Sunday, July 6, 2014

38 years ago today at USNA

My friend David Kennedy reminded me that 38 years ago today I entered the US Naval Academy as a plebe. My father and brother went back east with me for a few days of sightseeing before I was to start plebe summer. I remember getting off the plane at either Dulles Airport or Baltimore/Washington. It was pouring rain and hot. I was from Southern California, and I couldn’t remember experiencing heat and rain simultaneously. 

I’d been to college already, at UC Santa Cruz, my father’s dream school. He was very liberal, and when I rebelled, it was in the conservative direction. When I applied to USNA (and USMA and USAFA and USMMA) through my congressional representative, I remember dad telling me that he’d rather pay my way through college than have me go into the military. Turns out he would be bragging on me before my stay was done. There is much more to the story of my application than that, but thats enough detail for now. When I was accepted to USNA (and USMA and USMMA), I dropped out of UCSC, since the final quarter would have bumped right up against plebe summer. I left one residential college for another and have great memories of each, though at opposite ends of several political dimensions.

At this moment, I don’t recall too much of the tourist stuff in the DC area ahead of time, other than the visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which had just opened, and a tour of the Academy when I was still a civilian. I also remember that we saw The Omen with Gregory Peck in downtown Annapolis at a theater on Main Street one afternoon. The scene where a fellow gets his head sliced off by a pane of glass stuck with me, and the walk along Main Street after the movie reminded me of that scene!

I was reserved as I shaved the morning of July 6 in the hotel room I shared with my dad and brother. I walked into the USNA Visitor's Center to check in and to pick up a bag of stuff — clothes and whatnot as I recall. I still have that bag (OMG -- I still remember my number), and my wife wonders why I won’t ever throw it away — NEVER! :-)

I remember standing in a line to be weighed by a balance scale, and as I stepped up on the scale, the first-class midshipman doing the weighing asked me "What's your weight, Fisher?" (because by now I had a name tag on), and I replied "About 148", and he yelled back "about 148 WHAT!!?!" and I replied "About 148 POUNDS" and then he went ballistic, yelling "About 148 pounds SIR!!" several times. That was an eye opener!

After the weighing, which took place at the infirmary as I recall, I was sitting with a bunch of others, waiting to be walked to the next station, looking out an open door, and saw my father and brother walk by at a leisurely pace, my father pointing out something to my brother, not aware that I was watching them. 

I remember getting a haircut at some point that day, and while I was waiting my turn, I watched a guy who I had met earlier that summer at a USNA alumni-sponsored dinner, another incoming plebe, looking extremely depressed as his long, long, long hair -- the subject of curious looks at the alumni dinner -- was shaved off.

I walked into my room on the top floor of Bancroft Hall ( Turns out that I had a beautiful view of Santee Basin and the Severn River. Brian K. was already there, and after we swapped quick histories, because there was somewhere to be, he told me that he was glad that he wasn’t stuck with some youngster right out of high school :-). Good ‘ol Kilk!

The rest of the day was a blur. Right now, I last remember forming up for evening meal formation and then falling out for one last visit with Dad and Bruce before reentering Bancroft Hall — a gauntlet. I don’t remember the hell that was dinner that night, or the regrets of getting into my rack for the first time, but I don’t regret it now.

USNA Revisited:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bye for now, McGill

Last evening I went by McGill Hall to pick up the last of our possessions from the faculty apartment — McGill 107. It was a wonderful home. Patricia and I would spread out in the big comfy chairs in the evenings, typically sharing the ottoman. Each of the chairs could seat three students during our more popular events, like yearly chocolate tastings or graduation brunches, with plates of food scrunched together on the short wooden bar. On occasion I’d hold Sunday brunches, and depending on the year, a few students who went to bed at 5:00 am would get up at 7:00 am to have my breakfast casserole and blueberry coffee, joining the church goers. Whether attendance was large or small, and it varied widely with year, the conversations were a pleasure.

I remember great friend Will Clendening bounding across the living room at six am on a Saturday morning, towards the blueberry coffee in the kitchen, before a few of us went for a ride out to Liepers Fork — it was a ride Will would not return from. I sat in that living room talking to a recovering addict wanting to remain clean. Patricia and I played board games on the floor with students on Thanksgiving evening, and I watched the first performance of a one-act play that had been drafted a few hours before by the playwrights who came knocking late one night. Tornado warnings brought students to the first floor hall, and we’d open the door of 107 for coffee.

The big chairs were good seating for the music in the practice room down the hall — bag pipes, opera, piano, rock — over the year we heard the improvement, particularly in the rock bands. The parties in the McGill Lounge inevitably spilled out into the first floor hallway. We could hear every conversation that happened outside our door, but none I recall was particularly scandalous. The bedroom has a great thick door, and with the excellent foam earplugs from the library and the door closed, getting to sleep on even the noisiest of nights wasn’t a problem. Students would ask about the noise, wanting I think to keep the noise down, but I told them that any faculty member who had a problem with occasional loud sustained party noise probably shouldn’t be living in a student residence hall.

The McGill Coffee Houses in the lounge were wondrous, dark, and packed with students and sometimes resident life staff. While they were late in my day, which generally start before 5:00 am, Patricia and I would often go for the first hour — the talent in McGill was amazing, and includes much music, poetry and other spoken word, rap, and much else.

Each year since 2004, then a faculty member in residence at the “old Kissam”, I would do McGill Hours. I recall Professor Retzlaff, then McGill’s faculty member in residence, attending my first hour, surrounded by students, obviously comfortable. I also loved attending the McGill Hours of other faculty members (weekly presentations or facilitated discussions by faculty from across campus); Patricia too. In any year, there is a good chance that I attended more McGill Hours than any student (not a putdown), excepting my three years at NSF in Arlington, Virginia, and even then, I would look to see if any Hours were happening on my return trips to Nashville.

McGill has been good to me, and Patricia. Its been a great jumping off point to events after hours across campus — a faculty member in residence is first and foremost the faculty’s ambassador in the residence life of campus. And you can’t beat the commute. I’ve been proud to be a McGillite — they tend towards the fearless side, they stand up for what they believe, and they have each others backs — that’s my experience.

People have suggested that Faculty Director at Warren College is a big step up, by which most mean the Warren faculty apartment, I think, and it is an honor to have been selected, and now moved into an amazing residential space. But being a faculty member in residence at McGill, and before that at the old Kissam and North, but particularly at McGill, was a dream come true — as cool as it gets. I almost didn’t apply for College Halls — my lifestyle was that awesome, but I learned from NSF that its good to shake things up from time to time, and that’s what motivates this move — change, and I hope growth. And Patricia is thrilled by the new space, and her satisfaction is second to none. I love the space too of course, but the space isn’t why we choose this life on campus.

Bye for now, McGill!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Election Day 2008

There was an excellent Frontline on tonight, Part 1 on NSA collection of US communications ( For reasons I won't elaborate now, it reminded me of Election Day 2008, a day of pride. I first posted this on an earlier blog site (November 8, 2008 at 1:25pm).


I spent last weekend, Nov 1 and 2, working on a big project. I took a break late Saturday morning to priority mail my ballot back to Nashville; I signed an oath, that among other things attested to my having filled the ballot out "in secret" -- I thought that was interesting. Priority mail cost me $4.80, but well spent, even though Nashville is solidly blue within a solidly red state -- hardly seemed that my vote would make a difference, except to me. By Sunday morning I knew that the project would turn out well, but it was going to take much of my Sunday too. I looked at my calendar and I had no appointments on Tuesday -- so I emailed my boss and asked for Tuesday off -- as Clint says, you've "got to know your limits", and not just to survive, but to remain civil. He blessed it, his second-in-charge blessed it, and I had myself what Julia Cameron calls an Artist's Date.

Tuesday, election day, I headed out to the National Archives, which friend Kurt had suggested. It was quiet in DC. I walked into the Archives behind a school group from Columbia, TN -- cute, and while the adults were getting them in some semblance of order, I jumped ahead. I imagined that the kids were going to head straight to the Rotunda, so I ducked into a side vault, and sure enough they passed right by, as did many others, all to return later :-) I was in a room with documents, maps, news, paintings on the American Revolution, with the most significant original document on display being the American copy of the Treaty of Paris (1784). I knew where it was before I got there, because group after group of school kids, tour guides leading the way, would stampede around me into the back, huddle around a case, and then stampede back on their way to another conquest. Like a lot of things, the star of the show wasn't the most interesting; a large 1775 map of the colonies showed no signs of Tennessee or Nashville -- just Virginia and Carolina extending westward, with indian tribes throughout and First Nations west of the Mississippi; on a 1796 map I found both "Tannessee" and Nashville; the Mohawks weren't happy with the 1784 Treaty of Paris, as it negated earlier assurances and (of course) they weren't parties to it. I'm part Iroquis BTW, of which the Mohawks were one tribe -- 1/32 in blood, but more like 1/3 in spirit. Vermont, where my mother grew up, and though it wasn't one of the original 13, had to get yanked back in line, after the Treaty was ratified, by George Washington himself.

I went to the Rotunda; as you enter there is an original 1297 Magna Carta -- Latin on animal skin :-), then you enter the main Rotunda, dark to preserve the Charters of Freedom, the ink on each faded beyond my ability to read them. Murals on the walls show the participants of the congresses that signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, even those that didn't sign it -- you wonder why some wouldn't -- fear, principle, like George Mason? It's a beautiful and moving place.

The Public Vaults of the Archives have a lot of interactive exhibits -- some familiar stuff, but listening to Lyndon Johnson wear down Senator Richard Russell to serve on the Warren Commission ( ... last on the list of "LBJ Phone Calls") and JFK talking to Gov. Barnett of Mississippi over James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss ( don't get old. Interactive exhibits involving great arguments and investigations from history (SC refusing to pay federal tax under Jackson, Titantic, UFOs, Kent State, Pumpkin Papers), while navigating the original documents, really intrigued the AIer in me. But personal stories -- soldiers, immigrants, Japanese-American internment -- this was the most touching, and this idea of archiving personal stories, or at least the information necessary to reconstruct the story, is something that resonates with so many -- you see the same theme at the Holocaust Museum, the American Indian Museum -- its an aspect of the "Memories for Life" UK grand challenge for computing research (; I recall CMU CS researchers are empowering children in poor neighborhoods to record and archive the stories of their elders. At the Public Vaults I read that those that traveled overseas on passport would likely be there at the Archives, and I was reminded, I think, that my father had gone to the Archives to retrace his father's steps to Scotland to find his father (quite a tale there!) -- My father searched places like the National Archives, the Archives of the Latter Day Saints, the Scottish archives, old newspapers, 16 mm film, and more.. I'm 1/4 Scot by blood, and 1/2 in spirit BTW. I went with my father to Scotland a few months before he died, just after he'd put all the pieces of his history together -- its on computer and floppy that I can no longer (easily) read. Apparently, we are in a transition of great information loss with all this rapidly changing technology. But I have hardcopy :-)

When I got out of the Archives, I was far from done for the day -- lunch at National Galleries (the best Caesar dressing, real plates, good cup of Joe!), the East Building exhibit of George De Forest Brush (, the Library of Congress on colleague Steve's recommendation (The Jefferson building is fantastically beautiful, and I'm sure that Madison's statue might induce swooning by those so inclined, but it will have to wait -- I was sure to get a library card, and I'm going back as a researcher -- I'll be able to count that trip as work! :-) I ended the day at Union Station, on the recommendation of friend Vivian -- quite a place. I'd been doing a lot of walking and was beat (it was an eight hour day), and was looking forward to a metro ride, but the Union Station Metro was a Zoo, and I hadn't had my flu shot, so I walked to Foggy Bottom, after dark, remembering some earlier times, talking to my wife on the phone about the election, which I hadn't thought of all day, but no news yet ... when I got back to Arlington I made a final check with my wife on the election, still not much, then headed up to the apartment. I zoned out in front of some DVD on my laptop in the kitchen -- no TV and no Internet and not good cell. I was in a twilight state, now in bed, about 11:00 PM when I heard hoots and hollers, honking horns, yells from the street 18 floors down and from other apartments I imagine -- what a wonderfully moving feeling that was, and I went to sleep.