Monday, June 23, 2008

Lord of the Olympic Rings

©2008 David B. Knechel

When my best friend, Stewart Bacheler and his wife, Janice, tried to have children many years ago, something didn't work. They really wanted to start a family and ultimately, they ended up adopting two toddlers from Korea. First came Jessie and then they thought that maybe she should have a brother. Poof! Along came Josh. I remember when I first met Jessie. She was a 1-1/2 year old bundle of joy. Every year, I traveled back to New Jersey for our legendary - in our minds, anyway - "Big Chill" party at the Bacheler's beach house on Pelham Avenue in Beach Haven. I had the same downstairs bedroom each time I visited there for the week. It was called Heidi's Room for Stewart's niece. Stewart's mother was quite the Pennsylvania Dutch interior decorator, so Heidi's name was ornately painted on the sliding bedroom door.

I'd sometimes drive up alone or with an old friend, Steve Kangas, but most of the time I flew. All of our old friends would meet at that house on Friday and party well into the night. We were still pretty young then. Stewart and I were always the first ones up in the morning and we'd travel down the street to Marvel's Market for fresh doughnuts. We watched them fry, that's how fresh they were. In the meantime, coffee would be brewing and that would sometimes rouse the others. Stewart and I sat out on the shaded front porch to catch up on what we had been doing. We didn't get to see each other like when I still lived up there. Plus, we had first dibs on the still warm doughnuts and fresh coffee.

This one particular morning was a little different. About 7 AM, I was awakened by a banging on my bedroom door and very young cries of "Unca Day! Unca Day!" which was Jessie's special way of telling me, "Uncle Dave, it's time to get up!" I heard Stewart stumble out to try to quiet her, but I was already awake and the thought of finally getting to see her was a lot more important than sleeping another minute. For months, he had told me how excited she was to meet Uncle Dave. Believe me, I was too. I put some pants and a shirt on and slid the door open. When I looked down, this sweet little girl was staring up at me with bright brown eyes. She couldn't have been two feet tall and I melted on the spot. Quickly, I scooped her up in my arms and we hugged each other tightly. It was something I will never forget.

That was in July of 1981 and how quickly she and her brother grew up. Jessie went to Penn State, Josh went to live in Hawaii, where he goes to the state university there, Stewart and Janice eventually divorced and he moved to Florida with his wife, An, a few years ago. Good thing I haven't changed much since those early days. I was bald then and I still am. Unfortunately, that beach house was sold and razed when his folks got a bit too old to maintain it. Oh, the stories we could all tell of that place.

Jessie is quite successful now. She ended up staying in the land of the Nittany Lions after graduating and is now the marketing and public relations manager at WHVL, a TV station in State College. She and her boyfriend, Kevin Tan, who grew up in Fremont, California, own a house they share with two dogs, but alas, her boyfriend spends a lot of time away from home. That's because he is a gymnast. Oh, not your garden variety 'bouncing around on a mat' kind of guy. No, not exactly. From what I understand, he is ranked number one in the country on still rings and a top contender on parallel bars. That is why, on June 22, he was named to the U.S. Olympic team after competing Friday and Saturday on rings, parallel bars, high bars and pommel horse. Kai Wen - or Kevin - as we will get to know him by his more English sounding name, will travel to China for the 2008 Summer Olympics. His father, Peter Tan, was born in Taiwan after his parents fled the mainland in 1949. There, he met Kevin's mother.

KEVIN TAN - Credit: Al Bello / Getty Images

Kevin, who has a degree in financing, was a six-time all-American at Penn State, and is the assistant gymnastics coach there. He earned a scholarship in gymnastics and won back-to-back NCAA titles on the rings and that helped PSU win the 2004 NCAA championship. He was going to end his career then and there, but the thought of representing the United States and competing in Beijing overwhelmed him. Fortunately, I had the chance to watch him perform on the rings Saturday afternoon on NBC and he looked great.

In a recent interview by Frank Fitzpatrick, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tan said, "If I make the team, my father is planning on returning to China." His mother passed away in 2000. "I know it will be a thrill for him to go back to the land where he was born." Thanks to Kevin, his father will have that chance, but traveling to his ancestral home will not come cheaply. The cost is estimated to be between $5,000 and $10,000 per person. That's a lot of money to send a small - but very important - support group of Jessie, his father, brother and sister-in-law to Beijing to cheer him on.

Not only is Kevin a proud American, I'm proud of him and all the rest who will represent us. I'm proud for Jessie, too, and proud for the good old United States of America. Hooray for the red, white and blue. I hope he wins the gold.

Go, Kevin, Go


Monday, June 16, 2008

My Brother, the Major

My brother and I e-mail each other several times a week, sometimes more than once a day. I gain more of an insight into what our troops are doing in Iraq and how they cope. Along with this image, he told me there are T-barriers everywhere on base to protect against incoming.

"I work in the trailers right behind me. Off to the right, you can see some pure white structures. Those are latrines and showers. It's pure paradise!"

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Not our day to die

©2008 Dave Knechel


In the early 90s, I was an ad artist for the Florida-based Belk Lindsey department store chain. In those days, I had my fair share of bars to choose from. One was Harper's Tavern, in Winter Park. Unfortunately, it burned down in 1996. Golly, how time flies. That was one of my favorite haunts and the owner, George Vogelbacher, also owned the adjacent French restaurant, Le Cordon Bleu. The tavern part was just a regular neighborhood hangout and the restaurant was high end French cuisine. I've seen Paul Newman dine there. George and his wife are from Switzerland and he has about the thickest, most guttural German accent I've ever heard. Hands down, George made the best French onion soup I've ever eaten. He used to buy my marinade in gallon containers and once told me it was a perfect recipe.

In the front corner of the tavern was a booth where some of Central Florida's most powerful men sat. The drinking kind, anyway. George eventually put a private phone with a dedicated line there for one patron in particular, John Schofield. John was probably one of the richest men in the area. Back then, he was a big guy and had a very commanding presence. He owned a brokerage firm and one of his claims to fame was some sort of deal that kept you from paying taxes on IRAs or CDs or something. I never really got into that financial stuff, so I never understood anything about it. I used to deliver my marinade early in the morning, hours before the bar or restaurant were open. On some of those mornings, John would be sitting at the bar drinking, eating breakfast and reading the Wall Street Journal. Much too early for me to drink, I always thought. One morning, I asked George why he did that for John, before the bartender or any of the staff came in.

"Dave," he said, "if you spent $3,000 a month here, I'd make you breakfast, too." I didn't have the nerve to ask him if that included the phone bill.

Saturdays were special days at Harper's. George's kitchen staff prepared a pretty decent buffet. I used to meet some of my friends there. We'd eat, have a couple of drinks, watch college football and meander over to Wayne Trout's house for more drinks and more football. Sometimes, we'd caravan up to - what we called - Fern Park Ballet, a region north of Winter Park where young ladies danced in little or no attire. Those were the days. Of course, I'm a lot older and wiser today, and besides, most of those places are closed down. What's left charge $20.00 a dance now AND the girls wear clothes. Or so I've been told. I'm no longer interested.

Our haunts in those early years were Harper's, Bailey's, Dubsdread and PR's. Except for Dubsdread, they were in the same neighborhood, and consequently, we'd run into a lot of the same people. Long before I got to know John, I knew his brother, Jeff. As a matter of fact, Jeff pretty much introduced me to John. Jeff was really a nice guy; polite, intelligent and a very good conversationalist. If you got to know Jeff, you had a lifelong friend.

Sometimes, my drinking buddies, like Wayne, Dave Stiglich, Larry Simo, Kerry Patrick and Tom & Linda Corkhill, would mosey on over to Harper's for more fun and drinks after happy hour was over at Bailey's, just as the perfume crowd, the beautiful people of Winter Park, started to show up. God, how we hated those diva's and their plastic boy toys. Heading over to Harper's usually meant I would eat, too. French onion soup and an excellent open-faced steak sandwich. It was a real steak on French bread and served with fries. Jessie bartended and she made very good drinks. Invariably, we'd run into Jeff, drink and cigarette in hand. John and his crowd would be gathered at his booth and it was a special day if you got to sit there and schmooze with the big boys.

One evening, Jeff asked me if I'd be interested in doing some work for his brother's company. Sure, I responded, what is it? He handed me a business card with a logo and asked if I could turn it into a large sign for an upcoming trade show. They needed it for their booth.

"What kind of a sign do you want?" I asked him.

"Well," Jeff responded, "we want a three dimensional cut-out of the logo that can be hung on the center wall of the booth. It needs to be about 6 feet wide. Can you do that?"

"Sure!" He took me over to his brother and we talked a little business. I always like to talk to people to get a feel of what they're looking for. After talking to John and Jeff, I knew exactly what to do. "Let me work up a price. Ill let you know early next week."

Working in the advertising department for Belk, I got to know the visual people. Visual departments take care of all the stuff you see on display in stores; signs, mannequins, glass cases, and just about everything you look at. The visual department uses a hot wire to cut out Styrofoam letters and designs from stencils. They can be of any thickness and are usually covered in faux finishes, like marble. Almost all cut-out store signs are made this way. I asked one of the guys if he'd be interested in making a little money on the side. Of course. He said he'd take $100 for doing the job, including the Styrofoam. I contacted Jeff and gave him a price of $500 and it was a done deal. Of course, I designed and cut out the template to pin to the plastic and did all the finishing work, like softening the edges.

One evening, I ran into John at Harper's. "Dave, if you do this job on time and under budget, I'll fly you up to the convention in New Orleans on my private jet."

"Of course I will," I told him. "You already have the price and I guarantee it will be ready long before the convention." I knew it had to be shipped up before the event opened.

I delivered the sign to Jeff at their office in Winter Park. "Are you going to Harper's later?" Sure, I said. "Good, I'll let you know what John thinks." When I saw him that evening, he told me John was very impressed. He said, not only did I do a much better job than their ad agency, but they would have charged over $2,000 for the job. "We fired them." Darn, I could have charged a lot more, but I've never been a gouger. As we approached the date to fly up there, Jeff told me not to worry about breakfast, that John would bring it. It was going to be a same day flight, up in the morning, back later that day. Don't be late.

I arrived at Orlando Executive Airport very early in the morning. John wasn't there yet, but Jeff had traveled to New Orleans a few days earlier. John only needed to fly up on the last day for meetings and to hang around the booth a little. While waiting, I got to know the pilot and co-pilot, brothers who flew John wherever and whenever he wanted to go. They were veteran pilots from the Vietnam War. One had been shot down 13 times when he flew helicopters. Finally, John showed up (but not late) with breakfast. I didn't know what to expect, coming from the wealthiest guy I had ever met, but it was nothing more than sausage biscuits and grits from Krystal. That morning, I learned money can never take the country out of a country boy.

When we lifted off the runway, it was an incredible ride. We were off the ground and cruising at 41,000 feet before I knew it. I asked the co-pilot if I could come up to the cockpit and take a look outside.

"Sure," and I did. You know what I saw? Nothing. Air. We were well above everything. I walked back and sat down. It was a pleasant flight. John didn't say much the whole trip up. Interestingly, we left at 7:30 and arrived at 7:30. As we taxied and came to a stop on the tarmac, a limousine was there to pick us up. Nice, I thought, but as I stepped off the jet, I was immediately hit with a solid, thick blast of heat and humidity. My shirt was drenched in sweat before I even sat down in the vehicle. Whew! Never had I felt that much stifling weather in my life. No way could I live there.

When we got to the hotel, John promptly disappeared with powerful, pampering people awaiting him. "Go up to see Jeff," he told me, and he was gone.


I took the elevator up to Jeff's room and he greeted me at the door. "I'll be ready in a few minutes. Sit down and relax." As he was getting ready, he shouted from his room. "You want to eat? Get a Bloody Mary? Have you ever been here? No? You want to see Bourbon Street?" He emerged moments later. "C'mon, lets go."

I was almost afraid to step out the door because of the intense heat, but I did. No way was I going to fly up to New Orleans only to stay inside a building somewhere. We went to a restaurant and ate. Of course, we had to savor the flavors of The Big Easy. That included drinks, one for me, more for Jeff. I've never been into drinking early in the day, but heck, I was in the Jazz capital of the world! Voodoo! I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, but it was near the hotel and Bourbon Street and the front was all glass. "Keep your money, Dave. The company will pay," he said, as we finished and got up to leave.

The walk down Bourbon Street was very interesting. Bars and honky tonk joints were everywhere. More restaurants. I saw sensational sights. Wrought iron railings on second floor balconies. Ivy on brick walls. Alleys that just oozed romance and history. Not all was pleasant though. I saw hollow store-front windows where, when the sun goes down, women - and men that look like women - ply their seedy goods. The streets and buildings reeked of the filth from the night before; booze, sweat, puke, garbage, sex and cheap perfume. Shop employees were hosing down their entryways and washing the streets. The combination of aromas still wafts in my mind to this very day.

We worked our way through the French Quarter to St. Louis Cathedral. From there, we walked to the New Orleans Convention Center and, finally, air conditioning. By then, I needed a good shower, but the coolness dried me off and I was never a smelly sweater. The trade show was huge. John was already there when we approached the booth.

"How was your tour?" he asked.

"Great," I responded.

"Jeff told me he was going to show you around. The sign looks great. I've had a lot of nice compliments. I told everyone who asked that my artist is here today. You never know, Dave." Nope, you never know. After a while, I asked Jeff if there were any shops nearby to buy some souvenirs. I ended up walking down to the Riverfront Marketplace and saw the Mississippi River for the very first time.

When I returned, I met a very nice gentleman and we struck up a conversation. We walked around and around that trade show for what seemed like hours, talking about everything besides finances. After all, my lack of knowledge would have made me out to be quite inept had I tried to feign even a remote amount of authority on the subject. He was a nice man. I remember talking about his grandchildren and my field of art and design, but little else now. Every time we walked past John's booth, Jeff would give me an approving nod. Eventually, it was time to close up shop and return home, so I said goodbye and offered a firm handshake to my new found friend. Of course, he gave me his card. Some institution of some kind in New York. When I got back to the booth, Jeff asked me, "Dave! Do you know who you were talking to? I mean, do you have any idea who that man was?"

"No, but he was a really nice guy."

"He is, like, the gold guru of the world. He's almost as big as Greenspan. How did you manage to keep him going for so long? We're lucky to have a few minutes with a guy like him." Quite obviously, he was very impressed and so was John, because during the trip back, as he and Jeff spoke of business, finances and the people they rubbed elbows with, they included me. Imagine that, the people I was impressed with thought I was impressive. Oh, how I must have some knowledge or power to keep the company of such a powerful man. Not really.

"He probably got sick of talking business and I was like a breath of fresh air," I told them. "We had a very nice talk."

On the way home, the pilots switched roles. The pilot on the flight up was now the co-pilot. The twin engine jet, which sat about 10 or 12 people, came equipped with a bar. The co-pilot acted as a flight attendant and made the first few drinks for us.

"Hey, we're missing happy hour!" I blurted out.

"Hell," John replied, "you're having it right now on this jet." He was right, until the co-pilot came back from the cockpit and mumbled something in John's ear. "Take care of it."

We went on about our happy hour business until the co-pilot came back a second time. By then, we were half schnockered and didn't much care about what was going on up front.

"John," the co-pilot announced, "we have a serious problem. We've lost hydraulics. We can't maneuver the flaps. We can manually lower the wheels. That means we have a one shot chance of landing safely. When I tell you, you are going to have to brace yourselves for a crash landing." Oh, how exciting. He gave us the drill. I recall, a few months earlier, there was a commercial flight in California that went down, killing all on board, because the plane lost hydraulics. Great, I thought, no hydraulics. What a way to end the day.

One more for the road, we must have thought in unison as we scrambled to pour ourselves one final drink. "Let's make these extra strong if they're going to be our last," one of us blurted out.

Clink. We toasted to our health.

"OK," the co-pilot said firmly, "get rid of your drinks and brace yourselves." I'm not Catholic, but I watched John and Jeff do that sign of the cross thing across their chests as I tucked my head between my legs, arms folded tightly. There was a lot of soul searching and praying going on as we made our final descent. My ears were popping.

Suddenly, BOOM! We hit the ground hard and fast. The jet screamed to slow us down. When it came to a stop, we were all safe. Had I not known, I would have just thought it was a hard landing. John and Jeff both said they thought we were going to die. Clearly, they were shaken and stirred.

"It's not my day to die. It's not my day to die," I told them. "I knew we would be safe. I wasn't afraid. It's not my day."

I think we all kissed the ground when we got off that jet. Trust me, it was a sobering experience. Sobering enough that when John suggested we all meet at Harper's for more drinks, including the pilots, we agreed. Many of our friends were still there, oblivious to what we had just gone through, but our "jet set" sat together. We were bonded forever by that experience. All drinks were on John. Food, too, but none of us wanted to eat. The pilot who was shot down 13 times in Vietnam told me this was much scarier than any crash he had lived through. We only had that one shot. Later, Jeff told me if we had missed the airport, we would have crashed into houses on the other side of the highway, about a mile away. We owed our lives to those incredible guys in the cockpit.


Throughout the years, I've thought about that experience. Jeff and I always talked about it when we ran into each other. It became one of the repertoire of stories I'd tell friends and anyone else who wanted to hear. So did Jeff. In 2005, John passed away. I went to his funeral and it was the biggest one I've ever attended. Half of Winter Park was shut down. As I was leaving, I saw one of the pilots, but I was too far away to say something. The crowd was too large and vast to find him again. I wanted to say hello and ask him why he wasn't with his brother. They were always together and certainly for John's funeral. One day I saw his brother's picture in the newspaper. I'm sure he was too sick to attend back then. Now, he is gone.

There were five people on board that fateful flight home. Am I the only one left? Jeff and I will never have a chance to laugh about it again. He passed away on the 24th of May. What a great guy he was. I'd drink a toast to my old buddy, Jeff Schofield, but I won't. I don't want to because I really don't drink much anymore. Besides, it's the alcohol that finally got him. Sadly, the jet would have been less painful and a whole lot quicker, but it wasn't our day to die.

ADDENDUM: To read more on Jeff, an old friend has some very nice things to say, along with others who knew him that left comments on his blog. Please see: CRACKED WINDOW by Michael Bales.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

No Shi’ite! Greetings from Sunni Iraq!

My brother, Tim, is a major in the U.S. Air Force. He is now on his second tour of Iraq. We all waited, with extreme anticipation, to hear from him, that he made it safe and sound. He did, and that is a big time relief.

His trip in to his AOR (Area Of Responsibility - you just gotta love those military acronyms!) was what he described as “hellish.” The first legs on commercial jets were fine. It was only after he got on the C-130 transport plane that he got a bad case of dysentery. They were all crammed in like sardines in 100 degree heat with hot fuel exhaust coming in. They were all in full body armor, including helmets. By the way, there is no “private” bathroom, just a little curtain to draw. Coming in for the landing, the workhorse 130, as he called it, shot out flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles. When the plane landed, a generator malfunctioned and they were stuck on the tarmac. “As I glanced around at the [other] airmen on board, there was no doubt in my mind the courage that we all had,” he wrote, “but now, things are as normal as it can get and that’s okay.”

The next e-mail was called, Fog, but it’s not. “You should see it here. I awoke to what I thought was dense fog.” It was dust. “All around you has this strange orange hue. The dust sticks to your hair. My nostrils are thick with it.”

As he had stated during his first tour, the food is pretty incredible. He lunched on a whole boneless trout one day. There are 4 huge chow halls, each about half the size of a Wal-Mart. (Maybe, I should change the name to War-Mart.) All sorts of desserts abound (Dessert Storm?), cakes, pies and Baskin-Robbins sundae bars.

There are e-mails describing some of the not so pleasant things he is experiencing. In spite of being on a secure base, there is danger. I’m not going to explain most of the rather sad aspects of war where he is, but his job there is in communications. Actually, his official title is, Senior Communications Systems Project Manager/Engineer. He’s not out in the thick of it. In all likelihood, the odds of a hit are pretty slim. “It can happen but I’m not worried about it. We’re so busy that we don’t have time. We’re taught how to hit the ground when the alarm sounds so as to lower our hit probability.”

He sent me pictures. These might give you an idea on what life is like there.

Ol Bunkers

Aircraft Shelters

Army Helo Ramp

C-17 Ramp

C-130 Landing


F-16 Landing Roll

As was in the past, I asked for clearance from him to write and show images. Obviously, he approved. Here is a picture of him, taken during a massive dust storm. I have a good close-up shot, but I’m not sure I want to publish it here.

Tim in Dust Storm

As I said, he eats well. An e-mail from him talked more about some of his meals. “I just got back from the chow hall where I dined on a think slice of prime rib and half of a Cornish hen. I even had some horseradish sauce with the roast. I finished it off with some praline ice cream with some caramel sauce.

For lunch (check this out!) I musta had 50 bucks worth of split crab legs. I didn’t even have to split them! Course, I had to dip them in butter. So, I guess the food is pretty darned good. The other nite I had chocolate marble cheescake. One nite last week I had New York style cheesecake which was phenominal. They have Indian nite, Italian night, Mongolian BBQ nite, steak nite, and prime rib night. The BBQ ribs are smoked and fall off the bone. Of course, they don’t come close to mine but when mortars are shot at you they’re not bad.

With all that, I managed to lose an inch off my waist in just two weeks. I only indulge every once in a while. I even had two Becks beer with my prime rib tonight. It’s an excellent near-beer…much more flavorful than the American stuff. You can drink all you want of that stuff. Today it was 105 and that beer sure did tast swell.

Anyway, I’m off to do some more work…14 hours a day but I’m not complaining.”

Here is the latest image he sent me. He calls it, “his ride.”

Tim\'s Ride

The temps have been 110 lately. This morning we’re getting a break…79 degrees! I went for my morning run and got a lot of sleep last nite, which I needed. I feel pretty good this am.

They have these incredible French toast stick that are deep fried and sprinkled with sugar. They have a slight cinnamon taste. We refer them as ‘crack sticks’ because they are so good. I hope they run out of them soon.

Welp, that’s all for now folks.”