Your Friendly Neighborhood Low-Flying Radiation-Detecting Helicopter

Helicopters circling over a local news event: That’s just one of those noises you get used to in our modern urban soundscape. When you hear the sound of choppers orbiting over some downtown or campus or some random intersection, you know a protest is going on or maybe a fire or maybe someone’s spotted a picturesque car crash.

This morning’s helicopter visit is different. Starting sometime in the groggy hour before 8 a.m., I started to hear a helicopter nearby. It would pass, then return. It sounded like it was flying low. Once I was up and attending to the morning’s first ritual, making coffee, I heard the helicopter coming back and went out and took a look. It looked like it was only about 500 feet up, if that, and it was not orbiting or following anything at that height.

I remembered seeing an article somewhere about some government agency taking radiation measurements over parts of the Bay Area. This helicopter must be part of that whole thing, I thought. After the chopper passed, I went in and tried to find some information.

The summary, by way of the excellent Oakland North blog: “Some government agency” is the Department of Homeland Security’s Nuclear Detection Office and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Despite what I say in the video above, the helicopter is a Bell 412, and it’s outfitted with equipment to measure background radiation levels in the area. The stated purpose: to assist research and development on airborne radiation detection systems. (More on the chopper(s) at Berkeleyside: Low-flying helicopters over Berkeley.)

Dad: 2011-2012


Since I always seem to be taking pictures, it seems natural that I started taking pictures of my dad on most of our visits the last few years. It wasn’t until late July, the week he died, that I looked back on what I had taken over the last year or so. I made several visits last summer, and then there was a long hiatus–from his 90th birthday weekend all the way until this past May. Over that time, his situation had changed. After a couple of episodes of pneumonia, his advancing dementia, loss of mobility, incontinence, and other issues, he needed round-the-clock nursing care. That meant he had to leave the home of my sister, Ann, and her husband, Dan, with whom he’d lived since the end of 2008, and enter a nursing home Evanston.

When he went into the facility, called Dobson Plaza, he was in pretty rough shape. He’d been there a couple of weeks by the time I visited in May and by then he seemed to have bounced back a little. I say a little: He was quite weak, confined to a wheelchair, and needed assistance for virtually every daily chore beyond feeding himself. He undertook that task with competence but little enthusiasm–maybe because his intake was reduced to pureed meals because he was having difficulty swallowing and was in danger of aspirating food and triggering another lung infection. There wasn’t much of a question that we–Dad, my siblings and I–were now waiting for the next turn, and the next turn would not be for the better.

He was losing weight, and by early July that prompted a discussion with his doctor of what kind of intervention might be appropriate (they could give him a drug of some kind to stimulate appetite). Before that conversation could reach a conclusion, I think, he suffered another bout of pneumonia and was taken up to Evanston Hospital (from my impression not a bad place to wind up if you’re in that part of the world and need medical attention). By coincidence, my brother John and I had arranged to visit at this time–he from New York, I from California–and got into town a couple days after he was hospitalized.

The news turned out to be worse than pneumonia. He was suffering congestive heart failure and tests detected the presence of fluid in the chest cavity around his lungs, signaling some other infection or even a malignancy. John and I got to Chicago late on a Saturday night, and Sunday we had a family meeting with Ann and our other brother, Chris. Since Dad had been suffering dementia, Ann had power of attorney, and among us we agreed that the course of action Dad would have pursued, or that our mom would have pursued if she’d been around, was hospice care. In essence, that meant ending aggressive attempts to fight the infections and other issues Dad was suffering from and focusing instead on taking what measures we could to make him comfortable in his remaining time. And that time? Well, he was about five weeks short of his 91st birthday and his body had kept going through a lot of hard stuff. We didn’t know whether we were looking at a day, a week, a month, or more.

Then Chris, John, and I went to see him in the hospital. Since I’d seen him in May, I felt I was prepared for what we’d see. And I wasn’t shocked to see that he was gaunter than he had been or that he looked really knocked out. But it also struck me for the first time that I was in the presence of someone who was dying, and that the death was not some abstract thing out there somewhere in the future. It was near.

Although you can fool yourself. You see someone that you’ve known your whole life, someone who has kept going through some pretty rough stuff, and anything positive–an alert look, a quick response to a question, a willingness to eat–becomes an encouraging sign. We spent about eight hours with Dad in his room, and I think we all were constantly aware of the monitors keeping track of his heart rate, his oxygen levels, his respiration. He dozed a lot, and a couple of times he seemed agitated as he started awake. His heart rate and breathing seemed to fluctuate, and I thought, “Is this it?” Then he ate a decent portion of the pureed chicken and mashed potato dinner that was on the lunch menu. I said after he finished, “It’s time to say ‘Takk for maten’ “–Norwegian for “thanks for the meal.” He glanced my way and said, “Not really.” It sounded like a dry Nordic reply.

The hospital sent him back to Dobson, the nursing home, for the hospice care we had set up. We visited each day, starting on the Monday he returned there. Dad seemed to be holding his own despite what we knew, or had been told, or suspected, was happening beneath the surface. He ate a little. He seemed to like his coffee. He seemed to like our being there. He seemed to respond when we played him some of what we remembered as his favorite classical recordings. He seemed absorbed when I began reading aloud a tale of the Norse in Greenland (I thought he’d identify with a Viking story).

And then, several days later, I headed back to California. I had an idea I’d ask for a leave to come back to Chicago and see out Dad’s last days. But things moved fast after I departed, and he died the next day. As I said several weeks ago, I missed him already. I still do. The best memory I have of that last week, though, is the time we all spent together as a family, and the best thing that happened was that we all worked together at least in those few days.

I only meant to write enough to provide some context for the pictures that follow, which in a small way record his passing. There’s still a lot left to say. Sometime. Soon.

Ruminants Among Us


Yes, that up there is common deer poop, left right next to a manzanita bush in our front yard. Or so I believe from previous experience in wilder parts of the country. I can’t think of another animal in our parts that would leave scat that looks quite like this. More circumstantial evidence: a deer hoof print in our next-door neighbor’s front-yard garden, which contains lots of roses, reputedly a favorite food of our semi-urban deer.

Joking aside: the deer have moved in. There’s not enough cover in our yard for them to stay full time, but I’ve heard of places within three or four blocks where deer families have taken up residence. I don’t object, though they are larger than our average wild neighbor and the thing that sometimes worries me about them is scaring one at night and getting run over. Hasn’t happened yet, though.

Respecting the Fundamentals

If you’re interested in how content is produced in our socially connected media world, David Carr had a nice piece in Monday’s New York Times (“Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth“). He was focusing on the lessons inherent in the case of Jonah Lehrer, the Wired and New Yorker science writer who was caught inventing and retooling quotes from Bob Dylan in a book published this summer and then lying about it.

Lehrer isn’t the first to be caught creating nonfiction from a fertile imagination, and he won’t be the last. Carr and others argue that a lot of this kind of behavior is the product of a news/entertainment industry landscape in which journalists, reporters, columnists, and analysts–maybe the best catch-all description would be “media performers”–are slaves to a nonstop, multi-platform demand for their brilliance.

Carr also suggests that part of the problem lies in what’s missing from Jonah Lehrer’s journalistic resume:

“Mr. Lehrer, now 31, became famous before he had a grasp of the fundamentals. …

“The now ancient routes to credibility at small magazines and newspapers—toiling in menial jobs while learning the business—have been wiped out, replaced by an algorithm of social media heat and blog traction. Every reporter who came up in legacy media can tell you about a come-to-Jesus moment, when an editor put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull: show respect for the fundamentals of the craft, or you would soon not be part of it.

“I once lost a job I dearly wanted because I had misspelled the name of the publisher of the publication I was about to go to work for. Not very smart, but I learned a brutal lesson that has stayed with me. Nobody ever did that for Mr. Lehrer, even after repeated questions were raised about his work.”

“Tattooed a message deep into their skull.” I like that. Though I can testify that the tattooing these days needs to be done with a certain modicum of sensitivity that was scarce in those Old School days Carr speaks of.

Carved in Stone: Epitaphs, Actual and Proposed

With my dad’s recent passing, and having made several (unrelated, except for my mood) recent visits to Chicago cemeteries, I’ve been thinking about epitaphs. Webster’s defines epitaph as “1. an inscription on or at a tomb or a grave in memory of the one buried there. 2.: a brief statement commemorating or epitomizing a deceased person or something past.”

Most of what’s carved on graveyard monuments is pretty simple: names, dates, and relationships. Beyond that, most of the common people buy at most a brief fragment of a sentiment. In Catholic cemeteries, I’ve seen a lot of “My Jesus Mercy.” On my dad’s parents’ grave, In largely Scandinavian-American (and Lutheran) ground, the message is “Christ My Hope.”

But except for the expense involved–I think we’re paying $150 to have “2012” carved on my dad’s headstone–I think a secular message might be reflect more the concerns of today’s future deceased Americans. I’m thinking of phrases that reflect the preoccupations of most of us for most of our waking life: Phrases like:

Has anyone seen my keys?

Do you mind getting me another beer?

It’s time to get up already?

Turn here. No–here!

Have change for a 20?

Hey–there’s no toilet paper in here!

Sorry I’m late–traffic was terrible!

I meant to get in touch.

Don’t blame me.

What time is it?

Yeah–I’ll send that check tomorrow.

Later–we’ll discuss it later.

‘A Private in Uncle Sam’s Army’


It’s my last night in Chicago for awhile–early morning, actually. I’ve stayed up way too late looking through a collection of letters Dad wrote when he was in Army basic training. That was in 1946, after World War II ended. The story we heard growing up, and I’ve got no reason to doubt it, is that Dad tried to enlist at the outset of the war but was rejected because he had a punctured eardrum. That condition gradually healed, and he was rated fit to serve and drafted in late 1945 and inducted into the Army in January 1946.

Part of his parents’ legacy that I heard about growing up was a collection of more than 100 letters my grandfather, Sjur Brekke, wrote my grandmother, Otilia Sieverson, during their courtship and early marriage in the first decade of the last century. (The courtship started at a Lutheran parish in Chicago, where he was a visiting minister in training and my grandmother’s family were charter members. Sjur was a smooth operator. We have a note he wrote to Otilia on the back of a business card; the subject was a couple of volumes of commentary on scripture he had “taken the liberty” of loaning her. He also offered to hook her up with more such volumes if she liked the first two.)

Dad’s father died in 1932, when Dad was 10, and he said his mother not only hung onto all those letters, but read and re-read them. She numbered them and kept each one in its original envelope; she wrote key phrases from each letter on the envelopes, apparently her way of prompting herself as to the contents. When she died in 1975, the letters passed on to my dad. They’re among the papers he left behind. (If you’re wondering about my grandmother’s letters to my grandfather, well, so do we. She destroyed them at some point after he died, apparently because she did not want strangers reading them.)sdb1946-2.jpg

What I didn’t know, though, was that my grandmother kept a second letter archive. She saved all the correspondence Dad wrote during his year-plus in the Army, starting with a postcard from Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago, the day he arrived for processing.

There are about 75 of these letters in all–20 or so from his time in basic training, which took him to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, and another 50-some from his time serving in the occupation of Germany.

Leafing through the basic-training letters the other day, I felt like we were getting to know a person about whom we had only heard some vague accounts. One thing comes through very clearly: the Army wasn’t really for him. He was interested in learning what he could in the ranks–he was being trained in a field anti-aircraft battery–but he had his own agenda, which always seemed to come back to music and whether he could finagle a way into an Army band (he didn’t). He also loved the opportunity to see a part of the country, dry, desolate west Texas, that was completely unknown to him.

I read a few of the letters aloud the other day. One in particular delighted us. Dad describes a trip up to an artillery range to fire anti-aircraft and machine guns at aerial targets. It sounds like he enjoyed that somewhat. But he also liked the chance to camp out:

“Monday nite we slept under the stars on the New Mexican sand. The sand retains the heat pretty well and I had warm blankets along, so slept very comfortably. In fact it was a lot of fun. 4 or 5 of us slept near each other and sang songs and ate cookies and candy far after dark.”

Sounds like a kid at camp. He was also thrilled to go without shaving or bathing and said the grime made him “look as dark as a negro” (of whom there were none in his unit, of course). I’m not sure he ever really had any significant outdoors adventures before this. His parents were older and given to recreations like attending revival meetings. During an extended stay in Los Angeles in the early ’30s, they took Dad to see Amy Semple McPherson preach at her Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

The scan of the full letter is below. Click on the images for larger versions.

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