Sunday, June 24, 2012

Saxophone Jones

This is one of a series of weekly posts for the website BOBB at

Saxophone Jones

MONDAY, April 25 (HealthDay News) -- Music lessons may help keep the brain healthy as people grow older, a new study suggests.
I’ve been noodling around on the guitar since the 60’s, and while I can competently strum some chords and sing a few songs without disturbing the neighborhood cats, I’m not a musician. But, by degrees, I’m moving in that direction.
A long time jazz fan, years ago I bought a tenor saxophone at a local pawn shop and swore I’d learn to play. From time-to-time I’d take it out of its tattered case and work my way through some of the exercises in the Belwin Saxophone Method book I purchased, but soon I’d run out of motivation and go back to plunking the guitar. I’d blame it on being too busy with work, children, lack of natural talent, or just plain laziness.
All that changed when I retired.  I decided it was now or never. I hired a teacher, started taking lessons, practicing daily and learning to read music. A few months ago I played “Happy Birthday” at a friend’s party and recently I played “Summer Time” at a going away party for friends leaving on a one year, round-the-world adventure. I am not now, nor will I ever be, a threat to Stan Getz or Lester Young, two of my tenor heroes, but I’m improving all the time.
I’ve told my sons that I plan to live and torment them until I’m at least ninety. I want to know how it’s all going to turn out for them. I figure playing the saxophone will keep my brain healthy and help me achieve my goal. My teacher says I’m almost ready to play in the back row of the County Band. I think I get to wear a royal blue blazer and maybe a funny hat. Does it get any better than that?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Article: Grey Eagle

John Nicholson
Grey Eagle
Published in June 2012 issue of "Journal Plus: The Magazine of the Central Coast" 

Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations. This air action has now been carried out with substantial damage to the boats and facilities. Two U.S. aircraft were lost in the action. President Johnson’s Message to Congress, August 5, 1964
            Until his A-4 Skylark actually left the flight deck of the USS Constellation, Navy fighter pilot John Nicholson thought it was another drill.  He and fellow crew members were on deck watching a “B” movie, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” when he was ordered to find two other pilots, change to flight gear and report to the flight deck. Their mission was to provide air cover for two American destroyers under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam.  It’s not in the history books, but San Luis Obispo resident John Nicholson was the first Navy pilot in the air on the night of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the official start of America’s war against North Vietnam.
            The next day, following direct orders from President Johnson, American planes attacked North Vietnam.  In what turned out to be a critically important day for Nicholson, his wingman and friend, Everett Alvarez, nicknamed Alvy by the other pilots, was shot down and became the first American prisoner of war.  John would not see Alverez again for eight-and-a-half years. 
            Nicholson was born in 1930 in Bombay, India, where his father worked for the Goodyear tire and rubber company. He lived there until 1936 when the family moved to South Africa. Worried that he was “going native,” John’s parents shipped him back to the US in 1945. He arrived in New York on the day an Army B-25 bomber smashed into the Empire State Building. It wouldn’t be the last time John’s major life events coincided with famous historical moments. 
            John finished high school in Ohio and attended Oberlin College where he studied engineering and met his wife of sixty years, Evie, who studied classical piano in Oberlin’s famous music program.  Evie still entertains family and friends with expert performances of Beethoven and other famous composers. They had four daughters between 1954 and 1959: Paula, twins Jacqueline and Jennifer, and Eve.  John and Evie have nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren.  They were all smiles when talking about their large and close family.
            Following his retirement from the Navy in 1976, John taught high school for eighteen years in Sanger, California, and served as Superintendent for the Sanger School District for one year. He helped many students gain admission to the United States Naval Academy, and today they call him to say that the legacy continues: now their children are attending the Academy.
            John joined the Navy because he had an interest in flying but also because he saw that men he admired had fought in two wars, WWII and Korea, and he wanted to do his patriotic duty.  Also, his father had been General Douglas MacArthur’s chauffeur during WWI. John committed his allegiance to honoring the chain of command, and even though he had no ROTC or Naval Academy background, he advanced to the rank of Captain, and in 1973 became the Commander-in-Chief of the aircraft carrier, USS Ranger, on which he had served as a combat pilot in 1969. Not surprisingly, John Nicholson loves a challenge, a word that to him is synonymous with fun. But not all challenges are fun, especially when the life of a friend is at stake.
            As Nicholson approached the Vietnam coastline on August 5th,  he remembers looking at the mountains near the Chinese border and thinking they looked just like the calendars hanging in his childhood home: dark green, mist shrouded, mysterious.  When his target was abruptly changed from Wallu, near the Chinese border, to the docks of Hon Gai, he focused on his mission.
            He saw flak after a successful bombing run in the harbor, and then he heard a “may day” call from his friend Alvy, who was hit and had to eject. Low on fuel, Nicholson came around once to check on his friend, but then headed back to the carrier. His last words to Alvy were “You know what to do.” For the next eight-and-a-half years, Nicholson was focused and motivated by his friend’s capture. “That was my challenge. It might not have been fun, but as long as he was a POW, I was not going to quit anything.”
            Deployed in the Vietnam conflict until 1973, Nicholson flew over 100 combat missions, the most memorable a mission that never happened. It was April 1, 1968, and he was scheduled to attack Hanoi.  He was extra keyed up because he had the premonition that he wouldn’t return, as strong a feeling as he’d ever had in his life. At the last moment a voice announced over the intercom that the mission had been cancelled, followed shortly by “April Fools!” Nicholson came unglued, and he didn’t settle down until the perpetrator of the joke apologized and made it clear that the mission really had been cancelled. Once again, Nichoson’s life intersected with history: President Johnson had just announced that he would not seek reelection and military operations were suspended that day.
            Following the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, 591 American POW’s were released during Operation Homecoming. John Nicholson was at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu when Alvy Alverez’s plane landed, en route to the US. It was 3:00 AM and at first John was told he would not be able to see his friend until after a long debriefing, but he persuaded the security personnel to give him thirty minutes alone with Alvy. When he saw Alvarez approach, he went to give him a bear hug, but Alvy flinched. “He was nothing but skin and bones,” said Nicholson. “He had suffered horribly during all those years at the Hanoi Hilton.”
            After both had recovered from the shock, the first thing Alvarez said was “What did you mean by ‘You know what to do?’ I’ve been thinking about that since 1964.” After that they talked nonstop until it was time for Alvy to go.  Still friends after all these years, they see each other periodically. Divorced by his first wife while held captive, Alvy married the stewardess he met on the flight from Hawaii to the United States. Nicholson’s comment? “You don’t waste any time, do you Alvy.” You can imagine his response.
            While commanding the USS Ranger early in 1976, an admiral insisted that Nicholson hold a flight drill during heavy weather.  John argued, but the admiral ordered him to put planes in the air. Certain that planes would crash and lives would be lost, Captain Nicholson asked the ship’s chaplain to join him in the command center overlooking the deck and pray for the pilots. As predicted, an approaching jet hit the fantail of the carrier. Miraculously, the cockpit detached and started skidding across the flight deck, prompting the startled chaplain to pronounce, “Lordy, Lordy!” The pilots ejected before hitting the tower. One landed on the deck and received minor injuries, while the other landed in the ocean and was recovered unhurt by a destroyer. 
            The challenge was no longer fun for John Nicholson. Even though promotion to admiral was possible, he announced his resignation from the Navy, but, true to his character, he commanded the Ranger until the completion of its mission in September.
            Most of us observe history from a distance. John Nicholson, also known as Grey Eagle when he was flying, made history. To learn more about this remarkable man, visit his website at

Poem: Seeing


Walking the Bob Jones Trail along the creek to Avila Beach,
surrounded most of the time by deep June green,
I see a huge, ancient oak tree, it’s lower trunk
and massive gnarled roots encased in rock and dirt,
the Mother Tree as it’s known to some,
its many limbs signaling its gender,
offspring scattered on the hillside below the Buddhist Temple
I see pods of young mothers pushing strollers,
their voices animated with excitement about life and babies,
the passion of their common bond,
small feet kicking from the shadows of their safe ride.
I see a sycamore leaning low across the creek,
a leafy branch parting the slow current
like a parasoled woman trailing her hand
over the side of a boat on a Sunday afternoon.
I see snowy egrets and blue herons
hanging out around the dam and steelhead ladder,
motionless and patient like images in an Audubon painting.
I see, as I walk out of the woods and past a golf course,
a white ball roll to a stop in the long green grass
beneath the gently waving limbs of a willow tree.
I see, at the beach, sun bathers
stretched out sleepily on the warm sand
or strolling along the water’s edge
the cold June surf splashing around their ankles.
I see the pier reaching out and receding across the water
like a lesson in perspective, and I see the horizontal triptych
of sand, sea and sky like a Rothko I saw at MOMA years ago.
It’s not always like this. My mind doesn’t always
clear enough space for my vision. But today,
in the shelter of the woods, or as sudden gusts
whip stinging sand across my legs on the beach,
I get to see, to really see, and it feels good.

Poem: Broadway Flea Market

Broadway Flea Market

If you wake up early enough,
and why not on a perfect spring day in May,
you can watch the vendors
construct their airy stalls
like kids playing with Tinker Toys
fitting the plastic piping together
quickly and perfectly,
focused on the essential task at hand.
Soon the tables and pegboards are up
and the dizzying array of wares appear
as if by a magician’s sleight of hand:
jewelry, sunglasses, hats, t-shirts
scarves and shawls (the allure of pashmina!),
belts, wallets and handbags,
a smorgasbord of colorful merchandise
center, left and right,
two aisles for twelve blocks,
from Times Square to 57th Street,
like a river flowing through a narrow canyon,
glints of warm sunlight
reflecting off myriad shiny surfaces
but still cool in the blue black shade.
Soon smoke signals arise at every corner
aromas drift through the stalls
and savory temptations beckon:
shish kabob and gyro, cheese steak and pizza
churros and burritos, sweet drinks and coffee.
Then, like time lapse photography
the street slowly fills with curious customers
a slow dance of stop and go
sidestep and pirouette
two directions in each aisle
a choreography of silent cooperation.
Sounds of sidewalk musicians – saxophone
guitar, steel drum – and a mixed chorus
of voices foreign and domestic
mingles exotically in the air above the crowd
a moving tapestry of humanity flowing just beneath.

It’s New York. It’s Broadway.
It’s good to be alive.

Poem: Hubble


The Eagle Nebula, Pillars of Creation
Birthplace of Stars
Don’t think about size: incomprehensible
Forget about distance: unfathomable
Time? Don’t bother.
Think instead about the beauty
mystery and majesty. Allow
these thoughts to drift freely
in the vast spaciousness
of your own mind
maybe a light hand on the helm.
Follow the vaulted star shine
to serenity. Return home
with a new understanding
one best explained by a smile.