Saturday, August 25, 2018

Bridge Building

I sketched the design, wrote out a bill of materials. I let the drawing sit, revised it, added detail, thought it through, looked at models. I designed a buttress of rock and rebar, one for either end, and measured the gap. It was 20 feet across the pond inlet, bank to bank.

I debated what type lumber. What type stress will my bridge support? Grandkids jumping up and down? (I dream.) A lawn mower? Snow and ice … Most lumber only goes so long as sixteen feet. How to form a 20-foot-truss? I work alone. How to build, then carry the bridge? I could build it in place, over the water. Maybe. Maybe not. How do I haul lumber to the site? It could be delivered. I asked an expert, a builder friend, Robert, how wide should I make the bridge? “The wider the better,” he said. I chose 32 inches, so I could cut three deck pieces from each eight-foot board, about fifteen long boards in all.

It was a delightful cogitation, which I stretched and chewed for about six months. I decided to bind two ten-foot wood girders with a sixteen-foot piece. I debated types of stock — 4x4, 2x6 or 2x8 inch treated — the types of bolts, binders, screws and fasteners, and the type of glue. I pulled up bridge designs for the Appalachian Trail and challenged my specs. I considered features like a toe rail but said not. I decided on 2x8 inch pine for the truss frame, topped by 5/4x6 inch deck boards. I fastened the truss beams using brown-enameled carriage bolts, washers and nuts, with a finger-thick smear of all-weather glue snaked between bolted boards.


My grandfather H.R. Gibbons was a Stevens-educated engineer, working first at Hyatt Roller Bearing and then General Motors, both jobs under Alfred Sloan. H.R. was a man of precision and standards. His woodshop-and-garage was immaculate and well-equipped — DeWalt radial saw, drill press, band saw, automotive tools, and more. H.R. built the rowboat my sister Kathy and I, my mother Joan and I, pulled out onto the Tred Avon which curled around my grandparent’s house, Boundary Point.

H.R. and my grandmother Dot had two daughters, Lois and Joan. Joan, my mother, took to son-like hobbies with her father. She built furniture, made skilled things with wood, glue and varnish. She was a lab worker at Merck early on and, later, for most of her life, a middle-school math teacher. I loved her. We played baseball catch together on the tarry pavement and on park playgrounds in Washington, DC. We held hands and danced in summer downpours in our galoshes. She served mustard sandwiches and Ovaltine in our small 32nd Place house.


I loved Dad, too, but he was different, a disorganized creative, a writer, a disrupter. He took-on and fixed the world on a large scale — the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam War, and Iraq, an embed with infantry soldiers, and more.

Dad and I built a lot of things together. We made a soap box derby race car from plywood, lath, and fiberglass, with wheels and steering gear from a General Motors kit. We took Mom’s ironing board and used it to draw the pattern of the fuselage bottom on a four-by-eight-foot sheet of three-quarter inch marine plywood. That car, the soap box derby, was the bomb. We had it for many years, racing down neighborhood streets, and pushing it back uphill. I was about nine years old when we drew the fuselage. When I grew too big for the box, Dad and I cut away the car’s rear bulkhead, so I could squeeze my long, lanky teenage frame into the flyer. My neighborhood buds, Russ, Dan, Jamie, Tom and others, would do crazy things in the yellow race car, skidding it across gravel and tumbling into a ditch — and worse.

None of us died, and all injuries seemed to heal in about a day. That was good. We were cool kids. Dad was a cool dad, “Jungle George.”

I built things for and with my own boys, Nathan and Avery. Some of it was good, some not so. I remember the delight they expressed when I built a chair framed in two-by-fours, with the seat and back “crafted” from their old skateboard decks. “Dad, so cool!”

Skateboarding was a thing of their youth. We’d hunt out skateboard parks with ramps and “swimming” pools where the boys would loop, whip and hop about. They’d foregather with their friends to perform and perfect tricks. An early project I built was a quarter-pipe ramp, which the kids could roll-up, twist and squirt about — and sometimes crash and fall.

The initial ramp was a simple wedge made of three-quarter inch plywood undergirded by two-by-fours and scrap wood. It rose from our driveway to about 18-inches. It was pretty good. The kids loved it. They’d roll down the street, into our driveway, then cut a curve and twist across the wedge. Like many things I do, the ramp was subjected to progressive refinement. We made it taller and, using stubs, braces and flexible quarter-inch marine plywood, created a gentle curve, and a top lip, so it genuinely resembled a pipe, not some kick ramp. I coated the surfaces with marine varnish. More kids were attracted to our house (a win in most any child’s esteem). Sometimes, we’d come home and see the ramp in full use, skateboarders training and experimenting. They were very good.

I saw my own possibility for fun and elevation. I didn’t do skateboards owing to my poor balance, but I rode bikes. I had bought a used ten speed for $15 at a garage sale; it was my commuter bike. I called attention to my boys, put on my cycling helmet, pedaled hard, and launched off the ramp. I had a vision of Evel Knievel on his motorcycle, soaring over a stack of cars or across a river gorge, landing triumphantly, and throwing his arms up in victory as he rolled smoothly out after landing.

My weight distribution and speed were wrong, so as I came over the ramp my bike nosed-down and dropped away. I continued in the air, at about six feet altitude, and then belly-flopped down to the street pavement.

I wasn’t dead. It hurt like hell. I moaned. My wife Carolyn came out; the boys said, “Dad are you okay?” I said, “No.” “Should I call an ambulance?” Carolyn asked. “No,” I groaned. “Just hot bath, hot tub.”

After about five or ten minutes of inert groaning and injury self-assessment, I lumbered-up, aided by family members, made my way into the house, had the bath, and medicated with pain pills and smears of ointment. I was pretty bruised, kind of like a soap-box derby crash of yore. Otherwise, I was somewhat pleased with myself.

This is how we Wilson boys played.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Soot's Pond

Soot's pond is shaped like a tear, with spring and rain water flowing in across the top, the southern end, and flowing out a rocky bed due north, the direction John Mosby and his raiders famously advanced. At maximums, the pond is about 75 yards end-to-end and 25 yards across. They say it goes three-to-four yards deep, but I haven’t yet swum it and touched bottom. I will.

On still days the pond water can be clear to near five feet. On rainy days, it is opaque, the color of tobacco spit. Floating in the pond middle, on a sunny day, we may see the swamp monster, a mossy snapping turtle about two feet from snout to tail. He could bite off a toe, or another tender bit. But I think him all-timid — Give me my daily mash of detritus, perhaps a young fish or frog, and move on. Life advances, says the swamp monster, sometimes slow and phlegmatic, sometimes sparklingly fast. There are dozens of black bass and catfish a foot long or so, and hundreds more fingerling, crappie, frogs and whatnot beasts. It is a lovely place. I set there and think, or imagine, or imagine I’m thinking. Sometimes I’m just sating my curiosity with a local whiskey or ale. I watch thoughts and writing snips come in and out, across my brain’s imperfect stage. Great words appear, and they disappear before the laptop is cracked. Writing is best, I guess, when not air drawn, but with fingers on keyboard, or pen to paper. At least it is not lost.

The pond flows out a small vee in the berm, a shallow channel lined with smooth stones and flagellating mosses, and falls into a swale below. When the water flow is high, after a rain or during most of springtime, a second pond forms in the fen, bordered by the stone fence, and shot through with fallen tree, ferns, mosses, other ancient plant and rot. The lower pond is the more scary place, home to snakes, cottonmouth vipers, thick poison ivies, and cutting bramble. In spring it is a thrumming orchestra of peepers — leopard, bull and tree frogs. Raptors and herons fly in and swoop to dine at Soot’s Camp’s ponds, probe the fen, grab and guzzle a small beast, and fly off.

Hummingbirds and bluebirds are constant companions on the granite flat, the house and homestead above the pond. My guests and I tend to stay there, lounging in Adirondack chairs or benches I built. Dogs run here and there, slipping into the pond for a drink or swim. They may return mucky, so we soap their coats and hose them down, pulling out an errant tick or bramble when we can.

A family of coons lives by the pond. I see one or two on occasion, pawing at the algae’d surface from a big rock, maybe grabbing a small turtle or crappie to eat. A large heron swoops in late in the day. She sits in the tree, silhouetted by the gloaming sky. Maybe she’ll swoop down and pluck dinner from Soot’s pond.

A train whistle blows in the background, a mile off, down Leeds Manor, aside Goose Creek. The wheels thrum over the rails and cross-members.

My whiskey is soft.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Poolesville Road Race

Saturday, May 12, 2018, was magical. I rose early and drove from DC north into Maryland, having volunteered to serve as the medic for the National Capital Velo Club’s (NCVC) Poolesville Road Race. When I arrived about 7:15, there was a purposeful bustle of the race getting organized — police officers, race officials, club members setting-up registration, a bicycle repair tent, port-a-potties, food truck — all told, a crew of about 50 preparing to stage six races ranging from 32 to 74 miles for several hundred men, women and junior cyclists.

Poolesville is a unique and, for some, most favored race. It traverses country roads for a ten-mile loop in upper Montgomery County across farmland, woods and aside the Potomac River and C&O canal. One section along River Road is hard-pack dirt and gravel. It elevates riders’ thoughts to the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, one of the greatest and most grueling races of the European classics. It is also where, as riders quickly descend the paved Edwards Ferry Road and turn right onto the dirt, we see a lot of crashes.


There was an immense warmth as I stood amidst the race-prep action. I held back tears of joy and nostalgia.

From 2004 to 2011 almost every weekend morning from March to September I was at bike races with my boys, Nathan and Avery. I served in a number of capacities. Initially, as a flummoxed parent trying to do things right — from pinning the race number on my child’s jersey in the right spot, cheering riders, filling and handing out water bottles in feed zones, to taking photographs as a race photographer, to being trained and working as a race official, to performing medical duties (I was trained as an emergency medical technician).

It was a full and joyous life. In about 2006, I was named Team Director for the age 18-and-under NCVC squad. We became quite good, winning a national title for the best developmental team, and preparing talented riders who later rose to compete as professionals across the United States and around the world.

When my children went on to college and beyond, I stopped my intense involvement in the bike racing scene. At Poolesville this day, dressed in my medic garb (purple EMT gloves, gauze sponges, and bottles of saline solution poking out my pockets and backpack), dear old friends came and hugged me. Myron, the lion and long-time president of NCVC, Mimi and Jim, distinguished national race officials, Claudia, Tom, Marc, Bill, Ryan and dozens, racers and friends. Almost all had been captured in my photographs over the years and worked side-by-side with me as a volunteer. Some I had tended to after race crashes. I was “Doc Willy,” my moniker from elementary school, where I cared for buddies who got busted up in the DC schoolyard. This was a nest and community where I raised and supported my boys.


Serving as medic is like sailing — hours of boredom mixed with moments of “terror and chaos.” I rode in a car that followed the race packs around the course, traveling about 120 miles across the day, at an average speed of 15 miles per hour. I watched as a woman racer, "Marilyn," tried to move up in the peloton of about 30 racers and, by mistake, edged right off the road. She tumbled and flipped over the top of her bike. Her left-side skin, jersey and shorts were shredded, shoulder, arm, and hip. Marilyn’s alertness and level of consciousness was normal. She was in pain. I assessed her as stable and gave her gauze sponges for immediate self-care and returned to the medic car (my duty was to attend to trauma, to save lives, and stay with the race pack). Marilyn returned to the race start area. I later cleaned and treated her with saline, povidone-iodine, and occlusive bandages. I gave her supplies so she could also wash and treat her injury in private areas in a private room.

While following the later “Pro 1/2/3” race our radio crackled and my cell-phone rang. A rider was down and needed assistance at Corner 5, the start of the dirt section. We pulled in and parked out of the way. A young man, "Thomas" was standing unevenly near his dusted-up bike; other volunteers and officials stood about. I looked at Thomas and sat him in a chair. He was alert and oriented by four standard measures (AO4). Thomas had come fast into the gravel section and, it seemed, flew over his crashing bike in superman position, landing predominantly on his front right-side. He had abrasions and lacerations from head to toe. My assessment indicated that an ambulance was not needed. (None was called.) Most serious, Thomas had an avulsion of skin and tissue on his chin and jaw that exposed a spot of underlying white tissue, which I surmised was bone. Thomas initially reported little or no pain, “just a numb feeling.” Later, he said, as the adrenaline wore off, the injuries hurt. I performed an initial saline wash and povidone-iodine clean of Thomas's wounds over about 20 minutes, checked his symmetry, palpated his thorax, re-checked alertness, and had Thomas transported back to the race start.

After the race concluded, I returned to the start area and further cleaned Thomas's wounds, applied 4 or 5 occlusive bandages to the larger wounds (excluding his chin, which was not amenable to bandaging, given Thomas's beard), and applied Neosporin ointment to Thomas's unbandaged abrasions. I had him self-clean and treat his chin, given the tenderness of the injury and confusion of flaps of skin and exposed tissue. He salved his chin generously with ointment. I gave Thomas additional gauze sponges, occlusives, saline, and Neosporin, and advised a soon visit to a hospital emergency room or his doctor. His chin would require stitches, and likely debridement and cosmetic surgery.

We joked that while he did not win a race trophy today, Thomas would have a trophy on his chin for a long time.

Thomas was very grateful for this care. I learned he is a third-year medical student at Temple University in Philadelphia. I noted that I was honored, a basic EMT treating a doctor, a balancing of skills and need.


I got home a bit late, 5 PM, and washed and shaved myself thoroughly. (Though I wear medical gloves and protective gear, I always feel a bit tainted by blood, body fluids and medicines after duty.) I put on my good suit, white shirt and blue tie, spritzed with after-shave, and headed to a charity event with high society in McLean, with my love.

Life is fine.

Ed. -- patient names are changed to respect privacy.

Race photos by Claudia GM --

Monday, May 7, 2018

Soot's Camp

Soot’s Camp is Open – Time to Visit
3596 Leeds Manor Road, Markham, Virginia 22643
571.239.6772 –

Lots to do – read, walk, enjoy a cup or glass, gaze at the pond or a fire, visit with friends, build something, ride thy bike, paint, write the Great American Novel ... Nearby highlights –

We’re out most weekends – Call or text to confirm

Soot’s Camp Directions
3596 Leeds Manor Road, Markham, Virginia 22643
571.239.6772 –

From DC/Beltway (about 45 minutes) –

• From Beltway (I-495), take Route 66 West to Markham, Exit 18
• At bottom of exit, turn left onto Leeds Manor Road, Route 688
• Stay on Leeds Manor Road (cross John Marshall Highway / Route 55 just south of I-66 … do not turn left or right on Route 55 … even if your GPS says to …)
• Cross small creek and turn right; continue on Leeds Manor Road over railroad tracks and about one mile to Soot’s Camp, at top of hill on right
• Park where convenient on driveway
• If driveway is full, continue up Leeds Manor Road about 75 yards and turn left into gravel road and park where convenient; walk back (be careful)

From Northern Virginia (e.g., Dulles Airport) –

• Take Route 28, Route 15 or Route 17 south to Route 66 West, directions as above

Cyclists –

Bike pump, water, tools around back ...

Monday, April 23, 2018

Ricalton Research -- 4.2018

James Ricalton in his study, Waddington, NY

Roger Bailey, a retired art professor from Saint Lawrence University in Canton, New York, reached out to me a year or so ago because he is interested in my great grandfather and namesake James Ricalton. James was a great but largely unheralded photographer and explorer. James’ photographs are in many collections, including the Library of Congress, Smithsonian, and Metropolitan Museum of Art. He did much work for Thomas Edison.

Roger saw this and wanted to explore who Ricalton was. I have a pretty good trove of Ricalton writings and artifacts, from the chest he packed to carry material down the Saint Lawrence, to his diary from his 1909 walk from Cape Town to Cairo, to various photographs, Edison notes, and Kikuyu carvings. I also know Ricalton and his stories through his daughter, Mary, a beloved friend, my paternal grandmother.


We hit off easily. I picked Roger up at the GWU Metro Thursday evening and we came to my Georgetown townhouse, and poked through various papers, boxes and troves, discovering stuff of which even I was unaware. Then we went to a local pub, Sovereign, for dinner and beer. On Friday, Roger spent the day at my house reviewing material, with a trip to the Library of Congress to meet with a curator. The curator, Josie, was wonderful. She showed us various references and, most fantastic, moving pictures Ricalton had made — in Cairo, Egypt, and most likely Canton and Shanghai, China, c. 1897. (Specific provenance of these old but now digitized films requires further research.) My father George had always said we should go to the Library to see Ricalton’s films, but we never did. (Dad, a writer, was much more a man of “should do” than “do.”) So this visit with Roger felt a bit warming for me, akin to a lost father-son activity.

On Monday, we visited with the senior photography curator at the American History Museum, focusing our insights and interests. In a couple weeks I will meet with a noted antique and old-book expert to gain more knowledge, and perhaps learn other references. Roger and I surfaced a few new Ricalton materials. I am continuing my research into Ricalton’s Africa journeys, in particular, his responses to adversity that ranged from technical inconvenience to medical trauma and death of a young tribesman, to the loss of Ricalton's son Lomond by typhoid pneumonia in British East Africa.

I remain in search of Ricalton photographs or writings from Abyssinia, what we know today as Ethiopia (where I do charity work).


Ever to learn. -- James Ricalton Wilson (Jim), 4/24/2018

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Post (the movie)

Steven Spielberg and Amy Pascal’s movie The Post is a compelling depiction of the decisions made by Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) to publish the Pentagon Papers in opposition to the Nixon administration, against the advice of her lawyers and investors, and in support of her news staff led by Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks). Two themes stand out: Freedom of the press against an ill-motivated government and the courage and insight of a very impressive woman, Mrs. Graham.

Like many documentaries, the movie was selective to fit a complex event into a two-hour film – to paraphrase Mrs. Graham’s husband, Philip, it was a rough draft of history. What was missing included the decisive Bazelon appeals court scene between Pentagon officials with a “top secret” supposedly contained in the Pentagon Papers, which the Administration forcefully argued supported non-publication, and the Washington Post lawyers and experts, highlighted by George C. Wilson’s decisive testimony. This deeper investigation of prior restraint and rule-by-facts is covered by Geoffrey Cowan’s 2008 play Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers and described by CBS's interview with George.

I had an insight from George, my father, that fit nicely with Spielberg’s movie, which I submitted to Pascal’s creative executive early in 2017. It fit nicely with movie scenes portraying the tension between Mrs. Graham and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – though it may have been over-elaboration, given the already effective screenplay.

Here’s part of the bit I offered: “Every time Robert McNamara saw Katherine Graham, Secretary McNamara would jab his finger at her (I imagine at a high society Georgetown cocktail party) and say: ‘George Wilson is the worst reporter in this town.’ Mrs. Graham would turn, smile and say, ‘I know.’ (We like it that way, she'd convey.)”

Dad had a strong track record taking on the military and Pentagon on many counts, wrote sharply and critically about the Vietnam War, sometimes covering the front page of the Post with three stories of breaking news.

An amazing thing about Mrs. Graham, Dad later reflected, was that she never told Dad or others about Secretary McNamara's criticisms. She kept the newsroom from this undue or tilting influence. Mrs. Graham was extraordinarily decent.

In any case, please see The Post, an enlightening and hopeful film. You can purchase a copy of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers play on Amazon or learn more from this USC Annenberg web site.

-- Jim

-- originally published on Facebook on January 1, 2018

References --

-- The Post movie --
-- Top Secret (play): The Battle for the Pentagon Papers -- (USC Annenberg)
-- Top Secret (play/docudrama) on Amazon:
-- CBS New article about George C. Wilson and Bazelon courtroom scene --