formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

Be sure to read your weekly Liberty Gazette newspaper, free to Liberty area residents!

January 30, 2018 "MySaigon" (part III in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
January 30, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: A Boeing 777 brought us to Saigon where a trip down the Mekong awaits. Our private guide, Vi, has a full day planned.

The Communist name is Ho Chi Minh City but the people say their home is Saigon. With pride in their city, their history, and their identity, many call it “MySaigon.”

The journey from the heart of Saigon to the Mekong Delta takes a couple of hours by car. Not a minute is wasted. Vi is a pro. She’s brought a binder full of pictures and maps. Artfully, she tells stories of her land and people. In the SUV, we’re moving through culture, time past and present, like a documentary, only better.

Distance grows between us and the big city and soon we’re cruising the countryside. Vast agricultural land is only partly rice fields. Pig farms and cattle ranches feed carnivores. We witness the variety of vegetables and fruits sown and harvested. Rivalry claiming who has the sweetest bananas exists among the countries in Southeast Asia. At every farm ancestors’ crypts guarantee the property won’t be sold.

Into “Coconut Kingdom” we head, through Tiền Giang Province, Mỹ Tho City. Coconut oil is good for the skin and this city earned its nickname, “Beautiful Girl Village.” Nam Phuong, the last Vietnamese empress and three-time Miss Indochina was born in Mỹ Tho. Princes may flock to this town to find a wife but we move on.

Further south is Ben Tre Province. During the rainy season you can boat through the wet market. Tightly packed booths brim with meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, coconuts, flowers, grains, herbs, and spices. Farmers’ markets in the states pale in comparison to the size and variety. Displays are colorful, layouts well designed—a photographer’s delight.

Vi says tigers roamed this area long ago. Not wanting to waste land, the king determined to colonize the southern part of Vietnam. But he couldn’t risk losing family members to ravenous felines so prisoners were sent to colonize the area. I ask where all the tigers went. Vi grins.

“The restaurant.”

Mike:  A short distance from the wet market, Vi leads us down the riverbank and onto a traditional wooden boat. Our captain chops notches in three coconuts and impales them with straws. He is at home on the Mekong. We sip the native juice as Vi acquaints us with legends and traditions of the people on the river.

Floating lazily past thick, twisting mangrove trees, I am lost in thought about young men barely out of high school patrolling these waters in U.S. Navy Swift Boats. There was no safe place; danger was their closest companion as they scanned the trees, twin 50-caliber machine guns ready to fire.

Nearly fifty years have passed since that violent era but the river doesn’t know it. Mangrove and coconut palm trees still grow and the Mekong still provides for the hard working people. It is still their home.

See you next week, with more of the taste of the delta.

January 23, 2018 Hello Vietnam (part II in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
January 23, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Saigon’s population exceeds ten million. In its narrow streets, locals commute on scooters—over seven million of them—separated by inches (at best). Traffic rules are only a suggestion. Many things are delivered by scooter or motorcycle. We saw a full-size refrigerator standing upright, strapped behind the driver weaving his way through traffic.

Seems crazy, but it works for them. Westerners tend to blow up with road rage in such congestion. The Vietnamese however, go with the flow like tight schools of fish in currents converging from all directions. Pedestrian crossing is a developed skill. Make eye contact with the drivers, but don’t maintain it while progressing through the onslaught of cars and motorbikes.  Move like you’re auditioning for a dance in Saturday Night Fever. We survived, (crossing, that is), but it’s not for the faint of heart.

So, Saturday night in Saigon. One block near us was closed to motorized traffic. The scene reminded me a little of Austin’s Sixth Street—but Saigon-style. Meaning, it’s not all bars and we saw no drunks. It’s just full of life. Sidewalks are parking lots for motorcycles stacked four deep in front of businesses renting space; plastic chairs ubiquitous in the space remaining. Go ahead, have a seat! Visit with Vietnamese, people-watch, and enjoy food from any of the million street vendors competing for scarce sidewalk space. Folks are friendly and sociable. I hesitate to mention New York City, but there is a heartbeat here, only it’s different. It’s settled.

Linda: Sixteen days is not enough to see Southeast Asia, but you can get a sense of things if you do it right. We use Airbnb. It gets us closer to the real life. We did the same across Iceland. With Airbnb, homeowners make extra money renting out a room, or a whole house. Some people have turned it into a business, offering travelers something hotels cannot—a non-touristy stay.

In Saigon, we opted for a family-owned coffee shop, internet café, and bookstore where they’ve added rooms. The owners were delightful and lodging there gave us the opportunity to meet more locals and experience the neighborhood. College-aged kids gathered at the bookstore with laptops. Ordering Vietnamese coffee alongside them immersed us in their culture. Fortunately, many speak English.

Of course, we wouldn’t spend much time in our room. We came to explore and had booked a fascinating activity for our first full day: a private tour down the Mekong River, through villages, markets, and the “Coconut Kingdom.” We discovered this tour on, a company that arranges unique experiences with local, knowledgeable guides. Our guide was Vi (pronounced “Vee”), a lovely young Vietnamese woman who left the banking business to show the world her Vietnam. Vi is well-studied about her country’s history, geography, businesses, and cultures. Sunday morning, we hopped in an SUV with Vi and a driver and left Saigon for the farms and villages to the south.

Join us next week for a delicious trip down the Mekong River Delta.

January 16, 2018 To Saigon (part I in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
January 16, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: My favorite adage comes through again: “A mile of highway can take you a mile. But a mile of runway can take you anywhere.” This time, we boarded EVA Airlines for a sixteen day adventure through Southeast Asia.

From Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport we’d stop first in Taipei, Taiwan before continuing to Saigon (the North Vietnamese won the war so it’s officially Ho Chi Minh City now, but the folks living there love you more if you call it My Saigon or just Saigon, which was their city).

Mike: Near midnight, we departed in a Boeing 777. Our track was north of what would have been the most direct route between Houston and Taipei, probably to avoid strong headwinds. While everyone slept, I watched our progress on the seat back monitor map.

We flew northwest, crossed the Rockies over Idaho then British Columbia and on to Alaska. I opened the shade over Fairbanks. We crossed the Bearing Straits and overflew Russia along the eastern part of Siberia. Outside, all was black. Suddenly, over the Sea of Okhotsk which separates mainland Russia from the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula, our flight made a forty-five degree diversion toward the west coast of Japan and into a one hundred seventy-five knot headwind—away from the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s lunatic dictator. Obviously we didn’t need to be over the Sea of Japan when he threw a tantrum.

As the sun rose, we approached Taipei. Breaks in the clouds allowed me to look down upon houses and buildings, and for the first time in my life, set my eyes upon an Asian city.

Linda: I call Taipei’s airport “the Hello Kitty airport” for its abundant portrayal of the little cartoon cat—a playground, a lounge, wall paper, life-sized stand-ups, wall hangings, statues, pay phone, and retail store with everything HK. Pink is everywhere.

The sixteen and a half hour flight to Taipei was too much. I wouldn’t recommend such a long flight. But we had over three hours to move about Hello Kitty airport before re-boarding for Saigon. We walked, browsed the many shops, and had our first bowl of Asian noodle soup in an Asian country.

Mike: We landed in Saigon at the same airport where U.S. troops arrived over 40 years ago. A few buildings at Tân Sơn Nhất airport remain from that era. Most have been replaced with airport expansion.

Customs in Vietnam was straightforward and reasonably quick. Outside, I guess they’re used to it, but passenger pick-up was like the trading floor of Wall Street. We located our driver and I soon realized my mistake in sitting in the front seat. I was introduced to Saigon traffic mere millimeters from vehicles in front of and next to us. Traffic rules are only a suggestion.

In the coming weeks we’ll share more about our visit to Southeast Asia. We opted for airline travel between cities to leave more time for experiences. The places the airplanes took us provided for truly amazing experiences. Stay tuned. 

January 9, 2018 Vintage Journals from Domestic Papers

The Liberty Gazette
January 9, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Lee Steiner has a business and sells her products on the popular internet marketplace, Etsy. We met Lee at a Houston Writers House meeting when she presented her unique creations and immersed us in her passion for the past. Lee’s company, Domestic Papers, blends her lifelong love of books, paper, art, and antique ephemera into a fun mix of vintage vibe handmade books.

From her fascinating talk and a thorough look through her books, we were absorbed in her story. Lee finds trashed books no one wants and gives them a second life by creating journals for writers, artists, travelers, moms, teachers, and anyone who likes to draw or jot down their thoughts and ideas.

Recreating the books is the journey she loves. Her zeal ignites an audience of writers and artists. She’s learned the old ways of bookbinding and her results are stunning, adorable, and lovely. You can trace the history of every book she turns from old to new in her studio back to its beginning perhaps centuries ago, in lands far away.

Lee is in the Houston area, but you can easily see and buy her vintage and antique rebirths on Etsy.  As you browse her shop, you’ll see many of the books have a fascinating history to boast, thanks many times to old and interesting photos, postcards, maps, and general miscellany she collects when she travels.

And yes, there’s an airplane in this story.

After Lee’s intriguing show, Mike and I wandered up to peruse the offerings. We were met with journals of great variety in both form and function and were impressed with her artistic skill, imagination, and weaving things she loves into a business.

As I stood at one end of the table, a friend showed me a green book with gold lettering and the silhouette of an airplane in old fabric covering typical of hardbacks decades ago. The binding is beautifully re-stitched in ancient fashion and several pages from the original book have been salvaged. Between them are blank pages and graph paper. This had been Francis Pope and Arthur Otis’s book, “Elements of Aeronautics,” published by World Book in 1941.

Originally 660 pages, it served as a textbook for an introductory course in aeronautics at the high school level. Library card pockets are still on the inside of both front and back covers, but affixed to each pocket’s space where the due date would be stamped is a photo cut from the original book. Boeings and Douglases are sprinkled throughout the little journal, and Lee even rescued a page of instructions on how to figure a wind triangle. Patti Atkins can appreciate that.

Mike found a map-themed journal to take on our next trip. It will be perfect for jotting down sights and experiences in the moment.

With Lee’s books, you can continue a tale she’s reincarnated, but the rest of its story is up to you.

January 2, 2018 The Masons and Mr. Gilmour

The Liberty Gazette
January 2, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Across the pond, Irishman Brendan O’Brien thrills air show audiences. As a youngster growing up in London, he wanted to fly like the birds. But life changed in his early teens. Despite the hardships that came with losing his parents so young, he became a world record holder of over 200 flying records, earned an unlimited license to fly any aircraft, and proved he wasn’t just another brick in the wall.

Linda: Two things I’ve said ever since learning to fly: One, the best way to get over the fear of flying is to learn to fly; it takes the unknown out of the equation, and we really only fear the unknown. Two, drummers would make good helicopter pilots—all hands and feet have to be moving independently, but in coordination. I stand by both statements, and appreciate the confirmation provided by Mr. and Mrs. Mason and their friend, Mr. Gilmour. I also appreciate the Masons’ support for the idea that a non-pilot spouse should at least learn how to land the family airplane, should the need arise. When we present a “Pinch Hitter” course to non-pilot spouses that is exactly what we teach.

Mr. Mason dreaded flying, but he had to for business. One day he spoke his mind to a colleague who in turn convinced him that learning to fly would cure him of that fear. Mr. Mason considered the advice good, and went with his friend’s recommendation of Brendan O’Brien.

A busy schedule kept Mr. Mason from completing his private pilot training quickly, but in about a year he finally had a license. Then he realized, not being a spring chicken, if he had a sudden health problem while flying, he’d want his wife to be able to land the plane safely and get help. Therefore, a year later, Mrs. Mason earned her license. Both became smitten with aviation and soaked in all they could, including twin-engine ratings. The Mr. and Mrs. enjoyed flying their aeroplanes, but soon discovered there was more to British life than fixed-wing aircraft. There were rotorwings! Money was no object and soon Mr. Mason added a helicopter rating to his license, and Mrs. Mason followed a year later, falling in love with flying their whirlybird.

One of Mr. Mason’s co-workers, Mr. Gilmour, also hated flying, and for the same reason. When Mr. Mason explained how learning to fly changed his life and now he loved it, Mr. Gilmour contacted Brendan O’Brien to see if he could get the same results. He did.

It didn’t take long for the co-workers to invest in an airport and several airplanes together. All of this would not have been possible were it not for Brendan O’Brien, and also for the success of their album, Dark Side of the Moon.

These days, it probably doesn’t matter to Pink Floyd’s founding members, drummer, Nick Mason and lead vocalist/guitarist, David Gilmour, what side of the moon their on, as long as they’re airborne.

December 26, 2017 Truck-top Landings

The Liberty Gazette
December 26, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Last week I mentioned a story about a pilot racing his airplane against a passenger train. Attempting to land, or at least touch his wheels on the roof of a train car was probably a more popular feat at the dawn of aviation than we know.

That reported speed challenge occurred just south of Seabrook way back in 1919, but it reminds me of acts by today’s air show greats, Greg Koontz, Kent Pietsch, and Brendan O’Brien.

I’ve seen Kent Pietsch’s “short field landing” a few times. He performs the daring act in his Interstate Cadet, sponsored by Jelly Belly, the candy company. The Cadet kind of looks like a Piper Cub in that it’s a small, high-wing, tailwheel airplane. It’s mostly yellow, with a red nose and cowl, decorated all over with Jelly Belly brand jelly beans. For the record, Jelly Belly’s jelly beans were the ones in the White House during the Reagan Administration.

Kent has a show partner who drives a pick-up truck with a base coat of white paint, also covered in jelly beans. Attached to the truck is a flat metal roof, a platform barely longer than the length of the Cadet. Air show announcers will point out how short the runway is as Kent builds the suspense lining up to land on the truck driving down the real runway. This is spot-landing on a whole different level—literally!

In a crosswind, Kent balances the airplane on that platform on just one wheel. It’s an exciting act to watch and from a pilot’s perspective, the skills are highly admirable.

Kent’s story is the quintessential one of the “kid at the airport fence,” the romantic child-airplane love story that is part of many a pilot autobiography. He grew up in Minot, North Dakota, and every day after school he would do whatever it took to find a way to the airport and a seat in an airplane.

I’ve also watched long-time performer Greg Koontz land his yellow Piper Cub on “the world’s smallest airport,” a pick-up truck similarly outfitted with a landing platform, and likewise painted to the theme of his act. Greg’s persona in this act is Clem Cleaver, a hick who “accidentally” takes off in an airplane, but doesn’t know how to land. However, since this ol’ country boy can put anything in his pick-up, his son drives it down the runway with just the thing that will help. Greg deftly lands the Cub on the little runway atop the old black truck which is painted to advertise “Clem Cleaver’s Plumbin’ – Fertilizin’ – Vine Ripe Maters.”

I’ve never seen the Irishman, Brendan O’Brien, perform his version of the truck-top landing, but I’ve read his impressive resume. Raised in London, he was orphaned in his early teens. That’s when he began traveling. But out of the hardships that came with losing his parents so young, Brendan proved he wasn’t just another brick in the wall. We’ll explain that next week.

December 19, 2017 Plane Races Train - 1919

The Liberty Gazette
December 19, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: A man I knew who, when he was about nineteen, in a moment of testosterone overload, jumped into a Stearman with a fellow Private First Class (PFC) in his Navy pilot training class and took the training plane for a joy ride. They probably whooped and hollered inside that Stearman, oblivious to the consequences as they buzzed troop trains bringing new troops to boot camp at their California base during World War II.

Their boyish escapade was not looked well upon and both PFCs were penalized. I’ve always said had they been under the command of someone who could see past the poor choice to the bravery potential, with discipline they probably could have been retrained to be great fighter pilots. As it turns out, had they been born about thirty-five years earlier, I now think their fortitude would have been respected, even celebrated. I stumbled upon an old story, now in the public domain, that supports my theory.

The copyright has expired for the article, “Ellington Field Plane and S. P. Train Have Exciting Short Race.” This piece was published in the Houston Post June 28, 1919. I found it on When both sources said they couldn’t give permission to quote, I think they were concerned about the missing piece—no author’s name is given. They wouldn’t know who to credit. So even though there is no longer any copyright protection on this adorable story, I’ll just tell it in my own words and encourage you to read it on

One lovely Friday afternoon in June about five miles south of Seabrook, a Southern Pacific train carried passengers from Houston to Galveston. As they chugged along the tracks at less than today’s usual highway speed, an airplane departed from Ellington Field and got close enough for the rail passengers to see their surprise challenger. The article doesn’t mention what kind of plane these lucky people could describe to their grandchildren when they told the story over and over about the day they raced an airplane, but it was likely a Curtiss JN4 Jenny. Top speed: 75 miles an hour, versus the train at 60.

Reportedly, the airplane’s wheels even touched the top of the train a few times. Captive race contestants must have been glued to the windows. I picture them subconsciously lunging forward, cheering their box car to an unknown finish line.

Had there not been telephone poles crowding the air space the further they went, I think the airplane would have won. The pilot gave Team Train a good show until he had to peel off to avoid those poles.

In one generation, air racing against a train was acceptable, even written up in the paper as “exciting.” The same show of bravery by the young man and his friend who tried it in the 1940s wasn’t celebrated in the media. Instead, their wings were clipped. One day it’s dashing and daring, the next, its demerits and dungeons. Timing is everything.

December 12, 2017 Hints of Southeast Asia

The Liberty Gazette
December 12, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Twin radial engines rumble as the lumbering old dark grey airplane smoothly swishes by the side of a mountain. Descending, it lines up to land on a runway of red clay and pierced steel planking. The airstrip is in a valley surrounded by moss-covered karsts, unusual rock formations that jut upward in different directions, carved by wind and water. A patchwork of green fields fits into the flatter spaces between the karsts.

Into this "Shangri-La," the heavily-laden airplane makes its final approach. As it settles onto the ground a grinding noise comes from underneath—the pilots forgot to lower the landing gear.

What follows has to be one of the longest gear-up landing sequences I have ever seen. The airplane continues its “crashing” journey down the runway and eventually splits in two as it slides off to the side. Nobody hurt, but the airplane, a Fairchild C-123K Provider, is toast.

The above scene is from the 1990 film, Air America. While Hollywood drew out the scene for over a minute, in reality, that gear-up landing would only last about fifteen seconds before the airplane stopped on the runway.

Sure, there’d be screeching of metal, but gear-up landings, while not the preferred method of returning an airplane to terra firma, are considered incidents, not accidents. They mostly just embarrass the pilot whose job it was to lower the gear.

The film wasn’t that good. Producers crafted the story using a group of people who were serving our country—with no recognition of their existence in a secret war zone—and made them out to be a bunch of profiteering mercenaries. Drama at the expense of truth.

What interested me about the movie, however, were the incredible aerial scenes. Airplanes landing on mountain top airstrips and flying over and around beautiful landscapes catches my attention.

Imagine three or four GoPro cameras strapped to an airplane as it weaves gracefully past rugged mountains into a jungle environment. Perhaps strap one camera on the nose, one on the tail, and one on the top for shots from all angles. Of course, now you can find video of flights like that, but not so much when that film was made almost thirty years ago. The cinematography was outstanding. It made me think at the time, someday I’m going to go there.

But in that beautiful place there had been a war. That gorgeous scenery was filmed in Thailand, depicting Laos, which we could not yet enter.

The war ended more than forty years ago, and Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos are now open to U.S. citizens for leisure travel. The U.S. dollar goes a long way in Southeast Asia, and people rent out their lovely homes on Airbnb.

There are still unexploded bombs in remote parts of Cambodia and Laos, but the main towns are safe and the beauty of the countryside is intact, just like in the movie.