Dec 14, 2016


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 no longer in use.  McCutcheon's was lost in a fire. I took lessons from Mike Seeger one summer and he discussed 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.