In Memory of Senator Robert Kennedy, 50 Years On

By Hank Boerner

The awful memories are awakened…again.

The call came at 3:00 a.m. from my close friend and colleague at American Airlines, the late Harry Parson. I was awakened and stumbled to the phone at that wee hour in New York City in June of that fateful year, 1968.

It was very sad news he had to share: U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the California Democratic Party nomination for his candidacy for the presidency and was celebrating with the 2,000 supporters in the hotel’s Embassy Room.

The senator was just 48 years old. His older brother, President of the United States John F. Kennedy, was tragically slain in Dallas, Texas just five years earlier (in November 1963). The slaying of JFK cast a dark pall over the United States in the months that followed.

Now it was 1968 and more sad news.

A 23-year old Palestinian born in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and now working in the hotel kitchen in California used a .22 caliber pistol to shoot the senator several times in the head and wounded five others. That man, Sirhan Sirhan, sits in jail today.
The wound caused grievous damage to Senator Kennedy’s brain. There was no coming back.

As the senator lay on the hotel kitchen floor, one of his close friends, Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier pried the gun out of Sirhan’s grip. Rosey was a football great, a huge tackle for the Los Angeles Rams football club. Rosey and Olympian champion Rafer Johnson held the gunman down.

Senator Kennedy’s wife, Ethyl, mother to their 10 children, was with her husband. (Another child was on the way – a daughter. Rory Elizabeth, was born in December, after his death. She is a well-regarded documentary filmmaker, including Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Last Days in Vietnam.)

A devout man, he was given the Roman Catholic Church last rites and rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital where a team of surgeons worked on him for several hours. He passed in the intensive care unit a day later (at 1:44 a.m., June 6, 1968).

The media reported that night the third Kennedy brother – the youngest, Senator Teddy – was at the LAX airport and being rushed to the hospital.

The American Nation Grieved

The grief felt on his passing wide deep and wide. I stood on Fifth Avenue at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the funeral. I remember looking up at tall buildings all around and wondering if perhaps there was a shooter that would target one or more of the dignitaries outside of the massive church.

So much was unknown about the killing of the senator. And his brother, the president, was shot at a distance from a tall building in Dallas.

I returned home and watched TV in silence and sadness, as the days’ events were reviewed again and again. The train carrying the senator casket moved slowly from New York City through New Jersey, Philadelphia, Maryland, into Washington DC.

Two million people lined the route to pay respects and say goodbye. His 14 year old son Robert, Jr. moved through the train thanking people for being there and helping the family to cope with the loss.

Back in 1964, as a young reporter, I covered the former attorney general when he ran for office in New York State (he was not a resident, which caused some issues). He challenged popular, long-time Senator Kenneth Keating (Republican) and won.

He became a prominent advocate on key societal issues, including ending the war in Vietnam, human rights issues, ending poverty, addressing the needs of African-Americans and minorities, labor rights issues, and other social justice concerns.

I had numerous interactions with Senator Kennedy over the following years. In 1967 he intervened to help the  Stony Brook NY Jaycees and me bring a 13 year old Montagnard to America for education. When I explained the situation, Senator Kennedy had to threaten the reluctant South Vietnamese government to let the boy come to our country – and he did that with great vigor.

That boy from the Highlands of Vietnam got to the U.S.A., got his education and today is a social counselor in Rhode Island – he is my friend, Ha Kin Lieng.

Senator Kennedy took on tough issues that were at that time – and some, still boiling in this country – such as racial discrimination, inequality, conditions in inner cities and in Appalachia, immigration, the war in Southeast Asia.

The roots of the events of 1968 are again in focus with the 50 year point reached (1968-2018). The killing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy set the course for riots in many inner cities that year, a tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago, escalation of the war in Asia, draft protests, campus takeovers by students…and in November, the election of the right-leaning “law and order” candidate, Richard M. Nixon.

Four years later, during the 1972 campaign, D.J.R. Bruckner, writing in The Los Angeles Times, would comment on January 6, 1972:     “…what is gone [now] is the popular passion for [dealing with] issues. Possibly, hope is gone. The failure of hope would be a terrible event; blacks have never been cynical about America. But conversations you hear among the young now, suggests the birth of a new cynicism.

“…you might expect young blacks to lose hope in the power elite, but this is different. A cold, personal indifference, a separation of man from man. What you hear and see is not rage, but injury, a withering of expectations…” (Bruckner was a columnist and social critic; he was on the list of President Nixon’s “enemies”.)

The Vietnam war would drag on until the last of the U.S. troops left the field in March 1973, five years after Senator Kennedy raised the issue of American involvement. Two years after that, South Vietnam would fall to the Northern communists, to become today’s “one nation”.

There has been much speculation about “what if” Robert Kennedy had become president in 1969.

Would the war have ended sooner, saving the lives of many young Americans? Would the nation have veered right socially and politically?

Would he have defeated Richard Nixon in November 1968? (The nation would have avoided Watergate and the fallout from that scandal and the diminishing trust in government.)

The Watergate scandal and Nixon resignation led to election of Governor Jimmy Carter to the presidency. With Bobby in the White House would we have seen turmoil in the Middle East (including the fall of Iran) and perhaps a lasting peace in the Holy Land? (Bobby was a tough negotiator.)

Perhaps…the civil upheaval in the U.S.A. that we see today might have followed a different course.

We can only wonder. But today, we should say a prayer in remembrance of a peacemaker, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He is missed.  He made a difference. One day another man or woman will be inspired by his example and take up the torch for social justice as Bobby did.  He or she may be among us right now.

Remembering Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Her Rich Legacy

by Hank Boerner – March 1, 2018

As we watched the news of the tragic events at the high school in Broward County in South Florida, I wondered how many of us connected the oft-mentioned name of the high school with the woman – and her legacy – behind the institution’s name.

It’s a wonderful story to share with you: Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a valiant and heroic pioneer in so many ways on so many environmental and social issues.

She moved to Florida in 1915 from her early roots in Minnesota and New England (she was a Wellesley College grad) when the Sunshine State was in so many ways actually really a very new state. (Miami on her arrival had but several thousand residents and was a pioneer settlement).

Shortly after WW I ended there was a land boom in South Florida, with the Miami area coming alive with entrepreneurial and land and community development activity.

Some pieces of Miami land changed hands 10 times with the owner not even seeing the property “they owned.” The Miami Herald – her father was the founder and publisher — carried more classified advertising (buy my real estate!) than any other American newspaper at that time.

Marjory was born in 1890 and died in 1998 – her life spanned almost all of the 20th Century. She was an accomplished newspaper (The Herald) and magazine journalist, a tireless author and playwright and inspiration for female writers; an advocate for women, for civil rights, for human rights, for public health; a fighters for social justice; and a conservation leader who defended the previous Everglades eco-system for much of her life.

She moved to Miami – the new frontier of the American Atlantic coast in the early years of the 20th Century – and wrote for the city’s signature newspaper. She also wrote many short stories about this and that, for national magazines, and a run of good books. And then, in a defining moment in her life, she was invited by the Rinehart & Co. book publishing firm to contribute to the landmark series, “Rivers in America.”

(The 65 books in the series began appearing in 1937 and continued to 1974, with three publishers helming the efforts of local writers providing essays about their local rivers and the communities surrounding them.)

The editors asked her to write about the Miami River, which was not really a river at all, she cheerfully responded.

But then she began to research the ‘Glades” and there focused on the broad “wet” plains and the Biscayne Aquifer, giant Lake Okeechobee, and the role of the Kissimmee River in the fabled Everglades. The water was of the great stretch of wetlands was…well… moving…like a river.

The ‘Glades — not quite a river there, she explained to her readers, at least not like the Rio Grande or the Hudson or the Missouri and Mississippi – but it could be seen as a river of grass.

The result of her years of extensive exploration and research and working with naturalists and conservationists was her 1947 work, “The Everglades: River of Grass”.

She observed that the water did move, ever so slowly, shaping everything around it. That work awakened her interest in things conservation and environmental.

The Everglades was not just some, well, “swamp” – but a very important and vast and vital eco-system.

Graphics:  Wikipedia Commons

The Rivers series was very successful for the publishing house. I have copies of some of the book here on my bookshelf. Including River of Grass. Which has sold more than a half-million copies in the 70 years since first appearing in book stores. It is often compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in terms of impact and influence and awakening of the public conscience.

Marjory fought for many years to preserve and protect that eco-system and much of South Florida.

Woe be to the “official” who stood in her way! She became known in the state as the “Grande Dame of the Everglades,” and a string of governors and other elected officials came into her crosshairs — and eventually under her sway.

I had the privilege to see Ms. Stoneman Douglas in action in Florida on several occasions. She appeared quite tiny and frail in her later days. But then she began to speak…and the sparks would fly! Her tiny voice was a megaphone for protection of the environment in Florida!

When I was an editor and publisher of Florida newsletters, magazines and management briefs, I constantly monitored the activities of the great lady, and came to appreciate the many achievements of her lifetime and way beyond (in the beneficial impacts on society today).

Today, thanks to her efforts, the Everglades National Park is a reality, saved from the relentless expansion and growth of developed areas for which Florida is nationally-known. Open space? Pave it over!

The area is also designated as a Wetland of International Significance and an International Biosphere Preserve.

We can all enjoy the Big Cypress area of the ‘Glades thanks to Marjory. Lake Okeechobee is still threatened by industrial activities but it is in much better shape than it would have been had she not joined the battle to push back on the flow of fertilizers, wastes into the lake, and other impacts that threatened this precious natural resource that helps to define Florida.

Well-Intended But In Turns Out, Boneheaded

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late-1930s and into the 1940s made a number of bone-headed decisions for “improving” the Kissimmee River flow and the effects on the Everglades. A series of floods had caused damage to newly-developed and agricultural areas, and the rising complaints by the increasing population moved government officials to “action”.

The river was “straightened out” in the 1940s and 1950s for much of it meandering course – with disastrous results. The little river flows from Lake Kissimmee, from close by to the well-visited Orlando area resorts, 100 miles south to the expanses of the Lake Okeechobee area through a wide and very flat floodplain.

This is home to a rich and wide variety of natural fauna and flora. In 1948, the Corps began building the “Central and South Florida Project” to move the river to a ditch, the C-38 Canal and installed water control facilities that…destroyed the natural river.

In 1992, the “reversal” began, restoring parts of the old natural river. The US Army Corps of Engineers splits the cost with the South Florida Water Management District – which Marjory helped to organize. (Known locally to some as “swiff-mud”.)

Marjory had strenuously pushed back on such modernization and “progress” — and won support for the restoration of the river; the project is still underway.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: The high school being named after her was in honor, we could say, of her quest for learning throughout all of her life. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Building in the state capital (Tallahassee) is home to the offices of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

In her lifetime she was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom – by President Bill Clinton (1993). England’s Queen Elizabeth paid her a visit. The National Wildlife Federation Hall of Fame inducted her, as did the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

When she passed in 1998 – 20 years ago at the age of 108! – President Clinton said: “Long before there was an Earth Day, Mrs. Douglas was a passionate steward or our nation’s natural resources and particularly her Florida Everglades.”

The Hall of Fame said of her book: “Her best-seller raised America’s consciousness and transformed the Florida Everglades from an area that was looked upon as a useless swamp – to be drained and developed commercially – to a national park that is seen as a valuable resource to be protected and preserved.”

And as we all know now, the scene of the February 2018 Parkland high school shooting tragedy took place at the high school named after her in 1990, during her lifetime.

Upon her passing her ashes were made part of the land – dust-returning-to-dust, to become part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area of the Everglades National Park.

And now you know more about the great lady of that name, who was a powerful voice that would very much at home in today’s sustainability movement!

She would be railing (I could picture her doing so) about global warming and the rising seas. She experienced the devastation hurricanes that ripped through South Florida in the 1920s and worried about her little house in Coconut Grove – that might be underwater at some point in the 21st Century (the restored house is a National Historic Landmark).

Her advice (according to a biographer, Mary Jo Breton in 1998): “Be a nuisance where it counts, but don’t be a bore at any time. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed (and she was at times in her life), discouraged and disappointed at failure but the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics – but never give up.”

# # #

To learn more about this extraordinary woman and fighter for our environment, see the well done profile on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marjory_Stoneman_Douglas

About her work, “The Everglades: River of Grass”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Everglades:_River_of_Grass

About The Kissimmee River restoration project: http://www.ces.fau.edu/riverwoods/kissimmee.php

Mr. V – The Mysterious Pilot – For Your Distraction & Entertainment

March 7, 2017

A story as told to Hank Boerner

The daily news and tweets got you down?  Here’s some light stuff for you.  May or may not be fake news.  Do Stay Tuned – to Mr. V. the Mysterious Pilot…

by Hank Boerner

Back in the day, when I was a young pilot and aviation journalist, I met Mr-V-the-Mysterious-Pilot. In this era of fake news (2017), which is the taking of tiny facts and factoids and made up stuff and then weaving distortion around these, and sharing with other babbling idiots on the social media networks…well,. you may or may not believe the story I about to tell you.

This was 50 years ago, when all-things-aviation were the grist of hot news stories, print and broadcast features, many columns (like mine that ran in various print media), and most enjoyable, “hangar-flying.”

That’s when the weather was too risky to fly and so private and commercial pilots would gather ’round in the hangar and radio shack and swap tales.  Fake news?  Maybe.  Exaggerated experiences?  Par for the course.

In my continuous rounds of large and small airline offices, commercial & private aviation offices, hangars-upon-hangars at airfields-upon-airfields, I met a lot of interesting characters.

Some were world famous: the courageous General Jimmy Doolittle, who led the 1942 raid on Tokyo; Roscoe Turner, the 1930s pilot who flew with a lion cub in the cockpit. Women who were buddies of disappeared flyer Amelia Earhart; Mrs. Charles Lindbergh (herself a pilot, navigator and great author); astronaut Jim Irwin; the fabulous pilot “Jeeb Halaby, US Navy, former CEO of Pan Am and my partner in aviation business adventures, His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan, who flew me around in his helicopter over the Arabian Peninsula deserts; my flying buddy, Fearless Freddie Feldman, the WOR-Radio ttraffic and news pilot in New York City.

And VictorV-the-Mysterious-Pilot. This is his story. Shades of James Turber’s “Walter Mitty” character and his fantasies: Instead of the pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of the tiny engines of the old bi-wing aircraft, this evening at dusk there was the vrooom, vrooom, vrooooom of the single-engine aluminum craft, running up before take-off at the small, out-of-the-way airfield not far from the city-center.

The usual run of 800 feet down the runway to lift off was now three times that distance. Because Mr.-V’s fuel load was several times that of the normal capacity. (He had installed extra gas tanks where seats were previously bolted down, all around him!)

Later tonight he is flying off the radar and long, long way off, he tells me.

The planned flight will head out to the deep blue waters of the North Atlantic Ocean…and then east/southeast a bit aiming towards Bermuda. Refuel there and then on to the Canary Islands. And then…nearby Lisbon, Antwerp, and then…destination secret.

What is this? The fiftieth flight, I’m told, by Mr. V, flying across the Atlantic, and his last in this single-engine small airplane, he says. Too risky. Not as sure-footed, he explains, as the un-marked vintage bombers he’s been flying to distant civil wars, like the one (going on back then) in Angola, Africa. The long-time Portuguese colonizers were battling “freedom fighters,” who seemed to be battling each other.

Mr. V. had a kind of mittle-European accent, claimed to be British, or at least was born in the”British Isles”; had a patch over one eye; was always clad in a flying suit (sort of fancy with trim) with shiny jodhpur boots — or — sometimes he showed up in a dashing blue blazer with flying insignia.

And that traditional, lovely flying silk scarf. Looking somewhat at times like “Flying Jack” or perhaps Terry-and-the-Pirates (remember those comics strip of your youth?).

This particular1960s flight was to deliver the new (and very very small) single-engine aircraft made in America to some un-named purchaser in Eastern Europe. Or the Caucuses; or the Middle East…or Turkey….or…who knows where.

The bombers? Mr. V. said these are surplus World War Two aircraft of the U.S. Army Air Corps and later, the succesor US Air Force. Painted over (no insignia). Often decked out in gray or desert camouflage paint with darkened windows. Bomb bays still intact.  Radio gear and radar updated.  No machine guns (yet) pointing out of the windows.

Now, most trans-Atlantic flights of the day (this was still in the early years of jet airliners) were out of Idlewild / New York International — renamed Kennedy International after the assassination of the young President of the United States in 1963. There at JFK were located the weather briefing rooms, FAA offices to log your flights, radars, services, and so on. Mr. V’s flights avoided JFK.

He preferred little, out-of-the-way strips, preferably with unmarked hangars for flight preparation. That’s where I would usually meet him.

He would pilot neat little B-25 light bombers (twin engines, vrooom, vroooon); a B-26 every now and then; a C-46 (cargo version of the ubiquitous DC-3 on the 1940s); an aging DC-4 (four engine, very old airliner with piston engines); a more modern DC-6 four engine airliner…and more, many more types of aircraft civil and military. Cargo craft; seaplanes; passenger craft; bombers; fighter aircraft; private aircraft of all types.

An “amphibian” (capable of land or water landings) was taken to Norway. A small airliner flown out to the west coast of Africa. A light bomber winged its way to Formosa (Taiwan) over Pacific Ocean waters, with many island-hopping stops for fuel. Maybe, just maybe, some of the aircraft being readied for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Communist Cuba. Maybe.

Mr. V. claimed he was raised in the USA, joined the U.S. military after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, and during the war flew “everything” — fighters, bombers, transports. He held the “Air Transport Rating” of the USA — one of the toughest to win as a pilot. He said, anyway.

Who were the clients? These and those. Sometimes they were “airlines,” or ” new aircraft owners in Europe or Latin America” … And others..

Well, to me he always seemed to work in the shadows with periodic appearances in regal gear to swap stories and quietly boast of new adventures.  Real? Dunno.  Fake news?  I don’t think so.

These were mysterious times with mysterious combat going on here and there in the world.  The Cold War was on!

His mission often was down-to-earth (at the end of the flight) — supplying unmarked old bombers to un-named folks in both real and fantasized faraway countries. That were at war internally or with neighbors. Or with colonizers.  Or maybe getting ready to go to war. Or maybe they were very early terrorists.

One of these old bombers, Mr. V. told me when he was preparing it for that ocean flight (and I did see the real aircraft and sat in cockpit!), was stored for a long time at a secluded airport alongside a large factory in upstate New York where military aircraft were manufactured. A long time ago (remember, this was in the 1960s that I met him in hangar-flying bull sessions). How many were still there? A few. Many. Just enough to satisfy customer demand.  Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe they were not really there but somewhere else, like in the Southwest desert.

As I think back: So was Mr-V-the-Mysterious-Pilot “real?” That is, was he “real” in today’s era of fake news? Were his missions real? Dunno.

He shared little “proof” or evidence (beyond me seeing various aircraft about to fly off). And this was long, long before Google searching, when searching out such information would have been difficult.  I did not find anything on Mr. V. today in searching.  Just the facts here in my notebook.

I enjoyed his tall stories until…  One day, there was no more Mr. V. No one seemed to know where he had gone with the un-marked twin engine Mitchell B-25 light bomber with two engines and lots and lots of high-octane fuel — the last flight he prepared to go off to… as far as I know.

Maybe a spark over the deep ocean set off a catastrophe? Maybe he was captured at a jungle landing strip?  Crashed into the Pyrenees between Spain and France?

So there you have the story as I remember it, and from my notes of the day. Shades of Walter Mitty in his imaginary yellow WW I biplane…pocketa, pocketa, pocketa…

CAVU to you, Mr-V-the-Mysterious-Pilot. Clear skies and unlimited visibility, where ever you may be today.

And for you dear friends, I hoped you liked his story, and that it took your mind away from the unhinging and lunacy that’s descended on our capital city.