Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Marathon Man

I've been a distance runner for a number of years now - pretty much since high school. In ninth grade, I was on the cross-country team for my school, and I actually competed in a steeplechase or two. But the crowning moment was the last meet of the year, when our team went from Texas to Oklahoma City to compete in the conference championships. They put me in the two-mile, making it the longest race I had run that year, and of the three runners my school entered in the event, I was the only one who finished.
Then at the beginning of my sophomore year, I transferred to a performing arts magnet school which had no varsity athletics (well, unless you consider stage band a varsity sport), and that was pretty much the end of my athletic career.

But I continued to run. And compete in races. I ran the San Francisco Bay to Breakers, which is a 12k race, in 1980 and again in 1982. And again in 1985. Bay to Breakers attracts a loony-tunes cast of characters, from brides with full beards to guys who run the way the early Greek Olympians competed - completely in the buff. Some of them will even bind themselves together in a chain-gang for a chance at a prize; one group came dressed as the San Francisco Bay Bridge. To this date, no one, individual or group, has come dressed as San Francisco International Airport. The 1980 race attracted close to 100,000 runners, and the numbers kept escalating every year, so the race officials cut off registration at 125,000. Even with the limit, it would sometimes take half an hour just to cross the starting line, and you walk it for the first four miles due to the crowds.

The longest distance I ever ran in my life was 10 miles - until I registered for my first marathon. When I hit my 50th birthday, I promised myself I was going to complete a marathon. I registered for the Marine Corps Marathon, an event that brings out thousands and essentially closes Downtown DC for half a day. My brother had run a marathon ten years earlier and had actually turned in a decent time. Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, had actually run two marathons, including the prestigious race in London, but he died suddenly when he was 50. Nevertheless, I was determined to go the whole 26 miles and 385 yards, even though my wife thought I was nuts.
So I started training, eight months before the race. And to make it more challenging, I got myself diagnosed as a diabetic. I started doing 5 miles around the neighborhood in Spring, and by June, 5 miles had become 7, then 9, and by 4th of July, I was running 11 miles in sweltering 95-degree heat. My wife was convinced I was going to drop dead on the footpath, and one evening I came pretty close. I went out for an 18-mile circuit, and by the 14th mile I was sweating pretty hard. By the 14th mile I was walking, and I walked the last 4 miles. I went to bed a zombie, but still woke up the next morning and ran ten miles. By Labor Day, I had dropped 20 of my 150 pounds and I looked as skinny as a starving cat. My right ankle was sore after every run, but I persevered on.

The last Sunday in October was race day. It started out in the 40s at 8 in the morning, but by mid-day it was 60 with a pleasant breeze. The Marines had very thoughtfully provided blocked-out areas for runners who thought they were going to set a certain pace (6 minutes a mile, 6:30 a mile, 7 minutes a mile and so on) and each block was accompanied by Marines who were going to set that pace themselves. It was all very orderly - right down to the men's and women's bushes (yes, they had Porta-potties, but no one wanted to brave the lines). The time approached for the race. They played the National Anthem, lined the runners up, fired the starting gun and we were off.

The tallest hill on the race course was no more than 300 feet above sea level and it was within the first five miles of the race. We started on the north side of the Pentagon and proceeded northward through Roslyn, an office district in Virginia opposite Georgetown. After an uphill jaunt, we doubled back and crossed the Key Bridge into Georgetown, then into the hills, back past the Reservoir, then along the Whitehurst Freeway and across the Mall to Capitol Hill. They had water stations every half mile or so, and I noticed that if I had a quick swig of G2 (Gatorade with half the sugar), it gave me a short burst of energy that lasted until I reached the next station. I also noticed that I was running comfortably at about 8 minutes a mile.

That did not last. I had just crossed the 14th Street Bridge from DC back into Crystal City, in Virginia, when my right knee started to lock up. I gritted my teeth and soldiered on, down and back up Crystal Drive and into the last couple of miles before the Hill. The last mile of the race was uphill going back again into Roslyn, and I could feel it with every step. The final portion of the race, that last 385 yards, was the incline up to the Iwo Jima Memorial, otherwise known as the Hill. I may have crawled those last yards, but I don't remember. I do recall getting one of those heavy iron medals - which is now pinned up in my office. Later, when I read the race results, I noticed that Gerry Epstein, also MIT Class of '78, had finished within ten minutes of my time; for whatever reason, I never saw him out on the course.
I drew several strips about the runner's high. I've encountered the kibitzer with the stick. Usually, it's a car full of teenagers. Sometimes it's teenage boys heckling me, but occasionally I've had girls whistle at me. They're less of a hazard than the cyclists, who come whizzing by at high speed. If they don't like my pace, they need to stay out of the middle of the street.
A word about coincidence. It turns out the idea for the strip above was also used in Mad Magazine, which used to have movie satires penned by Mort Drucker. He did a spoof on the movie "Rocky" that featured a Sylvester Stallone character who described his training routine as waking up early, cracking three raw eggs into a glass, drinking the eggs and then vomiting. It would not be the first time that a Stickles joke would show up somewhere else. The following joke turns out to have been a favorite New Year's Day joke of Johnny Carson for many years.
 And why is it that Jews take up recreational running? Well, I already explained it...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Live From New York...

If you are under the age of 40, Saturday Night Live has always been on TV. That was not always the case. When I was in high school, Saturday nights were defined by professional wrestling live from the Houston Coliseum and hosted by Paul Bosch on Channel 39, one of the only two UHF stations in town. Sure, professional wrestling could be found everywhere in the United States, but while we didn't have Bruno Sammartino or Fred Blassie, we had Ernie Ladd and Wahoo McDaniel - and a whole bunch of masked wrestlers from Mexico.

But that's off the subject. When I was a freshman at Tech, there really was nothing on TV on Saturday nights, and that meant that if you weren't at a mixer or otherwise engaged with a person of the opposite sex (or, for those who prefer, the same sex), life could be kind of boring. Friday nights at least had the Midnight Special on NBC and In Concert on ABC - two competing televised rock concerts (and Martin Mull once forgot which one he was on). Weeknights were given over to Carson and to Tom Snyder, whose Tomorrow Show came on after midnight and featured very intellectual hour-long discussions with some person of relevance in either news, sports or entertainment - The Daily Show without any of the humor (well, except for the evening Snyder decided to show off a walking stick made from the petrified penis of a bull). Sunday nights were given over to homework. But Saturday nights - well...

Then one October evening in 1975, the news came on, and after the news was this new variety show featuring comedy sketch material introduced by gameshow host Don Pardo. Onto the stage strolled Chevy Chase ("I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not!"), and before he could plant himself in front of the microphone, he fell flat on his ass. Then he gave us a big grin and announced those famous words, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Chase had not intended the pratfall, but thereafter, it became his signature move.
Saturday Night Live was off and running. The brainchild of Lorne Michaels of National Lampoon fame and Dick Ebersol, who handled all of NBC's sports programming, it featured comedians from Chicago's Second City (and "The Kentucky Fried Movie" and "Groove Tube" - look them up on Netflix) who were collectively known as the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players; they were Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Larraine Newman and Gilda Radner. There was always a guest host, who was somebody famous at the moment; one of the early episodes featured Gerald Ford, who was coaxed to say "I'm Gerald Ford, and you're not" (his press secretary, Ron Nessen, an ex-NBC newsman, was host that weekend), which was ironic, because a good bit of Chevy Chase's humor those first couple of years was him bumbling around the Oval Office as Ford.

That first cast would go on to bigger and better things as the years rolled on, and new faces - Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Joe Piscopo, Jim Belushi and Bill Murray would step in. The show had its ups and downs; in the early '80s the routines weren't quite as fresh, and in one episode, someone actually said "fuck" on the air (and they weren't pulling the chain to turn on a light, either), but by the mid '80s, the show had regained a lot of its mojo, with Billy Crystal doing his Fernando Lamas impression ("you know, dahling, it's better to look good than to feel good")and Buster Poindexter leading the band and recording "Hot, Hot, Hot" (not a bar-mitzvah party since has been without that song). There was also Mister Grimley...
Then the show nose-dived again, and suddenly, we were seeing professional wrestling on Saturday nights in 1986 (deja vu all over again!). It was probably appropriate that Stickles was out of print by then. It took a heroic effort and a whole new line-up with Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller and Jon Lovitz to save the show, and SNL would go on to some of its best years with the Church Lady and Wayne's World among its featured sketches. In 1990, a serious challenge would emerge in the form of the entire Wayans family, whose In Living Color may be one of the funniest things Fox ever put on its network, so SNL discovered Chris Rock, who was himself the funniest black comedian since Eddie Murphy. 
(And those of you who remember back that far probably also know that the line is, "I hate when that happens")

And the show has continued ever since - through the presidencies of two Bushes, a Clinton and an Obama. Every so often, one of the old cast members shows up again to guest-host, but a steady supply of young comedians continues to rotate in to make sketch comedy on Saturday night as the older names on the show move on to bigger and better things. At the end of geologic time, it is entirely possible that the only three shows left on television will be Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons and Sixty Minutes.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Official Airline Guide

For those of us in the aviation business, the Official Airline Guide is the Bible of air travel. Perhaps it's more correct to say it's the CRC Handbook of Air Travel. It was about the same size, thickness and weight as a Boston metropolitan telephone book. In the days before electronic reservations systems, it listed every scheduled flight made by every airline known to the travel industry worldwide. It also listed fares. It also identified every aircraft and every airline, and it had the itineraries of every flight number. In short, it had everything anyone would ever want to know about air travel (you are wrong, Kerosene Breath; some of those obscure Soviet and African airlines were not in there, but that's because they were on the blacklist).

When I was growing up, the Guide was published in three flavors. The Green Cover listed all the North American flights in effect at the 1st of each month. The Tan Cover listed the flights in effect at the 15th of the month. The Purple Cover listed all the global flights. There was also a Red Cover (maybe it was a Blue Cover) that listed the all-freight schedules, and another that listed hotel rates. The folks who made the Guide also offered data tapes with flight schedules that they sold to the airports and the consultants; these were data files that could be sorted by chronological order, by airline or by aircraft, depending on need. This was important because the FAA in 1978 had made available to the consulting community a simulation model that purported to run a day's worth of flight operations through an airport coded into it using numbers and letters. In 1988, the FAA made available to the consulting community an even better model that showed a graphic representation of a day's worth of flights traveling through an airport coded by using numbers, letters and lines on a grid. The one element both models relied on was a complete schedule of the day's flights, coded in an ASCII delimited format, which only the Official Airline Guide, or OAG, could supply.
I wasn't interested in that; I simply wanted to count how many flights went through a particular airport on a particular day. But around 1995, the airlines started sharing codes on flights, which meant they could sell tickets on the flights of other airlines with whom they had a code-sharing agreement. What was a revenue-generating convenience for them quickly became a counting nuisance for me; when the Guide showed Continental Airlines flight 27 and Northwest Airlines flight 27 and Cathay Pacific Airlines flight 27 and Bashkirian Airlines flight 27, all departing Chignik, Alaska, for Cabumsk, Alaska, at the same time of day, they were all the same airplane, one airplane instead of four. It was exhausting weeding out the duplicate flights.

Not only that, but the publishers of the Guide wanted an arm and a leg for their flight schedules. When the Internet got to be a household convenience, there were soon other ways to get the same sort of flight information. Many airports took to listing their daily flights in chronological order, though they still listed every single duplicate code-share flight. So other sites sprung up. The first was, which listed every flight at an airport within a two-hour time window. They were helpful, but the two-hour limitation was, well limiting, and they didn't always identify the type of aircraft in service. Another site,, offered a chronological listing of flights at each airport, including a history going back at least a week. It also showed flights in the vicinity of a particular airport, on what looked like a radar monitor. Again, the site showed everything...but the flights at airports outside the United States. A third site, Flightstats, completed that piece of the puzzle, showing arrivals and departures at every airport in the world (it even had a button that allowed users to "hide" the codeshare flights). And the information could be downloaded onto an Excel spreadsheet, where it could be sorted and filtered. The Promised Land had been reached. I now know that during the Summer tourist season, the airport in Antalya, Turkey, handles more flights daily than Boston Logan.

So why am I boring you with all this? Because I am an aviation consultant and I do this for a living. And I am Pud Stickles.

Monday, June 20, 2011

That Old Gang of Mine

As you probably noticed, most of the characters that made their way into Stickles were caricatures of real people. People from high school. People from MIT. Even people from Stanford. In most instances, they were happy to let me give them a little long as it couldn't be traced back to them.
Believe it or not, I used to work with these guys. The time was 1986 - a lifetime ago, it seems. Most of them have moved on - some to other organizations, others to more senior positions in the same location. I moved on to DC. But I never drew a group portrait like this again - in part because the project I moved to had a steady stream of personnel changes over 20 years, and it was hard to keep up with the new faces. As it was, it took me six months of off-and-on work to get this portrait completed, and it was kind of a labor of love.

So who are they? One day I'll remember all of their names. And to the three on the far right side of the picture, I'm sorry I cut your heads in half.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Legend of Fritts Botwell

I've never considered myself a fan of country and western music. And this is despite my upbringing in Texas, where the twang of a pedal steel guitar and the sonorous drawl of a country love song were hard to avoid. In 1975, the film "Nashville" was made by Robert Altman, and it proceeded to dig into the background and the underground of the making and selling of country music (and to take a dig at Jimmy Carter, the non-candidate candidate for president). It was fun story-telling for Altman and for Hollywood stars such as Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson and others, but for me it defined the intersection of the genuine and the cheesy that has made country music so frustrating for me to listen to. Country music for me was Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" (which Johnny Carson proceeded to warble late one night before falling off a wooden horse) and Jerry Reed, who made a hit out of "Amos Moses" in 1971 and proceeded to make a career out of rewriting it in several different versions before becoming a TV miniseries mainstay.

At the same time, I spent a lot of late evenings my freshman year listening to a bluegrass show on WTBS that came on prior to "The Ghetto", which filled the midnight hours with good soul and funk in the days before disco fever. I knew enough about country and bluegrass to win a few pizzas by answering the station's call-in contest questions. There were some good bluegrass bands out there - the Country Gentlemen, the Holy Modal Rounders (well, okay, the Rounders were not your normal bluegrass band, unless you listened to KFAT in Gilroy, California, in 1980) - and some good slices of Americana out there, such as "Six Days on the Road", which was a genuine, authentic truck-driving tune by Dave Dudley (recast by Sawyer Brown more recently), to which C.W. McCall's "Convoy", which was a much bigger hit and started the CB craze in 1976, could not hold a candle.

In 1975, a whole new brand of music came out of Texas that would redefine country music for at least a decade. Willie Nelson released "The Red-Headed Stranger", a collection of spare ballads that featured Willie, his guitar and his voice, with his backing band somewhere off in the distant background. These were pure songs of lovin', fightin' and heartache, and they were the first wave of what would be known as outlaw country, a sound that merged the short-haired Nashville sensibilities of Nelson and Waylon Jennings with the long-haired, alternative stylings of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and others who took their trips on LSD. Waylon, Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker came to represent the outlaw sound and to make country cool enough for Woodstock-size festivals. Little watering holes in Texas named Luckenbach and Terlingua would become famous as cowboy hangouts (long before Michael Dell built his first PC in an Austin garage).

Into this milieu wandered David Allan Coe, straight out of prison. He was made to be an outlaw musician - he was  a big, bad hombre, and he had a habit of both name-dropping and telling people who he was and wasn't. He established his brand with a Steve Goodman song called "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" that was described as "the perfect country and western song". It was on the Nashville charts about the time that Fritts Botwell, who was not Johnny Cash or Charlie Pride or Willie Nelson, arrived.

Fritts Botwell was destined to become the savior of the MIT Undergraduate Association spring concert series, as chronicled in a series of Stickles cartoons. Every Spring, the UA became concert promoters, bringing famous and not so famous bands to the MIT campus (the Grateful Dead had played a free concert on the MIT Student Center steps back in the '60s). The year before I got to Tech, a little band from Boston named Aerosmith had played the Rockwell Cage, although the results were regarded as somewhat disastrous, since all the urchins in Cambridge showed up in force, to consume beer and puke on the dirt floor. The concerts thereafter had been less than stellar successes, despite the fact that a graduate of the Class of '69, Tom Scholz, would go on to form a little band called Boston. With all the talent that resided within a 25-mile radius of 77 Mass Avenue, the UA just couldn't make money promoting concerts.
Part of the problem was the UA couldn't afford any big headliners, and those musicians they could afford were not very well known. It would be at least two years before new wave music would take hold on college campuses, thus providing schools like MIT with a steady source of bands that were obscure to everyone else in the world but college students. So it was up to Pud's friend Ross to hit upon the idea of bringing in a country musician.
Jim Croce was a easy-listening balladeer who burst on the scene in 1972 with "You Don't Mess Around With Jim", about a bar-room brawler who picked one too many fights, and followed it up in 1973 with an even bigger hit called "Bad, Bad, Leeroy Brown", about a bar-room brawler who picked one too many fights. Had he not died in a plane crash in late 1973, no fern bar could have contained him. As it was, he would go on to have a string of hits after his death (including "Time in a Bottle", which was about a bar-room brawler, that's not right), becoming almost as legendary a posthumous performer as Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur (although Tupac's not dead; he's just living in New Zealand).
Arkadelphia is a little town in Arkansas, not far from Hope - or the I-30 Interstate. It became something of a running joke in our family, for reasons known only to my youngest brother.
I don't recall if any of these comic strips ever saw the light of day or the page of a newspaper (I cranked out a lot of material in 1976, when these strips were drawn, and thursday only published once or twice a week, depending on the ad revenues). I'm not even sure if MIT's students are still in the concert promotion business. But country music is still with us. It has bounced back and forth between the sublime (Joe Ely, Steve Earle), the ridiculous (Lee Greenwood, Toby Keith) and the Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett).

Monday, June 13, 2011

The John Hancock Tower

The tallest building in Boston was (and still is) the Hancock Tower. Designed by I.M. Pei & Partners in 1968, it served as the headquarters for John Hancock Insurance, hence the name. The Hancock displaced the Prudential Tower (the other insurance company) with its glassed-in top floor observatory and flashing white strobe beacon as the tallest vantage point in town, although the Pru remained the backdrop for many a Strat's Rat while I was in Cambridge.

The Hancock was a glass monolith with the footprint of a parallelogram and blue as the Boston sky. It was just about completed when I arrived at MIT in the Fall of 1974, but it didn't officially open until 1977, due to a certain number of engineering snafus.
One of them was that the windows kept falling out. Not just a couple and not all at once, but one here, one there, one somewhere else - on a continuous basis for almost three years. Things got so hazardous that a scaffold was erected to protect the patrons of the Trinity Church next door from falling glass. It seemed necessary; rumor has it that one day a workman on one of the upper floors of the Hancock happened to drop his lunchbox - right through the church roof.

As the panes of glass fell, they were replaced with plywood. Some of the plywood was black and some of it was a natural wood color, i.e., yellow. With windows popping out on a frequent basis, the effect created was a blue, black and gold checkerboard pattern towering into the sky. It was pretty to look at, in its own quirky way, but the building owners were concerned that someone would want to look out of those nice big picture windows, and while the glass was reasonably transparent, plywood is opaque, which makes viewing difficult. The architects search for a solution, but none could be found. Replacement windows popped out just as readily as the original 4 x 11 panes. The architects replaced every pane of glass in the building, but windows would still pop out. Eventually it was determined that wind was not a factor in the detachment of the windows; what caused the glass to pop out was a condition of thermal oscillation. Each window was two panes of glass with a pocket of air sandwiched in between the panes. When it was warm, the air between the glass expanded and popped the outer window pane out of its mounting. This didn't happen immediately; it took several cycles of heating and cooling to loosen the outer glass.

The Hancock had some other problems. First, the foundations were compromised by the Back Bay muck the building rested upon. Then the building exhibited a tendency to sway in the wind. To counteract this force, the building's engineers installed some gigantic mass dampers, which seemed to check the swaying characteristics. The final calamity was not engineering, but financing; the building was sold for north of a billion dollars five years ago, but the real estate trust that bought the building went broke in the 2009 financial panic, and the Hancock Tower was auctioned off. It now belongs to another trust known as Boston Properties (appropriate); the Hancock insurance company itself is now in the hands of Canadians. I.M. Pei went on to design many other structures, some of which were located at MIT (including the Green Building and the "Pei Toilet", AKA the Wiesner Building - it is covered in white tiles and looks like a...)

Incidentally, this strip was redrawn; the original version looked like this:
There was a problem that made this cartoon unsuitable for publication in a family newspaper; I placed the hyphen between the "Han" and the "cock". A similar problem would plague the original "Outtada pool" cartoon about roaches. There is a reason why cartoonists never write the word "FLICK" in a comic strip when they show a light being turned on, and you can probably guess what it is. So I substituted the word "CLICK" instead.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Right about the time I arrived at MIT was also the time when the Unification Church first started gathering up willing converts. The Church was the vision of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a Korean preacher who fancied himself the second coming of Jesus. It would eventually collect large sums of money, mostly by convincing its converts to stand on freeway off-ramps and sell roses, and use that money to accumulate real estate and start the Washington Times (the Times itself was created as something of a conservative counterbalance to the Washington Post, which was left as the only newspaper in the Nation's Capital by the demise of the Evening Star, a more traditional, conservative-leaning daily), among other enterprises.

The Unification Church was a cult. There were other cults in our day - the Scientologists, the Hari Krishnas, the Children of God and Guru Maharaj Ji - but none would have the staying power of the Moonies. I once wrote a paper on cults for one of Professor Louis Menand's political science classes (Professor Menand being the father of Louis Menand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and contributer to such publications as the New Yorker), and it focused rather heavily on the Moonies. The Unification Church had a way of homing in on bewildered and lonely students, inviting them to come visit one of their "houses" to share camaraderie with a community of loving individuals, and then sucking them in and keeping them there. Many parents reported losing their sons and daughters permanently to the Church, which taught its converts to distrust family and friends, especially those who tried to talk them out of staying with the church. Some parents, desperate to break the Church's influence on their children, went so far as to enlist "deprogrammers" to undo the brainwashing that the Church had supposedly done; it was an effort that met with mixed results, with some followers leaving the Church and others denouncing their parents for having attempted to break the Church's hold on them.

Sun Myung Moon himself had very grandiose visions of himself. He thought of himself as the Messiah. He was given to holding massive weddings in places like Yankee Stadium, where he would pair up 50,000 converts to each other and then marry off the resulting 25,000 couples. This was supposed to showcase the Church's power and convey the bliss experienced by the followers of this Messiah. The mass weddings were also intended to bind the newlyweds even more deeply to the Church and to fuel their zeal to find more converts and more donors to the Church's coffers. Moon was also given to hosting policy conferences on worldly subjects and inviting serious thinkers and credible intellectuals to come speak at them, as a way of boosting his credibility. When United Press International was in danger of folding, he bought them and added them to his media empire. When the University of Bridgeport was ready to go under, the Church dangled money in front of them and annexed them. Moon was building an empire and credibility, all at the same time.

But credibility has remained elusive. In 1982, Sun Myung Moon went to jail for tax evasion, in part because even Ronald Reagan's IRS refused to believe the Unification Church was really a church and that all of its various enterprises were Church-related. And the "cult" label has been impossible for the Church to shake, although these days they don't have college students standing beside freeway off-ramps; they've found immigrants to take those jobs (which seems to confirm the opinions of those who think that without immigrants, there are all kinds of menial dead-end jobs that would never be filled).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fish and Strategic Gamers, Again

I wrote a couple of paragraphs about these guys a couple of months ago, but I missed a strip.
You can tell it's the '70s because the Strategic Gamers were occupying a squash court. In the '60s, it would have been a handball court. By the '80s, squash was passé, and all the squash courts had been converted to racquetball courts. Evolution continued, and by the latter half of the '80s, the racquetball courts were now wallyball courts (wallyball was simply volleyball in a confined space, with the walls in play - you could bounce the volleyball off one wall, but not off two). These days, enclosed spaces are given over to Nintendo Wii and look very much like your living room.