Nov 18, 2015

Walter W. "Chip" Squire... Not Forgotten

Courtesy of the Palm Valley American Legion Post 233
in Ponta Vedra Beach, Florida

In 1972, I accepted a job offer at the Ingalls Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries in Pascagoula, MS.  The shipyard had grown very rapidly as a result of two huge contract wins – the design and construction of 9 amphibious assault ships, so-called LHAs, and thirty Spruance-class destroyers, the DD-963 program.  Each of these programs had an initial value of over $2 Billion!  Hiring for the shipyard was very aggressive.  I ended up having to commute from Biloxi, as that was the closest place I could find decent rental housing.  I lived in a small house on Pinewood Drive, off of Beauvoir Road, only a couple blocks from the beach.  The house belonged to an Air Force non-commissioned officer stationed at Keesler Air Force Base.

A few months after I began working at Ingalls, my organization, the Integrated Logistics Directorate, under the leadership of retired Navy Captain Ken Beyer, hired another gentleman named Walter Squire, who went by the name “Chip.”  Chip had been living and working in Jacksonville, FL, was about my age, was a navy veteran, and needed a temporary home.  I told him I had a couple spare bedrooms and that he was more than welcome to move in with me and share expenses.  We were soon roommates.  We lived together for several months while he looked for a more permanent housing arrangement.  Eventually, Chip commissioned a home to be built by the talented Carroll Ishee, but that’s a subject for another blog entry.

Chip made friends very quickly, and soon he was in a close social circle that included Clayton and Nettie Coffey as well as Ivan and Phyllis Foster.  Clay and Ivan worked very closely with Chip as Logistics liaison with the Navy customer.  The Navy customers seemed to warm up to Chip quite readily.  He was a very social creature, an active golfer, and made friends instantly.  I seem to recall that he focused primarily on the Destroyer program.  He was a terrific asset to Ingalls in maintaining favorable relations with the Navy.

Even though we were roommates and close friends, Chip was fairly close-mouthed with regard to part of his Navy experience.  Although he had not made the Navy his career, he had stayed on active duty longer than his initial obligated service.  His first tour of duty was as a riverine boat commander in Viet Nam, an assignment that was a very high risk endeavor.  After his tour ended (and he had some amazing stories!), he returned to the continental U.S., but he refused to tell me about the remaining couple of years, simply saying it was something he didn’t want to talk about.

Then one evening, after a few drinks, I guess Chip felt like sharing, and he wove the most amazing tale.  He described how after Viet Nam, he had advised the Bureau of Personnel that he wanted to continue in small craft, if possible.  He liked the intimacy of a small crew, the variety of duties required of all hands, and the informality of small craft duty.  He received orders to report to a certain hotel room in Miami on a certain day, wearing civilian attire.  When he knocked on the door, he was invited in, and was greeted by a gentleman at a desk.  An interview ensued during which Chip was asked if he had any problem working for “The Company.”  He realized that this was a reference to the CIA, and indicated that he had no issues working for them.

His assignment was to work as a tennis pro at a club in the Fort Lauderdale area.  He appeared to be a young, fairly wealthy individual who, in addition to being a very good tennis player, also had an affinity for ocean boat racing.  In fact, he had a Donzi cigarette boat moored at the club’s docks.  Not too many miles away, according to Chip, was a secret boat house with an identical Donzi, identical down to the last serial number, except equipped with machine guns, rockets, and grenade launchers.  That was his boat for special assignments.  He ferried members of the Cuban exile forces in and out of Cuba.  That was the “Navy” duty that he had been so reluctant to talk about.

I think that the years of working under pressure had taken a toll on Chip.  He was extremely high strung.  He was hyperactive and had noticeable tremors much of the time.  He was, like myself at the time, a heavy drinker.  He never dated anyone during the time I knew him.  He was a loner, but extremely loyal to those colleagues whom he befriended.

A few years after I left the coast, I had returned for a visit and heard that Chip had died.  He had come to work one day, said he wasn’t feeling well when he went home at lunch, and didn’t come back in the afternoon.  Clay Coffey, a close friend, had gone to check on him and found him dead of a heart attack.  He was 47 years old -- way too young to be gone so suddenly.

A recent search of the Internet for any trace of Chip yields very little.  Before moving to Pascagoula, he had been the President of the Palm Valley American Legion Post 233 in Ponta Vedra Beach, Florida, not too far south of Jacksonville.  I also found a record of his burial in the Crestlawn Memorial Park in East Ocean Springs, MS, where his marker simply reads, “Walter W. Squire  1936 to 3-3-1983.”

And there was a tantalizing bit of information -- incorporation information on a company called Logistic Management Service, Incorporated.  The company was formed on 12 January, 1983, less than two months before Chip’s death.  The other participants in the corporation were the agent, Harry B. Kelly, and a Thomas L. Stennis (the same name as an attorney currently practicing in Ocean Springs, MS).  I seem to recall a Harry Kelly who worked with Chip at the shipyard.  One can only wonder what this company might have become had Chip not passed away.

Nov 17, 2015

Robert "Bob" Alfred Rutledge (May 23, 1925 - September 16, 2015)

A few weeks ago, the following notice appeared on the Obituary pages of several Alabama newspapers: “Robert A. "Bob" Rutledge, 90, Huntsville, passed away on Wednesday, September 16, 2015.Mr. Rutledge was a retired Major, U.S. Army. He served as a combat engineer in the South Pacific during WWII, an infantryman during the Korean War, and as an Ordnance Missile Officer from 1956 to 1966. He was a mental health worker in Huntsville and retired from Crestwood Hospital. Bob was a faithful member of First Christian Church in Huntsville. He was preceded in death by his wife, Bobbie Rutledge and a son, R. Michael Rutledge. He is survived by his daughters, Theresa Kay Furnas of St. Petersburg, FL and Melody R. Arrington of Fayetteville, TN; two granddaughters, Callie Rachel Arrington of Murfreesboro, TN and Olivia Grace Arrington of Fayetteville, TN. Bob was a devoted and loving husband and father. He spent his life serving and helping others, throughout his military and mental health careers. He is deeply missed by many. The family will receive friends Sunday, October 25th from 2:00 - 4:00 p.m. at Berryhill Funeral Home followed by a 4:00 memorial service. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to First Christian Church. Berryhill Funeral Home is assisting the family.”

There were no pictures, no fancy embellishments, just a simple notice.  What the notice didn’t inform its readers was the nature of Mr. Rutledge’s “mental health” career.  I knew Bob Rutledge as an alcohol and drug counselor in the special A&D unit at Crestwood Hospital in Huntsville, AL.  I first met him the day I was admitted to a 28-day treatment program in early August, 1983.  And I didn’t particularly care for him at that time.

Bob would describe himself as a “recovering drunk and dope fiend.”  He didn’t mince words.  He had 28 days to convince the people under his care that they had a serious problem but that there was a solution.  He had been a hopeless chronic drunk and dope addict whose life had been transformed by a simple program of recovery built around twelve simple steps.  Bob’s way of communicating this crucial message was to be absolutely, brutally frank.  He never danced around the facts.  Any patient in that unit who tried to make excuses for his behavior or minimize the notion of being dependent on their drug of choice was instantly confronted with Bob Rutledge’s reality lesson.  He was a relentless bearer of truth and a powerful example for all of us “drunks and dope fiends.”

Bob became my friend and counselor during that 28-day stay.  Later, I would occasionally run into him at various AA meetings around town and sometimes at church.  He always had a kind word and the demeanor of a man at total peace with himself.  His life, in spite of some turbulence in his early years, became a life very well spent indeed.  Bob, I’ll see you at the Meeting in the Sky, my friend.

Nov 8, 2015

Father George Mathis, Artist…

The Website of the Glenmary Home Missioners includes a page dedicated to Glenmarian George Mathis.  It includes the following tribute, “CINCINNATI (August 29, 2012)—Father George Mathis, 84, a native of Euclid, Ohio, and a Glenmary Home Missioner for 61 years, died peacefully Aug. 26 in Kingsport, Tenn. Father Mathis was ordained in 1955. He served in a wide range of roles as a Glenmarian—including pastor of Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky missions; council member; department director; and liturgical environment artist, designer and consultant.

"Father Mathis was a deeply spiritual, faithful and artistically talented man who never hesitated to share his gifts with others," said Father Chet Artysiewicz, Glenmary's president. "He was a brother to us all and will be sorely missed."

He grew up during the Depression in a financially struggling family, the third of four brothers. "My parish church provided something very important, good and beautiful in my life," he said in a 1977 interview. He said he always had an appreciation for and desire to bring out the inherent beauty in people and things—and discovered he had innate talents in these areas.

"Ministry and priesthood are easy and natural ways to respond to the fractures and brokenness in people," Father Mathis reflected in that interview. "Through ministry I can help others discover or uncover their own forgotten or doubted beauty and value."

Following his ordination, he served as an associate pastor at missions in Franklin and Guthrie, Ky., and Swainsboro, Ga., before moving on to his first pastorate in Claxton, Ga., where he ministered from 1960 to 1965.

Father Mathis served in leadership roles in Glenmary for the next 13 years—as a council member, promotion and mission office director, and formation director—before pastoring missions in Pulaski and Fayetteville, Tenn. (1979-83). Following these assignments, he was appointed Glenmary's personnel director (1983-87) before returning to mission areas to pastor two more Kentucky missions—Vanceburg (1987-88) and Grayson (1988-93).

Even as a young associate pastor and pastor, Father Mathis also used his art and design skills to enhance the liturgical settings where his Catholic communities worshiped, as well as advising other missions on design. His talent enabled him to carry out these efforts with no formal training.

However, during a one-year period of renewal from 1978 to 1979, he took courses and worked in various art media, developing and refining skills that would eventually change the course of his ministry. To cap off the year, he learned stained-glass art and design from a master craftsman in Assisi, Italy—and found out he loved it.

Providentially, as pastor of the Fayetteville, Tenn., mission (1979-83), he was able to put his skills to work in helping design a new church building. He also helped create 10 stained-glass windows and introduced a collaborative process he later used at many other times and places.

First he created the designs and then trained mission volunteers to cut glass and assemble the windows. This method, he said, allowed the financially strapped congregation "to bring color, beauty and inspiration into their worship space" for about 10 percent of what a professional studio would have charged. Most important, he realized "the windows were only a byproduct. What we were building was community between mission members."

Father George at a drafting table designing a panel
In 1993, Father Mathis requested and received Glenmary senior-member status at age 65 so he could have more time for his art and design work. "God gave me these talents, too," he said, "and I wanted more time to use and share them." As a senior member, he also served as a sacramental minister for Glenmary and diocesan congregations near his Kingsport home.

Before his death, Father Mathis completed 15-20 stained-glass projects—at Glenmary missions, other Catholic churches, a Christian church, and more. He employed the group method on the majority of jobs, an approach that, to his knowledge, no one else was using. In addition, he served as a liturgical design consultant for a number of Glenmary missions and other rural parishes with very limited budgets.

"I feel very blessed," Father Mathis said in 2010, "that with the support of the Glenmary community, I've been able to do pastoral ministry and be a spiritual leader, as well as having the opportunity to use some of my other talents to serve God and other people."

Father Mathis is survived by nephews, nieces, fellow Glenmary missioners and friends.
Memorials may be made to Glenmary Home Missioners, PO Box 465618, Cincinnati, OH, 45246.”

I first met the man I knew as “Father George” in 1981 when I first moved to Lincoln County, Tennessee.  At that time, there was no separate Catholic church building in the county.  A unique Christian community had taken root that was a cooperative venture between the Presbyterians in the Parks City area, and the county’s Catholics.  The sign in front of the church read, “St. John’s Presbyterian Church – St. Raphael Catholic Church – Christians Cooperating.”  Each Sunday, Father George would celebrate Catholic Mass at 8:30 AM.  At 10:00, we would have a joint Sunday school with both Catholic and Presbyterian leaders.  Then, at 11:15, the Presbyterian congregation would hold their Sunday service.  It was a remarkable relationship that had resulted in a truly wonderful worship environment.

Unfortunately for that cooperative community, the Catholic population of the county was expanding rapidly and needed its own facilities.  It fell to George Mathis to lead the construction of a new building on land that the congregation had acquired years earlier.  As is told on the Website of that congregation, “In 1968 the parish purchased a small lot on Wilson Parkway, which was to be a potential site for a new parish location.  …As a group, the parish worked diligently to raise sufficient money to purchase land and to commence construction on the church building itself. Foundations, funds, and individuals were solicited for contributions. During the fund raising phase a woman contacted the church, and offered a very large donation, to be granted anonymously, provided that the new church was named for St. Anthony. Her wish was granted in June 1982, and the change of the parish name to St. Anthony was approved. In June 1982, the parish purchased approximately five acres on the Huntsville Highway, subject to the approval of Bishop James D. Niedergeses. The property included a small frame house that would provide a residence for the pastor, and a four-car garage to use as a work and storage area, and provide meeting space for gathering after Mass. The parish sold the property on Wilson Parkway, and on Sunday, August 8, 1982, ground was broken for the new church, the first Catholic Church ever built in Lincoln County. The next month the Parish Council voted to include a new rectory in the building program. In the meantime, renovation of half of the garage area was being done by volunteer labor to provide a space for meetings and small socials.”

"Prayer Rising as Incense" and "Pentecost"
Windows at St. Anthony of Padua, Fayetteville, TN
Image courtesy of Flick River: SouthernBreeze
Father George worked closely with the new building’s architect.  He reminded him that the Hebrews were a nomadic people, and that their original places of worship would have been tents.  He wanted the building to have that “feel.”  And so the building became a structure of large flat planes, like those of a tent, and appeared to be anchored at its corners.  And in ten locations throughout the sanctuary, provision was made for stained glass windows.  George informed the Parish Council that he was planning to use parish volunteers to build these beautiful windows!

He had been hatching this idea since he had studied stained glass art in Italy.  He felt certain that he could instruct the volunteers in the craft of cutting and mounting the individual colored panes.  He would perform as designer and adviser.  What could possibly go wrong?

George began by submitting several sets of ideas for themes that he had sketched out on paper, showing all ten panels in miniature.  The parish council selected one set as their favorite, and Father George then rendered each of these ten selected panels in full scale on large sheets of craft paper.  These would serve as our life-size patterns.  We set up a couple of large work tables in an old, drafty, dirt-floored garage that existed on the property, adjacent to the site where the church was already taking shape.  A group of volunteers was assembled to receive training from George.  We proceeded with the windows in the order that they would be needed in the building.  One of the workers who contributed most was Joe Bonin.  He was married to one of the members of the church and had gotten recruited.  He was the only member of the crew with any experience!  George even recruited his brother Bill to come to Fayetteville for a few weeks to help out.

A beautiful window George designed
for Holy Trinity Church in
Swainsboro, Georgia
Within a few weeks, the windows were completed.  They were spectacular and remain so to this day.  And they remain to this day a tribute to the artistry of their author, George Mathis.  The subjects, Prayer Rising as Incense, Pentecost, Holy Spirit, the Elements of Communion, are all intended to inspire and enhance the worship experience.  George knew exactly what he was doing.  We were all especially blessed to have known him.

Not long after we had completed the church’s construction, I was beginning to come to terms with my alcoholism.  Margo and I went to talk to Father George and we met privately in the new sanctuary.  When I shared that I thought I might have a problem with alcohol, George told me that I had a sickness and then he surprised me by anointing me with Holy Chrism, a ceremony of healing.  He then told me I was in luck.  It seems that he served two churches, the one in Fayetteville and the Immaculate Conception Church in Pulaski, Tennessee.  And in Pulaski, he was assisted by an ordained Catholic deacon named Art.  And Art just happened to be a recovering alcoholic with over 35 years’ sobriety.  And by the way, Art was in his office that day and would be happy to talk to me.

I went and talked to Art that day.  It would be a few more months until I finally established my own sobriety date, but the events of that day were very much part of my recovery story.  Thanks, George, for life itself.  Rest in peace, my artist friend.

Nov 1, 2015

The Get-A-Way Skateboard Park...

Photo courtesy of the Huntsville Old School Skate Project

Last Sunday I got on a plane in Huntsville to go to Texas as part of my job.  A gentleman sat next to me and we began to chat.  He was headed to Kwajalein for his job.  He indicated that he works for the Army Corps of Engineers and he lives in Kwaj with his wife and one son while he is supporting an Air Force construction job.  He asked how I happened to come to Huntsville and I explained that I originally came to Huntsville to manage a teen recreation center and skateboard park.  He shocked me by saying, "You're Bob Mead."  Therein lies a great story.

In the nineteen seventies, I worked for a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  One of my colleagues was a fellow named Bill Gibbons.  He and his wife, Claire, had five kids.  I often visited the Gibbons family, and on occasion, I had babysat the children.  Eventually, the Gibbons family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where Bill got involved in making films and videos for the Army at Redstone Arsenal.

One day, Bill called and asked me if I might be interested in moving to Huntsville to take over the general managership of a project that he and his business partner, Mr. David Jacobsen, were undertaking -- a teen recreation center involving a state-of-the-art skateboard park.  My fiancee and I flew to Huntsville for a visit, liked what we saw, and decided to take the opportunity.  That's how I ended up in Huntsville, Alabama.

When I arrived, the park was under construction under the management of a general contractor named Paul DeMent.  Paul was very competent, was a graduate of Auburn's construction technology program, and had previously built a skate park in Columbus, Georgia.  However, within a few weeks of my arrival, Mr. DeMent and Mr. Gibbons got into a disagreement and Paul's business agreement became history.  I was left with a lot of dirt, a design for a park developed by prominent local architect Lloyd Kranert, and not much else.  Bill asked me if I thought I could get a contractor's license.  Within a couple weeks of studying, I felt I was ready to take the test.  Soon, I had a certificate saying I could legally build things in Madison County, Alabama.

Bill had shared the details of the budget with me.  When I looked at Mr. Kranert's design, I was convinced it couldn't be built for anywhere near the initial estimate.  But Bill didn't have any confidence in my cost estimating skills.  So I suggested that he get a prominent local contractor to work up an estimate for the building, even if he had to pay for the estimate.  He did so, and the result shocked him.  It exceeded even my estimate.

I offered my employer, Unicorn Enterprises, an alternative.  It was now too late to pour concrete before Spring.  We had time to change course.  How about letting me come up with some suggested design concepts and build foamcore models of them to present to Bill and David for their consideration?  I knew the general requirements.  The building would have to contain a skateboard pro shop, some office space, a pinball gallery, snack bar, rest rooms, and a teen discotheque with a DJ's booth, lighted dance floor, and built-in light show.  I would include those features in the designs I would suggest.  They agreed and I was on my way to designing a building.

In the meantime, we hired a professional skateboarding champion (national freestyle champion, 1977) named Bill Underwood to reexamine the design of the skating area of the park that Mr. Kranert had designed.  Bill moved from Atlanta to Huntsville and became my assistant for design issues.  He recommended sweeping changes to the design.  He knew what skaters want in a skating venue.  One of the most important contributions Bill made was the recommendation that each of the "bowls" have a different wall angle and therefore degree-of-difficulty.  We ended up with 30-, 60-, and 90-degree bowls that became standards of excellence in skatepark design.  Bill also recommended changes to the allocation of space to the various features of the park.  In addition, as the design and construction advanced, Bill Underwood became kind of my quality assurance assistant, bringing to bear his experience and technical knowledge to evaluate the surfaces and concrete finishes of the park's features.

The original building contained the
four round modules and their "connectors."
More recently, the extension on the
upper left was built to serve the needs
of Huntsville's Chinese Christian Church.

I presented my building design concepts and the corporate leadership selected a design involving four circular 13-sided buildings tied together with broad connecting walls.  All the "pods" were free-standing and required no internal structural supports, so I had complete freedom in the interior design.  Each pod was about 38 feet in diameter, or a little over 1,100 square feet.  I made sure that the design met all requirements under the Southern Building Code for a "commercial" building.  It took about a month to complete all the detailed drawings -- structural details, plans and elevations, roof design, cross-sections, electrical, plumbing, foundation/footings, grading plan, etc.  The next challenge was to get a licensed, state-registered architect to bless and "stamp" the drawings, a requirement due to the commercial nature of the planned use.  Fortunately, I was able to find an architect willing to work with me.  He told me it "broke his heart" to take my name off the signature block and replace it with his.  I was humbled by his comment.  He made no changes to my design.

On about March 16th, 1979, we began pouring the foundations.  The foundation for the discotheque module included a large recessed area in which I would construct a lighted dance floor to be controlled by the DJ in his booth.  Soon, we were erecting walls and placing the roof structure.  The roof beams extended from the wall to a "compression ring" at the top center of the conical roof.  A steel cable ran around the top circumference of each of the circular modules, pulling the entire structure together.

One interesting challenge arose with regard to the lighting of the pro shop area.  The owners wanted a chandelier-style lighting fixture to illuminate this large open space.  I researched the commercial standards to determine the light requirements for retail space and wrote a requirements document for the desired lighting fixture.  We invited a representative of a prominent commercial lighting manufacturer to meet with us to review the requirements.  A few days after that meeting took place, we were informed that the custom-built lighting fixture would set us back about $18,000!  I informed Bill and David that I could light the shop with a perfectly fine hanging light for less than $1,000.

The pro shop.  At the top of the picture, you can see part
of the rough-finished cedar "troughs" in which I placed
fluorescent light fixtures to illuminate the area. (Photo
courtesy of the Huntsville Old School Skate Project)

They really had little choice but to let me give it a shot, since we were stretching the budget already.  I suspended an inverted turned porch column from the center point of the cone-shaped ceiling.  From this post, I extended rough cedar "troughs" in which I installed 4' fluorescent tube commercial fixtures.  The troughs were lined with reflective aluminum foil to focus the light toward the ceiling.  There were two layers of these spokes, the top layer being 8' in overall length, and the bottom layer 16' long.  Each layer had 8 of these "light troughs" and the outer ends were supported by chains which I painted flat black.  It ended up costing around $900 and maintained the overall casual atmosphere of the pro shop.  And my lighting calculations worked -- the light levels at the floor were exactly as predicted and because all the light was reflected off the white ceiling, it was an even, glare-free environment.

Excavation and rebar placement for the feature known as the 3/4 pipe.
All the features were hand dug by a crew of college students.
(Photo courtesy of the Huntsville Old School Skate Project)
When we started sculpting the dirt (We had brought in hundreds of truckloads to elevate the park above the local flood plain.), we hired several college students and they were supervised by Bill Underwood.  We attempted to use local concrete finishers but the quality of the finishing was not up to the standards required for a top-notch skatepark.  Some research led us to a company out of the Tucson area that built swimming pools and enormous storm drainage systems.  The owner, Dwayne Bigelow, had developed a reputation for creating the finest skating surfaces on earth.  We brought him to Huntsville to look at the features we had already sculpted and to give us an estimate on completing the
The completed park.  It included carefully planned walkways
with safety railings, abundant lighting, and an extensive
sound system placed strategically in the landscaping.
(Photo courtesy of the Huntsville Old School Skate Project)
park's skating surfaces.  Mr. Bigelow and his crew, combined with Bill Underwood's design acumen, would result in what many believed at the time was the finest skateboard park in the world.  Probably the three contenders for that title would the Cherry Hill, New Jersey park, the Get-A-Way in Huntsville, and the Apple park in Columbus, Ohio.  Dwayne Bigelow and his team did the concrete work in all three parks.

All these activities were proceeding somewhat in parallel -- sculpting dirt, shooting or pouring concrete and finishing it, in addition to installing lighting and sound systems, creating walkways and landscaping, and all the other myriad details of creating and opening a new business.  It was a very exciting time.  We were granted our Certificate of Occupancy in time for a Grand Opening on the Fourth of July weekend of 1979.

Buddy Rawls gets vertical
in the 90-degree bowl
(Photo courtesy of the Huntsville
 Old School Skate Project)

The local skateboard community had visited the park from the very first day.  There was an abundance of talent in the Huntsville area in 1978-79.  A glance through the skateboarding magazines of the time would often reveal names like Buddy Rawls, Kurt Jose, Dave Cobb, Pat Wachter (we hired Pat as our resident pro), Tyler Ledbetter, Greg Williams, Todd McDonald, Scott Zekanis, Robert and Kevin McMahan, Ed and Ralph DeSanctis, Paul Gierow, DeLourdes McCoy (a very skilled young lady), and many others too numerous to mention.  When the park opened, we had plenty of talent to fill its many features.  In 1981, Thrasher Magazine stated, "The Get-A-Way has fostered some of Alabama's best vert skaters. Buddy Rawls (SIMS), Paul Gierow and Kurt Jose are just a few whose skate talent has excelled since the park opened its doors in '79."

An article in Thrasher magazine
featured this image of Pat Wachter
going past vertical in the park's
amazing 3/4 pipe.
(Photo courtesy of the
Huntsville Old School
Skate Project)
The park contained an amazing variety of features -- a cloverleaf bowl, keyhole bowl, 30-, 60-, and 90-degree bowls, a slalom course, free-style area, the so-called "snake run," a sinuating course that sloped for its entire length, a half pipe, and an amazing 3/4 pipe that had surfaces beyond vertical.  This was a park of remarkable flexibility and quality.

There's a remarkable archive of words and pictures of this period in Huntsville's skateboarding legacy at a Website called "
The Huntsville Old School Skate Project."  It includes over 350 images of the fabulous skaters of the time.

I stayed until the grand opening but had decided to move on to become a self-employed general contractor.  The park operated for a couple of years, but that skateboarding period drew to a close and the park became a victim of the times.  It closed and all those beautiful sculpted concrete features were filled in and covered over.  The building which I had so much fun designing and erecting is still serving, however.  It is currently the
Today, the choir of the Huntsville
Chinese Christian Church practices
in the building that I had the privilege
to design and construct.
(Photo courtesy of the Huntsville Chinese
Christian Church Website)
Huntsville Chinese Christian Church.  I'm happy with that.

So my airplane ride to Texas, sitting next to Robert McMahan, one of those talented skateboarders, brought back a flood of wonderful memories and reestablished a friendship that I hope will take new root.  Thanks, Robert.

An interesting footnote:  As Robert and I went our separate ways at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I suggested he look at my blog, where he "might find some interesting material about the Get-A-Way."  I've written over 300 entries on this blog over several years and I felt sure that I had included some information about the skateboard park.  I was absolutely wrong!  I've searched on several key words, but I think that this entry is the first on this subject that dominated my life for more than a year, is the reason I came to Huntsville, and was one of the most fulfilling creative enterprises I ever enjoyed.  I wonder what other experiences I've overlooked???

Oct 18, 2015

The Saga of the Lincoln Diesel...

A Lincoln Continental of the same body style as my diesel
The 1995 Mead Christmas letter included the following: "The highlight of the year was our trip in July.  After many years of studying Hemmings Motor News Bob found a long sought-after car-- a 1984 Lincoln Continental with a BMW diesel engine.  Of course, it wasn’t in a nearby state; it was in Minnesota (but spent its winters in Arizona).  We figured that Minnesota wasn’t too far out of our way as we had planned to attend the Lincoln Zephyr Owners Club meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, to help celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Lincoln Motor Car.  So off we went with stops in Chicago to see Margo’s cousins, on to pick up the car and a quick visit with the Weatherlys in St. Paul, and (driving two cars with portable CB’s), across Wisconsin to Michigan."

The car that motivated that trip is an interesting subchapter in American automotive history.  It starts at BMW in the early 1980's.  They had developed the 528 series which had been quite successful.  Management decided they needed to add a diesel option to the 500 series lineup.  BMW's normal practice at the time was to design their engines but often to "farm out" production to other firms who had the capacity and were willing to meet BMW's rigorous production standards.  One such firm that produced lots of BMW engines is Steyr-Daimler-Puch.  Because of a lack of design capacity at the time, BMW made a deal in which Steyr-Daimler-Puch would both design and manufacture the new diesel engine.  By the terms of the agreement, they would also have the right to market the engine to other customers.  The result of this venture became the BMW 524td turbo diesel automobile.  It displaced only 2.4 liters as opposed to the gasoline counterpart's displacement of 2.8 liters because it required additional capacity in the cooling jackets and BMW had specified the outer envelope as being no larger than the gasoline engine.  The addition of the turbocharger was intended to boost the horsepower of the diesel.  It turned out to be a decent engine from what I have read, with the possible exception of a camshaft that suffered premature wear.

In the same time period, the good folks at the Lincoln Motor Division of Ford concluded that there was a substantial market for a diesel-powered luxury American vehicle, particularly in middle-eastern countries.  They were redesigning the Lincoln and Continental series, so why not make a diesel option available?  As they searched around the world for possible existing diesel options, they realized that the 524td engine would work because of the deal BMW had made with Steyr-Daimler-Puch!  Ultimately, this led to the 1983 option of a diesel-powered Mark VII or Lincoln Continental sedan.  They never really sold very well.   I have read that fewer than 400 units ever left the dealers' showrooms.  The marketing experts had it all wrong.

The Lincoln diesel, based on the BMW 524TD

I was aware that these cars existed and became fascinated with the idea of a large, comfortable American car that would get over thirty miles to the gallon.  I commute twenty five miles each way to work.  This option might provide a nice way to commute.  And so the search began.

After several months of searching in Hemmings Motor News and on eBay, I finally located a car that belonged to a gentleman in Minnesota but had spent all its winters in Arizona.  We negotiated a deal over the phone and that triggered the trip to Minnesota described in the Christmas letter.

The car was interesting.  It was very comfortable but grossly underpowered.  The Diesel engine had been mated to a German ZF automatic transmission, the same as used in the BMW 524td.  The 114 horsepower engine was trying to move a 3,700 pound car.  From 0 to 60 miles per hour took about 13 seconds and left a smoke screen.   It was a fine road cruiser but not much else.  I commuted in mine for about three years without incident.  Then, one day at work, a friend stuck his head in to my office and said, "I love your low rider."  It seems that the air suspension had collapsed!  My car sat very low over the wheels.

I drove the car home that day and researched the cost of rebuilding the air suspension.  The dealers didn't know much about the system, so I ended up buying the replacement bladders and replacing both front and rear units.  Still no luck.  The culprit was the pump and modulator valve assembly.  These were no longer available anywhere, so I left the car where it was parked, next to the house. (Today, there are conversion kits available to convert these cars to conventional springs.  Those kits didn't exist at the time.)

Fast forward a few years.  One day, Mary Ann asks, "What are we going to do with the blue car?"  A reasonable enough question regarding my driveway sculpture.  We decide to list it on eBay, and I am privately thinking that maybe we can get $100 for it and get it removed.  My ad is quite explicit with lots of pictures.  "This car is inoperable, has not been run in years, needs tires and a battery, has new air bladders but they can't be inflated, BRING A TRAILER, etc."  The bidding quickly goes past $100 - $200 - $300 and the car sells for $1,300!  The buyer calls and wants to come right away to pick it up and we make arrangements.  He and his wife drive from Oklahoma in a van and show up the next day.  Without a trailer.  He explains that he is an expert on these cars, owns three others, and that he'll have it running and out of there in no time.  He explains that he has a lot of parts with him.  I get my payment, but I'm not convinced that we haven't adopted a couple of Oklahomans.

That evening, I took Mary Ann out to dinner, and when we came home I saw something unbelievable.  The Lincoln was at its correct level, up off the axles, and it had moved!  That meant it had been running.  The van was gone, as the new owner and his wife had gone to dinner.  We heard them arrive back in the yard a little while later.  About 10:00 PM, I went out to see if they wanted to use our bathroom or if they needed anything.  They and the car were gone!  Poof!

For the next several days, I tried to call the buyer at his home in Oklahoma.  There was no response.  I pictured a wreck somewhere in the Ozarks with the car going over a cliff or exploding in flame.  Finally, about two weeks after his mysterious disappearance, the new owner called.  He couldn't be happier.  The car was running so well when they left that they decided to visit some in-laws in Arkansas and go fishing for a few days.  He said the car exceeded his expectations in every way.  And I and Mary Ann were ecstatic that the driveway sculpture had a fine new home. 

Oct 17, 2015

A Lesson in the Value of Silence...

Wilhelm Angele at the telescope of the Von Braun Astronomical Society
Photograph courtesy of The Huntsville Times." (Dooling)
On September 1st, 1996, an obituary notice in the New York Times was titled "Wilhelm Angele, 91, Engineer in Space Program."  The notice went on to describe, "Wilhelm Angele, a member of the team of scientists who began the American rocket program in the 1950's and whose last contribution will help test parts of Einstein's general theory of relativity in a project scheduled for the year 2002, died on Aug. 22 in a hospital in Richmond. Mr. Angele, who was 91, formerly lived in Huntsville, Ala., where he worked at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center."

Mr. Angele and I became acquainted in 1978, shortly after Margo and I had married and moved to Huntsville.  It had to do with my long-standing interest in astronomy and telescopes.  Not long after we moved to the Rocket City, I became aware of the Von Braun Astronomical Society (VBAS), an energetic local organization of astronomy devotees.  They maintained (and still do) a very nice observatory with a high-quality 16-inch diameter reflecting telescope on top of Monte Sano Mountain which borders Huntsville.  There could be no doubt -- I needed to become a member and gain access to this telescope.

In 1955, when the VBAS was in its infancy, Mr. Angele served as the committee chairman for observatory construction.  That beautiful facility with its fine optics were Wilhelm Angele's babies!  When I joined the club and showed an interest in using those fine optics, I was told that I first had to complete a training program administered by Mr. A.  No one was permitted to touch the telescope until they had been trained, examined, and certified by the builder himself.  My recollection is that it involved four or five 1-hour evening sessions at the observatory.  I signed up for the training.

At the time this was taking place, I was a regular consumer of alcoholic beverages.  I would come home from work in the evening and have at least a couple of highballs before doing any of my evening activities.  So invariably, I would have had a couple of drinks before I drove up the Bankhead Parkway to attend my class with Mr. Angele.  Because I didn't want everyone in the confined space to know I'd been drinking, I'd usually stand off to myself and seldom speak.  I was the quiet guy over in the corner of the observatory.

There were only around 7 or 8 people in the group being trained, and we would ascend up a ladder through a hatch to enter the telescope space.  I recall that we alternated entering the upper space and remaining in the larger, lower space because we couldn't all fit in the observatory at one time.  Among the group were a couple of teenage boys, probably 15 or 16 years old, who were constantly talking and distracting those who were trying to hear the teacher.  Several times, Mr. Angele had chastised them to little avail.  On the last evening of our instruction, after the entire group had descended from the telecope chamber, Mr. Angele had had it with these two.  He said he had decided to grant users' cards to everyone in the class except for the two young men.  He chastised them for not listening and for interrupting him constantly.  And then he said, "Why can't you be more like Mr. Mead, always listening and only asking intelligent questions?"  (I had barely opened my mouth, let alone asked any intelligent questions.)

I got my telescope user's permit that night, but I learned an even more valuable lesson -- keeping your mouth shut may give people the impression that you know what's going on!  Who would have known?

By the way, having "the card" wasn't all that I thought it might be.  You had to reserve the use of the telescope and it was booked up several months in advance.  I reserved an evening in October and when the night arrived it was pouring rain.  I did the same for a March evening and it was completely overcast.  I never got to use the scope before we moved away from Huntsville.

Oct 2, 2015

A Boy Scout Reminder...

In February, 2010, I posted a blog entry entitled "Happy Birthday, Boy Scouts of America."  I described my experiences with Boy Scout Troop 72 in Schenectady, New York.  Recently, I ran across this newspaper article from the Schenectady Gazette, dated March 23, 1950:

Robert Demarest Wins X-Country Ski Race Held at, Indian Ladder

Robert Demarest rolled in first in a cross-country ski race in which members of Boy Scout Troop 72 participated at Indian Ladder Sunday.  John Tyminski copped second place while Wayne Spaulding placed third.  Members of the troop, sponsored by St. John the Evangelist Church, hiked to Indian Ladder under the leadership of Scoutmaster Ray Rokovich. Carl Schaefer, adviser to Post 72, and District Commissioner Robert Egan.

Boys on the hike were Walter and Arnold Kastarmayer. Robert and Richard Curtis, Robert and Thomas Demarest, Peter Schaefer, David Wagner, Jack Paulson, Edward Douglas, Stephen Spink, Thomas Vetter, William Mead, James Murray, James Dunn, James Earley, Daniel Ryan, James Doxsee, Spaulding and Tyminski.  Twenty-five members of the troop heard an illustrated talk on conservation recently by Ellis Edgar, local photographer, who showed films on the Adirondacks and other state-owned lands.

Jack McGowan, chairman of the troop committee, presided at the session. 

This took place almost a year before I joined the scouts.  My brother Bill was there but I was too young to join.  I surely couldn't have come up with all those names, but it does bring back some warm memories of many good times after I joined Troop 72.

Aug 14, 2015

Cuban Adventure...

Guantanamo Bay
I have seen the news today about the opening of the American embassy in Havana after some 50 years of cold-shoulder relations fostered by the Cold War.  I looked back at my previous posts on this blog and realized that I never had posted anything about my involvement in the Cuban missile crisis.  There’s no time like the present.

In early October, 1962, I was serving on the USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709), a World War II-vintage Sumner class destroyer, home based in Newport, Rhode Island.  We were part of Destroyer Development Group 2, a research-oriented organization focused on the development and testing of new naval technology.  We engaged often in supporting the naval research organizations in the testing of munitions, torpedoes, anti-submarine warfare devices, and other hardware.  We also engaged in the “normal” activities of a cold-war naval vessel – training, gunfire exercises, engineering casualty drills, and group maneuvers and exercises.  We lived in two worlds.

I was a junior officer interested in applying to submarine school, and my sub school physical had been scheduled for 23 October, at a location on Gould Island in Newport Harbor at which the navy had a hyperbaric chamber.  This kind of facility was necessary to test a candidate’s ability to equalize the pressure on ones ears as a submarine would descend or ascend.  The only access to the island was a shuttle boat that ran from the navy base on a regular schedule..

In the days leading up to October 22, it was clear that something big was happening.  Lots of ships got underway.  The Purvis was among the last ships left in port.  Rumors abounded.  On the 22nd, I had the duty, along with my colleague, Lt. Louis Grassini.  We watched President Kennedy’s speech on the wardroom TV.  The president notified Americans about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, explained his decision to enact a naval blockade around the island of Cuba, and made it clear the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to neutralize this perceived threat to national security.  We now understood why Newport looked like no man’s land.

I asked the executive officer if I should proceed with my physical the next morning and was assured that we were not going to get underway, that we were being held back for some important research, and that I should proceed to Gould Island as planned.  I did so, but when I returned to the ship around noon, I realized that we had lit off boilers, that our mooring lines had been “singled-up,” and that the ship's crew was busily taking on stores.  By 1:30, we were underway for Cuba.

Our role, once we arrived in Cuba on 26 October, was to serve as a gunfire support ship for the US Marines who were spread out along the fence line to defend the base in the event of an attack.  There were four destroyers deployed to cover three gunfire positions.  We would patrol along the shore of Leeward Point or along Windward Point, or in the Bay itself.  On the fourth day, we would tie up to a pier to replenish supplies and fuel.  We did this for a several days until the situation was resolved.  The Soviets agreed to dismantle the Cuban missiles in return for the US agreement to not invade Cuba.

There are a few items I recall from that time:
Komar-class torpedo/missile boat
1.       The Navy Exchange had thrived on selling cut gemstones to crews of ships which used Gitmo as a training center.  Every ship leaving overhaul on the east coast proceeded to Guantanamo for “Refresher Training.”  The exchange had an enormous supply of quality gemstones that they didn’t want the Cubans to get if they were to take over the base (When we first arrived, there was a real concern that open warfare was about to take place.  The Cubans had amassed a large army surrounding the base.).  Suddenly, the exchange was selling gemstones at enormous discounts.  I, as an Ensign, earning $222.50 per month, had no money to spare on such items.  Many of the senior crew members and officers took advantage of the situation.
2.       When we were in the bay, we could see the tips of Soviet surface-to-surface missiles sticking out among the trees on the mountainsides surrounding the base.  It was apparent the if something broke loose, our ship would be a sitting duck for the rocketeers.
3.      When we were on the patrols off of Windward and Leeward Points, it was common to be harassed by Soviet-built Komar-class torpedo/missile boats that were now part of the Cuban navy.  We were not permitted to fire first, so we had no choice but to watch these fast craft approach, first by radar, then visually.  They sometimes came in two’s or three’s.  They would approach at high speed, then make a hard turn within a few yards of our beam, and then disappear in the direction where they had started.  It was nerve racking, not knowing their intentions.
4.       When we were alongside the replenishment pier, it was common for the off-duty officers to head for the Officers Club.  We were required to carry side arms while off the ship, so we’d be issued a holster with a .45-caliber automatic and several clips as we crossed the quarterdeck.  But when we arrived at the O-Club, the management wisely felt that we should surrender our weapons before imbibing.  So we handed our holsters and pistols to a little Cuban lady who ran the cigar stand at the club’s entrance.  When we left the club, because most of us had overindulged, the guns would be given to the driver of the truck that returned us to our ship.  I always was amused that we were voluntarily handing our weapons to a Cuban citizen for “safekeeping.”  At the club, all drinks were $0.10.  That’s right.  A dime a drink.  Movies were free.  Dinner could be had for less than $5.00.  It was Ensign’s paradise except that there were absolutely no women in sight except for the Cuban cigar lady.
5.       There was a real concern about Cuban “frogmen” because of a training facility not far from the base where the Cubans allegedly trained their underwater demolition teams.  As a result, I was required to wear a belt of impact grenades and spend a good part of all night watches patrolling the main deck looking for frogmen in the water when we were in the bay.  We had bright lights rigged to illuminate the water around the ship in hopes of spotting any such swimmers.  None showed up.
6.       For reasons I never understood, some of the ships participating in the blockade and related activities received the Navy Expeditionary Medal.  Others did not.  The Purvis was one of the fortunate ships whose crew got to wear this medal.
      7.       The ship ran out of cigarettes.  The ship's store hadn't had time to fully replenish their stock while in Newport.  The crew was rolling their own really crude cigarettes using the paper from the plotters in the Combat Information Center and pipe tobacco.  It's amazing that no one died of asphyxiation!  

I look back on this incident and reflect on how naïve I was as a young Ensign.  At the time, I don’t think I fully comprehended the gravity of the larger situation.

Jul 25, 2015

The Ellises of Jay Street...

The Ellis Building, on the right, at the intersection of State Street
and Erie Boulevard, in Schenectady, around 1968
I recently published a blog post about Alan and Corinne Luke, two friends of my parents.  It has triggered memories of several other couples with whom my parents socialized -- what we today might refer to as "hung out with."  One of these couples was Bill and Eleanor Ellis.  A search for Bill (or William D.) Ellis in Schenectady, New York, yields very little.  What does show up are a number of newspaper articles describing golf tournaments in which he (Uncle Bill to the Mead children) was either an official or a participant.  A search for Eleanor Ellis in Schenectady results in the same findings.  And indeed, my memory of the Ellises is that they were people of liesure.  They lived in a beautiful building on Jay Street, near the main Post Office in our fair city.  I believe it was the apartment building now at 49 Jay Street.  The numbers in the addresses may have changed since the 1950's, when I last visited the Ellises.  I don't believe they had any children, and as a result they really showed their affection for the Mead kids whenever we visited them, which was fairly often.

49 Jay Street
One measure of how close my parents were to their acquaintances was whether the friends got invited to Lake George in the summer when my folks rented a cabin on Basin Bay.  The Ellises were there every year, which tells me they must have been close friends.  I once asked my father if Uncle Bill Ellis worked and was told that he maintained his rental properties, one of which was the "Ellis Building" at the northeast corner of the main intersection in town -- Erie Boulevard and State Street.  Apparently the Ellis Building was a source of drama in the 1970s.

According to information on Schenectady's digital archive site, "The Ellis Building was built around the time that the Erie Canal was dug through that part of the city in 1825 and was considered to be one of the last surviving buildings from the Canal era. From the beginning, public sentiment was against the proposal. One local attorney who opposed the demolition of the buildings argued that it would "increase the size of the hole on our main street," and pointed out that the buildings "form a façade that gives our main street the appearance of a street rather than wasteland."   The proposal in question was to demolish several older building to create downtown parking along both Erie Boulevard and State Street.  The discussion continues, "By 1974, the city's Urban Renewal Agency [URA] had taken title to the Ellis building and was now insisting that these buildings make way not for a parking lot, but a "modern office building or a shopping complex."  But the city still felt that it would need the Bucci building to create a parcel that would be large enough to entice developers. The owner of the building, Earl Bucci, fought the city for years to prevent them from taking his property through eminent domain. The sentiment of the of the city was expressed by Councilman Ray Vacca who said, "Fight them" which was followed by Councilman Charles Seber who suggested that the city should "Demolish the building and let them take us to court." Councilman Erwin Shapiro thought that even though the building had three tenants, it looked bad and that "a vacant lot would look a lot better."  A number of residents continued to fight to keep the historic Ellis building and sent in an application to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wayne Harvey, vice chairman of the Schenectady Bicentennial Commission pointed out the irony of a city being nominated as a National Bicentennial Community while seeking to tear down so many buildings that were linked closely to the city's history. He said visitors could be taken to the site of the old train station or the Ellis Building to view the plaques and the pictures of what was once there and the city could say, "Isn't the plaque interesting?" or "Are not the pictures great?" The visitor would then be told by the city, "We had the building but we tore it down."  But the city council remained determined to get rid of these buildings. One exception was Councilman David Roberts who thought that the city should at least have a proposal for redeveloping the properties before rushing to demolish them. Later he stated that he had "been 'besieged' by phone calls from residents all urging preservation of the building."  But after owning the building for a number of years and allowing it to deteriorate further, the city stated that they just didn't have the money to sustain the building. After years of protests (and urging) from residents to save the building, Councilman Erwin Shapiro admonished the "anti-demolitionists for 'doing a great injustice to the city. When you let the city spend a great deal of money to buy the building knowing that it was to be demolished, you've done a great disservice to the majority of the city taxpayers, you should have come forth earlier.'"
Demolition of the building
The demolition contractor choose the first day of Spring in 1975 to begin the job. On the following day the Schenectady Gazette featured a picture of the Ellis Building being torn down with the caption titled: "Super Spring Cleaning." However, Earl Bucci continued to fight the city's attempts to take over his property, eventually taking it to the state's highest court.  By 1976 the city was insisting that they needed both sites to attract a developer.  The new plan: A rail transportation center with a 900 car parking garage. Soon after the city found a developer, the firm was indicted for fraud by the county, although the charges were later dropped. In the end, Bucci lost his court fight and the city started demolition in August 1978. Unfortunately the city was never able to interest a reputable developer in the site. Later modest landscaping improvements were added — despite the mayor's protests; in the end the buildings were sacrificed for less than fifteen parking spaces. Plans being drawn up now would place an office building on the site as part of the new Western Gateway Transportation Center."

A parking lot now resides on the site of the "Ellis Building"
Uncle Bill had inherited his wealth from an uncle, William D. Ellis, his namesake, who was the last President of the Schenectady Locomotive Works before it became the backbone of the American Locomotive Works in 1901.  That uncle left an estate of over $2 million in the early years of the twentieth century.

Unfortunately, Uncle Bill had a tragic dark side.  He was an alcoholic who struggled with his addiction throughout his adult life.  Sometimes when we would visit Aunt Eleanor in her apartment on Jay Street, Uncle Bill would be gone.  He had gone to a "farm" to be "dried out," and she was more than willing to share that with our family.  As was common in those days, an alcoholic could go through life with periodic episodes of sobriety, punctuated by binges and periods of detoxification.  All my recollections of Uncle Bill are of that pattern.  I never heard of his finding long-term recovery.  He passed away in 1980, so obviously he had lived through all the drama of "his" building's demolition.

Aunt Eleanor died in 1992.  In the Schenectady Gazette for March 10, 1992, was the following:
"A private service will be held for Mrs. Eleanor Rice Ellis, 84, formerly of Balltown Rd., who died Sunday at St. Clare's Hospital after a long illness.  Born in Chicago, Illinois, Mrs. Ellis lived in Schenectady most of her life.
She was a former member of the Mohawk Golf Club.  Her husband, William D. Ellis, died in 1980.  Survivors include a nephew, Robert J. Raab, of Chicago.

Burial will be in Vale Cemetery.  There will be no calling hours.  Arrangements are by Daly Funeral Home, 242 McClellan Street."  Rest in peace, my beloved "non=relatives."  I often wonder how your path crossed that of my parents.