Friday, December 25, 2009

Last Letters From Stalingrad: Special Audio Edition


The Battle of Stalingrad has been called "the worst battle of the worst war in human history." In early 1943, around 270,000 German 6th Army soldiers--surrounded by the Red Army--were either annihilated or imprisoned. Of those men, only around 5,000 ever returned home to Germany. 

Last Letters From Stalingrad, first published as Letzte Briefe aus Stalingrad in 1950 in West Germany, was purportedly written by German soldiers who knew they were doomed and could write to their families just once more. The thin anthology became an international bestseller, and an English translation appeared in 1962.

Each year around Christmastime in the 1960's, a local Madison radio personality nicknamed "Papa Hambone" would read selected letters live on the air. Years later, I happened to catch one of George "Papa Hambone" Vukelich's last times ever reading of the letters in 1988 (he passed away a few short years later).  I don't recall which station I recorded this from but it was most likely WORT-FM.  The late Erwin Knoll, host of the show "Second Opinion," was a Madison legend too, having been the long-time editor of the magazine "The Progressive" and having been named on Richard Nixon's enemies list.

Here I successfully converted an audio cassette tape recording made back 1988 into my first ever YouTube video.  I had to split the tape into three parts to conform to Google's 10 minute limit. I made the original analog-to-digital conversion using "Sound Studio," first making an "aiff" file and then converting that to an mp4 file using iTunes. I apologize in advance for the poor sound quality- I tried to filter it a bit, but had I known I would be converting this 20 years after the fact I would have taken better care all along.

The total listening time is about 30 minutes.  George Vukelich gives a great introduction and historical background for the letters and then goes on to read four of his favorites.  I hope that his voice and spirit can live "on the air" by my posting them into the ether.

Enjoy!
______________________
IMO, there are three further levels of interesting discussion belonging to these letters:

(1) The extreme poignancy of some of the letters.

(2) The charge that the letters were forgeries and what possible motives would exist for or against such charges.

(3) The extent to which the left used these letters, year after year, to bolster the anti-Vietnam war movement, especially in Madison.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #39




...Dearest Father, the division has been trimmed down for the big battle, but the big battle won't take place. You will be surprised that I write to you and in care of your Office. But what I have to say in this letter can only be said among men. You will transmit it to Mother in your own way. The word is out that we can write today. For one familiar with the situation that means that we can do it just once more.
You are a colonel, my dear Father and a member of the General Staff. So you know what this means, and I needn't go into explanations which might sound sentimental. This is the end. It will last perhaps another week, I think, then the game's up. I do not want to look for reasons which one could marshal for or against our situation. The reasons are altogether unimportant and pointless. But if I am to say anything about them, it is this: Do not look to us for an explanation of the situation, but to yourselves and to the man* who is responsible for it. Don't knuckle under --you, Father, and all those who think like you. Be on guard, so that a greater disaster does not overtake our country. The hell on the Volga should be a warning to you. I beg you, don't brush off this experience.
And now a remark about the present. Of the whole division only 69 men are still in fighting condition. Bleyer is still alive, and so is Hartlieb. Little Degen lost both his arms; he will probably be in Germany soon. It is also the end for him. Ask him for any details you would like to know. D___ has lost all hope. I would like to know what he is thinking at times of the situation and its consequences. We still have two machine guns and 400 rounds of ammunition. One mortar and ten shells. Besides that, only hunger and fatigue. Without waiting for orders, Berg broke out with twenty men. Better to know in three days how things will end, than in three weeks. Can't blame him.
And now to personal matters. You can be sure that everything will end decently. It is a little early at thirty, I know. No sentiments. Handshake for Lydia and Helene. Kiss for Mother (be careful, old man, think of her heart trouble). Kiss for Gerda, regards to all the rest. Hand to helmet, Father. First Lieutenant ____ respectfully gives notice of departure.
_______________________
*He's referring to Hitler.

A key to understanding this ongoing series is here, and here. Each letter (39 in all) was written by a different and anonymous German soldier who knew he was going to die. I associate these letters with Christmastime for reasons explained at the links.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #38



...I wanted to write you a long letter, but my thoughts constantly disintegrate like houses which collapse under shellfire.  I shall have ten hours, then this letter has to be turned in.  Ten hours is a long time for people who are waiting, but short for those in love.  I am not nervous at all.  Actually, it is here in the East that I have for the first time become really healthy; I don't have colds and sniffles any more; that is the only good the war has done me.  It gave me something else, the realization that I love you.  It is strange that people value things only when they are about to lose them.  The vast distance is spanned by the bridge from heart to heart. By that bridge I wrote about our daily round and the world in which we live here.  I meant to tell you the truth when I returned, and then we would never have talked about the war again. Now you will learn the truth beforehand, the last truth.  Now I can write no more.
As long as there are shores, there will always be bridges.  We should have the courage to walk on them.  One bridge leads to you, the other to eternity; at the very end they are the same for me.
Tomorrow I shall set foot on the last bridge.  That is the literary way of saying 'death,' but as you know, I always liked to express things figuratively, because I took pleasure in words and sounds. Give me your hand, so that crossing it won't be so hard.

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #35


...During the last few nights I have wept so much that it seems unbearable even to myself.  I saw one of my fellow soldiers weep also, but for a different reason.  He was weeping for the tanks he lost; they were his whole pride.  And though I don't understand my own weakness, I do understand how a man can mourn dead war materiel.  I am a soldier and I am prepared to believe that tanks are not inanimate materiel to him.  But everything considered, the remarkable fact is that two men weep at all.  I was always susceptible to tears.  A moving experience or a noble action made me weep.  It could happen in a movie theater, when I read a book, or saw an animal suffer.  I cut myself off from external circumstances and immersed myself in what I saw and felt. But the loss of material goods never bothered me.  Therefore, I would have been incapable of weeping about tanks which, when they run out of gas, were used in the open steppes as artillery and thus easily shot to bits.  But seeing a fine man, a brave, tough and unyielding soldier cry like a child over them--that did make my tears flow in the night.
On Tuesday I knocked out two T34s with my mobile anti-tank gun.  Curiousity had lured them behind our lines.  It was grand and impressive.  Afterwards I drove past the smoking remains. From a hatch there hung a body, head down, his feet caught and his legs burning up to his knees.  The body was alive, the mouth moaning.  He must have suffered terrible pain.  And there was no possibility of freeing him.  Even if there had been, he would have died after a few hours of torture.  I shot him, and as I did it, the tears ran down my cheeks.  Now I have been crying for three nights about a dead Russian tank driver, whose murderer I am.  The crosses of Gumrak* shake me and so do many other things which my comrades close their eyes to and set their jaws against.  I am afraid I'll never be able to sleep quietly, assuming that I shall ever come back to you, dear ones.  My life is a terrible contradiction, a psychological monstrosity.
I have now taken over a a heavy anti-tank gun and organized eight men, four Russians among them.  The nine of us drag the cannon from one place to another.  Every time we change position, a burning tank remains on the field.  The number has grown to eight already, and we intend to make it a dozen.  However, I have only three rounds left, and shooting tanks is not like playing billiards. But during the night I cry without control, like a child.  What will all this lead to?
_________________________

*Gumrak was the name of the German airfield at Stalingrad

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #20



...I have written to you twenty-six times from this damned city, and you answered me with seventeen letters.  Now I shall write just once more and then never again.  There, I said it.  For a long time I thought about how I should formulate so fateful a sentence so that it would say everything and still not hurt too much.
I am saying good-bye to you, because since this morning the issue is settled.  I will not comment on the military situation in my letter; it is clear-cut and completely up to the Russians.  The only question is how long we will be around.  It may last a few more days or just a few hours.  Our whole life together is there for us to see.  We have honored and loved each other, and waited for each other now for two years.  It is good that so much time has passed. It has increased the anticipation of reunion, to be sure, but also in large measure helped to make us strangers. And time will have to heal the wounds of my not coming back.
In January you will be twenty-eight.  That is still very young for such a good-looking woman, and I am glad that I could pay you this compliment again and again.  You will miss me very much, but even so, don't withdraw from other people.  Let a few months pass, but no more.  Gertrude and Claus need a father.  Don't forget that you must live for the children, and don't make too much fuss about their father. Children forget quickly, especially at that age.  Take a good look at the man of your choice, take note of his handshake, as was the case with us, and you can't go wrong.  But above all, raise the children to be upright human beings who can carry their heads high and look everybody straight in the eye.  I am writing these lines with a heavy heart.  You won't believe me if I said that it was easy, but don't be worried, I am not afraid of what is coming.  Keep telling yourself, and the children also when they have grown older, that their father never was a coward, and that they must never be cowards either.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #30



...I have received your answer. You will hardly expect thanks for it. This letter will be short. I should have known better when I asked you to help me. You always were and you remain forever 'righteous.'  This wasn't unknown to either Mama or me. But we could hardly expect that you would sacrifice your son to 'righteousness.' I asked you to get me out of here because this strategic nonsense isn't worth biting the dust for. It would have been easy for you to put in a word for me. But you don't understand the situation. Very well, Father.
This letter will not only be short, but also the last one I write you. I won't have any more opportunities to write you, even if I wanted to. It is also unimaginable that I should ever stand face to face with you again and have to tell you what I think. And because neither I in person nor another letter will ever speak to you again, I will once more recall to you your words of December 26:  'You became a soldier voluntarily; it was easy to stand under the flag in peacetime, but difficult to hold it high during war. You will be faithful to this flag and be victorious with it.'   
These words were much clearer than the position you have taken during the last few years.  You will have to remember them, because the time is coming when every German with any sense will curse the madness of this war. And you will see how empty are the words about the flag with which I was supposed to be victorious.
There is no victory, Herr General;* there are only flags and men that fall, and in the end there will be neither flags nor men. Stalingrad is not a military necessity but a political gamble. And your son is not participating in this experiment, Herr General! You blocked his way to life; he will choose the second way, which also leads to life, but in an opposite direction and on the other side of the front. Think of your words, and hope that, when the whole show collapses, you will remember the flag and stand by it.
_______________________________

*In the original German edition, the author switches here to the formal/polite form of address for the remainder of the letter, dropping the familiar "Du" form of address used previously. The son linguistically distanced himself from his own father, addressing him as if he were a stranger.

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #10



...You are my witness that I never wanted to go along with it, because I was afraid of the East, in fact of war in general. I have never been a soldier, only a man in uniform. What do I get out of it?  What do the others get out of it, those who went along and were never afraid?  Yes, what are we getting out of it?  We who are the walk-on parts in this madness incarnate?  What good does a hero's death do us? I have played death on the stage dozens of times, but I was only playing, and you sat out front in plush seats, and thought my acting authentic and true.  It is terrible to realize how little the acting had to with real death. 
You were supposed to die heroically, inspiringly, movingly, from inner conviction and for a great cause.  But what is death in reality here?  Here they croak, starve to death, freeze to death--it's nothing but a biological fact like eating and drinking. They drop like flies; nobody cares and nobody buries them. Without arms or legs and without eyes, with bellies torn open, they lie around everywhere.  One should make a movie of it; it would make 'the most beautiful death in the world' impossible once and for all.  It is a death fit for beasts; later they will ennoble it on granite friezes showing 'dying warriors' with their heads or arms in bandages.
Poems, novels, and hymns will be written and sung.  And in the churches they will say masses.  I'll have no part of it, because I have no desire to rot in a mass grave.  I have written the same thing to Professor H____.  You and he will hear from me again.  Don't be surprised if it takes a while, because I have decided to take my fate into my own hands. 
_________________________
A key to understanding this ongoing series is here, and here. Each letter (39 in all) was written by a different and anonymous German soldier who knew he was going to die. I associate these letters with Christmastime for reasons explained at the links.

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #14



...The time has come for me to send you greetings once more, and ask you to greet once more all the loved ones at home. 
The Russians have broken through everywhere.  Our troops, weakened by long periods of hunger without possibility of (illegible), engaged in the heaviest fighting since the beginning of this battle, without a day's relief, and in a state of complete physical exhaustion, have performed heroically.  None of them surrenders!  When bread, ammunition, gasoline and manpower give out, it is God knows, no victory for the enemy to crush us! 
We are aware that we are the victims of serious mistakes in leadership; also, the wearing down of the fortress Stalingrad will cause most severe damage to Germany and her people.  But in spite of it, we still believe in a happy resurrection of our nation.  True-hearted men will see to that!  You will have to do a thorough job in putting all madmen, fools and criminals out of business.  And those who will return home will sweep them away like chaff before the wind.  We are Prussian officers and know what we have to do when the time comes. 
In thinking over my life once more, I can look back on it with thankfulness.  It has been beautiful, very beautiful.  It was like climbing a ladder, and even this last rung is beautiful, a crowning of it, I might almost say a harmonious completion. 
You must tell my parents that they should not be sad; they must remember me with happy hearts. No halo, please; I have never been an angel!  Nor do I want to confront my God as one; I'll manage it as a soldier, with the free, proud soul of a cavalryman, as a Herr!  I am not afraid of death; my faith gives me this beautiful independence of spirit.  For this I am especially thankful.  
Hand my legacy on to those who come after us: raise them to be Herren!  Severe simplicity of thought and action!  No squandering of energies!
Be especially loving with my parents and so help them get over the first grief. Put up a wooden cross for me in the park cemetery, as simple and beautiful as Uncle X's. 
Maintain Sch____ as the family seat of the ____'s.  That is my great wish.  In my writing desk is a letter in which I recorded my wishes during my last leave.   
So once more, I turn to all you, dear ones.  My thanks once more, for everything, and hold your heads high!  Keep on! 
I embrace all of you!

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #16



...On the evening before the Holy Day, in a hut which was still fairly intact, eleven soldiers celebrated in quiet worship...It was not easy to find them in the herd of the doubting, hopeless, and disappointed.  But those I found came happily and with a glad and open heart.  It was a strange congregation which assembled to celebrate the birthday of the Christchild. There are many altars in the wide world, but surely none poorer than ours here. Yesterday the box still held anti-aircraft shells; today my hand spread over it the field-grey tunic of a comrade whose eyes I closed last Friday in this very room.  I wrote his wife a letter of consolation.  May God protect her. 
I read my boys the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 1-17; gave them hard black bread as the holy sacrifice and sacrament of the altar, the true body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and entreated the Lord to have pity on them and to give them grace.  I did not say anything about the fifth commandment.  The men sat on footstools and looked up at me from large eyes in their starved faces.  They were all young, except one, who was 51.  I am very happy that I was permitted to console their hearts and give them courage.  When it was over, we shook each other's hands, took down addresses, and promised to look up relatives and tell them about our Christmas Eve celebration in 1942, in case one of us should return home alive.
May God hold his hands over you, dear parents, for now the evening is at hand, and we will do well to set our house in order.  We will go into the evening and night calmly, if it is the will of the Lord of the world.  But we do not look into a night without end.  We give our life back into the hands of God; may He be merciful when the hour has come. 

This letter is read aloud here 

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #15



...'If there is a God,' you wrote me in your last letter, 'then He will bring you back to me soon and healthy;' you went on: 'a human being like you, who likes animals and flowers and does no harm to anyone, who loves and adores his wife and child, will always have God's protection.'
I thank you for these words, and I always carry this letter with me in my brustbeutel. But, dearest, if your words are weighed now and you make the existence of God dependent upon them, you will have to make a difficult and great decision. I am a religious man, you always were a believer, but this will have to change now if we accept the consequences of the conviction which we held to now, because something has happened which has overthrown everything in which we believed.  I am searching for words to tell you. Or have you guessed already?  I find a rather strange tone in your last letter of December 8. Now it is the middle of January.
This will be my last letter for a long time, perhaps forever.  It will be taken along by a friend who has to go to the airfield, because it is said that tomorrow the last plane will fly out of the pocket.  The situation has become untenable.  The Russians are within three kilometers of our last airfield, and once this is lost, not a mouse will get out, not to mention me.  Of course, hundreds of thousands won't get out either.  But it is small comfort to have shared your own destruction with others. 
'If there is a God.'  Over there on the other side many ask the same question, perhaps millions in England and France.  I don't believe any longer that God can be good, for then he would not permit such great injustice.  I don't believe in it anymore, for he would have enlightened the minds of those people who began this war and always talked of peace and the Almighty in three languages.  I don't believe in God anymore, because he betrayed us.  I don't believe any more, and you must see how you can come to terms with your faith. 
This letter is read aloud here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #2


...I took out your picture once again and looked at it for a long time. I remember the experience we shared that lovely summer evening in the last year of peace, when we walked home through the blooming valley towards our house. When we found each other for the first time, only the voice of the heart spoke in us; later it was the voice of love and happiness. We talked about ourselves and about the future which lay before like a many-colored carpet.
That carpet is no longer there. The summer evening is no longer there, and neither is the blooming valley.  And we are no longer together. Instead of the carpet there is now an endless white field, there is no more summer, but only winter, and there is no future, at least not for me, and consequently not for you either. All this time I had a feeling which I could not explain, but today I know that it was anxiety about you. I felt, despite the distance of many thousands of kilometers, that it was the same with you.
When you receive this letter, listen intently to it, perhaps you will hear my voice then. They tell us that our struggle is for Germany. But there are only a few here who believe that this meaningless sacrifice could be of use to our country.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #1



...MY LIFE HAS CHANGED IN NOTHING; it is now as it was ten years ago, blessed by the stars, avoided by men. I had no friends, and you know why they wanted to have nothing to do with me. I was happy when I could sit at the telescope and look at the sky and the world of stars, happy as a child that is allowed to play with the stars. 
You were my best friend Monica. Yes, you read correctly, you were. The time is too serious for jokes. This letter will take two weeks to reach you. By then you will already have read in the papers what has taken place here. Don't think too much about it, for in reality everything will have ended differently: let other people worry about setting the record straight. What are they to you or me? I always thought in light-years, but I felt in seconds. Here, too, I have much to do with the weather. There are four of us and, if things were to continue the way they are now, we would be content. What we do is very simple. Our job is to measure temperatures and humidity, to report on cloud ceilings and visibility. If some bureaucrat read what I write here, he would have a fit...violation of military security. Monica, what is our life compared to the many million years of the starry sky!  On this beautiful night, Andromeda and Pegasus are right above my head. I have looked at them for a long time; I shall be very close to them soon. My peace and contentment I owe to the stars, of which you are the most beautiful to me. The stars are eternal, but the life of man is like a speck of dust in the Universe. 
Around me everything is collapsing, a whole army is dying, day and night are on fire, and four men busy themselves with daily reports on temperature and cloud ceilings. I don't know much about war. No human being has died by my hand. I haven't even fired live ammunition from my pistol. But I know this much: the other side would never show such a lack of understanding for its men. I should have liked to count the stars for another few decades, but nothing will ever come of it now, I suppose.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Army Life: In The Tank(s)!




As a young man of 19, and already used to owning and maintaining his own car, my father quickly become familiar with the mechanized aspect of warfare. Here he describes Christmas leave plans as well as his first impressions of tank training at Fort Knox [footnotes are of course mine]:

December 16, 1951 [post marked 12/17/51]
Fort Knox, KY
Dear Mom, Dad, and all,
There is a train out of Louisville at 8:00 o’clock Fri. night. If I can get off I will be home Sat. morning. We was told we were off at 12:00 Fri. night, but I am going to talk to the Captain tomorrow night. If I have to wait till 12:00 don’t look for me till Sat. night or Sun. morning. As soon as I find out when I can leave I can write and tell you about what time I will be in Madison. Once I get there I won’t have any trouble getting home.[1] It costs $17.70 round trip by train. I got my ticket last Sat 9th. Tell dad he won’t have to bother to take my car to L's because I can fix it when I get there. There isn’t enough wrong with it to bother him. Just so you get the Batt. charged up. Tell R. I got my Nov. pay.  It was $69.00. $6.00 in income tax. I spent most of it already. I bought a few things, a present for P.[2] and something for all of you to look at.[3] We will be driving tanks 4 days this week. Fri. we will be in classrooms. It was 7 above here this morning. No snow yet. Its cold enough to though.
The tanks we drive have 500 HP V8 motors, 5 speeds ahead and one in reverse. They weight 34 tons. [4]  Its not as big as the ones they are using in Korea.[5] Its what they had in the last war, and are good only for training. The big ones have 810 HP motors and have 90mm and 105mm guns. These have 75mm guns. I can tell you more about tanks when I get home. Its too much to explain. The motor in one of these tanks weighs 2,300 lbs. As much as a car. They have two 12 Volt batt. or 4 car batt. 24 Volts altogether. One track weighs 3,500 lbs. 5 men make up the crew. Driver, gunner, loader, bag gunner, commander. The loader has the worst job in combat because he has to load the guns.
I got K.P. again Tue.  Hope to see you Sat.
Love,
V.
____________________
[1] Home was Richland Center and the closest rail station was Madison, about 50 miles east.
[2] His younger sister and my aunt (the same one who gave me these letters :).
[3] Possibly he's referring to a Kit-Kat Clock which hung in my grandmother's kitchen for many years thereafter. The same clock now hangs in my kitchen.
[4] Probably Sherman M4 tanks, which were used extensively during the Second World War. Around 50,000 of them were produced and only a fraction of them destroyed. Sherman M4's were armed with a 75 mm canon and each tank weighed around 32 tons, slightly less than my father's quote of 34 tons, however many Shermans were reinforced with more armor after WW II and or got motor upgrades. Sherman M4's also carried a crew of 5, and its motor used a five-speed forward transmission with one reverse gear.
[5] From the specs he is clearly referring here to the new and more powerful Patton class of tank which was first introduced into combat in Korea.  

Friday, December 11, 2009

Army Life: Basic Training at Fort Knox

I've decided to keep publishing my father's letters (not all of them) but cherry-picking the ones that report something interesting.
To continue, I'm not sure how long his induction at Fort Sheridan, IL lasted, but by mid-November, 1951, he was already writing from Fort Knox KY. Here he describes his routine:

November 18, 1951 [post marked 11/19/51]
Fort Knox, KY
morning
Dear Mom and Dad and all,
I just got back from church. We don‘t have to get up till 7:30 Sun morning and church is at 9:00, till 10:30. I would have to have L’s address in order to find him because this camp is so big. Tomorrow we start our first 8 week’s cycle of basic training, mostly marching. The last 8 weeks is tank training. Driver, gunner, mechanic, etc. I don’t remember having any navy blue pants. As for bringing my car down I don’t think the back tires would hold up. I should have had them recapped like I did the front ones in Madison. Maybe I can do when I get home. We have no snow but its kind of chilly in the early mornings. It don’t take long to warm up...
afternoon
...when you are marching. I am sending a couple of pictures of myself, one was taken in Sheridan, the other in Knox. I went to the show last night with Jim and Leslie M. Send that Ike jacket as soon as you can. You know the one J. gave me. Big top pockets. They only issue one because they cost $24.00 apiece. They gave us 6 patches to sew on our shirts. You can buy them extra at the PX for 15¢ so I’m sending one. One of the kids* can have it but I don’t think you can wear them. Something to look at. I think I will go down to the P.X. now and listen to the Juke box.
Love,
V.
-----------------------------------------------------
*by "kids" he was referring to his younger siblings.

The Army routinely sent letters to the parents of draftees urging them to be mindful of their son's mood and moral.  Here's the letter my grandparents received:























By all accounts, my father's CO was a decent man; strict to be sure, but a man aware of the young men in his charge.
Here's my father's next letter which shows his desire to return back home; he was still wavering between home life and army life: ( I love how he boasts about being a good shot on the rifle range-so reminds me of my son-his grandson-whom he would have adored, had he lived to know him):

December 5, 1951 [post marked 12/06/51]
Fort Knox, KY
Dear Mom and Dad and all,
I should be home Sat. night Dec 22. 70% of the 200 boys in this platoon are coming home for Christmas and 30% for New Years. I had my name picked out of a hat and had only 32 chances out of 50 to come. I could have traded my pass for one for New Years and got $10.00 to boot, some wanted to come at Christmas that bad. Several sold there’s so I guess everyone is happy. I am on leave at 12:00 Midnight Dec. 21 till midnight Dec 28. I won’t get too much time at home. I am sending a extra note for dad and R. to do. I haven’t got the Dem.* yet you sent.  You can give this picture to P., she wanted one. We was inside part of the time today because it was raining. I made out pretty good on the Rifle Range Tues. Tomorrow (Thurs) we go out again. I don’t think I will have any trouble hitting the bulls eye most every shot at 200 yds. I have a couple of 30 carbine shells I am bringing home to show you. Next week we go on tank driving and maintenance of tanks. Today it was tank radios. $80,000 tanks. They sure got a lot of them. A movie picture was filmed here at Knox that had 150 tanks from here. “The Tanks are Coming.” Some of the movies are supposed to be here 6 mo. before the public sees them. Will sign off for now.
Love,
V.
[extra note]
Dad and R.,
1. I forgot to put the new fuel pump gasket in when I put the new one on (its in the trunk) so you can put it on if it isn’t to cold up there. Martin B. helped me put it on and he knows we forgot it.
2. Get the battery charged. I hope it will start even if it is a small one. I don’t think any gas leaks around it but you can smell it inside. I won’t get any antifreeze until I get there. If I had better tires on behind I would have one of you bring it down.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------
*The Richland Democrat, a local newspaper in Richland Center, WI.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!


Please enjoy the day whether with family or friends; be extra generous with your hearts, and don't forget to give something of yourselves this Holiday Season to kids in need.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Veteran's Day Dad

In January of 1999, I unexpectedly received a packet of letters from an aunt. A brief note inside explained that they had been written by my late father to his family while he was stationed overseas. My grandmother had kept the letters which ultimately survived both his death in 1995 and her own in 1997.  My aunt (my grandmother's executor) wrote me that she thought the letters would interest me, as I had lived in Germany for a while in the early 90’s.

The Army drafted my father in 1951 at age 19, under the Universal Military Training and Service Act, in which all men 19-26 were subject to 24 months service in the US Army. After induction at Ft. Sheridan, Il, and basic training at Ft. Knox KY, and even more specialized training at Fort Campbell KY,  he was sent overseas and stationed in Germany until the end of 1953, serving with the 141st Tank Battalion in the 3rd Armored Division of the US Army. His insignia:


The Army was involved in the Korean war at the time, and President Truman believed that the war might be a ploy to concentrate all American resources on the Korean peninsula, thus leaving western Europe open to invasion by the Soviet Bloc. The Berlin Airlift had already occurred in 1948, along with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1948. NATO was created in 1949 because of the perceived Soviet threat towards Western Europe. After the start of the Korean war, the United States deployed 4 divisions to Europe, culminating in the creation of the USAREUR in 1952. By this time, the US role in Germany had officially changed from an occupying force into an allied defender of the newly-formed German Federal Republic (West Germany). The 141st’s major task was to ferry US tanks to the Czech border to offset the Russian maneuvers occurring there. According to other soldiers in the battalion, the tanks were always fully armed and loaded, ready for war.
When my father's unit arrived in Germany in August of 1952, the barracks had not yet been built. Because of the rapid deployment of all these units and their associated personnel, there was a serious lack of adequate facilities at Fliegerhorst and they were initially posted to an old Luftwaffe barracks at Nellingen for a month [see the map below for locations].

The cities in red are places he was stationed or visited while in the service in Germany 1952-53:


And here is how Germany was carved up at the time:


I'm thinking about posting letters from his entire time. They trace the mind of a young man serving his country, albeit as a draftee of the times.  He saw no direct combat heroism,  though his older brother, then serving in Korea, did. There are many names of living people here to protect, and I'm going to edit these letters a bit. Here is what he wrote after arriving at Fort Sheridan for basic training:

October 31, 1951 [post marked 11/01/51]
Fort Sheridan, IL
Dear Mom and Dad,
I left Mil. At 4:00 o'clock Tue. afternoon for Fort Sheridan Ill. It took 2 hrs. They gave us about $200.00 worth of clothes today. Army life hasn't been to rough but they tell us it will be later. We are going to stay here about 7 days. There was 41 of us when we left Mil. Most of the guys we are with are 21 and over. We have been having good eats. Feel like I am already gaining weight. We are going to have tests all day tomorrow, shots Friday and maybe shipped out Mon.
P.S. a G.I. party Fri night Scrub the Barracks. The weather down here has been cool but no snow yet. When my check comes for the last 3 days work at C. take it and the 20 in my green box and put it in the bank. We should be getting $20.00 advanced pay this week yet. Seems like I've been gone a month. I hope everything is O.K.
V.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Rediscovery of San Francisco Bay

Mystery shrouds the discovery of the San Francisco Bay like a thick fog. The Bay lay "undiscovered" for over two hundred years, despite Spanish, Portuguese, and English ships plying the coast, one after another. The Bay was finally "discovered" 240 years ago this week by the Portola Expedition of 1769.  In the words of the Editor of the book The Discovery of San Francisco Bay: The Portola Expedition of 1769-1770:
From Cabrillo's voyage along the California coast in 1542 to the Portola Expedition's discovery of San Francisco Bay in 1769 is such a terribly long time that one might well think the Spanish lacking in skill, curiousity, something. Why didn't they find what is now to us an obvious entry to this wonderful inland sea? There are several answers. One is that during a considerable part of the year the Golden Gate is hidden by fog. Another is that, in the days of small sailing ships, dependent entirely upon the winds for propulsion, sea captains had a need and duty to stay well away from the coast, lest an adverse wind blow them onto rocks and shallows and wreck their ships. A third reason is the peculiarities of geography--of the lay of the land. From outside the Golden Gate the entrance is practically invisible.  From most angles, either Angel island or Alcatraz island is in direct line of view [from the sea], and thus make the opening appear to be a solid coast line. Even when the islands do not conspire to obscure the view into the bay, the crest of the Berkeley hills lines up so well with the sides of the Golden Gate as to create the impression of nothing but land.
I'd like to offer a fourth possibility: the Bay was known but remained a well-guarded trade wind secret. The evidence? --explorer Miguel Costanso's own words--see below.

The Portola expedition had marched northwards from San Diego in July of 1769, mainly hugging the coastline (they were searching for the fabled Monterey Bay and didn't want to miss it).  When they got to the San Francisco peninsula (after about three and a half months), they marched up along the seacoast, at first missing the southern arm of the Bay to the east because of the separating mountains and hills.  On Tuesday, October 31, they halted near present day Portola National Monument, south of present-day Pacifica, somewhere near the first little notch jutting out of the seaward side of the lower San Francisco peninsula (see map below):


From atop San Pedro Mountain, the explorers saw to the northwest a bay formed within a point of land (present-day Point Reyes) that opened towards them (Drake's Bay). Farther out to the west, they saw several islands (the Farallon Islands). To the east of Drake's Bay, and much closer they saw what appeared to be the mouth of a channel (the Golden Gate).
The explorers were carrying with them the sailing directions of Cabrera Bueno, a Phillipino and veteran trans-Pacific sea voyager; it seemed to them that they had arrived at what Bueno called the Bahia de San Francisco:
Thursday, 2 November [1769]: Several of the soldiers requested permission to go hunting, as many deer had been seen. Some of them went quite a long way from the camp and reached the top of the hills so that they did not return until after nightfall. They said that to the north of the bay they had seen an immense arm of the sea or estuary, which extended inland as far as they could see, to the southeast; that they had seen some beautiful plains studded with trees; and that from the columns of smoke they had noticed all over the level country, there was no doubt that the land must be well populated with natives. This ought to confirm us more and more in the opinion that we were at the port of San Francisco, and that this was the estuary of which the pilot Cabrera Bueno spoke; we had seen its entrance between some ravines while descending the slope of the bay. In regard to this, in his sailing-directions, Cabrera Bueno uses the following words: 'Through the middle ravine, an estuary of salt water enters without any breakers; coming in, you will find friendly Indians, and you will easily obtain fresh water and fire-wood.'
We also conjectured from these reports that the scouts could not have passed to the opposite side of the bay, as it was no mere three days' undertaking to make the detour rounding an estuary, the extent of which was greatly enlarged upon to us by the hunters.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Trees And Other Things Indigenous

(continued) The explorers continued their quest northwards, seeking the legendary Monterey Bay. As they travelled farther north and further into the fall season, the terrain became more and more lush as the weather worsened. Along the way, several in the party fell ill and had to be carried and cared for by the healthier and stronger. Here they describe setting forth from a point near present day Watsonville.
[text from The Discovery of San Francisco Bay. The Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770]:
Sunday, 15 October [1769] We set out from Laguna del Corral-a name given to it on account of a piece of fence that was constructed between the lake and a low hill in order to keep the animals penned in by night with few watchmen. We marched very slowly so as to cause the sick as little distress as possible; we contrived to carry them on side-saddles, as the women in Andalusia travel. We proceeded for a league and a half and halted near another small pond in the bottom of a narrow and very pleasant little canyon, with plenty of firewood and pasture.
The road was somewhat difficult. We directed our course to the north-northwest, without withdrawing far from the coast, from which we were separated by some high hills very thickly covered with trees that some said were savins
.[1] They were the largest, highest, and straightest trees that we had seen up to that time; some of them were four or five yards in diameter. The wood is of a dull, dark, reddish color, very soft, brittle, and full of knots.
Old growth redwoods can still be found south of San Francisco, but only in state-protected enclaves, such Big Basin State Park in the Santa Cruz mountains. I recall many enjoyable hikes there in the late 1990's with my wife as we debated whether to start a family or not (I won the debate).

Years later, we took our kids on a family camping trip in 2005 to the Redwoods National Park which is located in the very northern most part of the state. The trees did not disappoint.
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[1] Sevins = red cedar. Palomar Mountain, about 35 miles east from us in Oceanside, hosts cedar trees that resemble small redwoods.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Some Things Are Just Indigenous to California


Continuing with excerpts from
The Discovery of San Francisco Bay. The Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770--[but first, could somebody please straighten me out regarding Spanish orthography? I've read both Portolá and Portolà-which is it?]

The Portola Expedition was the first European land exploration of Southern California. They travelled by foot and hoof from San Diego to San Francisco and many points in between. Along the way, they encountered scores of friendly Indian encampments (villages really). Here are Miguel Costansó's first impressions of those first Americans:

Both the men and the women are of good figure and appearance, and are fond of painting and staining their faces and bodies. They use large tufts of feathers, and hairpins that they put through their hair with various ornaments and coral beads of different colors.
The men go entirely naked, but when it is cold they wear long capes of tanned otter skins, and cloaks made of the same skins cut into long strips, and turned in such a manner that all of the fur is on the outside. They then weave these strips together, making a fabric, and give it the form mentioned above.
The women are dressed with more modesty, wearing around the waist tanned deerskins, which cover them in front and back more than halfway down the leg, and a little cape of otter skin over the body. Some of them have attractive features.

Polygamy is not permitted among these people; the chiefs alone possess the right to take two wives. In all of their towns there was noticed a class of men who lived like women, associated with them, wore the same dress, adorned themselves with beads, earrings, necklaces, and other feminine ornaments, and enjoyed great consideration among their companions. The want of an interpreter prevented us from ascertaining what kind of men they were, or to what office they were designed; all suspected however, a sexual defect or some abuse among those Indians.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gaspar de Portolà Explores Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley


More from The Discovery of San Francisco Bay. The Portolà Expedition of 1769-1770 (the diary of Miguel Costansó). Having crossed the entire Los Angeles basin from south to north (and having experienced several minor earthquakes), the explorers found further progress northwards blocked by a mountain range extending east to west in both directions. They resumed their journey having camped somewhere near the present-day UCLA campus [footnotes are mine]:


Saturday, 5 August [1769]: The scouts who had set out to examine the coast and the way along the beach returned shortly afterwards with the news of having reached a high, steep cliff, terminating at the sea where the mountains end, absolutely cutting off the passage along the shore. [1] This forced us to seek a way through the mountains, and we found it, although it was rough and difficult. We then set off from the Ojos del Berrendo[2] in the afternoon, and, directing our course to the northwest towards the point where there seemed to be an opening in the range, we entered the mountains through a canyon formed by steep hills on both sides. [3] At the end of the canyon, however, the hills were somewhat more accessible and permitted us to take the slope and, with much labor, to ascend to the summit, whence we discerned a very large and pleasant valley. We descended to it and halted near the watering-place, which consisted of a very large pool. Near this there was a populous Indian village, and the inhabitants were very good-natured and peaceful. They offered us their seeds in trays or baskets of rushes, and came to the camp in such numbers that, had they been armed, they might have caused us apprehension, as we counted as many as two hundred and five, including men, women, and children. All of them offered us something to eat, and we, in turn, gave them our glass beads and ribbons. We made three leagues on this day's journey. To the valley we gave the name of Santa Catalina; [4] it is about three leagues in width and more than eight in length, and is entirely surrounded by hills.

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[1] Pacific Palisades at Santa Monica.
[2] "Ojos de Agua del Berrendo"--Antelope Springs--was a watering place so-named the previous day because the explorers had caught a wounded antelope there.
[3] Sepulveda Pass.
[4] The San Fernando Valley. Santa Catalina is now the name of an island west of Los Angeles.

Sepulveda Pass as it appears today, channeling the 405 freeway:

Friday, September 25, 2009

Losing Site of the Mission?



One interesting book on my shelf is called The Discovery of San Francisco Bay. The Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770. The book is a translation of the diary of Miguel Costansó, who was a soldier/engineer on that historic expedition. The title of the book refers to the fact that the Portolá expedition is credited with discovering the San Francisco Bay, that great natural harbor which lay hidden for more than two centuries after the first Europeans sailed up the coast of California. Costansó kept a very detailed diary and provides us with a mind's eye glimpse of what southern California looked like before californication. Here's his description of the valley where I live:
Tuesday, 18 July [1769]: The watering-place found by the scouts was little more than two leagues from Santa Sinforosa,[1] a distance that we covered in the afternoon. The country over which we passed was also hilly. The place where we halted was exceedingly beautiful and pleasant, a valley remarkable for its size, adorned with groves of trees and covered with the finest pasture. It must have been nearly a league wide, and different canyons opened into it on the north and northeast. The watering-place consisted of a pool or marsh of considerable extent. We camped on rising ground within the same valley, towards the west.[2] We gave the name San Juan Capistrano to the valley.[3]
__________________
[1] Now called Buena Vista Creek, northeast of Carlsbad. Highway 78 runs parallel to Buena Vista Creek.[2] The San Luis Rey de Francia Mission was built at this site in 1789. The Mission was named after King Louis IX of France , the patron Saint of the third order of Franciscans (aka St. Louis).
[3] Our valley is no longer called San Juan Capistrano; that name now belongs to a mission and town about 35 miles farther north.
The mission used to cover about 6 acres. Little by little, they've sold off the acreage. Over the years, the surroundings have become a mixture of commercial and residential development. But despite the change, the place retains its original mission: they're still Franciscans with an active community parish. Link

[update: more historical stuff on the SLR Mission here.]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rock Band Rocks!


Today, September 9th, Harmonix Music Systems released the Beatles's music catalog as part of the Rock Band video game. If you're unfamiliar with "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero," you probably don't have or know any teen or pre-teen kids (actually I first learned about it from our wild and crazy 30-something DINK neighbors).

We have the Wii version of "Guitar Hero." The Wii version is like the "Rock Band" video game, that is, the game allows one to play the guitar, vocal, bass, and drums for many popular songs. Of course you have to have the Guitar Hero "guitars" and drum kits that are adaptable to the wiimotes.

Guitar Hero has been derided by some because it doesn't really foster learning the guitar. Allegedly, Jimmy Page is withholding release of Led Zeppelin's catalog because he is upset that kids aren't learning guitar, but rather a simulated version of it. Also sayeth Page:
Obviously, there have been overtures made to Led Zeppelin, but if you start with the first track on the first album, ‘Good Times Bad Times,’ and you think of the drum part that John Bonham did there, how many drummers in the world can actually play that, let alone dabble on a Christmas morning? link.

He'll come around, mark my words, just give it a few more years, and a few lackluster sales of compilations.

But it's true: the "guitars" in Guitar Hero have no strings, only a right hand strum pick and a left hand set of buttons that allow you to "fret" notes and chords. On the other hand, the drum set- up for Rock Band features a set of four pads and a bass drum.

In my experience, the Rock Band drum simulator actually requires you to have or develop the same motor skills that it takes to play real drums. The drum set even resembles the sort of practice pads that real drummers use in lieu of a real set. So screw Page and Led Zeppelin for the time being.

Another great rock drummer was of course Keith Moon. Whereas John Bonham had controlled precision, Moon was all over the place, almost the essence of chaos. Moon had a top heavy, splashy style, having a much higher center of gravity than Bonham. Moon played double bass drums, forgoing the high hat cymbal for much of his playing style and sound. When I think of Keith Moon playing, I picture him riding his cymbals and tom toms and with both feet stomping his double bass drums.
Here's a video that gives you a good look at how "Rock Band" drums actually work:


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Do Us All A Favre And Just Play Football

I ran across some residual resentment in Wisconsin amongst the locals. Some folks are still upset that Brett Favre signed with the Minnesota Vikings for $25MM. Others just see his choice as a love of football and all that lovely green stuff. In any case his first season with the Vikings is sure to be a stepwise, uphill slog. Certain relatives are relishing the thought of Favre facing a Green Bay defensive team no longer obliged to go easy on him in practice. Even I can't wait to see that game.

This scene is actually pretty typical of the good natured humor that I encountered:



Note that the target mechanism of the dunking tank is hidden, strategically located right behind the number 4 on that purple jersey. There was no shortage of takers at that booth (photo from the Sun Prairie Sweet Corn Festival)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sink the Bismark

click on the photo to enlarge your appetite.

The chocolate bismark is a species of Berliner doughnut, available in certain locations throughout southern Wisconsin, for example, here.

I have fond memories of the bismark. As a boy of 13, I delivered the morning Wisconsin State Journal newspaper. One of my customers was a now defunct "micro-bakery," run by an old Bavarian woman. Each morning around 6 o'clock when I stopped by to deliver the news, she would treat me to a freshly baked chocolate bismark. They were especially tasty and appreciated in the dead of winter.

Real chocolate bismarks are becoming hard to find, having been displaced by custard-filled species, and also by bismarks prepared with a lighter-colored dough. I googled around looking for a photo of the real thing, but to no avail. The photo above is the real deal from my trip back. Accept no substitutes.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Greetings From Wisconsin


I'll be in Wisconsin for the next several days, visiting family but also looking for the perfect chocolate bismarck, drinking the occasional pop (as long as there's some brandy in it), and drinking water from bubblers.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Lithium: Part 2/3

Link

(bummer about the link)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lithium (1/3)


The other day at Costco I noticed one of those bilingual signs: “Batteries/Piles.” The Spanish word pila echoes the historical origin of batteries (cf. the obvious name from the photo above). In the year 1800, Alessandro Volta (the guy the Chevy Volt is indirectly named after) invented what became known as the voltaic pile, thus enabling the first systematic studies of how electricity interacts with matter.

Sir Humphry Davy seized upon the idea of electrolyzing dry molten salts and metal oxides with voltaic pile electrodes (the two wire thingies in the photo above). Davy prepared several elements for the first time, producing blobs of highly reactive metals at one wire when he electrolyzed molten natrium and kalium salts. Davy gave the new metals “ium” names derived from their material origins: sodium from caustic soda and potassium from potash. Davy was so persuasive, and his demonstrations so dramatic, that he successfully renamed the elements: natrium became sodium and kalium became potassium. Today, only the Germans use the older names, though they do survive in the modern chemical symbols, Na and K.

Lithium was discovered in mineral ore samples in 1817. Its discover, J. A. Arfvedson, thought it appropriate to name the new element after the Greek word lithos = stone [cf. lithosphere], to distinguish it from the chemically similar elements sodium and potassium, both of which had been first found in sea and land plant ashes. A year later Sir Humphry prep'd lithium metal by electrolyzing molten lithium oxide.

Metallic lithium is the lightest of metals, so light that it floats on oil; it would float on water too if it didn’t spontaneously react and produce combustible hydrogen gas: see link. The brilliant red color briefly seen in that video comes from gaseous lithium atoms “cooling” in the outer reaches of the flame by giving up red photons. Today lithium salts are used in pyrotechnics to give brilliant red colors.

Lithium sits near the extreme upper left corner of the Periodic Table, directly beneath hydrogen.* Lithium follows helium in sequential order, but the two elements couldn’t be more different. Explaining why helium and the other noble gases are so chemically stable requires a plunge into quantum mechanics (at least at the level of an elementary text book); suffice it to say that when moving from helium to lithium, the third electron that elemental lithium requires cannot share the same space as its first two electrons and must be held at a greater distance, i.e., be more weakly bound. The third electron is said to be a valence electron. The concept of valency comes from a Latin word meaning "combining power of an element" and refers to an element’s ability to gain, lose or share electrons.

Lithium doffs its third electron with ease, becoming lithium ion (Li+) and by so doing regains the magic electronic configuration of helium. By analogy, Na+ has the magic noble gas configuration of neon, and K+ has the noble gas configuration of argon.
_______________________
*Hydrogen is not an alkali metal however it is classed in Group I, the western edge of the Periodic Table. Hydrogen shares some chemical properties with lithium and the other alkali metals, namely the oxidation state of +1. On the other hand, hydrogen also can also be a hydride, having pseudo-halide properties.

The Hammer of the Buzz



I've just been getting around to listening to Mothership, yet another Led Zeppelin compilation produced by Jimmy Page to milk the legend. What is new on this otherwise predictable rehash is a nice remastering of the drum track: mainly the enhanced sound of John Bonham's drumming.

Others have described Bonham's style as his special "groove." Yes he had that, but there was something more about his drumming style. Bonham owes some of his sound to Carmine Appice, who introduced Bonham to Ludwig drums during Zeppelin's first American tour (Geez, I wonder if Trooper York knew the Appice family?-Brooklyn, boomer, Italian American?). I also think there's a noticeable difference in drum "sound" between their first album and Led Zeppelin II. The very first song on their first album, Good Times, Bad Times, features those shin-cramping bass drum triplets that marked Bonham's style. Later, he perfected a more fluid, all around triplets sound as demonstrated here by Appice (if the videos won't play for you it may be because they are Quicktime ".mov" videos. You can download quicktime here (thanks Jason!).

Bonham had a certain precision and economy to his style--almost approaching perfection in the sense that one could not easily imagine doing it better. His exquisite, almost metronomic timekeeping was due to his use of his left foot high-hatting between and during breaks, a technique borrowed from earlier drum legends. You can see it in this demo.

Whenever Bonham's right stick came off the high hat during a beat, his left foot would kick in to keep the same rhythm: this style is very obvious in for example this version of Whole Lotta Love. If you still can't view the videos, just crank up your own version of Whole Lotta Love and listen closely to the middle "trippy" part and the remainder of the song until the break. Bonham is left foot high-hatting throughout his turns around the cymbals and tom toms: zsip-zsip-zsip-zsip-zsip-zsip-zsip-zsip-zsip....

I learned these things as a teen (way before Internet tutorials) when I played drums as part of my misspent youth. I used to listen for hours on end to their songs, trying to copy and learn his style. My friends and I even had a little high school garage (basement) band in the mid-70's: we called ourselves "Buzz Hammer."

John Bonham has been dead almost 30 years--can you believe it?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Few Words About Neutrons And Isotopes*

I learned this today from Wiki:
The term isotope was coined in 1913 by Margaret Todd, a Scottish doctor, during a conversation with Frederick Soddy. Soddy, a chemist at Glasgow University, explained that it appeared from his investigations as if several elements occupied each position in the periodic table. Todd suggested the Greek term meaning "at the same place" as a suitable name. Soddy adopted the term and went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1921 for his work on radioactive substances.

The concept of isotopes confounded the builders of the Periodic Table in Soddy's time. Things got even worse after J. J. Thompson showed that he could resolve purified neon into neon of two different masses, Ne-20 and Ne-22. It took the birth of quantum mechanics and Chadwick's neutron to put things back together again.

Today we know with confidence that different isotopes of the same element differ in number of neutrons within their atomic nuclei. Neutrons add heft and stability (or instability) to atomic nuclei, without changing the "place" of the element at the table; in other words, what fixes an element's place is the number of protons in its nucleus, not the sum of its protons and neutrons. Thus the concept "at the same place" makes perfect sense for different atomic mass versions of the same element. All naturally occurring elements have isotopes, for example, hydrogen, which has three isotopes so important that they're given quasi-chemical symbols of their own: H, D, and T, corresponding to protium, deuterium, and tritium, having 0, 1, and 2 neutrons respectively.

Our government (and others) have long been in the business of separating isotopes: uranium-235 was the fission fuel for the first atomic bomb, and plutonium-239 was the fission fuel for the second one. The first hydrogen bomb (code-named Ivy Mike) used liquefied deuterium-tritium gas as fusion fuel, i.e., hydrogen molecules consisting of the two heavier isotopes of hydrogen. Ivy Mike weighed around 62 tons, the bulk of which was dedicated to cooling the liquefied fusion fuel. Practical weaponization of the H-bomb was not achieved until lithium deuteride (which doesn't require cryogenics) became the fusion fuel of choice.

Iran is actively pursuing uranium isotope enrichment, ostensibly to collect enough U-235 for either peaceful electrical power generation or for a fission weapon. Less talked about is the concomitant accumulation of so-called depleted uranium (DU) which is the non-radioactive U-238 “waste” obtained during enrichment. DU is both an effective tank armor and a lethal component of bullets or rounds. While travelling at high velocity, DU or DU-coated shells burn into uranium oxide, literally forming a burning projectile. DU weapons and armor were fielded with spectacular results by the US in the First Gulf War: Iraqi tank shells literally bounced off the Abrams tanks equipped with DU armor. You can bet the Iranians were watching that with keen interest.

Isotopes also have many, many peaceful uses: think of radiochemical uses in medicine and biology and their use in determining the geologic age of materials (radiocarbon dating). Stable isotopes like deuterium and carbon-13 also find broad use as detectable labels which can also be introduced into controlled experiments and followed where they go and don't go. Moreover, subtle effects on the rates (speed) of chemical reactions gives insight into how the reactions proceed.

I once worked around neutrons as part of a scientific collaboration. Our endeavors were peaceful, despite occurring in part at Los Alamos National Laboratory. While determining the molecular structure of a certain substance, we needed the help of neutrons to locate hydrogen atoms using a technique called neutron diffraction which uses beams of free neutrons. To make a long story short, we solved the structure, but I went on to show how one could get the same essential information using more conventional instruments, but that’s another story. And that's the closest I ever want to get to loose neutrons.

*My creds include working with neutrons and co-writing a book chapter on isotopes in chemistry.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

It was all just Rocket Science!



This weekend commemorates the historic trip to the moon by the heroic Apollo 11 astronauts 40 years ago. Let's also pause to remember the passion and drive of the men who designed and built the vehicles that put them there, in particular Dr. Wernher von Braun, designated rocket visionary.

Let's pause and also give thought to the victims of the German V-2 rocket program and to the slaves who died making those rockets under appalling conditions (The V in V-2 stands for Vergeltungswaffe = vengeance weapon). And spare a thought for cranky old Robert Goddard, our own homegrown rocket hero, who at least appeared on a stamp:


I am unconvinced by allegations that the Germans stole secrets from Goddard, having read the account of the V-2 program in Michael Neufeld's excellent The Rocket and the Reich. Neufeld, no fawning acolyte of von Braun, correctly points out that the Germans merely used Goddard's published ideas. In science and technology, success builds upon free and open communication.

The Smithsonian in DC has (or used to have) a collection of scale model rockets lined up side by side, showing the historical progression of rocket design. The models may have even been owned by von Braun himself (first photo above). I don't recall exactly where the collection begins and ends, however, a V-2 rocket stands in the lineup. What struck me then was that there were two V-2's next to each other in the collection: a German one and a V-2 that had been rebranded with American insignia.

Soviet advances in the spring of 1945 halted the V-2 program at Peenemünde. Von Braun and his team relocated to a safer location in the Bavarian Alps while the Third Reich collapsed. On May 2, 1945, with Hitler already dead and Berlin under Soviet control, von Braun surrendered to the Americans. He said later:
We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.
Von Braun and his team, criminally liable in some eyes for the V-2 rocket attacks on European capitals, were given a second chance. Goddard had died in August of 1945 and America needed rocket science. And did we ever get some. Von Braun first headed a secret team located outside of El Paso, TX, where under a sort of house arrest, he and his team reassembed captured V-2 rockets. In 1950, von Braun led the Army's rocket development program team that resulted in the Redstone, the rocket used for the first nuclear ballistic missile. Von Braun and his German wife became naturalized American citizens in 1955.
Von Braun's career really took off after the Soviets launched Sputnik. He was appointed director of the newly created George Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The ballistic missile team, still including many of the old school Peenemünder, all now worked for NASA. And they succeeded splendidly.

My own recollections of the Apollo heydays are still pretty clear. I recall as a boy visiting the Kennedy Space Center in the summer of 1968 on a family vacation to Florida. The giant Saturn V rocket used to launch Apollo 7 was then under construction inside the massive Vehicle Assembly Building . My dad took super 8 mm film of this which I have to just dropped off to convert to digital format. I recall that hot and sweaty Wisconsin day a year later when the moon-landing happened. Relatives were visiting and we cousins had been playing tackle football in the backyard all day. The grown-ups called us inside to watch the historic landing on TV in the cool of the basement.

I also recall seeing von Braun on TV with Walter Cronkite. My memory is fuzzy exactly when that was, but surely it must have been between Apollo missions or perhaps during the long flight time of one of the historic moon missions; von Braun would have been too preoccupied during the take-off and landing phases of each mission to be chatting it up with the avuncular Walter. I do wish I could find that clip on Youtube. Maybe it will turn up as part of a Walter Cronkite retrospective.
Added: Hector at Kiarian Lunch wonders if we will ever go back.
Added much later: Lou Minati linked some really cool old Apollo 11 footage Link

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

He Watches Over Us

First a few words about spectroscopy. That link has a cool animation of what looks like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon album cover where a prism splits a beam of white light into the colors of the rainbow--the spectrum (pl = spectra) of white light.
Early chemists used colored lines in spectra for the identification of materials when placed in flames.* The flame spectra of individual elements lack the full spectrum of the sun, and more or less resemble a bar code, that is, the spectra have one or several discrete lines separated by spaces. The discrete lines are a “fingerprint” or spectroscopic signature, unique for each element. With that brief introduction, we go back in time to 1868:
On 18 August 1868, a total eclipse of the sun was visible in India, and a number of scientists went there to make observations of the solar prominences. One who examined photographs of the spectra was Joseph Norman Lockyer (1836-1920) who although a civil servant at the War Office had already in his spare time done valuable work in astronomical spectroscopy.
Lockyer was particularly interested in a so called D3 line in the yellow region of solar spectra that had been obtained during the eclipse in India. It was known that the well-known sodium D line was in fact two lines close together, called the D1 and D2 lines. The D3 line could not be obtained from any substance in the laboratory, and Lockyer boldly suggested that it was caused by a new element, found in the sun but apparently not on earth. He gave this new element the name helium, from the Greek helios, the sun.
~The World Of Physical Chemistry, Keith J. Laidler
Lockyer’s hypothesis illustrates one of two ways to advance a theory in science: The first is to amass so much data that the subsequent explanation almost sounds obvious; the second is to boldly assert something with little or no support, and await experimental confirmation.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. Where it does occur naturally on earth, it originates from the radioactive decay of heavier elements. The bulk of our domestic helium supply comes from deposits underground found with gas and oil. Helium is a non-renewable resource: even if made synthetically using radio-decay processes, the supply could not meet demand: link. We recognize helium's use in filling balloons but it is also used in welding and to replace nitrogen in synthetic breathing gas for deep-water diving because its lower solubility in blood minimizes occurrence of the often fatal "bends." However, its greatest use is in liquefied form to cool instruments and for cryogenic research. I used to use lots of it to cool the NMR supercon magnets found associated with nearly every modern chemistry lab.

Helium sits atop the northeast corner of the Periodic Table. From that vantage point, it is possible to look downwards through the eastern border of the chart all the way to the bottom. The elements directly beneath He are the so-called noble or inert elements on account of their general failure to interact chemically with other elements. The other related elements were all given Greek names: Neon (new), Argon (inert) Krypton (hidden), Xenon (strange), and Radon (named after radium but with its suffix changed to conform to the others). The discovery of the noble elements at first confounded the construction of the table--was there another family further to the right? But it was eventually recognized that the noble gas family perfected an understanding of the physical nature of the elements (more on that when we get to Lithium next).

So how many helium balloons would it take to lift a man? Mythbusters apparently did this experiment (I didn’t see it) with helium weather balloons and used about 45 of them, and their balloons were 2.5 meters diameter. I once tried to fill one of those inflatable love dolls (a gag gift) with helium to get it to float for a Halloween party- it didn't work. :(
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*Robert Bunsen was a 19th century German chemist interested in the flame emission spectra of the elements--guess what he invented?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

H Is For Humble Hydrogen

The sun consumes about a half billion tons of hydrogen every second, fusing mass into helium and radiating the excess as energy. We just sit back on sunny days and bask in the afterglow of the nuclear holocaust at a very safe distance, thinking nothing of it. Our nonchalance towards any solar dimming is justified by considering that the sun should last another 5 billion years or so.

Hydrogen fuel cells (chemical, not nuclear) are already used in spacecraft, and modern rocket engines burn liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. But back on earth, there is talk of using hydrogen as an energy source to replace hydrocarbon fuels. Hydrogen gas burns cleanly, as the very name reminds us: hydrogen = water generating; the catch is that hydrogen gas has to be made because little is found naturally on earth.

By far the cheapest way to make hydrogen gas is from natural gas, CH4, using a process that co-produces CO2 (the carbon atom has to go somewhere). But another little appreciated fact is that a big consumer of hydrogen gas is the fertilizer industry—hydrogen is used to make ammonia from nitrogen—and another big user is the food industry—it is used it to hydrogenate vegetable oils. Any large-scale diversion of existing hydrogen to transportation fuels will ultimately raise the price of food via the costs of ammonia fertilizer and food processing costs. Sound familiar?

What’s really needed is a new and different way to cheaply make hydrogen gas—something like the efficient photolysis of water or the electrolysis of water using electricity from nuclear power plants. Both technologies exist, but they are economic nonstarters. For my money, I’d rather see cars run on methane, rather than going through the additional process hoops of converting the methane to hydrogen gas. A similar argument holds for bio-fuels, which I will discuss when I get to carbon and oxygen.

Hydrogen is the most promiscuous chemical element, pair bonding with nearly every element and even forming special bonding threesomes called hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds are the principle force binding the two strands of DNA together. Arguably, hydrogen bonds are present at the conception of human life: when the two single strands of DNA, one from the mother, one from the father, join for the first time, those strands are united by about 3 billion hydrogen bonds. Each one is worth a small amount, but together, summed over the entire double helix, amounts to a formidable binding glue.

The themes of family and weak and strong chemical forces reminds me of some lines from the David Lynch movie “The Straight Story." Richard Farnsworth says (while demonstrating with sticks):
When my kids were young I played a game with them. I'd give each of them a stick. One for each of 'em, and I'd tell them to break it. They'd do that easy. Then I'd tell them to make one bundle of all the sticks and try to break that. And course they couldn't. I used to say that was family, that bundle.