The Carlton Hotel Pastry Chef, Mariel Hemingway & the Wild WeaselsTuesday, October 23, 2018
In the kind of magazine journalism/photography milieu the I lived from 1977 to about five years ago I became an expert on some topics only after I had tackled them. I followed and photographed a Vancouver female rugby team for a month. I learned all about rugby and how to photograph it only after I had more or less failed miserably in my efforts.
But there is a loneliness and alienation that comes when you are passionate about a subject and the one person you could share that passion is dead.
At Indigo a few days before Christmas I purchased The Hunter Killers by Dan Hampton. The book is about “The extraordinary story of the first Wild Weasels, the band of maverick aviators who flew the most dangerous missions of the Vietnam war.”
I have the vivid memory of sitting down on a park bench in the summer of 1965 in the Buenos Aires zoo. I was in my Argentine Navy whites, facing my fave place, the tigers. In hand I had a copy of that week’s Time. One some weeks the government would prevent the magazine from appearing on newsstands.
I was reading about the Vietnam war. I was particularly interested in the American body count of Vietcong kills and knowing how many Migs the Phantom jets had shot down.
At age 21 I was a gung ho fan of military equipment and war. While I had never ever favoured the axis of WWII I loved the cut and the elegance of the SS uniforms especially their long leather coats.
The Argentine army conscript soldiers wore helmets identical to those of the Wehrmacht and my navy cap was virtually identical to that worn by the WWII German U-Boat sailors.
I remembered (fondly) seeing McDonnell F-101Voodoos from Austin’s Bergstrom Air Force Base fly over my boarding school, St. Edward’s High School, and knowing that new fngled air to air heat seeking missiles from them had flown directly into the tailpipes of (red Chinese) Migs during a confrontation near Matsu in the Taiwan Strait. I was a fan of the DC Comic Books Blackhawks, of Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates.
I was in the Argentine Navy but I liked to chew Bazooka. I guess I felt I was an American.
As my relationship with officers and non-commissioned officers in the Argentine Navy deteriorated and I spent time in the brig I began to lose my love for the military and came to the conclusion that the only truly universal brotherhood was shared by the military of all nations be they left or right.
And then things got worse in the beginning of June 1966. There were rumours of military coup to oust President Arturo Illía. In those days my sailor friends and I made fun of our superior officers who liked to “play soldiers” with obsolete weapons in a third-world country. But now we were worried. We were no longer one Dollar a month conscripts wasting two years of our lives. Here we whiffed the danger of possible death. We made plans how we were going to react to orders to shoot fellow conscript soldiers in the nearby Ministerio de Guerra.
In our basic training where we were taught to shoot early 20th century Mausers, American burp guns and .45 automatics we knew of the noise and the power of weapons. It was nothing like on films.
But nothing happened. There was a coup and Illía went home in a cab.
It was around that time that I began to lose my love for what I thought was patriotism and nationalism. The difference between an American flag and an Argentine flag was probably only in the quality of the material. To me they were glorified rags.
But I never lost my love, wonder and enthusiasm for fighter jets. With my friend, Sean Rossiter, Vancouver Magazine writer (specialized in architecture) and his political column in the magazine I shared that love for airplanes. We went to local airshows and especially to the ones on Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington State where we got thrills watching our fave A-6Intruders on the tarmac and flying.
Alas with Rossiter’s death a few years ago I have enjoyed Dan Hampton’s book immensely. But I have shared it with my memory of Rossiter in my head.
What makes this particular book which many might not want to read thinking it is overly specialized and technical (it is in some spots) is that it contains an Appendix that explains what lead to the US involvement in the Vietnam war. Who would have known that Ho Chi Minh was a fan of President Wilson and worked as a pastry chef in London’s Carlton Hotel. The book even has a short but succinct explanation on how and why the Bay of Pigs became such a fiasco.
And who would have known that Heminghway's daughter Mariel was named after the very town from whose bay the Soviet freighters Divininogorsk and the Metallurg Anosov left with 12 SS4 missiled aboard which ended the crisis.
The American air force on July 24 1965 (West of Hanoi on the Red River), were perhaps almost as unprepared as was the pilot (William Holden) in the 1954 film about the Korean War. Perhaps it was the lovely presence of Grace Kelly that made this film seem like war was futile and so sad.
How that air force and perhaps their counterparts in US Naval Aviation survived to live for another day (and many more but with great losses)) is the story behind this most interesting book.