Dec 19, 2009

Miss Guernsey and the Amazing Explosion...

Oneida School, with gratitude to thee, Our hearts offer you this melody...

I attended Oneida Junior High School (now known as Oneida Middle School) in Schenectady. We were blessed with many wonderful, dedicated teachers -- Ms. Gladys Wise in languages, Mr. Schneck, the shop teacher, Ms. Tuttle my homeroom English teacher, Mr. Gay the math teacher and half-blind sponsor of the audio-visual club (remember the 16mm Bell & Howell projectors?), and so many others whose names I simply can't remember. But one stands out above all others -- Ms. Mildred G. Guernsey, the best algebra teacher ever. She would prefer Miss Guernsey, thank you very much. She would never be one to pussyfoot around with an ambiguous title such as Ms.

I had Miss Guernsey for 8th grade algebra. On the first day of her class, most of the rules were made quite clear. We would be addressed by our proper names -- one full name, one initial, and our surname. I became Robert M. Mead. I still use that formal name today on most of my work, thanks to Miss Guernsey. Andy Silber begged her to let him remain "Andy," since his proper name was Cornelius Anderson Silber. There was no compromise. He became C. Anderson Silber in Miss Guernsey's world.

Her teaching was superb. There were countless stories through which she taught the principles of algebra. One day, while we were about to address the subject of remainders, Miss Guernsey asked me to stand. "Robert M. Mead, if a fellow had guests over and was about to serve them apple pie for dessert (Not that I approve of apple pie), and if this fellow realized that he had cut all the pieces the same size except for one piece that was noticeably bigger, what might he do?" The answer she was looking for was to trim down the last piece to match the others -- thus a "remainder." My answer was a little more self serving: "Miss Guernsey, I would pass the pie plate to all my guests. If they were polite, they'd all take the smaller pieces and I'd be left with the biggest piece!" Her response was immediate.

"Robert M. Mead, you are a rude, selfish pig. And perhaps that explains those extra pounds around your middle. For every extra pound you carry, your heart has to pump blood through an extra 2 miles of blood vessels!" It was classic Miss Guernsey.

There were countless other math-teaching parables. We measured Mr. Peterson's house "from the basement to the ridgepole" using the rule of sines. In the process, we learned that Mr. Peterson grew prize geraniums and had spoken once to Miss Guernsey's garden club.

We would naturally stand when spoken to or addressing the class. We would form our written numerals with great care. If a 0 or 6 or 8 was not "closed" properly, points would be deducted. We were taught to make our 5's in one stroke so there could never be a detached top stroke. Penmanship was important.

So was homework. It was 10 points off for every day late and after 5 days, it didn't matter. All scores went to 0. And homework made up half of our grade.

Miss Guernsey was also a disciplinarian in other ways. If she snuck up on you while you were talking to your neighbor, you could expect to have her clap on your back several times with a chalk-laden eraser (or two). If she caught you chewing gum in class, you might expect to stand outside (rain, shine, sleet, snow) for the remainder of the class. When she rendered judgement, she would poke the offender in the solar plexus repeatedly with her bony, gnarled index finger as she lectured the poor victim. We tended to behave.

Which brings me to the great explosion incident. One of my classmates, Steve Anonymous, had decided to make some pipe bombs and use them to attack teachers. The first victim was a woman who lived near the intersection of Rankin Avenue and Eastern Avenue. The bomb blew her house off its foundation and damaged several neighboring houses. As the police were trying to locate the culprit, he struck again, this time attacking Miss Guernsey's house.

My recollection is that she wasn't at home and that the explosive device was placed in a bay window in her dining room. It removed most of the bay window. When Miss Guernsey arrived home, she noticed an acrid smell in her house and it was cold. She then discovered the damage and police were soon on the scene. Within a couple of days, they captured and arrested Stephen W. Anonymous. Steve's father was a prominent local businessman. Steve was given probation. We all felt that he had gotten away with the bombings because of his father's political connections. But all the influence in the world couldn't protect him from Miss Guernsey's wrath.

The first day he returned to class, Miss Guernsey wasted no time. "Mr. Stephen W. Anonymous, stand and come forward. Steve, trying to be cool, shuffled forward and mumbled, "Yes, Miss Guernsey." She maneuvered him into the corner and the Index Finger went to work. Poking him hard in the chest, she began, "Mr. Anonymous, you are nothing but a coward and a common criminal." She lectured him in front of the class for 5 minutes. "Are you so afraid of a little old woman that you have to try to kill her? Did you think you wouldn't be caught? How could you be so stupid?" He broke down in front of his class mates. Miss Guernsey had made her point.

As a footnote, I found a more recent article about Steve on the Internet. He is apparently still trying to learn his lesson. I also found a wonderful page of recollections of Miss Guernsey -- gone but certainly not forgotten.

Dec 17, 2009

A Christmas Memory...

The Wallace Company, shown on an old postcard

Three of my grandparents had died by the time I was 4 years old. I have very faint memories of my grandfathers Mead and McLaughlin and no memory at all of my grandmother Mead. But I remember my grandmother McLaughlin because she lived with us for many years. "Nana," as we called her, lived in my parents' house from 1944 until she passed away in May of 1957. To say that Nana spoiled us kids would be an understatement. She lived her life to love and cater to us three grandchildren -- my sister Ann, my brother Bill, and me.
One of the fondest memories I have, usually around this time of year, is going shopping with my grandmother. In the late 1940's, Schenectady still had a thriving downtown commercial area. State Street boasted three major locally-owned department stores -- The Wallace Company (Est. 1892), The Carl Company (Est. 1906), and the H.S.Barney Company (Est. 1855). These were elegant centers of retail commerce. I recall that each store had certain features we no longer see:
  • elevators that had real human operators who announced each floor and it's departments
  • a well-maintained cafeteria for patrons
  • departments in which salespeople knew most of their patrons by name
  • exquisite merchandise displays, especially at holiday seasons (often animated figures in their main display windows)
  • doormen at the main entrance to each store
  • Carl's featured "Gold Bond Dividend Stamps" through which you could "earn" additional merchandise
  • delivery service
My Grandmother would bundle us kids up and we'd proceed a block away to the bus stop at the corner of Gillespie Street and Union Avenue. We'd each want to put our own token in the box as we boarded the number 9 bus headed for "Downtown - State Street" as displayed on the sign above the windshield. And off we'd be on another excursion with Nana.

The stores were brightly lighted and always crowded. This was, after all, a city prospering in the postwar commercial boom. We had the world headquarters and main plant of the General Electric Company and the headquarters of the American Locomotive Company. (No one could foresee that in ten years, GE would "decentralize" much of the Schenectady operation and that ALCO would be KO'd by General Motors' Electromotive Division.) It was a carefree, joyous, happy time.

As we entered each store, we kids would of course want to head for the toy department. I usually wanted to see the latest display of Lionel electric trains. Barney's and Carl's had the very best toy departments. And the toy department manager at Barney's was Miss Mayer, who happened to be a patient of my father, so we usually got extra special treatment there (it was on the fourth floor, to the right of the elevator). And of course, each store had to try and outdo the others in the lavishness of it's Santa Claus presentation. These were premiere times for a little kid!

Invariably my sister and brother and I wanted way too much for Christmas. My parents tried to maintain some moderation in gift giving to try to keep us focused on the nativity as the reason we were celebrating. But my grandmother didn't always share that sentiment and often went in a direction of extravagance. I've already written about my Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. I received it for Christmas in 1951. But there were other times that Nana went overboard in my parents' eyes. I can still recall many of the gifts. But the shopping trips are just as precious in my memory as the Christmas mornings.
Barney's is now an apartment complex

Dec 9, 2009

A Ride on a Nuclear Submarine

USS Seawolf (SSN-575)

In 1963, I was serving aboard the USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709). I was in the engineering department, serving as Damage Control Assistant (DCA). We had recently returned from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where we had been sent for the Cuban missile crisis. After returning to Newport, Rhode Island, our home port, for a few weeks, we found ourselves now serving in the operating areas near Key West, Florida.

We were one of the first destroyers in the fleet equipped with the QH-50C, Drone AntiSubmarine Helicopter (DASH). Our assignment while serving in and around Key West was to test the operational effectiveness of the DASH and the newest version of the Mark 44 torpedo. We had a target ship assigned to this mission -- USS Seawolf (SSN-575).

USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709)

The method used to test the weapons system was straightforward. Seawolf would approach us from a distance while submerged. We would locate her using our sonar. We would launch our DASH which would carry one or two Mark 44, Mod 0 torpedoes without explosive warheads. These torpedoes had telemetry instrumentation in lieu of real warheads. Once we dropped the torpedo into the ocean, it would activate and start searching for the target. The telemetry would record every detail of the system's performance -- the acquisition of the target, the homing system's performance, battery performance, and so on.

The torpedoes were preprogrammed to not descend below a certain depth. That way, we could avoid impact of the dummy torpedo with the submarine. I believe that was intended to avoid damaging the screws of the target vessel. We learned by experience that the depth-limiting feature didn't always function correctly.

We had a navy pilot, Lieutenant Don DeLude, aboard as our DASH officer. Don would stand in a small wing of the 01 deck adjacent to the DASH launch area and fly the drone helicopter by radio control. He would launch the helicopter and guide it to a point several hundred yards from the ship visually. Then, control of the DASH was transferred to the ship's Combat Information Center (CIC). The strategy was to fly the helicopter to a location above the perceived location of the submarine and drop the torpedo. By dropping the torpedo close to the sub, it reduced the amount of time the submarine had to take evasive action. It was interesting and exciting work.

The Seawolf was a most unusual ship. She was originally built with a superheated steam boiler system and nuclear reactors cooled by liquid sodium. Both of these proved to be very expensive to maintain and in 1958, barely a year after her commissioning, she returned to Groton, Connecticut for a 2-year conversion back to a more conventional water-cooled reactor system. The ship was a one-off design, longer than a football field and displacing over 4000 tons when submerged.

One day at the conclusion of testing, Seawolf surfaced not far from Hugh Purvis. Her skipper appeared on the sail (conning tower) with a bullhorn. He hollered across to our bridge that it might be fun to exchange a couple of officers "to see how the other half lives." I was standing watch along with Lou Grassini, a Lieutenant from Philadelphia, who was the Gunnery Officer. Our Captain, Commander James C. Linville, looked at Lou and me and told us to get our reliefs up on the bridge and pack a duffle bag for a couple of days on Seawolf. I couldn't believe it!

Lou and I got ready in no time and the Seawolf launched a small rubber raft that picked us up and delivered us a few hundred yards away to their ship. I remember how slick the hull was as we stepped out of the raft which was sloshing against the round hull. We greeted the Captain, LCDR Thomas B. Brittain, Jr., and went below. Lou and I were probably like a couple of kids at Disneyland.

One of the first impressions I had was one of great spaciousness. I had made a few short cruises on World War II era diesel boats while I was a Midshipman. They were incredibly cramped. This vessel was huge by comparison. I recall at one location there was actually a small staircase instead of a ladder. Many of the interior surfaces were covered with wood-grain formica which gave the interior a homey feeling compared to most combatants. Our bunks were roomy. We were given a tour of the ship, including parts of the reactor operating area. That fascinated me because I had served as Main Propulsion Assistant on Purvis for two years.

The next morning we started the testing exercises. It was very different as seen from the perspective of the attacker who suddenly comes under attack. We would go to some predetermined depth, silently try to sneak up on the Hugh Purvis using only passive sonar. Suddenly we would hear a splash and then hear the torpedo motor winding up. The conning officer of the Seawolf would take evasive action. We would suddenly be descending at a steep angle and everyone would watch the depth indicator until we leveled off at some depth in excess of 500 ft. Then we would accelerate to a speed in excess of 20 knots, zig-zagging, in an attempt to avoid or outrun the torpedo. Sometimes we succeeded.

After a couple of days, Lou and I had to return to the surface navy, but what an unforgettable experience we had been privileged to share.

Interestingly, within a few days, our evaluation was cut short when one of the dummy torpedoes made a direct hit on the screw of the submarine. It did enough damage to one of the blades that the sub had to limp into port to get the screw replaced.

** After I initially published this item, I heard from a former Hugh Purvis shipmate, Bill Leslie. He was our Operations Officer while I served with him. He reminded me that it was during one of these torpedo testing exercises that we were informed of President Kennedy's assassination. I remember that vividly because I was Junior Officer of the Deck at the time. Bill Leslie had the unenviable job of using our underwater communications system (known as "Gertrude") to inform the submarine of the nation's loss. We returned to Key West to observe the days of mourning.

3-22-2016 -- Today I corresponded with Peter Papadakos, the son of the gentleman who founded the Gyrodyne Company of Amaerica, builders of the original DASH.  He was kind enough to send me the following photographs, taken when the DASH development team was aboard Hugh Purvis:

Lt(jg) Harry C. Royal III ("Trip" Royal), ASW Officer, and
Lt(jg) Don Delude, DASH Operations Officer
Lt(jg) Don Delude and the DASH flight detachment
aboard USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709), late 1962
Lt(jg) Don Delude and unidentified telephone talker during
DASH flight operations aboard USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709)
DASH hovering near Hugh Purvis (DD-709), 1962

Dec 5, 2009

Chief Wilson...

In June of 1964, I was serving aboard the USS Maloy (DE-791), a destroyer escort home ported in Groton, CT. We sometimes were asked to participate in public relations exercises. Such was the visit to Block Island to support a civic celebration when Block Island was changing jurisdiction from one county to another.

We were directed to go to Quonset Point, Rhode Island to spend a night alongside a pier. At some ungodly hour, a number of civilians would begin showing up to be transported about 30 miles south to Block Island for a parade and all-day celebration. There were war heroes, an Indian Princess, lots of politicians, and other prominent citizens of the fair state of Rhode Island, about thirty people in all, as I recall. There were a couple Coast Guard cutters doing the same thing and we planned to steam to Block Island together in the early morning. We were to anchor off the beach at Block Island and use our motor whale boat to ferry the guests to and from the pier at New Shoreham. Late in the afternoon when the festivities had concluded, we would round up our guests and deliver them back to Quonset Point. It sounded like a simple assignment.

My engineering department included the R (for "repair") division. It included the ship fitters, pipe fitters, and damage controlmen. They were under the leadership of my assistant, Lieutenant (junior grade) Ron Gray and Chief Petty Officer Robert Wilson, a very salty career navy man with roots in Hoboken, New Jersey. He had not lost his New Joisey accent. Chief Wilson was a loyal, hard-working, dedicated leader. His men were fiercely loyal to him. His one shortcoming (some would say his greatest asset) was his propensity for taking things that weren't necessarily his. He would undoubtedly have pointed out that it was never for personal gain -- always for the good of the Navy.

Coincidentally, as we were moored that night at Quonset Point, we were directly across the pier from the USS Wasp (CV-18), a World War II era aircraft carrier home ported there. They were scheduled to conduct a change of command ceremony the next day, so, as we arrived alongside the pier, crews were setting up bleachers for the invited guests. There was a small stage and loudspeakers and lots of banners and bunting for the planned festivities.

Our guests started to arrive around 05:30 AM, we served them breakfast in the Wardroom (the officers' mess), and we embarked for Block Island promptly at 07:00. I was the Officer of the Deck. The Captain, LCDR James E. Fernandes, was in his chair on the bridge. All was routine until we were about 10 miles south. We received a radio message from the USS Wasp. This was most out of the ordinary. We were a very small ship in a very unrelated squadron on a totally innocuous mission. What could the Wasp possibly want with us? As I read the message, it became clear. During the night, someone had stolen several of the boards that made up the seats of the bleachers on the pier. The C.O. of the Wasp suspected that it might have been a crew member of the Maloy who did it. He was very distressed. Our Captain read the message. We looked at each other and said in unison, "Chief Wilson!"

Within a few minutes, Chief Wilson was on the bridge. He denied, in his best Hoboken drawl, any knowledge of this horrible crime. "I don't know nuttin' about no lumbah!" he protested. Neither the skipper nor I had any doubt that he or one of his troops was the culprit.

Of course we responded to the Wasp that we had no knowledge of any theft. But I made it my personal mission to find the "lumbah." For the next several months I searched. There are lots of nooks and crannies on an old destroyer escort. I searched every bilge, every storage space, even the double walls of the stack. I never found a trace.

Several months later, we were in Groton doing general maintenance when Chief Wilson knocked on my stateroom door. "Mistah Mead, as you know, I'm always concoined about the crew's morale," he began. He explained that the benches at the tables on the mess deck were badly tattered and that he wanted to replace them. He needed some funds to buy the upholstery material and padding. He said that he'd already found a source of "lumbah." There was never any doubt in my mind... I simply didn't know where it had been stored.