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Memoir

Flashback: Ash Wednesday

From my Contrapositive Diary entry for February 25, 2004. I have a conflicted relationship with Lent, as I suggest here and may explain in more detail in coming days as time permits.


Ash Wednesday. Lent is not my favorite season. I spent my Catholic youth up to my nostrils in penitential sacramentality, and it’s taken me a long time to get over it. I’m mostly there; St. Raphael’s parish here [in Colorado Springs] is about as close to perfect a Catholic parish as I’ve seen in my years-long search-and it’s Episcopalian. The boundaries are slippery, but there’s something called Anglo-Catholicism, and…well, that may have to be an entry for another time. Right now, I’m kind of exhausted, but I wanted to relate a quick story of why I really love St. Raphael’s.

We went to the small noon service for Ash Wednesday, a reverent, quiet, music-less Mass with ashes distributed after the sermon. I hadn’t had ashes put on my forehead for a lot of years, nor had I seen a church with the statues and crucifixes covered with violet cloth for even longer-the Romans don’t do such things anymore. Carol was acting as acolyte-an adult altar girl-and I was in the pew by myself. It was hard to see something as deeply mythic as the enshrouded crosses without thinking back to my own childhood, and remembering being in the pews with my parents during Lent, with all the statues covered and in the air that inescapable sense of misdirected contemplation that somehow always came across as fatalistic gloom. As Deacon Edwina made the ashy cross on my forehead, whispering, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return,” I could only think of my father, who became dust far sooner than the father of a confused and anxious young man should. There were tears on my cheeks as I walked back to my pew, and as I began to kneel again, a little girl in the next pew back (whom I didn’t know) reached out and touched my arm.

“Why are you crying?” she asked, her face full of concern.

“I was thinking of my father,” I said, trying to smile and failing, “who died a long time ago.”

She didn’t say anything in reply, but she leaned over the pew, put her arms around my waist, and gave me a quick hug. I was thunderstruck. She was maybe nine years old, and I had never seen her before. (Her family goes to the 8:00 liturgy, and we attend the 10:30.) There are times that I find myself thinking that cynicism has won, and we who believe that all manner of thing will (eventually) be well should just pack it in. But at that moment I felt that if a nine-year-old girl will reach out to comfort an old bald man she doesn’t even know, well, the Bad Guys don’t stand a chance in Hell.

And on Ash Wednesday, to boot. The contrarian moment passed, and I felt wonderful all afternoon. What power our children have over us!

More Monsters

Well, I asked yesterday, and I got: Reader Bob Wilson reminded me of the blob monster flick H-Man (1958; trailer) a Japanese effort featuring a transparent radioactive blob that has a trick I don’t recall seeing in other cinematic blobs: It can change its shape and become humanoid. It’s still transparent (and still radioactive) but it’s still a blob, with an appropriately radium-dial green tint. I only vaguely remembered it, but I did see it in the early ’60s. There were a lot of Japanese people running around, and more monster time-on-screen than most monster movies of that era could boast. YouTube does not have the full movie, so I can’t warn you if there’s kissing. You’ll have to take your chances.

Now, I deliberately left out a film from yesterday’s entry with one of the scariest monsters I’ve ever seen in cinema, for what you might consider a bogus reason: It’s not in a monster movie. It’s in a Disney movie. And not only do you get a really effective monster, you also get to hear a young Sean Connery … singing. Of course, it needs no introduction but I’ll give it one anyway: Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959.) I saw it first-run in the theaters when I was 7, and again in 1977, on a date with Carol. Seeing it the first time with my mom at the Gateway Theater in Chicago, I scrunched down in my seat as far as I could go when Darby first encounters…the banshee.

Ooooooh, did that damned thing freak me out! I’d never heard of banshees at age 7 and didn’t ask a lot of questions. (My mom was Polish, not Irish.) It didn’t look like a ghost, exactly. In truth, I’ve never seen anything quite like it, in cinema or my own fever dreams. I’m pretty sure it was an early use of motion-picture photographic solarization, melted into the main footage with considerable skill. And even 18 years later, at 25, I admired the effect. It was still scary as hell. The movie is good fun, and mostly silliness. (But not all, heh.) If you’ve never seen it before, rent it or watch it online. Prepare to twitch when the banshee first appears. I still do. You will too.

So what other effective monsters might have appeared in non-monster flicks? The obvious answer is the spate of films with Harryhausen monsters. Joe Schwartz reminded me of The Valley of Gwangi, which is basically a western with monsters. The monsters are dinosaurs, which may or may not count as monsters. After all, there really were dinosaurs. I’m pretty sure there aren’t banshees. The film was released in 1969, some years after my monster phase was over. I’ve never seen it, but here’s the monster-rich (not to mention cowboy-rich) trailer.

Now, I did see a few more Harryhausen monsterfests, the earliest of which was The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Lotsa monsters, including (among others) a (single) skeleton swordsman, a two-headed giant bird, a dragon, and of course the film’s emblematic cyclops, all beautifully done, and integrated into the actual story. I went to see it with my older cousin Diane at the Lyric theater in Blue Island. As with most Harryhausen films, the whole movie is not to be had on YouTube, but here’s another reasonably monster-y sampler.

By 1963, Harryhausen was the world master of stop-motion animation, and created another monster-saturated toga epic that is probably his best-known work: Jason and the Argonauts (1963; full 720p rip, not sure how they got away with it.) The Golden Fleece, Talos, the Hydra, a talking ship figurehead, harpies, Neptune (ok, not Harryhausen) lotsa dancing girls (ditto) and, oh, how marvelously: the Children of the Hydra’s Teeth. I was 11 and at the tail-end of my monster phase, but those guys scared me silly. Of all the wonders Harryhausen ever created, that climactic battle is what he’ll be remembered for a thousand years from now.

When I graduated 8th grade at 13, I traded monster movies for better things, like telescopes and electronics. Again, as I said yesterday, I’m sure I saw lots more that I don’t remember well enough to describe, probably because they were terrible. No matter. As the curtain came down on my monster era, I suddenly realized that I had a whole new category of Things To Be Afraid Of…girls.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story entirely.

Revisiting the Monsters of My Youth…

…on YouTube. I’ve been poking around on YouTube in my odd moments, looking for tutorials, music videos, cartoons, and anything else that popped into my head that might be sound and/or video. The other day, I went looking for monsters. And not just any monsters. What I searched for were the monsters I saw on TV when I was quite young. Some of them scared the hell out of me when I was 8 or 9. Some of them were so cheesy that I laughed at them even then. The really scary thing about this YouTube adventure is that I found every last one of them. (Or at least their trailers.) On YouTube. Most were free to watch in their entirety–not that I did.

First on my list was The Creeping Unknown, (1955) which in the UK was called The Quatermass Experiment. This got a lot of play when I was in grade school, and my father, having seen it on the family-room TV a few too many times, dubbed it The Creeping Kilowatt Crud. You can see the whole thing on YouTube. I wasn’t expecting it to be remastered to film resolution, which makes it look way better than it did on any of our TVs. I didn’t watch all of it. I mostly ran the slider across until I found “the good parts;” i.e., where they actually show the monster or at least the cool Heinleinian spaceship it rode in on. I vividly recall my annoyance at seeing most monster movies having a lot of talking and running around and (occasionally) some kissing (yukkh!) but…not much monster. The Creeping Unknown was better than most in that regard, though the monster was a not-quite-a-blob creature who was originally an astronaut who brought back an alien infection from…somewhere…and gradually turned into the monster. It crawled around and was eventually electrocuited on a repair scaffold somewhere inside Westminster Abbey, hence my father’s nickname for it.

I remembered the monster badly; I thought it was a true blob monster, but hey–at late 1950s TV resolution, it might as well have been. If you like period pieces, watch the whole thing. For the monster genre, it was surprisingly well done.

Not all were. For a true blob monster (which were a sort of Hollywood cottage industry in that era) I had to dredge up X the Unknown (1956.) It was an obvious ripoff of The Creeping Unknown, done on the cheap. The monster was a big black tarry glob that bubbles up out of a hole in the Scottish highlands and starts eating people. The monster didn’t get much screen time, but I remember one very well-executed shot of the monster rolling toward a town. I recognized the technique immediately: They had mixed up something viscous but cohesive, colored it black, and photographed it rolling down a sloping miniature set, with the camera in the plane of the set. On screen, it was a house-sized blob monster rolling down a country road on its merry way. Well-done, and scary in spots, even if the seams were often visible.

Much scarier in a body-horror way is a blob movie called Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959.) (Italian titles; dubbed in English.) A sort of spaghetti monster movie, it came from Italy and scared the crap out of a lot of young Americans, myself included. A researcher in Mexico discovers that the Mayans didn’t just disappear; a blob monster ate them. And sunuvugun if the monster isn’t still there, and still hungry. The monster gets a reasonable amount of screen time, especially toward the end. And yes, it looks like a livingroom’s worth of bad ’70s carpeting dyed black with a couple of extras underneath it, pushing it around in bloblike ways. The scary parts are seeing what it does to the unfortunates it latches onto. Even when I was ten, I could tell the dialog did not match the lip movements of the actors. I didn’t care. Monsters are a language in and of themselves.

Sure, I watched it (back in the Sixties) but the less said about The Unknown Terror (1957) the better. I’ll give you a rank spoiler here and say that the monster looks a lot like…man-eating soapsuds.

Oddly, I never saw The Blob (1958) when I was a kid. Maybe the local TV stations thought it was too scary. Dunno. If it had been on Chicago’s Channel 7 (as most monster flicks were) well, I would have seen it. You can watch the whole thing (this time in color) at the link above. Lots of footage of the pinkish-purple Blob eating people, though as blobs go it was kind of featureless and, given the color they made it, did not carry much sense of menace.

So much for blobs. There are doubtless other blob movies that I haven’t heard of. (Got any?) Blobs, are, well, cheap, compared to dinosaurs or aliens. Now for a much better monster; indeed, one of my all-time favorites: 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957; the link is to a monster-rich excerpt) has a Ray Harryhausen animated monster. And, weirdly, the scriptwriter was the older sister of the nice lady who lived next door to where I grew up. Charlott Knight (1894-1977) used to come visiting from Hollywood circa 1960, and she would sit on the front porch of her sister’s house and tell stories to the neighborhood kids, including me. She told us she wrote 20 Million Miles to Earth, (which we had seen on TV more than once) and I admit I didn’t believe her at the time. It wasn’t until IMDB appeared that I could look her up, and…yes. That was her. She also played bit parts on Pettitcoat Junction. The monster in the movie (which Charlott called a “Ymir,” though the word is not used in the film itself) was the first I’d seen with a sympathetic edge. Astrononauts took an egg from Venus, brought it to Earth, and hatched the poor thing into a world its kind had never known. It grew quickly, though as best I recall the only thing it ate was sulfur. (The full movie, being a Harryhausen, is still being marketed and is not available on YouTube.) It gets loose in Rome, fights a hapless elephant, and is harrassed by the Italian military as it climbs around on the Colosseum, making a mess. By the end I felt sorry for it. Sympathetic monsters have since become a thing, but this is the oldest example I can think of. And I knew the person who thought it up, wow.

Now, I recall a childhood fear of robots. I dreamed once that a gigantic metal robot foot stomped on the Weinbergers’ house across the street. Where that came from is a bit of a mystery. Scary robots were less common than other monsters, and the ones I remember seeing weren’t all that scary. Gog (1954) starred two mini-tank robots built to ride a rocket into outer space. The robots were cool, though we don’t actually see them until half the film is over. In truth, they got very little screen time at all, and were not in fact the actual villains in the story. In Tobor the Great (1954) the robot was the good guy, as was Robbie in Forbidden Planet (1956).

For a real robot bad guy from my childhood, I have to cite Kronos (1957). The premise is stone-dumb: Aliens somewhere are running short on something, so they send a sort of gigantic robot battery to Earth to suck up all our electricity and take it home–so that the aliens can convert that energy into matter. (They must have run out of asteroids.) The robot itself, however, was unlike anything else in monster cinema: It consisted of two huge cubes connected by a neck, with a dome and a pair of antennae on top. It was several hundred feet tall. It had four cylindrical legs that went up and down, and some kind of rotating force cushion beneath it, or something. It lands on the Mexican coast, and marches north toward LA, stepping on Mexicans and sucking up energy from any powerplant it encounters. It even inhales the energy of a nuclear bomb, dropped on it by an actual B-36. Eventually they decide to short it out, and like any battery with a sufficiently low internal resistance would, it melts. Dumb as the premise was, Kronos the robot had considerable novelty value: It was not just some guy in a robot suit. The models and the opticals were pretty decent for 1957. It’s good enough to waste an hour and a half on the next time you catch a bad cold, though with a warning: There’s…kissing.

So, apart from Kronos, I’m not sure what gave me robotophobia as a five-year-old. Mutant dinosaurs like The Giant Behemoth (1959; nice 1080p rip) and Godzilla (1954) didn’t do much for me. Ditto Rodan (1956) and Gorgo (1961), though Rodan had his moments. Dinosaurs were already scary; making them even bigger did not make them any scarier. Mothra? (1962) A giant…moth? ummm…no. For real chills and grade-school nightmares, nothing in that era could compare to… The Crawling Eye (1958).

The film was made in England, and called The Trollenberg Terror over there. Mountain climbers in the Trollenberg (a German mountain range) start getting their heads torn off up at the summit. Cold-climate aliens are holed up in the crags somewhere, trying to get ahead. (Sorry.) When the supply of mountain climber heads thins out, they start edging down the mountain, looking for more.

I had literally not seen the film in fifty-odd years, and remembered the monsters badly. They were huge fat octopus-like things, with lots of squirmy tentacles and one great big bloodshot eye in the middle of it all. In 1965 or so, I thought the special effects people had cheaped out and painted a pupil on a beachball for the eye. It was better than that. You don’t have to take my word for it. And you don’t even have to watch the whole damned movie. Somebody with a serious monster fetish has copied out all the scenes that actually show the monster, and you can see it here. Got three and a half minutes to waste? That’s all it takes. Way back in the Sixties, we watched the whole thing for three minutes of monster. My research tells me that that’s not an aberration. That’s how the monster genre worked.

There were a lot of other monster flicks in that era. The ones I cite here are the ones I remember most vividly. The ones more easily forgotten had cheesy monsters or almost no monsters at all. Curse of the Demon was originally filmed without a visible monster. They put one in because everybody wanted to see the Demon. It was cheesy as…hell, heh. It was onscreen for maybe a minute and a half. I saw it once and that was plenty. I saw The She Creature, but it was a cheap ripoff of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and I confess I don’t recall anything but the fact that the monster was visibly female. The Monolith Monsters were gigantic crystals that grew and spread before the good guys do…something. (I forgot what.) My only clear impression is that the crystals would be relatively easy to outrun.

Oh, there were lots more. The Amazing Collosal Man (1957) and its way dumber sequel, War of the Collosal Beast (1958.) Reptilicus (1961) which I saw at an outdoor theater in Green Bay, with my cousins. The monster was a puppet; kind of like Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, with fangs. The Giant Claw (1957.) It looked like an enormous turkey buzzard. I already knew what turkey buzzards looked like. Making one huge only made it look silly.

And on and on and on. We have better monsters these days, including some really scary robots, like AMEE from Red Planet (2000). (AMEE may be the scariest robot in any movie, ever.) And, of course, Alien/Aliens (1979/86), Predator (1987), Cloverfield (2008) and numerous others. The big difference is that I wasn’t ten years old when I saw Alien. (I was 27.) As I wrote here some years ago, monster movies are how young boys learn bravery. It was certainly true for me. Now, I can look back at the whole silly-ass genre…and laugh.

That was a lot harder in 1962, trust me.

Frank W. Duntemann’s 100th Birthday

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Today is my father’s 100th bithday. For newcomers: No, he’s not still with us. He died 44 years ago, after a hideous nine-year battle against smoking-caused cancer. I was 16 when he was diagnosed, and my sister only 12. As you might imagine (especially if you’ve had loved ones struck by cancer) our family life was never the same after that.

I’ve already told most of the good stories about him in this space, and I’ve posted nearly all of the good photos I have of him. He was the photographer in the family, so in most cases when things were going on he was on the other side of the camera. The photo above is not my scan and isn’t terrific. But it represents one of his stories that I don’t think I’ve yet recounted here: When he was in high school, one of his father’s friends sent him a baby alligator while she vacationed in Florida. Alex was a real alligator, and family legend holds that when he grew big enough to be a hazard, ate a neighbor’s cat. The family then donated Alex to the Lincoln Park Zoo, and, according to my father, they went to see him now and then.

A few years ago I told the story about how, when he returned from the War, he smuggled home a mongrel puppy that the GIs at an experimental radar base in Mali had adopted. He was never without a dog (or sometimes two) after that.

So, with all the stories told, what more can I say? Something I can say in only two words, which I will put in big bold type so that nobody can mistake them:

Fathers Matter.

Why? Fathers civilize us. Mothers have a role there too, but (especially for boys) fathers teach us how to put our killer-ape genes on a leash and contribute to the peace and prosperity on which our very uneven world depends.

In my first 16 years my father taught me a great many things, but what I consider his most important lessons are these:

  • That girls are not playthings, but colleagues, friends, and…soulmates. “If you’re lucky and smart, you’ll marry your best friend. I did.”
  • That the best part about being smart is the ability to teach yourself new things. “The most important subjects in school are English and Math. Ace those, and you already know everything else. You just have to read the books and work the problems.”
  • That fighting is a last resort. “If other kids laugh at you, laugh with them. Life demands a sense of humor. Then walk away. But if some SOB ever corners you, hit him where it hurts.”
  • That responsibilities must be met. “A man provides for and protects his wife, his kids, his animals, and his property.”
  • Finally, and most crucially, that life demands energy and enthusiasm, but also discernment: “Kick ass. Just don’t miss.”

Thanks, dad. I never learned to love beer or baseball, but what I learned from you turned out to be most of what counts in life. Godspeed.

Birthdays and Horizons

69 today. That’s a good number, as it’s the same upside-down as rightside-up. The last one of those I passed through was 11, so it’s been awhile. (Ok, sure 1 and maybe 8, depending on the font.) Quick aside: 1961 also looked the same both ways, at least on pennies.

69 is the last year before one of what I call horizons rises to meet me: As a younger man, I thought of 70 as the horizon between ordinary people and…old people. So next year I’ll be a genuine, card-carrying Old Guy. Does this bother me?

Not on your life. Or mine.

Life is all about horizons. When I was in kindergarten, first grade was a horizon. When I was in grade school, high school and college were horizons. Marriage was a horizon, understanding it poorly as I did when I was six or seven. I remember wondering if you had to have a job before you could get married. I imagined living with a girl, and it was a…peculiar imagining, at 9 or 10. In truth, I could more easily imagine going to the Moon. I considered that a horizon as well; in fact, when I was a senior in high school, my lunch table vowed to meet on the Moon on New Year’s Eve 1999. It seemed so far away, in time as in space. We’d come so far so fast–how could it not happen?

Not every horizon comes when it’s called.

College, mon dieu. That horizon hit me in the face and damned near broke my nose. I got past it. I graduated, and got a job. That was a horizon. Leaving home was a horizon, one I avoided for far too long. I proposed to my best friend–one horizon–followed quickly by our wedding–another horizon.

Ordinary life can be deceptive. If you squint a little, you can avoid seeing any horizons. You get up, go to work, come home, have dinner, write/tinker/work 20 meters, then go to bed, confident that the same thing will happen tomorrow. Nonetheless, the horizons are there. My father’s death was a horizon, one I could see coming a long way off, and it shook me to the core. Scarcely a year later, one of my friends died. He was a fireman, and a wall fell on him while he was making sure everyone had gotten out alive. Seeing friends die is a horizon that few of us see coming, especially when we’re still in our twenties. It was scant comfort to remind myself that Bill Nixon was a hero. He was only the first. There have been many since then.

Starting my own company was a old dream of mine, and in 1989 it jumped up and said “Hi!” Horizons can be like that. Losing that company 12 years later was another horizon, one that almost ate me alive. Having my first book published was an even older horizon. I remember a dream in which I was holding my first book, without knowing what book it was. Sometimes horizons don’t tell you much about themselves until they’re already in your rear-view mirror.

Retirement was a very old horizon; I remember thinking as a teen that 2017–when I would turn 65–was an eternity away. Flying cars! Mars base! Heh. Today, well, 2017 seems almost quaint.

Horizons are firsts and onlies. You do them once and they change you, and then, sooner or later another one comes around the corner at a gallop.

Be ready.

My Great-Grandmother’s 150th Birthday

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I was adding a couple of new names to my Family Tree Maker 2019 database last week when I realized that Martha Winkelman Duntemann’s 150th birthday was coming up. Today’s the day, and for me it’s worth some modest celebration. Martha (who died in 1967) is now 150 years old–and I knew her. That seems odd, bordering on the impossible somehow.

But it’s true. Martha was born on a Bensenville, Illinois farm on April 10, 1871. I have a scan of an old plat map somewhere with the names of the farmers on their acreage. I believe the Winkelman farm was on land now part of O’Hare Field. The Duntemann farm certainly was. In fact, I discovered with a little mapwork that the Duntemann farmhouse was almost directly where the airport’s boiler plant is. You see it from the freeway coming out of the main terminal on your right. Interestingly, my father was the gas company liaison engineer to the city when they built the gas-fired boiler plant in the early 1960s. He never knew (as best I recall) that his great-grandfather’s farm was right there.

Martha married Frank W. Duntemann on January 31, 1892. She was 19; he 24. They had two sons: Harry George Duntemann, born on October 20 of that year, and Elvin Frederick Duntemann, born July 16, 1895. Harry was my grandfather, and Uncle El was a jolly, goodhearted man whom I saw less often than I should have. Martha’s husband Frank died in 1936. My father was named after him. The family photo shown below is undated, but by the ages of the boys I’m guessing 1900.

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Frank did not go into farming as most of his four brothers did. Instead he established a general store in the little railroad town of Orchard Place, Illinois, roughly where Higgins Road crosses the Soo Line railroad. Soon after the store opened, Frank got the job of Orchard Place postmaster, which he held until a year or two before he died.

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The family lived over the general store. Martha shut the store down after Frank died and Des Plaines took over the mail processing. By 1936 she was 65, and did not want to tend the store on her own. Her son Elvin took some of the inventory and created a coal and building materials dealership in a new, larger building up the road a ways, which was in business well into the 1950s. The store was converted to a separate first-floor apartment. Martha lived the rest of her life on the second story, alone, for another 30 years.

Orchard Place met its end in the mid-1950s. The Feds literally dropped an Interstate on it. The NW Tollway was built over what little “main street” the town had. Before the toll road was built, many of the old houses, including the General Store building, were moved a few blocks north into what by then was a Des Plaines residential neighborhood. The old store building is still there on Curtis Street, and is now owned by one of my cousins, a grandchild of Uncle El.

Martha was less alone than you might think. There were several Duntemann families on the same block, including Elvin and his three children and their families. When we went out to visit when I was a kid, I played with my cousins, but always went upstairs to say hi and get a hug from my great-grandma. I have a grainy b/w photo from 1954 or 1955 (below) including four Duntemann generations: Martha, her son Harry and his wife, Harry’s son Frank (my father), my mother, my Aunt Kathleen, and…me. Oh, and two dogs, Willie and Rebel, who didn’t particularly get along. Rebel is cut off at the bottom of the photo, held firmly in place by my mother. Willie, on my dad’s lap, apparently wanted to be anywhere else but there.

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Martha was rail-thin, energetic, and spry to the end of her life. She had 19 great-grandchildren and often had a pile of my younger cousins on her lap:

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She went up and down the stairs to her apartment unaided until three weeks before she died at age 96, and never missed church on Sundays. She is buried beside her husband Frank at Town of Maine Cemetery, Park Ridge.

Obviously, I wish I had known her better. But she lived out in the burbs, and died when I was 14. Remarkably, she outlived all four of my grandparents (including her son Harry) who died when I was 2, 4, 12, and 13. I wished I’d known them better too–granting that my mother’s parents were Polish immigrants who didn’t speak English.

So here’s to you, Great-Grandma! Happy 150th Birthday! You carried the flame of life down to me (and by now, hordes of others including my sister’s girls and my cousins who now have kids who have kids, yikes!) and it was an honor to know you even as little as I did. You are my link to a time when trains ran on coal and Chicago’s suburbs were mostly cornfields. Until we meet again…go with God, and rest assured that the gift of life you gave us has not been wasted.

Bringing the 10″ Scope Back to Life

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When I was 14, I took an opportunity and started out on a very large project: A friend of mine bought an Edmund Scientific mirror-making kit, decided he didn’t have the time to pursue it, and sold it to me. The kit included a 10″ Pyrex mirror blank, a plate glass tool blank, and all the abrasives needed to grind and polish it. I did most of the grinding in my basement, using a defunct round wringer washer as a grinding station. I followed the instructions in the kit, along with whatever I could find in the library, and though it took a couple of months, in time I had a Pyrex blank with a smooth curve, focusing at about 67 inches. My goal was 70, so I came pretty close, and in truth, 67″ would make for a shorter and somewhat lighter tube.

Now, grinding is only half the job. Polishing the ground mirror surface took sophisticated methods to gauge the accuracy of the curve, which has to be a parabola to focus items at infinity (like stars) to a sharp image. I decided I was over my head, and did the sensible thing: I enrolled in a class at the Adler Planetarium on Chicago’s lakefront, which took up most of the summer that I turned 15. They had an optical shop in the basement that included the required Focault tester, plus a superb teacher, Ken Wolf, who helped me get the polishing done and mirror curve accurate. They were also able to aluminize it, and by that fall, I had a 10″ F6.7 parabolic telescope mirror accurate to 1/25 wave, which was bogglingly accurate for a first shot by a 15-year-old.

The rest of the scope took another two years and change to complete. A friend’s father made me a tube out of sheet aluminum. I built a tube saddle out of scrap wood and hardware-store aluminum stock. I had no tools more sophisticated than my dad’s circular saw and saber saw. And that was for woodworking–for metal I did it all with a hacksaw and files. I had some help from my high school machine shop teacher, who dug up a piece of iron that he said was hull metal from a scrapped battleship. He cut it to size on the big bandsaw for me. I spent many study hall hours in his shop on one of the lathes, boring out 2″ pipe fittings and making numerous small parts. I owe Mr. Brinkmann a huge debt of gratitude. Without his help and the use of his machines, I could not have finished the scope.

It was going to be a big scope, and a much heavier one than the 8″ Newtonian I had built from a Sam Brown book the summer I turned 14. I turned my attention to building a base. There was a lot of scrap lumber in the crawlspace. I had the notion of building a cement form out of scrap lumber and pouring a solid triangular concrete shape 36″ on a side with bolts embedded in the top for the battleship-metal mount.

So I built me a cement form.

Whoops. Doing some math and library research showed me that the concrete base would weigh at least 400 pounds. Yes, I could make it–but once I made it, I had no idea how I would move it. So I was left with a scrap lumber cement form…

I.D.E.A!

FirstDateSketchTelescope - 325 Wide.jpgThe form was made entirely from 2″ dimensional lumber, from 2X4s to a scrap of 2X12. I could carry it around with only a little puffing. So I would use the cement form as the telescope base.

A lot more work and allowance money would go into the telescope before I finished it–more or less–in the fall of 1969. On an early date with a pretty 16-year-old girl I had met in church, I told her about the project and drew a picture of it on her little spiral notebook. (See left. She enjoyed talking about science. So did I. She married me in October 1976, and our flag still flies.)

I used that scope a lot, even though it was bulky and heavy and awkward to cart around. In 2000, I (finally!) poured a concrete base for it at our house at the north end of Scottsdale. (See below.) I bought a large plastic trash can to put over the scope to keep the weather off it, and enjoyed it tremendously. Well, we moved to Colorado in 2003. When I went behind the garage to fetch out the now-retired wood base, I discovered that the local termites had been feasting for a couple of years, and there was nothing much left.

I haven’t had the 10″ assembled since. And it’s now about damned time to get to work.

10 inch with Michael Abrash - 2001 - 500 Wide.jpg

I’ve spent a couple of weekends messing with it. Yesterday I bolted the aluminum tang to the base, and although there will be some refinements, what you see below is pretty much what you’ll see when it’s in service.

New 10 inch wood base 1- 500 Wide.jpg

The equatorial head is still workable, though tremendously heavy. I hope to build a new one out of aluminum. In the meantime, I see no reason why I can’t have it up and working by the time of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21. The two giant planets will appear just 6.1 arc-minutes apart, close enough to see in the same eyepiece field, and closer in the sky than they’ve been since 1623. A conjunction of this sort is said by some to be the Christmas Star that the Three Wise men followed to Bethlehem. Miss that? No way!

More on the 10″ scope project as it happens.

The Odd Lots Project

Every so often someone sends me an email to ask, “Is there any place I could find your story ‘Our Lady of the Endless Sky’? I read it years ago and it was a really good story. I’d like to read it again.” Swap in the title of any of several other stories or idea pieces that I published in PC Techniques / Visual Developer what seems now like decades ago–because it is. Some of my idea pieces and humor from the magazine are already up, linked in an archive page that you can find here.

Still, it’s only a few of them, mostly because for those few I still had the original word processor files. Most of those files have been lost. All that remains are the magazines themselves.

Five or six years ago I sketched out an idea for a book containing some of the old BEGIN / END / The Vision Thing / Breakpoint pieces, plus some of my better Contra entries. For almost four years I was occupied with my new novel Dreamhealer. (The paperback edition is now for sale on Amazon, so that project is finally complete.) With Dreamhealer out of the way, a week or so ago I started building a TOC and searching out files for as many pieces as I still have. Some had to be scanned and OCRed from the magazines. Some were buried in odd folders in my data drive. All of them needed cleaning up. Quite a few I have only in WordPerfect format. Fortunately I can convert these using a handy utility called QuickView Plus. The Contra entries are copy’n’paste.

I work on it when time permits. I now have 45,000 words in the master Word file. My target is 75,000 words. There’s still plenty of scanning and OCRing to do, plus introductions to put all this ancient stuff in context.

The book will have seven sections:

  1. Essays and Editorials
  2. From Contrapositive Diary
  3. Poetry (maybe)
  4. Parody
  5. Memoir
  6. None of the Above.

The Poetry section may not happen. I’ve only written three poems in my life that I would show to the general public. Two of them are e.e.cummings pastiche and one Robert Frost pastiche. When God was handing out poetry genes I was standing in the Whimsical Tutorials line. (Fortunately, it was a short line.)

One thing that won’t be included in Odd Lots is “STORMY vs. the Tornadoes,” which appears in my AI SF collection Souls in Silicon . There are a few items that fall in the forbidden zone between fiction and nonfiction, which is what the “None of the Above” section will capture.

I will publish it in both Kindle ebook format and trade paperback. I don’t have a timetable yet, but in nice round numbers I’d like to see it laid out and ready to publish by the end of the year. When I flesh out the TOC a little more, I’ll post it here, and if you remember something that you liked but don’t see in the TOC, let me know in the comments.

The biggest task for now is simply reviewing Contra to remind myself what I’ve done. This is a challenge, as I’ve been publishing Contra now for 22 years and have about 5,000 entries. I’m working on that. So stay tuned. This will be fun. I don’t expect to sell thousands of copies. Mostly what I want to do is put a lot of my mostly-forgotten work back in the public eye. This’ll do it.

Flashback: A Letter from Ma to the #1 Bum on V-J Day

Given that it’s the 75th anniversary of VJ-Day today, tomorrow, or maybe September 2, I want to re-post an entry I posted fifteen years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. On August 14, 1945, my grandmother Sade wrote a letter to her only son Frank (my father) while he was still at a radio base in Mali, North Africa. That letter is a marvelous little glimpse of how ordinary people responded to the end of the biggest and most calamitous war in human history. Follow the links to the letter. It’s worth your time. Really.

Below, a photo from 1950. L-R: My mother Victoria, my father Frank, my aunt and godmother Kathleen, my grandfather Harry and my grandmother Sade.

LR Vickie Frank Kathleen Harry Sade 1950-500 Wide.jpg


The day after Pearl Harbor, my father enlisted, along with all of his friends and cousins who were of age. This gang of fifteen-odd random Chicago kids scattered to the far corners of the world during the War, but one thing held them together: My grandmother’s Underwood typewriter. Throughout WWII, Sade “Ma” Duntemann called them The Bums, and (almost) monthly published The Bum’s Rush, a one-sheet newsletter carefully typed in two columns and run off after hours on a mimeo machine at the First National Bank downtown, where my grandfather Harry “Pops” Duntemann was a bank officer. She drew (or borrowed) little cartoons, and once enclosed a copy of a photo of the pool table in their basement, where my father and his buddies had hung out before enlisting. The newsletter held all the neighborhood gossip, and when possible descriptions of where the Bums were and what they were doing. The January 1945 issue described how my dad’s younger cousin John Phil Duntemann lost a toe when a greenhorn trainee backed T-5 John’s own bulldozer over his foot.

Five or six years ago, my sister and I unearthed something else: A private letter to the #1 Bum (our father) written by Sade on that same typewriter. It began on August 14, running on to the 15th, and it was a first-hand account of the gathering expectation and then the pandemonium in Chicago when news came that the War was finally over. It’s as close to a time machine as I’ll ever find. I cannot read it without hearing her voice, and the shouts in the street, and the church bells, the car horns, and the laughter and the joyous relief beginning a block off North Clark Street in Chicago, and spreading throughout a tired and grateful world. I knew a lot of these people, though most are now gone. I also know and appreciate what they did, so if they went a little nuts, and got a little drunk and silly, well, they earned every second of it.

Don’t try too hard to sort out the names. Sis was my Aunt Kathleen. The Marks (“Marxes”) were cousins. John Malone was my dad’s best friend and (later) his best man, and the families were very close. Most other people mentioned were neighbors. Willie is the mongrel dog my father later smuggled home from Africa, which is a wonderful story I will tell on the anniversary of my father’s return from the War.

Sade Prendergast Duntemann was very Catholic and very Irish. She tried to infuse her letters with some of that Irishness, and if you’re not used to reading Irish dialect, it may be confusing. So what I’ve done is prepared three copies, and you should attempt them in this order: Look at the scanned images of the letter (it’s faded and hard to read, but at least scan it) then read the literal transcription. If you can’t figure something out, then read the third version, which I edited a little for comprehensibility. “Demoni” means “tomorrow” in Italian. And I have absolutely no idea where Kernenyok is!

Image, Side 1 (521K) Image, Side 2. (567K)

Literal transcription.

Edited transcription.

I can add nothing to that. I’ll only say that when I was ten and my grandmother’s health was failing, she gave me that old Underwood typewriter, and I furiously pounded out stories on it for almost ten years until the keys started to fall off. I didn’t appreciate it at the time (How could I? and what 10-year-old ever does?) but no other gift apart from Carol’s gift of herself would ever change me more.

Flashback: Getting Past Nagasaki

I ran the first Contrapositive Diary Flashback in February, and I’m doing it again. I won’t do it a lot, but with August being the 75th Anniversary of the end of WWII, I want to re-post a few pertinent things I wrote fifteen years ago that bear saying again. Some of you have seen this before, back in 2005. Many of you haven’t. This entry is a particularly grim one, but human history hands us grim sometimes. We don’t get the history we want. We have to deal with the history we get.


We’re approaching the 60th [now 75th] anniversary of the end of World War II. I have something odd and upbeat to post on VJ-Day, assuming I can find the files. [I did. You’ll see them.] If not, I have some scanning and OCRing to do again, sigh.

Sigh, indeed. Yesterday was the 60th [now 75th] anniversary of our dropping a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. Many or even most people who are not completely ignorant of the history of WWII or totally wigged out by nuclear weapons understand the necessity of Hiroshima. The world stood stunned as the smoke cleared, and against a threat like that, Imperial Japan would have caved in days. Then there was August 9. Why did we have to do it again?

First of all, avoid the temptation to second guess and judge the people who lived the era and bore the responsibility. People were dying across the world, not by hundreds or thousands, but by millions. Whole nations and peoples were virtually wiped off the planet. How well would you have handled it?

I’ve been boning up on my 20th century history lately, through several books like The Great Influenza, The Fall of the Dynasties, and The War Against the Weak, along with a quick flip through the marvelous 1966 American Heritage Picture History of WWII, though I wept when I read my father’s notes in the margins. Good God, he was there, in the thick of all that hell, dust, and death. He, at least, got back alive, as a man named Robert Williams, who might otherwise have been my father, did not.

I think I understand Nagasaki. I don’t like the understanding I have, but I understand: WWI ended scarcely twenty years before WWII began. The death-stink of Verdun remained vivid in the memories of those who survived it. (They are still digging unexploded ordnance from those now-peaceful fields!) The world seemed to be recognizing a pattern: Every generation, a strange psychosis reached some sort of critical mass, and erupted in increasingly deadly conflicts between nation-states that (by 1945) should long have known better. Even as Nazi Germany collapsed, I think that forward-looking people were charting the line between 1870, 1914, and 1939, and did not like the shadow they saw ahead. The points were growing closer, and the death toll higher, each time that the world went to war. Patton knew what Stalin was, and although he was forbidden his plan to take Moscow, I think his superiors came to understand Patton’s insight. I’m almost certain that the next European war would have come by 1955, and a nuclear-powered Soviet Union would have reduced much of Europe to sizzling ash.

Instead, we took Nagasaki. One might have been a fluke, or good luck. Two in four days was a statement that could not be ignored. In a sense, the American leadership was telling the rest of the world, Stalin and every other emerging nationalist psychopath who might be watching: This..nonsense..will..stop…now.

I mourn for Nagasaki, as I mourn for the Jews, and the Russians, and the Ukraine, and my mother’s high-school sweetheart. It’s been quiet now for sixty years. There has never been another nuclear attack. In my view, there has never actually been another war. (Those who consider Iraq I or II or even Vietnam a “war” need to read more history.) The world turned a corner in 1945. We stopped connecting the dots, and there is some hope that the horrible line between 1870, 1914, and 1939 will not be drawn again. 75,000 people died at Nagasaki, but had they not died, 100,000,000 would almost certainly have perished the next time the world erupted.

Remember: There is no such thing as pacifism. Doing nothing is doing something. There is no escaping responsibility. There are no good choices. All we can do is bless our dead for what their lives have purchased, and move on.