Jan 30, 2011

The Challenger Connection...

We have commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster.  I find it remarkable how vividly our memories can preserve those dreadful moments when pivotal disasters are thrust upon us.  On that morning, a coworker of mine, Lodean Scoble, ran into my cubicle and shouted, "The shuttle just blew up!"  The only TV in our building was a small black-and-white TV in the basement kitchen.  By the time I got downstairs, the room was packed.  We watched in horror as they replayed the images over and over as if maybe the next time there'd be a different outcome.  It never changed.  Seven heroes of the space race had died.

As the investigation into the disaster unfolded, the evidence pointed to a failure of the O-rings in a joint of one of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs).  That had a strong connection to Huntsville, since the SRB program was managed at our own Marshall Space Flight Center.  The manager of that program was Larry Mulloy.  In a long telephone conference the previous night, engineers and managers from Thiokol, mission operations, and the NASA Program Office had hotly debated the safety of a cold weather launch, specifically as the temperature might affect the performance of the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters.  Overnight temperatures were expected to dip into single digits.  There was no previous experience with these conditions, but some Thiokol engineers saw a disaster in the making.  There was a redesign effort in progress on the O-ring design.  Low temperature performance was the issue.  This issue had been the subject of engineering analysis for a couple of years.  It was well known to both the contractor and NASA personnel.

To complicate matters, NASA had sold the shuttle program to congress on the basis of its ability to sustain 24 launches per year.  They were a long way from approaching that goal, having launched 5 times in 1984 and 9 times in 1985.  There had already been four delays in the launch date of STS-51-L.  Consequently, there was enormous pressure to launch.  And so, when Thiokol engineers recommended
against launching on 28 January 1986, Larry Mulloy overruled that recommendation.  He was reported to have said, "My god, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?"  This decision was probably the worst lapse of good judgement in Mulloy's career.  We all know the results.

At the formal inquiry convened by President Reagan, the so-called Rogers Commission, Mulloy was a key witness.  Yet under repeated interrogation, he never apologized for his decision or admitted any error.  He appeared arrogant and defensive.  He said that given the same facts he would make the same decision again.  The inquiry board was not kind to Mr. Mulloy in their final report.  He soon took an early retirement from NASA.

For a while, Larry Mulloy was known to be looking for work around Huntsville.  He was a free agent for many months, shunned by many within the local engineering community.  At the time, I was working for John M. Cockerham and Associates, a small Huntsville consulting firm.  Mr. Cockerham started having discussions with Larry Mulloy about hiring him.  After all, John reasoned, you don't rise to the top engineering echelons of NASA by being stupid.  And after a few weeks of discussions and negotiations, Cockerham hired Larry Mulloy as a Vice President and General Manager. 

I was in the new organization that Mulloy headed up.  I worked for him for the next couple of years.  We did a lot of work together, largely on NASA contracts.  We never discussed the Challenger.

Jan 25, 2011

The Other Declaration of Independence...

The Bronck House Today
On May 17, 1775, more than a year before the Continental Congress signing in 1776, the inhabitants of Coxsackie, New York, signed a Declaration of Independence.  They gathered at the Bronck House, a homestead built in 1663, now the oldest structure still standing in upstate New York.  There are 225 signers, most of them Dutch freeholders from the Coxsackie District of the Colony of New York.  The Declaration was found in the 1920's in an attic at Albany, New York by Mr. John M. Clark, then president of the Albany Institute and History and Art Society, who presented it to the Institution, where it remains.  The document was pronounced authentic by Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Wyer, who served, respectively, as State Historian and State Librarian at that time, and by the State Archivist.

The Declaration

Persuaded that the Salvation of the Rights and Liberties of America, depends, under God, on the firm union of its Inhabitants, in a vigorous prosecution of the Measures necessary for its Safety, and convinced of the Necessity of preventing the Anarchy and confusion which attend the Dissolution of the Powers of Government:

THAT the Freeholders and Inhabitants of Coxsackie District, in the County of Albany, being greatly alarmed at the avowed Design of the Ministry to raise a Revenue in America, are shocked by the bloody Scene acting in the Massachusetts Bay; Do in the most solemn manner, resolve never to become Slaves; and do also associate under the Ties of Religion, Honor and Love of our Country to adopt and endeavor to carry into Execution whatever Measures may be rendered by our Continental Congress, or resolved upon by our Provincial Convention for the purpose of preserving our Constitution and opposing the Execution of several arbitrary and oppressive Acts of the British Parliament, until a reconciliation between Great Britain and America or constitutional principles (which we most ardently desire) can be obtained; and that we will, in all Things, follow the advice of our general Committee, respecting the purpose aforesaid, the preservation of Peace and good Order, and the Safety of Individuals and private property.

Dated at Coxsackie the Seventeenth of May in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand seven hundred and seventy five. (signed by 225 citizens of C
oxsackie - only 211 still legible)

I am proud to note that I am the direct descendent of two of the signers of this Declaration, Martin Hallenbeck and Abraham Hallenbeck.  You can see the family connection by clicking here.

Jan 20, 2011

The Mafia Connection

I saw in today's news that the FBI had rounded up more than 100 alleged Mafiosi.  My thoughts instantly went to our local Mafia representative when I was growing up, Mr. Paul "Legs" DiCocco.

In the 1960's, I was engaged to Laurie Maxon, a young lady from Schenectady whose parents were the next door neighbors to Mr. DiCocco and his family.  Laurie's stepfather, Elmore Melander, was a cultivator of prize-winning gladiolus flowers.  His gladiolus beds were located along the property line with the DiCocco residence.  We would kid El by telling him to be careful where he planted his flowers lest he trespass on the DiCocco property and we find him at the bottom of the Mohawk River.

According to Wikipedia, "Paul "Legs" DiCocco, Sr. was an Upstate New York racketeer and associate of mobster Carmine Galante who was involved in illegal gambling.

A longtime gambler with numerous minor convictions for illegal gambling, DiCocco was connected to New York's underworld. He also controlled racketeering and other criminal activities with Carmine Galante in Montreal, Quebec. DiCocco also had contacts in New York's labor unions; he and Nicholas Robilotto, President of Teamsters Local #294 in Albany, New York were eventually investigated for conspiring to underbid rival construction companies. DiCocco owned a luncheonette with his brother that was renowned for its Italian cuisine.

In 1951, DiCocco was investigated by a grand jury on
charges of corruption and illegal gambling in Schenectady County, New York. This investigation resulted from allegations that Schenectady Police Chief Joseph A. Peters fixed a traffic ticket for DiCocco. Peters denied the charge, but was eventually forced to resign. Receiving a subpoena from Mayor Samuel S. Stratton, DiCocco appeared before a City Hall investigation on his supposed ties to organized crime. During a half hour period, DiCocco pled the Fourth and Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitutions to the U.S. Constitution over 76 times.

In 1977, DiCocco was indicted on contempt and perjury charges. Shortly after his first trial ended in a hung jury, DiCocco accepted a plea bargain to obstructing governmental administration and contempt. DiCocco received three years probation and a $1,000 fine. In 1985, DiCocco pled guilty to felony coercion charges. He had been trying to stop a Massachusetts-based gambling operation from expanding into five New York counties.

In 1989, DiCocco was released from probation due to bad health.  On July 30, 1989, Paul DiCocco Sr. died after a heart transplant operation.  His son, Paul A. DiCocco, Jr. is a driver for actor Tom Hanks."

According to his obituary in the Albany Times-Union, "He acquired the nickname "Legs" as a young boy because of his speed as a runner, basically a gofer, for gamblers playing in card and crap games. Later his "legs" carried him as a numbers runner for Schenectady bookmakers."

Jan 18, 2011

A Picture from the Distant Past...

My sister Ann was 1 year and 2 days older than me.  She and I were often mistaken for twins when we were little.  We both attended Mont Pleasant High School in Schenectady, where we both took three years of Latin (wasn't it a prerequisite of a college prep curriculum back then??).  And of course, if you were enrolled in Latin, you were almost automatically in Miss Brakebill's Latin Club.  Once a year, the Latin Club came to school dressed in Roman attire.  My sister tragically passed away in 1965. 

Recently, while surfing the Web, I ran across a site that had been created by Annie's high school class for their 50th reunion.  I was looking through some pictures on their Web site to see if I'd recognize anyone, when I ran across this image of the "MPHS Latin Club" contributed by Mary Corrado.  My sister is the person on the right side of the picture in the front row with the trim on the edges of her toga.

I still miss her.  She was a great gal.

Jan 16, 2011

Benny and Theresa's

BL's Restaurant is now called BL's Tavern, but is
still in business at the same location as 50 years ago!
In New York state in the 1950's, the legal drinking age was 18.  That meant that I could legally drink the last few months of my senior year in high school.  The following summer, my friend Hal Johnson and I decided to try to find the sleaziest bar in our home town of Schenectady, New York.  I don't recall that we had any specific guidelines; I think we thought we'd know it when we saw it.

We decided that there were some prime areas in which to look -- upper Albany Street, certain parts of Mont Pleasant, parts of Broadway, and Front Street were some that I remember.  Each night, we'd go to a couple of bars to have a couple ten cent drafts, known as "dimies."  After a couple of weeks of this research, we were covering the bars on Front Street, a street that paralleled the Mohawk River.  That night, we discovered "BL's Restaurant" at the corner of Front Street and John Street.

BL's never qualified as a sleazy bar, but the wonderful people that frequented the place became some of our best friends.  Hal and I would spend many nights at this tavern throughout our college years.

BL's took its name from Benny Lenciewicz, the proprietor.  Benny, along with his wife Theresa, maintained a clean, friendly establishment.  Profanity or antisocial behavior were simply not allowed.  Theresa kept a baseball bat behind the bar and made it clear that in spite of her diminutive size, she would not be afraid to use it.  Benny and Theresa lived on the second floor of the building that housed the bar.  Some biographical notes about the inhabitants of BLs might be of interest:

was almost certainly an alcoholic, but was only a binge drinker.  He would disappear for a few weeks at a time, during which Theresa would run the place by herself.  Benny loved to gamble on the horses and maintained file cabinets full of data on jockeys, horses, trainers, stables, and the races themselves.  He claimed to make money on the races and I believe he did.  When he would go on one of his excursions, he would often return with substantial money that he claimed he made at Saratoga, Aqueduct, or some other racetrack.

 was the former Theresa Barone.  She was an absolutely wonderful lady, and totally devoted to Benny.  She was a very hard worker and never touched a drop of alcohol to my knowledge.  Her brother Tony had been a boxer in his earlier years and he occasionally stopped by the bar.

 (last name unknown) was a sweeper at the General Electric Company.  He was marginally retarded, but was a delightful individual.  He could be found at BL's every evening.

 (last name unknown) was a produce wholesale merchant.  He was in his sixties and lived with and cared for his mother, who was in her nineties.  I don't believe Pops had ever been married.  Every evening, he would stop at BL's on his way home from work, usually around 9:00 PM.  He always had one drink -- a cup of black coffee laced with peppermint schnapps.  Benny and Theresa had a ritual of harassment that they perpetrated on Pops.  They would start reading obituary notices of people that were Pops' age.  Theresa might start, "Say, Benny, did you see that Mary Battaglione passed away?  It's here in the Gazette.  What a tragedy.  She was only 63 years old.  Just dropped dead with no warning."  At this point, Pops would start to protest.

 was a gentleman of color who usually dropped by at least three or four times a week.  He was a laborer at the GE plant but was quite interested in the stock market.  He frequently gave out unsolicited advice: "You boys need to invest in alumington.  It's the metal of the future!"

One evening, Hal and I took our mothers on a date to BL's.  Benny and Theresa even put a tablecloth on one of the booths in the back room.  Benny cooked steaks and baked potatoes and even made a salad.  It was quite the occasion!

I have only the fondest memories of this place that we found purely by accident.  I think it taught me that good, wholesome, kind and gentle people may be found in the most unexpected places.

Jan 10, 2011

Breakfast of Champions!

In response to the blizzard conditions outside, we had a huge skillet of hash browns for breakfast, served with toast and a delicious peach preserve that one of Mary Ann's customers gave her.  Isn't it great to have customers who are so considerate and thoughtful?  It was a very satisfying breakfast on a very wintry day.

Here We Go Again...

Last night we had what the weather people call a "significant snow event."   It started snowing fairly hard around 7:00 PM and was still going strong at midnight.  When we woke up this morning, we had about 9 inches.  That's really rare around here.  Our average annual snowfall is around 2-1/2".  Nobody but the essential service people went to work.  In fact, our trash collection service, who never miss work, didn't make it today.  It's quite an adventure!