People-Watching on the Disneyland Railroad

My girlfriend Angie and I recently purchased annual passes to Disneyland, so these last few weeks we’ve probably spent more time in the park than in all my previous visits combined. Each time we go I’m amazed at how many people there are–crowds and crowds of people spilling over every walkway and through every threshold. But every now and then, when we stop and sit and just watch, the crowds part and an individual person emerges.

We were sitting in the back row of a passenger car on the Disneyland Railroad one late afternoon. It was bright and hot, but we were mostly in the shade. We were sitting on the far right of the bench; on my left, a man and a young girl sat quietly, staring into their respective phones. They were already seated there when we boarded at Main Street Station. They said nothing during our entire trip around the park, and remained seated when we arrived back at Main Street Station and disembarked.

The trip to the New Orleans Station seemed to take just a minute or two–certainly far less time than we spent sitting at the station waiting for passengers to board. There were people everywhere, of course, but the row immediately ahead of ours was empty. I was beginning to think the bench would remain that way when I noticed a flash of red hair dart through the station crowd. Beneath it was a teenage girl, 17 or 18, with three friends in tow. She headed straight for the empty row and climbed aboard.

“I’m a genius,” she said, taking a seat. Her voice was clear, almost defiant. She said it like someone who’s been told on more than one occasion that she most certainly wasn’t a genius.

Her friends sat beside her, but didn’t respond to her statement.

I glanced over at Angie, and she looked at me. We didn’t say a word.

The four teens got situated. Beside the redhead a young man, perhaps her age, began staring into his phone. Their two friends, both teen girls, also began examining their phones.

“I am a genius,” the redhead teen said again, though with a tiny bit less confidence.

Again, there was no response.

“Gingers are always geniuses,” I suddenly heard Angie say out loud.

The redhead teen stared at her, first with alarm, but that soon evaporated.

“Redheads are just naturally smarter,” Angie said.

“That’s right,” the teen said, now smiling.

“We gingers have to stick together,” Angie said.

The redhead teen nodded, then glanced at Angie’s little backpack, which still sported a Disney “Happy Birthday” button from a visit  years ago.

“Is it your birthday?” the teen asked Angie.

No, Angie said. “I just like this button.”

“Well, Happy Unbirthday,” the teen said.

The teens took photos of each other during the ride to the Tomorrowland Station. At one point, (Angie saw this a lot more clearly than I did) redhead teen’s boyfriend turned to take a photo of her. He asked her to smile, but she didn’t. He coaxed her a bit, and she relented. She smiled, Angie later told me, with depth, but no joy.

For the rest of the ride, redhead teen lightly scratched her boyfriend’s back as he looked down into his phone. When his head did pop up at one point, I noticed a nasty sore on the corner of his mouth.

When we reached Tomorrowland Station, the teens quickly spilled out of the car. The teen’s red hair bobbed a bit in the crowd, but soon vanished, leaving no trace she had ever been there.

Photo: Hallidie1873/Wikimedia Commons


My story’s done, but the ‘Romance of the Skies’ is still giving up a few secrets

It’s been a few weeks since MauiTime published what’s probably the most surreal story I’ve ever written. Written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the mysterious, still officially unsolved crash of Pan Am Flight 7, it also revealed unexpected connections between me and the aircraft’s then-26-year-old Flight Engineer, Albert Pinataro (my first cousin once removed). Though I had known Pinataro was a relative when I first started researching the crash, I didn’t know that I would find so much in common with him (click here to read the whole story).

Though that story is done and I’ve moved on, the other night my girlfriend Angie found some fascinating old records that fleshed out Albert’s career with Pan Am.  Her hobby’s genealogical research, which gives her access to databases and documents I didn’t know had been digitized, like this Pan American World Airways general declaration form from 1956.

Even this old form has a story to tell. The date is April 1, 1956, about 19 months prior to Albert’s death. The aircraft listed on the form, 90944, is the same Boeing Stratocruiser that killed him (the Clipper Romance of the Skies, pictured above). The itinerary–San Francisco, Honolulu, Canton Island, Fiji and Sydney–is also very similar to the last flight of the Romance of the Skies. On the crew manifest, Pinataro is listed as “Second Engineer,” perhaps indicating this was a training flight for him. Whoever filled out the form (I’m guessing it was the aircraft’s purser) apparently had some fun typing out “All U.S. CITIZENS” under the Nationality column.

But to me, the most interesting part of the form is the flight’s Captain, listed here as R. Ogg. The six months after the flight depicted on this form, Captain Richard Ogg at the controls of a similar plane, named Sovereign of the Skies, when he encountered severe engine trouble roughly halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii.  Close to the Coast Guard weather ship Pontchartrain, Ogg was able to circle the vessel until daylight, then ditched nearby. Sailors from that ship soon rescued all of Sovereign‘s passengers and crew (click here to watch a U.S. Coast Guard film on the crash).

The weirdest thing about the ditching of the Sovereign? It happened in pretty much the same part of the ocean where Romance crashed in November 1957. Except in that case, no one–including my cousin–survived.

Genealogical databases also gave Angie access to Albert’s Hollywood High School Class of 1951 yearbook. Here he is, circled in green.


A few days ago my cousin Jean Pinataro (Albert’s sister) was kind enough to send me a copy of her 2013 self-published memoir My Life: The Good, the Bad, and the Awful. I’ll write a separate post on the book, but of particular relevance here is a hand-written note from Albert that Jean included in her book. It was written sometime in the mid-1950s, while Albert was in the middle of a Pan Am flight very similar to the one chronicled in the declaration form above.

Here’s the note:

Dear Mom & Dad & all,

Am down here on my first trip to the island of Viti Levu where the cities of Nandi & Suva are located. It is absolutely beautiful. It takes about 12 1/2 hours flying time from Honolulu plus a one hour stop at Canton Island for fuel. [They?] sure aren’t wrong when the[y] talk of the beauty of the South Sea Islands.

I’ll write a nice long letter as soon as I get settled in Honolulu. I’m going back tonight.


Al Pinataro

Photo of Romance of the Skies courtesy Pan Am Historical Foundation

Remembering the only time I ever partied with Hugh Hefner

It didn’t surprise to me to see that Playboy announced that Hugh Hefner, its founder, longtime publisher and self-appointed icon of modern maleness, died of “natural causes” at the age of 91 (click here for his obituary in the Los Angeles Times). The phrase brought back bitter memories from 15 years ago, when I criticized the media empire for using that exact phrase to explain the death of 28-year-old Playmate Elisa Bridges.

“There was nothing natural about Bridges’ death,” I wrote in my Sept. 26, 2002 OC Weekly story “Natural Causes: The naked life and veiled death of a Playboy Playmate.” “The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office actually concluded that Bridges died of a massive accidental drug overdose. A drug overdose in a room where no drugs were found, in a house she didn’t live in. How could a person die from too much heroin and not have any needle tracks? What time did she die? Nobody, including the coroner, knows.”

Playboy has always been about fantasy, and Hefner sold himself as the living embodiment of that fantasy. Spending his days and nights in his luxurious mansion, always surrounded by very young and beautiful women and aging celebrity cronies like James Caan and Don Adams. And when he did leave the sprawling mansion, it was usually for a party.

I only saw Hefner in person once, at Playboy’s official unveiling (as it were) of their 2002 Playmate of the Year. It was in Los Angeles, at the Mondrian Hotel’s Skybar, on April 25, 2002. Somehow I had gotten an invite from someone in the office who knew I was digging into Bridges’ death (her body had been found in the house of a man who claimed to be one of the Hefner’s business associates), so I went to “get some color,” as we reporters call it, for my story. To accompany me, I enlisted my friend Chris P., who was more than happy to tag along (I chatted with Chris shortly before writing this to make sure I was remembering it all correctly).

There’s so much mythology surrounding even the phrase “Playboy party,” that I knew not to expect too much. At the time, I was also reading Russell Miller’s 1984 investigative book Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy. Paragraphs like this one, which describes the work that went into organizing these affairs in the 1960s, gave me much to consider:

Shirley Hillman was an attractive young Englishwoman, married to an American. As social secretary, one of her primary duties was to pack Playboy parties with enough pretty girls to heavily outnumber the men: Hefner liked a ratio of at least two to one. It was not always easy, as Shirley explained. ‘People imagined that every girl in America was dying to get invited to a party at the mansion. That was the myth. The reality was me traipsing around Chicago, desperately trying to find enough girls willing to go. One of the problems was that girls who had been to the Mansion expecting to meet lots of glamorous celebrities came back and told their friends that there was no one there but a bunch of middle-aged lechers.

Walking into the Skybar, it was immediately clear that the party would definitely be unusual. Thing is, there were beautiful girls walking around everywhere. A few I recognized as Playmates, but most I didn’t. All of them were squeezed into tiny cocktail dresses. In the pool, a few topless women happily bounced a volleyball around as guys in suits sipped whiskey and puffed on cigars near the edge.

Chris and I got our own drinks–bland but safe vodka sodas–and we mingled as best as we could, given that except for the PR person who’d actually approved my RSVP to the party, we knew zero people there. For the most part, everyone ignored us (one exception was actress and former Playmate Julie McCullough, who casually said “Hi, guys” when she passed us on the stairs even though we were clearly nobodies who very obviously didn’t belong there). This went on for a while, until The Woman and The Husband showed up.

I don’t recall their names, but wouldn’t use them here even if I did. What I do recall is that The Woman seemed very interested in talking with us. Okay, talking with Chris, who she called “adorable” on at least one occasion (which, in her defense, was true–even I thought Chris was totes adorbs, and I’m straight). Anyway, The Woman claimed she was a good friend of the new Playmate of the Year (I have no idea if this was true) and that all of us should head up to their room after the party. She mentioned that other girls–other Playmates–would be there.

This was all very sudden, and I was skeptical. That was soon replaced with horror when I realized that for much of this conversation, The Woman had placed her hand on Chris’ crotch. It was then that I looked around and realized The Husband–a very tall and muscular dude, if I remember correctly–was no longer standing near her.

If anything, Chris seemed even more nervous than I was. “Isn’t that your husband?” he asked The Woman.

“He does his thing, I do mine,” she responded.

This was getting to be too much, and we excused ourselves. Looking back, I’m amazed we acted with so much intelligence and self-control. Then again, The Husband was a big, intimidating dude. So we bounced around the party, watched a little more of the topless volleyball in the pool and generally tried our best to avoid The Woman, who for a time kept walking back over to us. Finally we lost her, and thought no more about her, until The Husband suddenly cornered us.

“Have you guys seen my wife?” he asked us.

“No, not at all,” we said, practically in unison. “Not for a while. No idea where she is, sorry.”

The party was very crowded now. The sun had long gone down, and people seemed to be everywhere. It was as we were moving through these crowds, mostly to get away from The Husband, that we came upon Hefner. He was perched on bed with a half-dozen blondes (this might have been during his seven-girlfriends phase, but I can’t recall). What I remember most vividly is how motionless he seemed, like he was actually just a waxwork recreation of himself (click here to see a Getty Images photo from that night, and you’ll see what I mean). And sad, too–like the 2009 photo at the top of this post, his expression just seemed to be one of sorrow, like his being at the party was just another reminder that his reputation as the King of Hedonism had grown into a tiresome chore he was contractually obligated to carry out.

Not long after, when it became clear to us that the Playboy people had pulled out of the party and the place was now packed with regular schmoes like us, we decided to bail, too. But as we pulled out of the garage, Chris and I saw The Husband walk down the street, taking long, determined strides, and go into the lobby of a nearby hotel.

The Woman was nowhere to be seen.

Photo of Hugh Hefner in 2009: Glenn Francis/Wikimedia Commons

Here’s what happened when I decided to write one of those custom adult videos

So last month I wrote a short film. Okay, a short custom video. It’s a comedy about, well, custom videos.

Let me back up. Recently I listened to journalist Jon Ronson‘s excellent podcast The Butterfly Effect, which explores the ramifications of websites like Pornhub inundating the internet with free (i.e. stolen) porn films. The podcast is colorful, funny and, ultimately, depressing. But one of the results of the glut of free online porn that Ronson explores is the rise (sorry) of what he calls “bespoke porn”–private videos shot by adult video actresses for individual customers. And this got me thinking: if these companies could shoot a custom porn film for someone, could they also shoot something more mainstream?

Like many journalists, I’ve long fantasized about writing for Hollywood–television, movies, B-movies, whatever. Given that I make my living writing news for a tiny alternative paper on Maui, script-writing gigs don’t exactly drop out of the sky.  Perhaps this was my shot.

I wrote the script in about a day. It was an indulgent, off-the-wall comedy about a custom video team trying to make sense of an even more off-the-wall custom video script. My story called for four actresses, all in various stages of undress (though at no point did the script ever include sex scenes). It was silly, bizarre and a lot of fun to write–it provided a much-needed break from my recent writing about climate change, creeping authoritarianism and virulent racism. Because I’ve long been a fan of actress Erika Jordan (star of such films as Attack of the Virgin Mummies, Bikini Avengers and American Bikini Car Wash), I already knew she ran Custom Dream Models, which makes exactly the type of videos Ronson spoke of in The Butterfly Effect. So I sent her the script (which, at that time, was title simply “The Script”).

Though Jordan wrote back that she liked it, there were problems. Mostly, there was no way she’d be able to film it for anywhere near my budget of just a few hundred dollars. So I did a re-write, cutting out one actress entirely and reducing the costume requirements to mere bikinis. By agreeing to the cuts, and letting Jordan shoot the film in an afternoon with a single camera on another customer’s location (which I’m pretty sure is a classic b-movie technique straight out of the Roger Corman playbook), the budget would stay in the manageable range.

The film stars Jordan and [NAMED DELETED] (both of which are pictured above, wearing red and black bikinis, respectively) and adult film actress Celeste Star (pictured below).

Remember, this is simply a story about custom video actresses discussing and debating an unusual script submission. Though it’s dialogue-heavy, I made it as easy on the actresses as possible by having them constantly refer to the script itself as they talk (in the video, you can see them clearly holding copies of the script I sent).

While I love the video they produced (which arrived in my inbox about a week after shooting), watching it was surreal. Here were actresses of some fame acting out a script I had written. Watching it, I also learned that some of my jokes were so subtle that a missed couple of words could render the following punchline meaningless. Of course, given the fact that Custom Dream Models is a tiny production company that wasn’t operating on anything close to even a B-movie budget, they more than fulfilled my fantasy of being a movie hack writer.

Anyway, here’s result, known simply as Strange Video Request (though Custom Dream Models normally forbids its customers from posting their videos online, Jordan gave me permission to do so as the film contains no sex or nudity).

That time my mom tried to make me a Gerber baby

I don’t often write about my parents, who died many years ago (my mom in 1994, my dad in 2007), but given that I just turned 45, I find myself thinking of them more than usual. I got rid of A LOT of old stuff after my dad died (my sister, thankfully, saved a bit more), but one item I held onto  was the following correspondence. I guess the complete novelty and weirdness of it all was too much for me to just toss in the garbage with the rest of my old report cards, yearbooks and photos (I’m pretty sure my sister made me save the one I posted at the top of this post). Anyway, after filing these letters away in my desk for the last decade, I have decided to now make it all public.

My mom once tried to make me a Gerber baby.

This was certainly news to me in 2008 or so, when I located it among the many, many things my parents had saved. If my mom had told me about when I was a kid, I’d long ago forgotten it. Anyway, my mom had saved a hand-written copy of the letter she sent to the Gerber Products Company, apparently on June 15, 1972 (according to a note she stapled to the correspondence). Here’s what she wrote (the JP at the end stands for JoAnn Pignataro):

I have no clue why she made this copy (much less why she saved the whole correspondence). But a week later (!), a representative of Gerber responded to my mom:

While this is likely a form letter (I can’t imagine my mom was the only woman in America who thought her baby was worthy of a career slopping up mashed peas on television), I am impressed that they responded so quickly.

So there it is: I was a failed television star before I was even six months old.  Well, I guess that’s showbiz.

Why I dedicated my new Maui novel ‘Pau Hana Time’ to my friend Chris


It’s finally happened: Event Horizon Press has published my third novel, titled Pau Hana Time. You can find it right now in paperback at Amazon (click here to buy it). An e-book version is coming soon, which will also be available at Amazon.

This was a far more difficult novel to write than I originally anticipated. You’d think that a trashy noir novel about contemporary Maui would be easy to write, especially since I’ve already written two earlier novels in the series. But this novel proved more of a struggle because the real-life guy who provided much of the inspiration behind the book’s protagonist killed himself just as I was starting to write it.

My friend’s name was Chris Atencio. He was an officer in the U.S. Army, and rose to the rank of captain. An Iraq War veteran, he found himself discharged in the summer of 2013. Six months later, he killed himself (a disturbing number of veterans kill themselves every day in this country, which is why I wrote about Atencio five months after his death).

Atencio and I met around 2000, before he joined the service. We were neighbors in Newport Beach, California, living in tiny studio apartments just steps from the beach. He was working a variety of jobs back then–bartender, doorman, retail clerk–but he had already traveled the world extensively and spoke a variety of languages. He was smart, no-nonsense, cosmopolitan and an incorrigible flirt.

He joined the army in 2003, and at least for a while, seemed to have a better time than I’d anticipated. The structure of the military seemed to agree with him, though his life-long inability to tolerate bullshit did pose problems. Atencio was still in the service in 2008 when I started writing Small Island (which Event Horizon Press published in 2011), though I decided early on that the hero of the novel–”Charley Ridgway”–would be a former army officer. Ridgway was to be smart, well-traveled, a bit cocky, flirtatious and completely intolerant of  injustice and stupidity. What’s more, I decided that he had left the military after becoming frustrated with its regimented, bureaucratic empires, and moved to Maui, where he followed the well-worn path of many mainlanders into the service industry, where he found work tending bar at a popular resort.

The novels expose the reality that lay beneath Maui’s tourist veneer, but are meant to be nothing more than entertaining beach reads. Above all, the novels are supposed to be fun. Ridgway is flawed, but well-meaning; a man of action, but with a conscience. It was easy to base the character on Atencio, though he’s in no way a copy of him.

In any case, I sent Small Island and its sequel The Dead Season to Atencio while he was stationed overseas, and he told me he loved them (though I don’t recall ever telling him I’d had him in mind while drafting the Ridgway character). I was still thinking about book three–what eventually became Pau Hana Time–when Atencio told me he’d been discharged. He visited my girlfriend and me on Maui in the summer of 2013 on his way back to the Mainland, and we talked a lot about his options, which were considerably better than returning to work as a bartender somewhere. But six months later, while still considering his future and battling PTSD, he killed himself.

Writing Pau Hana Time suddenly seemed impossible. The outline of the story–which included a sub-plot about an army friend of Ridgway’s who was struggling with PTSD–now horrified me. Did I fail Atencio when he needed me the most? Had I misunderstood Atencio’s personality all along? I put the novel aside (and even considered scrapping it entirely), focusing instead on writing about Chris, which took a few months of careful reporting and research.

Eventually I finished that story, which ran in both OC Weekly and my own paper MauiTime. Around that time, my publisher at Event Horizon asked how my latest novel was coming. I told her my thoughts and fears, and she gently suggested finishing it and dedicating it to his memory.  I returned to the outline, made a variety of changes, and then just started writing. To my surprise, it went quickly. As for the dedication, here’s what I settled on:screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-10-13-55-am

In truth, this is probably my favorite Ridgway novel, though that’s just my opinion. The one guy I wanted to read it will never do so.

Donald Trump is scary because America is scary


The enslavement of Africans and African-Americans. The Pequot War. The Olowalu Massacre. The Trail of Tears. The Mexican War. The Civil War. The Sand Creek Massacre. Wounded Knee. 

I’ve seen this Feb. 9 post from Ezra Klein, titled “The rise of Donald Trump is a terrifying moment in American politics,” a few times already in my social media feeds. This is probably because its point is so simple and digestible:

“Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.”

There can be no doubt that Trump is a straight-up fascist, as Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate back in November. Indeed, he’s one of ugliest, nastiest presidential candidates I’ve ever seen (assuming he’s not an agent provocateur aiming to destabilize the Republican Party from within–a possibility we still can’t entirely rule out).

But let’s assume Trump really wants to be President. Reading over Klein’s essay, I got the feeling that he was painting Trump as some kind of outlier, an aberration in American politics. “Behind Trump’s success is an unerring instinct for harnessing anger, resentment, and fear,” Klein wrote. “Trump doesn’t offer solutions so much as he offers villains. His message isn’t so much that he’ll help you as he’ll hurt them.”

Jim Crow laws. The Spanish-American War. The annexation of the Philippines. The Philippine-American War. The annexation of Hawaii. The Ludlow Massacre. The Great White Fleet. Lynching.

Donald Trump is no aberration. The violence and racism of his message don’t break away from American politics, they stem directly from it. Before Trump there were men like George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy and General Edwin Walker. All preached hate, and all were tremendously popular.

This is because America was built on violence and hatred. Other nations see it vividly, but here, it’s something we’d rather not talk about. That’s why John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan scored so many points when they quoted from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and referred to America as a “city upon a hill.” No one running for office today can deny American exceptionalism–even Barack Obama, falsely slurred by Republicans as someone who doesn’t love America, still believes that America is exceptional.

But what, really, makes us exceptional? Our shared belief in liberty? Our supposed commitment to justice? Ask the Cherokee nation about that.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. The overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The Bay of Pigs invasion. Myriad assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. 

Every single adjective Klein uses to describe Trump–terrifying, racist, sexist, narcissist–can be used to describe America, both in terms of foreign and domestic policy. Trump isn’t a fool–he knows what American history looks like; he’s just rich and powerful enough to not give a damn about what he says.

American politics today demands that we shun even recent history. We hang on the words of presidents, but ignore their actions. George W. Bush only said we use “enhanced interrogation” at our black site prisons around the world, so it’s all ok, right? And why should anyone around the world be afraid of CIA-orchestrated kidnappings if we call them “extraordinary rendition?”

American history is largely the same story told over and over, of white men seizing power, land and resources.  Our founding documents list many ideals of human decency and voice, but our actions rarely deviate from the insatiable desire to attain national security by whatever violence is deemed necessary.

The Vietnam War. The bombing and invasion of Cambodia. The bombing of Laos. The invasion of Grenada. The invasion of Panama. The Persian Gulf War. Guantanamo Bay. The invasion and occupation of Iraq. Abu Ghraib Prison. Drone strikes in Pakistan. 

“[S]hame is our most powerful restraint on politicians who would find success through demagoguery,” Klein writes. “Most people feel shame when they’re exposed as liars, when they’re seen as uninformed, when their behavior is thought cruel, when respected figures in their party condemn their actions, when experts dismiss their proposals, when they are mocked and booed and protested. Trump doesn’t. He has the reality television star’s ability to operate entirely without shame, and that permits him to operate entirely without restraint. It is the single scariest facet of his personality. It is the one that allows him to go where others won’t, to say what others can’t, to do what others wouldn’t.”

The painful truth is that exposing Trump as a liar and bully does about as much good as saying the same thing about America. Where is America’s shame at two centuries of racist laws and brutal wars of conquest? Where is the call to replace childish notions of “American exceptionalism” with a humble but thorough accounting of past crimes?

Yes, Trump is a monster. But is he worse than George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger–all of which have the blood of thousands, perhaps millions of people on their collective hands?

Hey, here’s what would truly make American exceptional: a fearless resolve to honestly account for our own crimes. Make that the historical and political bedrock of America, and gutter trash like Donald Trump will have no hope of becoming president.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

UPDATED: Remembering the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster


It’s hard for me to believe that the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up 30 years ago today, killing all seven astronauts aboard. I was in the 8th grade when it happened–at Katherine Edwards Middle School in Whittier, California–and my first reaction upon hearing other kids talking about it was that it was BS. But when I walked into science class and saw the television, I knew it was true.

Thinking back, the loss of the crew probably affected me more than other kids my age because of my dad. At the time, he was an engineer at Rockwell International, which of course had built the Shuttle. Though the ultimate fault of the accident lay with the orbiter’s booster engines during liftoff, I distinctly remember that my dad had never been a fan of the shuttle’s design or engineering.*

“Would you fly on the space shuttle if you could?” I once asked him, before the doomed Challenger flight had taken place.

“Fly on it?” he said. “I don’t even want it flying over me.”

His gallows humor about the shuttle had actually peaked a few months before the disaster, when I was still in the 7th grade. We had some sort of parent-teacher night, and we were visiting all my classes. Of course, we spent extra time with my 7th grade science teacher–Mr. Golden.

Golden was probably the most interesting, colorful and difficult teacher I’d ever had in my life. Back in elementary school, teachers warned us about him–even said he’d be harder than most college professors we would encounter. And they were right–he was a stickler for detail, and was rough on everyone, regardless of how well you were doing in class.

But he was also a flying fanatic. In fact, he’d hung dozens of model airplanes from the ceiling. So naturally, when my folks stopped by, and he found out my dad worked for Rockwell, his face lit up like he was one of his students.

“They’re going to send a teacher up on the next space shuttle mission!” Golden told us.

My dad nodded. Indeed, it had been in the news for some time.

“I applied to go,” Golden then told my dad. “Can you get me on a flight?”

“I can only get you a one-way ticket,” my dad joked, and we all laughed.

Of course, it turned out the teacher chosen to fly on that mission–Sharon Christa McAuliffe–really did have a one-way ticket.


I miss my dad.


*UPDATE, FEB. 1: After I published this blog post, I discovered that had put up physicist Richard Feynman‘s remarkable essay Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle, which had been included in the official Rogers Report on the Challenger disaster as Appendix F. Feyman’s first sentences left me cold:

It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management.

Further on, Feynman noted in great detail just how alienated NASA bureaucracy had grown from engineers like my father:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

For years I figured my father’s distrust of the very program he spent so many years working on merely stemmed from his own exacting engineering standards. I had no clue that his views represented the norm at firms like Rockwell, not the exception.

This unfortunately begs many questions as to the extent my father and those in his group spoke out about their concerns–questions, given his passing in 2007, I can never ask.

Photo of the remains of the Challenger’s crew at Dover Air Force Base: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Remembering when I first remembered the 9/11 terrorist attacks


For me, remembering the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon means remembering my friend Chris Atencio. My Newport Beach, California neighbor and close friend at the time, it was he who woke me up that morning to tell me what was happening (he didn’t own a television, but had been alerted shortly before by a telephone call from his mom).

We watched the news together that morning, though the only live images we saw were of the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Sixteen months later, overtaken by a burst of patriotism and purpose, Atencio joined the U.S. Army. Rising to the level of captain, he saw service in Korea, Germany, Iraq and Japan. In the summer of 2013, the army honorably discharged him. Six months after that, Chris killed himself.

But before all that happened, before U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq killed many, many thousands of people and shattered both states’ civil societies, I wrote a story in 2002 for OC Weekly about how Orange County commemorated the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Really a series of three dispatches, the story shows that many people in Southern California, though separated from the attacks by a year and a couple thousand miles, still exhibited some pretty harsh emotions over them.

We like to think nowadays that the immediate reaction to that day’s destruction was national (even to some extent world) unity, and while that certainly happened, it was long over by Sept. 11, 2002. And why not? The 9/11 attacks happened because of politics, and politics are very often divisive–especially in one of the most conservative counties in the U.S.

Anyway, I’m reprinting that 2002 story here because OC Weekly‘s online archives don’t go back that far:



By Anthony Pignataro

Sept. 20, 2002


Several hundred people stand and sit by the Nixon Library parking lot in the blistering sun. Thirty-six U.S. flags in three sets of 12 are arrayed before them.

Some are firefighters. Some are Boy and Girl Scouts. And some are wearing shirts that say things such as “Raise a glass for duty and humanity” and “Support your local Soldiers for Jesus.”

They’re in the parking lot, quietly waiting for a caravan of police and fire vehicles escorting two huge flatbed trucks. They’re quiet because a Nixon Library official asked for “a moment of silence” to “pause and reflect.”

Preceded by Highway Patrol motorcycles and a black Cadillac Escalade limousine, the flatbeds carry World Trade Center scrap. The first hauls a New York hook-and-ladder fire truck wrecked in the WTC collapse; the second flatbed holds 18 tons of rusted scrap steel.

For a while, the only sound is camera shutters snapping. Then the speeches begin. The San Bernardino officials who brought the WTC junk to California for a future memorial speak first.

“Everywhere they went, crowds gathered,” says disgraced, outgoing San Bernardino County District Attorney Dennis Stout, describing the scrap’s journey across the U.S. “People wanted to see and touch the steel.”

The people in Yorba Linda were no different, but the officials keep speaking. Last up is Peace Corps boss and bankruptcy-era Orange County Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez. He notes the sweltering heat and promises to be brief, but isn’t.

“I didn’t know anyone on Flight 92,” he says to a crowd of sweating, irritable people hungry for the touch of memorial steel. “But they are all heroes.”

Only after Vasquez finishes are the people allowed near the wreckage. The fire truck has broken windows and a few flat tires. A torn and dirty American flag is tied to its rooftop ladder.

People file slowly past the fire truck but linger around the beams. They reach up and touch them, then hold the pose while friends and relatives snap photos. Having already been viewed and touched by many people before today, the beams are covered with graffiti:

• “We love America The Morrellos”

• “Robert P. Long Ironworkers Local 433”

• “God Bless The Wilkersons”

• “How does our BOOT feel in your A** United America”


About 600 people jam a hotel banquet hall. Some are in jeans, but many are dressed in suits and skirts.

Near the entrance is a bar serving bottles of Budweiser, Miller Lite and Heinekin beer. Next to that are stacks of Ayn Rand Institute literature, including free excerpts of Rand’s books. Some people are seated against the far wall. Hotel staff members are still bringing in dozens of chairs when lecturer Dr. Yaron Brook begins his speech, “Why America Is Losing the War.”

Brook tells the attentive audience that America’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks has been “abysmal” because the nation’s leaders refuse to admit we’re in an “unmistakably ideological war” against “militant Islam.” He says they also refuse to “show the world we are committed to win. At most, we have shot some missiles into the desert.”

According to Brook, the enemy, led by the “nihilist” Osama bin Laden, wants to reestablish a “Muslim Empire in the Middle East.” America, “a shining sun of capitalism,” is “an affront” to such an empire,” he says.

“What has made America so pathetically weak?” Brook asks rhetorically–before quickly answering. “Our professors.” College professors “condemn science,” sport “stale Marxist nonsense” and want to “thrust American culture into the gutter. Altruism and moral relativism have crippled America’s ability to defend itself. American professors, because they cripple us intellectually, are our own worst enemies.”

We were attacked last year, Brook says, because we are “moral cowards” who “appease” our enemies. The 1991 Persian Gulf War showed America to be “weak” because then-President George H.W. Bush “rejected our moral right to act unilaterally and sought the approval of others.”

“Iran, not Iraq, should be our primary target,” says Brook, who adds that our “obsession” with civilian casualties “has needlessly prolonged this war. We shouldn’t grovel before allies. We should bomb ruthlessly. We are at war. We dare not show compassion. Civilian casualties are inevitable in war. They are the responsibility of Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia is comparable to the Taliban. We should take out these regimes by any means necessary. We should systematically assassinate the terrorist leaders. We should grind our mortal enemies to powder.”

At the end of the speech, which lasts about an hour, a dozen or so people walk out. The rest–several hundred at least–give Brook a thunderous standing ovation.


Standing at the edge of Pacific Coast Highway, a little girl in blue smiles brightly. She’s waving a sign that says, “Peace,” and giggles every now and then when a passing car honks.

Not quite 30 people–some teens with green hair, some older folks–stand around her. Their backs are to the ocean and the setting sun. They also have hand-painted signs–”Know Justice, Know Peace,” “Stop the INSANITY Now!” and “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.” They’ve been out by the pier since 6 p.m.

“I love these people,” says clean-water activist and Huntington Beach City Council candidate Joey Racano, enthusiastically waving a colorful World Peace Flag.

“Yeah,” I say. “Wish there were more of them.”

Racano pauses and stares at his feet. “I know what you mean, but you can’t think that way. You have to be positive. Remember this is the most conservative city in the most conservative county in California.”

One activist holding a cloth flag displaying a large peace sign who hadn’t heard that conversation comes over. “It’s a good group we’ve got here,” he says. “Several hundred… in spirit.”

Occasionally, a guy driving by will flip off the activists. They respond by laughing or blowing kisses. A blond girl on a bike riding by yells “Go to New York and hold that sign. See how long you last.”

Across the street and in front of Jack’s Surf Shop, three counter-demonstrators take up position. They yell and gesture at the peace activists. One of the guys, who looks about 20, holds a crudely drawn cardboard sign reading, “Nuke Iraq Cut Your Hair.”

Photo of the World Trade Center towers in 1990: Edgar de Evia/Wikimedia Commons

Why would anyone love America?


I usually reserve this space for something pithy or maybe an update on my novels, but right now it seems more fitting, more necessary, that I just write out some feelings. The massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on Wednesday night has been on my mind a lot, and I just feel the need to get a few things on the record.

Nine people are dead. Nine African-American people are dead. Allegedly murdered by a white man who desperately wanted to murder African-Americans. His own words, according to a friend of the suspect, were that he hoped to “start a civil war.”

That we are debating whether these murders rise to the level of “terrorism” or whether they were caused by “racism” seems absurd to me. They were the very definition of terrorism–acts designed to terrify a person or group of people. Even if he wasn’t photographed previously wearing patches that depicted the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, we can tell that the killer is an undeniable racist.

More people died at Emanuel than in Boston during the marathon bombing. Indeed, since 2002, domestic terrorists have killed more Americans than foreign organizations. And yes, I admit to feeling bitter humor at watching the white male Republicans running for president bend over backwards to avoid deeming the massacre an act of terror caused by a racist.

We live in bad times. Last night I found myself asking whether this country was headed towards a new race war, then remembered that for African-Americans living in the South, there never really has been peace. The violence imposed on them by slavery at the founding of this nation has changed in form over the last few centuries, but never really went away. The victory of the Union in the Civil War merely eliminated slavery, but did little else to bring full citizen status to African-Americans.

The premature end of Reconstruction gave birth to Jim Crow in the south–laws of restriction and segregation that took a century to undo in the courts. At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan ran wild.

What progress have we made since the U.S. Supreme Court undid segregation? What civil liberties victories can we look to since the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act passed in the 1960s? African-Americans are still living in fear in the South–indeed, in much of the U.S. There are disproportionate numbers of them in our prisons. The racism and discrimination they still face is in itself an act of violence.

You want to know how bad it is? Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant “The Case for Reparations,” which ran in The Atlantic a year ago. I’m ashamed to say I only first read it a few weeks ago. It’s a long essay that’s full of profound thinking and heart-wrenching reporting, and every American should read it. Even better, they should think about it.

Coates wants a national reckoning–a point at which all Americans think about their history, acknowledge its horrors and then agree to do better. When I was younger I know I would have thought that possible. Now, today, after Wednesday–I doubt it.

I’ve never been to the deep South, which is at least part of the reason I find their definition of “heritage” requires them to genuflect before dead racists and slave-holders to be nonsensical. Why is the Confederate battle flag still flying over the South Carolina state capitol? Why does the State of Mississippi’s flag still depict the stars and bars? Why are at least 10 U.S. Army bases named for Confederate generals–men who commanded divisions and brigades that killed U.S. Army soldiers?

And while I’m at it, why are while male southerners like Rick Perry–a craven poser who wants power but lack the wisdom, judgment and raw intellect of someone who can wield it responsibly–treated like serious presidential candidates? Men like Perry (who has laughably, insanely, characterized the Emanuel AME killings as an “accident” stemming from drug use) seem perfectly happy with the status quo; with the racial injustices African-Americans face on a daily basis. And they’re perfectly unwilling to describe a racist murderer as anything other than someone who’s “evil,” as though he exists on another plane of reality.

Above all, the right-wingers in this nation (and indeed, many who would call themselves moderates) refuse to acknowledge that America is, at its heart, a violent nation. Ask the Africans forcibly brought here to run the South’s economy. Ask the Native American tribes who ranged from the Atlantic to the Pacific–until Manifest Destiny all but exterminated them. Ask Central American, South American, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean nations who’ve regularly contended with U.S. military invasions and occupations over the last century. It doesn’t matter who’s President of the United States, or which political party is in charge–the solution to terrorism is simply to build vastly greater weapons (and secret prisons) and then go bomb other nations.

I can remember teachers telling my class in elementary school that ours was a generation of peace–what a nasty joke that now seems. Nearly as rotten as the worst slur the right can throw at the left–that it “hates America.” Given the totality of violence that permeates American history and society to this very day, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would love America.

Photo of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston: Spencer Means/Wikimedia Commons