I saw the movie PT-109 from the back of of a Ford Falcon station wagon parked on a berm filled with other cars, with other kids, at a drive-in movie theater somewhere outside of Houston, Texas in early 1963. I was five and my brother Tom was watching it beside me. We were totally militarized from watching too many war movies, and a few months later we’d watch JFK’s funeral somberly unfold over a few days on the black and white TV we watched Saturday cartoons and Mercury launches. We were of a divided mind about what was the better career option — astronaut or bazooka-man — but we both agreed if we had been at the helm of the PT 109 that dark night on the phosphorent waters of Blackett Strait, we would have not only sunk the evil Amagiri, but scored direct hits with the three remaining torpedos and then gunned multiple out-of-the-sun attacks by the Japanese Zeroes harassing us for drowning Admiral Yamato.
In the summer on Cape Cod, behind the boat shed, was a cedar rowing skiff without a name. Left out right side up on the grass, we climbed aboard and turned that 12-foot yellow and grey rowboat our grandfather built in 1948 in between a fleet of a dozen Cotuit Skiffs, a tender he could tow around behind his catboat if he was visiting Nantucket or Edgartown, a heavy beast of a boat with three thwarts and two rowing stations.
Broomsticks became Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons and Browning .50-cal machine guns. We both provided sound effects and threw driveway stones at the corrugated tin sides of the lean-to to make big sheet metal booms. My father and grandfather were, like many old Cape Codders, Lincoln Republicans and no fans of the Kennedy clan and their sketchy bootlegger fortune and Papal allegiances. I’d eavesdrop on them laughing about how young Kennedy made it to the White House on a sunken motorboat thanks to father Joe’s Hollywood influence, thousands of copies of John Hersey’s account of the sinking of the PT-109, and Kennedy drifting in neutral with a throttle system that wasn’t connected to the boat’s three 12-cylinder Packard engines, but to an indicator in the engine room that told the engineer what to do — just like the Titantic.
Tom and I didn’t care. The thought of being given command of an awesome 80-foot long war ship with torpedos and cannons and underwater exhaust diverters made us anxious, so we began to fight for command of the PT-109 parked on the lawn. I began to suspect my grandfather and father suggested that name just to wind us up and get us scrounging for old foot-powered foghorns and massive oak fids left in the eaves of the sail loft.
Here my brother Tom and I re-enact the secret mutiny on the PT-109 while our cousins all watch and think to themselves together: what lame losers….
I never gave the PT-109 much thought after the skiff rotted out and was thrown on a burn pile or hauled away to the dump. When I did think about the PT-109 I thought about that sweet rowing skiff with the heavy ash oars and the leather collars and galvanized folding oarlocks that were permanently attached to thje boat. I toured the PT boat on display in Fall River in Battleship Cove with my son and marveled at the huge planing hull and vast amount of wood that went into it. A couple of years ago I read a recent biography of John Hersey, in which I learned how Hersey and JFK had wooed the same woman, how Kennedy told Hersey about the wreck and rescue of his crew at a New York night club, which Hersey wrote for the June 17, 1944 edition of the New Yorker in a story titled Survival.
“Our men in the South Pacific fight nature, when they are pitted against her, with a greater fierceness than they could ever expend on a human enemy.Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, the ex-Ambassador’s son and lately a PT skipper in the Solomons, came through town the other day and told me the story of his survival in the South Pacific. I asked Kennedy if I might write the story down. He asked me if I wouldn’t talk first with some of his crew, so I went up to the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Centre at Melville, Rhode Island, and there, under the curving iron of a Quonset hut, three enlisted men named Johnston, McMahon, and McGuire filled in the gaps.”John Hersey, Survival, The New Yorker, 1944/6/17
JFK’s father, then grieving the loss of his eldest son and namesake Joe Jr. after his plane exploded during a test flight, ordered thousands of reprints of Hersey’s story, sent the Kennedy political fixers out to find the crew of the boat, and had little PT-109 lapel pins made as campaign tschotkes when JKF ran for Congress, the US Senate, and the presidency. The story of the PT-109 became the most famous naval story to come out of World War II. Which of course added to my father and his father’s scorn for Democrats, and they would scoff and joke about the myth that turned a raw college boy fresh from the tiller of a Wianno Senior beating into the afternoon southwester off of Hyannis Port who manages a few months later to get rammed while bobbing out of gear under the bow of a charging Japanese destroyer.
In the late 90s my brother, retired from over a decade in the Special Forces and enjoying the fruits of his entreprenurial labors, built a summer house here in Cotuit and built in the basement an astonishing workshop devoted to radio controlled airplanes, cars, and boats. Bandsaws, drill presses, long clean and level workbenches encased in epoxy, racks of tiny screwdrivers and batteries, transmitter and receivers, servo motors, clutches, fuel…….
And on the top shelf, in a long narrow box, was a kit to build a 1/20th scale model of the PT-109. The hull was made from Fiberglass, a heavy four-foot long shell that looked beautiful and powerful. The instructions offered two options for powering the boat — either a small 4-stroke engine driving a single propellor, or a bank of electric motors driving three propellors. I looked at that model every time I visited, always teasing him to build it, feeling sorry that instead of slowing down he was spending more time on the road, checking out deals in Asia and the Middle East and rarely home long enough to adjust back to the time zone, nevermind start building a massive ship model.
Last fall I told him I would build the kit for him. I pulled the box down from the shelf, pulled out the instructions and the parts list and inventoried everything to see what was missing. I already had the right gas-powered engine from an old Piper Cub model, radios, batteries — all I need to do was buy some glue, set up a workbench, and build it over the winter.
Here’s what I accomplished in about six months of very occasional work, usually turning to the boat project when the cabin fever started to get from me, or when I needed a break from working on my book about Bethuel Handy and his Siberian adventures. I’ve worked on ship models since I was six and given a ship-in-a-bottle kit. I helped my grandmother build a scale model of a Grand Banks fishing schooner, and a few years back I built a planked model of a New Bedford whaleboat. The focus that is required and the concentration to get clumsy fingers to behave is very therapeutic to my wandering mind and a few minutes working at a cast metal fitting with a file or soldering together little linkages and pieces of rigging under a magnifying glass gave me a great deal of space to think through bigger issues I was struggling with in the planning and writing of the book.
Here’s a slideshow of the construction progression. The kit was made by the Dumas Company and evidently was only produced in a limited run due to OSHA ventilation requirements for Fiberglas work. I couldn’t build the gas engine configuration because the plans specified a marine-adapted variation of the engine I had for a model airplane — and I’m not clever enough of a machinist to make a water jacket to surround the cylinder and keep it from overheating.
The owner of M.A.C.K. Products and Model Marine in Long Branch, New Jersey was very generous with his time and advice and quickly talked me out of the gas-engine option, reminding me that I was dealing with a kit that had been out of stock for the past twenty years and that advances in brushless motors and digital electronic speed controls, radios, etc. made it a far better (and quieter) idea to put very powerful, high torque electric motors and LiPo batteries rather than wire up a shrieking gas banshee and annoy the neighbors. I’m a sucker for an expert voice of reason, so I told him to set me up and he did: selling me two electric motors and ESCs and wiring harnesses and little navigation lights.
I haven’t launched it yet. My brother Tom only got his first showing yesterday after coming north from Florida and self-quarantining for two weeks. When we do put it in a pond I will video the maiden voyage and update this post.
I am fairly happy with the final result. Some model shipwrights are incredibly talented at scale details and realistic paint schemes, using online forums to discuss every variation and detail of these boats. Some have digitized the original naval architect’s plans used by the Elco Co. of Bayonne New Jersey to mass produce the PT boats, and converted them into CAD files for 3-D printing. I spent $100 for about 80 3-D printed plastic pieces and the detail on the parts is incredible, but somehow not nearly as rewarding as improvising machine guns out of little lengths of brass tubing, some basswood, and a lot of glue.
I’m already thinking of next winter’s project but haven’t decided yet. I have yet to do a fully rigged ship, so something with sails and most likely for display on a mantel, not running on ponds or harbors like the PT-109.
Here is the finished model:
Saw this big guy during my daily constitutional, he gave me the full macho-dandy display to keep me from messing with his harem of hens.
Off she goes to boat heaven.
How I felt in the lumber line at Home Depot next to an unmasked mouth breather…..
Om Malik, partner at True Ventures, founder of GigaOm, and colleague of mine from the early days of Forbes.com, has written a great piece on the positive impact of recessions, pandemics, and bubbles. Drawing on his first-hand experience in San Francisco’s tech scene after the combination punches of the dot.com collapse and 9/11 attacks, Om celebrates the impact of grim times on entrepreneurs who take the opportunity during dips in the economic cycle to invent the next big thing.
Flickr, web applications like Yahoo and Gmail, social media, tagging, and other fundamentals of the social media revolution all blossomed out of the dark pessimism of the early millennial years. As coders and creators are freed from the tedium of improving old tools — partially by finding themselves out of a job with time on their hands — and the distractions of an over-hyped market where too much money chases too few valid ideas, the result of a depressed techonomy can be the invention of entirely new categories of tools and services.
The crisis has given us a chance to take a step back, and think about what’s possible in the future. The simple fact a third of American workers were able to continue working remotely is a testament to the original vision of the Internet as a military network capable of withstanding a targeted strike. Without the connectivity of the Internet and near ubiquity of broadband home connections, the option to social distance wouldn’t have been imaginable. Smart entrepreneurs look at a crisis — be it a virus or a recession or an act of terrorism — seeking what was revealed, what was missing, and what will persist in the future. The post COVID world won’t be all about on-demand shopping. Instead it could be about resilient on-demand manufacturing that is automated and optimized. It won’t be telemedicine. It will be new bio-sensors and technologies that are in sync with our reality a decade from now.Why every tech downturn has a silver lining, Om Malik
Pondering Malthus and Koyaanisqatsi
I was hyper-focused on something the other afternoon, half-listening to a playlist of random ambient music on the sonos when Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi began to play.
The word means “world out of balance” in the Hopi language (or as my father would have said: ” Fubar.” It’s a beautiful film, especially when it was first released nearly 40 years ago, a stoner flick to be appreciated after a few bong hits in the dorm before heading to the midnight showing at the local art house cinema.
Reflecting on the present pandemic and its politicization as the world crawls out of quarantine into the future, I have to wonder if this and future pandemic threats to our health and social fabric are symptoms of a world out of balance, where geography and the natural barriers of oceans and time have been rendered irrelevant by technology, where natural processes and systems from the climate to gender roles have been turned on their head by genetically modified crops, wide-body jets, and instant communications which can speed both facts and propaganda as well as an infected passenger in the middle seat in aisle 42 into our lives faster than ever before.
Thomas Malthus was the English economist who posited the theory that improvements to productivity are not used to increase our quality of life, but to expand our population in a series of boom/bust cycles that punish the most disadvantaged segments the hardest. Coming out of an era of plague, such as the epidemic of 1666 that ravaged London, Malthusian economics was summed up by its creator thusly:
“Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment [i.e., marriage] is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition.”Malthus, T. R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter II,
Malthus observed a boom and bust cycle of population growth and crashes and came to the conclusion that rather than achieve a balanced equilibrium, progress and society tend to use any gains to expand, not improve. Population growth is the top of mind agenda of three significantly wealthy and wise individuals: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros…. all have prioritized population as the focus of their philanthropy. These aren’t cold-hearted eugenicists who advocate sterilizing the poor, or even eating them as Jonathan Swift suggested in his “modest proposal” of 1729.
The COVID-19 crisis is an great example of a Malthusian Catastrophe: an event such as a famine, war, genocide, or epidemic which tend to happen when things seem great but suddenly go out of balance. Famine used to be the great check valve on unbridled population growth, but the Green Revolution that followed World War II and the growing use of pesticides, hybrid strains of grain, and industrial agriculture has diminished the severity of famine save for a few susceptible regions such as the Horn of Africa. It also wiped out the local osprey population until Rachel Carson started the environmental movement with Silent Spring. Now the osprey are back and its nursing home residents who are disappearing.
Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.— Thomas Malthus, 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter VII
Here is Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the country, COVID-19 has hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods where crowded housing, poor healthcare and nutrition, and other factors particular to the impoverished have caused infection rates to soar far higher than more affluent zip codes. Chelsea, Brockton, Lawrence …. the virus burns hottest for the poorest and thrives on the weakest, the oldest, the sickest. I read last night that 50% of COVID deaths occurred in the counties within 100 miles of New York City. For a person living in North Dakota, where social isolation is the norm, the pandemic is irrelevant. For an elderly Latina with diabetes and COPD in Chelsea, it’s a death sentence.
Immigration didn’t bring the virus to America. During the Ebola scare in the late summer of 2015 conservatives reacted with great paranoia over the “jet age” effects of a single infected person flying from the west coast of Africa to New York, politicizing the disease in their ongoing agenda of restricting free immigration and opening America’s borders. Their calls for a cordon sanitaire then are not being repeated now, as critics of the shutdown ask why governments and public health organizations tanked the economy to avoid a pandemic that seems to pick off the elderly and the poor the most. For a college student in Fort Lauderdale in early March, it was worth sacrificing granny a few years sooner than expected so the wet t-shirt contests could go on.
Society is fracturing into two camps as it comes out of hiding, two camps who have dug in to embrace very different realities. For the conservative segment, the issue is about freedom and free markets as the best system to distribute wealth and regulate society. For the progressive wing, it’s about protecting the weak and sacrificing some growth and profit to improve the lot of the most vulnerable. But in the end the virus doesn’t care, neither does the next crop blight or typhoon. We’re all just passengers on the boom-bust roller coaster and destined to do to ourselves what our ancestors did to themselves — waiting for the next Malthusian catastrophe to remind us our world is indeed, our of balance.
Corona Project: build an outdoor shower. Gas powered post hole diggers are like riding God’s own corkscrew down into the earth and hanging on for the ride. At one point it got away from me and did it’s own thing for a few out-of-control revolutions before bashing into the side of the house long enough for me to regain control.
Me and carpentry is like watching the apprentice clown ring in a three-ring circus. The clown car arrives and I do nothing but walk in tight circles constantly looking for pencils, tape measures, bubble levels, spuds. finish nails, driver bits, countersinks, chalk lines, t-squares, and my mind. Patting my pockets, digging into my pants, checking my phone. Sometime aphasic while I have a brain fart and get dyslectic in front of the miter saw. Kneeling, crouching, standing up are accompanied by grunts and crepitus. Tape measures hide from me.
I think about building a boat as I chop up the red cedar. But I know if this shower could float, it wouldn’t. My joinery skills are self-taught from YouTube. Who knew a Skil saw could cut dadoes?
Last November, just as I started writing the first draft of The Wrecks and War of Bethuel Handy, I made a pilgrimage to Mystic Seaport to spend some time aboard the last surviving whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan. I pestered the docent who was standing by the ship’s wheel with all sorts of questions about the restoration project that resulted in the Morgan making a cruise up the New England coast during the summer of 2014. I was in Provincetown when the ship came into the harbor under sail and was in awe of seeing such a mythical ship alive again.
I watched a few videos about the restoration and the cruise, and paid close attention to the words of the Morgan‘s captain, Kip Files, as he described the process of wearing ship, or tacking.
A few weeks ago I hunted him down on LinkedIn and asked him, as the only living captain of a whaling ship, what he thought of Bethuel Handy’s options as the Phoenix went ashore on Elbow Island in the Sea of Okhotsk during a mid-October blizzard. He kindly replied and asked for more information — which I pulled together from my research and sent to him last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bethuel’s options at 4 am on October 11, 1858 off the coast of Siberia:
“Interesting story. Very tuff situation. There is no true way to get off a lee shore. Every time would be different as the shore, waves, current and wind would hardly be the same. It is something an experienced captain would take all his years of knowledge of sailing and his particular vessel to give it a try. having only one anchor made his job more difficult. . There would be no helm ( steering by rudder) until the vessel had some way on. Even then in those seas it would be a miracle if it responded at all. you would need lots of movement by the rudder for it to respond.
Cutting away the mast. I do not think there would be time. Desperate move not knowing were they would fall. They are built to stay in place just cutting them might force them thru the deck. I have never known anyone to do this but it is possible. I am going to read this again. Hard to get what is going thru the captains mind. Logs don’t reflect it well as they show no emotion on purpose. Do you have the lat and long of were this happened? I might have a better feel for what was happening. I do know that the class of whaling ship are pretty handy. They sail a lot better than shore side experts give them credit.
I’m really looking forward to his reaction after he reads the sailing instructions for the Gulf of Uda and the Shantar Islands. It sounds like sailing in hell to me.