John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Long Tall Sally and Me

Little Richard passed last month at 87. RIP: Richard Wayne Penniman.

In 1955, he exploded out of the Rhythm & Blues (R&B) backwaters of the deep South and crashed into the early days of rock and roll with his hit song: Tutti Frutti. Granted, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Bo Didley had previously crossed over from R&B to white rock, but Little Richard initiated a revolution and rightfully deserves to be called the Godfather of Rock and Roll!

As Tim Weiner explained in his New York Times obituary: “Little Richard, pounding the piano furiously and screaming as if for his very life, raised the energy level several notches and created something not quite like any music that had been heard before – something new, thrilling and more than a little dangerous.”  

Dangerous, indeed: Take my favorite Little Richard tune: Long Tall Sally. Most renditions muted the theme of the song that Uncle John was having an extra marital affair with Sally. The significant verse is:

Well, long tall Sally

She’s built for speed, she got

Everything that Uncle John need.

This verse was altered to:

Well long tall Sally’s

Kind of sweet, she got

Everything that Arkansas need.

Really! If it’s about Arkansas, then why did Uncle John have to duck back in the alley when he saw Aunt Mary coming?

But I digress. I was on my way home alone on a Friday afternoon at the end of another London business trip. (I made over a one hundred from 1976 to 2000.)

Seeking a hidden treasure, I stopped at the bookstore in the Heathrow’s Terminal Three. Luck was with me as I discovered a cassette featuring the mid-century R&B entertainers / song writers who became the roots of rock and roll.

Of course, Little Richard was one and the tape featured four of his songs: Good Golly Miss Molly, Lucille, Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally.

Pleased with my discovery, I made my way to the British Airways lounge to relax, have a bloody Mary and listen to my new tape as I waited for my flight to be called for boarding. When I saw it flashing on the departure board, I left the club and headed for my gate.

Back in the day, BA’s gates for flights to America were a relatively long distance from the club. From repetition, I knew my gate’s location, so I strolled along the corridors listening to these great singers filling my headphones with songs like Long Tall Sally.

I was in the groove by the time I reached the gate. Cassette player off, I received my boarding pass. I thanked the agent and made my way on to the jetway. As I stepped onto the 747, I offered my boarding pass to the flight attendant at the door who examined it and directed me to my seat.

I began my usual drill to settle in for the long flight home. I removed the items I expected to use during this flight before I put my carry-on into the overhead.

Suddenly, I heard the following announcement: “Would John Delach please identify himself?”

I rang my call button identifying my location.

“Mister Delach, may I see your boarding pass?”

I handed it to the flight attendant. She examined it, then asked, “Where are you traveling to with us today?” (Got to love Brit-speak!)

“New York’s JFK”

“I see. The problem is the destination for this airplane is Boston. It seems that you boarded the flight at Gate 73. Our British Airways flight to JFK is at Gate 75.”

Fortunately, time was on my side, the correct gate was only one away and this crew had alerted the JFK crew that I was on my way.

“Long Tall Sally” had been my undoing but I wasn’t the only one asleep at the switch that Friday afternoon.     

Once Upon a Time in Findlay, Ohio

Bill Smith as told to John Delach

Part Two: The Journey

The Imperial House Motel, next to the interchange of I-75 and Route 157 was the ideal spot to begin and end our journey. We picked May 30 to accommodate me as I was getting married two Saturdays later. We hoped that a starting time of 9am would put us in New York City sometime on Sunday morning to avoid heavy traffic

A small, but enthusiastic crowd saw us off as we headed north. Destination – Toledo, 45 miles away where we turned onto Interstate 90 East for the 582-mile run to Albany. Weather and traffic were fine as adrenalin began to wear off and we established our routine. We decided to rotate drivers every four hours and service the car every eight hours. The first driver would hit the rack at that first service stop and we followed that rotation at each additional service stop.

Upon reaching Albany, we made a planned detour to allow our route to include the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. We selected US 4, a route that took us 250 miles through Rutland, Claremont and Concord before reaching Portsmouth. US 4 was then mostly a two-lane road with limited passing and speed limits as low as 30 MPH for many towns. One advantage, we drove on a Saturday night when traffic was light. From Portsmouth, we crossed over the Piscataqua River to Kittery, Maine, paid our respects to the Pine Tree State before turning onto I-95 for the long journey to Florida.

As planned, we crossed through NYC about 7am and began our second day somewhere in New Jersey. Sunday took us through DC, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. We did not exit onto I-10 in Jacksonville but continued south until Daytona Beach where we transferred to I-4 for the run to Tampa. (Although this detour cost us an additional 425 miles, we considered it to be the correct route not to exclude I-4.)

Interstate-75 sent us back north to I-10. Day 3 began near Tallahassee where we navigated a gap of 264 miles in Interstate-10 using US 90 that slowed our progress until Pensacola. Back on I-10 we headed west through the night passing Mobile, New Orleans and Houston before reaching Fort Stockton, Texas and the start of Day 4.

We cruised through Texas, New Mexico and into Arizona where we witnessed the power, beauty and fury of nature as the night exploded courtesy of a powerful electrical storm in the desert. Never had I participated in an event like that before and never would again. It was still dark when we reached San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.

Day 5 found outside Fresno heading north on Interstate-5, destination, Seattle and Interstate-90. We were forced to transverse several gaps along this stretch of I-90 before we could cross into Idaho. We reached Lake Coeur D’Alene close to the start of our sixth day where we were blessed by the sight of that lake in the morning sun. It dazzled like a jewel.

I also experienced a far less pleasant episode as we exited the Cascade Mountains. Pollen invaded the car bringing on an asthma attack that forced me to put my nose and mouth right up to the A/C vent and breathe deeply for several minutes before I found relief. The big sky country accompanied us for most of the daylight hours before we slid into darkness of North Dakota and Minnesota.

A sunrise west of St. Paul greeted us and in the next ten-hours, we buzzed by Chicago and turned south at Toledo for the last run on I-75 for Findlay. We reached the Imperial’s parking at about 7 PM on Friday evening making our total elapsed time: 6 days, 10 hours, and 30 minutes.

Once the formalities ended, I made my way home to sleep, clean up and begin my preparations for my wedding ceremony the following Saturday. Comments about my journey, both positive and negative, consumed my poor bride and me at our reception.

As I look back on our trip, I can’t help but smile. None of us had travelled extensively at that stage in our lives and this adventure gave us the opportunity to see our country in all its geographical glory.

For me it was also an excellent bachelor party.

Once Upon a Time in Findlay, Ohio

Part One: The Plan

The year was 1969. Two other twenty-something colleagues, brothers Bob and Roger B. and I had a light-bulb moment: “How long would it take to make a car trip along the Interstate Highways that follow the perimeters of the USA at the legal speed limits stopping only for fuel, food and to freshen up?” (Alaska and Hawaii need not apply)

What-if, indeed! Instead of returning to a netherworld, we began figuring out the what-ifs and a plan began to form.

Our timing was favorable. Most of the perimeter interstates: I-5, I-10, I-90 and I-95 were nearly complete. The price of gasoline was relatively cheap, and the speed limits were set at 65 and 70 in most rural areas and in a few at 80. Findlay was a perfect place to acquire sponsors. First things, first, we needed the right type of automobile. Since our journey would be one of endurance rather than speed, we decided on a large, comfortable vehicle. By coincidence we were all Pontiac men, and each had recently purchased a new car from, Jim Herrin, our local dealer.

Mr. Herrin caught our enthusiasm and convinced his regional manager to lend us a 1969 Executive Safari Station Wagon 400, a 4,636 pound beast that normally sat eight. One problem though, was its range. Even with its 20-gallon fuel tank, given the Safari’s MPG of 13.4 for highway driving, its range was only between 245 and 290 miles for time-consuming fill-ups.

We three adventurers worked for Marathon Oil Company at its national headquarters in downtown Findlay. Our pitch to management was well-received. Marathon, then considered to be a regional operator, was looking to expand its brand and hasten the development of their own credit card.

As our plan took shape, Cooper Tire Company, also domiciled in Findlay, came on board as a sponsor fitting the Safari with top-of-the-line tires.

We didn’t plan to use the third rear-facing seat in the station wagon during this trip so Bob, who was a car buff and excellent mechanic, ameliorated  the driving range limitation by installing a second 20-gallon tank in this seat’s foot well. The tank was connected by a hose with a pump to transfer gasoline on the fly. We installed a plywood floor behind the front seat for a padded sleeping area, an electric camper fridge that plugged into the cigarette lighter socket and a porta-potty for “urgent and unscheduled necessities.” We even rigged a makeshift café curtain to afford a degree of privacy

Paper maps and atlases were used to identify routes and planned stopping points. Bob acquired a ship-to-shore radio-telephone, a God-send in this era before the concept of cellular phones even existed. Crude, by today’s standards, the originating party called a special operator who connected the call to the desired phone number. Only one party could speak at a time and the conversation was open to any third party listening on a shortwave radio.

But the device enabled us to call ahead to our planned service stops to give our ETA, a list of what supplies, food, or other things we needed and approximately how much fuel we expected to pump on board. The radio-phone also allowed us to remain in contact with family, friends, and our buddies at Marathon. (Having the phone came in handy when we were travelling in the humid air along I-10 near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Our windshield began to fog up on the inside. Befuddled, we called an engineer back in Findlay who worked us through how to clear it.)

Before we left, other Marathon engineers gave us advise that included a mind trick to maximize our miles per gallon. “Before you step on the accelerator imagine that there is an egg under it. You don’t want to crush the egg so you can only ease the accelerator down each time you begin and when you want to speed up.”

As the trip progressed, WFIN, the local radio station, became aware of our endeavor leading us to call in status reports to the station’s morning drive-time show.

We did not realize that our lack of movement and activity would affect us, but our food consumption diminished as the trip progressed. We wore loose fitting clothing, tee shirts and sweatpants. Our company doctor suggested we wear athletic socks under sandals to reduce foot perspiration and swelling. (I still wear sandals this way. Before you say it looks dorky, try it first.)

The Imperial House Motel, located next to the interchange of I-75 and Route 157 was the ideal spot to begin and end our journey. We picked May 30 to accommodate me as I was getting married two Saturdays later. We hoped that a starting time of 9am would put us in New York City sometime on Sunday morning to avoid heavy traffic.

(To be continued)

The People You Meet

The genesis for this story began when I read a delightful piece written by my fellow scribe, Janet Pomeranz. Janet called it; The Joke’s on Me, about a class she attended advertised as Writing Humor for Profit.

The class’s final assignment was to: to “…write an interview of a Chippendale.” Janet was confused. “Why would I interview a piece of furniture?” But a classmate intervened: “Janet, the modern-day definition of a Chippendale is a male stripper.”

My reaction was the same as hers, but after being corrected, my thoughts didn’t remain with male strippers. Instead, I thought about the most intriguing seatmate with whom I ever flew, a chap named John Chippendale.

In the early months of 1982, we flew together from London’s Heathrow Airport to JFK in business class on a TWA 747. For whatever reason, we connected with each other and initiated a long conversation covering a range of topics, but mostly, aviation stories.

John pronounced his last name as “Chippendall” and explained his family used this pronunciation to avoid confusion with the furniture family. (I imagine today’s descendants are only too glad they cannot be confused with the current co-opted meaning of their name.)

I informed him I was on my way home from a business trip where I had arranged insurance coverage for a major US oil and gas company. He replied that he was going to America to inspect airplanes that his company was interested in buying.

As our flight progressed, John described his flying experiences. He was a life-long aviator who had come up the ranks, first at British Overseas Airline Corporation or BOAC and then at its successor, British Airways.

“I finally became bored with their seniority system, the numbers game and the politics. I took the ex-pat route, joined Lebanon’s Middle Eastern Airlines (MEA) and moved to Beirut. Now I am their chief pilot and I spend the bulk of my time negotiating contracts for new airplanes. Most people still don’t know who we are, but MEA is a growing airline backed by wealthy investors.”

Time melted. It didn’t hurt that we both enjoyed a cocktail or two that enhanced our comradeship and conversation. Eventually, we discussed the exact purpose of his trip: “I’m on my way to Texas to inspect two American Airlines 707s in active storage at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW). MEA ordered several new Airbus A-340s to expand their routes and destinations.”

“My problem, Airbus is behind schedule. The American 707s could alleviate the problem if they are useable. Experience has taught me to personally inspect any used airplane before I buy it.”

We spoke of other things. I asked him what living in Beirut was like? “Up until 1976, it was a fabulous place to live, truly the Paris of the Middle East. My apartment is still safe, but electricity and access to drinking water are haphazard. It’s becoming ugly, new barricades are erected daily. Something bad is going to happen soon.”

We shook hands said goodbye at JFK. He joined the line for foreigners while I joined the one for returning citizens. I walked away knowing this was an encounter I would not soon forget.

Talk about an understatement! Flash forward to an early morning that June. I boarded my usual Long Island Railroad train for the commute to Manhattan, taking my self-assigned seat where I unfolded my copy of The New York Times. I noted the lead story: Israel Invades Lebanon.

Beneath this headline, I examined a photograph of the Beirut Airport. A burned out 707 with MEA markings laying on the tarmac filled the forefront of the photo. Then I realized that just behind the wreck stood a seemingly undamaged 707 bearing American Airline markings.

“Son of a bitch,” I exclaimed to the train, “He bought those airplanes after all!”                     


Lighter Than Air (Part 2)

After the loss of the Macon, only the Germans remained in the game. Unable to secure helium from the USA because of our distaste for Hitler and his Third Reich, the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei filled their flagship, the Hindenburg LZ 129, with volatile hydrogen. Their queen of the skies made her first voyage in 1936 and spent a successful summer carrying passengers across the North Atlantic between Berlin and Lakehurst, New Jersey. 

Their good luck ran out early in the next season when Hindenburg was consumed by fire during its spectacular cremation while landing at that Naval Air Station on May 6, 1937. Thirty-five of the 97 passengers and crew on board perished in this disaster whose cause is still a matter of speculation.  

The whimsical concept of developing a fleet of zeppelins for commercial or military use should have died on that rainy afternoon but Hindenburg was the lead zeppelin of a projected fleet of three luxury liners. Hindenburg’s twin, LZ 130, was then under construction at the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin works when that disaster struck. Construction began in 1936 with its first flight on September 14, 1938. The airship’s intended name was: “The Graf Zeppelin II.” 

“The designer and chief engineer, Dr. Hugo Eckener, vowed never to use hydrogen in a passenger airship again.  This led to modifications such that the Graf Zeppelin II could be inflated with helium.” 

Since the United States remained the only source of helium. Dr. Eckener traveled to Washington to meet with President Roosevelt. Speaking from the heart as an aviator, he gained FDR’s trust. The president agreed to authorize the export of helium to Germany solely for peaceful purposes. Unfortunately for the good doctor, when Germany annexed Austria, any trust FDR had for Germany vanished and helium would never be available. Hydrogen became the only gas available for LZ 130.

“The airship was christened and flew for the first time on September 14, 1938. Only Zeppelin Company officials and Hermann Goering were present; no other government representatives came to the christening. Eckener alone, made the inaugural speech welcoming this new airship, the last of her kind. A banner hung in front of the massive hanger announcing the birth of the Graf Zeppelin II, but the absence of that name painted on the airship was significant. Without access to helium, “It became obvious that the ship would never serve its intended purpose as a passenger liner.” 

Nazi Germany’s aggression would have curtailed actual passenger travel in any case. “The Reich Air Ministry permitted the LZ 130 to fly for one year until September 1, 1939 without any transportation of passengers and outside tropical areas.” 

Instead, the air ministry arranged for the passenger accommodations to be fitted with radio surveillance and navigational instruments. LZ 130 was then dispatched as a mail carrier or to participate in several air shows, then called, Flying Days, to acquire vital data for future combat operations. 

One of the last series of flights brought the airship over the Southeastern coast of England between August 2 and 4. The purpose of this espionage trip was to secretly collect information on the British Home Radar System. 

With war imminent, the air ministry ordered LZ 130 removed from its hanger, turned around and re-inserted for easier dismantling. Its gas cells were emptied, and sophisticated electronic equipment was removed. 

The last great airship remained immobile in its hanger until February 29, 1940 when Goering ordered the Graf Zeppelin II and the third sister, LZ 131, still under construction, to be destroyed. 

On May 6, 1940, an enormous explosion leveled the hangers allowing the framing for the inert LZ 130 and the partially built LZ 131 to be collected for the war effort. 

Curiously, Goering’s order was carried out three years to the day after the destruction of the Hindenburg.     

Lighter Than Air (Part 1)

Ferdinand von Zeppelin revolutionized the public’s perception of flight by designing the first practical dirigibles. Their success led to these rigid airships becoming identified with his last name. He caught the public’s imagination two years before the Wright brothers first flew a powered aeroplane from the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Von Zeppelin experienced more instances of failure than success, but the fragility of his airships was offset by the promise of what was possible.  In hindsight, aviation’s development would have been better off if these early failures had ended the quest to perfect a rigid lighter than air flying machine.   

World War I served to heighten the Zeppelin’s mystique. From 1915 to 1917, zeppelins killed nearly 700 Londoners, but at a cost to Germany of 77 of their 115 airships. These attacks dispelled the notion that England was invulnerable to aerial attack shocking the British citizens who reacted with both panic and awe.

Once the Great War ended, several allied nations, particularly the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the United States decided to develop their own fleets of airships. Most Europeans soon recognized that the fragile craft remained vulnerable to multiple dangers and abandoned their lighter than air (LTA) projects sometimes after catastrophic episodes.

Only the British persevered until 1930 when their luxury dirigible, R101, crashed in rural France on its maiden voyage due to heavy rain and wind. Forty-eight of the 54 souls on board perished. R101 was the prototype for a proposed fleet of passenger airships designed to carry mail and passengers to Britain’s far flung possessions such as India, Australia and Canada. The loss of R101 so early in its maiden flight convinced the crown to drop out.

America took a different approach. World War I exposed Japan’s desire for territorial expansion with the American Navy being their primary obstacle.

This led the US Navy to develop Japanese centric war plans to address several possible combat scenarios with the Imperial fleet. They included “what if” technology based on the use of combat aircraft. One innovation was the introduction of the navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, that joined the fleet in 1921.

Naval aviators also speculated on a what if idea of developing an aerial mothership to be their aircraft carrier in the sky?

Rear Admiral William Moffett, the first chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics introduced their first dirigible, USS Shenandoah. Designed by German ex-pats and the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation, the airship was fabricated by the navy at their Lakehurst, NJ base. First flown in 1923, the luckless Shenandoah was torn apart in a thunderstorm near Cadwell, Ohio on September 3rd of the same year. Fourteen of the 26 crew were lost in this catastrophe.   

The navy’s second, airship, the USS Los Angeles, was built by the Germans as a war prize. First flown in 1924, the Los Angeles successfully flew until being de-commissioned 1932. This zeppelin was dismantled in 1940.

The success of the Los Angeles led to the construction of two massive dirigibles, the USS Akron, ZRS-4 and USS Macon, ZRS-5. Both were more than seven times the size of a 747 and were designed to operate as the navy’s first flying aircraft carriers.

 Each ship carried five small fighter planes, the Curtiss F-9C Sparrow- hawk. The planes were carried in a small hanger inside the outer skin and were launched / recovered by means of a complicated trapeze system:

“The trapeze was lowered through the T-shaped door in the bottom of the ship. Each F-9C was attached to the crossbar by the ‘skyhook’ above its top wing. With the engine already running, the pilot tripped the hook allowing the airplane to fly away. On his return, the pilot locked onto the crossbar and was hauled on board.”

It was all for naught. The Akron, completed first in October of 1931 was lost in a thunderstorm on April 4, 1933 after 73 flights. Seventy-one of the 76 crew on board including Admiral Moffett were lost in the crash.

The Macon was commissioned two months later June 23, only to succumb in a storm off California’s Big Sur on February 12, 1935. Eighty-one of the 83 on board were rescued.

America exited the quest to develop practical rigid airships with the Macon’s destruction leaving the Germans as the last remaining zeppelin operator.

(To be continued)   

No Game Today

Jack Solomon, the original co-owner of Gallagher’s Steak House in Manhattan’s theater district, was also an avid fan of the New York Giants baseball club. So avid that he posted the daily score on a bulletin board located in the restaurant’s foyer but only when his team won. If they lost the message read: “No Game Today.”

These are sad days for our national pastime as COVID-19 has wrought havoc on the 2020 season. No Game Today or any day is our sad reality. Highlights of recent past seasons are available, but I believe baseball movies are a better escape. Why? Because baseball is the sport that best lends itself to production for the big screen. It captures everything that movies are all about and the movies make baseball sparkle.

Boxing and horse racing also have a decent compatibility to the film industry but nothing like baseball. Americas game, pro football, on the other hand is a dud on the big screen. There are a few, Rudy, Brian’s Song, Any Given Sunday, Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard and Friday Night Lights are the exceptions.

Hollywood offers over 50 baseball movies for your watching pleasure. The New York Times recently picked 10 to watch. Seems to me to be worth a shot especially while we remain in lock down that one wise man has described: “While Monday remains a Monday, every other day is a Tuesday.” 

I rated the films from one to 10 and I included the year the film debuted, and noted the ratings given to each movie by Rotten Tomatoes and MLB.

Following that, I have listed as many of the other significant baseball movies from varying lists and their ratings, if any. Make your own list and let us know your top ten. Heck, since every day is Tuesday, except Monday, what else do you have to do?

I expect baseball aficionados will object to my placement of Bull Durham in fourth place, but that’s what sports are all about.  

Bang the Drums Slowly is my top pick. I read Mark Harris’ book before the film was released and fell in love with it. Today, it remains in the top five of books I have read. When the movie was released in 1973, Mary Ann and I were living in Middle Village, Queens. Unfortunately, the closest theater playing it was in Franklin Square. Times were hard but I grabbed enough money to hire a babysitter so we could see it.

The opening scene gave me goose bumps. A sunny day, old Yankee Stadium, before the renovation that was a Frankenstein-like defacement. The opening shot focuses on the old visiting bullpen that separated the left field stands from the bleachers.

The co-stars, a young Michael Moriarty and an equally young Robert DeNiro, head out from the bull pen, two players in identical dress; pin stripe baseball pants, navy blue undershirts covered by plain white cotton vests. Both wear NY logo hats and wear hand towels around their necks that they hold onto with both hands.

They turn right when they reach the warning path and jog along it toward home plate. They pass the visiting dugout, round home, pass the Yankees dugout as they jog toward right field.

Instrumental notes from the song, The Streets of Laredo, fill the air as the ace pitcher for the NY Monarchs and his ailing catcher jog along.

To me, that alone was worth the price of admission.

John’s top ten:

1.Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) 8 and none

2.Field of Dreams (1989) 2 and 4

3. The Natural (1984) 18 and 7

4. Bull Durham (1980) 1 and 1

5. Eight Men Out (1988) 12 and none

6. A League of Their Own (!992) 22 and 2

7. The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings (1988) 15 & 13

8. Moneyball (2011) 2 And 6

9. Major League (1989) 19 and 10

10. Bad News Bears (1976) 3 and 11

The others:

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) 9 and 15

Everybody Wants Some (2016) 7 and 9

Sugar (2006) 6 and 17

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000) 4 and none

Up for Grabs (2005) 10 and none

Ballplayer: Peletero (2012) 13 and none      

42 (2013) 19 and none

Trouble with the Curve (2016) none and none

Cobb (1994) 24 and 27

Fear Strikes Out (1977) 17 and none

For the Love of the Game (1999) none and 25

61* (2001) 33 and 23

The Sandlot (1993) 30 and 8

The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 5 and 3

Off the Black (2006) 28 and none

Million Dollar Arm (2014) 26 and none

Fever Pitch (2005) 25 and 18

Damn Yankees (1958) 16 and 24

The Phenom (2016) 23 and none

It Happens Every Spring (1949) 21 and none

The Rookie (2002) 14 and 14

Quite a list. Admittedly, I never heard of some of these films. Off the Black, I believe is about umpires.  I believe Ballplayer: Peletero is an indictment of baseball recruiting in the Islands, but I know nothing about either.

I look forward to your comments and I promise to respond.

The Big White Ship

On Monday morning, March 30th, the USNS Comfort majestically glided through Gravesend Bay with a harbor pilot on board directing the ship’s captain to safely navigate the Narrows and enter New York Harbor. The arrival of this grand hospital ship was a visible manifestation of the Federal Government’s commitment to combat the COVID-19 emergency in the Metropolitan area.

I was sorely tempted to drive to one of the Belt Parkway’s parking areas overlooking Gravesend Bay to watch the ship arrive. But common sense reminded me that this was a bad idea for several reasons.   

Hospital ships are special with a unique appearance that distinguishes them from every other vessel. Their stark white exterior and the massive red crosses gleam in the sunshine to call out to all those in need that help has arrived. Their names reflect their calling: Mercy, Solace, Hope, Refuge, Haven and Repose. USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) and its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) entered service in the late 1980s and are the latest incarnation of a long line of the navy’s hospital ships.

The USS Relief (AH-1), was the first purposed-based hospital ship and joined the US Navy just after World War I ended. The Relief would serve until the end of World War II. Fourteen additional hospital ships were built or converted from freighters and passenger ships during the war and three, the USS Haven, USS Consolation and USS Repose were reactivated for service during the Korean War. Repose and the USS Sanctuary served during the Vietnam War. The navy was without a hospital ship after 1975 when Sanctuary was stricken from the fleet.

During the build-up and modernization of the navy during the Reagan administration, the navy decided to acquire two vessels each almost 900 feet long and convert them into hospital ships. One would be based on the East Coast the other on the West Coast. The Bureau of Ships decided to purchase two modern super tankers, gut them of the oil carrying cargo tanks and turn those enormous spaces into hospitals with a total capacity of 1,000 beds.

National Steel Shipbuilding Company (NASCO) won the bid to convert the tankers. The tanker, SS Worth morphed into the USNS Mercy and the SS Rose City became the USNS Comfort.

They were designed to be more advanced than a field hospital but less capable than a traditional hospital on land. Those one-thousand beds were divided into the following categories: ICU – 80 beds, recovery-20 beds, intermediate care-280 beds, light care-120 beds and limited care-500 beds.

Each ship has 12 operating rooms and facilities that range from casualty reception to a morgue. When deployed, each  ships’ complement consists of 16 reserve and 61 active mariners, six officers and 62 enlisted navy communications and support personnel and 1,156 medical and dental personnel.

The New York COVID-19 mission is Comforts 12th deployment. Others have included the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), Haiti (1994), the Iraq War (2002-2003), Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Haitian earthquake (2010) and Hurricane Maria (2017). Between, deployments, USNS sleeps at its own berth at the Norfolk Navy Yard under the watchful eyes of the skeleton crew.

The ship is designed and maintained to be activated in two-weeks and is operated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) a combined military and civilian service. As a result, its designation is USNS and not USS.

“In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, Comfort and her crew carry no offensive weapons. Firing upon Comfort would be considered a war crime as the ship only carries weapons for self-defense. In keeping with her status as a non-combatant vessel, naval personnel from the combat specialties are not assigned as regular crew or staff.”

 Embarkation by warfare specialist such as-… “naval aviation, surface warfare, submarine warfare, special operations (like SEALS) or members of the Marine Corp. are prohibited…” except as patients.

Although firing upon a hospital ship is a war crime, it happens, and in an upcoming blog, I will report on some of the more controversial and deadly sinkings. It should be noted that these losses were caused by both active and passive attacks. Many were caused by mines placed in channels with no knowledge of what ship will become the unlucky target.

The only US Navy hospital ship to suffer loss of life as a result of enemy action was the USS Comfort (AH-6), the navy’s second ship to carry that name. During the invasion of Okinawa… “the hospital ship stood by…from 2 to 9 April receiving wounded for evacuation to Guam. Returning to Okinawa on 23 April, six days later she was struck by a Japanese suicide plane. The plane crashed through three decks exploding in surgery which was filled with medical personnel and patients. Casualties were 28 killed (including six nurses), and 48 wounded, with considerable damage to the ship.”

Our good ship, Comfort, arrived under escort of a fleet of our local McAllister and Moran tugboats and the fanfare of a grateful city. Now on station, Comfort’s mission is not to act as a direct respite to the virus, but rather provide a reserve for other hospitals as they exceed capacity once the peak of the cases descends upon us in the next couple of weeks.       

Once again, naval medical personnel put themselves in harm’s way. So here is a toast to all the personnel on T-AH-20:

Hip, hip Hooray,

Hip, hip, Hooray,

Hip, Hip, Hooray!        

Flying While Intoxicated

The May edition of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine includes a piece about Lyle Prouse, a Captain with Northwest Airlines who with his two fellow crew members, First Officer Robert Kirchner and Flight Engineer Joseph Balzer, flew their 727 from Fargo to Minneapolis-St. Saint Paul while (pick ‘em) – flying While Impaired / flying while intoxicated or flying while hung over. Captain Proust ended up spending 424 days in Federal Prison.

The night before, they enjoyed a nice drinking session at the Speak Easy Restaurant and Lounge in Moorhead, Minnesota. Prouse drank rum and Coke while his cohorts consumed draft beer. The bar tab revealed that the pilot had 17 rum and Cokes while his mates consumed seven pitchers.

This incident occurred in 1990 when controls were still loose and would have gone unnoticed except that an employee working at the bar that night had the good sense to reveal this to the authorities.

At that time Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit airplane crews from flying with an alcohol level of greater than 0.04 eight hours before the flight.

The FAA was already aware of their escapade when the crew arrived at the airport. An FAA official spoke with Captain Prouse reminding the crew of the agency’s eight-hour rule but, for unknown reasons, he didn’t subject them to a breathalyzer test allowing to make the flight.

The story in the May 2020 edition of Air & Space Magazine  tells what next happened: “Northwest Flight 650, a Boeing-727… with 58 passengers took off as scheduled…When the crew walked off and saw company officials, airport policemen, and several FAA agents waiting at the end of the Jetway, Prouse thought, ‘It’s over.” (Two hours after the flight his blood alcohol was 0.128, three times the legal limit.)

Long story short, Proust repented, reformed and became a motivational speaker. Eventually with the help and kindness of others led by the judge who sentenced him to prison, he was re-employed by Northwest in 1993 and reinstated as a pilot in 1995.

Proust gives credit for much of his successful rehabilitation on AA, other peer groups and HIMS, Human Intervention Motivation Study, a rehabilitation organization for professional pilots with a success rate of 85.4%. This is a remarkable number when compared to other rehab groups rate of 40% or less at other organizations.

We can only wonder how bad it really was in the 1950s and 1960s when sobriety was treated far more casually and loosely.

Bob Newhart actually did a comedy bit about it in his spoof on airline travel: The Grace L Fergurson Airline and Storm Door Company: (The pilot speaking) “…Have you ever had one that hung on for four or five days? I don’t mind the headaches so much, it’s that damn double vision.”

My Godfather was a flight engineer with Pan American during that time. I can remember being at his house when he was on standby. If a crew scheduled that night had to be withdrawn, he would report to Idlewild to make their flight. The rule was no drinking, full stop. Nevertheless, he took pride in his chilled Daiquiris that he made with crushed ice served before their Sunday afternoon dinner, stand-by or not.

My Father, a US Air Force navigator, Flying B-47 jet bombers, charted his next day’s training mission the previous night on a chart spread across his kitchen table. The chart shared the table with a glass or two of Johnny Walker Red. When finished, he’d take a last look before folding up the chart, finish his drink. He’d smile and say: “Well, that’s good enough for government work.”

A different world, indeed.   

Blood Donor

In times of trouble, the New York area blood banks spring into action to appeal to the public for donations. This time Convid-19 is the reason. If I could donate, I would, and this is the reason why. 

I didn’t donate blood until I was well into my forties. It wasn’t that I was averse to the idea of giving blood that prevented me from becoming a donor earlier or fear that I would lose it, faint, or otherwise embarrass myself.

Rather, I led a world wind business life throughout the 80’s and 90’s with frequent travel to domestic and international destinations. I had places to go, flights to make, people to see to negotiate big deals, put out fires and keep my customers satisfied. Needless to say…  I lived in the fast lane.

A few things about that life, admittedly, it didn’t suck, but the risk / reward quotient was constant and without end. To describe what it was like, I have always taken pleasure in recounting a story told to me by the mother of my son’s best friend.

Diane explained, “I had picked up Mark and your son, Michael, from PYA, (our local little league association.) Driving home, Mark asked Michael: ‘Your father travels an awful lot; what does he do?’

Michael replied: ‘I’m not sure but he gets on airplanes, goes to different places, tells people what to do, and when they do it, he comes home.”

I kid you not, his version beat the hell out of reality.

My ignorance about giving blood ended the day my boss, Hobey Lockett, walked into my office to tell me that our colleague, Chuck, had terminal cancer and was receiving transfusions at Sloan-Kettering.

 “How can I help,” I asked?

Hobey replied: “Come with me tomorrow to donate blood in his name.”

I signed on and we donated the next day. Chuck didn’t survive but we continued to donate until his blood transfusions were paid back. Good deed done; I now knew that giving blood was a can-do event for me. I gave at office blood drives, at our local parish and a couple of one-off blood drives.

One day I received a call from the New York Blood Bank informing me that my A- blood was in high demand. They explained that it was especially needed for premature babies. Of course, I signed on and became a regular donor. As soon as they cleared me for my next donation, I would make my way to the blood bank’s facility located in the basement of Citicorp’s New York headquarters.

When someone would ask why I gave blood so often, I’d reply: “The blood bank folks have determined that my blood has an ingredient vital to premature babies, (wait for it) –  (wait for it): Alcohol.” Ha-ha.

One day, when I arrived for my appointment, a crew was filming a public service commercial for blood drives. Asked to participate, I agreed, and my pretty face ran on local TV ads for almost two years.  

But times change. Late in the 90’s a new question appeared on the list of restrictions that would prevent me from continued donations. At first blush, the question appeared to be innocuous: “Between 1975 and 1995, how many days did you spend in the United Kingdom?”

I read the question a second time. Now somewhat in shock, I called one of the nurses over and asked: “What is this question all about?”

After reading it, she explained: “Mad cow disease. The World Health Organization has decided that if a non-UK resident has spent over a year in Britain during those years, they are no longer eligible to give blood.”

“Kind of arbitrary, wouldn’t you say?”

“Perhaps, but that’s the way it is.”

Instinctively, I knew I had exceeded that time limit by my extensive travel to London during that very period. Reluctantly, I excused myself. Later, I called Rita C, the wife of one of my contacts at Exxon and a former UK RN. Rita simply said: “You have to obey the rules.”

Spoken like a true professional and someone I respected. Still, I felt the pain. Damn, I was doing good but, through no fault of my own, I had become unclean. Damn…and so it goes.

Oh well, I had my time at bat and life is good.

 Please GIVE BLOOD-It’s an absolute feel good thing to do and America needs your donation at this time of crisis. Understandably, blood banks reserves are at an all- time low as giving blood requires a huge leap of faith. You must abandon sheltering in place,  get into your car to reach your nearest blood bank, enter a strange building, wait with other strangers for a nurse, fill out a form, answer lots of questions and then take a blood test.

Only then will you be able to accept the needle and give blood, that is, if I didn’t miss a step.

Before the fact you will be nagged by friends and family not to do this and afterwards, you will be made to feel foolish, or simply a moron.

Nothing about giving blood in this time of National Emergency is easy. It is hard, very hard, hence the shortage of blood. No nagging from me. If you can, as the Marines’ recruiting slogan commands: THE FEW, THE PROUD…

And yet, to your own heart be true.