: the assault weapon and the clips and magazines that allow mass homicide in minutes.  No other nation on earth makes it legal for a non-military, non-law enforcement individual to own an assault weapon. Its only purpose is to kill multiple humans quickly. There is no other use for it, either in hunting or self-protection, and never has been.

And don’t for a minute get suckered by the N.R.A. argument that the founding fathers specified in the Second Amendment that every U.S. citizen is entitled to “bear arms,” meaning almost any arms. That baloney has persisted because no one ever read the precious Second Amendment carefully and in the context of 1789 “arms.”

Someday the Supreme Court will rule rationally on the amendment and empower the Federal and/or State legislatures to add assault weapons to the list of dangerous items that no non-military, non-law enforcement person can use, own, or possess—an atomic bomb, a machine gun, a 500-pound bomb, a flask of Sirin, or any other lethal device capable of mass homicide in minutes. 

Senator Feinstein got a ban on assault weapons through Congress in 1994. It never got challenged by the Supreme Court: yet the Republicans refused to extend the ban in 2004. 

With Trump in the White House and Mitch McConnell running the Senate, there will be no ban on assault weapons. So stay tuned for a lot more massacres and a bushel full of thoughts and prayers in a semi-civilized, paranoid world . . .   

                                                                                         Robert V. Wills

Saturday, August 24, 2019


Wyoming:  Where the Feds, the Wills, and the Buffalo Roam

We were an invasion, of sorts—fifteen members of one family bedding down in various high-end units at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Wyoming. The youngest was 16 months and the oldest 92.

All but Rob and I managed to hike miles around nearby Jenny Lake, while some fished from a boat on Jackson Lake—unfortunately, no bites--and others went river-rafting.  Evenings we alternately filled the counters at the Pioneer Grill, or overflowed a Lodge barbecue, or brought pizzas into our one large and elegant suite.

Over the years, Rob and I have spent many vacation days at the Jackson Lake Lodge, though never with a group this large. Thus we knew enough to reserve room 911, with its wrap-around windows and a breathtaking view of the majestic Tetons. One glimpse of white-dotted Moran Peak and its sister peaks made the rest of the view disappear.

Still, it was moments with kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids that turned the trip into something of a miracle.  Four-year-old Analise (from one family) tending to 16-month-old Eva (from another.)  Analise seemed to feel it her duty to keep Eva entertained, which she did with chatter, games, and mutual kisses.  At times Analise ran errands for Rob and me, at the barbecue fetching napkins or glasses of lemonade.

Moving up in age were eight-year-old Corbin who valiantly tried to find fishing worms for Rob—(at a dollar a worm), since worms are now outlawed in all local stores.  He found only one, which eliminated Rob’s hoped-for dam fishing. Thirteen-year-old Malena had many a report on her twin-sister, Marley “She reads all the time but she has no memory, because she turns around and reads the same book the next day,” seemingly unaware that both of them are virtually straight-A students.

With adult grandkids Jamie, Dane, and friend Zhanina, we played endless games of Boggle, and with public-defender grandchild Christy, we did the impossible Saturday New York Times crossword. (She and Rob mostly left me in the dust.)

Dane became a hero on the river raft trip when, during the rapids, Lauren’s brand new hat flew off , and Dane saw what happened and athletically snagged it out of the passing current.  

Tracy (and others), returned from several long hikes with tales of much-too-close mother bears complete with cubs, and reports of stupid tourists who couldn’t seem to follow the yelled instructions from several lady rangers; instead, they did everything wrong. They approached when they shouldn’t, and took off running when that merely incited the bears. Meanwhile, videographer Dane stood off to one side and snapped photos. 

The other guys, Paul, Dan, and Mike, did lots of hauling of food supplies, luggage, and whatever any of us needed. 

I distinguished myself by reacting so badly to the high altitude’s lack of oxygen that I nearly fainted, inspiring Tracy’s Paul to run for a doctor, and return with a canister of oxygen. From then on, nurse Lauren watched out for me, prescribing lots of water, slow walking, and multiple whiffs of oxygen. I was okay sitting down, but sooner or later the day requires that you do some walking. 

One night, Lauren’s Analise refused to go to bed.  Instead, as Lauren reported back to us with a laugh, she screamed at her mother,  “I hate you!  I hate you! I hope you get a sunburn. I hope it gets really red.  I’m not going to tell you about the mother moose.  And I’m not going to tell you about the baby moose!”  We realized that, being only four, she’d quickly run out of insults.

Later someone asked Marley, in the next door unit, if she’d heard Analise.  “Oh yes,” Marley texted back.  “She was loud.  Really loud!”     

Rob and I (now non hikers), instead gathered interesting tales from some of the energetic food serving crew, and one in particular, an older fellow named “Teak.”  I asked him about his unusual name, and he told us a story—how his mother had named him Tk,  and how, when first employed at the lodge, the gate guard had asked, “What’s your real name?” and he said, “You’ve got my passport, there it is.”  Up at the lodge, he said, “I was pleased when I finally acquired a real name.  They called me Tonly Konly.  Only later did I learn that the gate guard had written, ‘T only, and k only.’”   With that he re-named himself “Teak.” 

In further conversations Teak said, “You see that clear plastic water glass you’re using? And the straw? In six months they’ll both be dirt.”

“How so?”

“They’re plastic, both made of corn. Totally biodegradable.”

Rob said, “Wait ‘til the world hears about this.”

Our last day at lunch I quizzed the handsome stranger sitting next to me at the food counter, and he admitted he was the official photographer for the large, rather famous assemblage of Feds, due to arrive the day after we left.  And true to form, back home again, we saw many a shot of the world-famous men and women, nicely assembled  outdoors in full view of the magnificent Tetons.

Bob and I kept asking ourselves,  “I wonder who later slept in our room . . . ” as clearly someone from the Fed-group must have done.  It was pretty logical. After all, we’d occupied the best unit in the Lodge.    

Friday, August 9, 2019



Until a few months ago, neither Rob nor I knew our son, Ken (living in Virginia), had a heart murmur. Once we found out, events seemed to spiral forward at ever-increasing speed. As Ken tells it, he happened to mention the problem to a wealthy Norfolk friend, Linda Kaufman,  and she called the Cleveland Clinic (the nation’s premier center for heart issues) and, he said, “They called me back within five minutes.” 

It turns out Mrs. Kaufman’s husband had had a heart transplant there, and either before or after, they donated so much money to the hospital, that the “Heart Failure Clinic” is now named for them.  Thanks to her connections, Ken soon found himself speaking to Dr. Eric Roselli, the leading heart surgeon at the clinic.

Wanting to be there, Rob and I and Ken’s youngest daughter, Juliette, decided to become his Cleveland support team. Meanwhile, Ken’s Melanie had fractured her wrist a week earlier and back home she needed her own surgery.

Events started with good news—two days before Ken’s operation, a camera threaded through a tiny opening in Ken’s wrist showed his coronary arteries to be clear . . . which augured well for his future, suggesting he’ll never need a stent or bypass.   

The day before surgery, in a vast family lounge, the four of us briefly met Dr. Roselli himself. In his late forties, he was not only modest and charming, but so handsome I could imagine his nurses having difficulty focusing on their jobs. In that encounter Dr. Roselli told us he’d prefer keeping Ken’s own heart valve if possible, while admitting with a smile that Ken would have to appear in the clinic at five a.m. “while I’m still in bed,” he said. The procedure itself would begin at seven. 

The next day, three of us met Dr. Roselli again, this time in a private room.  It was near one P.M., meaning the surgery had taken over five hours.  “It went well,” he said. “We replaced six inches of his enlarged aorta with Dacron. The biggest job was repairing the valve, because it was frayed around the edges and thin in places and required lots of small sutures. But we got it done.” He smiled. “It will now seat nicely over the aorta.” In passing, he noted that a fellow surgeon had never seen such strong fascia as existed over Ken’s chest; they could hardly cut through it. We assumed that came from all  those years of Ken’s swimming the butterfly. 

Since Kenny had earlier given him my book, “Higher Than Eagles,”  Dr. Roselli admitted to having tried hang gliding briefly in Kitty hawk, rising a few feet off the ground. Odd as it seemed in that setting, we next discussed my terrifying flight as a tandem passenger with Bobby, which seemed to fascinate him. We also discussed his three children, ages 15, 13, and 10, with the ten-year-old boy asking occasionally, “Did you save any lives today, Daddy?” By the end, we learned he was committed to two more surgeries that day, about which he said ruefully, “One will be more complicated than your son’s.”

“Will you have lunch?” I asked,  and he said, “I’ll have some power bars. But I do get a good dinner.”  We three left in wonder, knowing his day was only a third finished.

Rob aptly described the magnificent facility manned by marvelously capable nurses –and so much technical equipment nobody could have counted all the machinery in just one room in I.C.U. Our first view of Ken was reminiscent of the whole. Besides a surgical cap and oxygen tubes in his nose, tubes and wires protruded from his neck, several from his chest, and at least one each in both arms.  We could see a bit of the bandage—which started just below his chin. His thumb rested on a button that delivered doses of fentanyl. “You can press it whenever you want,” the nurses assured him.

Ken tried to speak to us, but while his lips moved, the words were inaudible.  Working around the gadgetry that squeezed his legs, I stood for awhile rubbing his feet, right through the nubby surgical socks—a process to be repeated over subsequent days. That night we didn’t stay long.

Each day, from then on, one or more tubes were extracted, until at last he was able to ask for a cup of Starbucks coffee—and actually drink it. (Probably a mistake.  Not much sleep that night).  Throughout, Kenny was a benign patient, brave and uncomplaining. He just lay quietly, listening to music that flowed from a small device he’d brought with him. Meanwhile, Juliette was the legs of the group, running frequent errands.

Four days after surgery, Ken’s heart went into A-Fib, which frightened all of us, and especially Ken—but not the concerned nurses, apparently, nor Chris, who said by phone, “That’s just a bump in the road.”  Later, having been in A-Fib for ten hours, Ken’s heart resumed a normal rhythm.  By then we two were headed home.    

Two days later Ken was discharged from the hospital to spend two more days in our hotel. From home I spoke to Juliette, who admitted that his first day out they’d gone to an art museum. Rob and I were amazed he’d been able to do it—even, as she explained, walking slowly from room to room. Eventually the two boarded a plane for Norfolk, using a wheelchair between planes. He arrived home exhausted.  But now, a day later, he’s newly refreshed.

As is predictable for Rob and me, we had a couple of personal adventures.  Most embarrassing was when the two of us were hurrying across the hotel lobby to catch a departing elevator . . . a bit late, as the doors were already closing.  To stop the process, Rob popped his cane into the narrowing opening, expecting the impediment to make them re-open, as usually happens.    

Too late.  Instead of changing their mind,  the closing doors grabbed Rob’s cane, and he was left holding one end of a cane, while the business end was clamped tight in the outer elevator doors.  So there he stood—with no upward ride and gripping the handle of a useless cane. A man came to help extract his cane from the powerful doors—to no avail.  And then came another bruiser of a fellow.  Together, the two exerted all their strength, and pried open the doors just enough to release Rob’s weapon. 

Soon afterwards, the elevator came back down with a new load of passengers.  Unfortunately, the outer doors were now jimmied and wouldn’t open.  Knowing the passengers were stuck, the manager hurried over and assured them through a crack that help was on the way. While we watched, horrified, various men spoke reassuring words to the trapped individuals . . . while outside, a mechanic appeared with tools and worked overhead, trying to get the doors to open.  Eventually, after much physical effort and lots of soothing talk, the outer doors finally, slowly, retracted. 

With that, four people shot out of the elevator as though ejected from a cannon.  I suppose they thought the whole process might reverse and capture them once more.

Surprisingly, that elevator remained out of commission until several days after we’d left.

The other unusual event was not our fault. The very large clinic area is served by numerous free—also frequent—shuttles. But not, we learned, on weekends. On Sunday, after a long wait, we were told that the day’s only shuttle had been in an accident and was out of commission.  “How will we get to the hospital?” Rob asked. 

The hotel’s concierge shrugged.  Then he brightened.  “I’ll put you in a police car,” he said, which only I heard. With that, he summoned a Cleveland Clinic Police sedan, and the driver hopped out. While a surprised Rob climbed into the front, I had to lower my head and enter the back—with its barred windows and protective shield between me and the driver.  Until now I’d never seen such a vehicle from the inside. When we exit, I wondered,  Will we be taken for criminals?  Still, it felt like an adventure. With our arrival at the hospital, I couldn’t leave my seat--not until the policeman came around to let me out.  On our return trip, it was Cop Car once more, and this time Rob rode in back.   

Our trip to Cleveland was A to Z strange. Our second and third nights we viewed the debates, only later noting there was never a question about guns. Toward the end of our week came the horror of the El Paso killings--and the next morning we awoke in disbelief to another massacre in Dayton.  Now home, today I read in further disbelief a statement from Trump—“There is no political appetite for a ban on assault rifles.”  (The polls indicate the contrary.)  

Meanwhile, in spare moments I’d been reading the final chapters of Michelle Obama’s wonderful book, by coincidence finished as we arrived home.  Her descriptions of the arduous, non-stop duties faced by Barack—who read from a staff-prepared booklet every night until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.--made me think, All you candidates for president should read this book. Most of you would quit.     

A side note—I’ve never met so many friendly people as I encountered in Cleveland. 

With that, I echo Rob’s observation that the private sector, with private funds, has produced two of the world’s finest facilities—the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic.

Thursday, July 25, 2019


My Brother's Role in the Moon Landing-- (re: Allan Klumpp)

Apollo 11: I’ve known for years that my brother designed the path of flight from the mother ship (the Lunar Module) to the moon.  But only a week ago, a friend perusing the internet found this account, written by Allan 25 years after the event.   Maralys Wills  

Apollo 11 Ignores Descent Guidance Faults, Lands Anyway

During the eleven minutes of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, several alarms appeared on the display of the Lunar Module (LM). As each appeared, Buzz Aldrin, LM pilot, immediately read it aloud for Neil Armstrong, LM commander, for the team of Gene Kranz, flight director for the lunar descent in Houston, and for the designers of the descent guidance, including myself, at MIT Instrumentation Laboratory in Cambridge. None of us had any idea what caused these alarms, whether the fault was minor or a prelude to disaster. Nonetheless, Kranz directed Armstrong to press on rather than opt for safety by aborting the descent and returning to the orbiting Command Module (CM).

In ensuing days, months, and years we found out what happened. The crew’s checklist called for turning on rendezvous radar during descent; it could be needed if the descent were to be aborted and the LM returned to the CM. But connections to the radar were incomplete, failing to synchronize its power supply with others. The radar’s power supply drifted in and out of phase. When out of phase, the radar ate up about 15% of the guidance computer’s time; there was only an 8% margin. Instrumentation Lab colleague Russ Larson now says that a time-consuming command from the astronauts aggravated the problem. As a result, the guidance computer was failing to finish its tasks, and it was complaining. The explanation became complete only this year at the design team’s 25th reunion at the lab, now renamed for its founder Charles Stark Draper.

My part of the official investigation showed that throttle and steering commands, which the guidance computer was supposed to issue every two seconds, were often incompletely computed, and were queued for later completion. Any attempt to queue a command when the queue was already full (about five commands) would cause the computer to flush the queue and issue the alarm. But when the radar’s power supply was in phase, queued commands, valid only at some remote past time, could be completed and issued in reverse order, momentarily taking control to guide the LM off its normal landing trajectory. Although flushing commands would cause alarms, issuing faulty commands would not. Simulations showed that faulty commands could put the LM on a crash course, and guidance would attempt to take the LM to the landing site via a trajectory that passed beneath the lunar surface.

A day or so before the reunion, the Boston Globe described an exchange between Larson and other members of the support staff at Houston as the alarms began. Not knowing what was happening, Jack Garman asked Larson what to do. Larson signaled thumbs up, Garman relayed the recommendation to Kranz, and Kranz directed Armstrong via Capsule Communicator Charlie Duke to press on.

At the reunion, I talked to Russ, and he confirmed the story. I asked what made him think the landing trajectory was safe, and he said his displays looked normal. I told him my simulations showed a crash course would look normal until it was too late. I asked why he had merely signaled thumbs up rather than giving his recommendation verbally. He said he was too scared to speak.

(529 words) @ Allan R. Klumpp,  1994

Wednesday, June 19, 2019



                              By Robert V. Wills      

      I wonder how many Americans realize the scope of Donald  Trump’s growing control of the American government, meaning all three branches of our political system.

     The Constitution set up three branches of the Federal government, relying on checks and balances between them to avoid a dictatorship or imperial monarchy. The citizens elect both the Executive leadership and the Legislative members, then the joint action of the Executive and Legislature (Senate) appoints the Judiciary. The theory has always been that the process would avoid dictatorship through the division of power.

     I suspect that Donald Trump is more of a megalomaniac than a political strategist or a political historian - -all reports are that he was a poor student - - but the American government is now in a strange and ominous state: Trump rules the Executive Branch as an autocrat, without guidance, counsel, or restriction. His appointments, including all Department and Bureau heads, are all Trump lackies and devotees, often devoid of experience or qualifications. They hold office only until they disappoint or embarrass Donald.

     But now he literally controls the Senate because his hillbilly toady, Mitch McConnell, will not allow a vote on any measure that Trump doesn’t green light. And without the Senate, Congress is nothing but a noisy, angry mob of biannual wannabees called Representatives, who can rant, rail, and threaten impeachment - - but not  pass one law....

     That leaves the Judiciary. Trump is no lawyer, but he is directed by a cadre of ultraconservative advisers who are helping him pack the Federal Courts with right wing ideologues - -who will hold office FOR LIFE...Given enough time, like four more years, Trump will have colored the Federal Judiciary a bright red, and the triad will be complete if the Senate stays Republican.

     I’m not a political historian, either, but I wonder if the U.S. has ever been in this much danger of a dictatorship. Even FDR had no  luck in packing and controlling the Judiciary. He was frustrated by the checks and balances, but he was not a fanatical, dishonest megalomaniac who would run  the American Ship of State right onto the rocks.

     This blowhard  rabble-rouser will, if kept in  the White House as Tweeter-and-Commander-in-Chief for four more years. Pray to whichever God you choose that he stumbles and falls by November, 2020.

       (Amen.  I couldn't agree more with Rob's thoughts. Maralys Wills)                                      



Saturday, June 8, 2019


You never know when an ordinary evening will become an unplanned adventure. 

As Rob and I and our son, Kirk, headed for a fish dinner at H-Salt, the weirdness of the evening came to us by degrees.  Just as we turned into the small street that led to the equally small restaurant,  we saw the fire engine.  A huge vehicle, it seemed to take up most of the tiny parking area.  And then we saw the cop car, parked in the handicap spot we normally call ours. 

As Rob steered past and around the fire engine,  the yellow tape came into view. And suddenly there was the rest . . . our nice fish and chips shop with its front plate-glass  window gone, and the building’s front wall severely bashed and leaning precariously inward.  Police tape and shattered glass led toward the interior, a different version of the  Yellow Brick Road. Among the mess stood cops and firemen. 

Well . . . there’s no dinner here tonight,  I thought,  at which Rob called out to a policeman,  “Are they open?” 

“Yeah, they’re open,” said the cop, a decent fellow acting as a good citizen for an ailing business.  

From the back seat, Kirk added laconically,  Wide open.” 

I couldn’t help it; I burst out laughing. 

As we emerged from the car, we asked, “What happened?”

A nearby fireman answered. “A woman hit the accelerator instead of the brake.”

“She okay?” 

He pointed.  “She’s sitting inside. Pretty much all right.  Even the car isn’t that bad. It’s the restaurant that took the hit.” 

With some trepidation, we entered.  But the area in front of the cash register was out of commission, with its carpet of shattered glass walled off by yellow tape.  Still, the Chinese owners had managed to do their work behind the melee, taking our order from a different counter. 

It was time to find our table.  But in our path was an ancient woman sitting on a chair,  head down, staring blankly at the floor . . . while nearby, looking years younger, was her four-wheel walker.   The woman herself seemed to be in her eighties.   

 As we parked at an undisturbed table off to one side and ate our usual crispy fish and zucchini, we were treated to an interesting scene: what happens after someone bashes in the front of a going business. We recalled that customers often waited for their orders by sitting in metal chairs backed up to that now-destroyed wall.  “They’d have had some serious spinal injuries,” Rob said, “knocked off their chairs and across the room.”  I knew he was thinking, like I was, Thank God no one was there this evening. 

For starters,  the original fire truck departed, and another,  double the size, parked in the nearby alley.  Some two dozen firemen (or so it seemed),  emerged, carrying tools, lumber, nails and saws.  As they were setting up, the luckless woman driver managed to stand and wheel her way out of the restaurant. 

“How will she get home?”  I wondered aloud.  “Will they give her  back her car?” 

“If they do,” Kirk said dryly,  “she’ll be right back inside.” 

An observation that sent me into another round of laughter.  Without Kirk, the adventure would have lacked a certain crucial element.

For the rest of dinner we watched the noble employees of the town of Orange performing at their noble best.  They swept up glass; they removed twisted chairs; they installed an  ingenious brace to hold up an ailing ceiling; they constructed a device from which the owners could seal off their business during the night. They went about their job with industry,  experience, and obvious good will.  One of the firemen even came to our table and explained what was going on.  “We do this all the time,”  he said, and it was clear he spoke the truth.  “We had to pull a metal chair out from under the car’s hood.”   

“Why didn’t those little parking-lot bumpers out front stop her?”  I asked. I was thinking, They’re cement. They’ve stopped me a few times.

Rob said, “Looks like she ran over two of them—one for each wheel.”      

“For some cars, those bumpers are just a reminder,” he said. “We’ve seen drunk drivers in a parking lot bounce over eight or nine of those things in a row.  You’d think after awhile they’d notice.”     

Once finished, Kirk went outside, where he and the helpful fireman stood by our car, talking.  After Rob and I got in, the man signaled that Rob was to roll down the window.  “Come back next week,” he said,  “we’ll try to have twice the show.” 

With that, Kirk said,  “I’ll never forget this one.”