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Them Changes

Friday, May 4th, 2012

We always give departing journos a "page." (Vicki Viotti photo)

OK, I haven’t been posting too often here lately. There’s a reason — my career is undergoing a massive shift. As of today, I’m leaving the newspaper business, where I’ve spent the last 35 or more years, and Monday I start work as Curator at the Pacific Aviation Museum.

The folks here at work gave me a nice send-off, complete with the obligatory fake newspaper page. I’ll post pictures of the crazed celebrations as I left, but in the meantime, here’s the text of the going-away “story”:

After 33 years as a distinguished model airplane builder who also worked part time as a journalist, Burl Burlingame will leave the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to become executive director of the International Plastic Modelers Society, which will now move its global headquarters from Enchanted Lake to Ford Island.

Burlingame, whose fascination with plastic cement dates back to his time as a Radford High School student, will also produce the society’s newsletter, which he founded in 1985 in his spare time as a Today section page designer. After typically spending 15 to 20 minutes designing the front page of the feature section, which in those days was done on paper, Burlingame would then begin writing detailed stories about how to build miniature replicas of the battleship USS Arizona and critical reviews of different brands of model paint.
His favorite color is said to be olive plaid.

Sometimes, Burlingame even wrote movie reviews, and once counted every word that Arnold Schwarzenegger said in “The Terminator.”

“After that he ended every day by saying, ‘I’ll be back,’ and by golly, he kept coming back,” said one former Today editor who asked not to be identified lest everyone figure out that she was the small Asian woman who often yelled at him to put a cap on the glue tube. Every day.

Burlingame maintained a love-hate relationship with computers. When he used Tal-Star computers, which crashed on a regular basis, he was able to merge his anger with his love of glue. One day, after losing the text and codes of his front page for a third time, he yanked the keyboard free, poured rubber cement on it and lit it on fire in the middle of the newsroom. On deadline.

“Burl had this glazed look in his eyes, like those kids who sniffed too much glue in intermediate school,” said a reporter who witnessed the fire. “He walked right up to me and lit up that keyboard. Then he walked out the front door, Executive Editor John Simonds frantically chasing after him. Burl went to the roof and tossed the keyboard from the third floor to a dumpster below.”

Burlingame outlasted seven Today section editors, management mandates to wear shoes to work and a newsroom campaign to end every headline with “eh?”

Top 10 Moments in Burl history!

10. Being the second most famous person who attended Radford High School.

9. Realizing at the University of Missouri that he wanted to be: a) a photojournalist; b) a writer; c) an international man of mystery; d) all of the above.

8. Finding out he didn’t want to cover crime after going out with a grizzled veteran who put wood blocks on his “murder shoes” to keep the blood off his footwear and slacks.

7. Playing in a band called Potato Cannon and recording an album that included the sleeper hit “Betty Rubble.”

6. In the 1980s Today section, helping turn the dry “Coming Up” Sunday column into a quirky must-read.

5. Building precision scale models at work. (Expect more of this!)

4. Writing books and publishing under his name and the pseudonym Rick Blaine. (Extra points if you can name the movie that spawned the faux author name.)

3. Having Katie as a daughter!

2. Having Amelia as a daughter!

1. Mary Poole marrying him and putting up with him for all these years. (And she’s still smiling!)

Yes, there are terrible factual errors! The flaming computer keyboard incident happened after five crashes and story losses whilst trying to get out a story on a looming deadline. The reason I got so angry was that the computer tech who was jiggling wires in the backshop was wholly responsible for the crashes, and when I complained, he said, “So? You’re just paid to type. What does it matter if the story disappears?”

I got so angry when it happened again — six times! — that I lit the keyboard and stomped through the newsroom waving it at editors. The only thing that I recall clearly was writer Murray Engle muttering, “Some day, that’ll happen to all of us!” And the damn keyboard went down spiraling off the rooftop like a flaming kamikaze.

The next day, I tried to apologize to Managing Editor Bill Cox, but he kept giggling.

I’m a sucker for this stuff

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Sunday Matinee: British Airways Alternate

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Booster Seat

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Home Repair: Blow Me Down!

Monday, March 12th, 2012

So here I am, freshly back on the red-eye from a trip to California, trying to catch some sleep as dawn begins to light up the east, when the power goes out. The wind begins to blow. And then blow bigger. And bigger. And then, so suddenly that it sounds a collision between freight trains right outside my bedroom window, there’s this massive, shattering rumble and crash.

We stumble outside, and it’s dark and pouring rain and muddy, but there’s no missing this huge pile of debris in the side yard. A true OMG moment. We’re convinced that part of our roof has blown off. That’s my daughter Kate in the above image, moments later, just before we began frantically removing furniture from the room behind her. But then we realized that there was no way the roofing material could wind up on the other side of the palm tree. Indeed, the palm tree has prevented the debris from smashing against our house.

It’s our neighbor’s roof, blown off and deposited over the fence.

Out front, there’s a weird mass of twisted metal and vinyl. OMG gives way to WTF.

The above picture is neighbor kid Kaeo DePonte, who lives in the house in the background at left. The wreckage is a 12-foot trampoline that was in his yard, and it took off like a flying saucer — missing his fence entirely! — and flew across the street and impacted with our Norfolk pine. Note the broken branches in the yard. The pine tree, like the palm tree out back, prevented serious damage to our house.

I took the above two pictures with my iPhone and transmitted them to the newspaper’s City Desk, and they put them online, and they were widely reprinted around the world, because the notion of storm damage in Hawaii strikes editors as “news.” Whatever.

But what kind of storm was it?

Kate and I jumped in the car and began a street-by-street damage assessment, mapping the debris field, hoping to chart the progress. Pretty soon, a pattern emerged:

A large red dot is substantial damage, a smaller dot is lesser damage, no dots is no damage. This is only what we could see from the streets. It was clearly a path instead of general damage, so I suspected a tornado, although not a large one. The path is only a couple of houses wide.

The newspaper used our datapoints to create a generic storm-path map, but I think the above actually tells the story better. Whatevers.

Later on Friday, the National Weather Service confirmed that it was a tornado, beginning as a waterspout that slammed ashore in Lanikai, where damage was much more serious than in our neighborhood.

This morning, however, our steel-pipe mailbox post simply fell over, snapped at the base. Storm damage!

Sunday Matinee: Madhubala from “Mere Brother Ki Dhulhan”

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Sunday Matinee: Greatest Music Video Ever

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Pearl Harbor book reviews

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

“Wax — Pearl Harbor Changed Everything” by Therese Ambrosi Smith (Blue Star, $13.95)
This novel is obviously a work of passion and knowledge by the author, a tour guide at various Kaiser shipbuilding sites in the Bay Area and an enthusiast of wartime history. The title gets it right; Pearl Harbor did change everything, particularly for women who entered the work force in trade positions usually held by men. The three woman at the core of her story become shipfitters. They come from the — at the time — largely isolated and rural California coastline, a region where, unless you were a farmer or fisher, real jobs were scarce. Smith, a resident of Half Moon Bay, writes knowingly about the region in wartime, and these portions ring true. She’s not so smooth in laying out a multi-layered plot that doesn’t feature the writer’s hand, as when one of the characters feels lesbian stirrings in an era when such things weren’t discussed. As a time-capsule ride through a largely forgotten social landscape, however, “Wax” generally delivers.

“Breaking the Code” by Karen Fisher-Alaniz (Sourcebooks, $14.99)
Connections. That’s cryptographers make when they decode enemy messages. That was Murray Fisher’s job in the Navy, mostly stationed at Pearl Harbor during the latter part of the war, processing Japanese katakana code into English. His connection to his own daughter, however, was strictly formal. It wasn’t until more than a half-century after the war, when he began having nightmares, and began obsessively studying every aspect of the conflict, that the usual parent-child barrier broke down.
This memoir is his daughter’s memoir of that process, which began when he dropped hundreds of wartime letters in her lap. She learned what her father was like, both as a human being and as a bright young man thousands of miles from home, scarred by a ferocious Pacific war. The connection across time between the young sailor and the troubled man he came later in life is surprising tenuous, a skein stretched by memory and emotion. Fisher-Alaniz has an unerring sense of gravity and affection for both version of her father, and her memoir is well-served by an attractive book package that uses typography and photographs in interesting ways.

“December 1941” BY Craig Shirley (Thomas Nelson, $24.99)
On the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack, Hawaii lawyer Roy Vitousek and son Martin were aloft in a rented Aeronca light airplane. The unsuspecting civilians flew into the middle of the melee and managed to escape with some bullet holes in the airplane. This anecdote is repeated in Craig Shirley’s massive “December 1941” compendium, but Roy Vitousek is spelled “Ray Buduick.” Shirley’s sources for this are contemporary East Coast newspaper accounts, written the day after the attack. This, in a single factoid nutshell, illustrates why Shirley’s big book is an interesting read, but cannot be used as an accurate recounting. “December 1941” is a case of obsessive research that has little regard for facts; it’s more concerned with painting an emotional picture of the state of the nation following the surprise assault. In that, it largely succeeds, as Shirley piles on contemporary anecdote after anecdote culled from sources of the period, plus various conservative musings about military preparedness that seem shoveled in. This vast collection of snippets is not put into perspective by the author. Although “December 1941” is an amusing read for Pearl Harbor scholars, it fall far short of being a useful history — it is not even indexed. Shirley could have really used a firm hand from an editor. That said, this book does give a flavor to the period. Readers interested in that very busy month are also urged to find Donald Young’s 1992 work “December 1941: America’s First 25 Days At War.”

“Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor 1941” by Mark E. Stille (Osprey RAID, $18.95)
This is a perfunctory retelling of the attack in Osprey’s attractive packaging. It tells you most of what you need to know if you have less than an hour to read, so it will likely be a favorite among kids writing history term papers. Stille touches on all the high points in a fairly dry manner — although he doesn’t seem to understand the role of the Imperial Navy’s submarine force — and he draws conclusions that rely on 20/20 hindsight, but at least he steps back to view the event as a seminal moment. Bert Kinzey’s “Attack on Pearl Harbor,” released last year, is a better value as a one-stop shop of Pearl Harbor facts, but this will do for the mildly interested.

“Fighting For MacArthur — The Navy and Marine Corps’ Desperate Defense of the Philippines” by John Gordon (Naval Institute Press, $32.95)
This is the keeper of this year’s crop, and proof that there are still new stories to be told about that dangerous, desperate time. Gordon is focused simply on what happened to the Navy and Marine Corps personnel in the Philippines from the time of the initial bombing on Dec. 8, 1941, to the surrender of beaten, battered U.S. forces on Corregidor five months later. Gordon rightly points out that Bataan histories always highlight the U.S. Army, except for period pieces like the contemporary memoir “They Were Expendable.” American naval records are largely missing, making research difficult, so it’s interesting that Japanese military records turn out to be more reliable. Gordon has skill with describing the choreography of combat, and the balance of factual detail doesn’t overwhelm colorful anecdotes and streamlined storytelling. Gordon also takes pains to explain why the navy despised MacArthur, so the book’s title has a degree of irony. Naval Institute Press, in general an indifferent publisher, has hit one out of the park here.

“Joe Rochefort’s War — The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway” by Elliot Carlson (Naval Institute Press, $36.95)
Another home run for NIP, this is a fine, engrossing biography of one of the major — and largely unknown — figures of the early Pacific War. Rochefort, the brilliant cryptologist in charge of deciphering the Imperial Navy’s secret codes, worked in secrecy in the basement of an administration building at Pearl Harbor, an office labeled “Station Hypo” but known to those who worked there as “The Dungeon.” An officer who mustanged up out of the ranks, Rochefort was fluent in Japanese and possibly the only naval officer who wasn’t dazzled by Japanese Adm. Yamamoto. Rochefort let himself be half-convinced that the Japanese wouldn’t strike Pearl Harbor, and he never forgave himself for the oversight. When he became convinced that the Imperial Navy was going to strike Midway six months later, he stuck to his guns, alienating brother officers who refused to believe it. Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz gambled on Rochefort’s educated hunch, resulting in one of history’s great naval battles and certainly saved Hawaii from invasion. But the bureaucratic damage was done, and Rochefort was abruptly relieved of command a few months later and assigned to a backwater task — and confounded his critics by managing it superbly. Rochefort’s supporters began a half-century task of seeking recognition of his efforts, succeeding with medal posthumously awarded in the 1980s, which becomes a satisfying coda to the book. Author Carlson has managed to illuminate the usually murky and arcane world of cryptology with a well-told tale that strikes an engrossing balance between career highlights and personal struggles.

“Pearl Harbor — FDR Leads the Nation Into War” by Steven M. Gillon (Basic Books, $25.99)
Gillon is a populist scholar for the History Channel, but don’t let that deter you. This isn’t “Ice Road Truckers.” It’s an account of the very busy 24 hours at the White House between the time President Roosevelt learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor and his famous “day of infamy” speech to Congress. (His immediate response upon hearing the news — an agonized cry of “No!”) Although Gillon makes some tyro errors, such as referring to Mitsuo Fuchida as a “fighter pilot,” this different look at the day’s events is fascinating. This is a slim book and a fast read, and rather hard to put down.

Woolly Bully Week: Showgirls

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Woolly Bully Week: Albatros

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011