Women Who Won the War

Liza Mundy “is an American journalist, non-fiction writer, and fellow at New America Foundation,” and she has deeply researched a matter that had to lie sealed for decades. She has abundantly put to light a crucial course of events from 75 years ago. Here is a book about some women, most of them quite young, who had a hand in shaping the world we know today. The book is aptly titled Code Girls, and it is as much about the coming of American women to  intellectual recognition as it is about the herculean task this country committed to the unraveling of enemy intelligence in the Second World War.

Much criticism has been levied against American lack or preparedness in the months leading up to our entry into the war, resoundingly brought to light by the disastrous defeat inflicted by forces of the Japanese Empire on 7 December 1941. All was not fumble-fingers, however. People in critical positions recognized the need for intelligence into Axis powers thinking and movements, and well before we committed to  hostilities, the groundwork was being laid that would bring ultimate victory.

The book touches on these early workings, reaching back to the time of the previous war and the American Black Chamber. Herbert O. Yardley was a humble clerk in a government communications bureau 100 years ago when he devised an organization whose work blossomed into America’s modern code breaking and cryptanalysis

The story of women’s involvement with defeating the enemy began in 1916 when a 23-year-old woman, Elizebeth Smith went looking for a job. And, yes, that is the correct spelling of her first name. By one of those quirks of circumstance that shape the universe, she encountered an eccentric Illinois industrialist named George Fabyan.

As luck would have it, there was. It wasn’t at the Newberry, but rather at the estate of a wealthy man named George Fabyan, who was looking for someone to “carry on research” on a literary project involving Sir Francis Bacon. He specifically wanted a woman who was “young, personable, attractive and a good talker.” The librarian called up Fabyan then and there. He had an office in the city, and before long a limousine pulled up, “and in came this whirlwind, this storm, this huge man and his bellowing voice could be heard all over the library floor,” Elizebeth later recalled. Her potential employer was a textile merchant whose family had made a fortune in cotton goods—a hyperactive, wild-eyed person of myriad scientific enthusiasms and no scientific training. Thanks to his wealth, Fabyan was able to indulge his many curiosities. He was incubating any number of so-called research projects at a place he called Riverbank Laboratories, a suburban “think tank” located on an estate in Geneva, Illinois.

Mundy, Liza. Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (p. 59). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

Elizebeth came to work on Fabyan’s project and eventually met her future husband, William Friedman. Of course the Fabyan project proved fruitless, but the task of eking hidden meanings out of mountains of text had the effect of creating America’s pioneering code breakers.

While Yardley’s war efforts were immensely beneficial, they eventually came to an end when newly-confirmed Secretary of State Henry Stimpson put the kibosh on having American intelligence read other people’s communications. Fortunately there were those in Army and Navy intelligence who saw fit to carry on the work somewhat under the table, and as matters in Europe boiled over, the obvious became impossible to  ignore. American’s men were going off to fight, and the only people who would be left available to  read other people’s mail would be America’s women.

The chain of events that led to the women’s recruitment was a long one, but a signal moment occurred in September 1941, when U.S. Navy rear admiral Leigh Noyes wrote a letter to Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College, the women’s counterpart to Harvard. For more than a year the Navy had been quietly recruiting male intelligence officers from elite colleges and universities, and now it was embarking on the same experiment with women. Noyes wanted to know whether Comstock would identify a group of Radcliffe students to be trained in cryptanalysis. He confided that the Navy was looking for “bright, close-mouthed native students”—that is, high-achieving women who had the sense and ability to keep a secret and who had been born in the United States and were free of close ties with other nations.

Mundy, Liza. Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (p. 12). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

The result was a massive influx of bright, mostly young, women, leaving the farms, leaving low-paying teaching jobs, putting their college education on hold, and boarding trains that would take them to Washington and to places they never knew existed. Eventually their number was in the thousands.

A central point of congregation was the Washington, D.C., area, but another prime destination was Dayton, Ohio, home of National Cash Register. Eighty years ago a cash register was a purely mechanical device (disregarding an embryonic electronic version), and the war effort needed the total output of NCR to be directed toward the war effort. A sales training camp on the outskirts of town was converted into a place where hundreds of Navy women were shipped in by train to assemble and test code-breaking machines called “bombes.” This topic has been previously reviewed:

The team at Bletchley Park, where the British carried out cryptanalysis during the war, was able to crack Enigma codes by feeding message intercepts into an automaton devised by Turing and trying different rotor settings until the output contained legible verbiage. What assisted them throughout the war was incompetence on the part of the German operators. The careless inclusion of expected words allowed the code breakers to vastly narrow their search. Turing’s variable control set allowed adapting the search without reconstructing the machine whenever the Germans made a change in their Enigma.

Enigma was an enciphering-deciphering machine used by the Germans. It employed rotary electric switches to change characters typed into the machine into different characters and back again to produce the original text at the receiving end. This was accomplished in a manner that made it almost impossible to guess the encryption scheme. But Enigma started life as a commercial product, and just about everybody who counted had a copy of the machine. The problem was to figure out which combination of switch settings produced readable German.

This is where the bombe factory came in. American industrial might produced a warehouse full of these bombes for use in trying multiple solutions at a time. The Navy women at the NCR site carefully wired and tested the thousands of components to do the work.

In the Washington area the Navy women (called WAVES) took over Mount Vernon Seminary, and the Army requisitioned suburban Arlington Hall, previously a girls’ school. Suddenly the women were working at well over the pay they had been receiving as school teachers and typists, a difference being whether they worked as civilian employees or members of the newly-created women’s service branches. Civilians received big bucks. The military women got base pay plus military room, board, and medical  benefits. For all concerned this would be a life-changing experience.

Cracking of the Enigma code meant the Allies were able to read German naval codes within a few hours of interception. Since the German surface navy retired almost completely from action following the loss of the Graf Spee, decoding Enigma meant hunting down U-boats. In 1942, the months after the United States entered the war, American shipping losses to U-boats were catastrophic. Cracking of the Enigma code, combined with improved detection and attack methods turned 1943 into a death spiral for the U-boat command.

There was always the chance, however, that the U-boats could come back. And they did try. In October 1943, the U-boats reappeared. But now the costs were punishingly high. For every Allied merchant vessel sunk, seven U-boats were lost.

Mundy, Liza. Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (p. 285). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

Toward the end German Admiral Dönitz was sending boats out just to tie up extra Allied resources. Three fourths of German U-boat crew perished in the war.

The Army code-breaking efforts were directed principally toward Japanese messaging. The Japanese used a multiplicity of coding schemes, variously JN – 20, JN – 25, JN – 25A1, and the like. These naval codes were employed increasingly by the Japanese to manage their transport and supply ships, Marus. With the ability to read these messages the American Navy put a strangle-hold on Japanese shipping, sending most of their supply vessels to the bottom of the ocean. Japanese army casualties due to disease and starvation soared as isolated island outposts withered and died.

The intellect of women code breakers was like a thunderclap in a male-dominated world. Some accomplishments were breathtaking:

And there was twenty-seven-year-old Genevieve Marie Grotjan, hired as a “junior cryptanalyst” in October 1939 for a salary of $2,000 per year. It was Grotjan who was standing waiting for the men in the Munitions Building to notice her. A native of Buffalo, New York, Grotjan had been a brilliant all-around student at Buffalo’s Bennett High School, where she delivered the salutatorian’s address in the customary Latin.

Mundy, Liza. Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (pp. 89-90). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

After waiting for the men at the table to notice her, she played the winning hand.

It was September 20, 1940, at around two o’clock in the afternoon. Rowlett, who was one of the more mechanically minded team members—he was a tinkerer and a hoarder and tended to scrounge spare telephone parts, which he kept in his basement behind a woodpile—was talking with some of the other men. Sitting there engrossed in what Rowlett later rather sheepishly called a “gabfest,” they looked up and saw that Genevieve Grotjan, the would-be math teacher and former railway annuity statistician, had materialized beside them. As Rowlett later recalled, she was holding her work sheets clutched to her chest. “Excuse me,” she told them shyly. “I have something to show you.”

Mundy, Liza. Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (p. 99). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

She had cracked the Japanese PURPLE diplomatic code.

The women were recruited without being told what they would be doing. College classes were scanned, course grades were scrutinized, fields of study were examined, lists were drawn up. Women received letters. Come, apply for this job. All they could know was that it was not what they were presently doing, and it had something to do with public service. And it was more money. Once they passed additional screening and before they were informed about the work, they were required to sign a form acknowledging they would be executed if they revealed what they were about to learn. It must have been heady stuff.

They took the jobs for other reasons:

  • Some knew they were freeing up men who could then be sent to do the fighting.
  • Those who had brothers, boyfriends, almost never husbands, believed that destruction of the enemy would make the men safer.
  • It was an intellectual challenge that would otherwise have been denied them.

And still they were people. Some found boyfriends, lovers, husbands. Some became pregnant, which for the military women meant leaving the program. Some broke under the strain of the job. I have no information that any of them broke the vow of silence.

The book is eminently readable, divided into digestible and meaningful chapters. Mundy’s style is easy on the eye, and she is clear and concise. The book shows intense research, providing a level of detail that could not have been obtained without putting in long hours of library research and personal interviews. Highly recommended.

I  don’t have a clear idea about when the curtain was pulled from the code-breaking activities of that era, but when David Kahn’s book The Codebreakers came out in 1967 (I have a copy), there were already references to cracking of the Japanese PUPLE code and Enigma.

The code-breaking rooms were vaults of intense concentration, concentration that was broken by frequent looks deeply into the war effort. When Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was hunted down and killed using information from the code breakers, they were among the first to know. When their efforts resulted in identifying the route of an enemy ship, the following morning the news reported the ship’s destruction.

As the Nazi empire crumbled, traffic from the European continent dried up, vanishing completely as the last transmitter shut down in early May 1945. A radio intercept operator reported for her shift in August 1945 and was unable to detect any transmissions from the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Following that, day by day, the code breakers eavesdroppers monitored the plaintiff diplomatic traffic as the dying Japanese Empire attempted to salvage something from ten years of war.

Then it was all over. There was no more traffic to decode. Every sender of PURPLE and Enigma was either dead, a prisoner war, or on the run. The women were thanked for their service and shown the door. Some stayed. Some left and later returned. But nobody talked. Women who had husbands returning from the war never told them what they had been doing all the time. The fact is, these women lied about what they did.

If this book is about anything it is a salute to feminism. This cadre of capable women broke the back of the enemy’s communication secrecy and drove a shank into the very gut of conquering armies. Then they were expected to go back home and raise children. It was never going to  happen. Along with women industrial workers and along with women who served in the military, some in combat zones, American women were never going back to the kitchen, figuratively speaking.

Even so, the surge was slow to crest. When I entered engineering school 16 years after the war, there were two women in an engineering class of hundreds. I may not have missed the sharp minds other women could have brought, but I, and others, missed having someone besides a couple of guys sitting on either side in class. By the time I went for a graduate degree in computer science 20 years later, women were amply represented. Ten years after that my foray into a physics graduate program was a throwback to the old days. There were women, very sharp but very few. Who’s to figure?

Someone familiar with modern cryptology would be aghast at the primitive methods of 80 years ago. It has to be kept in mind that the 1940s were the days before computers—in fact, code breaking was the impetus for the development of computing machinery. Disguising message contents had either to be done by hand, using code books, look-up tables, and the like, or else the process had to employ electro-mechanical machines like PURPLE or Enigma. Modern encryption leverages off machines such as Enigma. Only a modern computer, or better yet, specialized hardware, can perform the immensely more elaborate scrambling of the text, making the process of winkling out the clear text beyond practicability.

For example, the Diffie-Hellman public key exchange protocol relies on the difficulty of factoring large numbers. Take two prime number, each consisting of 20 decimal digits, for example. Multiply the two numbers to obtain a 21-digit number. The 21-digit number can be public, and if you can factor it, you can crack the key exchange message. Even with a powerful computer this is an intractable task. However, modern computers can perform the computations needed to employ Diffie-Hellman.

The Data Encryption Standard, adopted in  1977, was developed  by IBM, and it works by scrambling blocks of text in a reversible manner. This is much along the lines of what Enigma does.

DES is the archetypal block cipher—an algorithm that takes a fixed-length string of plaintext bits and transforms it through a series of complicated operations into another ciphertext bitstring of the same length. In the case of DES, the block size is 64 bits. DES also uses a key to customize the transformation, so that decryption can supposedly only be performed by those who know the particular key used to encrypt. The key ostensibly consists of 64 bits; however, only 56 of these are actually used by the algorithm. Eight bits are used solely for checking parity, and are thereafter discarded. Hence the effective key length is 56 bits.

The National Security Agency (NSA) made recommendations to the key length, and it is assumed the NSA has the ability to crack messages encrypted using the DES.

United States military communications do not use the DES and may be extremely difficult to crack, even with the aid of the world’s most powerful computers. Full disclosure: I have worked with military encryption systems, but I have no inkling of how they work. The SINCGARS radio is such a system:

There have been several system improvement programs, including the Integrated Communications Security (ICOM) models, which have provided integrated voice and data encryption…

SINCGARS, I am told, transmits signals as streams of bits, and it reverses bits in a pseudo-random manner using a process that does not repeat for several years.

Modern cell phones employ Code Division Multiple Access, which does much the same thing. During a session, a cell phone uses its own CDMA channel to communicate with a tower. Communication is by means of bits, which are reversed pseudo-randomly. Your smart TV communicates with your wireless router using this technique. Code breakers of World War Two would have been hard put to crack any of these codes. The process is based on an invention during the war by movie actress Hedy Lamar and others.

Posted in Books, Military, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Texas Lavender

May was a good time to get out and see some of the sights near home. Fredericksburg is a few minutes drive up north, and we went with Nancy and Gary to have a bit of lunch and to  stop in at the Lavender Festival that weekend at Becker Vineyard.

Forget about the lavender. Becker does not have vast fields of the stuff, and, besides, it’s not yet the season. This was, however, a great opportunity to take the wine tour and to sample some of the product. People were lined up for some of the Hill Country’s best.

I pulled out my Master Card and obtained tickets for Barbara Jean and me. They’re $21 each, but worth doing at least once. They give you a wine glass to keep with the company logo, and they sample some of their best stock. Talk $40 or more a bottle.

For the technically minded, and also for the best photos, the wine tour is the highlight of the visit. It’s free, a tour starting every half hour. Just gather by the double doors in the wine tasting room, and follow tour guide Alan Dean. His knowledge is deep and colorful.

The remainder is a collection of photos from the wine facility. Alan tells us how much Becker spends on barrels, how the barrels are used, and the eventual retirement of the barrels. It’s a saga in itself. Be advised that wine barrels are a critical part of wine making, and a lot goes into these items at any conscientious production facility.

The large steel tanks are impressive, as well. Some are for fermentation, some are for storage. Becker markets about a million bottles of wine each year, and the entire process is carried out in two large sheds. When production starts to get ahead of the bottling operation, wine is pumped into tanks, where it is kept at 32F for as long as necessary.

Wine spends months prior to sale in these barrels. This is what really turns fermented grape juice into drinkable wine. Unlike another vineyard we visited in this Texas wine region, Becker uses grapes grown here on their property. They also use fruit from other growers, located in the Texas High Plains. Here is a sample list we obtained at the tasting:

  • 2015 Viognier Reserve Farmhouse Vineyard
  • 2014 Rousanne Reserve
  • 2015 White Wing (blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion)
  • 2015 Prairie Cuvee
  • 2016 Jollie Rosé
  • 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Wilmeth Family Vineyard
  • 2015  Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Canada Family Vineyard
  • 2015 Chevaux Noir
  • 2015 Raven
  • 2015 Tempranillo Reserve
  • 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2015 Gewurtztraminer 2% rs
  • 2014 Muscat Chenin 3% rs
  • 2016 Muscat Canelli Amabile 2.5% rs Krick Hill Vineyard
  • 2015 Clementine 12% rs Madeira-Style
  • 2015 Vintage Port

Barbara listed the wines we tasted in her order of preference.

  1. Cabernet Franc Reserve
  2. Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Canada Family Vineyard
  3. Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Wilmeth Family Vineyard
  4. Viognier Reserve Farmhouse Vineyard
  5. Jollie Rosé

For your information, the Cabernet Franc Reserve goes for $40 a bottle. Barbara’s numbers 4 and 5 go for $24.95. These are vineyard prices. I checked with a San Antonio wine store, and they can’t get the Cabernet Franc Reserve. It is likely availably directly from the vineyard. The Becker Cabernet Reserve sells for $23.99 at Total Wine and More.

I originally got interested in Becker Vineyards when I was alerted that the late artist Tony Bell was showing up on wine bottles in the store.

Apparently the winery’s founder, Richard Becker, had been a friend of Tony’s since school days at UT Austin, and Tony subsequently designed the labels. This is the only one that features a self-portrait. It’s a Cabernet Sauvignon and is one of their commercial wines, sold in stores. It’s reasonably-priced and makes for a gratifying dinner wine.

We didn’t spend much time in Fredericksburg last weekend, the idea being that Barbara Jean and I will go back later this year and spend a couple of days. Look for a write-up after the cool weather sets in.

Posted in Events, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Captain Morgan’s Retreat

A Fabulous Getaway

As mentioned elsewhere. we were having dinner, we both agreed we needed to get out of the house. Barbara Jean is master of this sort of thing, and a couple of hours later she had us booked at Captain Morgan’s Retreat in Belize—also American Airlines round trip—two weeks from the day. And finally we were here.

The resort is on Ambergris Kaye, an island up the coast from Belize City. We took the water taxi to get there, about an hour and a half ride. It was worth the trip.

Although nobody around wants to mention the word timeshare, most of the units seem to be marketed that way. The soul mate obtained the listing through Timeshare User’s Group (TUG) and found an owner wanting to rent out his week. We got it for a bargain. The owner had the entire upstairs of one unit, consisting of two units with a connecting door. One unit has a kitchen, a large living area, and a sumptuous bedroom and bath. The other side is more like a hotel room with a microwave oven. Still, the bed is king-size and most relaxing.

Wi-Fi is outstanding. We obtained pass codes for four devices. Download speed is 5 MBPS, and it is rock solid, except that something cut power to the resort for a few seconds, and we lost the link during the interval.

The grounds and all facilities are well-maintained—we observed workers constantly busy making sure the sand was kept clean and brushed flat. It’s 17 degrees from the equator, and the temperature is pleasingly mild. The big side has two air conditioning units, and the other has one. They turned out to be seldom needed.

All manner of activities are available. There is a reef visible off in the distance, and some were out there for snorkeling. Expeditions by boat are offered. There is a water taxi that can take you into San Pedro, the main town on the island. We didn’t do any of that. Our aim was to kick back and do nothing for a week. We did avail ourselves of the pool—there are three, and they are sparkling and well-kept.

A walk on the pier was rewarded by the opportunity to see how fish are prepared. One of the items on the restaurant menu is the whole fish, which is available in three sizes and three prices. This guy seemed to be cutting up some small groupers.

The restaurant food is most satisfactory. A favorite of mine is what amounts to a chicken salad. We had that a couple of times. We had the nacho plate, as well. But, warning, you want to share one of these. It is a large plate of food.

Drawbacks are:

  • The place is remote. You will need a vehicle or else take the water taxi to go into town. Golf carts are for rent. There is another resort nearby with an excellent restaurant, and we were over to visit a couple of times for lunch. It’s accessible by a path along the beach.
  • No other civilization is close. If you need something you have to visit the resort’s own store. Prices are resort store prices, and I have no idea how they compare to in-town prices. Selection is limited.
  • The water supply has much to be desired. You purchase a 5-gallon jug of Crystal and install it on a dispenser in the kitchen. If you don’t do a bunch of cooking that will last a week.
  • As mentioned, getting there is a battle. After catching a taxi from the airport and then the water taxi and then a cab for the 3.5 mile ride to the resort, I was beginning to wish the airline would just fly over and allow us to parachute in.

Accessibility is my main complaint. We would possibly go back another time, but nobody is looking forward to the hassle of getting there and back.

Posted in Photos, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coco Beach Lunch

The Great Lunch Expedition

The night we arrived at Captain Morgan’s Retreat we had dinner at their restaurant, and it was most grand. For lunch the next day we figured there must be something besides. The literature we had showed other places close by. “Close by” is a relative term. It’s apparent that Ambergris Kaye in Belize is not completely built out. Captain Morgan’s turns out to be hung out on a long stretch of road leading north up the coast, and there is not much close around. Evidence is that only recently a concrete road was poured up past the resort, and exploring additional options required a trek along this strip. Here is Barbara Jean exploring new territory.

Here’s what to expect on the island. There is not much in the way of real automobile traffic, nor is there the need. Motorized (not electric) go-carts are the dominant mode of transportation. You often see them chugging along in formation.

On our trek we came upon a place called Coco Beach Resort, but more had been promised farther on. We arrived at Belizean Shores Resort and invited ourselves in. There was no doubt this is a first class operation, and we prowled the grounds looking for the restaurant. We kept asking people, and they kept pointing in this direction. Finally somebody by the pool said the restaurant was in the main building, upstairs. It was upstairs. On the third floor. And it was not open.

But by the stairwell there was a restroom, so the trip may have been worth it. I took this photo from the stairs.

We figured Coco Beach Resort would be our next option, and we hiked back there. Interesting place. There was a barrier across the entrance, and we had to inform the security guy we were not staying at the resort—we only wanted to eat at the restaurant. He noted our arrival in his book and waived us through.

And this was the place.

There were tables out by the pool, and a barbecue serving station had been set up. We went for the barbecued chicken with rice, and it was outstanding. The flies thought so, as well, because as soon as our food arrived they pounced. We had to continually fight them off, and I finished off mine before they could get at it.

Barbara thinks we may have better luck next time, and we will give it another go. It didn’t appear other guests were having to fight the flies, so the plan is to sit farther from the serving stations. Details to follow. Or not.

Posted in dining, Photos, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Captain Morgan’s Revenge

Also remembered as Gulliver’s Travails

I remember Captain Morgan as a notorious pirate from the 17th century:

Sir Henry Morgan (WelshHarri Morganc. 1635 – 25 August 1688) was a Welsh privateer, landowner and, later, Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. From his base in Port Royal, Jamaica, he raided settlements and shipping on the Spanish Main, becoming wealthy as he did so. With the prize money from the raids he purchased three large sugar plantations on the island.

Anyhow, I’m feeling he has, after all these years, had his go at me. Long after he was dead somebody named a resort after him on Ambergris Kaye, off the coast of Belize (formerly known as British Honduras). Came one evening Barbara Jean and I were having a quiet dinner at home, and she must have been feeling a bit edgy. We needed to take a vacation. Less than two weeks later I was getting up at 2:00 in the morning to prepare for a drive to the airport. That’s when the fun really got going.

The airline experience was better than we sometimes experienced. But first we had to go to Miami. You see, even though Belize is about three hours south of San Antonio by jet liner, no jet liner takes you directly from San Antonio to Belize City. You have to go to Miami first, and that flight leaves about 5:55 in the morning. And no problems in Miami. The flight took off on time, and minutes later I was filling out Belize customs and immigration forms somewhere over Cuba. Yeah, customs and immigration at the Belize City airport is an experience.

We snaked into the terminal building and piled up behind a mass of people inching their way around a winding corridor, where they eventually confronted a bank of immigration stations. Fortunately all were manned, and presently the lady stamped our passports and told us, “Welcome Belize.” Then to get our luggage and take it to customs. But first to get our luggage.

By the time we arrived at the baggage claim the hoard that had preceded us had picked through the incoming stream and had piled it to one side of the room. After poking through, examining pile after pile, we encountered a helpful soul who informed us that stuff over there was all United. We were looking for American Airlines baggage from Miami. Still no luck, and things began to look grim. People were gathered around an American Airlines window, and one of the crowd told us her bags never made it to Belize. She was going to have to wait for the next flight, much later in the day.

We presented our claim checks to the AA woman in charge, and the modern miracle of computer automation informed us our bags had, indeed, arrived. We just had to find them. They were over by a concrete pillar, all by themselves. The customs officer waved at us and said, “Welcome to Belize.” We had to get to the ferry port.

Heading for the exit we encountered a psychic who asked if we needed a taxi to the ferry port. We said yes, and shortly we were winding through narrow Belize City streets, finally arriving at the ferry, due to depart in 30 minutes. Is that timing or what?

And we were off on a sea voyage, up the coast to the magical island of Ambergris Kaye—an hour and a half of open water sailing, sitting shoulder to shoulder with any number of souls who could not wait to get to Ambergris Kaye.

Fortunately the trip was broken by a stop at another island to let off some people and to pick up some more. And then were there—Ambergris Kaye.

All we had to do now was board the van that Captain Morgan told us would be there at 3:00 p.m. But first we had to get our baggage. A load of baggage was wheeled out on a large hand truck and deposited in a roped-off area, and, yes, ours was on the bottom.

But, no, Captain Morgan’s van was not there to pick us up. After 30 minutes of waiting we took a cab driver’s offer to cart us up to Captain Morgan’s Retreat for $25 (U.S.), about 3.5 miles away, along dusty Ambergris Kaye streets.

And we there, and our accommodations were absolutely splendid, and I will get into that in another posting. In the meantime Captain Morgan has been chuckling in his grave in Port Royal.

Posted in Photos, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flat Out

This is from 1969—49 years ago.

Back when I lived in Austin there was a lot of motorcycle activity going on. Near Manor, Texas, a horse race track named Manor Downs doubled as a flat track venue. One of the good things about flat track racing, for photographers, was you could get down close to the action. Here are a bunch of photos from April 1969.

One thing fans like about the sport is the racing is typically very close. The races are short, not giving riders much opportunity to get spread out. Wheel-to-wheel is the norm.

What some may not have noticed is these bikes do not have brakes. Brakes were considered a liability in those days. Somebody applying the brakes in the middle of such close racing would likely result in a pile-up. The way you stop one of these bikes is to throw it sideways on the loose dirt track and scrub off speed.

Manor Downs was a 1/2-mile track. The next size up for flat track is the one-mile course. On the longer track race speeds peaked over 120 miler per hour. As Bruce Brown noted in his documentary film On Any Sunday, it took some kind of balls to charge into a turn at 120 mph and throw the bike sideways.

With flat track it’s all about dirt. The surface is may be hard but always loose enough to allow riders to corner in a controlled slide.

And of course it was dusty. I would have been thankful if the promoters had seen fit to roll out the watering truck, but that seldom was the case.

During those days the national championship season included numerous flat track events. To have a chance at the championship a rider had to compete in these events. Many of our flat-trackers were also good road racers and went on to successful careers on the national circuit.

Posted in Historical, Motorcycle, Racing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fifty Years

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Fifty years ago we all went to Houston for the first indoor national championship race. The venue was the Astrodome, opened just three years before as the first ever indoor field for Major League Baseball. The American Motorcyclist Association was the sanctioning body for major races at the time, and this was the largest attendance at any national event up to the time.

I had never been to a national, and I was seeing some famous riders for the first time. Note, please, number 20, Gene Romero.

One rider I had seen previously was Bentley Hardwick, number 44, from Dallas. I first met Bennie in 1964 on the occasion of my first ever motorcycle race. By “meeting” him, I mean I had the experience of having him blow by me on his Harley 74 at the airport course in Wall, Texas, his rear tire blowing track debris in my face as he accelerated out of a turn. He was 15.

This was Bennie’s first national race, and he made it to the finals. The championship race started, and on the first lap, Bennie jumped into the lead, pulling into the first turn ahead of everybody else. And that was that for the day.

I continued to meet Bennie Hardwick for several years afterward at various motorcycle races. Some time after this photo was taken he was in a motorcycle shop in Peoria, Illinois, when a random person walked in and shot him in the back. We thought that might be the end of his racing career, but he recovered after months of therapy and continued racing, appearing at least once at Austin Raceway Park. Sadly, he was killed in a flat track race at Alameda Speedway in Houston on 27 March 1971.

Posted in Motorcycle, Racing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment