Monday, May 26, 2008

Men of Valor, Men of Steel

In which we remember
Monday last, I was honored to be a member of the family party at the dedication of Mattis Hall, at Sheppard Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, Texas. Mattis Hall, a dormitory for airmen in the 363rd training squadron, was named for Captain William C. Mattis, my uncle. I never met Bill, as he was known in my family. He was killed in Vietnam in 1965, shortly after I was born. But the shadow of his legacy is a long one. His presence in my family has always been deeply felt.

The dedication was a high military affair, the likes of which I have never witnessed. It began with ruffles and flourishes at the arrival of the official party, which included my cousin, Charles Mattis, William's son, Brigardier General Richard Devereaux, Lt. Colonel Thomas Ventriglia, and other dignitaries, and the colors were presented. After that, the national anthem was sung. Gloriously belted out by a young African American sergeant named Beneria Hall, it was the single most moving rendition of that song I have ever had the pleasure to hear.

Chaplain James Pitts gave a moving prayer and Master Sergeant Matthew Saganski gave opening remarks. Lt. Colonel Ventriglia and Brigadier General Deveraux also spoke, as did my cousin, Charles.

Captain William Mattis was a great warrior but also an artist, having studied music at USC and was, by all accounts, a more-than-competent violinist. He enlisted the Army Air Service near the end of the Second World War and served as an aircraft mechanic from 1944 to 1946. In 1952, he went back on active duty, this time in the newly minted United States Air Force. After two months he became an aviation cadet, signaling his yearn to fly. He was made an officer and trained to fly jet fighter aircraft, eventually flying F-100 Super Sabers in Korea. Later, while flying these jets for NATO in Europe, he was involved in an accident which broke his back. They said he would never fly again, but he did, eveentually flying B-57 Canberra bombers. During his time behind a desk he served as an Air Force comptroller.
It was the height of the Cold War, and Captain Mattis became increasingly concerned about the spread of communism and Soviet expansion. With conflict brewing between communist North Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam in the south, Captain Mattis was sent to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

On March 11, 1965, Captain Mattis was flying his B-57 in close air support for ground troops then taking a pounding by Viet Cong insurgents. The record states that:

Despite marginal weather conditions, and partially concealed positions in rugged mountain terrain, and with great risk to his personal safety, Captain Mattis pressed the attack and achieve accurate delivery of high explosive bombs and anti-personnel on hostile positions.

He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, the National Order, Fifth Class and, from the Republic of Viet Nam, the Gallantry Cross with Palm Uplifted.
In his remarks, cousin Charles also mentioned my grandfather, Colonel Michael C. Mattis. Like his son, Bill, The Colonel, as we always called him, began his military career as an enlisted man, eventually working his way up through the ranks during the Second World War and the Korean War. In World War II, The Colonel was the chief ordinance officer on the island of Tinian, from which the B-29 Stratofortress, Enola Gay, took off on it mission to end the war in the Pacific by destroying the city of Hiroshima with the atomic bomb, Little Boy, on August 6, 1945.

Colonel Mattis was awarded the Bronze Star, the Army Soldier's Medal for Heroism (the highest honor that an U.S. Army serviceman can by awarded in peace time) and many others.

After the ceremony, Colonel Ventriglia took us on an extensive tour of the base (of which I will write more anon). Later that evening, the extended family went to dinner together. Here, we went through old photos. Among these was one of the dashing Pan Am clipper pilot, Captain John Mattis, The Colonel's brother and my great uncle, known the family as Jack. The old black and white photo, probably taken in the late 1930s, showed Jack in his smart uniform and white cap, his upper lip decorated with a pencil-thin mustache reminiscent of Clark Gable's.

Jack is a legend in the family, having for many years held the world's record for number of miles flown. By the 1950s, he had become one of the public faces of Pan Am and in 1956 was featured in the Life Magazine ad above, his portrait painted by Norman Rockwell. The legend reads:

"Master Pilot John Mattis, one of the Clipper Captains, who has logged over 500 transatlantic flights."

Attached to Jack's photo was a newspaper clipping about him. Turns out that Jack was not only a record-holding gentleman of the air, he was also a graduate of the University of Paris with a degree in French and a well known sculptor who created friezes in bronze which decorated airports in the middle of the last century.

It may be time for me to finally learn to fly.

And to all the veterans out there, Peace.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indy Lives

In which we're still a sucker for this kind of thing
OK. I admit it, I'm a nerd (as if you didn't already know).

When I was a kid I soaked up Raiders of the Lost Ark like a sponge. Even the corny, Old Testament God-to-the-rescue ending couldn't ruin it for me. I wanted to become an archaeologist, even though at the back of my teenage mind I knew that it probably wouldn't involve a whole lot of tomb raiding and Nazi fighting.

My dad and I even signed up for an archaeology class where we were supposed to dig up and catalog broken pottery and rusty doorknobs at a historic home in Woodland, California. The class was canceled due to lack of interest before I could discover just how dull cataloging pottery shards could be, however.

Still, I harbored the fantasy for years, until one day a real archaeologist came to our school and... talked me out of it, telling us what a bore it was to fight for funding all the time. Yikes. Talk about a wet blanket.

But the romance of adventure and discovery and treasure still holds its allure. I'm still inspired by the likes of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, T.E.Lawrence (he of Arabia who was also an antiquarian), Ginger and Dana Lamb and Gene Savoy. Although my life in the last 20 years has been filled with considerable travel, it has not quite been so adventuresome. It's easier from an armchair.

So I look forward to the new Indy movie with anticipation.

Last week I came across an interesting piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. Evidently, the crystal skull, for which the new Indy movie is entitled, is no made-up Hollywood myth. According to legend there are many Maya crystal skulls hidden here and there, and dedicated skull seekers still hunt for them. Says the article:

Some believe the skulls can emit and focus light, project visions and even influence terrestrial forces. Today, these beliefs persist in the jungles of southern Mexico among the Lacandon, the last unassimilated Mayas, some of whom still worship the skulls.

In the shadow of the Palenque ruins, Lacandon priest K'in Garcia fans copal incense and holds a heavy crystal skull above his head during ceremonies for Hacha'kyum, the Mayan god of creation.

Garcia, son of the Lancandon's most respected elder, Chan Kin, believes the skull has special powers, including the ability to stave off sickness and deforestation in the rain forest where the last Lacandon still live.

"When I am alone at night, at about 2 a.m., it starts to glow, it emits light and it stays like that for about a minute," said Garcia.

Creepy fun, that. Of course, as the article notes, no life-size crystal skull has ever been found at a genuine archaeological dig at a Mayan temple (though many small ones have been) and most of the large skulls known are probably fakes.

But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Laments veteran skull hunter, Joshua "Illinois" Shapiro: "I was wearing the Indiana Jones hat for a very long time... far before they ever thought about putting a crystal skull in an Indiana Jones movie."

Don't you hate it when Hollywood finally catches up to you and steals your schtick?

Monday, May 12, 2008


In which we live vicariously

Snapped these on Sunday from the Presidio shore, just inside the Golden Gate as sailboarders skitted and leapt across the Bay -- the fastest sailing craft on water.

Honestly, this looks like a really fun game. Hard to learn, no doubt. But once you get the hang of it I'll bet it's about as much fun as you can have with your pants on.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Discover This

In which we are amazed at the redoubtableness of our forefathers

I'd read in the paper that this "ship," supposed to the most historically accurate replica of Columbus's Nina, would be at the Port of San Francisco this weekend. I pedalled down there to check her out.

Seeing the Nina for the first time from The Embarcadero, my first thought was, "Columbus crossed the Atlantic in that?" The thing looks like an overstuffed canoe with a bad case of acne.

Needless to say, I'd imagined something a little bigger. Perhaps not on the scale of the HMS Victory, but something at least along the lines of the U.S.S Constitution. The Nina is devoid of anything resembling decoration or creature comforts. The captain's quarters, where Columbus stayed, was a tiny cabin below decks just four feet high. The rest of the crew stayed on deck, 24-hours a day. With cattle and pigs. The effluvia and the reek that went with it must have been almost unbearable.

It's fashionable today to denounce Columbus and his voyage of discovery. Columbus, it is said, was a racist and a coward and a fool who didn't know where he was going. He was the lead figure in a veritable holocaust brought by people with superior technology against those with inferior technology. Maybe so. Certainly, Columbus's voyage changed what are now known as the Americas forever.

But once you step aboard the Nina you realize that the purely technological explanation is dubious at best. This thing, patched together with wooden pins and pitch, hardly represents the acme of technology in any age. Rather, the fact that the voyage was undergone at all represents an extraordinary confluence of ideas, not the least of which included the realization that the earth could be known and therefore circumnavigated -- even if Columus himself thought the earth was shaped like a breast the nipple of which was the Garden of Eden.

No, the men who went aboard dinky little boats like the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were men made after a fashion rarely seen today, men who put everything on the line on a roll of the bones. Some won, though Columbus lost.

Old Two-Two-Eight

In which we wax nostalgiac

Who doesn't love trains? Even sophistocrat Lucius Beebe loved the rails. This beauty, No. 228, is the Jewel in the Crown of San Francisco's F-Market line. Two-two-eight is San Francisco's only topless historic streetcar. Built in 1934, she originally served the city of Blackpool, England, where she worked until 1984.

Two-two-eight is known as a "boat car," for obvious reasons. Not only does she look like a ship, she sounds like one, too. Where most streetcars "ding-ding," 228 has a horn that "toot-toots" like a happy tugboat.

I caught up with 228 on a little bike ride yesterday, a sunny Satruday.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Victorians Project

In which we celebrate our neighborhood in pictures

As if I needed another hobby. I've decided to begin photographing some of the most interesting architectural details of the Victorians in my neighborhhod. I'm doing this because (1) I like taking pictures and (2) because stick Victorians tend to burn down and, when they do, they are often lost forever. I can remember large and beautiful Victorians burning, but I can now barely remember what they looked like. I want to keep a record of some of my favorites.

Victorian vs. McTorian
Of course a Victorian is a house or other structure from the Victorian era, though many buildings labelled Victorian were actually built in the Edwardian era or even later. Many were built after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. In San Francisco, Victorians are predominantly "stick" -- that is, made of wood. The three main styles are Italianate, San Francisco Stick (sometimes called Stick Eastlake) and the turreted and gabled Queen Anne. The arabesque turret pictured above is a superb example of a detail from a finely restored Queen Anne apartment house.

A McTorian is my name for a modern house or building built to resemble, in some way, a genuine Victorian. This carbuncle, across the street from my garret, is a fine example of 1980s McTorian architecture, with its slapped-on gingerbread, flimsy-looking windows and violent paint job.
Victorians were lavish with decorative detail, and took great pleasure in riotously mixing styles. Many of these details were pre-fabricated and chosen by the buyer out of catalogs offered by the builders. Victorian house-holders could literally mix and match whatever details they wanted and could afford. Although they seem almost exquisite to modern eyes, these details were usually milled by machines and were thus a by product of the early industrial age. Many critical observers at the time considered this kind of machine-made ostentation a bit garish. And it's true, some details were certainly more elegant than others. Take, for example, this oval arch that decorates the front door of an apartment building on Grove Street.

This detail, which was certainly machine milled, decorates an enormous Queen Anne restoration on Fulton Street.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Boris Beats the Odds

In which we say, wow

Now, as a general rule, I don't touch much on politics in this space. I'm too concerned with more important matters such learning to reef a sail in high winds and my latest road trip.

Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London. Let me run that past you again: Boris Johnson, the colorful, witty, scruffy Tory outsider was elected mayor of what is arguably the greatest city on the planet. Londoners, as you probably know, are not known for their conservatism. So Johnson's overwhelming victory can be seen both as a rejection of the far-lefty anti-Americanism of Ken Livingston, who Boris has supplanted, but also a silmultaeneous refutation of Tony Blair's pro-Iraq War Labour party -- and a hope for some real political entertainment.
But, wow! Boris Johnson? An outspoken politician so un-PC he makes Lucius Beebe look like Ralph Nader.

We are impressed.