Dec 26, 2007

The Great Lincoln-Buying Expedition

In 1965 I was sent by the Navy to Naval ROTC instructor duty in Norman, Oklahoma. One of my faculty colleagues at the University of Oklahoma was Major Gene Basden, USAF, who taught in the Air Force ROTC. One day as we were having coffee, Gene found out that I had an interest in antique and classic cars. He mentioned that in 1957 he had bought a 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible that he hoped someday to restore. He invited me to join him and his wife Jo for dinner and to look the car over. He wanted advice as to whether to restore the car and how to proceed.

That invitation started a long friendship. I visited the Basdens and was very impressed with the overall condition of their car. I volunteered to help Gene and for the next couple of years I spent many evenings at their home, often working on the car until late at night. We also made excursions on weekends looking for unsold parts for the car at Oklahoma Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury dealerships. Gene and Jo were devout Presbyterians, averse to accepting charity, and often offered to pay me for my time, an offer which I steadfastly rejected. After all, these were friends, not employers.

While this was going on, my brother Bill coincidentally had purchased a 1948 Lincoln Continental coupe from a gentleman named Les Parisek in New Haven, Connecticut. One evening in late February, 1969, my brother called me to let me know that Mr. Parisek was selling his entire collection of Lincolns and Packards. He had sold his house and the cars (all 37 of them) needed to be gone by the following Friday. Bill said that if I ever hoped to own one of the classic Lincolns, this might be the perfect opportunity. This took place just as I had gone back to school. I really didn't have either the time or spare money to buy a car, but as a car guy, I did the natural thing -- I called Mr. Parisek.

After a couple days of haggling, Mr. Parisek and I agreed on a price for two cars -- a very unrestored 1948 Lincoln Continental Convertible (properly described as a "cabriolet"), and a very used and very tired 1947 Lincoln sedan. My idea was to fly to Connecticut carrying a bumper-mount tow bar. Once there, I would hook up the Continental (which had no installed engine or transmission) behind the sedan. I would drive the sedan, towing the convertible, from Connecticut to Oklahoma. There were a couple of minor issues -- my savings were tied up in investments that would take several days to access and I needed to find someone to go to Connecticut with me to bring the cars back. I called Gene Basden. Somehow, I convinced him to loan me the money for the deal and to go to Connecticut with me to bring the cars back. It was perfect -- I had the help that I needed and Gene and his wife felt good that they were repaying me for the help I had been giving them.

I was in the Naval Reserve and Gene was still on active duty in the Air Force, so we were both entitled to space-available military transport flights. Thus it was that on the morning of Thursday, April 4, 1969, Gene and I entered the operations building at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City to begin the adventure of a lifetime.

We waited several hours but eventually got a ride on a KC-135 tanker going to McGuire Air Force Base near Trenton, New Jersey. We probably looked strange dressed in our uniforms but carrying a large toolbox and an automobile towbar. Once in New Jersey, we got a taxi ride to the bus station and took a bus to New Haven. Les picked us up at the bus station around 10:00 PM and took us to his home. He had assured me that the Continental would be ready to start rolling as soon as we got there, but none of the preparation had been done. We mounted the fenders on the car, loaded the engine into the interior of the car, stacked the seats, top mechanism and other parts around the engine. We cut a large piece of plywood to straddle the frame rails under the hood and loaded it with spare parts (I had agreed with Mr. Parisek that we could take any Lincoln parts that were in his shop). The underside of the hood covered a cache of starters, generators, fuel pumps, and distributors. The trunk was full of cylinder heads.

We filled the back seat and the trunk of the tow car with parts as well. We had one good spare tire - the exposed spare on the Continental. This whole operation - assembling the Continental, loading tons of parts, and hooking up the towbar - took until about 2:00 AM. As we were about to leave, Gene spotted a spare Continental cabriolet door hanging on the wall. We took the time to load it on top of everything else, rising like a sail running lengthwise and strapped to each side of the Continental. We looked like a travelling Gypsy car-dealing operation as we pulled out of Les's driveway at 3:00 AM on Good Friday.

Within ten minutes we were pulled over by a man in blue on Interstate 95. A little background is in order. Before I left Oklahoma, I had gotten a license plate for the Lincoln Sedan. Under Oklahoma law, I didn't need a tag for the Continental. It was neither a car (it had no installed engine) nor was it considered a trailer. The tag agent in Norman had told me that I didn't need to get any tag for the Continental until I planned to drive it.

I explained this to the officer who had stopped us. He radioed his barracks, who called Oklahoma. My story was confirmed, but this episode took about 45 minutes. Then we were on our way again. This same thing happened to us again on the Cross-Bronx Expressway - another 45-minute delay. We then crossed the George Washington Bridge, planning to travel down the Garden State Parkway and to cross Pennsylvania on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was not to be.

We were informed by the attendant at the Garden State tollbooth that we couldn't proceed. There was a restriction on towed vehicles that were incapable of being moved under their own power. Our options were very limited. Interstate 80 was under construction and went in the direction we wanted to go. We decided to take that option, accepting the fact that about half of the mileage across Pennsylvania would be on secondary roads. It was getting much colder and we needed to keep moving west.

To complicate the comfort issues, we had a few "special features" in the Lincoln we were driving. These cars had hydraulic power window mechanisms. There were two rubber hoses that entered each door to carry the hydraulic fluid that drove a piston to raise or lower the window. In our car, on the driver's side, one of those hoses had burst. Not only wouldn't the window stay up, but the hose had sprayed its fluid all over the rug on the driver's floor. The fumes from that fluid made our eyes water and the window couldn't be raised. Another feature was the noise. There was a hole in the muffler. We heard every possible noise that the little V-12 could produce. And then there was the heater -- it didn't work. Discomfort reigned. The windshield wipers were of the old vacuum-driven type that stop when you are accelerating or going up hill. We ran into cold steady rain about halfway across Pennsylvania, so this feature became a real safety issue.

Mechanically, the car seemed sound enough, but our entourage probably weighed close to 9,000 pounds. Neither the drive train nor the brakes on the Lincoln were designed for that kind of load. We had to be very cautious in our driving. And about every fifty miles we stopped to add oil to the engine, alternating between SAE fifty weight oil and straight STP.

We were stopped a couple more times by Pennsylvania troopers because of the lack of a license plate on the Continental. After the second trooper had contacted his barracks and confirmed that we were street legal (not sane, just legal) he wrote us a note verifying our story on an official Pennsylvania State Trooper form. That form saved us untold inconvenience as we used it three or four times later in the trip after being stopped.

By the time we got into western Pennsylvania, the rain had turned to wet, heavy snow. We kept driving. We got to Columbus, Ohio, at about 10:00 PM and our teeth were chattering so badly that we couldn't talk to the service station attendant who waited on us. He made us go inside to warm up and he made a cardboard insert for our driver's side window to keep the wind out. The cardboard had a tiny clear plastic window so we could look at the rear view mirror.

Unknown to us, there had been a drama unfolding on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as we were crossing the northern part of the state. A sniper, shooting from his car, started firing randomly at motorists on the turnpike. He had killed 4 and injured 15 people before being killed by police. Jo Basden knew that we were planning to cross the state on the turnpike. When she hadn't heard from us all day (remember, there were no cellphones), she had convinced herself that we were among the victims of this sniper. When Gene called her from Columbus, she was absolutely hysterical. It took several minutes for her to calm down enough to explain what had taken place.

We pressed on, alternating sleeping and driving. We had bought some blankets and more oil and STP. We crossed Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. At one point, who knows where, I was driving through a small town at 2:00 AM. I saw the red flashing lights reflecting off the buildings of the abandoned street on which I was driving (we had practically no rearward visibility). I pulled over and gave the policeman the well-rehearsed explanation, "The car has no engine and under Oklahoma law..." The policeman cut me off and walked back to shine his flashlight into the gaping mouth of the Continental. "For a car with no engine, it sure has a lot of starters and generators! Get on outta here!"

At one stop in Missouri, Gene and I commented that we had both noticed how mothers grabbed their children when we walked by. We looked and probably smelled great.

On Easter Sunday morning, as Gene was driving, we made a left turn into a service station. Gene didn't see the oncoming car that skidded to a halt barely missing the Continental (Remember, this whole "rig" was over forty feet long!). The driver, in his best Sunday finery, jumped out, ran over to Gene's side of the car, and started to read him the riot act. Gene, looking totally bedraggled, with a three-day growth of beard, simply said, "I'm sorry. I didn't see you." The man was totally taken back by this meek response. He wandered back to his waiting family and drove off.

At 1:00 AM on Monday, we crossed a bridge on Interstate 35 with a sign saying "Welcome to Cleveland County." We cried with relief. We were still shedding tears of joy when we parked at Gene's and Jo's.

A few days later, I sold the Lincoln sedan to my brother, who drove it to his home in Louisiana and used it as a second car. His twin boys called it the "Zipper." They had trouble saying "Zephyr." Within a few days I paid off the Basdens the money I owed them, but I never could repay Gene for the trials and tribulations of that trip. I still have the Continental, still unrestored (these things take time), and I still have the door that Gene didn't want to leave behind.

Dec 19, 2007

Recollections of Aunt Ethel

Aunt Ethel Mead VanAuken was my father’s older sister. She and her husband Gilbert lived in Delmar, New York, in a revolutionary war era house at 87 Murray Avenue.  As I recall, they had bought a small farm and developed it into housing areas, naming the streets as they built them.  They named one of the new streets Mosher Road.  The name Mosher is a Mead family name.  It also is my middle name.  I remember my Aunt Ethel telling me that they had named the road after me.

We would alternate holidays – one year, we’d go there for Thanksgiving, and the next year, they’d come to our home at 901 Union Street in Schenectady. This made for interesting comments by my parents. Harold Mead and Margaret McLaughlin Mead (my parents) rarely had a social engagement that didn’t involve alcoholic beverages. The VanAukens were tea totalers. My paternal Grandmother was a devout Methodist, a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and hated alcohol in any form. Aunt Ethel followed in her footsteps. Whenever we went to their house, which was beautifully furnished with colonial-era antiques, my parents would comment endlessly on the way to and from their house on the lack of alcoholic beverages -- an unusual obsession, to say the least.

Ethel and Gilbert were unable to have children. They adopted a girl, Elizabeth, whom they obtained through a Catholic adoption agency. Regardless of their devout Methodism, they always raised Elizabeth in the Catholic tradition. She attended Catholic schools and graduated from a Catholic girls’ college in Albany (possibly the College of St.Rose).  She obtained her nursing degree from Syracuse University in 1949. She then served as an Army nurse for several yesrs, never married, and died of pancreatic cancer while in her 40’s or 50’s. I recall that at one time Elizabeth resided in Wappingers Falls, New York.

Aunt Ethel also graduated from Syracuse University at a time when few women got a college education. She was very active in the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, and eventually served seven years as the national president of her sorority.
One of her roommates in college was Dorothy Thompson, who later became a well-known newspaper and radio journalist and and second wife of Sinclair Lewis. Aunt Ethel went to England to be the Matron of Honor at their wedding. They remained lifelong friends. In 1939, Ms. Thompson appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

To the best of my knowledge, Aunt Ethel never held a job, in the general meaning of that term. She was extremely active in church and civic activities, however.   She died in February of 1955 and is buried in Bethlehem Cemetery in Elsmere, New York.

Her husband Gilbert was a highly regarded architect in Albany. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American War, during which he had served in Texas in the cavalry. He loved to regale the children of the Mead family with a tale of how he was bitten by a rattlesnake while in Texas. He had been shot at and missed by (in his words) hordes of Mexican infantry, but the only injury he got was a snake bite while dismounting from his horse.

Dec 18, 2007

The Most Memorable Christmas Gift...

I've been thinking lately about the whole "gifting" process. It's evolved enormously in the last century. My grandmother, who lived with us for the last 10 years of her life, came from a family of thirteen children. Even though her father was a successful boat builder and probably could have afforded lavish gifts, she often spoke of her family exchanging very modest gifts at times like Christmas -- gifts like mittens or a spinning top or a hand knit sweater. Gifts in her childhood were very personal and often made by the giver.

Fast forward to today. We seem to be competing for giving the "right" gift, in which "right" often is something that the recipient has specifically asked for. Spontaneity and surprise seem to have taken a back seat. And the idea of the gift being crafted by the giver is almost a thing of the past. We now tend to buy all of our gifts with the possible exception of food gifts. In this transition over the last couple of generations, I think we've lost a lot.

I think the most wondrous gift I ever received for Christmas was in 1951, when I received the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. Please don't laugh. This was an incredible gift for a blooming nerd.

I had always shown an interest in science. I loved to take things apart and see how they worked. My family lived a block off the campus of Union College in Schenectady, New York. Many of the faculty were close friends and many of their children were my playmates. I hung out in the labs at Union College and I'm sure I was a pain to the graduate students as I asked hundreds of questions. I befriended Dr. Edward S.C. Smith, head of the geology department. He inspired me to build many home lab experiments. A fair number of discarded Union College laboratory assets ended up in my home laboratory (we lived in an 18-room house with plenty of unused space, so I had staked out an area on the third floor as my "lab").

In 1950, the A.C. Gilbert firm introduced its Atomic Energy Lab. I desperately wanted one but knew it was out of the question to even ask for it -- it cost $49.95! In current dollars, that's about $400. This was an amazing educational product.

A.C. Gilbert was a company most famous for its American Flyer electric trains and Erector sets, but also produced a variety of other educational "sets." These included microscope sets, chemistry sets, and electronics sets. But the Atomic Energy Lab captured my imagination the first time I saw it advertised. To quote from the Blog, Notes from the Technology Underground, "With the help of faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gilbert designed a sort of chemistry/physics set that included radioactive materials, an accurate Geiger Counter, and much more. The purpose of this toy, which was purported to be by 1950’s standards to be completely safe, was to demystify nuclear energy and encourage a deeper, less hysterical understanding of it. The problem with the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory was that is was very expensive to make. It came in a brief case style box and had cool drawings of Rutherford style atoms, with electrons whizzing by in elliptical orbits, on its cover. Inside was the apparatus that allowed boys and girls to “See the Paths of Alpha Particles Speeding at 12,000 Miles per Second!” and “Watch Actual Atomic Disintegration – Right Before your Eyes!”But such meaningful science costs a lot of money, too much in fact, to make for a profitable toy product line. Gilbert lost money with each sale. And even worse, nuclear physics is, well, nuclear physics, which means it’s pretty complex stuff, even for brainy children, and most simply could not understand what was going on. So, the set did not last for a long time in the marketplace. But there were certainly those kids and no doubt adults too, who loved the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Experimenters Kit."

I talked about someday owning one of these sets but knew my parents either couldn't afford such a gift or would think it was too extravagant. They let me know there was no way I could ever get such a gift. But my grandmother had other ideas. Against my parents' better judgement, she put the only Atomic Energy Lab in town on layaway at The Carl Company department store. Little did I know.

On Christmas morning, I saw the package and knew right away what it was. I did every experiment in the first few weeks I owned it, but its influence lasted much longer than that. I used the geiger counter to look for radioactive rocks in upstate New York, and several years later, shared credit with Dr. Smith for a published paper on the subject. The lab had a Wilson Cloud Chamber in it (a device that tracks the paths of subatomic particles) and that inspired me years later to enter the Westinghouse Science Talent Search competition with a related project. I still remember where every piece of the lab fit into its box.

About a year ago, on December 14, 2006, a mint condition Atomic Energy Lab went up for auction at It sold for an astounding $7,944. Unfortunately, my mother gave mine to the Salvation Army while I was in college. Ah, but the memories last forever.

Isn't it wonderful that a gift has the power to bring joy more than 50 years later?!?

Dec 11, 2007

A Missed Opportunity

It was July of 1967 and I was nearing the end of my active duty in the navy. I was stationed at the naval ROTC unit at the University of Oklahoma. As I sat at my desk one day, I became aware of someone standing in front of my desk. I looked up and rose to my feet to greet the navy captain facing me. He asked my name and introduced himself as Captain So-and-so, commanding officer of the Naval Intelligence unit in Oklahoma City. He wanted to talk to me about an unusual opportunity. I invited him to sit down.

About a year earlier, my brother Bill, a U.S. Marine Corps captain at the time, had called me to tell me about a fascinating test he had taken, the Foreign Language Aptitude Test (FLAT). He told me I ought to take it just to see how well I might do on it. I had followed up by applying to take the test and subsequently completing it. Bill was right; it was a very interesting test, based on an imaginary language. After I completed it I didn't think much more about it.

I was surprised when the Captain said to me, "You took the FLAT a few months ago and you placed in the 99th percentile. I'm here to make you an offer. If you're willing to change your designator from 1100 (Naval Line Officer) to 1630 (Naval Intelligence Officer), I'm prepared to guarantee you a two-year total immersion program in the Chinese language at the Army Language Institute in Monterey, California. Are you interested?"

I was totally surprised. First of all, I had no inkling as to how well I had done on the language exam. Secondly, I had no idea there was a Naval Intelligence unit within 1,000 miles of Oklahoma City. Thirdly, I had submitted my letter of resignation several months before and it was well known that I was leaving the service. I pointed this last fact out to the Captain and explained that submitting one's letter of resignation was the kiss of death for a career officer. He assured me that if I accepted his offer, he would ensure that every copy of my letter would be expunged from navy records. I remember telling him that I didn't think that was possible.

I then proceeded to tell the Captain that I was not interested in his offer. I pointed out that we had not had normal diplomatic relations with the Chinese government since the Communists had taken over and that I couldn't imagine a more useless language skill. I remember telling him, "There's no way we'll have normal relations with China in the foreseeable future."

I closed the door on this opportunity. Less than five years later, President Nixon made his groundbreaking visit to Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai and met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao Zedong. Normalized relations gradually developed. I have often wondered what might have been...

Dec 5, 2007

The Festival of Lessons and Carols

One of the most remarkable resources in our part of south central Tennessee is the University of the South in Sewanee, on top of Monteagle. It is an Episcopalian liberal arts university often referred to as the "Harvard of the South." The campus, known as the "Domain" of the university is like a transplanted vestige of old England. Gothic architecture and carefully crafted masonry buildings abound. One of the most impressive of these structures is the All Saints Chapel. In my experience, it bears more resemblance to a cathedral than to a chapel. It is a large, elegant house of worship.

About twenty years ago a friend named Kay Campbell asked if I had ever been to "Lessons and Carols." A little explanation was needed as I had never heard that term before. According to the Sewanee Web page on the subject, "The service was developed from ancient forms of worship and adapted from a service which has been sung annually at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England, since 1918. Through music and readings, the Festival of Lessons and Carols explores Christian themes of God's Advent and Incarnation in Jesus Christ.During the service, the University Choir sings carols appropriate to the season of Advent and Christmas after the reading of each lesson. In this service, we attempt to present the double meaning of the Advent season."

That first year, Kay, Margo and I, and two other friends ascended the mountain (about fifty miles from our home) in the midst of an ice storm. We had been told by Kay to dress warmly, and we were glad we had as we lined up and waited in the blustery weather to enter the church. The students of the university served hot cider and cookies to those in line. When we finally entered the church, it was breathtaking!

The columns were wrapped in garlands of evergreens and the scent of balsam and incense filled the air. Candles were everywhere. A single electric beacon shone down on the advent wreath, which hung above the transept crossing. We took our seats in anticipation of what was to come.

At exactly 8 PM the largest of the huge bells in the 130-foot Shapard Tower began tolling. Soon, a lone soprano voice was heard in the rear of the great space. As she announced the good news, she was gradually joined by a mixed choir that soon processed down the center aisle, each member carrying a luminary. The sound of the choir swelled to fill the sanctuary as more and more choristers entered the rear of the church to join the procession. Priests and acolytes followed in elegant vestments, accompanied by a cross and pennants. The participants proceeded to the chancel, where they found their seats.
The next couple of hours were filled with nine scripture readings interspersed with appropriate inspirational music. The choir, under the direction of Dr. Robert Delcamp, was exquisitely trained. The musical selections were varied, ranging from melodies with roots lost in antiquity to contemporary selections. All were performed flawlessly. Before long, and far too soon for my taste, the choir was processing down from the altar and surrounding the congregation with the strains of "Once in Royal David's City." The whole experience is too much to adequately describe.

Over the years, I've taken other people to the event, braved snow, sleet, and freezing rain, and never regretted going. Some years have been variations on a theme, with a brass quintet or other instrumental complement to the music. It's always exciting and inspirational. Mary Ann and I have enjoyed it the last three years.

This year, because I am working in Connecticut, I missed The Festival of Lessons and Carols for the first time since Kay introduced us to it. I miss it and can assure you Mary Ann and I will be there next year. It's the perfect way to start the Christmas season.

Dec 2, 2007

The Best Christmas Ever

I had my last alcoholic drink in August 1983. As the holidays approached that year I was still very shaky in my sobriety. I dreaded the approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Eve, all of which I associated with getting drunk. Daily, I asked God to help me through the holiday season. He came up with a great plan.

The Huntsville Fellowship AA Group used to meet in a second floor room above Hale Brothers Furniture downtown. They always had a morning meeting on holidays. I attended the Thanksgiving meeting there and heard a young man talking about the same feelings I had been having. He had other problems – his parents didn’t want him home for the holidays, his girlfriend’s parents had made it clear that he wasn’t welcome at their house, and he was living at the halfway house in Huntsville. He was convinced there was no way he could stay sober over Christmas, and he was terrified of the consequences.

I went home and told Margo about what I had heard and how helpless I felt. She had an idea. Why not put up a notice at the Pathfinder (halfway house) and at several AA groups that we were planning a Christmas dinner at our house for anybody who needed a place to go on Christmas day? And, by the way, she would do the same at her Alanon (the organization for family members of alcoholics) groups! I could offer to bring people without transportation up to the house following the Christmas morning AA meeting at the Fellowship group.

The plan was hatched. We bought toys and toiletries and made up Christmas stockings for young and old. We decorated the house and prepared two turkeys and lots of trimmings. Several Alanon ladies offered to help with the food.

On Christmas morning, I attended the Fellowship meeting. The young man for whom I had originally expressed concern was not there, but a lot of others were. There was also a truck driver from Pennsylvania whose truck had broken down in Decatur the day before. His boss had been unable to send the money to fix the truck (which also contained all the gifts the man had bought for his children). He had pawned the radio out of the truck to pay for a motel room on Christmas Eve. But he hadn’t found it necessary to take a drink!

After the meeting, we all headed up to our home in Fayetteville. I think we had about a dozen men, six or eight women, and eight or ten children. When we offered a prayer of thanks, it was as meaningful as any prayer I have ever uttered. There were many tears, wonderful stories, mountains of food, some singing, and we exchanged gifts.

After the party I drove everybody but the man from Pennsylvania back to Huntsville. He spent the night with us. The next morning, I took him by the Huntsville group, where old Dan M coughed up the money to get him a bus ticket to Pennsylvania. We retrieved his children’s gifts and sent him on his way.

I don’t know if any of the people who shared that day remember it as well as I do. I remember it vividly, since it was so crucial to my early sobriety. The most amazing part was that I never thought about drinking! Isn’t God great?

Nov 25, 2007

Things That Go So Well and So Wrong...

Mary Ann and I had a wonderful time together in Orlando. We got to see all the Meads -- David, Laura, Canon, and Sister-in-law Joni -- and even got to talk to Great-nephew Forrest, who is studying at the London School of Economics as part of his undergraduate program at Pepperdine University. Nephew David's Parents-in-law, Jack and Elaine Bell joined the family for Thanksgiving dinner. Laura and David had outdone themselves preparing a feast. David made sure we all got to try his wonderful oyster dressing. It was just one of three or four different dressings that complemented the turkey and the rest of the trimmings. I know that there were at least three kinds of pie for dessert. It was a memorable meal. But when the taste of the food has long been forgotten, I will remember most David's prayer of gratitude and the overwhelming sense of thanks that I and the others felt. We don't all get together very often, and I think the thoughts of family and gratitude were the most important part of this Thanksgiving.

Friday, Mary Ann and I showed up at David and Laura's at lunch time (timing is everything!) and enjoyed some of David's marvelous Turkey/Andouille gumbo. Wow! It was spectacular! Later, after some obligatory TV college football, several of us got together -- Mary Ann and I, David and Laura, Jack, and Elaine, for a wonderful Turkish dinner Friday evening at Bosphorous Restaurant in Winter Park. It was a great meal in an environment quiet enough to permit conversation. We really enjoyed the food and the company. Does this begin to sound like an eat-a-thon?!?

On Saturday, Mary Ann and I slept in and relaxed. We did go out to a mall briefly to pick up a couple of items and then to a soup-and-salad place for a quiet dinner, followed by one more visit to David's home to say our goodbye's. We were back at the hotel at a reasonable hour and did most of our packing. Mary Ann set the alarm for 3:15 AM to ensure we had plenty of time to get ready, drive to the airport, return the rental car, check our bags, make it through security, etc.

I awoke and looked at my watch. It was 5:30! We had both slept through the alarm. To an outsider, it might have looked like a Keystone Cops movie as we frantically washed up, finished packing and checked out. Everything at the airport went beautifully as well. Mary Ann recently had foot surgery and is wearing a "boot" on one foot. After I had checked in, I went over to find her at the Delta counter (we were flying on two different airlines to different destinations) and found her sitting in a wheelchair that some kind attendant had provided.

I wheeled Mary Ann up to security and we proceeded through a special wheelchair line without a hitch. We were at our departure area in time to have a cup of coffee before I took her down to her gate and proceeded to mine. My plane left right on time (AirTran) and I arrived in White Plains 15 minutes early!

Back at my hotel in Connecticut, I was reflecting on what a perfect weekend it had been when I removed the computer from my briefcase only to realize it was Mary Ann's! In the process of taking our computers out to go through security in Orlando, we had switched them. I immediately called my bride at home and we made arrangements to ship them to each other tomorrow. The devil is indeed in the details!

In spite of this minor glitch, we had a wonderful holiday. We hope yours was as enjoyable.

Nov 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody!!!

Mary Ann and I are flying to Orlando to enjoy Thanksgiving with family -- Nephew David, his wife Laura, their son Canon, and David's mother (my sister-in-law) Joni. I wish all our friends and loved ones a restful and blessed holiday weekend.

Nov 20, 2007

Another Visit to the Big Apple...

This past weekend I took the train into New York City to visit my friend Roland Racko once more. I had decided it would be nice to attend a church with a robust music program that would contribute to the liturgy. A brief internet search led me to St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street. The parish dates back to 1823. The gothic church, completed in 1913, is the fourth structure to house the congregation and it is magnificent. The music program is best described in the words of the church’s Website:
The Saint Thomas Choir is considered by many to be the outstanding choral ensemble of the Anglican musical tradition in the United States. This choir of men and boys sings at the principal worship services of the church and also offers a full concert series each year. The men of the choir are professional singers; the boys attend the Saint Thomas Choir School. In recent years the Choir has sung in England, Ireland, Canada, Washington, D.C., and Florida and has produced a number of recordings.

I was not disappointed. It was one of those goosebump experiences to be remembered forever. I couldn’t help but reflect on my years as an altar boy.

After the Mass, Roland and I walked over to the Museum of Modern Art which is very close to the church (as in adjacent to it). We had lunch in one of the fine Cafes in the museum and then enjoyed a brief period with Claude Monet (Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond. c. 1920). We had to reluctantly leave the MoMA because I had bought tickets to an afternoon presentation at the Hayden Planetarium, which is some 25 blocks away.

We caught a cab and a few minutes later I caught my first glimpse of the “new” Hayden Planetarium. Although it was opened to the public in February, 2000, this was the first time I had seen the amazing building, described by one writer as a “Cosmic Cathedral.”

The building is a glass cube enclosing a silver sphere 95 feet in diameter. Within the sphere are two theaters, one above the other. We got to see (and feel) them both. We first went up to the Space Show for which I had gotten tickets. It was about 40 minutes long but went by in what seemed like a much shorter time. Narrated by Robert Redford, the show focused on the role of collisions in the formation of everything in the universe – everything from subatomic collisions that drive the sun’s heat to meteorite and comet collisions that have changed the nature of the earth and caused our moon to form, to massive cosmic collision between and among galaxies. The graphics were remarkable. The sound system was every bit as impressive.

When you leave the theater, you find yourself on a floor that surrounds the sphere. The Hayden Website describes it best:
The Scales of the Universe, a 400-foot-long walkway that hugs the glass curtain wall along the second level of the Rose Center for Earth and Space, illustrates the vast range of size in the universe — from the enormous expanse of our observable universe to the smallest subatomic particles — by using the 87-foot Hayden Sphere as a basis for comparison.
The Scales of the Universe exhibit introduces visitors to the relative sizes of galaxies, stars, planets, and atoms through text panels, interactive terminals, and models. Enormous, realistically rendered planets, stars, and galaxies — including a 9-foot model of Jupiter and Saturn with 17-foot rings — are suspended from the ceiling of the building, soaring over visitors' heads.

At the end of this experience we entered another theater (the lower half of the giant sphere) where we saw a wonderful presentation describing the “Big Bang.” After leaving that theater we descended a long spiral ramp that had displays tracing the time from the Big Bang to the present. Then we began to examine several displays that linked the geology of the earth with cosmic events.

I was reminded by one of the displays that when I was about ten years old, I had come to the museum of natural history with my parents and I remembered vividly touching a giant meteorite. I told Roland I wanted to revisit it. After several misdirections from security guards and other officials, we found ourselves in the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites, and there it was, the Cape York meteorite that I had seen fifty-some years ago. I touched it again, all 34 tons of it, just for good measure. It fell to earth some 10,000 years ago, was used by the Inuit native Americans for centuries as a source of iron, and was brought from Greenland by the explorer Robert Peary in the 1890's.

After Roland and I left the museum, we proceeded by subway to 14th street and walked over to Union Square West and the Blue Water Grill. New York Magazine, in reviewing this restaurant, said it this way,
“In a converted bank on Union Square, this space, formerly a restaurant called Metropolis, 315 seats strong, still offers jazz downstairs. In the dining room, it's no-nonsense fish, always impeccable. At the bar, it's cruising and hooking-up galore.”

We didn’t cruise or hook-up, but we sure did enjoy some marvelous seafood.

I returned to Grand Central as Roland headed to his home on tenth street. I took the Metro North back to Stratford, the close of a memorable day.

Oct 31, 2007

Push the Button

Artsy Weekend

On Sunday, I joined Paul Bolinger and his lovely wife, Camille, for a trip to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The museum's claim to fame is that it is "America's oldest public art museum." Their Web site describes their origins: "Hartford art patron Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848) founded the Wadsworth Atheneum to share the wonders of art with the public. In the mid-nineteenth century, average citizens had little if no exposure to fine art, antiquities, or beautiful objects. Only the very wealthy purchased paintings or decorative arts, and then only for their own enjoyment. Thus, Wadsworth's generous gesture was an exciting turn of events that raised the cultural fortunes of an entire community."

This was a wonderful place. Not only is the collection spectacular, but it is exhibited in a most "visitor-friendly" way. At one point, I was studying a Picasso oil that was the size of a postcard. I realized that my face was about one foot from the painting. There were no barricades and the guards were observant but not oppressive.

We planned to have lunch in the museum's cafe. Quite frankly, I was expecting a soggy chicken salad sandwich. Boy, was I wrong! I had a Santa Fe chicken salad that was as good as any I have ever encountered -- crisp vegetables, delicious spicy chicken, creamy pungent dressing, and looking like an ad for the Food Channel. Paul and Camille raved about their lunches as well.

The museum's collection is so varied as to be difficult to describe. Their Web site describes it better than I could:

The European Art collection is a rich and diverse collection featuring approximately 900 paintings, 500 sculptures, 800 drawings, and 3,000 British and Continental prints. Paintings on display represent periods ranging from late medieval through the mid-twentieth century. Especially impressive are Baroque paintings, including masterworks by Caravaggio, Strozzi, Ribera, Zurbarán, Hals, van Dyck, and Claude Lorrain. Nineteenth century artists, particularly those working in France, are amply featured and include significant works by Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and van Gogh.
The American Decorative Arts collection uniquely embodies the history of material culture in New England and America. From elaborately carved and painted seventeenth century chests to the modern masterpieces of Marcel Breuer and Frank Lloyd Wright, this collection is filled with works ranging from the utilitarian to the luxurious. Connecticut craftsmen are celebrated through the fine examples of Samuel Loomis (1748-1814), maker of Colchester/Norwich style furniture, and Eliphalet Chapin (1741-1807), Connecticut's most renowned colonial cabinetmaker. Unique forms come to life in the modern meets natural ethos designs of George Nakashima (1905-1990).

The American Painting & Sculpture collection is one of the most distinguished of its kind in quality, range, and historical importance. More than 600 paintings, 200 sculptures, and 1,200 drawings and watercolors by approximately 400 artists constitute a nearly encyclopedic survey of fine art in the United States. (Paintings, sculpture, and works on paper after 1945 are part of the Contemporary Art collection.) Extraordinary in quality and nearly exhaustive in scope, this collection includes the earliest known dated American oil, a portrait of Elizabeth Eggington, painted in 1664, by an unidentified artist. Also featured are concentrations of colonial-era portraits and history paintings, Hudson River School landscapes (the paintings are currently traveling as an exhibit in Europe, see Traveling Exhibitions), post-Civil War Era favorites, and fine examples of twentieth century movements including Ash Can, Modernism, Surrealism, and Realism.
Needless to say, it just goes on and on. You could spend many days enjoying this place and still not see it all. Highly recommended!

Oct 29, 2007

The Dolceola

Saturday, Tom and Bev Webster came down to my motel all the way from Maine. They had contacted me a couple of weeks ago to see if I could look at a musical instrument called a Dolceola which Bev had inherited from her late father. They wanted to know how much it might be worth and what it might take to restore the instrument. They had found me through another Dolceola owner in California, Greg Miner, who has a Website describing this rare instrument. Greg has a Website relating to his phenomenal instrument collection. When he was restoring his Dolceola, he contacted me. Therein lies an interesting story:

In September, 1997, I attended the Memphis Dulcimer Festival. On the program, I noticed that at 2:00 PM, Andy Cohen would be playing the gospel music of Washington Phillips , accompanying himself on the Dolceola. Since Ididn't know who Andy Cohen was, or Washington Phillips, or what a Dolceola was, Iattended this session. I was completely captivated with the music, the instrument, and the musician. Andy, his lovely wife Larkin, and I have stayed in touch and become friends through a common love for this unique instrument and its music.

I enjoy bringing old devices back to life. The Dolceola is no exception. Through Andy's connections, in 1998, I had the opportunity to restore a Dolceola for a gentleman in Montana. It was an enjoyable job, although one that tested my patience on more than one occasion. I even reproduced the decals that were applied to the originals!

The body of the instrument was badly cracked and had become unglued in a number of areas. The keyboard mechanism had, at some time during its long life, been submerged in water. That caused a lot of rust that had made much of the mechanism inoperable. Moths and mice had taken their toll on the felt parts of the action (but the glue remnants were still there to let me know where the felt had been). Many strings were broken, but I was fortunate enough to find a source of custom-made strings. And here's the result of 2 years' work... before and after:

Below is a picture of Andy tuning the Dolceola (Serial No. 2793) which I restored.

Andy and his wife Larkin have an online store, Riverlark Music, where you can buy a recording of Andy playing the "Dolceola Favorites." He's a fabulous musician!

Oct 24, 2007

Fond Memories

Today I got an Email from an old shipmate from the USS Hugh Purvis. Bill Leslie and I served together in 1962 and 1963. He included the following:

How To Simulate The Life Of A Navy Sailor...

~ Buy a steel dumpster, paint it gray inside and out, and live in it for six months.
~ Run all the pipes and wires in your house exposed on the walls.
~ Repaint your entire house every month.
~ Renovate your bathroom. Build a wall across the middle of the bathtub and move the showerhead to chest level. When you take showers, make sure you turn off the water while you soap down.
~ Raise the thresholds and lower the headers of your front and back doors so that you either trip or bang your head every time you pass through them.
~ Disassemble and inspect your lawnmower every week.
~ On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, turn your water heater temperature up to 200 degrees. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, turn the water heater off. On Saturdays and Sundays tell your family they use too much water during the week, so no bathing will be allowed.
~ Raise your bed to within 6 inches of the ceiling, so you can't turn over without getting out and then getting back in.
~ Sleep on the shelf in your closet. Replace the closet door with a curtain. Have your spouse whip open the curtain about 3 hours after you go to sleep, shine a flashlight in your eyes, and say "Sorry, wrong rack."
~ Make your family qualify to operate each appliance in your house -dishwasher operator, blender technician, etc.
~ Have your neighbor come over each day at 5 am, blow a whistle loudly, and shout "Reveille, reveille, all hands heave out and trice up."
~ Have your mother-in-law write down everything she's going to do the following day, then have her make you stand in your back yard at 6 am while she reads it to you.
~ Submit a request chit to your father-in-law requesting permission to leave your house before 3 pm.
~ Empty all the garbage bins in your house and sweep the driveway three times a day, whether it needs it or not.
~ Have your neighbor collect all your mail for a month, read your magazines, and randomly lose every 5th item before delivering it to you.
~ Watch no TV except for movies played in the middle of the night. Have your family vote on which movie to watch, then show a different one.
~ Make your family menu a week ahead of time without consulting the pantry or refrigerator.
~ Post a menu on the kitchen door informing your family that they are having steak for dinner. Then make them wait in line for an hour. When they finally get to the kitchen, tell them you are out of steak, but they can have dried ham or hot dogs. Repeat daily until they ignore the menu and just ask for hot dogs.
~ Bake a cake. Prop up one side of the pan so the cake bakes unevenly. Spread icing real thick to level it off.
~ Get up every night around midnight and have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on stale bread.
~ Set your alarm clock to go off at random times during the night. At the alarm, jump up and dress as fast as you can, making sure to button your topshirt button and tuck your pants into your socks. Run out into the backyard and uncoil the garden hose.
~ Every week or so, throw your dog in the pool and shout, "Man overboard port side!" Rate your family members on how fast they respond.
~ Put the headphones from your stereo on your head, but don't plug them in. Hang a paper cup around your neck on a string. Stand in front of the stove, and speak into the paper cup "Stove manned and ready." After an hour or so, speak into the cup again "Stove secured." Roll up the headphones and papercup and stow them in a shoebox.
~ Place a podium at the end of your driveway. Have your family stand watches at the podium, rotating at 4 hour intervals. This is best done when the weather is worst. January is a good time.
~ When there is a thunderstorm in your area, get a wobbly rocking chair, sit in it and rock as hard as you can until you become nauseous. Make sure to have a supply of stale crackers in your shirt pocket.
~ Make coffee using eighteen scoops of budget priced coffee grounds per pot, and allow the pot to simmer for 5 hours before drinking.
~ Have someone under the age of ten give you a haircut with sheep shears.
~ Sing "Anchors Aweigh" in the shower.
~ Sew the back pockets of your jeans on the front.
~ Lock yourself and your family in the house for six weeks. Tell them that at the end of the 6th week you are going to take them to Disney World for "liberty." At the end of the 6th week, inform them the trip to Disney World has been canceled because they need to get ready for an inspection, and it will be another week before they can leave the house.

Next time you meet up with a sailor...thank them!

Thanks, Bill. This is great!

Oct 14, 2007

A Trip to the Met...

Yesterday, I visited the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time. It won't be the last.

A friend from high school, Roland Racko, lives in New York and had asked if I could visit while I'm working in Connecticut. I got up early yesterday and took the Metro North into Grand Central Terminal. I had not seen it since its restoration. It's really an incredible building.

After taking the subway down to the Village, I met Roland and we had a pleasant, liesurely lunch at Jack's (corner of University Place and 11th Street). Then we went to Union Square to catch the subway uptown. There was a farmers' market in the park at Union Square. Such wonderful smells and sights! Fresh breads, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices all mingling in the breeze. I bought some fresh tart cherry preserves which I later had to forfeit to guards at the Met -- no glass containers allowed in the building.

We took the subway to 77th and Lexington and walked over to Central Park. It was a perfect day for sightseeing. Lots of people had decided to go to the art museum on this gorgeous day. It is an absolutely overwhelming place! I saw on one poster that their collection includes over 3,000,000 objects. I can believe it.

We restricted ourselves pretty much to the Egyptian collection. It only contains 36,000 items. Everything from the tiniest statuary to the Tomb of Dendur -- each object is presented beautifully, with careful lighting, wonderful accessibility, and sensitivity to its cultural context.

After we left the museum, we proceeded to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal for a delightful dinner. Courtesy of Metro North, I was back in my room in Stratford by 9:30. What a fabulous day! Come to think of it, aren't they all fabulous?

Oct 12, 2007


This week I went out to dinner with some of my coworkers. We went to a nice restaurant in New Haven, so I wore a sportcoat. During the meal, someone referred to me as the "Professor" at the head of the table. The name stuck and people continued to call me Professor all week.

It brought to mind some of the other nicknames I've had over the years --
  • "Lumpy" -- a term of endearment used by Claire Melander, my father's hygienist
  • "Bartlett" -- a name used (along with "Professor") when I was in junior high school -- referred to my shape, that of a pear
  • "Smead" -- often used as a variant on my real last name
  • "Lieutenant Maloy" -- a name used by my former coworker, Laura Jean Murray, who was the Commanding Officer's secretary at the NROTC unit at the University of Oklahoma. When I arrived at the unit, the C.O. took me to the President of the university, Dr. George Cross. Captain Marcus L. Lowe, not noted for finesse, introduced me as Lieutenant Maloy. (I had just served two years on the USS Maloy!)
  • "Commodore" and "Commander" -- used by John Pape, Fred Scarborough and some other coworkers at Camber Corporation
  • "Father" -- a term of endearment used by Stephanie Jattuso at Camber

I'm sure there are others that I've forgotten. Isn't it funny how they come and go?

Oct 7, 2007

A Sunday Afternoon with the Horses

I have always had a love affair with carousels. I don't know why, but I get goosebumps just thinking about the horses, the music, the motion... This week, I learned that in Bristol, Connecticut, there exists the New England Carousel Museum. I had to go see it. Today was the day.

The museum is in an old mill building. Lack of space does not seem to be an issue. It houses what is probably the largest collection of carousel figures - horses and other animals - anywhere in the world. Also on display are other carousel-related memorabilia, including this restored Wurlitzer band organ.

The building also houses a "history of firefighting" collection and a sizeable carousel restoration shop. I only wish Mary Ann could have shared the day.

Problems and Pride in Chicago...

Mary Ann's daughter and my stepdaughter, Tori Glade, completed the Chicago Marathon today. What an accomplishment!

This is not Tori's first marathon and I expect it won't be her last. She is incredibly self-disciplined and is an inspiration. Both Mary Ann and I are very proud of her.

It was a difficult race because of the heat and humidity. According to the International Herald-Tribune, "It was the hottest Chicago Marathon ever, with temperatures reaching 31.1 degrees Celsius (88 degrees Fahrenheit)."

Many of the world-class runners had difficulty and the officials took the unusual step of closing the last half of the route for participants who had not reached it by a certain time.

(From the Web site) Due to the rising heat index and higher than expected temperatures, LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon Executive Race Director Carey Pinkowski and Medical Director Dr. George Chiampas, in cooperation with city officials, have implemented a contingency plan, as a precautionary measure, to effectively close the Marathon course at the halfway point. Runners who have not reached the halfway point by approximately 12:00 p.m. will be diverted back to Grant Park via Halsted and Jackson. Jackson will be closed to automobile traffic and the participants will be provided with additional support along this route. Participants who crossed the halfway point prior to the shut-down will continue to be fully supported along the standard course to the finish line. Participants are asked to take advantage of medical personnel, cooling buses, runner drop out buses, water, Gatorade and other means of support en route back to Grant Park.

According to some of the Forum entries I've read, some of the aid stations ran out of water and Gatorade. I can't imagine what a desperate situation that would cause. As one Forum contributor stated, "No one could anticipate temperatures 20 degrees above normal. Of the 45 000 signed up for the race, 10,000 had the wisdom not to start. Those who started SHOULD have been experienced racers who have dealt with heat and humidity and also know how to pace themselves. The race was CALLED at mile 13 when too many ambulances were busy with people down ... and race officials certainly did everything they possibly could to ensure the racers' safety."

Given the circumstances, we're even more proud than you can imagine. Congratulations Tori!

As amazed as I am at the discipline and athleticism of the participants - all 45,000 of them - I'm equally amazed at some of the technology that came into play. The runners are tracked individually as they pass certain checkpoints. Mary Ann and I were able to register to receive emails and text messages that permitted us to follow Tori's progress. Is that magic or what?!?! Furthermore, we were able to follow live coverage of the entire event on Internet streaming video!

Oct 6, 2007

The Clearwater

I just saw a wonderful show on PBS about how Pete Seeger and a few of his friends led a movement to reconstruct a Hudson River Sloop of the nineteenth century to use as an environmental trainer. It looks like this belowdecks:
Click on the image to go to a wonderful Web site that captures this whole magical undertaking!

Sep 26, 2007

A Week at the Beach...

This week, we took a vacation! We were invited by two friends, Monty and Dinah Love, to accompany them to Holden Beach, North Carolina. Monty and Dinah are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary! We were thrilled to be invited and even more thrilled to be going to the beach for a week.

We drove in two separate cars -- Monty and Dinah leaving from Huntsville and us leaving from Fayetteville -- and we joined each other for dinner enroute to Charlotte, where we spent the first night. We got up early and headed for Holden Beach, which is on the North Carolina coast between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach. Monty and Dinah had rented a beach house through a local realtor. It is called "Bryan's Dream" and is a four-bedroom, four-bath beach house built on posts, as are all the houses here. It's a perfect place for a relaxing week.

We've had to focus our attention on highly stressful activities -- walks on the beach, shell gathering, jig saw puzzles, dominoes, and food. We gave the oldly-weds a jig saw puzzle that is topographic map with their home in the center of the puzzle. This took us two days of spare time effort:
Monty has been taking a class in digital photography and has gotten some great photos, including this picture of a wave in which you can see individual fish swimming (click on the image to see a larger version):

Yesterday, Mary Ann and I went shopping for seafood and we all cooked a seafood feast of scallops, shrimp, and crablegs. We prepared fresh rice and red potatoes, and had a real feast.

It's going to be tough going home. Dear friends like Monty and Dinah are a genuine gift in our lives. The beauty of the sea brings back some fond memories of my days in the Navy. And the beauty of God's creations is a never ending spectacle in a place like this.

This afternoon, Monty and I went kite flying. Talk about a great, mindless diversion! We were like two little kids. What else is new???

Sep 16, 2007

A Visit to the Hamptons

In 1964, while on active duty in the navy, I was assigned to the USS Maloy (DE-791) to serve as Chief Engineer. My Damage Control Assistant (a job that requires a Jack-of-all-trades) was a most capable fellow named Ron Gray. This was a very small ship and all the officers became close friends, but I think Ron and I were especially close because our professional activities were so entwined.

Ron left the navy in 1965, after we decommissioned the Maloy. He and his wife Dorothy and their daughter Kristen moved to Long Island where he became a building contractor. It was a career he had planned for. We stayed in touch over the years. In 1971, a group of us, including Ron and Dorothy, and our former Captain, Jim Fernandes and his wife Doty, got together for a "mini-reunion" in the Washington DC area. This weekend, after only 36 more years, I went to visit Ron and Dorothy. I also got to see Kristen.

A couple of observations:
1) We should never allow this much time to pass between visits to those who are dear to us.
2) Old friendships are amazingly robust -- we related instantly.

I took the Bridgeport Ferry over to Port Jefferson and drove out to Ron and Dorothy's. They have a beautiful home, a very open and inviting design, and Dorothy has appointed it wonderfully.

Saturday afternoon, we went to the local airport for a display of antique airplanes and cars, after which we went into Sag Harbor for their Tricentennial celebration. The town was packed with tourists like me. I got to see Billy Joel's home, overlooking the yacht harbor, along with his piers and boats. After getting cleaned up, we dined at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, an experience not to be missed! It was a memorable evening of wonderful food and great conversation.

Sunday morning, Ron took me on a tour of some of the fabulous homes he has built. He is a genuine artist. He has every right to be very proud of a construction legacy that will be around for a long time. Now I can't wait to get Mary Ann up to Long Island to meet the Grays.

Thanks, Ron and Dorothy and Kristen, for a fabulous weekend...

Sep 13, 2007

The Great Lobster Roll

Last night I attended one of the strangest events I can recall, an attempt by one of my coworkers, Howard Lee, to eat six lobster rolls at a single sitting. It began as a lunchtime discussion of competitive eating events, such as the Nathan's Famous Coney Island Hot Dog eating competition. Our fearless leader, Paul Bolinger, made the statement that if Howard could down 6 lobster rolls at the Seven Seas Restaurant in Milford, he would pick up the tab. These are hot dog sized piles of lobster meat in a bun, slathered in butter. Paul even composed a Haiku for the occasion --

Dripping butter
Red meat
Washed down
Never forgotten.

Howard succeeded, Paul paid.

The Great Race

Few experiences have impacted me as much as having participated in five Great Races. The “Great Race” is a precision endurance rally that has gone across the country every year since 1983. For many years it was restricted to about 100 antique automobiles. Four times – 1998, 2001, 2002, and 2004, I drove my 1932 Plymouth Model PB business coupe. In 2006, I drove a 1936 Buick Century sedan. Every time has been a remarkable view of this great country from its back roads.

It all started in 1996 with a phone call from a long-time friend and associate, Bob King, who asked if I would like to restore my long-neglected Plymouth and go on the Great Race with him as my navigator. After discussing the idea with Margo, I embarked on a 2-year restoration project leading to the 1998 rally. The rally started in Tacoma, Washington, and ended near Boston, in Haverhill, Massachusetts two weeks later. The car had less than 100 miles on the rebuilt drive train when we started, but ran flawlessly over the 4,500-mile route. We had a minor blizzard in Colorado, a flat tire in Kansas, and got lost several times (Each car receives its route instructions 10 minutes before departing each morning.), but enjoyed an unforgettable trip. Obviously it got in my blood.

The Finish Line in Pasadena!

The cars depart at one-minute intervals and follow very specific instructions (…turn right on Route 27 after a 12-second pause, proceed at 45 miles per hour…). There are unannounced check points on the route where timers record our arrival times. A team is penalized 1 point for every second they arrive early or late at a check point. Incredibly, these old vehicles often have single-digit scores after five or six checkpoints in a given day!

The 2001 route took us from Atlanta eastward to Greenville, South Carolina, then north to Knoxville and Westward to Pasadena. In 2002, it was a short race for the team, since we chose to participate in half the total length. We went from San Antonio to Houston to Dallas to Clovis, New Mexico, to Albuquerque – a very scenic drive.

In 2004, we started in Jacksonville, Florida, proceeding through Florida and Alabama north to Tennessee, then proceeding westward to end in Monterey, California. That was the year Mary Ann and I were dating. She flew out to meet the team the night before the end of the race and rode with the crew into Monterey to witness the finish. It was a great finale, with Tony Curtis there to greet the cars coming in (Recall that he starred in the 1960’s movie, The Great Race.).

Arriving in Monterey!

The 2006 race took us from Philadelphia to San Rafael, California, close to San Francisco. When Bob King asked if I’d like to do the event one more time, I said I didn’t feel like putting the Plymouth (or me crammed in the Plymouth) through that cross-country beating again. He suggested that he might buy a bigger, faster, car. We located the perfect car in Fort Worth, bought it over the phone, flew down to Texas and drove it home!

We’ve had several alternate navigators over the years – Rick Sladek from San Antonio, Jerry Gregg from Huntsville (He got so inspired, he bought a 1957 Chevrolet and did the race with his daughter, Dawn!), and Harry Jenkins from Atlanta.

The 1936 Buick

In 2006, Mary Ann drove our support vehicle and empty trailer, accompanied by her friend Macie Rorabaugh. They did the real work, getting up and on the road early each day, checking into motels for the whole team, lugging everybody’s luggage up and down stairs, shopping for all the forgotten items. The driver and navigator got to see the country and enjoy a free lunch!

I am not sure if there’s another Great Race in my future. It’s very expensive, even though Bob King has always paid the entry fee of several thousand dollars. It puts a lot of wear and tear on the car and is quite physically demanding. My 6’ 2” frame does not fit well in a 1932 Plymouth! Having said that, I would not rule out any possibility. If the route were particularly appealing, who knows??

Sep 9, 2007

Reflections on Married Life

I didn't marry until I was 38 years old. I wasn't sure I could adjust. I married Margo Burge, who had never been married. Seventy-five years of bachelorhood bit the dust! It was as if neither of us made any adjustment. We made a smooth, simple transition to the married state and were married for over 25 years. I lost Margo to ovarian cancer in 2003. I wasn't sure if I would ever want to marry again.

Late in 2003, I heard from a friend, Mary Ann Lau, who had worked with me nearly 25 years before. She had missed the South and had decided to move back to Huntsville from Iowa, where she had lived for several years. We started dating and were married in 2004. Again, the transition seemed normal. For me, this seems to be the most natural state - combining romance, companionship, responsibility, dialogue, compromise, civility, being supportive and being supported. I love it!

The Secret to Long Life

I just read a wonderful article by Michael Gartner. It's available at


The eBay Business

Mary Ann was working at a large defense contracting firm in Huntsville. She was not happy. It showed. We talked about options -- Quit and work somewhere else? Quit and work nowhere? Start a business? She decided to start an eBay business and pursue it full time. Life got more interesting...

We went to Murfreesboro and took a class in conducting an eBay business. There are several possible business models: 1) Sell items for other people and charge for your services, 2) Buy used items at stores and garage sales and sell them on eBay, 3) Buy new goods wholesale and sell them. Mary Ann tried all three. The first two didn't work in our case; the third is working beautifully.

She got her business license and tax ID number. The business is called "Ebabe's Fabulous Finds." She had a logo designed and had business cards printed. She also made up a list of companies she'd like to represent.

We went to "Market" in Atlanta early in 2007 to see if we could establish accounts with the selected vendors. It went incredibly well! Every vendor agreed to open an account with Ebabe!

The store has become an online gift shop with lovely, high quality, tasteful products delivered with a genuinely personal touch. Check out her feedback and you'll see what I mean.
All the great feedback didn't just happen spontaneously. We have the photography center, the packing and shipping center, and lots of shelving and inventory. We have been to two eBay Live! conventions where we learned from other successful eBayers. Mary Ann takes her business very seriously. It's becoming one of life's great adventures...

Memoirs of an Altar Boy

St. John the Evangelist Church was a remarkable building, as I was to learn during my many-year tenure as a congregant, altar boy, and choir member. It was built at the turn of the twentieth century, when Schenectady was a growing industrial hub centered on the American Locomotive Company and the recently-founded General Electric Company’s main plant. The period was one of rapid growth driven by these flourishing industries. A flood of immigrant laborers and skilled artisans, mostly of European origin, supported the growth.

As with most cities of the day, people arriving in the city felt most comfortable with “their own kind.” So it was that Schenectady grew up as a collection of ethnocentric areas – “Goose Hill” was primarily Italian-American, Mont Pleasant become a center of Polish-American culture, and so on. Each ethnic group tried to prove its success by its surroundings. Homes were carefully maintained and yards were neatly groomed. And then there were the churches. In the 1950’s, I recall my Grandmother referring to the city’s churches as the “Polish Church” or the “Italian Church” or the “French Church.” We knew, of course, that she meant St. Adalbert’s or St. Anthony’s or Holy Cross.

Each ethnic group tried to outbuild the next in the lavishness and size of their house of worship. The Catholic Church of St. John the Evangelist was no exception, built on the corner of Nott Terrace and Union Street, across the street from Union College’s Payne Gate (named for John Howard Payne, an 1810 graduate of the college and author of “There’s No Place Like Home”). In 1892, the land was purchased for $18,000.00 after considerable negotiations, since nearby property owners were prejudiced against having a church for a neighbor. It was a prominent and prestigious location indeed. And the magnificent church that survives stands as mute testimony to the success, prominence, and devotion of the Irish-Americans who settled that part of the city.

A view of St. John's from the Street

Excavation was started shortly after the land was acquired but the soil proved unstable. Engineers determined a way to sink friction pilings deep into the sandy soil to form a stable platform for what would be a very large structure. Finally, the church’s cornerstone was laid on July 8th, 1900, after the parish accepted the plans drawn by architect Edward Loth, of Troy, New York, who designed several other impressive churches in the area. The first service was held on St. Valentine’s day, 1904.

The building has a main floor more than 120 feet square, can seat more than 1,700 worshippers, and rises an impressive 220 feet, topped by a 14-foot cross, of gilded galvanized iron. One of the more memorable features of this huge edifice is its red color. It was built using Medina sandstone brought down the Erie Canal by barge from western New York. In contrast, the interior is stark white, from the imposing Carrera marble altar and statuary to the sculpted plaster walls. In the daytime light floods in through tall “greenhouse” windows that are just below the central steeple.

Interior View
The beautiful stained and painted windows were imported from the Royal Bavarian Art Institute in Munich (the architect, Mr. Loth, had studied in Germany and was familiar with sources of fine imported German stained glass). The Hutchings-Votey firm of Boston was chosen to build and install an impressive pipe organ of 51 stops and over 3,000 pipes. It cost $15,000, a handsome sum indeed when it was completed in 1904. An interesting fact about this beautiful electro-pneumatic organ is that it includes the first known use of a reed saxophone stop in a pipe organ. The Irish Catholics of Schenectady had much to be proud of.

The church had always had an Irish pastor and Monsignor Finn was no exception. He became the pastor in 1945 upon the death of his immediate predecessor, the Right Reverend Monsignor John L. Reilly, who had served the parish since its founding in 1904.

Now that I can see him from the perspective of an adult, I realize that Monsignor Finn was a small man. But when I was a small, newly qualified altar boy he was a giant and intimidating to a nine-year-old. He always seemed grumpy and in a hurry. He was a man of few words.

As a new altar boy, in the winter of 1949, I was assigned to serve the earliest mass – at 6:30 A.M. That was the one that Monsignor John J. Finn said every day (back then, a priest “said the mass;” nowadays, he “celebrates the mass.”). At two minutes before the scheduled start of the service the Monsignor would come flailing into the vestry of the church, sweeping off his red-lined woolen cape as the snowflakes drifted around him. One of us (there were always two altar boys at each morning mass) would catch it as he flung it aside. He would simultaneously kick off his rubber galoshes and begin putting on his vestments, which we altar servers had carefully laid out in a certain order – the alb, amice, cincture, chasuble, and all the rest. With a single motion he would don the vestments, pick up his chalice and paten, and head through the door that led to the altar, with or without us. He was about his business, and just as he emerged on the altar steps we would hear the distant tolling of the Westminster chimes in one of the corner steeples. The Monsignor was always on time.

Looking up at the Central Dome
We altar boys had been trained by Sister James Edward of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, an order of nuns founded in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century and dedicated to teaching. We must have tried her patience as she undertook teaching us the Latin responses to portions of the Mass. “The priest says, “Introibo ad altare Dei,” and what is the response?” she would ask. Altogether, we would say, “Ad Deum qui laetificat, juventutem meam.” “And what does that mean?” she would ask. And , again in unison, “I will go unto the altar of God. To God, the joy of my youth.” After what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only a few weeks of daily training, we had committed the Latin to memory. We were ready to go up on the altar to learn more of the sacred ritual that we were to be part of. We were all aware that the altar was a very special place and that we were among the select few that would be allowed to participate in the Great Sacrifice of the Mass.

This was the pre-Vatican II church. The priest faced away from the congregation while “saying” mass. The altar boys knelt or stood at the foot of the altar most of the time during the mass. And there were carefully choreographed movements that the altar boys had to perform at specific times. They started out with a specific routine for lighting the candles (start on the right side with the candle closest to the tabernacle…) and ended with the proper procession off the altar at the end of the mass. Sister James ran us through our paces repeatedly until we could have served mass blindfolded. Only then were we ready to be officially welcomed to the honored fraternity.

Being an altar boy was considered a privilege reserved for an elite few. Girls could certainly never be allowed to directly participate in the mass. I recall being told that the only time women were allowed on the altar was for cleaning and changing the altar linens, and of course for Sister James to do her training. There were ranks and privileges among the qualified altar boys. In addition to getting the best assignments (the altar servers’ list was posted on the wall in the vestry behind the main altar) the more senior boys got to serve High Mass or even Solemn High Mass on special occasions. Some had titles for their special qualifications. Jimmy Early was the “Master of Ceremonies” at Solemn High Masses for example. And best of all, the most senior boys got to serve funeral masses, where the bereaved survivor often slipped each server a five dollar bill at the end of the mass.

Our parents were very proud when we got to serve our first mass. I recall bringing my cassock and surplice home for my grandmother, who lived with us, to wash and press. I recall that the parish provided the cassocks but my parents had to buy the surplice. We maintained them very carefully. Each altar boy was assigned a tall wooden locker behind the altar in which to store his vestments. When we came in the vestry doors of the church it felt like any other locker room, full of boys and the bustle of changing clothes and sprucing up. We shared the vestry with the members of the boys’ and men’s’ choirs as well so it was often a crowded place before the high mass on Sundays.

To the best of my recollection, only parochial school students ever got to be altar boys. There was a constant undertone of competition between the parochial school system, including the high school adjacent to St. John’s, and the public school system. Extremists on the playground would sometimes take the position that if you went to public school, there was no way you could ever go to heaven. It’s no wonder we still use the term parochial to mean “narrow-minded: concerned only with narrow local concerns without any regard for more general or wider issues.”

My brother Bill was 4 years older than me. My sister Ann was 1 year older. They both had preceded me in attending St. John’s school. At the time we went to the school, it was housed in two Victorian homes that stood on the church property. One was almost directly behind the church and had originally faced Eastern Avenue, which formed the rear boundary of the church’s property. This building had once been the residence of the church’s first organist, Bert Curley. I know this because I sang in the boys’ choir and we used some of the original hymnals that had been specially printed for the church in its early years. They had Choirmaster Bert Curley’s name printed inside the front cover. My grandmother told me he had lived in the old residence on Eastern Avenue.

Monsignor Finn died in 1974, 20 years after I had been so terrified at his presence.  He had been replaced a few years earlier by an Administrator whom the Bishop had sent to assist him.  That priest, Father Arnold J. English, succeeded the Monsignor as pastor of St. John's parish.  The Monsignor's obituary really doesn't reflect the enormous impact he had on the Catholic community in Schenectady.

The following appeared on 15 January 1974 in the Schenectady Gazette: At rest on January 11, 1974, Rt. Rev. Msgr. John J. Finn of 1144 Wendell Ave; brother of Miss Ella T. Finn of Schenectady, the late Daniel J. Finn and the late Miss Anna A. Finn; uncle of Mrs. John T. (Mary) Breen of Glens Falls; granduncle of Mrs. Herbert (Mary Ellen) Oliver of Glens Falls, Mrs. Joseph Bak of Troy and J. Timothy Breen of Albany. The Jones Funeral Home (Kivlin-Campbell), 1503 Union St., Schenectady, will be open Sunday after 1 p.m. The body will be taken to St. John the Evangelist Church at 7 p.m. Monday for a Parish Mass at 7:30 p.m. followed by viewing hours until 10 p.m. There will be viewing hours Tuesday morning before a concelebrated pontifical mass of Christian Burial offered by Most Rev. Edward J. Maginn as principal celebrant. Joining him as concelebrants will be Rev. M. Kenneth Doyle, also acting as homilist, Msgr. John Fitzgerald, Rev. Thomas Tooher, Rev. Lawrence Ryan, Rev. Edward McManus, Rev. Raymond Swords, S.J., Rev. Joseph Hennessey and Rev. Edward Hickey. In lieu of flowers friends who so desire may make contributions in his memory to the Schenectady Catholic Family Services, 1014 Union St., Schenectady, N.Y. Interment, St. Mary's Cemetery, South Glens Falls, New York.