Earl, Aerial

He was a boy in a plane.

It was 1945, and Earl Brindley took pictures in the sky. Of factories and formations, groups of hulking but graceful planes and the patterns of buildings they flew over.

My grandfather was a member of a ten-man crew flying B-17s over Europe in the last, bitter winter and spring of World War II. He was the radio operator, communicating the location of both his plane and the others in the formation. He would also have to man a rear-facing .50-caliber gun, and take photos on missions. So it was part of his job to document this war, and a changing face of combat.


Earl’s outfit, the Eighth Air Force, was a new kind of operation. Instead of carrying out bombing missions at night, as was standard, they were to attack Germany during the day, open to counterattack by the Luftwaffe’s deadly forces. The B-17 was a new kind of bombing aircraft designed for these missions, meant to carry heavy loads over long distances. Boeing had worked to create this aerial battleship – its Vice President, Clairmont L. Egtvedt, described “searching for a flying dreadnought.” Upon seeing the B-17 on one of the first flights, a journalist dubbed it the “flying fortress.”


Attacking by daylight would allow bomber crews more accuracy on their targets – railways, factories, and other war mechanisms of the enemy. To avoid the anti-aircraft guns, the B-17 had to be able to fly into the stratosphere. At these heights, crews endured combat conditions both common across military situations, but ratcheted up by the rigors of flight: extremely high altitude, cold like nowhere on earth, bombardment from all sides (fire from both anti-aircraft guns on the ground and fighter planes in the air), and incredible noise: all rammed into a reinforced steel cylinder rocketing through the sky. They flew into the unknown.

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Obsessed – Part 1: The Peculiar Magic of George Washington Memes

There is so much weirdness I think about all the time, varied and seemingly disparate things running through my mind. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)  I’ve always been inclined to dig further into the shiny bits and bobs that catch my eye, but what about when those things are…not too deep to begin with? For example, what stupid phrases could I caption every medieval painting in this gallery with? What happens when a stalagmite would rather be a stalactite? Why does pro tennis player John Isner appear both extremely boring and also evil as he is tall (6’10”)? I don’t shy away from this, as anyone I’ve ever talked to has learned. I’ve embraced the shallows. I’ll forever be drawn to what are perhaps life’s dumber moments, its lower brows, its cruise ship-caliber offerings. And I need an outlet for these preoccupations. To borrow from one of my first obsessions, what follows the first in a series of dispatches from the Mixed-up Files of Ms. Claire G. Brindley.

I can’t learn about history without trying to insert a voice into historical figures’ heads. I can’t go to museums or landmarks without wanting to know what all the people involved were really thinking. Take when my sister and I recently went to Glensheen in Duluth, MN – we lost our minds making up things for the people in the old mansion’s paintings to say. (Try it sometime at a historic estate near you; it’ll really spice things up.) We probably remember so much more about the place’s history than we would have otherwise, albeit through a crazy lens of our own imaginings. This is why George Washington memes are so amusing and absorbing to me.

The internet tells me that these words in Comic Sans imposed on historical renderings of a certain Founding Father are called “Sassy George Washington.” Not what I’d prefer to call them – I like to think that these are the kinds of thoughts that went through the man’s brain as he commanded forces in the Revolutionary War, crossed the Delaware on a fancy barge, and struck epic poses for history. Through it all, he gets annoyed at his coworkers, has mad donut cravings, and he just wants to dance. So more like “George is just like us.”

In this world, Washington is a crabby man-child who would like some animal crackers and some peace. A vaunted figure is brought down a few pegs, but not to any detriment. (You can read more about how many enslaved people lived at Mount Vernon over the years for that.) Far from an idealized figurehead, he’s way more fun in these memes, a flawed human who could use a nap after ushering a new nation into the world. Midwifery is hard work, George would like you to know.

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Lightning: After-image


It’s funny which things from the past are embedded there, like moths in amber, visible but immobile, and which things jump out and demand to be known again.

The spirit of this photograph is strong as ever. It is mysterious and commanding, with lightning strikes of memories. It houses an ectoplasm that keeps it moving through realms.

I fully believe this spirit is there. It breathes. When I look at this image, its motion captivates me. My grandpa Earl dashes forward, his arms wide, beguiling a jumping dog. Another dog leaps down from a tree split in half, the trunk bent and the blond wood exposed. It appears lightning-struck, a sudden change in form. The photo’s simple mysteries unfold in a long-forgotten summer day. Handwriting on the back indicates it’s July 1984, and the feeling of wonder from that day is preserved.

The dogs and Earl are in the backyard of my grandparents’ house in Atlantic, Iowa. The scene emanates the ghosts of a heated thunderstorm, the morning after a heavy rain and lightning fest ripped the night open. I’m not sure who took the photo – perhaps my aunt, as those are her dogs frolicking around the frame. The lens captures such a sweet ceremony, a joy that Earl bestowed on the things he loved. That joy streams through the decades, the love sustaining a family.

This image is a window I frequent – its energy is still strong, it depicts a realm I want to embody. The ectoplasm inhabits the photograph, manifesting a spirit I am always trying to conjure. I want to know how the lens came to freeze this particular moment, limbs and paws midair, the tree’s raw insides opened up. The person on the other side of the camera somehow knew.

The spirit dances inside this photo, just as Earl did that day in July. The storm’s energy is still in the air, and the dogs nip it up, reveling in Earl’s presence. Maybe I put as much voodoo in this image as I believe is there, but it still holds power.

A Suitable Wedding

She stepped off the curb on Main Street, walking with her friend to the Spot for lunch. He was at a stoplight in his Dodge, his brother riding shotgun. Earl saw Ruth, and knew.

It was summer 1945. Half the world was still at war. Ruth Palmer was a few years out of high school in Atlantic, Iowa, working at the telephone company. She knew how to wear a suit. Earl Brindley was back at home after completing 25 combat missions as a radio operator in a B-17 Flying Fortress. His geography had been madly expanded in his months of training and service, flying over a continent tearing itself apart. Ruth had stayed in the same grid of streets, but held a whole cosmos in her head.

These small-town citizens had gone to the same high school, but their paths didn’t cross until she walked the hypotenuse in Earl’s field of vision that day. She was three months older, with a round face and a ramrod build that radiated confidence. He was a skinny farm boy who looked to the skies. Once they met, their eyes fixed on the same horizon.

Earl saw Ruth through the windshield as she walked across the street and turned into the Spot. Away from him, but still electrifying. A heavy heat gripped the afternoon. Ruth shook a current back into things. Earl had to talk to this woman who could command such attention. After his combat tour in Europe, he was set for another in the Pacific theater, but for the moment, Ruth knocked that uncertain future away. They were barely a year past 20 years old, but several lifetimes in.

Earl was just on leave, and would return to flight training later that summer. His older brother Leo had been a prisoner of war in Germany until mid-May. On different ends of an Allied prisoner airlift rescue mission, the brothers shared airspace that month but did not confirm the other’s continued existence again until home. They drove that Dodge around town, having already seen more of life than they ever thought possible. Nothing could stop them again, until Earl went back into service. These were important days, as they may have come to represent a drawn-out wake for one of the men.

Ruth was no stranger to death, either. Her younger sister Leah Mary had died unexpectedly in infancy. Her older brother John was a Marine, still somewhere in the Pacific, and each day brought the chance of a telegram carrying bleak news. Her father was the town pharmacist, making potions against pain and suffering. But Ruth kept going along her own path. In photos, she finds the lens and defies definition. She is, in whatever moment caught on film, calmly standing in her own time.

Ruth Palmer, date unknown

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Every Halloween, my dad conducted a trick-or-treating candy roundup of our pillowcase hauls and shipped it to Iowa, giving my grandpa Earl a healthy supply of chocolate for the year to come, which he kept in the freezer. He especially liked Snickers. He did not practice moderation when it came to sweetness.

Earl put sugar on everything. If it was not already candy, it would be made so. He would fix us bowls of strawberries, cut sharp against his rough thumb and dusted with a generous layer of sweetness. He made us milkshakes by hand, carefully mixing until reaching the perfect consistency. He would spend hours in the driveway churning ice cream. Any amount of effort was worth it for the sugary reward. When he owned an auto body, he made Christmas baskets full of oranges and gave them out in his small Iowa community. This was all his infinite kindness.

Earl came from a family that farmed for larger outfits. Born in 1924, he grew up in what must have been a long strand of near-deprivation. His father worked constantly, and did not let the family go hungry, but there was not room for much else, let alone pleasurable tastes. Earl worked for the family, too. The first time he would have had reliable access to any form of sugar was once he joined the Army Air Corps in 1943. Rations of humble Hershey bars introduced a new palate and a new sense of possibility.

young EB
Earl, mid- to late 1930s

Earl never lost that sense of wonder about sugar. It brought out his own sweetness, and he kept his hand outstretched, always with a pile of sugar cubes. He had seen wartorn Europe from the air in 1945, and knew what death looked and smelled like. His war was unprecedented in American aviation, and the destruction he witnessed could have turned him against people forever. But he found that sugar was its own kind of language, one he quickly learned how to speak. It was a frosting for all the things he couldn’t forget.

Everything Earl built was tinged with this sweetness, too – little cars that could really be driven, for his kids and grandkids to race around, model airplanes that called back to his time in the air, even a riding mower and a back porch. He was always creating something. There was nothing this man couldn’t make, and his creations were full of kindness. All of it – the slow-churned ice cream, the contraptions – could have been produced in other forms without as much effort on his part, but that didn’t matter to him. He was putting a little sugar into his people. He was a giving tree with a cherry on top.

After he died, people showered his family with sugar. I remember a kitchen full of other people’s baking dishes, cakes and pies, and a Willy Wonka factory of chocolate. Someone brought monkey bread, and there was ice cream at his funeral reception. Sugar was really a form of love. Once he discovered the possibility of sweetness, Earl decided it belonged everywhere.

Building w:TJ
Earl with grandson TJ, early 1990s

Marathon Madness: A Weirdo Runs Through It

“At the time I did not know that stories of life are more like rivers than books.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

I am the product of a boa-constricted timeline, two people who decided the day they met in late fall 1980 to train for a mid-June marathon. They married a few months out from that decision, and I keep running with it.

28 days after their wedding, my parents ran the 1981 Grandma’s Marathon in northern Minnesota. Thirty-seven years later, I ran down the same path in a mist off Lake Superior. I’d been chasing this for a long time, using this odd confluence of factors in my origins as proof that my destiny is to run marathons. Nothing dramatic, really. I don’t know precisely when, but at some point I concluded that this was what made me a person – both that it put me physically on this earth, and that it would direct my life. Sometimes you create your own spiritual beginnings.

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Seeing Ruth


This year, my grandma Ruth would have been 94. I keep this photo as a reminder of my foundations, especially the string that connects me to her. The camera captured her holding a rifle, but my eye is always drawn to her confident stance, spring-coiled with kinetic energy. Flanked by my grandpa Earl and his brother Leo, her back is straight and she knows where to aim.

They had driven a 1938 Dodge to somewhere outside Anita, Iowa. It’s summer 1945. World War II is over in Europe, and in its last Pacific Theater days. The men – Earl on leave and Leo separated from the Army Air Corps – wear parts of their Army-issued uniforms, as they didn’t have much more. They have the same outfit on. Ruth’s sartorial identity is all her own. Leo looks at Earl as if to say, “this woman can shoot.” Or maybe, “I’m out of here.” But Earl looks in the direction Ruth is pointing – always at the horizon. He knows she always knew where to aim. She is fortitude.

Born a few months apart and less than a decade before the Great Depression, Ruth and Earl were both children of a rural Iowa landscape. And they were quiet giants. She was explosive, eyes boring certitude into all they surveyed. A bird of prey – exacting in her choices but deadly with the target. His strength was kept in a place that always found the light. He made it home from a war that was designed to kill as efficiently as possible, and she made life after so much death possible. She was a protector.

There is still a lot I don’t know about her, and try to imagine from photos like this one. In reality, I only have drawing-on-a-napkin-type impressions. Her younger sister Leah died as an infant. Her older brother John was a WWII Marine and then an FBI agent who found and kept secrets for a living. Her grandfather was a Union soldier briefly imprisoned in Andersonville. A strain of hocus pocus went on for generations – in a bit of reverse divination, my first and middle names are those of Ruth’s father and mother, respectively. And my sister bears the name of the lost baby. My parents claim these people from the near past didn’t factor into naming. But the conjuring is strong.

Rooted in these shrouded stories, Ruth defied the time she was born into. She had a courage of bearing, and was the developer of Earl’s beta. He could build or fix anything, but it was through her force of will that he could start an auto body and bear the burden of combat memories. She listened to him, fully, but there was nothing passive about it. Sensing her queenness, the family dog Fred brought her still-writhing snakes as tribute.

I look at this photo every day, revel in it. I realize I have built an array of talismans that tell me who I am, whether they are stories, images, or artifacts. But they embody so much about what came before. We bestow certain objects with power, but that power had to exist in some other form. There is something alive still. I hold onto an idea of transmigration – Ruth’s strength and intelligence survive in this photo, and I have a voodoo hope that it bestows my life with some of her exactitude. She is the backbone of everything.