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Socotra House Publishing: Purveyor of Glib Words to the World

Socotra House Publishing is a small press dedicated to publishing and distributing the historical works of Vic Socotra, a non-mortal fellow who captures American and military history with aplomb.

Jim’s Favorite Pie


I am writing this on the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, one of the nadirs of a really bad decade that hadn’t even seen Jimmy Carter elected President yet.

I have to get along to the Gold Cup festival today at Great Meadow, so I am writing ahead a bit.

We were talking about pies the other night. It had got around to dessert topics, since Lovely Jamie had tucked into a sandwich before coming over and wanted to know what kind of cake Kate Jansen had produced for the evening meal.

Old Jim was expansive, and began a narrative about the pies of his life. His mother had been an awesome cook- his Dad was a pretty good chef as well, but his mom specialized in the best apple pie in the County, and won the gold medal at the Fair one year that came with a $100 prize.

That was when a c-note was something significant, and the accomplishment was documented in the Northhampton and Springfield papers.

His father specialized in a sort of hybrid lemon-cake pie with sweet-sour layer in the middle, but that got me thinking about key-lime and pecan pies, and the discussions rambled from there.

“My Mom never looked at a recipe,” declared Jim. “It got her in trouble one time. She was supposed to make three pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving. Woe betide any dog or bird that tried to get close to them as they cooled on the porch railing on the back of the house. Anyway, this time she got distracted by something and when the pies came out of the oven, she realized she had forgotten to include the eggs in the filling.”

“Complete waste, right?”

“You bet. The three pies went right into the sink. A complete write-off. She made three more, popped them in the oven, and when they were supposed to be done, she realized she had forgotten the eggs again.”

“Ouch. Bet she was out of all the ingredients except the eggs, right?”

“Yep. She yelled for me and my brother to go the store immediately. She was beside herself.”

Willow’s patio was buzzing with the glory of the Spring afternoon and Jasper and Sammy were bustling in and out the double doors serving the thirsty customers.

Ultimately, we covered all the pies, we could think of, including the cherry pies made from the uniquely succulent fruit grown in Leelanau County in Michigan’s northwest lower peninsula.

“So what was your favorite pie?” I asked, thinking of all of them in an endless line of shimmering caloric glory.
Jim smiled and leaned forward. “Prune.”

Never in my life would I have considered that my favorite pie, but if Jim likes it, I am prepared to give it a try. In the meantime, I need to go put on my seersucker suit, grab a suitable bow tie, slip on my white buck shoes and clap my straw hat on and go to the races at Great Meadow.

With luck, the gang will be back in time to walk over to Willow to watch the Kentucky Derby.

Jim’s Prune Pie

prune pie2

Ingredients :
1.     4 C flour
2.     1 1/4 C sugar
3.     1/4 tsp salt
4.     2 tsp baking powder
5.     1 C shortening
6.     1 1/2 lbs prunes, pitted (I used SunSweet Pitted Prunes – 18oz)
7.     Pinch of ground cloves
8.     1/2 tsp. cinnamon
9.     10-15 Tbls. cold water

Directions :
1.     Heat oven to 350 degrees F
2.     Mix together flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup of sugar
3.     Cut in the shortening until the mixture is crumbly
4.     Add enough cold water to make a soft dough
5.     Knead slightly and cut in half
6.     Roll out dough, 1/4 inch thick, and line cookie sheet with one
7.     Cook prunes in water until soft, about 5-10 minutes, drain
8.     Mash well, adding 3/4 cups of sugar (to taste, you may not need it all)
9.     Season with cinnamon and cloves
10.Spread filling evenly over bottom crust
11.Roll out remaining dough, 1/4 inch thick
12.Cover with top crust pinch seams and cut steam vents
13.Lightly brush top of pie with milk and sprinkle with sugar
14.Bake until crust is slightly brown, approximately 30-40 minutes

Recipe courtesy of Val and Leo at http://valnleo.blogspot.com/2010/02/did-you-say-prune-pie.html
Hat Tip: JPeter

Story copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303

Loose Ends

(Motor Vessel M/V Mayaguez at anchor after being seized in May, 1975, by the Khmer Rouge maritime forces. Photo USAF).

I was going to wrap up a brief commemoration of the end of the conflict that defined the mid-point of the American Century with an account of the Speech the Congressman made me give to the Chairman of the People’s Council of Ho Chi Minh City, an earnest smiling man named Pham Chanh Truc, in our visit on the avvicersary of the fall of Saigon in 1995.

It is a fun story, if you like awkward moments, but I realized in the exhange of notes yesterday that the story wasn’t really over. Loose ends, sort of like the single artillery shell that was fired from shore to land a hundred yards astern of the 7th Fleet flagship, USS Oklahoma City (CG-5). The shell was not intended to harm the flagship, but rather to extend the middle finger of peace that marked the last shot of the war.

But things were not over. There were a few loose ends that had to be raveled up. My pal Joe was in the Pentagon at the time, and he recalled the post-script to the conflict that cost millions of Vietnamese people their lives and livelihood, and the deaths of 58,000 young Americans. And defined the attitudes of my generation of young men subject to the draft, pro and con.

Joe was attempting to depict the new reality in the Western Pacific to the Navy’s leadership. He wrote: “Mayaguez was seized on Sunday night Washington Time. The Sunday night before I was in CNO IP putting the brief together the brief when I found a Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) report saying a German-owned merchant ship in the Gulf Thailand was threatened by unidentified pirates, but eluded them.”

I have to walk the cat back on the account for the previous week. Joe had planned on using the tid-bit in the Out-of-Area worldwide maritime portion of the previous Monday morning brief to the Chief of Naval Operations and his key staff, which was also packaged as the top-level intelligence update transmitted to ships and stations world-wide.

Since the FBIS report was open-source and unverified by National Technical Means or corroborating HUMINT, the item was deleted.

On Monday night, the watch team at the Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Center at Makalapa Crater in Hawaii picked up the item and transmitted it in the daily Situation Report. The item was included in the CNO notes, but not formally presented in the Tuesday morning briefing.

Wednesday there is an report from Fort Meade about a merchant ship in the same general area of the German incident being attacked, but this time the reporting indicates the unidentified “pirates” are firing on the merchant ship. Again, the merchant escaped unharmed.

M/V Mayaguez was seized Sunday night, and the predicable “intelligence failure” is trotted out to absolve the operators from being asleep at the switch. There is a hunt for a scapegoat, which my pal dodged, and eventually collapsed on the Hydrographer of the Navy was issued a public letter of reprimand for failing to issue a NOTAM- “Notice to Mariners.”

The Mayaguez incident is covered nicely by our pal Mike Bohn, who transitioned from Naval Intelligence (and the White House Situation Room) to full-time journalism. His new book is titled “Presidents in Crisis,” and it is a good read.


And it certainly was a crisis. The Mayaguez incident, occupied the footnote to the Vietnam War, and it was deadly. The response to the seizure of the merchant ship was the last official battle of the war in South East Asia, Another couple pals were there to have ring-side seats for it. We will revisit it all in the week of May 12th, when the action went down.

But remember: coincident with the collapse of South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge had seized the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The U.S.-backed Khmer Republic was overthrown, and the bloody reign of terror was just beginning. That is one of the legacies of the abdication of responsibility of the Americans. But we would pay a price for it anyway.

(Members of Company D, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines board the Mayaguez. Gas masks were worn because the ship was bombed with tear-gas canisters by USAF helicopters. Photo DoD).

In the rescue attempt to free the thirty-nine civilians who crewed the Mayaguez, eighteen Marines, Sailors and Airmen died. Fifty more were wounded. Twenty-three more USAF personnel died in a support force helicopter crash in Thailand due to mechanical failure. Three Marines, inadvertently left behind on Ko Tang Island in darkness and confusion, were executed and buried there within a few days by the Khmer Rouge.

The Cambodians released the crew and the ship, and might have even without the decisive response by President Ford. I will let Mike Bohn speak to that, but the accounts by my pals on USS Coral Sea (CV-43) are pretty amazing.

We will come back to that when the time is right. But 40 years ago this month, the American War in Southeast Asia was over.

For a while, anyway.

Copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303

Frequent Wind

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30 April 2015 is the day the city fell, and the Republic of South Vietnam was absorbed into the body of the invaders to the North. The Treaty was broken brazenly and North Vietnamese regulars supported by armor rolled toward the coast from the central highlands, cut the Republic in half, and then wheeled and headed south toward the capital.

The Americans were tired of this war, having withdrawn the combat troops in 1973. There was no stomach to come back and punish the Northerners.

That was clear enough, but there was some business that had to be done before the defeat was formal. More than a thousand Americans remained in the capital. Some Vietnamese had performed sensitive duties in the war, and it was clear that many would be tortured and killed if they were left behind. Accordingly, a last desperate evacuation was ordered, and my first ship, USS Midway (CV-41) was a critical component of the effort.

I got reports from some shipmates who were there on the decks. Mongo was scheduled to be on a helicopter to recover the remains of Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge. Others observed from other ships. Everyone knew it was the end of something profound, and very sad.

I did not report to the Midway-Maru until three years after Frequent Wind, though the stories were still vivid and real to the sailors who had participated. On this anniversary of an event that marked one of the nadirs of a really bad decade, I thought I would give you the Master Chief’s recollection of that day, and what happened in the aftermath of the end of the American War in Southeast Asia. In no small part, this is what convinced me to join the Navy.

This is for all who served, and for those who were there at the very end of it.


Vietnam April 30, 1975

ISCM (AW) David Mattingly, USN (Ret)

(IS3 Mattingly in 1975).

It has been forty years since the North Vietnamese Army invaded the south and the U.S. attempted to evacuate the last of the embassy diplomats, military assigned to the Defense Attaché’s office, and lastly the South Vietnamese that supported the U.S. efforts in the South East Asian country. Many of the Vietnamese served in the Republic of Vietnam’s armed forces, worked at the embassy or were intelligence sources that risked their lives to work side-by-side with the U.S.

For many American’s the U.S. role in Vietnam ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. For the diplomats, DAO personnel, and Sailors and Marines of U.S. Seventh Fleet the war continued. In the early days of 1975, the North Vietnamese Army’s march south appeared unstoppable without American intervention. However, the political climate in the U.S. had changed with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon and the ascension of Vice President Gerald Ford to the Oval Office. Ford had submitted a request for aid, but Vietnam needed more than money as the South Vietnamese army disintegrated and largely left the battlefield to go home and tend to their families.

Many of us toured and had dinner onboard my ship, USS MIDWAY, at the 2010 San Diego OS&AS Reunion. In late April, the USS MIDWAY Crew Association will celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind. If it resembles the 35th Anniversary, hundreds of Vietnamese that made it to America via one of the Navy ships stationed off the coast will be there, flying the yellow and red flag of their former country. They will tell stories of how they left family and all they owned to start a new life in a new land. There are many stories of the evacuation; several books and movies about the last days in the city that was once known as the “Paris of the Orient.”

Many will remain untold; those that never made it out of Vietnam. Here is mine.

In the summer of 1974, I arrived as a freshly minted Photographic Intelligenceman (PT) (the predecessor of the Intelligence Specialist (IS) rating) to serve onboard the first aircraft carrier to be home ported at an overseas base, the USS MIDWAY (CV-41) or Midway Magic as she had come to be known.

The routine for Midway was to spend the colder months flying in the warmer waters of the South Pacific and use the training facilities at NAS Cubi Point, RP. The Midway Task Group left Japan as scheduled but soon after leaving Yokosuka Naval Base rumors began to circle with the news of how the war was evolving in South Vietnam.

On April 3 a large group of the embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing 5, flew to NAS Cubi Point to make room for Marines from Okinawa that flew aboard with Marine Air Group-36’s HML-367 (11 UH-1E), HMA-369 (4 AH-1J), and HMM-164 and H&MS-36 (14 CH-46D). The Marines would later be off loaded to the USS HANCOCK (CV-19) that had recently arrived in Seventh Fleet and would participate in both the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Saigon, Vietnam.

While the Family Support Office at Yokosuka told the Midway wives that the ship was still on its planned mission, Japanese news outlets overflew Midway in small aircraft and reported that we were heading to South East Asia. The wives soon learned the truth when the mail arrived with “FREE” on the envelope instead of a stamp after we crossed the line into the designated combat zone.

Operation Eagle Pull, the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was a smaller operation and conducted by a smaller force on April 12, 1975. The Midway sat as a ready combat air wing off the coast of Vietnam in the event the helicopters needed fixed wing support. With the successful completion of the operation, the Midway returned to NB Subic Bay and started a ten day in port period that was cut short by events in South Vietnam. As the country fell to the communist army, photographs of overloaded ships with refugees and escaping soldiers appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. The days for the nation were few.

Midway turned east and headed for a liberty call in Subic Bay and, as was the normal routine, the air wing flew off the ship to spend the ten-day in-port period at Cubi Point. On the third morning at pier side, my Leading Chief asked if I needed to do anything ashore. I took it as an offer of a “rope-yarn day”—a day off to run errands or catch up on sleep etc.

Instead, this was an “if you have laundry ashore, go get it and get back here, we are going to sea.” Consequently, there was a mad dash to the front gate and into Olongapo City to search the hotels for shipmates on liberty; many that were in Manila or barrios throughout the countryside were left ashore to spend the operation supporting Subic Bay base operations.

The Midway also left ashore the majority of the air wing since we were ordered to steam to the Gulf of Thailand to on load, USAF 21st Special Operations Squadron (8 CH-53) and 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (2 HH-53). With the exception of a ready F-4B on the catapult, the Midway was now a helicopter carrier and CVIC Mission Planning became the center for the Air Force pilots to be briefed and prepare their flight packages.

Soon after they arrived, the Air Force aircrews met in CVIC to be briefed on life aboard Midway Magic. One of the young officers had scoped out the weight room located near the foc’scle, though when he announced his finding and its location, he pronounced it as it is spelled: “fore-castle.” Smirks emerged on the faces the squadron AIs and sailors listening to the brief.

FW 2 cv41-043015

Returning to the coast of Vietnam, we maintained a position on “Dixie Station” the southern op area (The more famous northern op area, Yankee Station, was where the carriers launched strikes on North Vietnam until 1973.) As planning continued, the NVA continued moving south with cities falling without much of a fight and refugees clogging the highways and anything that could float putting out to sea.

Soon, Navy ships began taking on passengers from the overcrowded boats. And, flights from Tan Son Nhut Air Base began Operation Baby Lift: moving orphans and Amer-asian children to safety. The approaching North Vietnamese army attacked the base located on the outskirts of the capital. It rocketed the runways and DAO facility with the loss of several DIA personnel, and rendered the runways unusable. The only remaining option would be for a helicopter evacuation.

Former CIA Officer and author, Frank Snepp’s book A Decent Interval is the best source for information on what was happening in Saigon prior to the evacuation.

An issue with flying USAF helicopters from a Navy aircraft carrier is that the Air Force usually operates with plenty of room and does not equip its helicopter fleet with foldable rotors. If a CH-53 landed on a smaller-deck amphibious ship, and was unable to take off for mechanical reasons the ship would be out of action. This meant that USAF would only fly in and out of Saigon returning to the Midway, and Navy helicopters would move the refugees to the smaller-deck ships.

On the Midway, pneumatic air tubes were used to send “bunnies” containing flash and immediate precedence messages from the communications center to other parts of the ship. The tube connecting Main Comm to CVIC passed thru the squadron skipper’s stateroom. So, every night as the bunny ran thru the tube, the skipper in his robe headed to CVIC to see if the order had been given to launch and begin the operation.

After sitting off the coast near Vung Tau and watching the fireworks exploding ashore, the order was finally given to execute the evacuation of Saigon by helo. The first thing was for Marines to land and supplement the Embassy MARDET Security Guards. Then the Air Force helicopters nicknamed “Jolly Greens” started their flights, going feet wet over possible hostile territory. It was unknown at the time whether NVA would fire shoulder carried SAMS (surface to air missiles) or allow the evacuation unchallenged?

As the first helicopters approached, the cadre of ship’s company personnel were on the flight deck poised to receive the refugees. At the Embassy compound in Saigon, weapons were taken from the refugees and thrown in the swimming pool, but upon arrival on the ships, part of the process was another search. Needless to say, a large number of weapons were confiscated.

Along with the arrival of the U.S. helicopters, an armada of Vietnamese Air Force helicopters appeared: CH-47 Chinooks and UH-1 Hueys, along with a fleet of the infamous CIA Air America silver-and-blue UH-1s. Many of the South Vietnamese pilots panicked and ditched the planes in the sea near a Navy ship hoping to be picked up.

Several officers who had ground time in Vietnam tried to sort out the military and civilian refugees to identify those that had knowledge of the whereabouts of other Americans. The squadron AIs spent their time debriefing the aircrews regarding possible hostile forces, AAA guns or SAMs. The PTs tried to keep track of everything on the charts in mission planning. Today, 24/7 cable news networks and the Internet broadcast what is happening during conflicts on the ground in real time but in 1975 we monitored the wire service teletypes to get the latest AP and UPI scoop from the capital.

FW3 birdog-043015

The “Miracle Plane”, an O-1 Birddog, arrived near the Midway during the afternoon of the evacuation and, at first, the intentions of the pilot were unknown. Maybe a “kamikaze” attack by an angry pilot? The other fixed wing pilots flying F-5s and A-37s flew to land bases in Thailand. The Birddog turned out to be flown by a Vietnamese major who carried as his passengers his wife and five kids. He circled Midway and one of flight deck crew members noticed he was throwing something out of the window. The miracle was that a paper page from his flight manual hit the windswept deck containing a scribbled note asking the deck to be cleared so he could land.

It took seconds for skipper CAPT L.C. Chambers to order the ramp cleared. The crew pushed a couple of Hueys and a Chinook over the side. The O-1 made the approach and came to stop in a near perfect landing.


Sometime during the evacuation, Vice Air Marshall and former Vice Pres. Ngueyn Ky landed in a nearly new Huey sporting a lavender flight suit with a sporty neck scarf. The refugees continued with a mix of Vietnamese, Americans and other nationals that had been able to secure a seat.

Reporters lined the passageway outside Main Comm trying to get a “class easy” message off the ship with the news of the evacuation. The backlog started on board as the Navy birds carried fewer passengers than the larger inbound Air Force helicopters. The hanger deck became a holding area with refugees lying on the hard steel decks with only a gray navy wool blanket as a pad and the forward mess deck was opened up to feed the refugees.

As night fell, the evacuation slowed and eventually stopped with the flight deck jammed with a wild assortment of Air Force, Air America and Vietnamese helicopters, and of course, the lone O-1 Birddog. Eventually, President Ford ordered the Ambassador to leave.

With his departure the mission was over, and the last of the Marine security force flew to the fleet. (Two Marines killed during the attack at the airbase were left behind and later recovered thru diplomatic channels).

FW4 flight deck-043015

The newswires signed off and the war was over. The last of the refugees were moved to other ships and many ended up in refugee camps throughout Asia and the U.S. The task force continued to pick up refugees in small boats while the Midway headed south to drop off the Air Force helicopters and head to Subic Bay and well deserved liberty. However, when the ship arrived off the coast of Thailand, the Air Force helicopters ferried the fixed wing planes, the A-37s and F-5s, to the ship and we sailed for Guam to off-load the remnants of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force.

Sailing from Guam, Midway Magic expected to return to normal ops. However, our stop back at Subic was interrupted to support the rescue of the M/V Mayaguez, a U.S. flagged merchant ship that had been boarded by Cambodian pirates. But, that is another story for another day.

As a postscript, the Sailors and Marines that participated in Operation Frequent Wind were awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. In 2002, Congress authorized the Vietnam Service Medal to replace the AFEM.

Information on requesting the Vietnam Service Medal is located athttp://www.usshancockcv19.com/awards/awardupdate.htm

There are many sources for information but these I have felt helpful:

USN Photos available at http://www.midwaysailor.com/midway1970/frequentwind.html

USN History of Operation Frequent Wind http://www.navalhistory.org/2010/04/29/operation-frequent-wind-april-29-30-1975

Frank Snepp, author and former C.I.A. officer in Saigon that I have stayed in touch. http://franksnepp.com/

Copyright 2014 Dave Mattingly; introduction copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303

The Day Before


Dutch photographer Hubert van Es caught this image of the last helicopter to leave Saigon before the city fell. He stayed, and observed the transition. The helicopter could not accommodate all those that wished to depart, and van Es reported the ones who were left behind waited for hours, hoping for another to arrive and take them to the Navy ships waiting offshore. None came. Photo Hubert van Es).

I was at Willow last night, like that is something unusual. What came up was, though.


Nguyen stopped by on the way to something else, and we got to talking about Vietnam, as we often do. He was born there, and has the usual stories of those that fled the Communist regime. He is a bit of an activist, well connected in émigré circles, so he is not going back any time soon.


“It was this week, wasn’t it?” I asked, not recalling the exact day, though once I had to give a speech about it.


“General Van Tien Dung launched the final attack on the city on the 29th. The City fell the next day.”


“Forty years ago,” I said in wonder. “I had to give the speech on the 20th anniversary. that was half-way to this week, and most of my adult life.”


“The last Americans were killed in a rocket attack on Tan Son Nhut airfield on the 29th. Then it was over. Or maybe it is better to say that something else was just beginning. Like the rest of my life.” He took a pensive sip of Willow’s happy hour white.


I nodded, making a note to look it up later, and we went back to drinking and talking about the strange things that happen in Washington. I was not quite half in the bag when I got home, and thought about the significance of the day. I checked Google. The last two Americans killed on the land-mass of Vietnam were (L-R) Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge. Here is what they looked like in life:


Their bodies were transferred to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital nearby. In the confusion, their bodies were inadvertently left behind, and it took Senator Ted Kennedy to get them back almost a year later. That might have been the start of the long process that preceded the mission that caused the speech- and a few other issues like normalization of relations- twenty years later.


Jake told me the story of the collapse as he saw it from the Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Plot. He was a Lieutenant then, one of the briefing officers to the Navy leadership. He had previously done a year’s tour in country to buttress his appreciation of the situation, and increasingly it was dire.


The leadership was surprised when the young officers were permitted by the Commander in Charge to make a frank assessment. He would later be the Director of Naval Intelligence, as was Jake, and their courage in telling the truth was a hallmark of their integrity. The CIA, for example, was on record as saying that the South could hold out through the dry season, or at least until 1976, and the Army concurred in the National Intelligence Estimate.


The NIE came out in March, just Corporal McMahon was reporting to the MARDET. That is precisely when things were starting to unravel. General Dung was preparing a major offensive in the Central Highlands. When he unleashed his forces, it caused the ARVN to begin a disorderly retreat, hoping to establish a defensible position somewhere north of Saigon.

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That didn’t happen. It was a rout, and Congress showed no interest in getting engaged once more in the conflict. I remember President Ford on the television with his charts about what was needed to save our ally. As the North closed in on Saigon, , Jake predicted the imminent fall of the capital in the morning briefing.


One of the Admiral’s in the audience looked stunned. Everyone in the room had spent the last two decades of their careers supporting the war. The Admiral asked in amazement: “It’s over?”
Jake nodded and went on with the briefing.

Copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303

Editor’s note: Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation to sea by helicopter, was in progress, wrapping up on April 30th. Our pal the Master Chief was there, embarked in USS Midway, CV-41. I will get you a first person view of the last combat-related action in the waters off Vietnam. I am not forgetting the Mayaguez incident later. And I will tell you about the speech, too.

Life in the Slow Lane


Over the weekend, I was preoccupied with the tire and the journey from Kilmarnock to Culpeper, and disappointed that the correct size tires- 235/50R19- were not in stock at the retail outlets in our hardy hamlet.

That resulted in the decision-making tree that suggested the tires might have the 72 miles left on them if I babied the car on the roads north, and I investigated

I wrote that cathartic story about it all as I stalled for time at the farm, waiting for the traffic to die down between me and Northern Virginia. Old Jim commented on the real message I conveyed and he growled it at me over his long-neck Bud at Willow last night. “You are too old to change your tires anymore.” Then he smiled that he had nailed me.

I had to agree. This aging thing is curious indeed.

I was introspective as I considered how I got in the situation where I had to change the damn tire to begin with. Conceptually, I should have swapped the tires out a month or two ago with a basic Spring multi-point look, but I got hung up on the State inspection sticker, which didn’t expire until the first of May. That is when some unique (and pleasurable) outdoor activities officially commence, according to the British traditional song that I won’t go into here.

But that wasn’t the problem- speed was. I like to drive fast, or at least find a rabbit and stay far enough back that he will catch the attention of the County Mounties or Smokey Bear first. It is sort of like drafting on the NASCAR Circuit. The problem with this particular drive was going to be the 49 mile-per-hour limit on the spare.

I have never intentionally searched for a route with the slowest speed limit, but this was a clear case for it.

I anticipated a white-knuckled trip back to Blue Arlington, with a potential disaster contained in each mile, and the risk of that occurring increasing exponentially with each additional mile per hour on the odometer.

I normally take US 29 north to the US 15 cut-over to Haymarket at the Buckland Mills Battlefield and thence to the junction with I-66 to head back into town. The idea of being on the interstate driving thirty miles slower than the Type A aggressive drivers filled me with trepidation, and my concern was that any problem with the spare would them involve a tow truck (or worse) since there was no backup solution.

I looked on Google maps for alternate solutions. It seemed that if I veered off the 60-mph Rt. 29 onto RT 28 where it begins at US 29 just north of Remington. Additional research indicated why I rarely take that way, even if I was headed to Dulles International: the speed limit is 45 MPH.

Perfect! I got underway around noon and flinched all the way up to the junction. RT 28 in that part of Fauquier County is a placid two lane with several lights to accommodate more self-important east-west routes. The two-lane road runs parallel to the railroad tracks originally laid down by my Irish ancestors for the Alexandria and Orange Railroad.

This was the heart of Mosby Heritage Country, and several of the silver cast iron historical markers can be seen as you roll along, gingerly trying to avoid potholes and sudden disaster, there is Supreme Court Justice John Marshall’s birth place:

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And of course the marker commemorating the raid by Mosby Ranger’s on the Federal train at Catlett Station:

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Route 28 enters Prince William County at Nokesville, where Jack the Enormous German Shepherd was whelped, Leaving the town, it expands from two to four lanes and becomes Nokesville Road. Further on, it reaches its first interchange at State Road 234 (the famed Prince William Parkway), south of Manassas, and that is where I curved onto the interstate.

Scary as shit watching the oncoming traffic attempting to run up my tailpipe, and I vowed to get off as soon as I could onto the much lower speed Rt .50. I did so with great relief at Ox Road, or the modern Rt 123, and stopped at about thirty lights, but with increasing optimism that I would be at Willow and my own bed that night, and sure enough, it worked.

With exception of a mild nicotine overdose from the vaporizer (one year smoke free) it was slow, nerve wracking and over. I cleaned all the detritus out of the car to prep for the maintenance appointment on Friday, and shifted colors to the Police Cruiser for the duration.

I had been listening to soothing alt-rock on the satellite radio, but considered myself relatively up to speed on current events, but it was not until I got back from Willow and watched the local news that I realized my time in the country had altered space and time. In the brief time I was gone, it had lurched into a scene from Detroit in 1967.

There are differences, of course. The great Detroit Riot was a reprise of earlier riots with some legitimate grievances. There were no peaceful marches hi-jacked by dedicated activists, though apparently there were some. There was no social media then to call for a “Purge” when school let out- but the images were exactly the same.

I think I have written before about Big John Minter, a 300-pound true gentle giant. He was my mentor in the parking attendant’s booth at Demery’s Department Store where I had my first real job beyond cutting lawns and baby-sitting. He sat on his porch in the old Black Bottom-Paradise Valley neighborhood on the near east side with a shotgun and was not bothered. Other of his neighbors were not so lucky.

Of course, the riot marked the end of the Motor City as a functioning entity. No one with the means to get out would stay inside the city limits after that. But the images from Baltimore took me back to the black-and-white images on the television as I attempted to clean up the house after an inadvertent flash party that had occurred at the house when the parents were up at the cabin for the weekend and I had two-a-day football practice sessions.

I respected John Minter immensely, and in the face of great adversity he taught me something about dignity. On the whole, I think I am glad I took a long drive in the country rather than taking in a ballgame in Baltimore at Camden Yards.

I think that just slipped off the bucket list for things to do before I get out of Arlington.

(Police Presence in the Charm City, April 2015. Photo David Swanson / Staff Photographer Philly City).

Copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303


Panzer tire-042715

I had a couple cups of coffee with my gracious hostess as my host slumbered. We looked out at the currents in the estuary- fish, she said- and watched the ravens swoop at the little birds that were hitting the feeder. A desultory chill rain was coming down, and I was itching to get rolling and see if the field was going to be dry enough to not get the Turf Tiger stuck in the mud and complete the first cut of the season.

I was getting itchy to be moving, that John Wayne “Burning Daylight” thing, I guess. Adieus proffered, threw the bag in the passenger’s seat, punched the coordinates for the Farm into the GPS, fired up the Mercedes GLK350 and headed out to the Northern Neck of Virginia.

It is a haunting place. So old, for European America, and the people have roots in this rich soil that go back- some of them- four hundred years. Or maybe part of the haunting feeling was the red light that bathed the instrument panel. I was startled- the display is normally a businesslike Teutonic white. I don’t like it when the car yells at me- and this was a very stern admonition.

The Panzer was demanding my attention be paid to the right rear tire. It had alerted me to a potential problem coming back from the farm last week, and apparently the engineers in Stuttgard had determined that pressure below 30 PSI was critical. I swerved off RT 29 at the truck plaza at Opal, found four quarters in the well in the driver’s side door, and added five pounds of air. The car seemed happy, and that happiness last right through the trip south on Saturday to the oldest part of the Old Dominion.

This was nothing like that- overnight, the tire had lost twelve pounds of pressure, and the crimson number “18” shouted out at me. What the hell? It was fine when I shut it down and walked up to the house to watch the Caps lose to the Islanders and force game seven in the first round of the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup the afternoon before, and the great time at Nate’s Trick Dog Café in picturesque Irvington.

The State inspection on the car was due for renewal in May, and I had a standing appointment for inspection and synthetic oil change scheduled already. All I had to do was get to the farm, get the chores done, get a good night’s sleep and get back up north.

Gas stations are sparse on the Neck, and serve as de facto village centers, normally with food and locals hanging around. I proceeded with caution, looking for the next likely one in a town called Lively. A Shell plaza appeared to have a working air pump, and I was relieved to have four shiny quarters to feed it and apply the nozzle of the filler tip to the valve on the tire.

I am still pissed at whoever broke into the car and stole Mom’s big leather pouch of state commemorative quarters. I was the king of meter parking and air pumps when I had that. Now, not so much. And I miss the prescription sunglasses that were stolen. Don’t get me started. I suppose I should be lucky I didn’t keep a pistol in the car and the theif had waited for me to return rather than going on his merry way.

I wasn’t sure how much air I was getting in, and the best I could get was about 24 PSI, so the red light stayed on. “Screw it,” I thought. I am definitely going to be done with this tire this week anyway. “Press on regardless!”

The rain pattered on the windshield and the GPS informed me it was 21 miles to Warsaw, gateway to Tappahannock on the other side of the broad Rappahannock River.

It was hard not to get fixated on the tire pressure display, and I marveled at the technology in tires and instruments. When I started driving, the only indication you had that a rear tire was low on pressure was when some helpful motorist at a light cranked down the window to give you the news that you were driving on a flat tire. “Doh!”

I made it to the turn toward the bridge and thing were holding at a steady red “24” right until they weren’t. Warsaw appears to have seen its better days. A lot of the storefronts are derelict, and commerce is mostly limited to antiques and curios advertised with hand-painted signs. Sad, really, though in the great scheme of things, not as sad as seeing the tire pressure go to “18” and begin flashing “16” and then “14” as it failed.


I was downtown, and looking for a concrete pad on which I could park and change the tire. The surface for mounting the jack was crucial. Far better concrete or asphalt than on gravel, which could enable the jack to topple and descend abruptly on my hand or leg.

Up ahead I saw the long awning of another Shell, and pulled in slowly next to the air pump at the back of the black-top. “0.”

Well, there was some luck, even if it was raining.

I can remember the last time I had to change a tire- it was before 0600 in the dark on the Shirley Highway, heading toward the Pentagon. It was late Spring and I was in my Tropical Whites. Not a pretty sight by the time I was done. I have always been pretty anal about tires, and really was going to swap out all four this very week. But good intentions and all that were going to leave me with the chore of changing the tire in the chill rain in Warsaw, VA.

I am a guy, so I didn’t get around to reading the instructions until this morning. It wasn’t like growing up in Michigan we didn’t change the snow-tires every Spring and Fall, and we used to rotate the old bias-ply tires of the day all the time. Tires are so good these days they are virtually bullet-proof.

That was cold comfort this morning. I popped the hatch-back and then unloaded the go-bag and other crap that sat atop the spare tire compartment. On the GLK, there is a plastic tray that held what I later discovered was the Owner’s manual, the tool set from the first Mercedes I owned, a 1967 350SL, the first aid kit and the rotating blue light for the dashboard that was a left-over from our Undisclosed Location days after 9/11.

All that went to the back seat, and I got to the tire compartment and the jacking equipment. I am always impressed by the thoroughness of the Germans. The initial problem I noted, never having looked at any of it before, was that the instructions were in German. I looked in the glove box for English language instructions, but I had already thrown the zippered pouch that held them into the back seat.

“OK,” I said. “You used to do this all the time. Just use the muscle memory and don’t screw it up. You can always get new tires along the way to the farm.”

And so it began. There was no alternative to being on knees and butt. I got out the jack and the surprisingly short tire iron. Located the lifting point just forward of the right rear wheel-well. I screwed the nut on the end of the jack until the device scissored up just right against the frame.

“Loosen lugs first, so the stress of getting them backed out doesn’t collapse the jack,” I thought. The lug nuts that held the tire on had been applied with an impact air wrench, and they had not been touched since the tires were new. I found that the first step was going to be the hardest, and included a novel acrobatic maneuver of holding onto the roof rack and jumping on the end of the tire iron.

Being wet and cold added to the general mood of desperation. Eventually, I managed to get the lugs loose to the point that I could turn them by finger- did I mention the Germans had included a cheap pair of cloth gloves? They didn’t fit, since the thumbs were the same size as the pinky fingers, but I thought it was thoughtful.

Lugs loose. Now the part where there is the possibility of actual mayhem. I checked the jack again to ensure it had not shifted in the battle with the lug nuts. Looked good- and then the task of raising the right rear to the point that the flat tire had an inch or so of clearance underneath. Getting the spare of the trunk first, I noticed it was one of those fake inflato-tires, and I was delighted that I was parked next to what I sincerely hoped was a working air pump.

BTW, the Germans had included a cigarette-lighter air pump just in case this had occurred in the middle of nowhere. I also discovered a black ratchet wrench that made raising the jack almost easy. I was soaked now, so I didn’t mind being on hands and knees on the wet asphalt, and had the tire elevated to height that should enable me to remove the lugs, get the offending tire off, roll it out of the way, and slip on the spare.

A note here about cars. American iron used to have five long screws on which you slipped the wheel, and then massive nuts to tighten it on. The German cars have lugs that come all the way out of the hub assembly, which means a third hand would be really useful to get the first one seated properly.

I got organized. Spare to my right, a place to roll the flat out of the way and not have to move since the arthritis and damaged quad on the left leg made this much more challenging than it had been when I was twenty and full of piss and vinegar.

The lugs were loose and came out easily. The tire and wheel dropped off awkwardly into my lap. The car was now supported only by the jack, and that is the time to be hyper alert. I rolled the flat slowly away, seeing the problem: a four-inch stretch of the inner tread that was worn right down to the frayed silver steel mesh of the steel belt. “Crap.”

I wondered about the other tires as I rolled the skinny emergency tire over in front of the hub. I lifted it up and realized the German approach to lugs meant I had to wedge my shoe under the tire to keep it in position to try to locate the screw-holes on the hub assembly.

I got the lugs in and realized it wasn’t going to work. The lugs I had removed were long enough to accommodate a full size wheel, and this replacement wasn’t. “Oh, yeah. That might be why there are five other lugs in the trunk. Dumbass.”

The spare was at least aligned properly against the screw-holes, and I lurched to my feet, cursing under my breath as pain shot up from my knees. I got the replacement lugs from the toolkit, and sat on my butt in the puddled and replaced them one by one.

Finger tight first, then incremental tightening in a star pattern until a sharp tug on the tire-iron could move them no further. “Inflate to 41 PSI,” the lettering on the tire said, and I got some quarters and the air machine chugged to life.

This was fascinating. As pressure entered the replacement tire, it popped out in discrete folds. It was quite remarkable. I got to a hair over 40 PSI on the pressure gauge when the machine timed out, and I decided that would be enough. Only 90 miles or so to the farm, right?

I lowered the jack and stowed the support tools away in what looked generally like the places they were supposed to go. The flat on the wheel did not fit in the well, so I threw the rest of the junk where the spare had been and surveyed the area to see what I was going to drive off without.

At a limiting speed of 49 miles and hour, I would have plenty of time to think about it. What could go wrong?

It was a white knuckle trip but otherwise uneventful as I passed through the urban sprawl Fredericksburg, where the monuments of the great battle stand next to fast food parking lots and furniture stores. Then Chancellorsville, and Jackson’s Flank Attack, and his Wounding, and the site of his Amputation near the Wilderness battlefield.

Considering where I was, it was a much better day than those people had, and the skies began to show patches of blue. It was sunny and bright by the time I saw the bulk of Mount Pony ahead, and ducked off the main road to follow the blacktop lane to Refuge Farm.

Panzer tire 2-042715


The pastures are all cut. That should buy me a week or two. When I went over to visit after the chores, I saw that the Russians have been busy, and I was amazed at the new fencing to keep Jack the Enormous German Shepard and Biscuit the Wonder Spaniel out of the road, and the new little chickens running around the big aluminum tub in the study under heat lamps, and the four new bee-hives in the back yard to replace the two that did not survive the fierce winter.

I particularly liked the “Beware of Dog” sign on the new fence. I think I need something like that real soon for my place. And maybe an actual dog, too.


Oh, and calls to the tire-stores in town indicate they do not have 235/50R19 tires in stock. I have to be back up north for a gig tomorrow, so I guess the adventure continues. Life in the country.

I will let you know how it goes.

Copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303

Stupid Plastic Shoes

stupid plastic shoes

Editor’s Note: I am in an undisclosed location on Virginia’s historic and lovely Northern Neck. I am working off the iPad and phone, and neither gives me much flexibility. I will have some observations about the trip, which will eventually follow the Historyland Highway, originally cut through the brush by the legendary planter King Carter when the Neck was the center of a whole Colony, and the idea of America was pretty much unthinkable.

In fact, there is a lot that is unthinkable, even if you just go back a decade. When you compare and contrast what we thought were big issues then, and what we apparently consider to be not that big a deal today, it makes me wonder.

See what you think.



Stupid Plastic Shoes:
A Tale of Intrigue, Influence and Politics

Vic Socotra

By February 2002, I had spent the five months since the attacks of September 11th 2001 (9/11) trying to figure out how the U.S. was going to orchestrate a message to the Muslim street, one of hope and justice, accompanied by a legitimate and palpable effort to mitigate the conditions that breed young men who see suicide bombing as a viable life choice. I had talked to spin-doctors and bureaucrats, political appointees, State Department cookie-pushers from the fruit juice circuit, assorted spooks and Hollywood producers. I was still looking when the structure which was growing to do that was blown up by bureaucratic shenanigans. Crass bureaucratic turf wars conducted by ruthless bureaucrats masquerading as high principle. This article describes what I was doing when that happened.

February 2002

I watched the Olympic opening ceremony from Salt Lake. I was a little unsettled by it, the whiff of jingoism. I’m not sure that the references to the 9/11 thing were entirely appropriate; but when the Olympians brought out the World Trade Center flag a tear ran down my cheek. I am more susceptible to that these days.

The low-grade fever I have had may have had something to do with it. The artistic skating show, the little boy “finding the flame within” was hackneyed in phrase but wonderfully skated. And the march-on of the athletes, with our French buddies holding tri-couleur flags and little stars n’ stripes made me realize why the Frogs then held a special place in my heart.

Then I crashed. The mild fever was from an infection on my right foot, the great toe swollen and radiating little angry stripes of scarlet up the arch, threatening to go further with each squeeze of the infernal shoe. I had been forced out of comfortable brown knock-arounds and back into my black stupid plastic shoes because I had been in dress blue uniform all week, the severe navy blue festooned with colorful bits of ribbon and bright shiny badges and gold stripes and stars. The shoes were the practical answer to the requirement for a highly polished look to accompany the dress uniform, an industrial solution to produce a perpetual shine. The problem was that plastic is not a material that provides comfort, nor ventilation nor flexibility. It does have a nifty fake shine, though, and if you are a busy executive or just lazy they are swell. But they sure as hell are inflexible.

I used to wear them all the time when we had to wear our dress blue uniforms from October to May. But the Navy changed the rules and we are now allowed to wear khakis all year, with comfortable brown shoes that don’t take a shine very well, but no one seems to mind. The stupid plastic shoes and my dress uniform all came together again in a thoroughly Washington kind of experience.

My Experience with Information Operations

There was a Hollywood consortium in town, pitching a couple ideas for a theatrical-length documentary on global terrorism that could dove-tail nicely with the wartime strategic information campaign. I had been attempting to guide those outsiders through the Byzantine inter-agency coordination process.

That wasn’t exactly my core business area, but I am not exactly sure what was. “Information Operations” was the name of the portfolio I took on for the Intelligence Community. Before 9/11, I thought that assignment was about computer warfare, establishing policy and de-conflicting efforts between the Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense. Then we went to war in Afghanistan and the topic of computers never came up. Instead, we were dropping leaflets and flying airplanes that broadcast radio programming. The content of the programming appeared to be what was important. Then there was the back half of the problem. That is, trying to establish measures of effectiveness to figure out whether what we said was effective. It is a strange business.

Remember Tokyo Rose and Lord Haw-Haw? The troops listened because the music was good, not because they were going to throw their weapons down. And the Wehrmacht listened to our stuff because they liked Benny Goodman, not because they were going to overthrow Hitler.

It’s like politics. They say that half the money spent on campaigns is wasted. The problem is that you can’t tell which half.

Nor could I tell exactly what was legal and what wasn’t. I talked to lawyers of all stripes, from the Intelligence Community to the specialized types at Defense and State. I tried to figure out where the clandestine component of influence stopped and where public diplomacy began, where Public Affairs fit in, and where the Spin Doctors live. It was dizzying. And we didn’t seem to be doing very well. The venom poured out of the Arab media, notably the al-Jazeera cable network in Qatar. Cairo appeared to accept the premise that all Jews were notified about the 9/11 attack in advance, and they all left the Trade Center with time to spare because it was a Mossad plot. They accepted it without even blinking. How do you deal with that?

So I wandered the gray area of the spectrum. There was a lot swirling around. The newly established Office of Homeland Defense was supposed to be fully up and running by mid-February, but the emphasis on securing the Olympics took everyone’s attention. On the Community Staff, the organization is structured around a wiring diagram that resembles a heaping plate of pasta. There is the Information Operations Task Force in DoD; that was where it started. Then came the newly established Office of Strategic Influence. Nobody who worked there was quite sure what it is, but at least they were talking to the other offices in town that seem to have a dog in the fight.

In my mind, I wanted to harness the mighty engine of our entertainment industry to tell the story, actually, any story that could be used to rebut the anti-American default value of the Islamic media. The global broadcast world is a voracious beast, gobbling material 24x7x365. We cannot cede the ground. We need to produce content.

To enlist support I escorted the Hollywood guys as we trudged through the Old Executive Office Building next to the West Wing, the State Department at Foggy Bottom, and the Pentagon. And trudged was the operative word in my stupid plastic shoes.

Why Coordination is So Hard

I started each day in the antiseptic towers at the campus in Langley, trying to cover phone messages and e-mail. I then drove frantically down along the Potomac on the George Washington Parkway, never failing to marvel at the first glimpse of the capital, the spires of Georgetown, and the Kennedy Center and the Key Bridge’s graceful arches.

You know that the most important issue in Washington isn’t the war, be it on terrorism or poverty or the other party. It’s parking. I didn’t work at the Pentagon any longer, so I had lost the most valuable piece of plastic in town—a “U” pass that lets the bearer drive into South Parking at the Pentagon and park the car close to the Metro for free. There is no way to get from Langley to town except by personal vehicle. Oh, I could digress for a minute about the K-15 route on the Metrobus, or the Central Intelligence Agency shuttle bus that leaves once an hour, but starting late in the morning and ending in early afternoon so that employees can’t use it for commuting, but that is a different story!

So by personal vehicle I drove to Pentagon City Mall, parking my car in the structure for an hourly rate and got to the Metro via the Victoria’s Secret entrance and the Food Court. Then the Yellow Line to Metro Center, transferring to the Blue Line to Farragut North and a five block walk down to the amazing gray Victorian edifice formerly known as the State, War and the Navy Building. Now it is just known as the Old Executive Office Building, or OEOB. There was a time when those three cabinet departments were located adjacent to the White House and they all actually fit there. The whole executive branch in one place. Imagine! Actually, the OEOB has yet another name, the Eisenhower Office Building, which was forced on the old gray lady by the Republican House of Representatives. They had been appending clauses in all manner of legislation naming public buildings in town after famous members of the GOP on the assumption that they would lose their majority and they had to leave as much of a legacy as they could while they could. I imagine this has been going on in Imperial cities since Roman times, but it makes it harder to navigate when the maps keep changing names.

Anyhow, the walk is pleasant enough when it is not raining and your black winter trench coat is not flapping wildly in the breeze. It was chilly but nice on Monday and Tuesday. We met in the Cordell Hull Room, where the then-Secretary of State received the Japanese delegation on the 7th of December of 1941. It is a magnificent building! The Information and Influence people have taken over the Indian Treaty Room as an operations center, the massive walls and ceilings and gilt filigree looking down on bright earnest young people trying to figure out how the U.S. can convince the Islamic World that we are not coming for them or, rather, not all of them, just some. Hard task.

Possibly impossible. But that was what we were trying to do. Today’s concern, or one of them, was worrying about Guantanamo, and how the media coverage was going, whether the media had picked up on the fact that the detainees—not prisoners—were living exactly as well as the guards. Tomorrow it might be Tribunals, or something altogether new on the media cycle.

I had spent the last five months wandering around the capital trying to find the center of gravity of the government’s effort to coordinate a message to the Islamic street, and to fractious allies, many of whom had just walked into the Olympic Stadium. We have to convince them we aren’t crazy, or overly unilateral, or trigger-happy. I have finally identified the right people on the National Security Council Staff at the White House, the State Department, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

I met some great people along the way. And I managed to connect the dots well enough to establish to my satisfaction that some of those great people are now talking to one another.

But in the course of walking from the Metro to Foggy Bottom, Farragut North to OEOB, Pentagon City to Pentagon, my stupid plastic dress shoes, shining like little girl Mary Jane patent leathers, began to gouge a hole in my toe. I couldn’t miss the meetings, so I just winced and walked a little faster between the Metro and the buildings. There was enough adrenaline so that I shrugged it off.

Then, I walked back to the Metro and from the Metro back to Pentagon City and from the car in the lot at Langley back to the Northeast entrance and down the long corridor and up the elevator and down the hall for a few hours of phone calls and e-mails. I also changed my shoes. I had an old pair from my days in the Fleet that shined not at all. They were scuffed and soft on the top. I thought it might be the answer to the growing pain on my right foot. It wasn’t. My right foot was swollen like a sausage.

So that was that week. With the exception of my foot, I felt good. We had made significant inroads with several key people and even got a commitment from the about-to-be-established Office of Strategic Influence to be helpful in directing some production efforts to the Public Diplomacy people over at State. Now I could go back to my day job. I think this was a week where we actually made a difference. I spent the weekend not wearing shoes, plastic or otherwise. The guys in Afghanistan were digging in for an extended stay.

What Came Next

Sir Isaac Newton postulated that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That is certainly true in this little company town. The next week brought the dog-end of February. The weather continued sunny and bright and the temperature rose to a tantalizing level. It had been a mild winter, dry, and the daffodils were poking their heads up. The season appeared to ready to change.

Professionally and personally there was a lot of stuff swirling around in the Washington spin-cycle. A mere mortal might be daunted by all this. But I am just dim enough to keep getting up in the morning and going to the office. Deflecting my attention from the list of critical issues this week, however, was the donnybrook going on. It was Public Affairs versus Psychological Operations, no holds barred, winner take all. We ran the 96-hour news cycle full bore on this one.

The story broke on Monday, with the revelation that the Department of Defense had established an Office of Strategic Influence. It started like this in a copyrighted article from the New York Times:

Pentagon Readies Efforts to Sway Sentiment Abroad
By James Dao and Eric Washington
Feb. 18, 2002

The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries, military officials said….

The idea of the Pentagon managing information for the U.S. Government was an interesting concept. After all, wouldn’t you assign a mission requiring guile, subtlety, agility and perfect knowledge to an organization having those attributes as core values?

Of course. The organization was the U.S. Army! They were the only ones who maintained a psychological operations (PSYOPS) capability, resident in the 4th Psychological Operations Group (4th POG). They were a tactical organization, not a strategic organization. But there wasn’t a strategic organization any longer, and hadn’t been since they shut down the Office of War Information in 1945.

Naturally, exposure to the light made the Office of Strategic Influence implode. It was a classic piece of Information Operations, conducted in the usual Washington way. Nothing high-tech. Just a phone call, a quick briefing to one of the usual suspects on “deep background,” fuel the fires of righteous journalistic suspicion of the great machine of national defense. It was a natural, an excellent story line set in motion by part of the machine itself.

So that little media event ran along, hissing and buzzing. In a way it was a good thing, since having mapped the players and the issues I was way out of my box, out of my lane, and far too exposed. The ensuing swirl provided me the top-cover to climb back in and pull the flaps closed. There are plenty of other little skirmishes going on around town in which to engage, and I am still engaged on strange fronts in odd places. There are multiple little wars that came along with the big one.

What Else Can I Do to Be Useful?

I have been trying to help Health and Human Services, which never had a classified idea in it’s fuzzy head, learn how to deal with the fact that First Responders are going to have to have sensitive information and the means to communicate it and protect it. Interesting problem. Then, late in the week I was earnestly talking to a very nice lady from the Office of Homeland Security about how we might go about establishing a fusion intelligence agency to bring together Justice Department criminal information with the Intelligence Community’s all-source intelligence methodology. The goal would be to address domestic terrorism issues and scoop up bad guys before they got into their Ryder trucks or boarded their airplanes.

The problem is this: the culture of Justice is about building cases, not about producing actionable intelligence. Watch the television show “Law and Order” to see why they hang onto information like rabid dogs. The Intelligence Community is about sharing information, within reason, and getting to the best guess about the future. The two views are inconsistent and the collision of these philosophies won’t be rationalized until after the next bit of awfulness.


Having had multiple experiences already, from Beirut to Nairobi to the USS Cole, I think we really should have had quite enough experience to move on and do something to fix the problem. But oh well, that is the kind of world we are living in. We had a flurry of excitement after 9-11, similar to the bombing in Kenya, more robust, but now devolved to the same weird status quo—some furious planning, lots of meetings, but otherwise, business as usual. Until the next time, anyway.

We all ought to be fired. Go figure. At least the swelling is down on my foot. My career advice is don’t get a job that features a lot of walking and a requirement for very shiny shoes.

Copyright 2004 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303

Red Tie

(Two of the cooler members in attendance at the Spring Red Tie Luncheon. Photo Socotra).

The Spring Red Tie Luncheon was yesterday, one of the biennial events that gets all the old and new Spooks together to share a meal and catch up on the health of the organization Mac Showers founded almost thirty years ago to keep alive the flame of Operational Intelligence that helped win the greatest conflict in human history- until the next one.

Which is exactly the point- the only more painful and expensive thing than fighting a war is losing one. We want to help the nation avoid that.

JR ad Barry-042515

I was in full Jimmy Olsen Cub Reporter mode with my big Canon D-50 digital camera that I drag along to document these things. I wore a sporty red polka-dot clip on bow tie and a bright red sweater vest to get in the spirit of things.

I can sum up the substance of the meeting with fair rapidity:

The Army-Navy Country Club is a great venue,


The turn-out was the largest in years, with tons of active duty folks. ANCC is much easier for people to get to than the old venue out in the wilds of Tysons Corner.

social hour-042515

The meal was great,


The New Zealand white wine was cold and crisp . In fact, it was positively insouciant ,


President Norm Hayes told us the organization is in good financial order,


The Commanders or Deputies from the four ONI Centers (Farragut=TechINT, Nimitz= OPINTEL, Hopper= IT and Kennedy= Special Warfare) had a panel discussion and concluded that they are coping as well as they can under the present fiscal shortfalls,


Chairman Bob Murrett presented former Chairman Jake Jacoby the Red Tie award for 2015,

red tie-042515

Mark Greer said the Foundation gave out an impressive number of scholarships,


And Nels Litsinger announced that the annual Naval Intelligence Essay contest is taking a hiatus due to the sharp decline in the number of submissions.We will figure out a way to reinvigorate the process and the new internet concept may help.


A grand time was had by all, including those who were headed to stand the watch at the Pentagon. This specialist stuck to the meal and let the retired folks enjoy the wine..

good time-042515

Did I mention the New Zealand white wine was crisp and inviting?

See you at the Fall meeting- it is not restricted just to members, and our 501c3 status includes an educational mission for the general public. We will have the new Web Portal shortly, and that is going to help. Stay tuned for details!

Jimmy Olsen, Cub Reporter for a Great Metropolitan Daily.

Copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303


CIA HQ-042315
(Ike and Alan Dulles at the dedication of the Original Headquarters Building at Langley. Image CIA).

OK- the big news of the night was that Heather went three-for-three, drove in two RBIs and had no errors. The Naturals of the Nature Conservatory, going head to head with the World Wildlife Fund, still went down by ten runs in the Tuesday softball league. Heather was MVP for the Naturals.

Which was going to be the topic of the morning missive today, but I don’t have action images to convey the drama. Heather was in left center, 2nd base and behind the plate for one inning while someone went for a beer. Heather reports she was able to hang on to her red Solo cup throughout the cycle.

Anyway, the alternative was to share the high drama of the Big Pink financial committee last night, but frankly I don’t think anyone out there is ready for that sort of excitement just yet. There is plenty of time for that as the fiscal year plays out.

Instead, something flew over the transom that reminded me of one of our favorite bartenders, Sammy. He is from Morocco; and an athlete of imposing height and movie-star black wavy hair and blazing dark eyes. He reminds me periodically that with all the trouble in the Maghreb these days, we have a long shared history, and you have to remember that people are people, good and bad. There are a lot of good people in North Africa, and a smaller set of them who should be killed at the first opportunity.

It is important to know the difference.

We have to remember the good as we pursue the bad. We were talking about that with JPeter, who over the months has let some amazing things drift out over the Amen Corner at the Willow Bar. He grew up in some extraordinary places, because his Dad was a charter member of the Christians in Action up at Langley.

JPeter is a good son, taking care of his Mom as we tried to take care of ours. He is the kid who is here for her, since his Dad passed away last September: “Dan, recently of Berkeley, died suddenly yet quietly while landing at Dulles International Airport. Born July 8, 1924 to Herman and Camma Wages in Winder, Georgia.

He fought in WW II, in the Third Army under George Patton 1944-45. He received a BA from Furman University in 1947 and a MA from UNC Chapel Hill. While working towards a PHD in history at Columbia, he obtained a Fulbright scholarship to London.

In 1953, he joined the newly formed CIA serving in various overseas assignments in the Department of State’s Foreign Service. After retiring in 1979, he worked as a stock-broker, then moved to Berkeley, California in 1999. He was a charter member of The Greatest Generation, and a participant in the beginning of the Cold War, and the maintenance and structure of the bi-polar world oriented around the pillars of the United States and the Soviet Socialist Republics. I don’t know what he thought of what has become of it now.

JPeter had a document that he thought I might be interested in, and I was. Apparently Dan had been talking to the family at a gathering a couple years ago, and decided to write down the full account. His time at Langley overlapped that of our departed pal Admiral Mac Showers, and I prowled the halls there when the Global War on Whatever was still new and we thought we were going to roll up the bad guys like a bad Persian rug. Here is a little Cold War story we thought you might enjoy:

“Recently at a lunch with several family members I reminisced about one of my accomplishments as a CIA employee in the days of the cold war about which I was especially pleased and which resulted in an organization that exists to this very day. It has occurred to me that I should perhaps write an account of this for very limited distribution to a few select people.

I had been selected to go to the State Department’s Arabic language school, a full time program of 12 months in the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Washington to be followed by another 12 months of study at the FSI school in Beirut, Lebanon. Sally and I were married shortly after Christmas in 1953 and after a short honeymoon in Carmel we flew to Beirut.

The tour in Beirut was extended another 6 months because the State Department was running low on travel money, and they had none to spend on transfers that were not absolutely necessary. We had no objection at all to having our time in Beirut, which we loved, extended.

When we did return to Washington I was assigned to the North Africa section of the Africa Division. My immediate boss was Warren Hamilton, who after a period as a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille in the First World War remained in Paris to start a tourist company. It soon failed, and he got a job with the U.S. State Department as a courier delivering diplomatic pouches in Europe.

Diplomatic Pouches in those days traveled by steamship from Washington to France and were then delivered by couriers to embassies and legations in other European countries.

By the time World War II started, Warren was the Chief of the Courier Service in Europe, although he also continued to serve as a courier himself. At the time of Pearl Harbor he happened to be in Berlin. After an exchange of officials he was back with Americans, and he soon was with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in North Africa.

Although during the Second World War both the Europeans and the Arabs favored the Allies, after the war was over they wanted to become independent of France (Tunisia and Morocco were French protectorates, but Algeria was an integral part of France, despite the fact that the population was largely Arabic.) In his days with the OSS during the war Warren cultivated the leading figures of North Africa and after the war fully supported the natives’ aspirations for independence from France.

Shortly before I was assigned to the Africa division, Warren had been sent on a tour of the area to renew his friendships there for their intelligence value. He returned, and he had met various old friends ­­­ and in addition, had been introduced by one of them to Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco­­ and they waited for Warren to write up his report. No written report appeared, and the powers that be were very annoyed.

(His Excellency Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco- center-­­ arriving on a state visit to the United States. Photo AP).

His contacts, however, were obviously valuable. They decided to send him back again to contact all his friends­­­­, but they specified that I should go with him. At any contact that he could possibly include me he was supposed to do so and, I was to attend to take copious notes. Any contact I could not appropriately attend (such as with the Sultan) I was to debrief him immediately after the meeting, and I was to write up the cables to be sent by the stations and bases.

There was a lot of good intelligence gathered, and I had them sent back to Headquarters.

The trip was a resounding success. Warren’s value was recognized, and I was congratulated by the Division Chief for my part in putting on paper the results of the trip. But the chief value to me was the fact that I became well acquainted with a number of Warren’s contacts, in particular a Moroccan newspaper reporter named Mehdi Bennouna. Mehdi soon became a key player in my career.

(Mehdi Bennouna at his retirement. Photo MAP).

Being an Arabist, I was able to ask for and receive various things from the Agency. I had the Agency buy me an Arabic typewriter and get me a subscription to an Arabic newspaper printed in Casablanca. The newspaper came by airmail and I usually had it on my desk two or three days after it was printed.

I did not, of course, read every word, but I read the main stories.

One day shortly after Warren and I had returned I read a story that started me thinking. The newspaper had printed a story­­­- in Arabic, of course­­­- that was in favor of continuation of the French protectorate. In its next edition the newspaper wrote an article apologizing to its readers, and had stated that the newspaper’s translator had thoughtlessly put the article in the paper. The article deplored the fact that the Arabic paper relied on a
French wire service to provide their news.

This story made me realize a fact that should have been obvious, but apparently wasn’t: There were wire services in most European languages, but there was no such thing as an Arabic wire service. Except for stories written by their own staffs, Arabic newspapers had to depend on wire services in other languages and have their own translators.

I wrote a memorandum pointing out that no Arabic wire service existed, and I thought we should start one. My suggestion was that we subscribe to several English language wire services ­­­­ Associated Press, United Press, and Reuters, for example, ­­­and have a team of translators to put them into Arabic and sell the product to newspapers all over the Arab world. I specified that the service would not include any propaganda, but count on the fact that a straight­forward treatment of the news would be basically pro-­western.

I gave my memorandum to Warren, who showed it to Roger Goran, the Africa Division chief, who called me in and told me to take it to Richard Helms and leave word that Roger wanted Helms to read the memorandum.

(Richard Helms, the ultimate Company Man. Photo CIA).

It took about 10 or 15 minutes to walk from Roger’s office to Helms’ office. I had planned just to leave the memo with a secretary and tell her that it was a memorandum that Roger wanted Helms to read.

But when I arrived at his office (about 4:30 in the afternoon) Helms was relaxing in the outer office with his secretaries and assistants. Therefore I just walked over to Helms, handed him the memo, and said “Roger Goran asked me to give this to you to read.”

Helms took the memo and just said, “Thank you,” and I turned and walked out and back to my office.

Warren had been in Roger’s office and later told me what happened. Helms had called Roger and said, “Some young man came into my office, handed me a paper, and said you wanted me to read it.”

According to Warren, Roger sort of stuttered and thought perhaps I had annoyed Helms.

But the massage from Helms was, “Tell that young man that I want a Project Outline in my office by close of business tomorrow; and I want the project to be implemented as quickly as possible.”

It actually took two or three months. We had Mehdi Bennouna come to Washington, and I took him for a walk in the garden of George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon and explained the plan to him and said that we thought he, as a newspaperman, should be the person to head it. Mehdi was enthusiastic, as I knew he would be. Thus, Maghreb Arab Press was born.

I had very little to do with Maghreb Arab Press afterwards, except as an occasional consultant, and I was kept informed of its progress. The Agency, through Warren, informed Sultan (later King) Mohammed V of our sponsorship of MAP.

I do not remember when the Agency withdrew from sponsorship of MAP and turned it over to the Moroccan Government. (I believe it is still a government owned enterprise.)

Today, in May 2013, MAP still exists. Its headquarters is still in Rabat, but according to its website it has international offices in Abidjan, Algiers, Bonn, Beirut, Cairo, Dakar, Nouakchott, Paris, Rome, Tunis and Washington. It has national and regional offices in Agadir, Casablanca, Tangier, Dakhla, Fez, Kenitra,Layoune, Nador, Oujda and Settat.

It has correspondents in Abu Dhabi, Addis Ababa,Ankara, Baghdad, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Damascus, El Jadida, Essaouira, Malaga, Marseille, Mexico City, New Delhi, Ouarzazate, Pretoria, Tehran, Tetouan and Tripoli.

Mehdi Benouna retired from his position as head of MAP in 1975. He died March 23, 2010, at the age of 92. His death was widely covered in the Moroccan press. I last saw him in 1963 and 1964 when I was stationed in Casablanca, but our relationship then was a social one, that of old friends.

You never know what results a short memo will produce!”

I had a similar experience with an old Spook who chuckled about the way things work. Sometime during the Mariel Boatlift out of Cuba, the Christians in Action decided they wanted to do some media work targeting the migrant community. A small delegation set up a meeting with the station manager at one of the local radio stations. The people from Washington earnestly explained their delicate mission. The station manager smiled broadly when they finished.

“Don’t you guys know that you own this station?”

Apparently, Washington had forgotten.

Copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303

Blue Goose Multi-Use

(The Blue Goose in better days. I have been used to seeing it like this for the nearly thirty years I have been knocking around Arlington. Image CoStar).

I probably should ride my bike over to Willow in the afternoon, and perhaps I will start doing that once it gets warm and stays that way. The County has installed one of those rent-a-bike kiosks across George Mason Drive, and that might be convenient, if I could find one over in Ballston. But what the hell, it was a nice day and I had a mission I needed to get to.

I found a place for the Panzer at the curb, purchased the slip of paper to display on my dash and walked into the cool darkness of the late afternoon quiet bar-room. I placed a plastic bag with a dozen of Kate Jansen’s mini-Kemmelwick rolls. “These were left-overs from the pot-luck last Saturday, and you said you liked them.”

Jasper the bartender (he won the prize for best pot-luck offering with a Guamanian themed combination of lumpia, red sticky rice and grilled thin steak on skewers) approached with a vodka and diet tonic. “Thanks, Jasper, but I have a thing I need to do. I will be right back.”

I walked back out into the sunlight, glorying in the beauty of the day. I walked west on Fairfax Drive, happy I did not have to cross any busy streets. I got to the hurtling traffic at North Glebe and took a few snapshots on my smart phone. When I got back to Arlington that morning from the farm, I had one of those “This isn’t right” moments as I drove past one of the buildings where I used to work. I almost crashed the car trying to get my phone deployed to get a picture and failed.

The lighting was crappy, but the demolition was well along and probably would be complete in another day.

I walked back to Willow and slid onto my stool and smiled at the cocktail in front of me. I punched up the pictures on my phone and showed them to Jim.

Goose gone-042215

“Marymount University has been planning to tear down the Blue Goose, and now they are just about done with it. I got some pictures for the book.”

“You have been claiming that project for years,” said Jim. “You ought to do something about it.”

“Maybe I will,” I said defensively, taking that first marvelous sip of the day. “This is part of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment with all kinds of bells and whistles. The college wants to improve its image and boost enrollment at the Ballston campus.”

Our conversation ceased abruptly as the very embodiment of Spring came around the corner: It was Heather in a tie-dye t-shirt, ball cap, black yoga pants and carrying a softball glove. “That time of the year?” asked Jon-without, straightening his bow tie.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Co-ed team, we play on the Mall, and if the beer is in a red Solo cup, no one seems to care.”


We talked about softball for a while as Long-Haired Mike bellied up, and Sean from a former partner company slid in next to me. “Let me guess,” growled Jim. “What is going to replace the Goose is going to be mixed use and sustainable.”

“You got it, Jim. Let’s see: dry cleaner on the first floor and a couple restaurants. Apartments above the college classrooms. A percentage of 8a rental units, of course.”

“That is how they do things here,” said Long Hair Mike. “But the site has a built-in problem. I hate crossing Glebe Road. It is literally worth your life after dark and not much better during the day. The drivers getting on and off I-66 are are insane. That is why those restaurants in the new buildings are having such trouble.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Said Sean. “I live up Vermont Street and go to the Green Turtle and Buffalo Wild Wings and it is scary. All this emphasis on making things more pedestrian-friendly is causing them to stop looking around. I see people just walking into traffic staring at their devices assuming that drivers will stop for them. I do, but I know the nature of the lunacy. People who are not used to driving in the County might not be so charitable.”

“Well, as taxpayers,” commented Long-Hair Mike authoritatively, “you should be pleased that they are going to construct a new entrance to the Metro over there so no one will have to do that. It is a bargain at only $72 million.”

“I heard it was going to be east of Glebe,” said Jon. “It is still going to be a nightmare. But the developer is going to do something about that pond in back of the CACI headquarters and improve the bike trail along I-66.”

“It is the usual Arlington shake-down,” said Jim with a glower. “In order to get the county to approve it, the developer has to make a hefty donation to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund; more to pay for the underground utilities, even more to the public art fund, and more than a half million to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicle trips.”

“Well sure, that promotes a car-free lifestyle and discourages the use of cars people have to get anywhere outside the high-density corridor. The college will only be able to use the first six floors, but this is part of their plan to expand here in Ballston. I just drive,” I said.

“Marymount University says the Goose is a building that has outlived its time and usefulness.”

“I don’t know. I thought a building that ugly was too cool to die. It has been a landmark of ugliness and got worse every year and the blue panels bleached out in the sun.”

“I thought the color was the best part. They built it in 1963 for the Christians in Action.”

.“Yeah, they are going to replace the Goose with two new buildings with a public walkway will run east-west through the site and an interior courtyard. That is what we used to do with the college- we would cut through the Goose by walking through the front door and out the back to save time when we had to walk from the old office across the street over to the Headquarters,” I said. “That is when I had a job.”

“They are going to dig deep,” said Jon, a known Engineeer. “Both the new buildings will have a combined three-story parking garage underneath and the whole thing is going to be green and sustainable.”

“Of course. That is the way Arlington rolls with the County Master Plan. Pity to see the Goose go. You know it started as a covert CIA training facility before they expanded the Agency Headquarters in the early 90s,” said Sean.

“Yeah, it was going to be on my Spook tour,” I said, “This area was a nest of spies back in the day. Strayer University across the street was the Naval Investigative Service- now NCIS. There was a bunch of Spooky stuff in Rosslyn, and DARPA is still just up the road though they tried to relocate it to Maryland.”

“Is that where Al Gore invented the Internet?” asked Jon with his trademark ironic grin.

“The very same,” I said. “And that doesn’t include the Big Defense Intelligence Agency building up Clarendon they just closed. If I needed to read a classified message I could just drive over there and log onto JWICS and take care of business. With it closed, I had to drive all the way over to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling or out to the old National Geospatial Intelligence Agency campus all the way out in Reston.”

“They really inconvenienced you fat-cat contractors, didn’t they?” said Mike.

“You know we don’t get no respect. I am glad I am done with that crap. But I would love to be able to show people how vast the system has grown, and how it sprawls all over. And of course that includes the original Arlington Hall where they broke Japanese and Russian codes. It was the epicenter of Spookery: first the Army I World War Two and then later the first NSA headquarters and then DIA when they formed it before the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

“I stopped by there last week while they were gutting it. The guy at the demolition site said they would retain some blue themes in the new building. The public plaza will have blue seating and blue lighting,” said Long-hair Mike.

Jim waggled at Jasper for another Bud. “Home of the Blue Light Special? Are you sure there won’t be any Spooks in the new building?”

“Pretty sure, but of course you can’t tell in this town. And yeah, they will tell the history of the building- the part they can talk about will be made from the panels on the Blue Goose.”

“Will the fixtures be as ugly as the old ones?”

“We can only hope,” said Jim, and he took a pull on his Budweiser. Then we talked about a lot of other stuff, which included a tussle over who wrote the novel “The Invisible Man.”

Naturally, there are two, just like the new buildings that will replace the Blue Goose.

replacement goose-042215

Copyright 2015 Vic Socotra
Twitter: @jayare303