Jan 29, 2009

This Really Happened...

When I first came to Huntsville in 1978, I worked as a general contractor. One of the people I worked with on more than one occasion was Tex Johnson, a bigger-than-life concrete contractor. I heard this story about Tex from a friend and couldn't believe it, but later I confirmed it with the man himself.

It seems that Tex had a practice of buying his lovely bride, "Miss Bonnie," a new Cadillac every year on her birthday. One day in the mid '70's, Tex remembered her birthday as he was proceeding home from pouring the foundations of what became the La Mancha apartments in Huntsville. Picture Tex, covered in concrete mud and dust, looking like a derelict, pulling into the parking lot of Bob Tabb Cadillac, driving his equally filthy Ford pickup.

Tex was an imposing figure, standing well over 6 feet tall and probably weighing in at around 275 lbs. As he entered the showroom, he didn't see anyone he knew, but a salesman came up and asked how he might help.

Tex: "I'm interested in a new Seeee-dan de Ville. You got somethin' in blue?"

Salesman: "Yessir. Take a look at this car here. It's got just about every option. Just came in. Why don't you take a look at it and see if it's what you want. Make us an offer; I'm sure we can do business."

Tex: "Son, I wouldn't think of askin' you to price one of my concrete jobs and I'm damned if I'm going to price your car. How much do you want for it?"

Salesman: "Well sir, why don't you just take a look at it and make us an offer?"

Tex: "Son, maybe you didn't hear me. I'm not in the car pricin' business. What'll you take for the car?"

Salesman: "Sir, if you'll just make us an offer, we'll have someplace to start, and I'm sure we can find an agreeable price."

Tex: "You got a phone in this place?"

Salesman: "Yessir, right over here; feel free."

Tex then calls his friend Ray Pearman, the local Lincoln-Mercury dealer...

"Hey Ray, this is Tex. Say, I'm over here at Bob Tabb Cadillac and these bastards don't want to sell me a car. Have you got one of those Mark IV's in blue?... OK, what's it got on it?... Sounds good. Would you bring it over to me and follow me home?... Yeah, it's Bonnie's birthday and I want to surprise her... Thanks. I'll be outside."

They delivered the new Lincoln on the front lot of Bob Tabb Cadillac. Tex (who always liked to be paid in cash) reached for his wallet and peeled off several thousand dollars in a very public way to make sure the Cadillac sales representatives could see it.

As Tex told me years later, "Those Cadillac people have been real nice to me ever since!"

Jan 19, 2009

Historic Times...

I'm thrilled at the events we're witnessing this week.  On this MLK birthday, I'm reminded of a trip I took a long time ago, even though it sometimes feels very recent.

In the summer of 1960, my midshipman "cruise" took me to Little Creek, Virginia, for four weeks of Marine Corps indoctrination followed by four weeks in Corpus Christi, Texas, for aviation indoctrination.  We were released in Corpus Christi to return home and given bus fare, which in my case was around $65.  To save money, another midshipman and I decided to hitchhike back to New York state.

To put the times in context, there was a presidential campaign in progress with Kennedy and Nixon vying to occupy the white house.  Kennedy had expressed the notion that a new Civil Rights Act was needed, since the South was still largely segregated and Jim Crow laws were widespread.  The historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision had been handed down six years prior.  But school desegregation was proceeding at a snail's pace.

It was against this backdrop that Guy Wyser-Pratte, a classmate of mine at the University of Rochester, and I decided to hitchhike across the deep south to Beaufort, South Carolina, and then up the eastern seaboard.  The reason for the Beaufort destination was to visit my brother Bill, a Marine Corps jet pilot, who was stationed there.

The trip was an eye opener.  At one point, we got a ride with a Life magazine photographer who was covering the violence associated with school desegregation in Louisiana.  We saw segregated restrooms, segregated drinking fountains, "whites only" signs on motels and other public facilities.  At a diner in Walterboro, South Carolina, we saw a bus pull in to the parking lot.  The white passengers came into the diner; the black passengers went to the kitchen door to place their orders since they were not permitted to eat in the diner.  It was the first time I had witnessed the harsh reality of a racially-segregated society.

I later served part of my navy years in Oklahoma and saw the last vestiges of overt discrimination against Native Americans.  I remember seeing a "No Indians" sign in a restaurant shortly after I arrived in Oklahoma.

These recollections are about a time that's really quite recent in historic perspective.  But the good news is that we live in a nation that, in spite of its flaws, is not afraid to reinvent itself.  And we have a Constitution that empowers us to do so.

We find ourselves today on the threshhold of an amazing and historic occasion -- the inauguration of the nation's first African-American President.  And he really is, in the fullest sense, African-American -- the son of a Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas.  God bless our new President and God bless the United States of America!

Jan 7, 2009

Foot-in-Mouth Classic...

I was at the meeting described below.

The Place: Ingalls Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries, Pascagoula, Mississippi. Administration Building, Main Conference Room.
The Time: Approximately July, 1975
The Players: Admiral James W. Lisanby, U.S.Navy, Program Manager, LHA Program; Mr. Ned Marandino, President, Ingalls Shipbuilding

The Setup: LHA-1, an Amphibious Assault ship and the first of its class has been in fitting out since December, 1973. She is nearing commissioning. It is the first meeting of the Quarterly Program Review, a regularly-scheduled exchange of technical information between the shipyard and its Navy customer. The opening conversation went something like this...

Mr. Marandino: I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome all of our guests to Pascagoula in the hopes that we have a frank and open exchange of information. Without further delay, I'll turn the podium over to Admiral Lisanby, who has asked for the opportunity to present some opening comments.

Admiral Lisanby: Thank you, Ned. It's a pleasure to be here. The Navy also looks forward to an informative and productive exchange over the next couple of days. We appreciate the effort that your team has put into developing this magnificent ship and in particular the briefings to be presented this week. We are looking forward to the commissioning of LHA-1 and because the date of that event is so important to the Navy and the high-ranking Government officials who will be in attendance, I expect to be given a definitive commisioning date before this QPR is over.

Mr. Marandino: With all due respect, Admiral, I doubt if we'll be able to provide you with a specific commissioning date. There are still a lot of unknowns that will drive that date.

The Admiral: Perhaps I should make myself more clear, Ned. I'm not heading back to Washington until I have a specific commissioning date for the USS Tarawa. The Congressmen and their wives and Navy department officials will accept no less than a firm commissioning date.

After a couple more rounds of this verbal standoff, Mr. Marandino loses it: You want a f***ing date, Admiral? I'll give you a God**** date! How about December 25th? That's Christmas! How about July 17th? That's my f***ing birthday! I'll give you 365 God**** dates you can take back to Washington!

The assembled crowd was silent in disbelief. The meeting broke up almost immediately. The next day it was announced that Mr. Marandino was no longer the President of Ingalls Shipbuilding and would be acting as a manager of submarine overhauls on the East Bank (the old, small, overhaul yard).

It was a meeting not soon forgotten.

As a footnote: Admiral Lisanby and his wife retired to Pascagoula in 1987 and bought a gorgeous turn-of-the-century beachfront home. It was substantially destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Lisanbys have been engaged in an ongoing dispute (lawsuit) with one of their homeowners' insurance companies, USAA, over the award made in the significant loss of their home. There is an interesting article in another blog, "Slabbed," that is worth reading.