Esoteric Interests

Well, This Explains a Few Things…

I must confess that I don’t always get the punchline in xkcd comics — I’m not that techy, and I’m certainly not that math-y — but every once in a while, one comes along that works for me. Here’s one that solves the mystery of why I don’t have all the cool stuff that was promised to me by ’80s-vintage Science Digest magazines:

Yeah, that makes perfect sense…


Anniversaries of Note

The Berlin Wall coming down, November 1989

By some strange confluence of historical currents, there seems to be a number of noteworthy anniversaries happening within days of each other this week. The most significant, of course, is the fall of the Berlin Wall on this very night 20 years ago, when ordinary Germans took matters into their own hands — literally, considering they went after the Wall with hammers, crowbars, and even their fingers — and put an end to one of the most powerful symbols of Cold War tension and communist repression, while border guards and secret police stood by and let it happen without firing a shot.


And Now for Something Completely Non-Controversial

Or so I hope. It’s a photo of Sigourney Weaver eating a hot dog:

Sigourney Weaver at Tail o' the Pup

Why? I dunno. It amuses me, and I thought it might amuse my Loyal Readers. And after the day I had at work, and the heavy associations this day holds, and the earlier unpleasantness over Rep. Wilson, I figure we could all use some amusement.

Incidentally, the hot-dog-shaped hot-dog stand in the background is Tail o’ the Pup, a Los Angeles-area landmark and a well-known example of programmatic architecture, i.e., buildings that were made to look like other objects, usually the products sold inside them, like giant donuts and such. Sadly, the Pup has been MIA since 2005, when it was evicted from its old lot by development plans. It was supposedly placed into storage until it could be relocated, but it’s been four years now and I can’t find any news about it coming back. I hope it does eventually. The world needs a hot-dog stand that looks like a hot dog.

I visited Tail o’ the Pup shortly before it closed down, but I was on my way to the airport and had already lunched, so I only had a cherry Coke. That’s another reason I hope it eventually reopens, so I can actually experience eating a dog there…


Flying Boat Follow-up

While I was rounding up info links for the previous entry, I stumbled across something pretty cool: it seems there’s a Flying Boat Museum in Foynes, Ireland, which was one of the refueling stops for the Pan-Am Clippers on the North Atlantic run between New York and Great Britain. (It was also, according to lore, the place where Irish coffee was first concocted, a notable historical first as well.) The Foynes Flying Boat Museum is apparently the only aviation museum in Ireland, and the only one in the entire world dedicated to the flying boats. All of which is noteworthy, but the thing that really caught my interest is that this museum has a full-scale replica of a Boeing 314!


Based on the museum’s 314 photo gallery, it looks fairly complete and accurate, inside and out. It may not be a real Clipper, but I’d guess it’s as close to real as we can get in this graceless age of ours. This is definitely something to put on my “places to visit” list.

And hey, Jimmy Buffett has been there! Just in case you need anything more to pique your interest!


Sheer Awesome

The Hawaii Mars coming in for a landing

In addition to those glorious old warbirds I sometimes write about, I’ve long been fascinated by another extinct class of aircraft from the 1930s and ’40s: the flying boat.

Oh, we still have seaplanes and amphibious jobs, but these are tiny, degenerate remnants of a once-proud genus, like the Geico gecko compared to a full-grown T. Rex. What I’m talking about are the big airliners of aviation’s Golden Age, Pan-Am’s legendary Clipper ships, the first practical transoceanic passenger planes. The largest of these, the Boeing 314s with their sitting lounges and private sleeping compartments, had more in common with Pullman cars than our modern-day jet airliners; the journey across the Atlantic may have taken days instead of mere hours in those days, but the comfort and even luxury offered by these birds would seem downright decadent to an economy-class flyer of the 21st century.

Sadly, none of the mighty Clippers have survived, not even as static display pieces in a museum somewhere. They were all destroyed during the war, or crashed, or, worst of all, were broken up for scrap after they became obsolete. Much like Zeppelins and Titanic-style ocean liners, the Clippers can never be anything more to me than a romantic fantasy of a time I never saw, no more real than the Millenium Falcon.

Which is why I was absolutely gobsmacked to learn the other day (via Boing Boing, living up to its boast of being “a directory of wonderful things”) that there are in fact a couple of giant flying boats still around, and one of them is currently helping fight that big fire in the hills above Los Angeles. It’s not a Clipper ship, true — it’s something even bigger, a Martin Mars, the largest flying boat ever produced. (Howard Hughes’ infamous H4 — the Spruce Goose — is bigger than a Mars, but the Goose was only a prototype that never made it into production). With a wingspan of 200 feet and an overall length slightly more than 117, the Mars tops even the Boeing 314, which was a mere 106 feet long, and had a much shorter wingspan of 152 feet. Only seven of these monsters were built, and of those, only two remain. Both were converted into firefighting waterbombers in the 1960s, along with two others that aren’t with us any longer (one crashed and another was demolished by a hurricane). Not to bore y’all with too many statistics, but the numbers on these things astound me: they can deliver a payload of 7,200 gallons of water mixed with various fire-retardant chemicals, enough to cover four acres in a single drop, and then they can reload just by skimming across a lake and be back on target in as little as 15 minutes. And they’re pretty, too, as the pic above and the others in this gallery demonstrate.

I’ve said before that it’s much more satisfying to see an old machine still working and doing (more or less) what it was built for than sitting dead in a museum like a butterfly with a pin through its back. Don’t get me wrong; museums serve an important function, and I’ll take a preserved, inoperable airplane or automobile over a yellowing photo any day. But it makes me happy to know that these 64-year-old ladies are still out there proving themselves against newer, less-stylish competitors. If you want to see how awesome these planes are, check out the videos on this page.

There’s a detailed history of the Martin Mars here, and you can find the website for Coulson Flying Tankers, the company that owns and operates the last two Marses, here. Be sure to check out that photo gallery!

Postscript: On a related note, see also Telstar Logistics’ report on another big-ass plane that’s been pressed into service against the Station fire. It’s a converted 747!


A Quick PSA

Just a note for any local readers who may be looking for something interesting to do this weekend: a pair of World War II-era bomber planes are going to be in the area, on display and open to the public for tours. It’s the same pair I’ve written about before, the B-24 and B-17 that are owned and operated by The Collings Foundation out of Stow, Massachusetts. As an added bonus this year, they’ve brought along a “little friend” — a P-51 fighter, just like the ones that used to escort the bombers on their missions over Europe 65 years ago.

Even if you’re not into airplanes per se, I urge you to take advantage of this rare opportunity to see three functioning pieces of an increasingly distant moment in history. Take your children, if you’ve got them, and help them understand that history isn’t just a list of dates in some dry-as-dust textbook, that it’s composed of real events that happened to real, breathing people. Nothing makes that point more strongly, in my opinion, than something like an ancient airplane that still flies and smells of oil and exhaust and hot metal, something that still lives. When you’re around objects like that, it’s easier to imagine what our grandparents — or great-grandparents, I suppose, for the kids today — experienced and felt and accomplished. You can sense the past in ways you just don’t get from a book or a sterile specimen sitting behind velvet ropes in a museum somewhere. I find it exhilarating, myself.

Speaking of exhilarating, if you can afford it, you really must look into booking a flight experience. My dad and I went for a ride in the B-24 a few years ago, and it was one of the flat-out coolest things we’ve ever done. I can’t gush enough about it. It was also a great bonding moment for a couple of grown men who often can’t find anything to talk about, if that gives you any ideas.

But if the flight experience is beyond your means, at least go for the walkthrough tour. The Wings of Freedom tour will be stopping at the Heber City airport tomorrow through Sunday, and then will appear at Provo’s municipal airport on Monday and Tuesday. I understand the walkthroughs will be offered from 1000 to 1700 hours (that’s 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., for you civilian types). In the meantime, you can click that photo up there at the top and be treated to a ridiculously huge view that’s almost — but not quite — as good as seeing the real thing…


The Inevitable Denouement


A story that began on a cold April night nearly a century ago has finally come to an end with the death of Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the RMS Titanic. Dean was only an infant when the great liner struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and became the most famous shipwreck of all time. How very strange it must’ve been for her to live out her 97 years in the shadow of a momentous event that she had no memory of herself.

I’ve been interested in the Titanic for a very long time, since well before James Cameron’s blockbuster movie became a cultural phenomenon in 1997, and even before Dr. Robert Ballard found her mangled remains on the ocean floor in 1985. I can’t really explain the attraction, except to say that it’s the rare case of genuine history that reads like a densely detailed novel. There is a huge cast of flawed, noble, heroic, lovable, cowardly, and ultimately fascinating characters. There is hubris and tragedy. There are coincidences and outright mistakes that make you wince and whisper to an empty room, “If only…” And there is the ship herself, the technological summit of her age, a thing of beauty and grace that must’ve been simply breathtaking to behold.

Now with Millvina’s passing, I feel as if the novel is complete. And just like when you’ve been reading one of those fat, rich, satisfying books, I find myself saddened by coming at last to the final page.

Millvina Dean was an interesting woman, in spite of her protest that she was really quite ordinary; you can read about her life and her thoughts on Titanic here. My understanding is that she never saw any of the many movies about the disaster, because she didn’t want to think about how her father and the other casualties met their ends. But while she may have had no use for Hollywood, the movie industry was kind to her. In one of those heartwarming gestures that remind us celebrities are human beings after all, the stars and director of the biggest Titanic movie of them all — Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and James Cameron — had only weeks ago contributed heavily to a charity fund established to help pay her nursing home bills. I remember spotting that item in one of The Girlfriend’s celebrity gossip magazines a while back; I planned to blog about it, but the moment got away from me.

One final thought: in yet another one of those amazingly literary touches that seem to infuse the story of the lost Titanic, the day Millvina died, May 31, just happened to also be the anniversary of the ship’s launching 98 years earlier. You rarely encounter a piece of symmetry so fitting.


Pin-Up Therapy

Sometimes, when everything is grim and the world is going to hell around you, the best thing to do is just try and regress back in your mind to the age of about fifteen or so. I find that looking at pretty girls helps (specifically, non-trashy-douchebag-loving girls). If there aren’t any real, live pretty girls in the vicinity (or if they all happen to be of the TBL variety that was infesting the mall yesterday), I tend to prefer some old-fashioned pin-up art, the sort of thing that goes by the name of cheesecake or “good girl art.” Here’s a nice example I picked up in my blog-reading:

Valkyrie by Gene Gonzales

I have no idea who this character is — she apparently comes from a comic-book called Airboy, which I am totally unfamiliar with (although it sounds like the sort of thing I’d probably groove on) — but I like the drape of her jodhpurs. This sketch is by Gene Gonzales, via Michael May. Gene’s got a lot of other fun pieces over at his blog, including a nifty refutation of George Lucas’ odd notion that there aren’t any foundational undergarments in his far, far away galaxy…

Ah, girls. I feel better now…


People Annoy Me

If you drive due west from Salt Lake City, past the Great Salt Lake and out across the West Desert, you’ll arrive in an hour or two — depending on how heavy your right foot happens to be — at a dusty outpost town called Wendover. Well, technically you’ll find two Wendovers out that way, because the town straddles the Utah-Nevada border. On the Nevada side, a handful of casinos and other, ahem, adult businesses lend West Wendover a certain glitz and affluence. Wendover, Utah, on the other hand, is much quieter, darker, and sadder, a fading remnant of more important days.


Dummar Denied Again

Long-time readers of this blog know that one of my favorite local folk heroes is a guy named Melvin Dummar, the blue-collar ne’er-do-well who has claimed for decades that he once gave a lift on a frigid night to a scruffy old man who later turned out to be Howard Hughes. If you’ll recall, Dummar was named as a beneficiary in the infamous “Mormon Will,” which was determined by a 1978 probate court to have been a fraud. Dummar stuck by his story over the years, however, and in 2006, following the publication of a book that backed up his claims and built a convincing case for how the probate trial may have been rigged against him, he tried again to recover the share of Hughes’ fabulous fortune he believes he was promised. He filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court here in Salt Lake, only to have the suit dismissed in 2007 by a judge who sided with the ’78 verdict. Dummar is nothing if not tenacious, though, so he filed an appeal…

And this afternoon he lost yet again when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld the ’07 dismissal of his suit. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know much about the court system, but I think he’s probably finished at this point. No more appeals, no way forward.

I’ve said many times before that I’m inclined to believe Dummar’s story — what can I say, I’m a romantic who likes a good story, and I like it even better when the story ends with the little guy winning — so I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Assuming he’s on the level, it must have been hell for him to have lived half his life knowing that a simple act of kindness put him within inches of the biggest brass ring there’s ever been — Hughes was worth billions, and the Mormon Will promised Melvin 1/16th of that, more than enough to turn any average joe into Daddy Warbucks — but forces entirely beyond his control ripped it all away from him. To then compound that loss with the knowledge that much of the public thinks he’s a liar… it’s tragic, really.

Melvin, buddy, if by some chance you ever stumble across my little scribblings here, drop me a line, will you? I can’t do much to help you, but I’d love to buy you a cold one and lend a sympathetic ear…