Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Victorians Project: Alamo Square

In which we find that, with Victorians, the devil's in the details -- and in the tales they tell
Built in 1889, the Westerfeld House, above, is a postively epic example of high San Francisco Gothic "stick" (i.e., made of wood) architecture. This house, which stands on the corner of Scott and Fulton Streets, across from Alamo Square Park, has been known as "The Czar's Consulate" since 1928. It served as a sort of landing pad for "White" -- that is, Czarist -- Russians fleeing Bolshevik oppression in their homeland. The White Russians who owned the house also turned the ground floor ballroom into a night club, called Dark Eyes, frequented by Russian emigres.

Later, as the neighborhood declined in the 1960s, it briefly became a hippie hangout, and was immortailized in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kook-Aid Acid Test." Recently, I've seen a film crew and actors in Victorian costumes coming and going from the place.

This gorgeously painted bit of detail decorates a house on Scott Street, not far from the Czar's Consulate. When these Victorians were built, in the 19th century, they were not as gaily painted as they are today, but were rather painted in solid and stately whites or grays with white trim. In the 1960s and '70s, hippies began painting them in bright, varied colors, though often to disastrous effect. (Drugs are bad, OK?) In the 1980s and '90s, color consultants began to ply their trade among Victorian house-holders, allowing them to display their individuality but with better taste. It is attractive yet costly. Our building, on Central Ave, which dates from the early 'oughts of the 20th century, and which was renovated in the Art Deco era, was repainted a year or so ago at a cost of some $30,000.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Red Sky in the Morning, Sailor Take Warning

In which talk about the weather

Above is the classic San Francisco tourist snap -- with a twist.

It all started last Saturday, a very peculiar Saturday indeed. For one thing, I went to Alcatraz for the very first time. Twenty-two years -- more or less -- in The City and I finally get to The Rock. I had friends in from Southern California who I was showing around. One of them got sick the night before from some bad sea food from Chez Panisse, of all places (damn you, Alice Waters!), leaving them with an extra ticket.

But the real peculiarity was the weather. Saturday was hot -- in the 90s -- and humid like the Gulf Coast. The air was still without so much as a breath of wind. The steely sky was dappled with the sort of white clouds you see in Nebraska in July, just before a tornado.

Then there was the lightening -- thousands of strikes all across the Northern half of the state. Lightening with no rain. It was so strange that the Governator blamed global warming.

We didn't see or hear the lightening strikes from Alcatraz, but we saw the thick, ominous plumes of smoke as they began to rise away north, over the golden hills past the San Rafael bridge. Lightening had sparked the fire that still burns in Solano and Napa, and the tawny tendrils of smoke have been drifting over the bay and The City for some days now, staining the world a threatening orange.

Something like a thousand fires are now burning across the state, some from the lightening, others from the negligence of man.

People walk around the downtown streets, their faces tinctured orange, looking like they've just slathered themselves with a liberal amount of Fake-Bake sunless tanning cream.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television

In which we celebrate the man who taught us that politics could be funny, and that accepting the status quo was simply not acceptable

Monday, June 02, 2008

Warlords of the Air

In which we get the up close & personal tour of Sheppard AFB, Wichita Falls, Texas

After the Mattis Hall Ribbon Cutting, LtCol. Ventriglia invited the family on a tour of his part of the 82nd training wing facility. Ventriglia is charged with an awesome responsibility: Training his airmen to handle the ordinance used by airforce planes, which include F-16 fighters, the B-52 bomber, the B-1 bomber, and the F-22 Raptor.

Now, I had supposed that on this tour we might look at a few aircraft, maybe through a glass, and that would be it. Oh, no! LtCol. Ventriglia was determined to give the family the royal treatment. First, he took us into the ante-room of one of the two vast hangers he is in charge of. Here was a decomissioned cruise missile. Thinking that this was about as close as we were going to get to the action, I had Pops take a snap.

Then he lead us into a room where bombs are assembled. "Surely," I asked, "we're not permitted to take photographs in here?" The LtCol laughed and said, "Take as many as you like, none of this is classified." Adding, "I would bring you into a classified area... " (The implication was clear: This might not be a classified area, but there were classified areas.)

Ventriglia explained each piece of ordinance in turn, what is was for, what it was capable of -- JDAMS, 500 pound bunker busters, even an atom bomb. Charming and enthusiastic, this guy was really into his work. He nearly lost some of the more squeamish in our party when he explained one of the bombs: "This precision-guided ordinance is capable of smashing through as many floors of a concrete building as you want and exploding on any floor you choose, killing everyone on that floor but leaving the rest of the building in tact... except for the hole in the roof."
The work of destruction is awesome and terrifying.
He quickly won his audience back, however, when he took us into the aircraft hangar. There, facing away from us was a line of F-16s, and, behind them, a B-52. "Well," the LtCol. smiled, "Who wants to sit in the F-16 cockpit?" Um, that would be all of us. So we took turns getting in and having our pictures taken like a bunch of tourists at a carnival. It was a gas. Pops sure liked it.

The whole time, airmen -- in the Air Force you are an "airman" whether you are a man or a woman -- were scurrying to and fro around us, going about the business of their training excersizes. I was surprised by how freindly the LtCol. was with the men and women and how often they had smiles for him. I mentioned this and he said, "I've been in the Air Force 20 years and I am still waiting for a bad day. I really like my guys and I think they like me... but they know who the boss is. You give respect you get respect."
I also noted that sometimes the airmen saluted him, sometimes they didn't. He explained that the general rule was that when an airman is inside with his cap off, or going about a task, he or she didn't have to salute. But outside, cap on, it's usually "ten hut!" Even then, though, the LtCol. explained, "It depends on the circumstance, you have to be reasonable." Walking through the parking lot, we came across an airmen just starting up his car. I noted then that a nod of the head from the airman was enough, answered with a "How's it going?" from the LtCol.
We also got the chance to climb up into the cockpit of the B-52. You climb in through the bottom and up a ladder through a dark, cramped passage. Inside, the cockpit is tiny, much smaller than that of a commercial airliner. I bumped my head on the ceiling. The pilot seat is narrow, surrounded by levers and controls, impossible to get into and out of without knocking some vital instrument out of kilter. It looked a lot roomier in Dr. Strangelove.
On the way out of the tour, we came across a sign noting, "Without weapons, we're just U.S. Air." True dat.
Thanks much to LtCol. Ventriglia and the officers and airmen of the 82nd Training Wing for their indulgence and hospitality.