Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Filtered By Time...a book worth reading

My cousin, Robert Faulkender, served two tours in Vietnam.

One evening in the mid-1990s I was sitting in his living room, near Atlanta, and happened to mention a television project I had worked on that aired on the CBS network.

The letters “CBS” was the last thing Bob heard me say before his gaze drifted off into space and he disconnected from the conversation.

As I continued my comments to his wife, Luanne, Bob sat next to her on the sofa, distracted and glowering. A moment later he muttered something, “Those sons of bitches.”

Luanne nodded toward her husband and said, “Bob won’t watch CBS. Don’t even mention it or you’ll get him started.”

“You got that right,” he said. “Those little piss-ants came down to our district to do some filming. I led them around the Village and showed them what was going on. I answered their questions and filled them in on what we were trying to accomplish…And then they went back to New York and lied.”

Luanne put her hand on Bob’s knee. “Calm down. There’s no reason to let yourself get worked up about it now.”

“There were five of us assigned to that district. We had a bottle with a little brandy in it and a few cigars that we saved for occasions. They smoked our cigars and drank up our liquor and then lied about us.”

That was the evening that Bob Faulkender told me that “someday” he was going to write a book that told the real story of Vietnam.

Well, “someday” has arrived.

His book, Filtered By Time, just came out. And while Bob Faulkender is neither the first guy to be lied about in the news, nor the last, he is one of the few who have attempted to set the record straight. And, doggone, he did a fine job of it. I work in a bookstore. I read more than most people, and I got into this and couldn’t put it down.

Filtered By Time is the true account of Robert Faulkender’s first tour of duty in 1964, when he went over as part of the Kennedy “adviser” program. This was about a year before all hell broke loose. He doesn’t attempt to write the complete word on the Vietnam War. But, in terms of a focused, narrow look at a specific slice of that war, it succeeds fully. It is the record of five American soldiers sent to Vung Liem, Vietnam, to organize the locals and in the midst of a guerrilla war. I had a blast reading it only partly because I’m related to the guy who wrote it and there is some pride involved.

In real life Robert Faulkender, Lt. Colonel, retired, has done more things than ten other people put together; hitch hiking around the country in the early 1950s, The US Military Academy class of ‘57, hiking in the Rockies, Ranger School, Vietnam, assignments with foreign governments, tossed into an Afghan jail, world figures, beautiful women, exotic locales… You name it. Put your finger on any spot of the globe. If he hasn’t been there, he’s been close by. I remember my Mother trying to get me to study harder in Spanish class by telling me, “Bobby Faulkender can speak six other languages. You ought to be able to handle just one.”

On top of everything else, Bob is a terrific story teller. Raconteur, I believe, is the 50 cent word. Reading Filtered By Time is like sitting across a table listening to him spin yarns over after dinner drinks. The book is by turns, exciting, funny, informative, and personally revealing.

In writing the book, Bob was advised not to use real names. Thus, Bob renamed himself in the book “Ed Skillman” in honor of our grandfather, Spanish-American War vet and real-life Texas cowboy. Other than that the author’s notes clearly state “The Vietnam events in this book actually occurred.”

While some sequences have the feel of a detached reporting of events, others are very suspenseful or wryly humorous, told with a practiced story-teller's charm. The sketches of people were truly impressive, by far my favorite aspect of the book. They form a warmly human parade of beautifully drawn faces. We meet the province “chief”, an old man who at first seems no match for the Viet Cong, but as the story continues we begin to see from his perspective and he emerges as a crafty old fox. We meet an Indiana farm girl, working for the Department of Agriculture. She’s a handsome, confident young woman who has learned, maybe the hard way, to guard her heart. We meet a trained VC assassin, cut down to size, captured by the local militia and now scared to death. We meet a middle aged German-born US soldier who is using his leave to journey to a small village to look for the young Vietnamese girl he has fallen in love with. We meet American diplomats and bureaucrats, some serious and dedicated, some just putting in their time. And everywhere there are flocks of children. All are memorable people well portrayed.

Strangely, the descriptions of most of the other guys in the unit seem a little too surface by comparison. We get to know them, "K.C." in particular, but not too closely. I got the feeling that Captain Skillman was operating on a different awareness level than the others. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not.

The picture of how the War was being fought at that period of time is interesting. For instance, following a shoot out, we learn that a near-by three-man South Vietnamese guard tower is equipped with only one rifle. One of the other guards carried a sword in case he needed it, but that’s it. I will not spoil Bob’s story by telling you the job of the third guard. He definitely had a job, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it was, and it was a doozy.

Then there is the dark side, the Big Questions that after a while begins to nag in the back of his mind: Is the US government truly committed to winning? Are the American citizens supportive? What he sees and what he hears from official channels does not make him comfortable.

Filtered By Time
is not an action-hero book. There are fire fights and tense scenes regarding an assassin or guerilla attacks, but there are no Hollywood action scenes. At one point Captain Skillman hits a landmine that puts him in a military hospital in the Philippines for a month. I remember when that incident happened and the concerns of my parents for Bob. This book is about real men in a real place getting shot at with real bullets. They are doing a job that ultimately turns out to be thankless. This is not “Rambo”. To the contrary, there is a surprising amount of “nation building” involved; new schools, new market place, improved roads, functioning medical facility, and the like. Bob displays a surprising amount of zeal in guiding this. And, he offers an interesting commentary on that, too, later in the book. Along the way he ponders “productivity”, “capitalism” and “self-help”, and “street-gang politics”.

Something else, too: the book has a strong sub-text. In its pages we see notes from a lab-test on social structure and human nature in the raw. What happens in a community when people no longer can count on their own government to protect them from violence? In what ways do bribery and corruption at the national level affect things locally? How can young men be induced to join a force that is fighting against their own families and their own people? Is individual freedom necessary in order for the common people to achieve prosperity?

Filtered By Time
is a good read and offers a lot to ponder.

One more thing: the CBS News team that started this whole project? That incident is given throw-away treatment, less than a page. After the build-up I was sure Bob would bang on those guys with a vengeance, but he didn’t. He didn't even mention the brandy.

To order a copy of Filtered By Time, you'll find it available directly from iUniverse at 1-800-Authors. Use ISBN #978-0-595-52888-2 or at by clicking here:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Goodbye, Kodachrome

It has happened more times than any of us can count: An artist, a writer, an inventor or some individual who has made significant contributions to a particular field lives beyond his creative prime and dies in obscurity.

It’s a familiar story: After a particular Creative Genius has given what he had to give, the world moves on without him. After a while his original achievements are taken for granted, maybe even denigrated as “passĂ©”. Forgotten, his passing is little noticed and less mourned.

But then…with enough time and under the right conditions the true worth of the former Creative Genius is rediscovered. There is collective delight among the public. Wonderment is followed by curiosity: “Look at what fresh, enduring work that was, and so long ago.” “Why was this Creative Genius ignored and forgotten when his work displays such obvious merit?”

This phenomenon is happening again, only this time not in regard to a particular artist, but a specific technical medium.

On June 22nd, 2009 Eastman Kodak Co. announced it was ending production of its Kodachrome film.

Casual photographers and even most professionals will take little notice. According to The Wall Street Journal, for the last few years Kodachrome has accounted for less than 1% of Kodak's diminishing film sales. Photography has gone digital to a greater degree and faster than many thought likely. Eastman Kodak executives themselves believed digital photography was a toy and failed to get involved with it until it was almost too late.

Most people are delighted with digital pictures. Recent developments in the medium have been truly impressive. But before we wave goodbye to Kodachrome we need to consider not what made it a great film in the past, but rather why it will be relevant in the future.

Kodachrome was introduced in 1935 as the first practical color film. Before that, all was black & white – or costly and complicated color that required a special camera.

Kodachrome not only solved the color problem, it did so spectacularly. Even the earliest versions of the film are renowned for vibrant color and image sharpness. It was incredibly precise and accurate. In fact, the film was limited only by the shooting equipment and the talents of the photographer. Improve your skills and use better lenses, was the only way to improve results. In terms of what you put in your camera, Kodachrome delivered the goods.

Through most of the 20th century Kodachrome was the color film of choice partly because there wasn’t much choice. There were early versions of Ektachrome. Agfa, Fuji, Dufay and some others came out with different color films. But the results, though less expensive, were clearly inferior.

No matter what kind of color film is used, Kodachrome offers a single unique characteristic that is only now being appreciated, and will be valued even more with the passing of time: It produces images that are nearly permanent. As long as the film itself is not destroyed the picture will remain.

A box of Kodachrome slides kept in the bottom of a drawer or the back of a closet will be as crisp and vibrant one hundred years from now as the day it was shot. Kept under archival conditions of controlled temperature and humidity it is said to be stable for 500 years. Maybe more.

Our visual impression of the world before the invention of photography is based solely on paintings, drawings, stone carvings and written descriptions. But with Kodachrome, there it is; the world in full color, going back to 1935.

Think of it. One hundred, two hundred, or five hundred years from now someone can open a box of Kodachrome slides and hold them up to a light and see a perfect image of Pop and Uncle Harold standing around the backyard grill; a ‘53 Pontiac is parked in the driveway. They can see Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower, rumpled, meeting after D-Day. Or they can look down a neighborhood street in St. Paul, Minnesota and see exactly what it looked like in the mid-20th century. These pictures are largely snapshots of people, places and things, not spiffed up for a photograph, but presented informally as they truly were. They are detailed documentary proof of a civilization as it once existed.

My point here is to suggest that this is an occasion of reflection. If you have a few Kodachrome slides somewhere, they’re likely in fine shape. Go ahead and take a peek just to refresh your memory.

For the next five centuries the world will retain this bright 75 year-wide window into the 20th and very early 21st century. People centuries from now will be able to look back through it and see us as we really were.

We are now in an era when the record of what goes on around us is entirely electronic. This is good in terms of instant communications, as the pictures coming out of Iran attest. But what the digital age offers in terms of speed and convenience, it takes away in the form of permanence and durability. Within a generation most of what is digitally shot today will be gone, either erased or irretrievable. This is a tragic bargain.

Sure, photographic records will exist in the Ivory Tower, at some level of officialdom. But “We the people” will have lost the means of preserving the image of who we really are. No more views will be preserved of every day lives, of the changing backyards, of families, living rooms or streetscapes of America. They may be here today, but they’ll be gone soon enough.

Happily, Kodak has made major improvements in their newer Ektachrome films. In terms of visual quality they rival, and in some ways surpass Kodachrome, but in terms of permanence there is still work to be done. I have heard that new Ektachrome stocks are now much less prone to fading as they once were. Supposedly they can last for nearly a century. That’s better than nothing. But, I believe that somewhere down the road, well before the year 2500, we will miss the long timeline of Kodachrome.

Some day in a future archive someone will look up from a light table full of slides and marvel, “Wasn’t that a terrific medium of record they had back then? I wonder why they threw it away.”

Friday, June 12, 2009

Questions in Silicon Valley?

Following links through Instapundit this morning I found an essay by
Michael S. Malone. It describes how Silicon Valley was an early, effective and cash-rich supporter of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Malone's essay shows what can happen when the relationship between business and government gets too cozy. Around Chicago and in the State of Illinois it's called "friends helping friends".

It's also called "paying for protection".

Go ahead and take a few minutes to read the article.

It isn't until about halfway down into the article that we learn what Silicon Valley Execs wanted in return for all this cash and support: Help from Washington in keeping a thumb on pesky competitors and start ups. They want some hassle for those young guys working out of their garages. Concerned, as I am, about the Chicagoification of national politics, that's the part that caught my attention.

Amazing things have come out of garages or basements -- the backrooms of bicycle shops, too. As it happens, just last week I made reference to the Wright Brothers.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Legislating In a Hurry

Remember those mechanical sandbox toys kids used to play with? Fill the container with sand and turn the crank. The sand is fed into little buckets on a conveyor belt which carries it up a track and dumps it into hopper, which in turn fills up and tips over to refill the container at the bottom where it is scooped again into the little buckets and the process begins again. This can go on and on and on until nap time. Nothing gets accomplished but there is kind of a perpetual motion feel to it, and probably a subtle life-lesson, too. ‘Round and around and around.

I get a similar feeling when I watch the political circus in the Chicago area. In our twenty-one years of living here I don’t think there was ever a time when there was not a major investigation going on, a trial under way, and some grafter awaiting sentencing. It just goes on and on and on like that sandbox toy. Get rid of one, here comes another.

Well, we have a new scandal in Chicago. It's not big as these things go, but it will serve to illustrate issues on a larger scale.

Here’s the deal: On December 2, 2008 Mayor Daley proposed granting a 75 year lease on all 36,000 Chicago City parking meters to a private firm, Chicago Parking Meters LLC, for $1.2 billion dollars. Chicago, like cities everywhere, is broke and this deal seemed like a quick fix. The parking meter company would pay the City in one lump sum, essentially cash, $1.2 billion smackeroos right there on the Treasurer’s desk. The Mayor was anxious to conclude the deal quickly.

City Council studied the matter for a whole two days, skipping over most of the confusing fine print, and on December 4th, by a vote of 40-5 approved the sale. The money showed up like a nice Christmas present. This year’s budget hole was covered and there was plenty left over for other pet-projects. Everybody was happy.

A late US Senator from Illinois, the economically conservative Everett Dirksen, once took a poke at government spending by famously saying “A billion here, and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

Senator Dirksen, how right you were.

Within weeks the new owners raised rates on their parking meters; $5-6 an hour in some locations. Complaints started pouring into City Hall. Before long bureaucrats and Aldermen started counting on their fingers and making pencil calculations on the back of envelopes. How much money could 36,000 parking meters generate, anyway? You can picture the beads of sweat on their foreheads when they started coming up with the answer: Lots.

Think of those parking meters as 36,000 sand-box toys that crank out cash, day after day. It turns out the $1.2 billion the City received was the short end of the deal. The “real money” is going elsewhere. Over the life of the lease those meters are worth an estimated 4-5 billion dollars. Likely more. And, it's easy money.

Chicago Parking Meters LLC is owned by Morgan Stanley in New York. Recently it was learned one of Mayor Daley’s nephews works there.

There have been calls to cancel the deal. Problem is the City of Chicago has already spent a lot of the money and can’t pay it back.

The Moral of the Story: This is what happens when legislators get in a hurry.

Friday, June 5, 2009

John H. Patterson, Industrial Genius - with a Flaw

Several responses to my first post on PlumwoodRoad came to my personal email. To those who sent them, Thank you. It was great to get the positive feedback.

Among the responses was one from Jack B. I copied and pasted it into the response box below.

Jack's note provoked a further thought on the subject of NCR and John H. Patterson. If someone could write a book about Patterson it seems like I ought to be able to write a couple posts about him.

Jack B. theorized that NCR did not adapt to the touch screen. He was amazingly close to the mark.

John H. Patterson was a great man and was so spot-on in much of his thinking. We all, living in Dayton, Ohio at that time, lived with the benefits of his vision. I believe I accurately portrayed that city as a little jewel of a place to live; prosperous, tidy, and populated with intelligent citizens who made new things happening all the time.

However, being human,John H. Patterson had personal foibles. Mostly this expressed itself in beneficial and interesting ways.

For example, Patterson believed in personal cleanliness and had showers with state-of-the-art plumbing installed in the factory. Every employee was required to shower weekly on company time. This was the late 19th / early 20th century, remember, so the old punch-line "whether he needed it or not" might really fit the situation. Patterson also was an early health-food advocate; is said that no bread and butter was served in the executive dining room. He was also an early advocate of exercise, and built the giant employees-only Old River Park.

He viewed management and labor as a team and he was the captain. He openly solicited opinions on how to improve product or operations from every employee via the innovation of the Suggestion Box.

However, Patterson had an ego that could get out of controll. It was a single outburst of this ego that hurt the team, many years later.

For a period of time his vice-president was a man named Thomas Watson. Watson was fascinated by the possibilities presented by electrifying the cash register. The old machines had a hand crank on the side to advance the register tape. Watson pushed the company to build a model that had an electric motor.

I got this story from my Father, who at one time sold for NCR and was fascinated by the lore of the company. Patterson and Watson clashed over the direction to take the company and at some point this turned into personal animosity and Patterson fired him, and the way he fired him made news. Watson showed up for work one day and found his desk and belongings on the sidewalk in front executive building.

As a kid living in the neighborhood we walked by the building many times and Pop would tell the story and point to a spot in front of the main entrance and say "Right there". It made an impression on this little kid's mind. I could see a wooden desk, a chair and a waste basket sitting there on the broad sidewalk next to the curb.

John H. Patterson may have thought he settled the matter but he didn't. For quite a while, his vision of the company prevailed. Long term he made a mistake. It didn't hurt him, or his company right away. But the mistake eventually returned to bite NCR.

A good man will eventually find work somewhere, and Thomas Watson found work with a small time competitor of NCR, International Business Machine, IBM. Watson led his new company full-tilt into research into electrical machines. In the old Machine-Age, IBM was a minor player, but eventually IBM developed the punch card system. Then, during World War II they built the first working computer for the Navy. This computer was so massive it filled an entire room. Everybody knows how things turned out after that.

Long after Patterson and Watson were both gone, it was the direction that Watson led IBM that prevailed and knocked NCR off its perch.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

NCR to Leave Dayton, Ohio

I was raised in Dayton, Ohio. I left when I went to college years ago and haven't lived there since. But, everybody’s got a home and Dayton is mine.
Factory closings are in the news again, with another wave of suspended operations washing over the country. But, that's not news in Dayton. The lights have been going out there, one by one, for years. But today is special. It is one for the history books.
Several emails came in this morning from fellow former Daytonians giving me the news that The National Cash Register Co., NCR, long the jewel in Dayton's industrial crown, will be moving what's left of it's operation to a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. At least they're staying in the United States.

When I say the words "Dayton, Ohio", even now, I see leaf-shaded streets with brick or frame homes, parks with kids running in them, churches with the sound of the pipe organ and singing drifting out the open windows. I see a clean, prosperous small industrial city filled with humming factories and busy enterprises. It is a pleasant summer day with the cicadas singing away in the treetops and there's nothing but blue skies clear out to the horizon.

For four years, in the early 1950s, our family lived on Plumwood Road, the first residential street south of the NCR main factory. Common opinion would tell you that having a large factory a only block away would be unpleasant. Not in the least. It was a wonderful neighborhood and NCR was a great neighbor.

The man responsible for building The National Cash Register Co. was John H. Patterson. He built it and shaped it according to his vision until his death in 1922.

No, he didn't invent the cash register. The inventor was a Dayton saloon keeper named James Ritty. Ritty's device was little more than an accounting device. It didn't even have a cash drawer in it. But Patterson recognized that the machine had applications far beyond keeping tally of the number of beers sold. He saw a potential to expand the way Americans do business. And he was right. Patterson took over the company in the mid 1880s and began improving the machines. He built NCR into a massive enterprise. Through most of the last century, even when paying for a pack of gum or cup of coffee, the customer heard a cash register bell at the end of every purchase. The cash register and the simplifications in accounting and book keeping it introduced, allowed for the development of the entire retail business system. It was the hammer and saw of the trade.

John H. Patterson was both a tough-as-nails businessman and something of an capitalist visionary. His concept of Utopia was the polar opposite of that of Karl Marx. Instead of all good coming from The State, in Patterson's view all earthly good comes from commerce and industry.

"A man ought not be employed at a task that a machine can perform," he said. Industrial Capitalism was the way out of the mud. Living in Dayton, even long after his death, we still heard Patterson quoted frequently.

Patterson spoke on behalf of and worked hard to make Dayton a "model city", a city of the future. At least for a few decades he succeeded. I don't think I'm putting too much of a rosy-glow on my memory to say that when I was a kid it was a pretty swell place to be.

The NCR factory was a direct expression of Patterson's thinking.

The buildings, and there are still a couple standing if you happen to be passing through and want to take a look, were architecturally striking in appearance. Until the late 1970s there were acres of them. They were of yellow brick and had giant pained windows that let in lots of natural light and in hot weather they could be opened to let the breezes in. The place had the feel of a college campus; planted with neat lawns, and mature ginkgo trees. Ivy grew on some of the walls. Everything was spotless.
And, if you happen to stop by, take a look at the neigborhood, too. Imagine Plumwood Road filled with kids, the post-War baby boom going full blast. It looks like a nice place to live, doesn't it.

In those years NCR employed over 20,000 people working three shifts. That is a lot of business. Multiply that by the half-dozen other major factories around the city, as well as many mid-size or smaller industrial shops, and you get a measure of Dayton's prosperity at that time.

A book could be written about the Dayton, Ohio of my boyhood and of the years prior, and a serious case could be made that despite it's relative small size Dayton represented a pinnacle of American industry and innovation.

The cash register was not the only thing designed and built in Dayton. Literally hundreds of other creative works came out of that city, things that shaped the world and gave form to the 20th century: the refrigerator and early air-conditioning, the automotive ignition system, the LCD, the pull top can -- and the single greatest invention of the 20th century, the airplane. It took the Wright Brothers five years from scratch, working evenings and weekends in the back of their bicycle shop, to solve the problem of flight. Now, answer this: How does a city, or a nation, grow people who do things like this?

From the mid 19th century and through most of the 20th the business and creative climate in Dayton must have been ideal, so much of what we Americans took for granted was produced there. The place was full of educated, clever, hard-working people. If they weren't born there they moved there. It drew them like a magnet. These were people who could dream up new things to build and then staff the factories and make sure the job got done right.

But times have changed. The business climate in Dayton has packed up and gone elsewhere, likely driven out of town by a combination of forces. And along with it went a lot of those clever, hard-working people.

And now one of Dayton's premier businesses, a shell of it's former self, is leaving town, too.

A corporation is a legally created "body"; a work drawn up by lawyers and given life on paper. A corporation can earn a profit, pay taxes, grow fat in good times, suffer in lean times, and like a human employee, it can pack up it's bags and move to greener pastures.

A couple months ago, while visiting in Dayton, I ran across a quote of Patterson's that I thought applicable to our national situation and I wrote it down. It works in this situation, too, in a way:

"An executive is a person who decides. Sometimes he decides correctly, but he always decides."

Somehow, I don't think the old fellow would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the corporation he built had decided to move. He'd probably be wondering what took so long.