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?