Second month in Tucson: January 1-31, 2012

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

January 1 was a letdown. Having to go through another Christmas without family was a bummer, and the desert wasn’t growing on us. We were beginning to ache for trees and grass and houses that didn’t look like adobe military buildings. In addition, I had posted an offer to conduct Nantucket Basketweaving classes, and not a single person showed interest — for the first time in three winters.

But as we began to explore, the place started to reveal itself. From an historical standpoint, January was a significant education.

San Xavier

A trip just slightly south brought us to the Mission San Xavier del Bac. It lies within the San Xavier district of the Tohono O’odham homeland, a dominant nation in the extreme southwest. The Tohono O’odham are now distributed among five districts, four of which are recognized by the US government. Their homeland once reached as far north as Phoenix, west to Baja and south well into Mexico. When the Gadsden Purchase created a hard border, their migratory habits were considerably compromised. In stark contrast, the CBP (Customs and Border Protection) agency has a unit of Tohono O’odham to search out and apprehend illegals within their territory, while, on the other hand, they arrest and deport other tribal members who are simply trying to travel within the territory they inhabited for so long. Your tax dollars at work, I presume.

The Mission was founded by the Father Eusebio Kino, an Austrian Jesuit who spread Christianity across southwestern North America in the second half of the seventeenth century. He did not get very far in the development of San Xavier, completing only foundations. Other Jesuits continued his efforts and had constructed a functional but still minimal facility by 1767, when the they were banned from Spain and all of its possessions by King Charles III. The Franciscans inherited the project, and, initiated by Fr. Juan Bautista Velderrain, they constructed the current sanctuary over the course of the next thirty years. By war and peace and treaty, it was located first in Mexico and then in the U.S. It survived an earthquake in 1887 and a lightning strike in 1939, and it has always been under repair and renovation – when funds are available. Note, for example, the difference between the east and west towers, purely a result of financial issues even extant during the original construction! The Franciscans left it in 1837 and it was in a sort of limbo until they re-assumed responsibility for it in 1913. Today, it serves multiple needs of the surrounding community. The influence of the Tohono O’odham is markedly illustrated by the repeated presence of the Man in the Maze, a rendition of a little man (U’ki’ut’l) inside seven circles that signify the lifecycles, eternal motion and choices with which we are constantly confronted. The right choices lead to harmony, no matter how hard or long the road taken.

Our guide, a devoted and knowledgeable man, led us through outbuildings where we had an opportunity wo review the complete history and visit artifacts from the Mission’s earlier days. One exhibit showed the objects constructed of mesquite and papier-mâché; another told the story of milagros (miracles), small medals of all descriptions that were offered to saints in the hope of returning good fortune (more on this later). A giant psalter, vestments and other relics were displayed. We also viewed the con-struction, all of local materials that included plaster made from sand, lime and prickly pear cactus juice.

We entered the sanctuary after a thorough “tour” of all parts of its external façade. The interior is adorned with dozens of statues on and beside the altar. To the left were two small rooms, one containing the Mission’s original baptismal fount and an angel loging in the newly blessed, and another involved in funereal services. The right nave contained statues. The left nave contained beautiful paintings, along with a very special altar containing an effigy of the Mission’s patron, St. Francis, lain beneath a shawl. Pinned to the shawl were many of the aforementioned milagros, left by worshipers who knelt, crossed themselves, lifted the Saint’s head, left tribute and asked for his blessing. On one wall was an enormous painting of The Last Supper.

Beyond the church itself is the convent and a separate chapel for prayer and candle lighting. (Will my Catholic friends tell me what this is for?) There is also a church school. Next to the Mission is a hill with a courtyard of devotions half way up. Nearby is a Tohono O’odham market of indigenous arts, crafts and foods.

Kitt Peak

Kitt Peakis the location of the world’s largest collection of research telescopes. They range from the towering 4 meter Mayall Optical telescope – with its 13 foot diamete, 15 ton mirror of fused quartz polished to a tolerance of 1 millionth of an inch — to the triangular McGrath-Pierce Solar radio telescope – with 200 feet of its 500 foot diagonal reflecting tube visible above ground. A total of 27 observatories on the mountain represent many scientific and educational institutions; they are managed by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The process of scheduling an observation or test on the mountain is simple. Describe your plan, goal, needs and expectations in a one page document. Submit it to the selection board for one of their semi-annual scheduling sessions. If you are selected, you’ll be provided a fixed time, day and hour, to conduct your venture. God help you if it is inclement or otherwise technically impossible – you go home empty handed and can’t resubmit for another year. The right pic below shows Dot viewing the sun — safely.

Like San Xavier, Kitt Peak is on Tohono O’odham land. Their name for the mountain is Loligam, or home of the manzanita bush. Because the location is so ideally suited (6800 foot altitude and best air clarity), the NSF negotiated long and hard and offered many incentives to the nation until a lease was granted in March, 1958. The relationship was enhanced by Elizabeth Hawkins Estrada, a dedicated humanitarian who, as part of the American Friends Service Committee, provided educational, promotional and cultural benefits to the nation. As its Tribal Director of Arts and Crafts, she increased the number of artisans from 40 to 400 and negotiated a major exhibit of their primary output, exquisite baskets, at Kitt Peak. The Observatory’s gift shop is dedicated to her. (More on these baskets next month.)

Now, who is this woman? Her name is Philippa Roskruge Kitt, and she was lifted from obscurity by her brother, George Roskruge, the principal surveyor of the Arizona territory. In 1893, he tried to name the peak for her but erroneously named it “Kits Peak;” it was officially corrected in 1930. Here’s the real reason you get to see her: 1) The Roskruges came from Cornwall, England. 2) My maternal grandmother and grandfather came from Cornwall at about the same time. 3) My mother’s name – and my grandmother’s –was Philippa. 4) While I have met other people with that name in my lifetime, I have only encountered one other with this spelling. As my mother would say, “One L and two P’s, please.” Most occurrences are the other way around.

There were three tours, one each to the Mayall, the McGrath-Pierce and the smaller (but still giant) KPNO 2.1 meter model. We opted for the middle tour and visited the other two on our own. The 2.1 has an 84 inch “slumped Pyrex primary mirror” made by Corning Glass – and I can think of only one potential reader of this travelogue who will understand what that means. It is the fourth largest telescope on the mountain. The second largest – and newest – is the WIYN 3.5 meter model, not available for public viewing. The name designates the owners: Wisconsin, Indiana and Yale Universities, and the NOAO. The universities ponied up its cost ($14 million) and NOAO operates it.

Air and Space

The Pima Air and Space Museum and its corollaries increased my respect and appreciation of the dedication and courage that Americans have demonstrated – here and abroad — to mold this country I get to live in – and now get to see.

Our first mission was a visit to the national historic Titan II Missile Museum. There were originally 54 missile sites, 18 each in Arizona, Arkansas and Kansas. This museum is the only one remaining; it has been made inoperable and is open to the constant surveillance of Russian satellites. Our tour guide was a volunteer with a discernible German accent; I took to calling him Wernher rather than his real name (Karl). After an introductory video, we toured aboveground exhibits, including an inert warhead. Of greatest significance, however, were the two fueling zones, kept totally isolated on opposite sides of the silo to eliminate any opportunity for premature ignition. We then descended several levels to the control room, and with one of our tour members manning the console, the entire launch process, with all its fail-safes, was explored. Every step required the cooperation of two operators. The only time that any risk of engagement was threatened was the day JFK was shot, at which time the keys were extracted from their secure cabinet but never inserted. We then got to view the missile itself, though not all the way to its 103 foot footing – that tour took five hours! Major structural ingenuity surrounding the control center, both thickness and suspension, isolated it from the largest expected retaliation at the site. Its Peace Through Deterrence theme was successful for twenty years.

A week or so later, we moved on to the Air and Space Museum itself. Having used overwhelming and its derivatives too often in this journal, I’ll simply say that we arrived and signed in, paying for both the tram ride and the afternoon offsite bus tour. It didn’t take us long to discover that we would have too little time to experience everything we wanted to, so we cashed in our one day tickets for two day.

The Museum is the third largest aeronautical museum in the U.S., behind Udvar-Hazy (Smithsonian) at Dulles and the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton. And this one is privately funded — dependent on admissions, memberships, the gift shop and the generosity of aficionados. Which is apparently vast; it has a prodigious collection as well as an interlocking relationship with Davis-Monthan Air Force Base across the street. And, despite a two-fer coupon for the basic admission, we willingly spent $50 for the privilege. More – lots more – about DMAFB later.

As you enter the main hangar, the initial exhibit is a replica of Orville and Wilbur experiencing their first flight. We weren’t too impressed, because we’ve been to Kitty Hawk. But we were immediately confronted with hordes of fascinating aircraft, some on the floor and some “flying” from the ceiling of the huge building. Essentially, this indoor exhibit consisted of one-of-a-kind or extraordinary airliners, as well as interactive displays of airport traffic and cockpit simulators. There was a major exhibit that explored Vietnam, a collection of nacelles and weapon nosecones that were artistically painted, and a special case that was used to safely contained an atomic bomb. Aircraft from multiple eras – WW II, Korea, Vietnam, even the Near East – were on exhibit, their details and uses clearly defined with placards.

A Lear Jet, donated in 1992, was owned by an Ohio couple, Henry and Louise Timken. Both husband and wife piloted it for decades, and Mrs. Timken, at 83, was at the controls for its last flight to the Museum.

An annex featured seaplanes. It was dominated by one that was far too large to picture in one shot. Behind them were exhibits demonstrating how the U.S. — and the Soviets to an even greater extent — created prototypes that could not only land on water but burrow beneath its surface. One such American creation was designed to be launched from a submarine, float to the surface, take off and do its damage, return and settle back on a parachute, and be recovered by a launch from the mother craft.

There was a model of the Imperial Japanese battleship Yamato. One of the two largest and most powerful battleships ever built, she was sent, along with nine escorts, to try to recapture Okinawa in April, 1945. Her plans were decoded, and she was trailed by U.S. flying boats for several hours before the American bombing began. Sunk along with most of her support vessels, she took over 2700 men to their graves.

Looking to our right, we were overwhelmed by an even larger treasure, the SR-71 Blackbird. Designed by Lockheed’s Skunk Works group to replace the U-2, it served the Air Force from 1964 through 1998 and still holds the world’s speed (2,193 mph) and sustained altitude (85,069 feet) records for manned flight. It routinely exceeded Mach 3. In 1990, it flew from Los Angeles to Washington, DC in a shade over an hour. Thirty-two were built, of which the one on display at Pima is #3. Nineteen others are on exhibit. The balance were lost, but none to combat; if it detected a missile, it simply outran it. Pressurized space suits were required for the crew of two, and it was later adapted for the space shuttle. Accross from it was an early drone.

Our pace through this hangar and its annex was quicker than we wanted to be, but we had a date with the tram, the first of our two motorized tours. This one was around the Museum’s yard, 70+ outdoor acres with over 200 planes, parked in singles and as historic groups. Our driver, a volunteer with encyclopedic knowledge of all of the aircraft on exhibit, slowly toured us around and offered story after story. Most of the aircraft were from W.W. II through Vietnam, though there were outliers on each end. There were dozens of A’s and C’s and F’s and B’s and helos and commercial aircraft from small to large, along with exhibits of MIG’s, Coast Guard rescue planes, presidential planes and NASA aircraft.

You couldn’t miss the Super Guppy. Its immensity dominated the yard. As we passed behind it, I guessed that it was a specially built plane to simulate weightlessness for astronaut trainees. But as we worked our way around it, we passed one of the Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers that were used for that purpose. So what were we looking at? It’s one of several planes specifically built to take huge cargo items with disproportionate weight. This particular Guppy was built to carry a Saturn rocket stage. It was actually made up of sections of several other planes, and the entire nose was swung aside to take on its cargo. Oh, if only Orville and Wilbur could see this! Similar stares were reserved for the Army’s tall-legged winching helicopter that looked like it came from the original Star Wars.

Later that day, we took a bus tour down the road to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base The history of American aviation thrives in Tucson. The city opened the country’s first municipal airport in 1919. In 1925, it acquired 1280 acres from the state to build a military airport. Charles Lindbergh flew in for the dedication in 1927. The following year saw regular commercial service with Standard Airlines (now American). It was officially dedicated as Davis-Monthan in 1941, and eventually the military and civilian aspects of the city’s aeronautical history were separated.

Today, DMAFB is the military’s “boneyard.” It is the storage facility for every decommissioned U.S. aircraft. They fly in daily to be preserved for future service or inventoried as parts resources. If the former, they are stripped of their engines, completely cleaned and sealed with layers of black and then white impenetrable materials. After thorough overhaul, the engines are sealed in tanks of nitrogen. They can be re-mobilized on short notice. The relics, on the other hand, are shunted off to a separate field where their bones are picked for whatever requirement the U.S. or partner nation may have. Each of the thousand aircraft and hundreds of thousands of parts is precisely inventoried. This base was selected for two primary reasons. First, the desert, below six inches of topsoil, is the hardest clay imaginable, allowing storage without the construction of a concrete surface. Second, the lack of humidity favors the longevity of the equipment. DMAFB positions a number of significant aircraft, both planes and helos, along the main roads through the complex for the tour. We are never allowed to disembark, but the narrator gives us everything we need to know about the facility.

In between the two locations is a feature that’s not identified but was clearly known to Dot. It’s a Field of Seizures – a holding ground for equipment of all types that Customs and Border Patrol agents have impounded in the process of their investigations.

Upon our return after the weekend, we used our time to explore the on-field buildings. The Space Gallery holds many details of actual and proposed vehicles, a peek inside the Apollo capsule, a Moon Rock and part of a meteorite discovered nearby over 300 years ago. It also houses the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame; among its most distinguished members are Frank Borman and Barry Goldwater.

A nearby hangar is a tribute museum to the 309th Heavy Bomber Squadron. Surrounding the B17 Flying Fortress I’ll Be Around (how many of you remember that great Alec Wilder song?) are photographs and documentation of all their crews flying the beast, along with archives, exhibits and dioramas that depict their heroic exploits — and tragedies.

There were three other hangars and a WW II barracks still to cover. The barracks was home to hundreds of plane models. Models of Little Man and Fat Boy were accompanied by a log page from the Enola Gay and a study of uranium mining in Arizona. Both a German Fokker and V-2 were on display.

Wow! Stop me before I kill you with more words and pictures. Well, just one more story. Bad Angel, at left, was piloted by Lt. Louis Curtis. He became an ace after only one month and kept up the sharpshooting. On August 27, 1943, he was shot down and captured by the Italians but escaped the POW camp 9 months later. The crazy fool volunteered for another tour, and in 1945 became only one of three Americans to have kills against aircraft from Germany, Italy and Japan. During a raid against Batan Island, he noticed an American C-47 erroneously heading for a landing at a Japanese controlled base. Unable to stop them by any other means, he meticulously shot out both their engines. It ditched in the ocean very close to one of his fellow P-38 pilots who’d been downed during the raid. He flew cover while all 13 — including 2 female nurses — were rescued by a PBY the next morning. For his actions, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross – likely the only time it was awarded for shooting down a “friendly.”

I promise the month of February will be less bellicose. In fact, it will be mostly about the landscape that’s been growing on us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *