Childhood in Wheeling, 1930s: V. The Island in Winter

Even as a boy who loved Wheeling and was very happy in his home there, I accepted without question that Wheeling Island was dismal and even ugly in winter. Uglier than the surrounding hilltops and, as I would soon learn, uglier than the suburbs of New York City. True, there were some magically beautiful moments in the winter when freshly fallen snow brightened the outlook and beckoned us to sledding fun on the “bridge grade,” the embankment leading to the bridge that connected us with Aetnaville, Ohio. But within a couple of days the snow would develop a blackish crust, and the slushy mess in the unplowed streets was a very dark gray, thanks to the soot from thousands of household furnaces burning soft coal in the valley, as well as from the sprawling industrial plants with their busy smokestacks. Because of this same soot, every child had to be taught that face-washing included a careful scouring inside the ears and the nostrils, from which the washcloth emerged quite black.

On many winter nights a dense fog would settle in on the valley, and would not burn off till the middle of the next morning. As I walked alone to school before dawn on winter mornings, my way was marked by foggy cones of light beneath each street lamp. The fog had a slight yellowish tinge, and a distinctive odor that seemed to be a mixture of sweetish hydrogen sulphide and acrid sulphur dioxide. Both the color and the odor emanated principally from ever-burning gob fires in coal mine tailings up and down the valley. The odor was not overwhelming. Growing up with it, I came to like it, and similar odors have touched off nostalgia ever since. I don’t know what price we paid in health for that odor. But there was another price that quickly became apparent. Anyone who was bold enough, as my family was, to paint a house in bright and cheery colors would soon see extensive dark streaks as the sulphurous gases reacted with the lead in the paint.

During these dark morning walks to school, the concept of street crime never crossed my mind, nor anyone else’s as far as I knew. But there was one source of mild terror. My route to school included a brief stretch along Front Street where, on the rare winter mornings that were clear, there was a good view of the Ohio River, sparkling with reflections of the city lights on the opposite bank. I loved that river, and by day I would never tire of looking at it. In summer I would play along its banks, I would play in it, and I would swim in it. But in the darkness I found that a view of the river was ominous and troubling. That feeling was a legacy from early childhood, from an event that I’ve described elsewhere in this blog.

It seems that I so readily accepted the ugliness of Wheeling Island in winter that I never thought to look and see whether there were any exceptions. During the usual philosophical inquiries of the teen years, I came up with the proposition that there was beauty in all of creation and that every creature and every object, no matter how reputedly ugly, possessed a beauty that could be seen if viewed in the proper way and with the proper mindset.

This idea arose in winter on Wheeling Island, and after racking my brain for something especially ugly to test the proposition, I selected the tall trees, leafless and black against the fog or the cloudy sky. I looked at them anew with an open mind and, behold, the theory worked! Ever since, I have enjoyed the delicate, lacy beauty of leafless trees in winter. Now the point of this story is not that I made a unique discovery, but that I had been far too accepting of the principle of general ugliness. With prejudice, I had selected one of the most beautiful features of the winter landscape as a supposed example of surpassing ugliness.

Which confirms the old saying that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

J winter_tree_

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

Communication, and not Criticism, is Needed During Pipeline Debate

Opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline thrives and grows, thanks in part to scare tactics related to local issues. Now it has come to the point where an informational open house by Dominion, appropriately scheduled for the Augusta County Government Center, had to be moved elsewhere because the Augusta County Alliance said it would “rally” outside the event, and because of concern about the safety of Dominion officials attending the open house.

As local issues are driving most of the opposition to this pipeline, we need to be mindful of much larger issues, national and in fact historic, that favor the pipeline.

As American energy production dwindled in the mid-20th century, we depended more and more on sources in the Middle East. By the 1970s, those nations had sufficient power to restrict the flow of oil to us, creating long lines of autos at the gas pumps and raising the price of oil dramatically. As we responded by shipping more and more of our wealth to them, we eventually learned that part of our own wealth was supporting terrorist organizations.

American energy independence has long been seen as an obvious solution to this problem. But it seemed far beyond our reach until new technologies, including fracking, recently laid open vast new resources of oil and gas in this country. Energy independence now seems attainable within a few years.

Lack of pipelines to get the energy out, particularly from fields in North Dakota and West Virginia-Pennsylvania-Ohio, is a major deterrent to progress. Oil is being shipped by railroads, which have been found far less safe than pipelines. More gas is being “burned off” into the atmosphere than is being put to productive use.

All this suggests to me that the pipeline will be built, whether we want it or not. If so, we would be better off engaging Dominion with our questions, values, and expectations, rather than by attempting any blanket rejection of the pipeline.

Jim Burns
Waynesboro

(This was published as a Letter to the Editor on September 14, 2014 by the Waynesboro, VA News-Virginian.)

Logic should Drive Pipeline Debate

Even as we complain of obstructionism in Washington, we teach similar practices locally. That’s the only way I can interpret “Fighting Back” in the Sunday, September 7, issue. The meeting, aimed at fighting and prevailing against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was rich in advice about where to write and lobby and how to take legal steps. It was remarkably devoid, however, of useful tips on what to say.

There was an abundance of emotionally charged statements, such as, “…and how the pipeline will harm you and your property and all the things that are special about Augusta…” and “…will fragment our forests forever.”   And also, “…no upside for us and potentially a lot of downside” and “…would affect property values and could affect mortgages” and “Dominion could not have made a worse decision.”

Added were some smart tips on actions designed to obstruct: “…obtain conservation easements for their property,” and “…information about a Norfolk law firm that fights eminent domain cases, and …doesn’t bill for services unless a suit is won.”

All this is a classic presentation of the “Not in My Back Yard” approach, which is aimed expressly at transferring the nuisance to someone else’s back yard – presumably someone poorer and less influential. A society gluttonous for energy should not be so quick to push the consequences onto less fortunate neighbors.

In the spirit of “Let us reason together,” there are fundamental questions that could and should be raised constructively – meaning not that we have the answers, but that we want answers. Such matters might include the actual need in our tri-state area for gas from the Utica and Marcellus shales; alternative means of transport; and site-selection policies such as the use of existing rights of way (Interstate Highways, etc.) versus new trailblazing in undeveloped areas.

This is a time to express our values clearly regarding environmental protection, safety, local benefits, and all such matters. Presenting them as absolute project-killers may well lead quickly to a dead end. Demanding that they be considered may profoundly improve the planning process.

(This was published as a Letter to the Editor on September 11, 2014 by the Waynesboro, VA News Virginian.)

SPY SHIP

When the events described here took place in 1955, I realized immediately that it was an unusual story to say the least, and that it deserved to be told. However, I was not authorized to take it public; my last reading from the Pentagon was that it was likely to remain secret for as much as five years.

So I waited five years. I waited ten. Then twenty, and thirty. Finally, after 41 years, the story did go public in Norway, in full detail. Having a keen memory of the events, as well as many notes, records, and photos, I was then able to put together a manuscript, get it reviewed by fellow participants, and finally in 2006 publish a book titled The Cold Coasts.

THE MISSION

The star of the show was the motor cutter Godønes, 85 feet long and with berths for up to 19 men. Known as a “polar vessel” or “sealer,” she was designed for expeditions lasting two or three months at a time into the Arctic pack ice to hunt polar bears and seals. Vessels of this type had sturdy wooden hulls, which tended to bounce off ice chunks that would have cut into comparable steel hulls like a can-opener.

SvGodønes

During midsummer festivities, the Godønes slipped out of the Bergen navy yard and headed north. For five days she sailed along the spectacular Norwegian coast. The accompanying photo of a globe shows the region where this mission took place.

SvLocMap

Near the northern tip of Norway, 900 miles from where she began, the Godønes rolled and tossed at anchor, buffeted by a cold wind and a choppy sea. She was ready to leave the protected coastal waters and cross the open sea, still headed north. In her parting view of mainland Norway, the Lyngen Alps stood bold and beautiful (photo courtesy of Odd Magnus Heide Hansen).

SvAlpsLyng

To this point the voyage might have seemed ordinary. Now some remarkable things took place. Electric generators and radio antennas were uncrated. The skipper was allowed for the first time to enter his own cabin, where he saw stacks of electronic equipment. He learned that the ‘scientific expedition’ for which he thought the ship had been leased was, in fact, an intelligence mission. There would be electronic sweeps of Russian coal-mining settlements in the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, and then along nearby coasts of the Soviet homeland itself. While in Svalbard, teams would be put ashore to look into the possibility of building large airfields and developing harbors to supply them.

It was impressed upon the skipper that this was a dangerous mission and that Russians might capture the ship. In such a case, the people on board should expect to end up in Siberia. The year was 1955. The Cold War was in full swing. Remarkable things like this often happened during the Cold War.

Sixty-five days after she sailed from Bergen, the Godønes limped back into the port of Tromsø, mechanically disabled and under tow. The Godønes is shown below in a shipyard for repair, and the photo at right shows the damage – bent propeller shaft, propeller blade lodged against rudder – that made the tow necessary. The distance towed was 600 miles, and it took 10 days. That works out to an average speed of 2.2 knots, or 2.5 miles per hour.

SvGrasmyr(3)    SvDamgProp 

One might wonder why I called such a serious mission a “caper.” As the word “caper” implies, the story does have some comic elements, including cases of incompetence that were reminiscent of the Keystone Cops. One such incident explains the damage to the ship. The ship got into an “argument” with a huge ice floe 200 feet wide, 7 to 8 feet thick, composed of hard, dense blue ice known by the Norwegians as “steel ice.”

Crewmembers would have avoided such a large ice floe, but one of the Norwegian military people did a stint as guest helmsman. He must have been thinking, “Let’s see what this baby can do.” We rammed the ice at full speed. The ship rode up onto the ice, sat there for a moment, and then broke through. In the resulting turmoil, the propeller stopped turning and couldn’t be started again.

THE MEN ABOARD

There were 15 men aboard: The skipper and crew totaled five. There were five other Norwegians – military intelligence officers and electronic specialists – and five Americans.

T3sv2F6Leiv Isaksen (left) and Tore Snefjellaa

Leiv Isaksen was skipper of the Godønes. An excellent seaman, he was always alert for things that might go wrong. His eyes fascinated me as they flashed from sky to sea to ship and to each of the people in view. Thanks to this alertness, he survived a hazardous career to die of natural causes at a very old age. He was famed for having performed difficult rescues at sea.

Bjarne Thorsen was the expedition leader and a lieutenant commander in the Norwegian navy. During World War II, he had been a resistance fighter and spy against the Germans in occupied Norway. He also served on the British naval frigate Nene.  After the war, he ran many intelligence operations against the Soviets.

T3sv2F7Bjarne Thorsen

Tore Snefjellaa was a full commander in the Norwegian navy, a colleague of Bjarne, and with a similar history. He was a last-minute volunteer to come along as field assistant, because he simply loved going to Svalbard.

Frank Arnesen was a lieutenant in the Norwegian Air force, trained as a radio telegrapher and Russian interpreter. He assisted me in field work ashore. We became close friends and remained so for the rest of his life.

FHArnes300Frank Arnesen

The Norwegian electronic specialists included a leading designer of electronic intelligence gear, and his assistant.

Among the Americans, Bruce Johnson was a marine geologist. We were concerned that any recommended airbase sites should be accessible by sea. Bruce studied navigation conditions and sites for ports, harbors, landing beaches to supply each of the recommended sites.

T3sv2F8
Bruce Johnson

The three Americans concerned with electronics intelligence, unfortunately, cannot be identified here. Fritz, the technician who installed our equipment and kept it running, never revealed his employer, and never presented his face to a camera. Fred and Doug, captains in the Army and Air Force, respectively, accomplished so many misdeeds in the story I have told that I don’t dare reveal their true names or their pictures.

I was the fifth of the Americans, a geologist employed by the U.S. Geological Survey. My assignment was to locate and describe sites suited for the construction of large airfields. From a study of maps and aerial photographs, I had selected eight study areas where sites might be found for runways of 10,000 feet or more.

SvJRB
Jim Burns

I hiked over all eight areas, making an engineering geologic reconnaissance, and I hauled back hundreds of pounds of soil samples for testing by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The best sites were all on raised beaches that, here and there, fringed the mountainous, glaciated interiors of the islands (a raised beach appears in the foreground of the aerial photograph shown below at left). My top-rated site was at a place called Kvadehuksletta, on the west coast of West Spitsbergen (at right).

SvTørrfl  SvKvadeh

 

 

 

THE FOLLOW-UP

The next summer, in 1956, two Norwegian brothers named Pedersen visited Svalbard and agreed that Kvadehuksletta was the best site for a large airfield. One brother was a military officer, the other an official of Scandinavian Airlines System. They proposed that SAS be permitted to build an emergency landing field there. This was negotiated with the government and various leaseholders for the next two years.

In 1958, the Soviet Union made an official protest, claiming that the landing field could be used as a military airbase. The Svalbard Treaty prohibited any military use of the land.   End of subject; silence and secrecy prevailed until 1996.

The story went public in 1996 through a series of newspaper interviews with the skipper and with Frank Arnesen.

Frank thought that the Norwegian government authorized this release for political reasons, namely to embarrass the party that had been in power in 1955 and had allowed these things to go on. If that was the motivation, Frank provided the bombshell that was needed. He claimed that explosives were aboard, set to go off if Russians approached. This would sink the ship and the secret electronics, and would leave the men to fend for themselves in icy water.

For reasons given in my book, I believe this was a false rumor cooked up by the crew, but I certainly can’t prove a negative. The issue is still being debated in the Norwegian press, about both the Godønes and other ships on similar missions later. This has led to heart-wrenching interviews with seamen, making such statements as “They played with my life, and I didn’t even know it.” And today, nobody really knows.

This posting is an updated selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover).