Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Joy of Stats

I found the clip below, from a BBC program(me) called The Joy of Stats (!), fascinating in both form and content. It may also be the most I've learned in any given span of 4 minutes since the day I figured out that liquid + air = bubbles. Worth a look, I think. It reminds me of James Burke's Connections, which I remember as one of the greatest things ever committed to video.*

*Please don't tell me if I'm remembering wrong.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hey, I STILL Know Him!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid character Greg Heffley made his debut as a balloon at this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. While I'm happy for author Jeff Kinney and all, I probably wouldn't have posted this clip if it weren't for a couple of moments around the 42-second mark:

That's my (and Jeff's) Editor Charlie waving at the camera, dangerously leaving his wife, the Lovely Rachel, to hold down the balloon by herself while he basks in his network television close-up. I wasn't able to watch the parade live but recorded it just to catch the Wimpy Kid balloon, and was rewarded with this bonus Thanksgiving greeting from my friend Charlie. "Hi" back at you, Bud. Feel free to pass this video around the office.

If you're interested in how the balloon got built (I am!; who wouldn't be?), Abrams Creative Director Chad W. Beckerman posted several photos and videos about it. Here's a blog post about Jeff fine-tuning its design (from which I nicked the photo below) and here's one showing the parade rehearsals. In all seriousness, I think having a balloon in the Macy's parade is a terrific piece of Americana. It only occurred to me on Thanksgiving morning that if I'd pleaded and whined and flown myself to New York City, I bet I could've pulled some strings (heh!) and gotten work as a Wimpy Kid balloon wrangler. Maybe next year. Congrats to Jeff and Charlie.

Jeff (left) and Editor Charlie inspecting the clay model from which the balloon was scaled up. (Photo by Mr. Beckerman, stolen with impunity.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Character Design #4

Here are Installment #1, Installment #2 and Installment #3.

As I begin Installment #4, it occurs to me I may be overanalyzing. I don't want to discourage anyone from creating comics by making it sound like a horribly complicated, laborious ordeal. Seriously, just sitting down and drawing is 90% of the job. While I do think about these design elements, I don't have a checklist. There's no formula or recipe. I don't know if they work. That's what makes writing and drawing more art than science, and a risky one at that. My way isn't the only way or right way, YMMV, etc.

With those misgivings, this is what I was thinking when I designed Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid. Like their counterparts Pop and Buddy, Cap and the Kid played similar but slightly different roles in WHTTWOT. Together, they represented and commented upon the comics, cartoons, TV programs, movies, books, pulps, and other futuristic pop culture produced during the eras of their adventures. However, having two characters let me attack from two different directions. Here they are again for reference:

Cap Crater's look was inspired by models such as:

Gemini astronauts
Apollo astronauts
NASA prototype spacesuits
Major Matt Mason, a popular toy from the 1960s.

Cap is an old-school barrel-chested hero. He's got a military buzz cut, and there's a tiny joke built into the name Commander Cap Crater: although "Cap" is usually a nickname given to a captain, our hero has the lesser rank of commander, suggesting he's been demoted. But the key to Cap Crater's design is that his spacesuit is relatively realistic, based on real-world examples. His look embodies the idea that sometimes the people making up stories about the future in the 1930s and '40s got it spectacularly right.

And sometimes they got it spectacularly wrong. In contrast to Cap Crater's fairly functional suit, the Cosmic Kid's uniform was inspired by models such as:

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet

Flash Gordon, of course

DC Comics' Adam Strange

Robin the Boy Wonder.

Not one of them practical or realistic in any way! So I wanted Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid to represent contrasting visions of the World of Tomorrow, but still look like they not only belonged in the same reality but worked together as partners. I used one subtle graphic touch to try to pull them together: the hose bibs on Cap Crater's chest--the little red, green and yellow "buttons"--are the same colors as the Cosmic Kid's uniform. No other character in the book ever wears that palette. Those shared spots of color make them a team.

With all that, Cap Crater is a real pain to draw. His rigid metallic collar is a circle, which requires perfect circles or ellipses to look right. I had to buy an ellipse template just to draw his neck.

Fine. You'd expect a craftsman to purchase the tools of his trade. But in addition, that collar doesn't really sit right on Cap's shoulder and chest, and his elbow and knee joints proved difficult to draw in proper perspective without making them too bulbous. Also, the accordion joints (the three Jetson-like rings) at his waist were yet more ellipses that had to be perfectly parallel, demanding more work by template, French curve, or careful freehand. (In fact, Cap originally had the same type of joints at his elbows and knees, but I edited them out mid-way through because, even when drawn perfectly correctly, they often looked odd.)

Cap before and after I ironed out his accordion joints. By the way, any similarity between the look and palette of this cover and the "World's Fair" Superman comic above was purely intentional.

The Cosmic Kid is a lot more fun to draw. He's less stiff. I like his floppy hair. His shoulder epaulets, belt, and the red stripes on his gloves and trousers provide easy visual cues that highlight his position and movement. There are different textures at play--for example, both his sleeves and boots are black, but I always imagined his sleeves had a soft wool texture while his boots were leather--which call for different types of brush strokes. I sometimes found myself "cheating" to avoid drawing Cap in certain positions or angles; I never had to cheat with the Kid.

Which is why, as I said at the end of Installment #3, if you meet me in real life and ask me to sketch any character I want, I will almost always draw the Cosmic Kid. Also, if I had it to do over, I'd spend another few days of pre-production refining Cap Crater. Not that I'm not very fond of the big lug.

And with that, I think I'm done with Character Design. Among the bullet points:

  • To help readers effortlessly decode your comic, design characters to physically contrast: male/female, black/white, human/animal, tall/short, fat/thin, old/young. Apply the Silhouette Test.
  • Characters have to live in the universe you create for them. Their world affects and reflects their design.
  • At the same time, you have to live with them. Be sure they work from every angle (turnarounds) and are designed to do whatever you might need them to do. (And don't give them big round metallic collars.)
  • Constructing characters with a good, solid design from the start can minimize the gradual changes that creep into their look over time, and potentially avoid a lot of work later.
  • Character design can help communicate deeper insights into story themes, forms, and approach to storytelling--often in ways the reader won't consciously perceive, but that you hope they might pick up anyway. My theory is that subtle details accumulate to create a mood or impression that affects a reader without them quite realizing why.
  • Here's the important point: I think these guidelines are valid and worthwhile, but they won't fit every character or story. Feel free to violate them. But I'd suggest asking yourself why you're violating them, and whether you might get just a bit better performance from your characters if you apply them instead.

Hope you enjoyed the interesting parts, skipped the boring parts, took what works for you and ignored the rest. I'll keep trying to get better at it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Character Design #3

Here's Installment #1 and here's Installment #2. Getting sick of me yet?

With Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, I had the opportunity and challenge to design characters from scratch. I created Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid first, then hit on the idea of giving them the "real life" alter egos of Pop and Buddy later (more about my thinking behind that in a bit). In the next post, I'll go into some detail about the design of each character; for now, I'll just point out that I adhered to the principles of contrast (old/young, tall/short, monochromatic/colorful) and that they pass the Silhouette Test.

The very first drawing I can find in my sketchbook of Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid together. They began a bit more cartoony than they eventually turned out (below).

To really talk about character design, I need to get into some of the themes and motifs of the book--specifically, why the comic book Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid look like "real-life" Pop and Buddy, and why Pop and Buddy don't age like regular people.

I wanted to weave three threads through WHTTWOT: A factual account of some historic and scientific touchstones between 1939 and 1975; reflections on the underappreciated effect of pop culture on how people saw and shaped the future; and a simple little story about a son growing up and realizing his father isn't the paragon he idolized when he was eight, meant to parallel the arc that (I argue) society traveled from optimisitic utopianism to pessimistic dystopianism--or as I glibly describe it, going from "Flash Gordon" to "Blade Runner." Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid could carry some of that load but not all of it. I needed "real people" to live through the times and embody the father-son relationship at the heart of the story. I needed Pop and Buddy.

The not-aging-in-real-time thing--which I think really stumped a few readers and I might have handled better--came out of my desire for the father and son to experience the same transition from idealism to disillusion in about 10 years that society experienced in 35 or 40 years. I also aged Pop and Buddy at the same rate as Cap and the Cosmic Kid because I wanted to knot my three threads together in a dateless future (the last chapter) where the characters could be either pair or both, living in the future they all envisioned.

Pop and Buddy (or are they Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid?) in the World of Tomorrow. This chapter is colored and lettered differently than the rest of the book to press the ambiguity.

At the same time, I flattered myself that I was making a witty meta-comment on the comics form itself. The conversation I always imagined having with a puzzled reader went like this:

Reader: "So why don't Pop and Buddy age like regular people?"

Me: "Why are you asking about Pop and Buddy, and not Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid? They age at exactly the same rate."

Reader: "But Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid are characters in a comic book."

Me: "And what do you think you're holding in your hands?"

A-ha! Then the imaginary reader buys me pizza and beer. The reason I'm over-explaining this is because the skeleton of my story affects the character designs I layer on top of it. For example, Pop's clothing changes through the decades. In 1939 he's wearing a snappy suit, in 1955 he's in work clothes that might be old Army fatigues, in 1965 he's in a NASA cap and Beach Boys-style casual shirt. His clothing helps define his role as a man who lived through those times.

Buddy and Pop, 1965

Buddy doesn't fill quite the same role. Oh, he still lives through those times, side by side with Pop. But Buddy wears the same turquoise and yellow t-shirt throughout the book to hint that he is a character in a comic whose costume doesn't change any more than Charlie Brown's zig-zag-striped shirt did in 50 years.

I thought long and hard about Buddy's shirt. Basically, I needed to dress him so he'd look right in 1939, 1975, and any year in between. A simple button-down shirt or striped pull-over would've worked, but I didn't find them visually interesting. So I was thinking along those lines while doing research for WHTTWOT, which included watching hours of movies shot at the 1939 World's Fair. Then I saw him: ambling across the fairgrounds, a boy in 1939 wearing a baseball-style half-sleeve t-shirt, just like the ones I've got in my drawer. It worked then, it works now, and the contrasting shapes and colors were just what I'd been looking for. Of course I doubt the 1939 kid's shirt was turquoise and yellow (he was filmed in black and white), but I thought those colors were eye-catching and I allowed myself the artistic license.

Finally, since it kinda sorta applies, I wanted to touch on my use of color in WHTTWOT. As I've described before, the "Space Age Adventure" comics within the comic were colored in Ben Day dots using era-appropriate palettes. The last chapter is pretty much full color. For the chapters depicting Pop and Buddy through the years, I wanted to use limited palettes in each chapter to differentiate them from each other as well as from the fake comic books and final chapter. I assigned each chapter a "mother color" based on a mood or theme I wanted to invoke.

WHTTWOT's Mother Colors

My choice of old-timey sepia for 1939 is obvious; 1945 has the cold gray of World War II movies; 1955 has the blue tint that old photos take on as their red dyes fade in sunlight; 1965 has the magenta hue that poor-quality vacation slides take on as they age; 1975 has purple because, honestly, I was running out of colors I liked and the story takes place at night. The "Chapter 6 (Future)" color just denotes the blue-gray metal of the habitat and doesn't really serve the same purpose as the colors in the other chapters. I constructed my mother colors so they'd all have about the same mid-range value or intensity; if you converted them to black-and-white, they'd all be similar shades of medium gray. My rule of thumb was that the percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow and black that comprised them added up to 100%. It wasn't a hard-and-fast rule, since obviously 100% black is more intense than 100% yellow, but more of a guideline that got me in the ballpark.

Today's take-away is similar to yesterday's: designing characters involves more than drawing and dressing them. Yesterday, I made the case that your characters' design has to reflect the universe you create for them to live in. Today, I argue that character design can also communicate something deeper about your story's themes, form, and approach to storytelling.

Coming up (someday): Why if you meet me in real life and ask me to sketch any character I want, I will almost always draw the Cosmic Kid.

EDITED TO ADD: Here's Installment #4.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Character Design #2

Here's Installment #1. So the challenge of designing characters for Mom's Cancer, which started as a webcomic a couple of years before being published in print in 2006, raises the question: What's to design? It's a true story about real people, so just draw the people, right? To some extent, that's true:

Me, Nurse Sis, Mom and Kid Sis in life and in Mom's Cancer

Still, I had choices to make. For example, my first inclination when I sat down to draw a comic about cancer was to make it dark, bleak, Gothic, with lots of scritchy-scratchy cross-hatching. I could've drawn the characters as wrinkled, blotchy, warty grotesques and it would've been just as true.

I quickly rejected the idea. It seemed too obvious and "on the nose." It'd already been done. More importantly, I wanted people who'd never read a graphic novel to read Mom's Cancer, and I didn't want the art to repel them. I decided to go the opposite way: make the art as open, friendly and inviting as I could, and then hit the reader with this story that I knew had enough drama without cranking the Pathos Knob up to 11. I deliberately adopted a style and form reminiscent of a 1950s newspaper comic strip; I privately thought of Mom's Cancer as "Family Circus in Hell." That approach informed my character design. But I still had decisions to make. Character by character:

Kid Sis is the youngest, half a generation younger than me. Her features are sharp--her chin pointy, her nose pert, her smile broad, her neck long and slender (elementary cartooning shorthand: the younger the character, the skinnier the neck). I used her glasses to make her look more wide-eyed, innocent and alert than the rest of the characters.

Nurse Sis and I are approximately the same age (to keep family peace, I won't say exactly how much younger than me she is--assume it's a lot). Our jaws are rounder, our noses more bulbous, our hairlines higher, our necks thicker, our faces and bodies more pear-shaped as gravity slowly pulls their contents down. And of course I've got gray hair. Unlike Kid Sis, we've both got a little line under one eye, making us look a bit more baggy and tired.

To be honest (and I've never mentioned this before), my character design for Nurse Sis is one I've used for 20 years in a lot of different comics projects. She didn't start out as my sister; originally, I think she was a short-tempered blue-skinned alien. Later, she was a medieval knight's squire. She was an actor in my repertory company of players that I was already very comfortable drawing who just happened to bear a passing resemblance to Nurse Sis, so I put her on the stage one last time before retiring her.

Mom was 20 years older than me. Her head and body are even more pear-shaped, her nose protuberant, her posture often poor, her jawline jowled into her neck. I drew a little line under both her eyes instead of just one. Life weighed heavier on her, especially in illness. I gave her a striped shirt because I knew it would be interesting to draw and always pull the reader's eye toward her.

I gave each character distinctive hair and clothing. They passed the Silhouette Test. Despite starting with what I thought were pretty decent designs, most of the characters evolved over the months I drew Mom's Cancer. They strayed "off-model" as I drew them over and over, polishing them. It happens in a lot of comics. Usually, a character's look changes fastest in its early days and then more gradually, as the cartoonist figures out what works and standardizes it.

Garfield changed a lot over time, although the most drastic revision happened in his first few years.

When I finished Mom's Cancer and began to prepare it for print, I was struck by how much the characters had wandered, sometimes so much that I had to redraw them to match. Nurse Sis evolved the least because I'd already been drawing that character for years. Kid Sis and I changed a bit; I didn't have to redraw us much. Mom changed the most.

An early drawing of Mom from the webcomic (left) and as I redrew it a couple years later to match how her character had come to look.

I think that happened because her character didn't start with a strong design. Her head and body weren't any particular shape, her hair was kind of a shapeless shag. I didn't get her right to begin with. The same difference is apparent in the original and redrawn panels below.

Ah . . . I see you've noticed the giant Duck. There are obscure corners of the Internet where mention of the Duck can still inflame passions. Here's the deal . . .

My original conceit for Mom's Cancer was that my family would look like people but everyone else would be depicted as animals or objects that somehow symbolized their personalities, a la Animal Farm or Alice in Wonderland. I drew this osteopath as a duck because she was . . . a quack (for my international readers, that's American for "incompetent"). The problem was that there weren't many other characters, and this symbolism idea didn't seem appropriate for the next one. Or the next. After a while, the only non-human character in the story was the Duck, and people reading it for the first time began to ask, "Uh, what's up with that?" Later, when no one else had been drawn as an animal and I hinted that I might change her into a human for the book, fans of the Duck erupted in outrage (i.e., politely voiced mild disagreement). I think I made the right decision, but I gave her a little lapel pin as a nod of respect to her champions.

I'm telling the Duck story to suggest that character design doesn't stand alone. If I'd followed my first inclination, the characters in Mom's Cancer might've looked like gloomy gargoyles; if I'd followed my second, a barnyard menagerie. The type of story and the style with which it's told define the universe your characters inhabit, and directly affect their design. Your people have to live in the world you create.

Coming up (someday): WHTTWOT--you'd think I'd know better.

EDITED TO ADD: Here's Installment #3.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Character Design #1

I've been wanting to talk about how I design characters for a while now, and my recent Design lecture gave me a good excuse to pull together some thoughts and images on the topic. It'll take a few posts; no promises that I'll be quick about it.

As always, this isn't the only way or right way, it's just mine. My fear when I do these "How To" posts is that I'll come off as claiming expertise I don't have. Just so we're clear, I barely know what I'm doing. At the same time, some readers appreciate these looks at "process" and I enjoy writing them. And it's my blog. With that understanding, I'll lay some groundwork today, and in future posts get into examples from Mom's Cancer and Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

Comics distill reality to its essence, and the more essential the better. I think comics work best when visual information is delivered so simply, so iconically, that readers understand its meaning without even thinking about it. They get it at a glance. To help readers along, characters can be designed to contrast: short/tall, fat/skinny, male/female, black/white. The more different they look the better--it not only helps a lot visually, but provides built-in sources of conflict between your characters that you, the writer, can play with later.

Laurel and Hardy: the quintessence of contrast.

Carney and Gleason: same gift, different package.

Farley and Spade: updated for the nineties.

Wilder and Pryor leveraged their physical differences to create characters with conflicting personalities and perspectives.

Sure, Penn and Teller became partners because they were both terrific magicians and performers, but I'll bet the first thing they thought when they met was, "Hey, we'd look great together!"

The Marx Brothers had similar builds and features (after all, they were brothers!), but their props, costumes, hair and posture made each visually distinctive.

The Silhouette Test
I subject my characters to the Silhouette Test: if they were seen from far away or entirely in silhouette, with no detail provided at all, could you still tell who they were? These characters pass the test:

Different makes and models.

Different species and realities.

Krazy Kat, Ingatz Mouse and Offissa Pup are all different and instantly distinguishable.

Stephan Pastis is shrewder than he looks. His characters are practically silhouettes already.

Scooby-Doo: I like this example a lot. You've got two girls who look nothing alike, two boys who look nothing alike, and a giant dog. Every one of these five characters has a unique contour that makes them easy to pick out in the darkness of a haunted house or old abandoned mine.

Below is something I've shown before, part of my initial design work for three characters who will appear in (what I hope will be) my next big project. You can see what I did here, building them from fundamentally different shapes (rectangles, circles, triangles). They're fleshed out a bit more in the second drawing, and by the time they actually show up on the page they'll be more organic and flexible, their component shapes less obvious. But I'll always know these shapes are hiding beneath their clothes and skin, and understanding how they're constructed will make them much easier to draw.

In addition to making my characters look different and distinguishable, I spend a lot of time drawing them from every angle I can think of. Animators call them "turnarounds."

Turnaround for an animated Batman

I have to be sure my characters can smile, frown, scream, walk, run, jump, fall, sleep, and do anything else the action requires them to do. Some designs have limitations, which is fine as long as you know what those limitations are. For example, almost every time a "Peanuts" character raises its hand above its head, it's shown in profile.

Charlie Brown's hands stretch a lot farther in the left panel than they possibly could in the right, where it looks like they couldn't even reach his ears. These kids could never do a chin-up. Mr. Schulz had no problem working with that design limitation for nearly 50 years, but if my characters might need to raise their hands over their heads, I need to make sure they can.

A Space Ghost model sheet drawn by Alex Toth, showing how the character works from different points of view.

A great model sheet for Mickey Mouse circa 1938, showing both how he's constructed from simple shapes and how he looks in action from different angles. A lot of artists think they don't have to worry about figure construction, and just start drawing away. That may be all right for some. But whenever I get frustrated with a drawing that looks wonky and just won't work, I invariably find I've neglected either perspective or figure construction, and going back to basics--defining a horizon line and vanishing point, or blocking in the character's fundamental forms--usually fixes it.

Below are some of the earliest sketches I could find of the character who became Buddy in WHTTWOT. He changed a lot after this, but even here you can see I'm trying out shapes and proportions, seeing how he'd look with different expressions and movement. (BTW, the note that reads "hatchet face" doesn't mean I wanted him to look ugly; it means I wanted his face to literally be shaped like a hatchet.) I did dozens of drawings like these to polish the character design into one I could draw consistently and repeatedly, doing whatever I needed him to do.

Coming up (someday): Some things I think I did right and wrong.

EDITED TO ADD: Here's Installment #2.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Emme Award

A few hours ago in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the American Astronautical Society (AAS) named Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? winner of the 2009 Eugene M. Emme Award for Astronautical Literature for Young Adults. And I wasn't there. Between workload and finances and other things, I decided I couldn't make the cross-country trip to the AAS Annual Conference. But I do get to put that nifty gold-foil sticker (above) on my book, and understand that a plaque will be on its way to me soon.

I'm not fishing for kudos, since I already announced this honor a while ago. However, I did want to share my acceptance speech, which AAS Executive Director Jim Kirkpatrick offered to have the society president read when my name was announced. Here's what I sent him (and don't know if he or anyone else had a chance to read on my behalf):

I very sincerely regret that I couldn’t be there to accept the Emme Award for my book, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. This recognition means a lot to me, particularly since it is the first Emme Award given for Young Adult Books.

The books I read as a boy and teenager made me an amateur astronomer, physics major, environmental chemist, and science writer. They made me fall in love with science long before I ever took a real science class. The powerful influence of good books on young minds is important and worth recognizing. And the idea that my book might help educate and influence someone reading it today, young or old, is the most gratifying honor I can imagine.

Thanks very much.

When I visualized saying that in person, I always followed with a list of the books that were most important to me when I was young, most of which I still have. The Universe and Mr. Einstein (Barnett), Red Giants and White Dwarfs (Jastrow), Mariner IV to Mars (Ley), One Two Three Infinity (Gamow), Cosmos (Sagan), and scads more. If I were feeling impish, I might've even mentioned You Will Go To The Moon (Freeman and Freeman). They made a difference in my life, and if I had to distill what I hope both my books accomplish into one sentence, it'd be that they make a difference in somebody else's.

That's pretty sappy but I'm standing by it.

Thanks again to the AAS, I appreciate the Emme Award probably more than you can imagine.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aboard the Hornet

Commissioned in 1943, survivor of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and recovery ship for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 lunar missions before her decommissioning in 1970, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet is now a national and state historic landmark and museum floating in the waters of San Francisco Bay. My daughter Laura is a volunteer docent-in-training on the Hornet and really wanted to show us where she works, which is how Karen, I, and our other daughter Robin got ourselves a private tour today. It was, to understate enormously, terrific.

(BTW, for the record, I didn't take the photo above. Found it online. Turns out I took about a hundred pictures this morning but not one good one of the ship's exterior from the dock.)

Between its decommissioning in 1970 and its debut as a museum in 1998, the Hornet was mothballed, neglected and abused (a recurring theme from my previous post). I'm sure hundreds of volunteers put in zillions of man-hours making the ship presentable, but what most impressed me was how much it looked like the crew had only just left. Visitors can wander much of the Hornet by themselves (or see more of the ship if led by guides like Laura), and it's remarkable how many areas and artifacts are accessible and unguarded. You really do have the run of the place. Today the Hornet was crawling with several troops of Boy Scouts who'll spend tonight bunking three-high in the crew's quarters. I was both touched by the museum staff's apparent faith in humanity and fearful that someday someone will vandalize something or walk off with a neat souvenir and ruin it for everyone. It's authentic and casual and almost too cool to last.
Captain (in his own mind) on the Bridge
As much as I appreciate the Hornet's history as a warship, particularly its heroic service during World War II, it's the vessel's special place in space history that resonates with me. Following their forays to the Moon, the astronauts of Apollos 11 and 12 took their first steps back on Earth on her deck (in fact, today there are footsteps painted on the deck showing Neil Armstrong's path from the helicopter that plucked him, Aldrin and Collins from the Pacific).
The Hornet at work in July 1969, giving Apollo 11 (lower left) a lift the rest of the way home.
I found this sticker on the door of the Hornet's print shop, curiously located right next to the brig (just in case those writers got out of line, I guess). I imagine a contemporary cartoonist on board added Snoopy's fangs.
The ship's cavernous hangar deck has many aircraft from different eras on display, all interesting in their way, but nothing draws a man's gaze like his first love--in my case, a space capsule and an Airstream trailer.
The capsule is CM-011, an unmanned prototype Apollo-style command module shot into space in 1966 in preparation for the manned lunar missions to follow. The Hornet recovered this spacecraft as well. Friend-of-the-blog and newly minted rocket scientist Jim O'Kane informs me that "there aren't many Block I Apollo spacecraft in the world, and it's neat to have one of them so nearby." I can't argue with science.
The silver Airstream trailer behind it was used to quarantine the astronauts of Apollo 14 after their return from the Moon (the Hornet did not recover Apollo 14, but this "mobile quarantine facility" is very similar (identical?) to the one used for Apollos 11 and 12, which currently resides in the Smithsonian).
When I mentioned on Facebook that my daughter volunteers on the Hornet, Mr. O'Kane asked if I'd seen the CM-011 command module and how close one could get to it. At the time I hadn't yet visited the ship, but today I took this photo to answer him: close enough to give it a big smooch, Jim. Also, the hatch was open, with no barriers blocking the way; if I'd wanted to, I could've climbed in (might've gotten arrested for it, but . . . ). Oh, and Jim--we got to step inside the Airstream, too. I savor your envy.

A perfect Bay Area day on the flight deck of the Hornet, with the towers of San Francisco across the water in the distance.
Today was "Living Ship Day," a monthly event for which the Hornet staff puts on full ruffles and flourishes. Best of all, they run the elevator that was built to lift aircraft from the hangar deck up to the flight deck. I shot two videos. The first (which I shot from the bridge) shows a group of visitors being lifted up to the flight deck. The second I shot as we took the same elevator down.

More than once, it occurred to me that if nine-year-old me had had any idea that one day he'd be standing on the very ship he was watching rescue his heroes from the ocean (standing in the exact same spot they stood!), well . . . I never would have believed it. And if you ever find yourself near the city of Alameda, you could hardly spend a better couple hours than touring the Hornet. Thanks, Laura, and thanks to all the people who keep her afloat!
EDITED TO ADD: I've posted a bunch more photos from the Hornet in my Facebook album, for anyone who's interested.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Far Above Our Poor Power to Add or Detract

Karen had Veterans' Day off and, though a struggling freelancer's labors are never done, I joined her for a ceremony yesterday that seemed to me the perfect way to mark the day.

Our city has a cemetery that was established way beyond the outskirts of town to meet a need that became apparent one day in 1854 when a drunk fell into a puddle and drowned. Early families whose names survive as streets and parks were buried in the old Rural Cemetery. In the century and a half since, of course, the city grew to swallow it and make a lie of its name. The cemetery suffered years of neglect and abuse until in recent decades a corps of volunteers took it on. It still needs work, but it is finally appreciated and cared for.

A minor chapter in the cemetery's story was a monument dedicated on Memorial Day 1914 by local posts of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Union veterans' organization. The small triangle of land contained a large granite obelisk, a wooden garrison flagpole, two cannons captured during the Spanish-American War, and stacks of cannonballs. The monument's fate paralleled the cemetery's. The cannons and cannonballs were sacrificed to the scrap metal drives of World War II, at some point the flagpole went missing, and the area was overgrown. Only the obelisk endured. Volunteers began cleaning up the area in the nineties. With community support they replaced the cannonballs with replicas ("Adopt a Cannonball for $35"). An authentic 100-year-old fir flagpole was installed in 2008. And yesterday we gathered to mark the installation of two replica cannons, completion of the restoration, and the rededication of the Grand Army of the Republic Monument.

The program: Brief remarks from local historians and dignitaries. The Gettysburg Address delivered by President Lincoln. Explosive rifle volleys from a group of six Civil War re-enactors. A benediction. Taps. All set on the face of an oak-covered hill surrounded by the graves of soldiers who died in battles that ranged from the Civil War to World War II, sober reminders that preserving a country is a long-term and occasionally deadly commitment. What more could make a better Veterans Day than that?

Our first Republican president and I.
This gentleman was a pretty terrific Lincoln.

After the rededication we walked around the cemetery and found this marker, overgrown by an oak. This is the sort of thing that encourages one to take a long view of history and one's place in it. And so it goes . . .