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.