Dec 14, 2016

Barbers...

Bella, the barber shop dog at Terry McCay's Barber Shop
When I moved to Tennessee in 1981, I began going to the "Please-U" Barber Shop on Elk Avenue, not far from the court house.  Over a period of two or three months, I gravitated to James Stewart as my barber.  From that time forward, I would wait until James could take me whenever I entered the shop.  He was "my" barber.  We carried on conversations when he was cutting my hair.  He knew the way I liked it cut.  He learned about my family and I learned about his.  There's a certain kind of good bond between a barber and his clients.

Then, about 12 or 13 years ago, James announced that he was retiring.  He had turned 85, and he had decided to throw in the towel, literally.  I was heartbroken.  I tried the other barbers at the Please-U, but it wasn't the same.  Then, on one of my many business trips, I ran into an old colleague, Randy Cash, at the Atlanta airport.  We were catching up when he mentioned that he often came to Lincoln County because his barber was there.  He had started as a child having his hair cut by a fellow named Dickey Campbell.  Dickey had a shop in Huntsville at that time.  But eventually, Dickey moved his shop to his home state of Tennessee, and Randy had followed him (I said it's a special bond!).  I made sure I got Dickey's address before Randy and I parted ways.

Soon, I tried Dickey Campbell and liked the way he cut my hair.  He was "my" barber for the next several years until earlier this year, when he ran into some health issues that forced his retirement.  I felt terrible for Dickey, but had no choice but to start looking for another barber.  I didn't want a stylist or some foo-foo salon.  I wanted to find a barber that can get rid of some of my extra hair (of which there's not a lot these days) and carry on a pleasant, engaging conversation.  My first attempts were to go to what I call the strip mall chains.  You've seen these -- Head Start, Sport Clips, Master Cuts, Klean Cuts, and the like.  The problem with these shops is evident from the second visit -- you never seem to get the same hair cutter twice in a row.  In fact, it looked to me as if the whole crew got replaced between visits!  This continued for several months until last week, when I mentioned my frustration to Mary Ann.

Like the champ that she is, Mary Ann jumped on the Internet.  "This one looks interesting," she said.  "He has a write-up that is from some very satisfied client.  He talks about a barber shop dog that greets the clients."  Not long after that, I left the house to find Terry McCay's Barbershop on Winchester Road in Huntsville.  I had called ahead to make sure I didn't need an appointment.  Mr. McCay assured me that he'd be glad to see me come in at any time.  I got a great haircut at a fair price, was greeted by a very friendly dog, and met my new barber.

Dec 9, 2016

The Space Capsule...

"Godspeed, John Glenn..."
Yesterday, John Glenn passed away.  It got me thinking about the influence of the space program in its early days.  Today we hear about a launch of some astronauts on their way to spend a few months on the space station.  To most people, it's a fairly ho-hum affair.  It was not so in the early '60's, when every launch had us glued to our television sets (with their massive 21-inch screens).

My twin nephews, Mark and David, were born in 1960.  When they were young, I sometimes built them Christmas presents.  One year, I built them a really nice puppet theater with custom lighting and curtains that opened and closed like those in a real theater.  They put on shows for kids in the neighborhood and at school, and friends of the family often gave them hand puppets as gifts to round out their sizable collection.  Eventually, the theater and the hand puppet collection became the property of St. Margaret Mary School in Slidell, Louisiana.

It was the gift I decided to build for another Christmas that I was thinking about today, reflecting on the life of John Glenn.  I decided to build the boys a space capsule.  I wasn't sure exactly what form this might take, but I knew it could be fun.  I was living with two other bachelors, Forrest Frueh and Jim Mouser.  They were the entire Business Law department at the University of Oklahoma.  We lived in a house with a large great room and they were accustomed to my "projects" taking form in that large space.

I started by imagining three large panels hinged for storage, but capable of being set up as a kind of open-back surround set, like the illustration here:


I envisioned the kids sitting side by side on little folding chairs in front of some intergalactic window.  I bought some 3/4" plywood and built the form you see here with a 3' x 5' panel in the center, and a 2' x 5' panel on each side.  I could begin to imagine it set up in the kids' bedroom in Slidell, where my brother and his family lived.  And I could probably transport it in my '62 Galaxie 500 convertible if I put the top down.  It seemed like a plan.

My next thought was that a space capsule had to have a window or portal from which the young astronauts could look out into space.  I purchased a fluorescent light fixture and an 18" ultraviolet lamp.  After mounting it on the top of the center panel, I cut a rectangular opening and mounted some black velvet in a frame molding, with the idea that I would paint space objects -- stars, planets, comets -- using fluorescent paint.  I felt that I might end up with lots of lighting effects and that the boys would use it in a darkened bedroom.  The view out the "window" with the UV light turned on would be spectacular!  At this point, here's what I had;


One day, probably in early November, I was driving to work on campus when I spotted a juke box lying in a gutter that had obviously been abandoned there.  I stopped, saw that it had lots of useful goodies on it, and wrestled it into my trunk.  That night, I took it home and started to dismantle it.  Little did the manufacturers know that they had provided me with a gold mine of useful space capsule hardware:

Juke Box Item
Space Capsule Application
Chrome Bars in front of Speakers
Zero-Gravity Hand Hold Bars
45 RPM Turntable
Intergalactic Gyroscope/Stabilizer
Coin Receptacle and Changer
Interplanetary Currency Converter
Selection Panel with Illuminated Letters/Numbers
Computer Display

In no time, I was removing practically every bit of hardware from the pathetic cast aside juke box.  I quickly disposed of the cabinet and began thinking of the details of how I would use the found goodies.

I manufactured a panel that resided beneath the window and mounted the tune selection panel there.  Underneath were a string of blinking Christmas tree lights that showed through the translucent plastic parts of the panel.  That became the on-board computer.  Now, it started to look like something scientific.


Soon, I had added other hardware.  I decided it needed noise, too, so I added a doorbell, door chime, buzzer, and buttons to actuate them.  After all, what's a space capsule without a few emergencies?  I painstakingly painted the black velvet, using a toothpick to paint the stars, a tiny brush to do the galaxy and planets (I chose Saturn and Jupiter because they were the most visually impressive.).  And then, I added labels to everything, so any observer could recognize an intergalactic stabilizer or currency exchanger.  Along with the hand holds, it looked something like this when finished:


I carefully dismantled the panels, including the separable wiring harness.  I had thoroughly tested the wiring and functionality of lighting and sound.  The weather turned out to be beautiful on the day I drove from Norman, Oklahoma to Slidell with the top down on my '62 Ford convertible and the three panels stacked next to me.  My brother, Willy, had agreed on an address where we would meet to store the space capsule for a couple of days before Christmas.

On Christmas morning, it was a huge success with the boys.  It soon migrated into their bedroom, where it occupied a prominent corner for a few months.  Mark and David would sit for hours jabbering about extra-vehicular walks and chatting with an imaginary mission control.  They were in a space world unto themselves.  Alas, it's noise-making capability was its downfall.  My sister-in-law, Joni, soon decided it would be quieter in the Mead household if the space capsule relocated to the boys' school.  Unwittingly, I had made another contribution to St. Margaret Mary.

Dec 6, 2016

The Tom Morgan Autoharp...

Tom Morgan's unique F-hole design
Not long after I went to work for John M. Cockerham & Associates in 1984, I was assigned to work on a contract in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  I would drive up on Monday morning, leaving at about 4:00 AM, to get to Oak Ridge in time for a full work day.  I'd leave Friday evening, getting home around 9:00 PM.  The first few weeks I went up there, I stayed in a hotel.  But this was during a period when we received a fixed amount for housing each day.  (It's no longer that way -- Now we receive actual costs up to a specified maximum per diem.)

Margo and I had purchased a pop-up camper about a year earlier.  It dawned on me that I might save a few dollars by towing the camper to Oak Ridge and living in it during my week-long stays.  The next week, I towed it to Oak Ridge and found a nice state campground with trailer hook-ups for $7.00 per night!  The only problem was that they had a maximum stay of 10 days.  During the week, I explored several areas in and near Oak Ridge, looking for another campground in which I might stay indefinitely.  I finally found the Riley Creek campground on one of the creeks feeding Watt's Bar Lake.  It was scenic, quiet, comfortable, and I was able to negotiate a price of $65.00/month!  I soon was a resident with a waterfront view.
My view from Riley Creek campground

My recollection is that we received about $48.00 per day for lodging.  This meant that if I worked in Oak Ridge 22 days per month, I was making nearly $1,000 per month by staying in the camper!  I remained in Oak Ridge for several months.  Soon, we had paid off all our credit card balances and even taken a couple of short vacations with this windfall.  It was then that I talked to Margo about the possibility of buying a custom-built autoharp.

I had been playing the autoharp for over ten years by this time and had acquired 3 or 4 instruments.  They were all mass produced, and I had modified them to accommodate my personal tastes and to make them easier to play (new damping felts, lighter chord bar springs).  I felt that I was ready to describe in great detail the features and options I would want in a custom-built instrument.  Margo thought it was the right time.


I had recently bought "The Autoharp Book" by author Becky Blackley, published in September, 1983.  In that book, Becky described several instruments built by custom luthiers.  I began tracking down and calling them.  Some were no longer making autoharps.  One gentleman, when I inquired about some details of his design, informed me that I had no right to question his craft.  I wrote him off my list.  Then I talked to Tom Morgan, of Morgan Springs, Tennessee.  I looked up Morgan Springs on a map and found that it was midway between Oak Ridge and Fayetteville.  It was on my weekly route to work.

I called Tom Morgan and we had a wonderful conversation.  We discussed his design ideas.  His instruments were unique in that they had carved spruce tops like violins.  The spruce he used was 70 years old at that time.  And the exterior of his sides and backs were of Brazilian rosewood that Tom had acquired in the early 1950s at a surplus auction at the Martin guitar plant.  We agreed that the following Friday, I would leave work early and drive to Tom's shop (and residence) on my way home for the weekend.


That Friday, I followed Tom's directions, driving first to Dayton, Tennessee, and then proceeding up Morgan Mountain on Highway 30 toward Summer City.  Near the top of the mountain, I spotted a couple of landmarks and was soon turning in to the Morgans' driveway.  Tom and his lovely wife, Mary, greeted me like a long-lost friend.  We proceeded into their home where Mary retrieved her autoharp, which was the first one Tom had crafted.  It was then over 20 years old, had been played daily, and still looked like new.  She handed it to me, along with a few select finger and thumb picks, and asked if I'd care to try it out.  I strummed a few chords and the tone was like no other autoharp I had ever played.  I was sold -- if Tom had the time to build me one and if I could afford it.



Tom and Mary Morgan
at about the time I met them
Tom and I proceeded to his shop where I received the grand lumber tour.  Stacks of seasoned spruce, board-feet of rosewood, mahogany, curly maple, every kind of tonewood imaginable were in organized stacks.  And there were partially-completed instruments and repair jobs lining his workbench.  It seems that not only did Tom Morgan build coveted mandolins, banjos, guitars, and autoharps.  He was also much in demand for his top quality "invisible" repair work on damaged instruments.

We finally turned to the subject of an instrument for me.  He would build me a duplicate of Mary's autoharp in German spruce and Brazilian rosewood with ivoroid binding, and rosewood chord bars, for $1,000, including inlaying a dogwood blossom inlay in the back of the instrument.  I would create the inlay and send it to him to put on the instrument.  There would be no timetable, since repair work always would have priority.  I would pay half up front and half upon delivery.  We shook hands on it.  There was no need for a paper contract.  Tom Morgan is a man of his word.


About 2 years later, I received a call from Tom that my autoharp would be ready for delivery the following weekend.  He and Mary would be conducting an inlay workshop at Dollywood, but perhaps Margo and I might join them in Pigeon Forge and take delivery personally.  The following weekend, we did just that, driving to Pigeon Forge, meeting Tom and Mary for dinner, and receiving my new instrument.  It was gorgeous -- everything I had expected, and more.  The rosewood glowed with its multi coat, hand rubbed lacquer finish.  The tone was spectacular with a long sustain period, in spite of the fact that it was brand new.  The tone usually develops such richness over time and usage.  I couldn't have been happier.  The wait was worth it.  And Margo and I had befriended Tom and Mary to boot!

That weekend turned out to be a tragic one for Tom and Mary.  On their way home, Mary became seriously ill and Tom took her to the emergency room of a Chattanooga hospital.  They ultimately performed surgery only to discover that she had cancer.  And that disease took her life way too soon.  We were devastated.  She was a beautiful lady with a humble, generous, and kind spirit.  But Tom's friendship has grown over the years.  As a retired Air Force veteran, he often comes to Huntsville to take advantage of the medical facilities and pharmacy services at Redstone Arsenal.  We usually have lunch when he and I are in town.


And what about the autoharp that he crafted for me?  It has only improved with age.  I use it more than any of the instruments I own.  I maintain it carefully and it looks like the day I picked it up.  Tom has only built around 25 of these instruments.  I have learned that I am in good company.  John McCutcheon and Mike Seeger each had one and both of those instruments, tragically, were lost in fires.  I took lessons from Mike Seeger one summer and he lamented the loss of his Tom Morgan autoharp.  He told me it was "bulletproof."  He said, "I could take on an airplane and go somewhere to perform where the temperature and humidity were totally different from home.  It would stay in tune and perform as advertised.  It was an amazingly stable, predictable instrument."

Mine is the same -- amazingly stable and predictable.  I change the strings every two or three years, keep the chord bars in good shape, and play on.  Tom Morgan's autoharp does the heavy lifting.  Thanks, Tom, for your skill and your friendship.  And thanks, Mary, for inspiring Tom.


Nov 24, 2016

Midshipman Cruises

Boxes of plebe year Midshipman hats
In the Fall of 1958, I entered the University of Rochester as a freshman.  One reason I selected Rochester was the presence of a Navy ROTC unit.  I hoped to apply for the NROTC scholarship program, so I immediately enrolled in the non-scholarship, so-called "Contract NROTC" program.  During my first year, I applied for and was awarded the full scholarship.  That program started at the beginning of the Summer between my freshman and sophomore years.

Involvement in the NROTC scholarship program involves participation in three Midshipman cruises, one during each of the three summers of a normal four-year bachelors degree program.  Typically, the first cruise, between freshman and sophomore years, is on a ship.  The Midshipmen wear enlisted-type white uniforms and Dixie-cup styled hats with a blue stripe around the rim.  They complete a series of written workbooks and are assigned to the various departments of a ship over a period of about 6-8 weeks.  The second cruise, made between the second and third years, is an indoctrination summer, introducing the Midshipmen to Marine Corps training as well as naval air indoctrination.  Lastly, prior to the senior year, the Middies go back to sea on ships, this time acting in their future roles of junior officers.  They again complete workbook assignments, but this time, the assignments have much more to do with their future responsibilities and less to do with introducing them to shipboard life.

In the Rochester unit, assignments to Summer cruises were based on performance.  A list of available billets would come in and the highest scoring Midshipman got the first choice from the list.  It followed that each succeeding high-scorer got his choice of remaining assignments.  The first summer I was to go on a cruise was 1959.  I chose an Atlantic fleet cruise on a large combatant in the hopes that I might get to participate in a NATO joint exercise.  My orders arrived shortly before the Summer break.  I was to report on a certain day in June to the USS Northampton (CLC-1), based in Norfolk, Virginia.


We were fitted with our new uniforms, taught how to fold them properly and stow them in our duffel bag.  We were provided with a list of toilet articles and other items to include when we reported aboard.  Our training included shipboard etiquette -- when and how to properly salute, how to board and disembark the ship, seating conventions in the mess deck, shipboard timetables, etc.  I was eager to get started!


The City of Richmond, our home for a night
My parents decided they would like to drive me to Norfolk and drop me off and then take a few days of vacation.  They invited my "Aunt" Rose Lane to accompany us in our new 1959 Ford four-door sedan.  We loaded up the car a couple of days before my reporting date and headed out.  We had decided to take the Baltimore Steam Packet Line's sleeper ferry from Baltimore to Norfolk.  So after the first long day of driving, we reached Baltimore, located the ferry landing, and drove aboard an ancient sleeper ferry, the City of Richmond, built in 1913.  Accommodations were compact to say the least.  We enjoyed a really nice dinner and then retired to our cabins.  12 hours after leaving the pier in Baltimore, we awoke in Norfolk.  The plan was to do some sightseeing in and around Norfolk and get a good night's rest before dropping me off at the Norfolk Navy Base the next morning.


The USS Northampton (CLC-1) in 1959
I was delivered in my spotless white middies the next morning to a receiving building near one of the gates of the Norfolk Navy Base.  After processing, a group of us were put aboard a bus that delivered us to Pier 2, where the Northampton was moored.  As we walked down the pier lugging our sea-bags, I remember thinking this was the biggest ship I'd ever seen.  It was huge!  Actually, the Northampton was a very large ship.  She was laid down as an Oregon City-class heavy cruiser (CA–125), on 31 August 1944 by the Fore River Yard, Bethlehem Steel Corp., Quincy, Massachusetts.  When the war ended, all work stopped on the ship for many months.  She was redesigned to add an extra deck to the hull, raising her superstructure substantially.  She was fitted with state-of-the-art radar and communications gear and finally commissioned in 1953 as a command light cruiser (command ship).  When I went aboard this 675-ft. long monster, she was serving as the flagship of the second fleet, based in Norfolk.  I would soon learn that one characteristic of the Admiral's flagship is that there is more than enough spit-and-polish to go around.

The Midshipman contingent aboard the ship that summer was 40 individuals -- 20 from the NROTC program and 20 from the Naval Academy.  We were divided up into four groups, one each for the initial assignments to the Deck, Engineering, Operations, and Supply Departments, within which we would begin completing our workbooks.  Every couple of weeks, we rotated to the next sequential department assignment.  In addition to our workbook assignments, we also stood watches in the currently active department.  This meant we were in an assigned watch station, such as the bridge as a telephone talker, or the Combat Information Center, or an engine room for periods of four hours separated by eight hours in which to sleep, eat, bathe, and work on completing our workbooks.  We also had cleaning assignments and were expected to be at Quarters muster at 06:30 if not on watch.  It was a busy time.


We would bunk in Living Compartment 2-129-0-L, a compartment 2 decks below the main deck, at the 129th frame of the ship (close to amidship), on the centerline.  My initial cleaning assignment was a head and shower room not far from the Midshipman sleeping quarters.  I was to totally clean the facility, scour the showers, toilets, sinks and urinals and polish the brass and copper between the time the Midshipmen evacuated it around 06:25 and 09:15 or so when the Executive Officer showed up for an inspection.  That may seem like a lot of time to clean a few commodes, sinks, and urinals and polish some brightwork.  It is not.  In fact, it was damn near impossible to get everything ship shape from the time I returned from Quarters until the XO made his appearance.  Fortunately, I came up with a brilliant scheme.

I experimented for a few nights polishing some of the brass and copper lines and wrapping them with toilet paper.  It might keep the moist air from the showers from tarnishing the metal.  It seemed to work!  So finally, one night, I polished every bit of the brightwork and wrapped it all.  This worked perfectly for a few nights.  In the mornings, I'd scour all the fixtures, scrub the deck, and then unwrap the brightwork.  I'd flush the toilet paper down the toilets.  The place sparkled.  The XO and the Sergeant-at-Arms, his escort, found a couple minor discrepancies each morning, but were generally pleased with my work.  I was very pleased.  Until about the fourth or fifth morning after my breakthrough.


I was only about halfway done unwrapping my candystripe-wrapped pipework when I heard the Sergeant's "Attention on deck!"  I was had!  The XO demanded an explanation.  I blubbered through some pitiful excuse and was severely chastised for wasting valuable Government materials.  Needless to say, the word got around and I took a bit of harassment for a few days.


Not long after we arrived on board, the ship got underway for NATO joint exercises in the Atlantic.  We had a large number of VIPs on board.  The press contingent included Hanson Baldwin, the 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times Military Editor.  While on the quarterdeck watch the day before we departed, I carried a couple of suitcases belonging to Hungarian actress and socialite Eva Gabor, who was also a guest.

We got underway and soon formed up with a couple of cruisers, the Boston and Canberra, and about a dozen destroyers.  It became evident that one purpose of this expedition was to impress our guests with the performance of the Terrier guided missile, an early surface-to-air missile that had been introduced into the fleet in the mid-1950's.


The Terrier launcher
The morning after we departed Norfolk, we took up a station several hundred yards on the starboard quarter of the Canberra.  Dozens of chairs had been set up on the forecastle for the convenience of our guests.  A narrator used the ship's 1-MC announcing system to describe what was about to take place.  The crew of the Canberra, was preparing to launch a small winged drone that would serve as an airborne target.  Once the drone was about ten miles from the ship, it would commence a simulated "attack."  The missile crew, at the ready, would respond by launching a Terrier that would take out the attacker.  What could possibly go wrong?

The first drone was prepared and mounted on a catapult launcher that extended over the port lifeline.  The narrator counted down and the launcher fired.  We could hear the drone's engine faintly as it nosedived into the Atlantic a few hundred yards from the cruiser.  The narrator diplomatically informed us that there had apparently been a malfunction in the drone, but that another was being prepared.

After the second drone was sucessfully launched and on station, we had a brief countdown for the launch of the missile.  At "0" nothing happened.  There was a deafening silence.  "Apparently, there has been a malfunction in the missile.  The crew is evaluating the situation."  While the crew was "evaluating," we were informed that the target drone had run out of fuel and was lost.  After about another hour, we finally saw a successful drone launch, followed by a successful Terrier launch and hit.  The entire display was certainly not the Navy's finest hour.


We returned to Norfolk to drop of the VIPs and immediately went back to sea for about two weeks of NATO joint exercises with Canadian, British, and French vessels.  I rotated through all the ship's departments, completed my workbooks, and thoroughly enjoyed my first experience at sea.  The training we received was well-planned and administered by senior Midshipmen from the Naval Academy.  I was impressed as I returned to Rochester for my sophomore year.

The second Midshipman cruise would take me first to Little Creek, Virginia, for 4 weeks of Marine Corps indoctrination at the Amphibious Base, followed by 4 weeks of Aviation Indoctrination at the Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas.  I dreaded the Marine Corps portion of the summer, as I was not in great physical condition.  I really looked forward to the aviation portion, as my brother was a newly-minted Marine Corps jet pilot, and I had ambitions to take the aviation option when I would be commissioned.

Before we left Rochester, our Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant made sure we were all issued our fatigue uniforms and combat boots for the Little Creek experience.  I took a bus to Norfolk and got a military shuttle to the Little Creek Amphibious Base to report for duty. There were Midshipmen from about twenty-five of the fifty-two NROTC units represented in the arriving throng.  We were assigned to one of eight Midshipman companies residing in a common four-story barracks.  Our company was under the command of a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant and a Marine Major.  We were very fortunate to have superb leadership.  On the first morning as we formed up for quarters, our Sergeant informed us that each week, a "color company" would be selected based on our week's performance.  The reward would be that you'd be excused from the obstacle course portion of the physical training during the ensuing week.  He encouraged us to "bust our asses" to be the color company.

As a result, we worked extra hard and were the color company all four weeks!  The obstacle course training started at 16:00, so my company usually had showered and were at the Officer's Club by 17:00, enjoying the summer weather and having a beer.  The rest of our training was rigorous and physically strenuous, but was superbly planned and managed.  My fears had been for naught.  I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of this experience.

We spent a couple of days with the Marine Recon forces running everywhere we went.  We raced up and down the beach hauling heavy rubber boats on our shoulders.  "At the high carry, Raise Boats!"  But even this strenuous period was extremely well planned and executed.  And you knew that it would soon be over, no matter how sore you might be.
One of the types of landing craft
we used in our successful assault

The final part of our training involved planning and conducting an amphibious assault on "Red Beach."  We had an old World War II Personnel Carrier anchored off the beach.  We spent the night in the very hot cramped quarters of this antiquated APA, then debarked for the beach in equally outdated landing craft (LCMs, LCVPs, and other craft that now exist only in museums).  I had originally been slated to be a boat formation commander.  At the last moment, I learned that my brother's F-8 Crusader squadron was flying up from Beaufort, SC, to participate in our assault.  My Major got me transferred to the aviation management part of our organization so I could be directing aviation assets during the attack.  I got to talk with Willy and his buddies as the attack unfolded.  We successfully took the beach.



The t-34 Mentor
We flew from Little Creek to Corpus, where we learned how disorganized a program could be.  We were housed in WWII-vintage single-story wooden barracks with no air conditioning.  In August, in Texas.  The schedule was in a constant state of flux.  I, at least, could never figure out the overall structure of this training.  But we did get to make few flights.  First, we got a few hours on the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor.  This was a single engine tandem seat basic trainer.  Our pilots were young and energetic, and usually eager to sell us on the aviation path as a career objective.
The F-9F-8T Grumman Cougar trainer

After we had had completed a few hours in the T-34, we got two 1-hour flights in a Grumman F9F-8T, the training 2-seat version of the Navy's F9 Cougar jet fighter.  I remember strapping in the front seat with the pilot behind me.  I could hear his exchange with the crew and the tower over the headphones in my helmet, but I was unaware when he had started the engine.  There was none of the constant vibration we had experienced with the reciprocating engine of the T-34.  Suddenly we were taxiing.  Then, at the end of the runway, he told me to hold on, and in no time we were airborne, and soon thereafter, in vertical climb.  What a fabulous experience.


And so, in what seemed like no time, this summer cruise was over.  I returned from Corpus Christi by hitch hiking.  I have already written about that experience.

Toward the end of my junior year, I ranked third in my NROTC class at Rochester.  This meant that I'd pretty much get my choice of available cruises when the list of cruises arrived.  The list, when it finally arrived, was really interesting.  There were a number of slots for a Great Lakes cruise, 3 billets for submarine cruises (on the existing diesel-powered boats), an Arctic cruise on a Navy-operated icebreaker, 2 billets for a Mediterranean cruise on a destroyer, and various other billets for east-coast ports.  After much consideration, I chose the Med cruise.

In mid-June I reported to the USS James C. Owens (DD-776), a Sumner-class destroyer.  Twenty first-class (senior) Midshipmen were aboard for the voyage across the Atlantic.  Once we arrived in the Med, some of us would be transferred to other ships.  The trip over was uneventful and took about ten days as we engaged in training maneuvers with the other ships in our operations group.  I read James Michener's Hawaii on the way over in my leisure time.  We rotated through various departments much as we had on our first cruise.


The USS R. L. Wilson (DD-847)
When we arrived in the Mediterranean Sea, we proceeded to anchor at Beaulieu, on the French Riviera between Nice and Monte Carlo.  I transferred to the USS R. L. Wilson (DD-847), a Gearing-class destroyer that had been commissioned in March, 1946.  After a brief stay in Beaulieu over the fourth of July holiday, we embarked on carrier operations with USS Wasp.  On board were 10 Midshipmen -- 2 from the Naval Academy and 8 from various NROTC units, including Rochester, Auburn, Villanova, and Iowa State.  I have described this part of my senior cruise in another blog entry.

All three of my cruises were memorable.  They were generally well thought out and taught us much that we would need and use in our future naval careers, regardless how brief or long.  I still find myself recalling much of the wisdom that was an integral part of that training -- "Praise in public; Criticize in private" for example.  I have often thought about how much the non-scholarship NROTC candidates missed by not participating in these Summer exercises.

Nov 21, 2016

The Pig...

A properly restored 1929 Ford Station Wagon
While I was still in High School, I often worked on vintage cars to make a little extra spending money.  One day I received a call from a lady named Sue Henyon, a lady who lived in Vischer Ferry, New York.  She lived on a farm called "Windways" with her colleague, Midge Hayden (one of the three adopted grandchildren of the electrical genius, Charles Steinmetz, but that's a story for another time).  Ms. Henyon advised me that she had a 1929 Model "A" Ford station wagon.  She had forgotten to drain the water from the radiator and engine, and the cylinder head had cracked during a hard freeze.  Did I have a replacement cylinder head and might I be able to repair her car?  I agreed to bring a replacement head out to her place on a Saturday morning and fix the car.

As I was working on the car, I couldn't help noticing that the original fabric-wrapped wiring was very tattered and in dire need of replacement.  The car was used to haul hay and was stored in a very old wooden barn full of hay.  A fire would have been disastrous.  I recommended to Ms. Henyon that she have me order a new wiring harness and that I would rewire the car on another weekend.  I did that, along with a few other minor maintenance items -- adjusting the steering box, repairing the exhaust system, replacing a couple of tires, and doing a general tuneup on the car.  After a few of these weekend service visits, Ms. Henyon asked me one day if I would be interested in buying the car.  She was in the process of acquiring another vehicle to haul hay.

At first I was shocked.  I told her I was unable to pay her what the car was worth.  At that time a complete, restorable Model A Station Wagon was worth about $500.00.  The very most I could even consider would be $125.00.  I was a freshman at the University of Rochester now, and I told Ms. Henyon that the best I could do would be to pay her $25.00 at the conclusion of my summer Midshipman cruise and then $10.00 per month for the next ten months.  She said that she had been offered $500.00 by more than one hot rodder, but she wanted me to have the car.  The deal was done.

She had owned the car for many years.  She had a son who had fought in World War II, and she told me that he had once sent her a poem that he had written about the car, which they called "The Pig."  This term had come from the fact that when these station wagons were first introduced, many farmers called them "Pig Wagons."  Her son's poem went something like this:  "While tramping through the Philippines, I saw MacArthur's limousine, And though 'twas nearly twice as big, 'Twas not as charming as "The Pig.""

I became the proud owner of the car in the summer of 1959.  My friend Herb Swartfiguer helped me find a storage facility for $5.00 per month.  In the fall of 1967, I moved the car to Norman, Oklahoma, with the intent of restoring it after I finished school.  This picture was taken at that time by my co-conspirator, Jim Kahrs.

Yours truly, a few pounds lighter, as we set out for Oklahoma
with "The Pig" on a single axle trailer!
I stored the car in Norman until 1973, at which time I received a call from Mr. Charles LeMaitre, of Hardwick, Massachusetts.  He had somehow become aware of my car and wanted to purchase it for restoration.  He offered me $2,500 for the car, far more than it was worth at the time.  I thought about it for several days.  I finally decided to sell the car.  He sent a driver and truck to pick it up.  My old roommate, Forrest Frueh, met the driver and executed the final sale.

Several years later, I was working in the Boston area.  I contacted Mr. LeMaitre and got to visit the restored car.  It was spectacular!  I had made the right choice.  It was a car that deserved a high-point restoration, and it had been done properly.

Nov 20, 2016

Building My First Personal Computer...

The Apple II, similar to the computer Margo used at Motlow State
In August, 1981, IBM introduced its first personal computer.  This computer, formally known as the IBM Model 5150, became the standard for the PC industry.  To this day, users will argue over the merits and superiority of the Apple line of PC products versus those built on the IBM-established standards.  At the time the IBM PC was introduced, it and its many imitators sold for $3,000 or more.

It wasn't too many years after this introduction, around September 1983, that my wife Margo attended a convention in Alexandria, VA, of a group known as Small Computers in Libraries (SCIL).  This was a fairly small organization that had grown up around the common interest of utilizing small computers (Apple or IBM-based) in performing tasks common to libraries, e.g., cataloguing, membership renewals, tracking of periodicals, etc.  Margo, who was employed by Motlow State Community College at the time, had been quite active in the group.  She was then an expert in the applications available for the Apple IIa.

She called on Tuesday evening saying she had attended a workshop in which a presenter alleged that it was possible to build an IBM-PC clone for less than $1,000!  This seemed astounding at the time, since a new IBM-PC or clone listed more typically at $1,800-$2,500.  I asked her if she had gotten a copy of his paper, but she informed me that he had run out of handouts before she had gotten one.  So Margo agreed to go back the next day, as he was repeating his presentation.  I admit that I was very skeptical at the idea that we could have a PC for less than $1,000.

I flew to Washington on Thursday evening and joined Margo, as we had previously decided to drive back together.  She met me at the airport and had a copy of the gentleman's paper.  There it was in black and white.  The secret was a periodical called Computer Shopper.  This fellow listed in his paper all the separate parts and pieces that you needed to buy, along with the names of vendors who advertised in that magazine, as well as the prices he had paid for each component.  We immediately found a bookstore and bought a copy of Computer Shopper.

Over the next three weeks we ordered all the parts.  Some prices had actually dropped slightly since the author had built his PC, so we ended up spending around $970.00.  This included shipping.  When everything had arrived, we set aside one evening to build our first PC.

The author was extremely detailed in his descriptions.  He even recommended using a muffin tin to separate and keep track of the small screws that attach everything, "because so many of them look similar, but aren't quite identical."  After two or three hours we had a newly-built PC, including a state-of-the-art 20 Megabyte hard drive!  (Today, I often work with individual files that wouldn't fit on that entire hard drive.)

The appearance of our homebuilt computer
The next step was to load the operating system on the machine.  I took it to work the next day and one of the IT guys helped me do that.  Then we booted it up for the first time.  No smoke, and it worked!  Including that 5-1/4" floppy disc drive.   That PC served us for many years, after which we gave it to our niece, Angela Calhoun, who continued its use as she learned to use a PC.

I was reminded of this story the other day when I bought a 1-Terabyte hard drive for $59.95.  For those of you who don't like to calculate, that's 50,000 times the state of the art drive that we bought in 1984!

Nov 19, 2016

Some More LeConte Lodge Memories...

I've written about Mt. LeConte and LeConte Lodge before.  I think I made the hike up the mountain around 28 times over a period of some 18 or 19 years.  Many of those hikes were with coworkers, but a few of the later hikes were with my Nephew David and his kids, Forrest and Canon.  Today I ran across a few images of those hikes that I'd like to share.  I can't express how much joy these images brought back...

First, from September 17, 2003:







And these from April 15, 2004:








The Incredible Peanut Butter Turkey!

It was November, 2004.  Mary Ann and I had only been married for a few months.  This would be our first Thanksgiving together, and I wanted it to be Special!  One day, driving to work and listening to National Public Radio (what else?), I heard a recipe for peanut butter encrusted turkey.  It sounded delicious.  The peanut butter coating would infuse the meat with a faint nutty flavor while ensuring that it stayed moist.  And the outside of the meat would be wrapped in a crisp, flavorful skin.

I came home and told Mary Ann about it and we (at least I think it was "we") decided to try it for our special first Thanksgiving together.  The nicest thing I can say about the event is that it has become the most talked-about turkey that we've ever had.

We followed the directions.  The result was less than spectacular.  Much of the vaunted coating slumped off the bird and formed an impenetrable black rock formation in the pan.  The remainingg crust was not a crust at all, but rather a strange greyish tan goo that resembled a magma flow from a long-dormant volcano.  The meat had dried out and was essentially inedible.  Even our dogs turned their acute noses up at this sad bird.  We must have missed the secret ingredient or magic technique.  Today, while looking through some old images, I found this:
The infamous peanut butter bird -- I'm smiling because we haven't tasted it yet.

Nov 3, 2016

What Goes Around Comes Around...

Ingalls Shipbuilding, where I worked from 1972 until 1978
In 1972, I went to work for the Ingalls Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  I was to remain there as a systems engineer and as a senior project engineer for the next 6 years.  It was a satisfying and exciting place to work.  In 1977, during my tenure there, the shipyard employed over 27,000 people.  It was by far Mississippi's largest employer.

In 2001, Litton Industries was acquired by Northrop Grumman Corporation.  Then, in 2011, Northrop Grumman spun off the shipbuilding sector of its organization, including Ingalls Shipbuilding, into a newly defined company called Huntington Ingalls Industries.  This corporation is now the largest manufacturer of ships for the US Navy, with a backlog of up to $4 billion if options to purchase are exercised.

Yesterday, it was announced that Huntington Ingalls is in the process of acquiring Camber Corporation, my employer for the last 26 years.  Is it not an incredibly small world?  My employee number at Camber is 0005.  I wonder how many digits my new employee number will have if the deal goes through.

Oct 24, 2016

My God!!!! They Have Marshmallow Guns!

A few of our marshmallow guns ready for sale

In February of 2003, it was announced that a very successful woman-owned business in Huntsville, Mevatec Corporation, had been acquired by an aerospace giant, BAE Systems, Inc.  Not long after Mary Ann returned to Huntsville in 2004, she began working at Mevatec during their transition to becoming an integral part of BAE Systems.  Her first job was in a building we fondly referred to as the "Pink Palace," an office building in the Perimeter Corporate Park.  Not long thereafter, she and the rest of the former Mevatec staff were relocated to BAE buildings on Voyager Way in the Cummings Research Park.

Guns in primer getting ready for their
final color coat of paint
Mary Ann is a person who gets involved with causes when she is part of an organization.  She never shies away from responsibility, and her association with the BAE personnel was no different.  It wasn't long before she became part of a fund-raising effort for the American Cancer Society.  BAE had a tradition of holding a monthly fundraising activity, and each department would host the event every so many months.  Soon, it was time for Mary Ann's department to plan the next month's fund raiser.  They decided to do something to benefit the American Cancer Society.  The "something" would be for everyone in the department to make something that could be sold at a lunchtime "show and sell."

Mary Ann and I were discussing what we might contribute when she mentioned a marshmallow gun that we had seen at a craft show a few weeks before and purchased for our grandchildren.  "How hard would it be to make some marshmallow guns?" she asked.  Before I could change my mind, I was in the marshmallow gun manufacturing business.  These were small handheld marshmallow launchers into which you insert a mini-marshmallow and then blow into a mouthpiece.  The marshmallow projectile exits the business end of the gun and can travel 20 or 30 feet.

Some guns in their final white paint
I started an assembly line, pre-cutting specific lengths of 3/4 " PVC pipe, assembling them with elbows and tees, and painting them a variety of colors.  Soon, I was making CIA models, including a "silencer" on the muzzle and painted flat black.  Then there was a hunting model in camouflage paint.  It was a short-lived undertaking, but we made and sold more than 125 "guns" and raised nearly $1,000 for a great cause.

A few weeks after this crazy undertaking, we went to John and Jackie Tidball's Halloween party.  Mary Ann brought one of the marshmallow guns and some "ammunition."  When the guests got hold of the device, marshmallows were flying in all directions!  I tried to pick up as many as I could, but I knew there was some unexploded ordnance left behind.  I ran into Jackie at the grocery store several months later.  She shared that she thought of us often when she found "the little white spots on the floor."  I knew exactly what she meant.

Oct 13, 2016

The Great Columbus Day Car Adventure

A portion of he Flea Market at the AACA Meet in Hershey, PA
The other day, I drove to the credit union to deposit a check, only to find out they were closed for Columbus Day.  It reminded me of a funny incident that took place (Is it possible?!?) forty one years ago this past week.

I had acquired a 1956 Mark II Continental, a very limited-production car, in early 1969, and had driven it as my daily conveyance for over 5 years when I made the decision to part with it.  The car, which I purchased from my brother, had initially been ordered by an attorney from Atlanta, Mr. Gordon Horton.  He had special ordered the car with custom DuPont Lucite Pearl White paint and no external markings.  So serial number C56J-3351 had been delivered to Mr. Horton exactly as ordered in August, 1956.  It had appreciated somewhat since I had purchased it and I was concerned that it might get damaged if I continued to use it as my "daily driver."  I decided to take it to the Fall Meet of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) to be held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in early October of 1975.  I would drive the car from the Gulf coast, where I was living, to Norman, Oklahoma, where I 
would pick up some parts that I had stored there.  Then I'd proceed to Hershey in this elegant land yacht.  I planned to go by way of Lawrence, Kansas, on my way to Hershey, to visit a young lady I had previously dated in Norman.  The meet itself ran from October 9th through Sunday, the 12th of October.  I planned to arrive in Hershey by Friday evening in hopes that I'd find someone who had sold enough goods that they could rent me their flea market space for a day to sell my car.  The schedule might be a little compressed.  What could possibly go wrong?

A white Continental Mark II, exactly like the one I owned and was selling

I left the Gulf coast on the 6th of October, hoping to get to Norman by early on the 8th.  I'd pick up my parts and proceed to Lawrence for the night, pressing on to Hershey by sometime on Friday, 10 October.  Everything went according to plan until I was somewhere northwest of Baton Rouge, near Krotz Springs on federal highway 71, heading toward Alexandria, LA.   I looked at my instruments and suddenly realized my generator had quit.  It was late afternoon.  The sun was low in the sky.  I continued on, deciding I would go as far as my battery would take me.  Eventually, I had to turn on my headlights.  I pressed on, watching them get dimmer with every passing mile.  I made it as far as Bunkie, LA, little more than a wide spot in the road.  There was an intersection -- where state highway 115 crossed federal highway 71 -- where I finally coasted into a service station with a completely dead battery.  I rolled up to the main door to the service bay.  The owner informed me that he was closing.  He was kind enough to allow me to keep the car parked where it was and attach a battery charger to my battery, running the cables under his closed and locked door.  We figured that if I had a fully-charged battery in the morning, I could probably drive as far as Alexandria, where there might be a parts place that could help me.

Let me describe this intersection in Bunkie at that time.  There was the service station at which I would spend the night.  Next door was a "whites only" dance hall.  Next to that was a black dance hall.  And I recall that there was a liquor store adjacent to or part of one of the dance halls.  There was some celebration going on and there were dozens of cars in the area and a loud dance band playing.  The people outside were dancing and shouting.  Shortly after the service station attendant had left, a local sheriff or deputy showed up to see what I was doing at the closed station.  I showed him the battery charging setup and explained my predicament.  He said not to worry about the crowd.  He was in charge and nobody was going to get out of hand in his jurisdiction.  I decided to try and get some sleep.

Bunkie lies in the middle of a swampy area.  Swamps breed mosquitoes.  The bugs had decided to have a convention in Bunkie that night.  If I left my windows open, I was massacred by hundreds of mosquitoes.  If I closed the windows, I woke up in a pool of sweat.   It became a very long, miserable night.

The sun finally rose a few hours after the revelers had given up.  I started the car successfully,  disconnected the charger, and headed for Alexandria.  I eventually spotted a NAPA store and pulled just as they were opening.  This is the morning of October 7th.  I soon learned that the Mark II had its own unique generator, a much higher output generator than the standard Lincoln.  They could get one shipped in by the next day, October 8th.  I had no choice but to stay overnight.  The new part arrived at about 10:00 AM.  I always carried a tool kit, and I had the generator and a new fan belt installed by about 1:00 PM.  I got on the road headed for Norman.  After driving a long day (Remember, substantial parts of the Interstate System were still under construction.) I arrived in Norman near midnight.


I slept in the next morning before heading for my "barn" to retrieve the parts I wanted to sell or trade at Hershey.  As it turned out, I wouldn't get on the road 'til late afternoon.  There could be no stop in Lawrence, Kansas, if I was to make it to Hershey on time.  I cancelled that part of my trip, much to the displeasure of my intended hostess.  I made it as far as Effingham, Illinois, a distance of about 600 miles, when I finally threw in the towel.  The next day, the 10th of October, the car and I made it to Harrisburg, PA, another 700 miles.  I was completely exhausted.


I was fortunate enough to find a motel with room available.  After getting cleaned up I went down to the hotel bar to get a sandwich and a beer.  As fate would have it, I struck up a conversation with another car enthusiast.  I explained my mission and he informed me that he had a flea market space available.  I paid him $25.00 for the space for the entire day!

The next morning I drove straight to the flea market space and parked my car.  The car was in place with its signage on display by about 7:30 AM.  I was back on schedule much to my amazement.   The poster on the windshield declared: "1956 Continental Mark II, Approximately 80,000 Miles, Just drove car from Mississippi by way of OKC, $3,600 includes spare A/C compressor and other hard-to-find parts."


A few minutes after 8:00, a gentleman in a white jump suit came by and began looking at the car.  He introduced himself as Mr. Robert Filla.  His business card indicated that he was a vice president of a savings and loan association in Milwaukee.  He was accompanied by two other similarly-dressed colleagues.  He asked if he could examine the trunk.  I already had opened the hood.  He asked if his "body man" could inspect under the car and inside the car.  I agreed, as I had nothing to hide.  This was a very nice example at a reasonable price.  I started the car for him.  His mechanic looked everything over carefully.  Then Mr. Filla asked, "Why is the fellow down the row asking $5,500 for his and you're only asking $3,600?"  I explained that probably the other person didn't really want to sell his car, whereas I fully intended to sell mine.  He further asked what the price would be without the spare parts, and whether I would be willing to drive the car to Milwaukee to deliver it.

We agreed on the following deal:  For $3,600, I would sell him the car, without spare parts and drive it to his business in downtown Milwaukee.  He would buy me an airline ticket to Gulfport, MS.  He would pack and ship the spare parts to my residence in Gautier, MS.  He would write me a check in Hershey which we would cash on Monday when I arrived in Milwaukee.

Mr. Filla gave me the address and phone number of his banker.  I called the poor fellow and woke him up on a Saturday morning to ask about his customer's checking balance.  He asked, "How many cars has he bought?  He put about $75,000 in his checking account yesterday."  I figured I'd take my chances.  So at about 10:00 AM on Saturday, October 11th, I headed off the flea market field on my way to Milwaukee.

Downtown Milwaukee
The trip was uneventful.  I drove major highways and arrived at Mr. Filla's building on Monday morning as planned, even parking in one of his reserved parking spaces in the parking lot under the building.  Soon, I was stepping out of the elevator to greet him and complete the final formalities.  We went into his office, which was lined with photographs of several cars in his large collection.  It was obvious that he was a serious collector.  Immediately, Bob Filla informed me that there was a problem.  Columbus Day was on Sunday, so it was being celebrated on Monday, and the banks were closed.  He did not have enough cash to convert my check into his cash.

We agreed to an alternative plan.  He had raided every petty cash account in the building and had come up with about $800.00.  He gave me that much cash and a check for the balance.  He had already purchased my plane ticket, which was waiting for me at the Northwest Airlines counter at the airport.  I would hold onto the title for the car until his check cleared, at which time I would mail it to him.


The trip to Gulfport was uneventful.  Soon thereafter his check cleared the bank and I mailed off the title, ending my romance with the Mark II.  It had been a wonderful car, but it was time to move on.  Today, that car in comparable condition, is about a $40,000 - $50,000 car.  Ah, well...


Postscript:  I was curious if Mr. Filla had left any "trails" on the Internet, and found the following --

Filla, Robert W.   Bob died Oct. 14, 2008 in Seattle, WA, age 69. He was born in St. Louis, MO, and graduated from St. Louis University, after which he spent 40+ years in the mortgage banking industry. Bob is survived by his loving family: wife Rose, son Tony, daughter Tina, granddaughter Veronica, sister Carol, aunt Jeanette, and many nieces and nephews. After giving up hobbies of cars, boats, and airplanes, Bob studied theology the last 20 years, which he shared with many. In lieu of flowers, donations to a hospice near you. 
Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct. 26, 2008