Mar 25, 2016

My Post-Challenger Experience...

The Challenger Crew
Not too long ago, I was reminded that it was the thirtieth anniversary of the day that the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost to a disastrous explosion shortly after takeoff.  Five years ago, I wrote on this blog of the strange connection I had with that event.  I described how I ended up working for Larry Mulloy, the former NASA Program Manager of the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) Program Office.  What I didn't describe is the work that I performed as a result of that relationship.

After Mr. Mulloy was hired by my employer, John M. Cockerham and Associates, I ended up working directly for him.  What I soon learned was really rather bizarre.  It turned out that there were a number of technical challenges in the shuttle's design that had haunted the program.  Any one of these, under the right circumstances, could have resulted in a catastrophic failure.  

For example, there was a 17" quick-disconnect valve that resided between the external tank and the orbiter.  Fuel flowed through this valve during the ascent portion of the flight during which the main engines were operating.  This valve had experienced a couple of random failures during tests.  There was also talk of some crack development in the turbine blades of the main engines observed in testing.   Who knows whether this was based on fact or not?  And there were rumors of other technical issues.

So the o-ring problem that resulted in the Challenger disaster may have been  the first problem that actually resulted in a catastrophic failure.  And when that event took place, several engineering managers in the NASA organization could suddenly breathe a sigh of relief.  They had been granted some time within which to reexamine some serious design issues and possibly concerns.  Perhaps equally important, their system wasn't the one that would forever be linked to the loss of a shuttle and its precious cargo of astronauts.

What I learned, walking the halls of Marshall Space Flight Center with Larry Mulloy, was that a lot of NASA managers had a feeling of gratitude that he was the one who "took the fall."  He had taken the early retirement.  His judgement had been called into question.  He had been the one in the headlines, the one who had testified before the congressional committees.  And so, in some bizarre way, some of them believed they owed Larry Mulloy a debt of gratitude.

The next thing I knew, Cockerham & Associates had a contract from Marshall Space Flight Center to develop a schedule and conduct risk analysis on NASA's newly organized "Return to Flight" program.  This benefited me, since scheduling and risk assessment were two of my strong suits professionally.  I worked with a gentleman named Jules R. "Rick" Powers, who was the best I had ever encountered at programmatic analysis.  Rick was an expert in the use of Artemis, a mainframe-based planning and scheduling tool that was the industry standard at the time.  Rick Powers and I became the lead schedulers on NASA's return to flight, and that became one of the greatest professional challenges I've ever faced.

We met with many senior NASA executives, managers and former managers to conduct interviews.  Access was never a problem.  We had Larry Mulloy to get us in the door.  Rick and I gradually put together the pieces of a very large puzzle.  NASA management had decided that they needed to review every bit of the design documentation of the shuttle program.  This included a revisiting of design, Failure Modes and Effects Analyses, Critical Item Lists, and supplier records.  In order to schedule these reviews, we had to determine how many documents were involved and where they were located.  Most existed in paper format and had never been digitized.  Some were in NASA archival repositories.  Some were lost.  Some were misplaced.  It was a remarkably difficult scheduling job, but Rick and I pressed on until we had developed a credible plan.  Eventually, NASA personnel took over the maintenance of the schedules.

About a year later, I took on a proposal-writing job at Rockwell's headquarters in Downey, California.  The work took place in a huge building that had served during WW II as the production building for PBY aircraft.  One day I noticed a huge room full of individuals at desks who obviously weren't working on the project I was involved in.  I asked my supervisor what those people were working on.  He informed me that they were revisiting the Failure Modes and Effects Analyses of the Space Shuttle program (Remember, Rockwell had built the orbiters.).  He didn't have to tell me any more than that.  I knew exactly what that was all about.

Mar 24, 2016

Charlie Short and the Long Branch Opry...

The Long Branch Opry stage as seen from the balcony
Starting in the early 1990's, a few of my musician friends started an interesting tradition.  At the initial instigation of my late wife, Margo, we would get together about once per month to share a covered dish supper and play music.  It was just that simple.  The host family would prepare an entree that could feed a few or a lot.  Chili, spaghetti, lasagna, and various casseroles were popular.  The guests would bring dip, salads, side dishes, and desserts.  There was always too much food.

Sometimes we had a half dozen participants and I recall one night feeding over 40 hungry musicians.  The music was eclectic.  People tended to break up into small groups with a common interest.  So in nice weather, we might have four or five groups outside while two or three other groups played or sang inside.  Perhaps a gospel group on the back porch, some traditional ballads in the great room, and bluegrass music in the kitchen.  Outside, there might be a Cajun group, some old-time dancing, and traditional folk music.  The variety of music was part of the appeal.  We never had any complaints.  And this monthly party went on for several years.

Robert Freeman plays the banjo
One year (I can't recall when), Margo informed me that a new librarian had come to work at the UAH library who was allegedly a fairly accomplished fiddle and banjo player.  Robert Freeman turned out to be much more than fairly good.  And he became a regular attendee of our musical soirĂ©es.  Not only could he play every folk and traditional song known to mankind, he also knew the lyrics to every verse of every song.  He was also a great and kind teacher.  In all, he was a gift to our group and much appreciated.  And after a year or two as part of our little group, he informed us one night that he was leaving.  He had accepted a position in the Purdue University library system.  And a few weeks later, Robert and his wonderful fiddle and banjo playing were gone.  His absence was sorely felt.

Not too many weeks after Robert's departure, I read the following ad in the classified section of the Huntsville Times: "Bluegrass fiddler seeks other musicians interested in forming band.  Call 256-xxx-xxxx.  Ask for Charlie"  It was all I needed.  I called the number.  Maybe we could find a replacement for Robert!

I explained to the person on the other end that I wasn't interested in forming a band, but that I did need a fiddler.  I told him about our monthly music parties.  At one point, he asked where we met.  I explained that the party moved from home to home, sometimes in Huntsville or Hazel Green, or Fayetteville, TN.  "That just wouldn't be possible," he allowed.  "I live all the way down in Ruth, Alabama, near Arab.  That'd be just too far to drive."  Then I mentioned that we usually ate around 6:15.  "How'd you say to get to your place?" he responded.  And that's how we got to meet and become friends with Charlie Short.

"Sunday Tradition" at the Opry
Not long after Charlie started attending our parties, he mentioned a theater that he was building to present Bluegrass shows.  As he would tell us, "If you can't fiddle no better'n I can, nobody is going to invite you to their theater.  So you gotta build your own!"  He told how he had bought several acres out in the country, cut down the trees where he planned to put the parking lot, and was building the building out of lumber he had milled himself on the property.  The alleged theater would seat some 6-700 people and include a nice stage, an announcer's booth, and a snack bar.  I admit I wasn't sure that there was any such theater.

Charlie Short playing the fiddle
on stage at the Opry
In October, 1997, while I was on a several-month business assignment to South Texas, I received a phone call from Margo.  The following Saturday, she and her friend, Pam Chismar, were going to the opening show at Charlie's "Long Branch Opry!"  There really was such a place!  And opening night was going to feature Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, a really well-known Gospel Bluegrass act.

Over the next ten years, we spent many happy hours enjoying Charlie Short's great project.  We saw fabulous, well-recognized performing groups, always in a family-friendly environment.  Every show began with a prayer and our national anthem.  Charlie regaled the audience with really corny jokes and stories.  It was like a live Hee-Haw show.  He even had a stuffed rooster named Leghorn that would suddenly appear in the announcer's booth and have conversations with Charlie.  

And Charlie would have conversations with the audience.  One night he introduced me as a minister and asked me to invoke the blessing!  We introduced several of our colleagues to the Opry and they became staunch supporters.  It was a fabulous way to spend a Saturday evening.

"Strings of Bluegrass" at the Opry

Then, suddenly in 2007, Charlie decided to "Retire."  The Opry would go silent.  Another gentleman tried to revive it in 2010, but failed.  But this rare treasure brought a great deal of pleasure to thousands of people while it lasted.  Thanks, Charlie Short.  You lived your dream, and we appreciate your sharing it with us.

The Long Branch Opry

Mar 11, 2016

Perhaps, the New Ultimate Food...

I've been working in Texas this week.  More precisely, Corpus Christi.  I usually go out for lunch when I'm here.  Previously, I've written entries about La Palma, a little Tex-Mex restaurant that is one of my favorites.  But yesterday I accompanied three of our young employees to a place called Scuttlebutt's, that is located on Padre Island, only a few miles from our office.  One of the specialties of the house is the Elvis Burger.  Imagine a half-pound hamburger embellished with bacon, bacon marmalade, honey, caramelized bananas, cheddar cheese, and peanut butter, on a sourdough bun.  I tried it, to be one of the boys (along with Luis Hernandez, Daniel Mendez, and Hunter Morgan), but with a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of trepidation.  It was one of the most wonderful burgers I've ever eaten!  Definitely five stars!

Mar 4, 2016

A Party in Key West...

The first ship I served on, the USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709), was assigned to Destroyer Development Group 2, a research and development organization.  As new ideas were introduced into the fleet, we were the testing platforms that investigated the practicality/usability/effectiveness of those new concepts.  We tested everything from new plumbing fixtures to experimental paint to new weapons systems.  In April, 1963, we were engaged in operational testing of the Mark 44 torpedo, a second generation light weight anti-submarine weapon that was designed to be ship launched or aircraft launched.  We were conducting our tests in the operating areas not far from Key West.  When we weren't operating, we moored at the old Key West submarine facility, a group of finger piers on the western side of the island.

One afternoon, while on shore leave, I took shelter from the afternoon sun in an establishment called "The Oldest Bar."  As I recall, it had a wooden boardwalk in front with a large canopy and a door that opened wide, revealing the large four-sided bar inside.  After my eyes got used to the darkness, I spied a very attractive lady sitting near the rear of the bar and decided to strike up a conversation.  It turned out that she was a Lufthansa stewardess home based in Miami who maintained a small apartment in Key West.  After a few drinks, she excused herself, saying that she had to leave to get ready for a party.  I don't recall how, but somehow I got myself invited to accompany her.  We went by her place where she changed clothes and then proceeded in her Jaguar to a white house at 1431 Duncan Street.  We went in to what turned out to be Tennessee Williams' Easter Party!
The house at 1431 Duncan Street

The house was packed.  I didn't know a soul.  And soon, my "date" was lost in the crowd and I was on my own.  I strayed into the kitchen and one detail I recall is that the kitchen walls were papered in antique slave sale broadsides that had been glued to the walls and then sealed with a clear varnish.  I chatted with the cooks and servers for a while (the food was abundant) and then sat on a Victorian-looking sofa and struck up a conversation with an older lady.  She introduced herself as a Mrs. Jameson, and she was associated with the Key West Citizen newspaper.  She also had a major interest in the vending machines and pinball machines in town.  And as we continued talking, there turned out to be a connection to some mutual friends, the Gardner family from Schenectady (Pink and Eleanor Gardner introduced my parents!).

Every summer, the Meads spent a week with the Gardner family at their summer home, "Fieldstone," in Newfane, Vermont.  There was a family who occupied a place on the other side of Smith Brook, whose name was Jameson.  We played with their son, whose nickname was "Wire" Jameson, since he was always tinkering with electrical gadgets.  The lady with whom I was speaking was Wire's mother!  Talk about a small world.  We continued to chat about events in Schenectady and Vermont, and somehow, got on the subject of home towns.  She mentioned that she was originally from Greenup, Kentucky.

To most people, Greenup, Kentucky wouldn't mean much.  However, the operations officer on my ship, Lieutenant Bill Leslie, hailed from Greenup.  He would head home in the springtime when the Little Sandy and the Ohio Rivers conspired to flood the first floor of his father's drug store.  The entire family would work together to move the inventory upstairs before the water got to it!  I had heard that story from Bill enough that I knew his dad's name, so I asked Mrs. Jameson if she had ever heard of Sam Leslie, who owned a drug store in Greenup.  Oh, my God!  She had gone to school with Sam.  She knew him well.  It was like old home week.

I don't recall if we ever managed to get Bill Leslie and Mrs. Jameson together for a hometown reunion.  I only remember being amazed at the three-way confluence of coincidences that occurred at that crazy party.  I don't believe I ever actually saw Mr. Williams, the host.  Nor did I appreciate that I was in the presence of someone who had earned two Pulitzer Prizes!  The place was so packed and noisy that it was very difficult to carry on a conversation.  I never saw the girl who brought me to the party again.  And not long after that, the ship headed back for Newport, our home base.

We would be back in Key West in the fall, but I never again really got into the social stratum of that evening.  In fact, that following November I watched John Kennedy's funeral on a TV at the Naval Air Station Officer's Club in Key West.  It was a mood far removed from the festivities of the Easter party...

Mar 2, 2016

Herr Reich's German Class...

Warren Reich
A few days ago, I had begun to write a blog entry about my high school German teacher, Mr. Warren Reich.  As I initiated a Google search to see if there were any traces of information about "Herr Reich" out in the World-Wide Web, I was shocked to find his obituary, posted only a couple of months ago!  One of my favorite teachers of all time had lived to the ripe old age of 92!  Perhaps this blog entry should begin with that obituary:
"Guilderland -- Warren W. Reich, a veteran of WWII, died on Tuesday, December 29, 2015 at age 92. Warren was born in Tonawanda, NY on June 26, 1923. His parents were first and second generation German. Warren was raised by his grandparents. His great-grandparents on his mother’s side came to America from Germany in 1848, the year of many European revolutions.

Shortly after graduation from Tonawanda High School Warren became a private in the U.S. Army. He served from 1943-1946, in New Guinea and the Philippines, 496 Anti-Aircraft Battalion. 

In 1946, Warren enrolled in what was then the State College for Teachers in Albany, thanks to the G. I. Bill. He graduated in 1950, B.A., went on to Indiana University, M.A., 1951. He received a Fulbright Grant to study in Germany the summer of 1960. He received his PhD in 1970 in German Literature from the University of Connecticut. 

Warren taught German at Mont Pleasant High School, Schenectady and recently had reunions with some of his former students, who remembered him as an outstanding teacher. 

In 1961, Warren joined the German faculty at SUNY Albany. In 1969, he became an associate in the Division of Higher Educations, State Education Department, from which he retired in 1985. 

Warren created crossword puzzles for the Sunday New York Times in the 1980s and 1990s, one of his proudest achievements. His puzzles are included in the published collections of the New York Times and Simon and Schuster. 
Warren and his wife Nina traveled widely, driving many kilometers in most of the European countries and enjoying river cruises there. 

Warren was a very loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Nina; his children, Mary Louise (Trudy) Warner, Nancy Reich, William (Margot), Theodor (Halina); his step-children, James (Cathleen) Howarth, Alison (Kenneth) Nelson, Leslie Brennan-Somps (Christopher Somps); 16 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his loving 97 year old sister, Bernice Everett of Tonawanda, NY.
Warren was predeceased by his first wife, Jeanne Wooldridge Reich in 1970. 

Calling hours will be held on Saturday, January 2, 2016 from 1:30pm to 3pm at New Comer Funeral Home, 343 New Karner Rd, Albany, NY 12205. A memorial service will follow at 3pm.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to: the Alzheimer’s Association, 4 Pine West Plz Ste 405, Albany, NY 12205, Environmental causes, and animal welfare."

I couldn't help noting the understatement that his former students remembered him as an outstanding teacher.  He was well beyond that.  He was creative and dynamic in his approach to teaching.  The year I was going to start first-year German, Herr Reich had received permission to start an experimental program in which there would be no text book until late in the school year.  We would learn by ear and by speaking only German in class.  In fact, on the first day of class, Herr Reich put a fishbowl on his desk.  He explained that the only English allowed in the class would be in the sentence asking how to say something in German:  "
Wie sagt man auf Deutsch.......?"  If we used any English words outside of that inquiry, we would be required to put a nickel in the fishbowl for every word of English.  At the end of the year, we would have a class picnic paid for by the proceeds from the bowl.

Herr Reich also had a piano in the back of his class room.  Every Friday, we took some time from class to sing songs in German, courtesy of the Herr Reich Song Book, a mimeographed and stapled set of German ballads and drinking songs.  We gathered around the piano, he played and we sang.  "Dudu liegst mir im Herzen" echoed down the halls of Mont Pleasant High School.

He also had a creative bent when there wasn't an exact German equivalent for a particular English word.  Our Latin teacher resided in the classroom adjacent to the German class.  Her name was Ruby Brakebill.  Herr Reich creatively referred to her as Fraulein Brachenschnabel -- Miss Broken Beak.

He often told stories in German to sharpen our ability to listen and translate.  We heard of his experiences during World War II as a malaria control officer in New Guinea.  He told stories he had heard from his parents about life in Germany.  I realize now that he was only 5 or 6 years out of college when he was teaching us.  What a blessing he was to my young
The house on Sumner Avenue
where Herr Reich lived in 1956-57

It didn't surprise me to note that a former student had contacted Mr. Reich and that the two had held a reunion.  In 2011, the Schenectady newspaper published an article about that event.  He was that kind of exceptional teacher -- the kind you appreciate more as the years pass.  How fitting that his former student wanted to honor him.

One of my closest friends at the time I was attending Mont Pleasant High School was a classmate named Paul St. John.  He and his family lived in a house on Sumner Avenue not far from Nott Street.  Mr. Riech was their upstairs tenant.

I especially appreciated Mr. Reich's teaching when I took an additional year of German at the University of Rochester.  Because of his teaching skills, I breezed through the class.  Danke, Herr Reich.