Chapter 8: “Gone To The United Kingdom”
Tiffany’s and Old Jordans
The Air Force takes care of its own. On July 1,1967 the Sharp family arrived in England to find that our sponsor, Major Ken Pitchford, had located a prospective rental for us just as Jerry Perren had done for us in Alaska. The owners, an RAF Wing Commander and his wife, were looking for tenants whom they could trust to take care of their property. This was more important to them than the money. The husband had already left for an overseas posting, and his wife, a new mother, would join him in September.
Tiffany’s was a thirteen-room estate house located on a beautifully landscaped acre on a gravel road, The Avenue, in the village of Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire, just a few miles north of Windsor Castle. On the property were also a greenhouse and some apple trees. Rhododendrons bordered three sides. A babbling brook ran between Tiffany’s and the neighbor’s property to the west. Burnham Beeches, a centuries old forest preserve with the largest collection of old beech trees in the world, was two short blocks down The Avenue.
Following a tour of the property and some polite conversation, the woman of the house said that if we wished, we could move into Tiffany’s on September 1st. We negotiated a reasonable monthly rent – 70 Guineas (70 pounds plus 70 shillings in old English currency, approximately $210 per month) – and accepted her offer. In October the English pound would be devalued 14% and our first two months rent checks, written in sterling, cleared after the devaluation, so our rent was retroactively reduced by $30 per month.
Tiffany’s came with a gardener, Mr. Powell, whose salary would be paid by the owners. He was a miracle worker and we were asked that above all we don't have a tiff with Powell. (She referred to him as Powell, not Mr. Powell: one of the subtle signs of English class distinction still extant in 1967.)
The prospect of staying at Old Jordans Quaker Hostel over the summer sounded idyllic; a wonderful vacation for Almira and the children. Temporary lodging allowance for a major with five dependents was at that time $36 per day up to a maximum of sixty days. Our daily room and board at Old Jordans would cost only $29. For the next two months we had virtually no living expenses and by September were debt free for the first time in our seventeen years of marriage.
Almira took numerous excursions to London with the children that summer. The Seer Green train station was just a half mile away; a pleasant walk on a well-worn path across a cow pasture and through the woods. The public’s legal right to trespass across this and similar private properties had long since been assured by English laws that established “the right of eminent domain.”
We enjoyed the company of our fellow residents at Old Jordans, mainly elderly Quakers and they seemed to enjoy having our well-behaved children in their midst. Son John, then eight, made friends with an artist, a woman in her late seventies who painted floral miniatures. One day she gave John a little brass duck and he began calling her Miss Ducky. John and Miss Ducky corresponded until her death some years after our return home to America.
We became accustomed to English cooking and ate well. Almira still recalls gaining weight that summer.
Back at home, Newark and Detroit burned, while in Europe, protests over US involvement in Vietnam escalated. TV cameras positioned at the U.S. Embassy on Grovener’s Square in London always seemed to prompt the largest demonstrations. Doug and Joan would often slouch down low in their chairs in embarrassment, listening to some residents use adjectives such as “disgusting” while they watched these sad spectacles on the evening news on the “Telly.”
Suppose our turkey dies?
On our first night at Tiffany’s, Almira and I sat up in bed and toasted our good fortune with champagne, acknowledging that we would probably never live this well again.
We enrolled the children in American schools. John and Diane attended classes on High Wycombe AS, and the older two were bussed to Central High School, a junior-senior high with about four hundred students, located an hour’s bus ride from Farnham Common. True to her vow to become more extroverted, Joan ran for class secretary that fall but was defeated. The next fall she campaigned again, this time for vice-president with the same results. In her third and final year at Central, her junior year, she ran for president of her class and was elected, following in her mother’s footsteps.
Inga Velde came home from school with Joan for the weekend during our second year to help make posters for Joan’s political campaign and met Joan’s older brother Doug. They would fall in love and eventually marry. Inga has said that she had already spotted Doug at school in his gold woolen sweater we had bought him during a visit to Scotland and she was attracted, not realizing this boy was her friend’s older brother.
Almira noticed how considerate the local shopkeepers were. They counted her change out slowly, patiently teaching her English coinage by so doing. In return she took pains to learn their shopping customs, such as, always place large orders of pastry for a party or a special event a day or two ahead so the baker can plan ahead to still satisfy his regular customers. Every English village and town has one early-closing day each week so one had to remember many different schedules when shopping out of town.
In mid-October Almira was in at her favorite butcher shop in the nearby village of Hedgerly and noticed a sign requesting customers to order their holiday bird early. Realizing that holiday meant Christmas, she asked the butcher if she could order a turkey for Thanksgiving. He knew that Thanksgiving was an American holiday in November and said he would ask the farmer to fatten one up early.
She told us that evening what the butcher was doing for us and son John listened, and, after looking pensive for a bit, asked “Suppose our turkey dies?” Fortunately it didn’t.
Just as we celebrate the 4th of July in America with fireworks, so too, the English similarly celebrate with fireworks the arrest and hanging of the conspirator Guy Fawkes who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605. In early November, as the Sharps watched the local displays from our American-held bastion at Tiffany’s, we realized how Francis Scott Key must have felt as he watched the red glare of British rockets over Fort McHenry under siege during the War of 1812.
A few weeks later we invited our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Le Seur for Thanksgiving dinner. After finishing a hearty meal the elderly Mr. Le Seur – an unapologetic curmudgeon – pushed his chair back and asked accusingly “Just what are you Yanks doing here, anyway?” I smiled politely and answered “We’re here at the invitation of your queen,” a response that apparently satisfied him.
High Wycombe Air Station
During WW II the RAF built a bunker for its Bomber Command deep under the grounds of a private school on a hilltop overlooking the town of High Wycombe on the Oxford Road, forty miles west of London. This site was relatively safe from German bombers.
The school grounds above became an RAF facility and sometime after the war the property was made available to the U.S. Air Force. It became an Air Station (having no aircraft or runways, it could not be called an Air Base), but was more like a country club; a peaceful little alcove atop a wooded hill. To the south lay the Themes River Valley east of Marlow.
High Wycombe AS was temporarily the home of the Military Airlift Command’s (MAC’s) 322nd Airlift Division which was booted out of France when Charles de Gaulle pulled his country out of NATO. A small group of Naval and Air Force officers, part of the Department of Defense’s TOP SECRET Joint Strategic Targeting Planning Group (JSTPG), occupied the underground facility.
The only other unit at Wycombe was the European Weather Center, Detachment 40, 28th Weather Squadron, including my new work-place, the AWN computer site. The 28th was the heir to the 18th Weather Squadron that provided weather forecasts to General Eisenhower as he made his most difficult decision of the war – deciding on the date to begin Operation Overlord: D-Day.
But first – no more mandolin lessons
On my first visit to the office I met two airmen about whom I had heard a lot from Harry Rice. They had initially been assigned as weather editors. Both had college degrees and a little programming experience and what they lacked in experience they made up for in self-confidence and salesmanship, for they had convinced Lieutenant Colonel Maykut that they could write a better system than WXEDIT. Ed had given them permission to start a separate development and they were waiting for the opportunity to convince me to use their system. From my long list of known Wycombe problems, this was the first I had to address.
I’m sure they were very intelligent young men, but even though I was met with all the enthusiasm and confidence that comes with youth, at this late date I could not trash WXEDIT in favor of something so speculative and unlikely to work. Besides, they had no finished product yet and I had no idea how close they were to completion.
I listened politely to them describe their concept which, to be honest, made no sense to me at all. I asked them whether their code could identify an upper air sounding observation even if its identifier, “TT” came in as a “55” as happens when a preceding letters-shift character is missing. Decoding a garbled “TT” was a must for an acceptable upper air data decoder. They appeared confused and answered no. I had already suspected that they weren’t familiar with weather data codes, for they never plotted a single weather map since finishing their weather training. The whole idea that the two of them could accomplish what they were attempting was bizarre.
I also realized that they would both be discharged from active duty within a few weeks, so I just had to find some way to keep them off to one side until then. The best way to avoid a debate is to find a compromise that does not devalue either party so I gave them permission to continue developing their programming, but I warned them that I would not work with them. I had too much work to do. They had no idea how little time I had to prepare Wycombe for Phase II and I doubt that they even understood deadlines; both seemed to be impractical souls. They used our back-up computer system for their development, seemingly convinced they would finish before they left.
Obviously this never happened and I would have been amazed if they had. As they left England and the Air Force, they made a half-hearted plea for me to continue developing their work. I smiled and made no promise, nor did I later take the time to even glance at their listings. The magnetic tape with their code was eventually put back into our tape library and overwritten.
Problem number two was a surprise; it truly came from left field. Lieutenant Jay Kahn was an unknown to me, but not for long. A day or two after I arrived he left the office for a few minutes as I stood talking with CMS Rosenberry and MSG Harry Rice. Jay returned shortly wearing civilian clothes, smiled, and announced that he’d be back in an hour, that he was going to his mandolin lesson. I have often wondered what expression I must have had on my face as I watched him walk out the door. I turned to the others and furrowed my brow in confusion. Harry shrugged his shoulders and said that this is how it had been at Wycombe since he got here two years before.
That night it took me a while to get to sleep. I lay there wide awake thinking about how I would handle this entirely new experience. In the morning I invited Jay to the Officer’s Club for a cup of coffee and a doughnut and said I’d like to talk over some things. He nodded nonchalantly, seeming not to suspect that I might want to discuss his mandolin lessons.
My leadership style has always been to motivate rather than scold (this is how I had been raised). It was nearly 10 a.m. and we were alone in the Club’s dining room. Our conversation went something like this:
“Jay, I need your help. I’m not sure you realize it, but there have been major problems at Wycombe for a long time and CMS Rosenberry and I can’t solve them by ourselves. We also have an important deadline. Wycombe’s Phase II system needs a lot of work that must be completed by October. CMS Rosenberry and I will have all we can handle to get the job done. Right now I have too many Indians and not enough chiefs. I want you to become a chief and help us, and I suspect you can . . . but first – no more mandolin lessons, do you understand that?”
“OK. CMS Rosenberry and I are going to be working long hours and I’m not sure we’ll always have the time to tell you what to do next. I want you to learn as much as you can about the entire system by working along side us and asking questions. I want you to study program listings, and I eventually want you to tell me how you can help. This will mean a lot of extra hours for you too, but perhaps you can view this overtime as payback for past sins. We’re hard pressed for time and we can’t embarrass ourselves. I think we can do it, but it will be easier if you contribute also.”
Jay listened intently, and when I finished he slowly shook his head sideways in wonderment and answered: “I had no idea . . . . I thought this was how things were in the Air Force. No one ever told me. I know I haven’t done much, but I was seldom asked to do anything. Occasionally, Colonel Maykut would give me something to do; never anything important.”
“He threw you a fish, huh?”
We finished our little talk, and as we walked back to the office I believe Lieutenant Kahn walked a little taller. At the time I didn’t realize how much dormant talent lay within Jay that was now unleashed. A short while later I had to teach Jay another lesson, this one about team work for it hadn’t occur to him to coordinate his changes with the rest of us. One day some of CMS Rosenberry’s coding stopped working. Jay had changed an interface without telling Jim, so once again I sat Jay down, this time to tie down a loose cannon. We also had to back him off from tinkering: “If it ain’t broke don't fix it!” Some programmers become addicted to tinkering.
A smaller but important lesson Jay still had to learn involved a programmer’s dual focus – focus on the actual task itself while at the same time focusing on the program code that would accomplish the task. (in other words, computer programs are a means to an end, not an end in themselves) It occurred to me that Jay had never worked in a weather station and was probably unfamiliar with weather data codes. I asked him if he had ever looked at WXPRNT. (What I meant was whether he had ever turned the WXPRNT subroutine on and looked at the data it printed out.) He said he had, but after a few more questions I realized he meant the program listing rather than the printed information it generated. This is another pitfall programmers can slip into; become mesmerized by and focus on the code rather than on its purpose – to effect data is very specific ways. This will require that you carefully study the output.
This was the last important on-the-job training lesson I had to teach Jay and we now had a solid team of three that could now progress with some speed. We set up libraries of routing indicators that would some day switch incoming data out again into low-speed output circuits. Many other site-specific coding also had to be written.
During my trip to Wycombe and Germany from Tinker in April I had explained to the communications officer at 2nd Weather Wing Headquarters that in the fall the AWN would revolutionize his area of responsibility and that it would be in his best interest to visit Wycombe after I arrived in July and learn what new capabilities 2nd Weather Wing would soon have. I guess I didn’t do a good job convincing him because he always had more important things to do than visit us.
Phase II goes on line
Phase II went on-line as scheduled in late October. Our old one-bucket brigade high-speed switching program was replaced with a ten-bucket model, and we began sending ten blocks of data at a time and received acks or nacks (acknowledgments or non-acknowledgments) for all ten segments before sending the next burst of ten that included any required retransmissions. To capitalize on Phase II, we decided to begin immediately to have our new subroutine, MSGBLD, construct Russian surface synoptic bulletins from intercept data rather than continue to send bulletins originating in our manual relay center. This labor-intensive task was one that Phase II was specifically designed to eliminate. Computer generated collectives would be cleaner and provide more complete coverage without duplicate information. They could also be sorted by their block/station number making them easier to plot on maps. Bulletin length was determined by either a maximum character count or by ten to fifteen minute cut-off intervals. The new switching program would transmit these collectives first on a low-speed output circuit from Wycombe to the Navy at Rota. We stopped sending Rota’s data to them via teletype machines in the relay center, and instead tied the circuit into our 418. The new bulletin headings used the AWN’s new international call sign, KAWN, to designate the originator of the bulletins rather than Moscow’s call sign. Ever since our first bulletin was sent to Rota, this call sign has been a familiar sight on weather circuits world-wide.
Before we were able to accomplish this we had to solve a long standing problem we had with garbled Russian bulletin headings. I was intrigued and challenged by this mystery and began one of the important pieces of detective work alluded to earlier. Our solution to the problem is described in detail in Technical Note 4 in Appendix A.
In our haste to implement, we neglected to advise 2nd Wing of the change as was required by regulations, so there was some confusion. Rota called 2nd Wing immediately after receiving the first few bulletins to tell them how great these new collectives were, and asked whether they would continue to receive them. Wing called us to find out what was happening and after we explained what we had done, they quickly MANOPED the new header (added it to the manual of operations).
The following month I got letters from two different Wing offices. One was a kudo from the wing commander for a job well done, the other was a feeble slap on the wrist for embarrassing the communication officer. I found the timing rather amusing.
I always suspected that a lot of good data was lost at the Croughton intercept site, not because of laziness nor poor management on AFCS’s part. I realized, instead, that it was unreasonable to expect AFCS operators to listen to or look at weather data continuously for eight hours a day. That would be too boring. Periodic retuning of the antennas would have to suffice.
They followed standard procedures, but Croughton’s ancient equipment caused a problem. Their out-dated receivers could not stay locked on drifting broadcast frequencies, and even though equipment that could do this was available, the weather intercept program didn’t have a high enough priority to merit the cost of replacing their antiquated equipment.
We needed to agree on a procedure where AFCS 418 operators at Wycombe could advise Croughton when to retune, but I first had to convince them that their current quality control system was inadequate. Croughton operators tuned by ear, and, if they were unsure, could wheel a teletype machine over to the receiver and print out some data. While we were still at UNIVAC in DC some sample intercept data was mailed to us from both Croughton and Fuchu. Much of it was pure garble. We laughed when we saw an order sent from Budapest to Rome for a tug boat mixed in amidst weather data, pure garble, and messages from other broadcasts.
Shortly after Harry Rice’s synoptic decoder went on line earlier in the year, we inserted code to count the number of decoded observations from each intercept circuit.
After collecting counts for
more than three months I plotted the daily totals for all nine circuits
on a bar graph similar to Figure 5 below and noticed something
IMAGE MISSING >>
Three counts stuck out far above the rest; two of them were more than 50% higher than the average take, and the third towered over the other two. By now I’m not sure of the actual numbers, but let’s assume that a typical day’s take was around 600. Two of the three non-typical counts were between 900 and 1,000, and the third one was perhaps close to 1,200, almost twice the average take. How could this be?
I made a good guess and compared the dates to the two dates I had visited Croughton. Sure enough, my visits matched the dates of two of these large counts – but I had no explanation for the largest count.
I called the NCOIC at Croughton and told him there was something I wanted to show to him and his men, and asked him to arrange for me to meet with his entire section. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, I just felt that it was necessary for all of them to see my survey for themselves.
This strategy worked well. I ended my presentation by admitting that I couldn’t account for the huge count in October and could tell from his comments that the NCOIC was still not convinced that my visits had prompted more frequent retuning. After a lull, a voice from the back of the room piped up, “Hey Sarge, wasn’t that the day the new commander of UK Comm Region came up from London on a visit?” . . . . The NCOIC gave me a weak smile and said “Let’s go talk.” I felt no urge to say I told you so, rather, I was relieved that we could finally now work together to address the problem that laid hidden for so long. We retreated to his office.
Our solution was for Wycombe’s 418 operators (also AFCS personnel) to periodically monitor every intercept circuit using WXPRNT. If a circuit was garbling the operator would phone his AFCS counterpart at Croughton and have them retune that circuit. I also arranged for Croughton’s NCOIC to visit us at Wycombe so we could describe for him the importance of his mission.
Daily counts of over 1,000 immediately became commonplace. Of course, duplicate elimination considerably reduced the net take, but we would receive more ungarbled observations from among which we could now more consistently provide a more complete Sino-Soviet data coverage to Global. This was the last major problem to be solved at Wycombe, and our 418s were now doing the job we envisioned they could do.
“I didn’t know he was sick”
MSG Ed Madigan had a sense of humor. With Phase II now on-line, it was time for our next AWN system-wide meeting. I flew to Tinker for the meeting and was greeted by Ed Madigan who, when he greeted me, quipped “Oh, Major Sharp, after you left you had a phone call and I told the caller Oh I’m sorry. Haven’t you heard? Major Sharp has gone to the United Kingdom, and he answered, Oh my, I didn’t even know he was sick.”
A romantic tryst
On my return to Europe I was fortunate enough to arrive at McGuire AFB, New Jersey from Tinker just in time to catch a ride on an Air Force C-141, a large four-engine cargo jet, as it was preparing to depart for Frankfort, Germany.
I arrived on a Friday afternoon, and since I had to stay in Germany over the weekend to brief the 2nd Weather Wing staff on Monday I called Almira and asked her to fly on over for a romantic tryst. She arrived in Wiesbaden early on Saturday morning and we spent two glorious days at the Von Steuben Officer’s club in down-town Wiesbaden. My good friend Major Joe Hope lent us a car.
In many German romantic novels, the young prince runs away to Wiesbaden for a similar tryst with his beloved. This beautiful town with its hot-springs has attracted lovers for centuries. Almira and I can testify that it deserves its reputation. We were back at Tiffany’s Monday evening, refreshed and once again ready to deal with the real world.
Dinner at Westminster
During our first winter in England, the Honorable Mr. John Hall, O.B.E., MP, High Wycombe’s parliamentarian, invited the U.S. Air Force Officers and their Ladies from High Wycombe Air Station to dinner at Parliament. The evening was a treat. Toasts were raised in honor of the Queen, our President, the U.S. Air Force, and the special relationship that binds our two countries. After an elegant meal, we were given a private tour of Parliament including both houses and a tennis court once used by Henry VIII. I was left believing that our host truly appreciated the presence of American forces in his country.
AWS spends a great deal of resources on accountability, verifying the accuracy of its products. Terminal forecasts are a primary example of this effort. Every six hours, base weather station duty forecasters issue a forecast describing what is called sensible weather: clouds, runway approach visibility, weather (rain, snow, fog, etc.), and surface wind. Each of these Terminal Airdrome Forecasts (TAFORs) is verified at six, twelve, eighteen and twenty-four hours, and monthly scores for every station are monitored at squadron, wing, and at Headquarters AWS level. Forecasted categories of ceiling and visibility are scored: below minimum, marginal, or unrestricted conditions. These scores tell us where technical or managerial problems exist that parent wings can help their detachments solve. Many hours are spent each month calculating these scores.
On a visit to Wiesbaden in early 1968 my friend Major Joe Hope, assigned to Scientific Services at 2nd Weather Wing, asked me whether the AWN could automate this task for him. It would save him a great deal of effort that could be better spent problem solving. The 418s received all of the terminal forecasts as well as necessary verifying observations and it would certainly be a fun project, so I told him I was sure we could do this job.
Unfortunately I didn’t presently have a programmer to spare who could do the job. I had one person, mal-assigned to my group, who didn’t have a talent for computer programming. All my efforts to trade him off for someone else failed; Wing would not allow me to do it.
I’m afraid I pulled a dirty trick on Joe. I told him that I would put this person to work at once (this would make Wing suffer for not helping me out of a jam when I needed them to). When Joe thanked me I felt a little guilty, because my problem was not Joe’s fault.
Each time Joe called to see how the project was going I had him talk to this programmer. When this programmer returned to the states that summer, his replacement quickly completed the project.
In spite of the delay, this project was gratifying to me. My baby, the AWN, was saving even more valuable man-hours for AWS at virtually no additional cost except for the hours spent writing the code; a one-time cost and a small price to pay. . . . And Global’s data was not delayed for even an additional second!
Sometime during the early spring of 1968, the European Weather Central and its AWN site had a major distraction in the form of a visit by a three star general, Lieutenant General “Whip” Wilson (three stars), Vice Commander of the Military Airlift Command (MAC), AWS’s parent command. His reputation did precede him.
Visits from this interesting gentleman, also nicknamed “Sundown” Wilson from the time he fired a base commander on the spot and ordered him to be off the base by sundown, were universally feared throughout MAC, and unfortunately, he spent much of his time making such visits, inspecting MAC facilities in a compulsive search to locate untidiness and have it cleaned up.
The man was obsessed with a need for fresh paint and brand-new furniture. If there was even a small tear in the plastic cover of a chair with the foam sticking out, for instance, he would go berserk. He called this “crippled” furniture. We also heard that he would not tolerate coffee pots in offices, and would toss any that he saw out through a closed window. There was a long list of his other pet peeves that someone must have telephoned to our detachment before he arrived. Another of Wilson’s pet peeves was to see paper hung on a wall without a frame. Weather units usually have lots of weather code breakdowns hanging all over the place. General Wilson tore them all down.
To his credit, I also heard that he was a friend of the enlisted man, especially flight-line mechanics, and would visit them to check whether they had all the tools in their kits they were supposed to have. If they didn’t, he raised hell with their bosses whose responsibility it was to insure that their mechanics were issued all of the tools necessary to guarantee flight safety.
He found a virtual pig-pen at Detachment 40 and had a field day. The weather central probably had not been painted since the 1940s and our furniture was decrepit. The stools that weather observers sat on while they plotted weather charts on top of our cruddy light-tables were in such bad shape that they were hidden in a warehouse down the block. We knew they wouldn’t pass muster and the general wouldn’t notice anything odd about observers standing up as they plotted.
He inspected the Central across the street from the AWN site first and while waiting for him to visit us I happened to notice that my own chair was, in General Wilson’s eyes, crippled: there was a small tear at the end of one arm. I pushed that arm under my desk, hoping that he wouldn’t notice.
I didn’t get to see his performance across the street, but from all reports it was something to behold. He ranted and raved like a mad-man. It was still early in the morning back at Headquarters, AWS in Illinois, but General Wilson called our commander, Brigadier General Bill Best, anyway to get him out of bed and bawl him out.
While he finally came over to my office I was distracted for a moment, and all of a sudden heard him back at my desk ask “Whose furniture is this?” I knew immediately that he had pulled my chair out and saw the hole in the arm. I went back and with appropriate chagrin confessed that it was mine. He shook his head and said, “Major, we don’t have to live with junk like this.” I bowed my head contritely and answered, “Yes sir.”
He didn’t scream at me, and I suspected that his neurotic needs had already been sated by what he had already found across the street. When he finished snooping into every nook and cranny of my area I took him into the computer room where he asked in a rather sarcastic tone of voice, “Is there anything here you want to tell me about?” I damn near answered, “No sir, I’m sure there’s nothing you’d be interested in,” but instead I muttered something or other. I kept it brief, for I felt he didn’t really care and wouldn’t really listen.
The whole experience was disheartening. He embarrassed our detachment commander in front of his young lieutenants and in fifteen minutes undid all that we senior officers had recently done to encourage our young officers to make the Air Force a career. The Air Force’s officer retention program was highly important at the time. We later heard a few lieutenants comment that they would never allow themselves to be put into a position to be similarly embarrassed.
General Wilson promised to return to see that we cleaned up our mess. For the next two or three months the European Weather Central was painted and otherwise cleaned up. You had to be at least a captain to get your hands on a paint brush. When General Wilson returned as promised, the Central looked more like a hospital than a military work place. He was proud of how he had “helped” us.
Lieutenant Colonel Ray Galligar became our Detachment Commander in July 1968. He came to Wycombe from Global after years of day-to-day forecasting and supervision experience in the preparation of weather central products. Colonel Galligar was an excellent meteorologist and a fine choice for his new job. He was also more social than his predecessor. Ray and I would develop a close relationship and he would become my mentor.
For the next two years, a group of Ray’s officers had lunch with him at the club almost every day. We would grab a quick sandwich and retire to the bar to play darts. Almira and I had played English darts at home ever since my three months TDY at Brize Norton thirteen years earlier. It was a new experience for Ray, but he had a natural talent and developed into an excellent player.
Major Bob Erickson and his family moved into our little village of Farnham Common that same summer and he and I carpooled until he transferred back to the states the following summer. I deeply admired Bob as a father: he and Carolyn had three sons. All of his boys were natural athletes as Bob had been, and Bob was a nurturing coach to each of them. His oldest son Rob and my daughter Joan would eventually marry, and Bob and I now share two grandsons. Bob was a regular in our lunch-time dart games.
After we all had improved our dart game sufficiently I challenged my NCOs and we took a team of officers to their club one evening where we, to their surprise and chagrin, won!
Two very friendly English businessmen, Reggie and Monty Seymour from nearby Marlow were regulars at the officers club on most weekends. They had frequented the club ever since WW II and were now in their sixties. Like most middle and working-class Englishmen in the ‘60s, they were ardent dart players. Each spring since the war they had sponsored the Seymour Dart Tournament at High Wycombe’s Officers Club. In the spring of 1970, just before I returned to the states, I asked Colonel Galligar to be my tournament partner. I’m sure some of the others thought I was playing up to Ray, but I saw him as my best choice.
At the tournament Ray and I swept the competition under the rug. We couldn’t lose! The whole evening was a peak experience for me. It seemed to me that when I took aim at a double ring, a triple ring – even at the bulls eye – my target would open up as if it were a mouth and I could stick my arm clear down its throat. I’ve never played with such confidence!
Tradition had it that after the tournament the winning team challenged the Seymour brothers for a magnum of champagne. Ray and I won this contest also. I must add that Monty Seymour was out of town at the time and if he had been there the brothers would have probably bested us, but history shows that Ray and I were the first Americans to ever win this contest.
My trophy, a pewter beer mug, is still one of my most prized possessions and sits right beside my Macintosh computer as a pencil and pen holder. The inscription on it reads:
SEYMOUR DART TROPHY
LT. COL. JACK SHARP
Our victory was heralded the next week in the local newspaper. I kept the clipping that reads:
FIRST WIN FOR BASE
Good play and good com-radeship were the keynotes for the annual competition for the Seymour darts trophy held at the Officer’s Club at the USAF base at High Wycombe on Thursday last week.
Winners were Col. Ray Galligar and Lt. Col. Jack Sharp, and runners-up were Lt. Col. Bob Cowne and Major Jim Wright. Trophies were presented by the Base Commander, Col. E. W. Nave.
Mr. Monty Seymour was unavoidably absent but Reg Seymour was partnered by Mr. Roy Taplin in the traditional game for champagne – won by Col. Galligar and Lt. Col. Jack Sharp. This was the first ever win for the base in the com- petition.
After defeating Reggie and his partner, Ray and I accepted challenges from all comers and we continued to win until the competition finally became discouraged and quit challenging us and we retired undefeated. As I said, this was indeed a peak experience.
Sadly, this would be the last Seymour Dart tournament at Wycombe. High Wycombe Air Station for it would be closed by the following spring. Before we left, an article in the local paper was quite complimentary to all the Americans who had served there. We would be missed.
We also played a lot of darts at home, in fact, we put up two dart boards out in the sun room. Diane and John played constantly during the summer of 1968 and by the time Diane returned to school in the fall, she was a whiz at subtraction: in English darts, you keep score by subtracting from a beginning score of 301 until you reach zero.
Russian tanks roll through Prague
During the summer of 1968 I took two weeks of military leave and we toured the north of England and Scotland. Margaret Else from Newark, Nottingham, was Almira’s pen-pal since junior-high school days in 1944, and after twenty-four years she and Almira would finally get to meet. We would also visit a fifth cousin of mine in Scotland.
On August 20th, news of Russian tanks rumbling through the streets of Prague, Czechoslovakia, flashed around the world. It had been twelve years since a similar Russian invasion of Hungary for much the same reasons: to squelch movement toward a more liberal and open society. While Russia’s response was swift and cruel, unlike in Hungary, Czech leader Alexander Dubcek was not executed later as Hungary’s Imre Nagy had been in 1956. I expected to hear that U.S. forces where put on alert, but this never happened so we could continue on with our vacation.
When we returned home, Major Jim Wright arrived from Vietnam. He would become a valuable addition to our programming group.
CMS Rose, NCOIC of AFCS’s manual weather relay center was energetic and effective. This rather crusty sergeant anxiously waited for us to automate his operation, eliminating much of his operation. By mid-1968 we were ready to begin, and so was he. The automation of the Rota circuit had gone well and Sergeant Rose was confident that the other circuits could just as easily be driven by his 418s. We would automate one circuit at a time.
Wycombe’s low-speed output circuits broadcasted across Europe: one even reached Wheelus AB, Libya. Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi would take power in 1969 and soon after ask us to leave.
To automate a circuit we had to update the bulletin heading library that told AFCS’s switching program which circuit or circuits to route each bulletin into. Most bulletins would be transmitted on more than one circuit. When all necessary entries were made we would load the updated library and “let ‘er rip,” and then stand-by to see what happened. I had already written a survey program to show graphically the number of groups transmitted on each circuit for each fifteen minute time block. They showed us where and when any backlog developed. We could also monitor current backlogs in real-time
This automation brought about a revolutionary improvement in service. Prior to automation, weather bulletins were transmitted according to a schedule, the same way that Global products were originally transmitted to Wycombe and Fuchu. The 418 would transmit “as available.” As with Global’s products, this was a much better service to the customer, but since traffic no longer spread over a longer time period, temporary backlogs were more likely to occur, but this didn’t necessarily indicate a deterioration of service.
We completed this last portion of automation by fall, well ahead of either Fuchu or Tinker. CMS Rose’s dedication and persistence along with the help of my chief editor MSG Dewey Vaughn deserve the credit. All of the old dust-generating teletype machines in the manual relay center were then crated up and sent back to the warehouse and most of the AFCS teletype operators were reassigned. Many returned to the states thus reducing the gold flow from the U.S. Treasury to Europe. All this was accomplished with a UNIVAC 418 mini-computer plus a little thought on our part to teach this otherwise dumb machine how to do all of these amazing things. What fun!
During the summer of 1968 MSG Paul Mulder was transferred from Tinker to Wycombe to replace Harry Rice and we asked Paul to assume responsibility for the subroutine that eliminated duplicate surface ship reports. Ship-board weather observations are broadcasted to anyone within listening range, and are usually copied by more than one land station. Since no station knows whether another station copied the same report, duplicate observations abound.
It was also not possible for us to create a library for ships since they keep changing position. Ship reports contain their present latitude and longitude, and because these observations are often received more than a day late from the more remote corners of the world, the day-of-the-week is also a part of this code. We kept a dynamic library of the position of the last two hundred or so ship reports received and used this list to identify and eliminate duplicates.
Paul changed some coding in this subroutine one day, and shortly afterwards CMS Rose came into our office and told us we had a problem. Rota’s circuit had suddenly developed a huge backlog. We put a monitor on the line and saw it was clogged with ship reports. Paul had messed up the logic somehow and was embarrassed, but we just laughed. Within an hour he corrected his problem. Typical of CMS Rose, he spotted our problem quickly.
Sensible weather plots
At ETAC in 1964 while I was still programming their IBM 7040, I processed some data for an Air Force Cambridge Research Center publication: Moisture Atlas of the Northern Hemisphere and was credited as a co-author.
As part of the project, the data was plotted on a northern hemisphere polar-stereographic projection, the atlas’s format. After validating a piece of data, spherical trigonometry converted its station latitude and longitude to a print-row and column. This experience gave me an idea for a different kind of weather bulletin: sensible weather plots – cloud ceilings, runway visibility, and present weather. These parameters are reported at least once each hour in observations from airdromes world-wide.
Using single-character plots, the 418 could display these three critical parameters even in the most densely populated regions of Europe. It was necessary to show that no observation was received rather than an observation was received, but there was no snow, rain, etc. at the station. Absence of a plotted character indicated that an observation was not received, while a period meant that an observation was received, but no weather restriction was present.
Since our decoders could identify specific weather parameters from within an observation it would be easy to teach the 418s to plot these three parameters at lightening speed and the 418 could transmit them on low-speed output circuits to 2nd Wing weather stations. They would arrive well before forecasters could manually plot the same data, as they often did. We scheduled the plots at ten and twenty minutes past the hour, twenty-four hours a day.
Transparencies with geographic outlines and fixed points for positioning the data were distributed. Here was yet another excellent AWN labor-saving service – once again provided at no additional cost.
I realized that such a function was not currently within the AWN’s charter. Producing them properly belonged in Global’s province, but I knew we could deliver such plots well before Global could, so in late 1968 we began development. This would be my last major contribution to the AWN.
Major Bob Fanning had by this time been transferred from Fuchu’s AWN site to Systems Division at Headquarters AWS, the office overseeing the AWN. I called Bob and told him what I was doing and asked his opinion. He agreed that such plots would be useful, but also realized that the concept would be controversial. His counsel was that he would forget I ever called him and would wait for correspondence from 2nd Wing advising him of a fait accompli – in other words, go ahead, just don’t tell me what you’re doing until it’s operational. People rarely argue with success.
By the spring of 1969 a new overlay, WXPLOT, began producing the maps which were an instant success. Forecasters could now see a geographical depiction of sensible weather, a pilot’s most important weather elements. Since any plane flying from England to Spain wouldn’t get there for a few hours, complete hourly observations from Southern Europe were no longer necessary with WXPLOT so we stopped transmitting complete observations from southern Europe to Air Force bases in England, thus reducing traffic load on their low-speed circuit.
Our lease on Tiffany’s was for just two years, so in July of 1969 we moved to a new house, Grenfells, five miles north in Beaconsfield. This house was large and comfortable, but couldn’t compare with the grandeur of Tiffany’s.
John was now eleven years old and from Beaconsfield often peddled his bike the few miles over to Old Jordans to visit his friend Miss Ducky. Beaconsfield was also more convenient for Doug and Joan who could now walk to a train station and be at their RAF Northholt teen club ten minutes later. A rock band formed by high-school classmates played at the club on weekends. Being expatriates, the group chose their name “America” because they wanted to be identified with their homeland. The group later became a famous rock groups of the 1970s. “Bye Bye Miss America Pie” and “A Horse With No Name” were two of their more successful pieces.
In August of 1969 the Sharp family traveled to the continent. I felt a strong connection to my past as we boarded a channel ferry in Southampton. In 1880 my Great-Grandfather Jack Sharp sailed from this port to start a new life in Philadelphia.
As we sailed, Neil Armstrong and his crew blasted off at cape Kennedy, beginning their historic voyage to the moon. At dinner in Évreux, France that evening, our waitress, recognizing that we were Americans, pointed a finger up, smiled, and said “La Luna!” We smiled back and nodded proudly.
After touring Paris we headed south to the Pyrenees and Spain beyond. We would visit Fran and Jerry Perren in Madrid and return to England via France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, and the Netherlands. Doug, now seventeen, would leave us in Madrid and hitch-hike his way home, staying at Youth Hostels on the way.
We crossed the border into Spain high in the Pyrenees. Spain and England were currently in the middle of one of their periodic quarrels over England’s continued presence in Gibraltar. This subject had been a sore point between the two countries for some time and still is. When we got to the Spanish customs check-point, an English family was ahead of us and Spanish customs officials were almost literally turning their car inside out. The Englishman saw our English license plates and shook his head, assuming we would get the same treatment. When I showed the official my American passport he waved us around the Englishman with no questions asked. The poor harassed English bloke seemed confused as we drove past him.
We stopped for the night in a hotel that was a ski resort during the winter. Armstrong’s moon walk was scheduled to take place that night and Almira used her high-school Spanish to arrange for us to be awakened in time to watch the spectacle on TV.
About three o’clock in the morning we were called. The two boys and I dressed and went down to the TV room off the lobby to watch history being made. About a dozen other people were in the room, all Spanish. They recognized that we were Americans and nodded knowingly to us as Armstrong took his now famous “one small step.” It was a proud moment for all Americans.
The commentator spoke Spanish, so we missed hearing Armstrong’s voice as he said "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Instead, we heard “Uno paso pequeño para un hombre, una brinca gigante para la humanidad” and didn’t understand a word. Doug and I both spoke some German but no Spanish.
By the fall of 1969, Colonel Galligar and Major Jim Wright had been at Wycombe for a year. I had less than one year remaining. Everything I had ever wanted to accomplish with the AWN system was by now completed, so when Ray asked me become his detachment operations officer, I agreed. Jim deserved to assume the lead in the AWN programming shop anyway. He knew the system well enough by then, and I would be just across the street if he needed my help. The transition of control from me to him was an ideal one. We worked well together.
For the second time in two years I left a management position in the AWN, both times feeling that I had had enough and was ready for a new challenge.
Late that fall I came to work one morning and Colonel Galligar was not in his office yet. This was unusual, for he lived on base and was usually at work before I arrived. At about nine o’clock our squadron commander Colonel Johnston called to talk with Ray. I told him that the boss was not in yet but I would have him call as soon as he arrived.
I began to peer anxiously down the street for Colonel Galligar every five minutes and finally spotted him walking slowly toward the office and ran out to tell him that Colonel Johnston wanted to talk to him. He answered, “Yes, I know. I’ve been promoted to Colonel.” Hearing this great news, I began pounding Ray on his back, almost driving him into the pavement.
The colonel’s promotion list was released that morning, but Ray’s mentor Colonel Sorry saw it the day before and called Ray in the evening and gave him a broad hint that he was on the list. Ray and his wife Artys celebrated late, and Ray had caught up with his sleep that morning.
This early notification of important promotions by close friends and mentors happens a lot in the Air Force. It usurps a commander’s prerogative to advise their own people of the good news, but this doesn’t stop the practice.
A month later Colonel Galligar gave me my good news that I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Nine detachment promotees of all ranks gave a wing-ding of a party at the club that fall.
One of my duties as operations officer was to interview all new arrivals, mainly young first-term airmen. I soon saw a pattern and could predict their future for them. I told them that they would reenlist early, in two years rather than the normal three or four, to collect an early reenlistment bonus. They would then buy a sports car with all of this cash and marry a local English lass. Since WW II, generations of High Wycombe girls had climbed the hill to the base every Friday and Saturday evening to meet our young lads at the Airman’s Club, dance with them, eventually fall in love and marry one. The two major exports from the town of High Wycombe year after year were fine furniture and blushing brides.
The Air Force decided to close High Wycombe Air Station and move the weather detachment and the AWN 418s to Croughton, about forty miles to the north – far out in the countryside. This consolidation would save money and also reduce the number of personnel assigned to the London area. While Wycombe was forty miles from the west end of London it was still considered part of the greater London metropolitan area and we were paid an additional sum of money to cover London’s higher cost of living. This money would be saved by the move. Colonel Galligar asked me to plan the move even though I would be gone before it happened.
As I already mentioned, Colonel Galligar was one of AWS’s most experienced weather central forecasters. In late 1969 he decided to restructure Wycombe’s weather facsimile broadcast schedule which would require different Global products that Ray knew about. His intent was to better serve the needs of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), the weather center’s principle customer.
A group of us met regularly for more than a month to assemble the new package. Ray liked to discuss all aspects of a subject before he made a decision and it was sometimes amusing when we thought he had already decided one way to see him jump the fence and question his tentative decision. We waited patiently and followed his lead.
After revamping the fax schedule, we compiled a list of new Global products to replace those that Wycombe had been receiving since 1965. The completed list was sent by letter up the chain of command to be reviewed by the 28th Weather Squadron, 2nd Weather Wing, and finally Systems Division at Headquarters AWS before being sent to Global. This would take some time. As it turned out, it took a long time. Bureaucratic nonsense considerably delayed its approval.
In February I received transfer orders to become Assistant Operations Officer at AFGWC, and in March flew back to the states to attend another AWN system-wide meeting. Ray asked me to check the status of our request while I was there: it had already been two months since we forwarded it.
The request was already at Global when I arrived, but had been sitting in a desk drawer in the operations office for some time. Systems Division at AWS had forwarded it with a note attached asking Global to “Take a look at this.” The person who received the letter at Global did nothing more than that, he took a cursory look at it and stuck it in his drawer. He was playing games with his counterpart at Headquarters and left poor Ray hanging by his thumbs.
I explained to him how much trouble we had taken to prepare the request and told them that his old buddy Ray was waiting patiently for action. My plea obviously fell of deaf ears for nothing further was done until I signed in at AFGWC five months later. This was discouraging, but unfortunately not untypical.
The school term ended and Douglass graduated from high school just before we left England for Nebraska. Joan finished her junior year as class president and reigned over Central High School’s combined junior-senior prom at the Hilton Hotel in London. Doug proposed to Inga after the banquet at daybreak in Hyde Park across the street. Joan, who was now deeply in love, was anxious to get back in the states and see Rob Erickson. He and his family had returned to the States the summer before.
Doug was a National Merit Scholarship finalist, and at graduation was awarded the Bosch and Lomb prize for being the best science student for the past three years. It was also announced that he would attend Stanford on a scholarship. It was a proud occasion for his parents.
John finished fifth grade and Diane finished fourth. They would complete the rest of their schooling in Nebraska.
We returned to McGuire AFB, New Jersey, on July 1st, exactly three years after departing that same place, bound for England.
to Cold Fronts Table of Contents
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