May 13, 2011

Nye Clinton and His Infamous "Mariah"...

Last week I was visited by a gentleman named Thomas A. Taylor, who is a Regional Director in the Office of Regional Advancement for the University of Rochester.  I knew another fellow years ago who did the same thing and his business cards simply read, “Professional Beggar.”  Tom is a very nice guy and we get together for lunch whenever he is in town.  It’s always nice to get caught up with the news from the campus where I spent four years.  During the course of our conversation, Tom mentioned a name out of the past, Dean of Students Frank Dowd.  As so often happens, the name of Dean Dowd triggered a recollection.  In this case, it was a state-of-the-art water weapon, a water cannon called a “Mariah.”  Pronounced as Mariah Carey pronounces her first name, I was first introduced to this remarkable tool by a classmate, Nye Clinton.  Nye hailed from Watertown, New York.

Burton Hall in the Fall
In the fall semester of the 1960-61 school year, I had moved back into university housing, after having lived off campus my sophomore year.  I actually enjoyed dormitory living.  I had managed to get a “suite” with a couple of friends.  These suites were a clever scheme on the part of the university to increase the capacity of the older dorms (Burton Hall and Crosby Hall) by putting three men into two adjacent rooms that had previously been single accommodations.  It worked out quite well.  We were in Burton Hall.  And two of our neighbors were Ed May and Nye Clinton, two really great guys that I had gotten to know in my freshman dorm.  At that time, Frank J. Dowd, Jr., was Associate Dean of Students.  I wouldn’t have had his job for anything.  He was the university’s point man for all the unpleasant assignments, and there were plenty of those.  It was, after all, a period for "activism."

Nye Clinton would contribute generously to one such occasion.  

It was a warm spring evening.  The natives were restless.  Lots of the dorm residents had started to play their hi-fi or stereo systems out their windows.  Then some genius decided to start a bonfire on the dorm quadrangle.  Dean Dowd was sent to quell the uprising.  Naturally, that  caused even more anonymous shouting.  We were watching the developing situation out of our window.  It was time for Nye to enter the Fray.  He started by producing what I recall to be about a 10-12 foot length of the tan 3/8” natural latex thick-wall surgical rubber tubing.  I suspect that at one time it might have resided in one of his chem labs.  He tied a tight knot in one end of the hose.  Someone asked what he was doing.  Nye responded, “I’m making a Mariah.”  We knew that we were about to learn something very special.

Nye proceeded to the sink, where he stretched the open end of the tube over the small faucet.  Holding this very tightly, he filled most of the tube with water.  We were all amazed at how much the tubing stretched without bursting.  It looked exactly like a l-o-o-o-ng tan balloon.  He doubled the open end and pinched it as he removed it from the faucet.  While still holding the tubing doubled, he inserted the tip end of a ball point pen (the old push-button Pentel type).  This  apparently served as his nozzle.

Now, he draped the tubing (which is quite heavy when full of water) over both his shoulders and around his neck and waist.  He put on a tan trench coat and, holding the tubing closed with a tube clamp, carefully threaded the nozzle end through the right sleeve.  With the coat on, Nye could now hold the nozzle closed with one hand.   Nye, who had the physique of a string bean, made good use of the space within that trench coat.  We helped button up the coat as he departed to join battle.  We watched from the second-story dorm window…

Nye appeared in the crowd and gradually worked his way toward the Dean’s entourage.  The testosterone in the crowd was evident.  Shouts of “Go home, Dud!” could be heard.  And then we could see the high arch of a water jet coming out of nowhere.  It was the last thing any one expected.  It gushed for several seconds.  The Dean got drenched.  He eventually turned the mob over to the Campus Security Officers.  Nye disappeared into the crowd as quickly as he had appeared.

I hope the statute of limitations has run out.  Unfortunately, Dean Dowd passed away in 1997.

May 11, 2011

The Honorable E.Kermit Hightower...

In the May 20, 1949 edition of the Schenectady Gazette, there was an announcement of an upcoming reception planned to honor the Fifth Ward Supervisor, Mrs. Ethel Etkin.  I presume that Mrs. Etkin was a lady of color, since the announcement goes on to state that “Invitations have been sent to every Negro resident of fifth ward, Mrs. Jessalyn Payne, chairman of the arrangements committee, has announced. Special invitations have been mailed to many of the Negro leaders of Schenectady who are not residents of the fifth ward.  Representatives of many of the Negro civic groups attended the recent meeting and will assist in the arrangements of the affair”  Almost as an afterthought, the article closes with, “Attorney E.Kermit Hightower, the first Negro attorney to take up practice in Schenectadv, will also attend.”

This one of the very few references I have found on the Internet that mention E. Kermit Hightower.  This, in spite of the fact that he influences my life even to this day!

Starting when I was about 9 years old, I pumped gas for Mr. Louis Brzoza at the College Garage on Union Street, not far from my family’s home in Schenectady.  I’ve written about that in this blog.  One of our “regular” clients was the attorney E.Kermit Hightower.  And it was the honorable Mr. Hightower who in 1948 purchased a black Lincoln Continental convertible (properly called a cabriolet) that I filled up with gas on a regular basis.

I became convinced that the 1948 Lincoln Continental was one of the most beautiful cars I’d ever seen.  Every time I filled its gas tank, or checked its oil (no messy dip stick here, simply a float with an oil level indicator), or checked the coolant, I lusted after this large but graceful machine.

E.Kermit Hightower never knew it, but he and his car were the main reason why in 1967, I bought such a vehicle.  And they are largely responsible for the fact that I still have it, having dragged it around the country and stored it for some 44 years!

May 8, 2011

A Major Event for the Mead Family...

Nephew David, his son Forrest, and Laura Mead, the proud Mom!
I have written before about my aunt, Ethel Mead Van Auken.  She graduated from Syracuse University in 1914. She was the first member of my branch of the Meads to complete a university education.  My father, Harold Richard Mead, graduated from the University of Michigan College of Dentistry two years later.  (This was when dentistry was a four-year degree program.)

The next wave of graduates came in the 1960s.  My brother Bill attended the University of Michigan, following in my dad's footsteps but never graduated.  My sister Ann graduated as a Registered Nurse from St. Rose College of Nursing in Albany in 1961.  And I followed a year later, completing a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Rochester in 1962.  After completing my military service, I attended the University of Oklahoma, where I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in metallurgical engineering in 1971.  We then entered a 40-year drought in Mead college graduates.  I'm proud to say that the drought is ended.

Last weekend, my great nephew, Forrest William Mead, walked across the stage of the Smothers Theatre of Pepperdine University, and was recognized as a new graduate with a degree in economics.  My nephews David and Mark and their families were there to witness and celebrate the occasion.  Mary Ann and I extend our most heartfelt congratulations!

May 5, 2011

The Wells Fargo Buick

I moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1972 to begin a new job at the Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula.  About a year later, I acquired my first house in College Park in Gautier, Mississippi.  On weekends I often scrounged through junkyards looking for interesting old cars and parts.  One weekend I was at a junkyard between Pascagoula and Mobile just north of highway 90.  I asked the proprietor if he had any interesting junkers for sale.  He asked me if I was familiar with the TV show, "Tales of Wells Fargo" starring Dale Robertson.  I told him I had been a big fan of the show.  The show had been on from 1957 through 1962.  I recall that it was on Monday evening.  The junkyard man motioned for me to follow him.

We proceeded to the back of the property where there were a couple of decrepit steel shanties.  Under a roof extension on one of these buildings was a large car covered by a canvas tarp.  He pulled the tarp aside and revealed a 1958 Buick Limited convertible unlike anything I had seen before.  It was in extremely run-down condition with much of the floorboard rusted away.  The top was a tattered lacework.  At some point the rain had saturated the ornately tooled saddle leather upholstery and the resulting shrinkage had torn most of the seams.  The stuffing was oozing out of the cushions.

The hood had a strange ornament resembling a longhorn steer.  The doors had holsters on the insides and ornate rear view mirror/spotlights on the outsides.  The rear fenders were covered with a wood veneer and had the words "Wells Fargo" emblazoned in bold chrome block letters.  Then the gentleman told me the story.

It seems that Buick was the main sponsor of the Wells Fargo show in 1958.  Buick Motor Division decided to produce a one-off Buick to present to Dale Robertson and then use as a publicity car to be shown at major dealerships around the country.  When the publicity tour was completed, according to this gentleman, the car was given to Robertson.  He drove the car for a couple of years, after which he gave it to his sister who lived in southern Mississippi, not far from Pascagoula.  She briefly drove the car, but it was a financial burden so she parked it on her property in about 1963, whereupon the roof deteriorated, the interior got ruined, and the body rusted badly.  It had ended up in this junkyard and the owner wanted $1,000 for the car.

In 1973 I was earning about $14,000/year.  $1,000 seemed like a lot to pay for a car that was going to be a nightmare to restore and could well become a money pit.  I declined the opportunity to buy it.  The next time I heard of the car was in the late '70's or early 1980's.  I saw an ad in
Old Cars Weekly magazine.  The "fabulous Dale Robertson Buick" was going to be offered in the Atlantic City Auction by one of the major classic car auction companies.  I don't recall if I ever learned what the car sold for in that auction.  I doubt if the buyer had any idea how far the car had deteriorated before it was restored.

A search of the internet turned up an interesting page that is part of David Webb's Website.  He is the proud owner of a 1958 Buick Limited.   It states in part:

"This car was custom built by the Buick factory for Dale Robertson, star of the Buick sponsored TV western Tales of Wells Fargo.  The picture above is a postcard of Dale and the car issued by Buick.  Interior custom features included: bucket seats of Danish calfskin with hand tooled western motif leather inserts; door panels of the same materials; a console between the seats - the "gun rack" - that held two chrome plated Winchesters with carved stocks; a hand tooled leather pistol holster attached to each door that held a matched set of pearl handled .38 caliber Colt revolvers (Is this car street legal??); natural calfskin carpeting; and flip up door handles.  Exterior custom features included: solid walnut panels replaced the three banks of louvers on both sides; the words "Wells Fargo" were placed on the panels in chrome letters; a longhorn steer's head was superimposed over the standard hood emblem; and flipper hubcaps were added to the wheels. Buick displayed this car at major car shows across the country before presenting it to Mr. Robertson.  I do not know the current whereabouts of the car.  The last information I have is that it sold at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg festival on Labor Day, 1996 for $61,000.00. This was reported on the Collectable (sic) Auto Discussion Forum by someone who attended the auction.  Prior to that it was in the collection of a Buick dealer and car collector in the Milwaukee area. 7/30/05 - I just found out the car sold again in 1998 for $30,975.00 at the Barrett-Jackson auction.  It is on their website, Lot #919 for 1998."

 The individual who published that article also had a picture of the broken hood ornament that had once graced the car:

I also ran across a picture of the car taken at the 1958 Chicago Auto Show.  Here it is shown on display:

The description follows: "Capitalizing on the popularity of the "Tales of Wells Fargo" television show, sponsor Buick exhibited the custom built 'Wells Fargo' convertible in Chicago. Based on the Roadmaster ragtop, the car was created for Dale Robertson, star of the TV series. Major exterior alteration was replacing the chrome trim on the rear fenders with walnut panels. Unique interior consisted of two-tone cowhide upholstery and floor covering. The doors were equipped with pistols in holsters, and in the back was a gun rack with rifles. Crowds were handed postcards featuring Robinson and his western themed Buick."