John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

A Dream Denied

“So, you want to own a caboose?” That was the headline on a one-page article in the August 2021 edition of Trains, the best magazine around for railroad fans. The article included a photograph of Dan Larkin, the proud owner of a former Delaware & Hudson wide-vision cupola steel caboose, No.35713 built by International Car Co. in 1959.

The article, written by Jim Wrinn, goes on to explain that Mr. Larkin bought his caboose in October of 2020. Mr. Wrinn explained: “The car is in what is referred to as ‘caboose village’ in Northfield, NH, where 20 privately owned cabooses reside.”

What the article didn’t say but what I read between the lines was that Mr. Larkin had bought his caboose as is, where is at its current location and that any plans he had for it didn’t include moving it.

In 1997, I had a far more ambitious dream to buy a late model caboose made of steel or stainless steel and have it shipped to our property in Marlow, New Hampshire where I planned to use it as a guest bungalow.

I set out to determine the necessary steps needed to pull this off. I picked a good location, between our house and the road now occupied by a basketball / badminton court. Once I selected my caboose, I would have the site prepared and contact a contractor to install a gravel roadbed, ties and tracks. Once the caboose arrived,  a crane would have to lift it from a flatbed truck and lower it onto the stretch of track. I would use the contractor to install the needed improvements including water, electricity, insulation and a septic system to convert the empty shell into a livable abode.

As I was a complete novice, I decided my first step was to learn just how available cabooses were. I did locate a promising source, Anderson Steel Flange RR Equipment of Fairfield, Iowa. Anderson sent me their catalog rich in its color photographs, drawing and explanations of a variety of railroad equipment including passenger cars, cabooses, boxcars and Fairmont motorcars. I was particularly drawn to this statement: “If needed, we can also assist with transportation and set-up.”

They didn’t list prices, but the Trains’ piece includes an interview with John Suscheck, the owner of Ozark Mountain Railcar in Kirbyville, Missouri, an operation similar to Anderson’s. Mr.Suscheck noted that a basic caboose can cost about $10,000 while one with upgrades like heat and a/c, modern restrooms, kitchen, accommodations, etc. can fetch $50,000.

Still interested? Jim Winn included this passage: “But that’s just the start. There’s moving and renovations.

Says Suscheck: ‘Keep in mind that moving rail equipment either by road or rail is expensive. I normally tell buyers the best option will be to have the car trucked so you can contract the price up front”

The article explains that sending your caboose by rail can become a nightmare. There are prepping costs before the ICC will approve it is ready to ride the rails. Just as importantly, rail tariffs run between $10 and $25 per mile. Those miles can include a significant amount of back-tracking at the railroad operator’s discretion. The caboose’s owner is responsible for all those extra miles. Add to that the increased risk of damage and vandalism during this unsupervised journey and shipment by rail loses all appeal..

Mr. Larkin figured that between purchase and renovations he has invested about $20,000 in his caboose. Also, if I read between the lines correctly, he is keeping his car exactly where it is.

If I had been in the market for my dream caboose today, reading that article would have brought it to a sudden stop, but reality was such that my dream died way before I reached that stage.

After discovering that Anderson was a possible source for my caboose, my next step was to write  to the Marlow Board of Selectmen. In November of 1997, I sent them the following note to alert them to my plans: “I am considering installing a caboose on my property. My plan would be to have a sufficient length of railroad track with the caboose installed on this track. Please advise if there are permits or variances that must be complied with before I proceed.”

The Board of Selectmen replied ten days later: “You must obtain a building permit for this item prior to bringing anything to your property. You must also abide by Marlow’s setback requirements. As you already have a residence on your property, you cannot use the caboose for human habitation. Sincerely, J,N, Ferrer,-chair’s”

“YOU CANNOT USE THE CABOOSE FOR HUMAN HABITATION!’

Seriously! It turned out that our ten acres was insufficient to support two habitable dwellings. A stupid zoning law prevented me from pursuing what would have been one of the bigger disasters in my life.

But at the time, I saw it as: Marlow-One, Delach-Zero. A dream denied!

 Live Free or Die, my ass.

Now, of course, I see it as: “Thank you Jesus.                  

Sarah and the Waiter

It had been a grand day to spend hiking in the Canadian Rockies. We had trekked along a trail that followed the Bow River.  Accompanied by my sister, Sarah, her friends, Molly and Agnes, we had enjoyed magnificent views of the river, lakes and falls all framed by the endless mountains. Our attempts at stealth had been rewarded by moose, elk and mountain goat sightings. I was happy that we had not stumbled across a grizzly or black bear. I feared the ladies’ city skills would not protect them. Secretly, I also doubted the extent of my own skill.

After a delightful morning of hiking followed by a picnic lunch, we were weary and all to ready to return to civilization. We piled into the estate wagon for the drive to the Banff Springs Hotel. Having access to a car was a new experience for all of us. War rationing had only ended last spring and our vacation was a unique break before we all returned to university. I drove our Nash across the river and onto the road leading to this imposing stone structure built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad to pamper its important travelers. Parking a short distance from the main entrance, I approached the doorman and asked, “Excuse me, can you accommodate three young ladies and myself for a drink and a snack? We have been hiking and we are all dressed in sporting gear.”

“Yes sir, the Mount Rundle Room is just such a place.” Bring your automobile up to the front door and I will have the valet park it. When you pay your bill, the waiter will validate the receipt providing you with free parking.”

“Thank you, “ I replied, “that will be swell.” I give him a half-dollar as a tip. Walking away, I wondered if my tip was probably more than the cost of parking.

The doorman directed us to the stairs leading to the mezzanine and the café. Although we found it without difficulty, the hostess seemed reluctant to seat us. “Is there a problem?” Sarah asked, her voice guarded.

“No miss, not really.”

But her demeanor demonstrated s certain discomfort, so I imposed myself between Sarah and the hostess. “What is your concern?”

“I am so sorry sir, but we are serving high tea. I can sit your party, but would you mind if it is here, close to reception. I am afraid the seats with the view of the river are occupied by others.”

I looked at the opposite end of the room. Ladies and gentlemen were taking tea dressed in Sunday finery. “ One moment,” I replied to her.

The four of us huddled and I suggested, “Come ladies, let us sit here and conspire in this private location. If we are discreet, you may all have Champagne and mother will never know.” Agnes and Molly gladly accept this compromise. Sarah bristled but chose silence.

Pleased with our decision, our hostess exclaimed: “Wonderful, I will have Hans, your waiter come right over.”

After a delay, Hans reluctantly arrived. “Ah, my good fellow, champagnes for the ladies and I will have a Canadian Club and soda.”

“ I do not wish to serve you because of the way the ladies are dressed.”

I was stunned. “I beg your pardon. Who do you think you are speaking to in this manner?” I felt my voice rising, but then, I saw the look of rage in Sarah’s eyes. Sarah was about to begin a tirade; her goal to destroy Hans. Immediately, I thought, “Poor Hans.”

Poor Hans indeed. But, before Sarah could begin, the hostess intervened, “How dare you! Hans, we have had this conversation before. Now off to the kitchen where I will deal with you privately.”

Looking directly at Sarah, she continued, “I am terribly sorry for this incident. Please accept your refreshments with us today as being complimentary of the hotel.”

To my relief, Sarah made a conscious effort to regain control and not make a scene. Instead, she looked directly at the hostess and said, “Thank you.”

Our table turned quiet, spirts saddened by that near-confrontation. Once drinks arrived,

the alcohol worked its magic restoring gaiety. A second round returned us to our original good mood. Too soon, it was time to leave as to not be late for mother and dinner.

I tipped and thanked our hostess. Feeling good about the outcome, I handed the receipt for the auto to the valet. Sarah observed and drew near, “So George, if you are such a smoothie, why didn’t you have your new friend validate your claims check?”

I remained silent as I turned away from my sister while I mumbled to myself, Dear Sarah, what a pill you can be. Hans managed to  avoid your serpent tongue, so you took it out on me.

Urban Bonfire

“C’mon, c’mon, grab a tree, don’t be slow and show some hustle.”

It is January 2nd, a Friday, eight days after Christmas. It is also a pick-up day for the NYC garbage men to collect discarded Christmas trees from the gated disposal areas in front of our four and six-story railroad flats in Ridgewood, Queens. Several gated areas are full of discarded Christmas trees.

 “C’mon, c’mon,” the older boys shout, “Grab a tree.”

Joey and I do as we are told. Being nine years old, both of us are excited and want to stay on the big boys’ good side. We claim a tree from the gate in front of 1821 Himrod Street. “Charlie, you take the back and I’ll take the front.” Joey orders.

I carefully pick-up the tree by its thick, lower branches so I don’t get sap on my hands and clothes. As we lift the tree, a forgotten glass ornament detaches and shatters as it hits the sidewalk. Hearing it break, I look at the tree. The branches are stiff and dry, but the tree retains its abandoned decorations. Tinsel, pink and white popcorn, a string of multi-colored lights and three or four other ornaments still adorn it.

Joey breaks into a run pulling me with him. Boys, carrying discarded trees,  are running to the vacant lot from several different directions, some from the other side of Senaca Avenue. When we reach the pile of trees, it is already three feet high. “Throw it on top,” Christie, the meanest of the big boys, shouts.

Joey and I look at each other. We count to three and let it go. It is a good throw, but before our tree reaches the top, it snags the branch of another tree and falls back bouncing off lower ones until it hits the ground. An angry Christie shouts, “Get out of here you babies.”

Admonished and shamed, Joey and I re-cross Senaca Avenue so we can watch the pile grow from a safe distance. The pile must reach 30 to 40 trees before the big boys stop building it. Then they stuff newspaper between the branches of the bottom trees and light them with wooden kitchen matches. The flame flares, but quickly goes out merely turning newspaper to ash. The trees fail to ignite even though they try two or three more times as they still contain enough sap to defeat the boys.

Christie yells, “Put more paper in and get away from the pile. I’ll take care of this.”

After the boys follow his order, Christie pulls a can of Ronson lighter fluid from his pocket and uses it to saturate the paper. “Watch what happens now,” he commands as he strikes a match and holds it to the paper.

The newspaper burns hotter and longer. Finally, the tree closest to his artificially set conflation catches. In seconds, flames engulf more and more trees. Then it seems like the whole pile explodes. Flames shoot high toward near-by buildings as the air crackles with the sound of the trees being destroyed in a fire storm. Shouts erupt from the building closest to the out-of-control bonfire. Boys begin running. Joey and I retreat further away as the sound of sirens begins to fill the air.

From multiple directions, police squad cars, fire engines and two fire chief cars reach the scene. But in the short time it takes the police and firemen to  arrive, the blaze has already consumed its fuel and has subsided. All that remains are black sticks and an awful stench.

The authorities are angry. They fan out grabbing as many kids as they can. Many rat out Christie right away telling the cops where he is hiding. The cops find him in an alley hiding behind garbage cans. He starts to cry.

As I watch him being hauled away, I sense that somehow, he saw me watching his humiliation. This is not good, as I know the beating, he will receive from his father will only make him meaner and sooner or later, it will be my turn.

The great 1954 post-Christmas season urban bonfire is over, the only one I recall having been a participant.

Ironically, that same year, my friend, Joey, and his family were burned out of their apartment when a neighbor’s water heater short-circuited. His family all escaped except for their cocker spaniel, Honey, who was a nice dog.

I never saw Joey again.          

My Stable of Jokes

While in college, I developed an instinctive sense of humor and the ability to remember and tell jokes. Timing, which is the essential ingredient that turns an ordinary story into a joke, came easily to me. I also understood the second commandment; don’t tell jokes that telegraph themselves. Shock or surprise are essential to the delivery of the punch line. Be it a one-liner, a shaggie dog story, or something in between, In most cases, delivering a hard tap is more effective than pulling off a soft shoe ending.

Hennie Youngman was a master of the one-liner: “Take my wife; please” “A guy asked me for a bite, so I bit him.”

I discovered my two personal favorite one-liners on visits to our local post office in Marlow, NH. The first was sported by a local woman’s tee shirt. It pronounced: “Kiss My Ass, I’m on Vacation.” The second was a chap wearing a baseball cap that noted, “Got a Gun for My Wife: Good Trade.”

One-liners are in the moment and quickly forgotten. Personally, I love shaggy dog stories that seem to go on forever without telegraphing the ending. The key to this art form is to draw your audience in and keep them intrigued as your story weaves a crooked path while maintaining the suspense. Build up the suspense until, out of nowhere, you hit them with the punch line.

I have two favorite shaggy dog stories and this is the milder of the two. It is also my personal favorite because the teller must repeat every line of the joke as he / she tells each sequence and increases the length. Most jokes like this one are best told in a bar or a café where liquor is liberally served and consumed. For sanity’s sake, I will set it out in its entirety without it’s complete repetition:

An 18-year-old French-Canadian seaman gets shore leave in the port of Montreal. In his pocket, he has a piece of paper with the name of a woman, her address and phone number. He seeks out a pay phone, deposits the required coins and dials her number:

Halo, is this Miss Evan Doucette?

Qui, this is Miss Evan Doucette .

Halo, is this Miss Evon Doucette of 221 Duquesne Street, Montreal, Quebec, Canada?

Qui, this is Miss Evon Doucette of 221 Duquesne, Montreal, Quebec, Canada,

Halo, is this Miss Evon Doucette of 221 Duquesne Street, Montreal, Quebec, Canada who had the baby 18 years ago and threw the baby into de trash can in de alley?

Qui, this is Miss Evon Doucette of 221 Duquesne Street, Montreal, Quebec, Canada who had the baby 18 years ago and threw the baby into the trash can in de alley.

Halo Ma!

My material played havoc with a wide-spectrum of life’s problems following the theory that tragedy plus time equals humor. I even had an Aids joke:

Doctor, I don’t know if my husband has a heart condition or Aids. What should I do?

Take him up to the track and force him to run a mile. If he doesn’t drop dead, don’t f**ck him!

 One day, seemingly out of nowhere, a new paperback book appeared entitles: “Truly Tasteless Jokes”. I bought a copy of this book only to discover to my dismay that almost a third of my material had been usurped by this book: “Damn!”  

Over time, I reconciled my pain to the fact that “Truly Tasteless Jokes,” forced me to abandon being a joke man well before the arrival of political correctness and when the cancel culture and the thought police would come knocking at my door.

I do regret the loss of a free rein culture where joke telling sessions, especially classic stories like the one about the little girl Petal and her doggie Porky, or Jesus, being angry on Easter could be told without fear of condemnation or cancellation. Morning

All of this brings me to my own brand-new original joke. Hopefully, it follows all the rules I have set out for a perfect hit, so, as a warning, may I suggest that you place any beverage container on a solid surface before you read on:

As a non-practicing Catholic, it shocks me when I attend wedding and funeral masses only too discover that the liturgy has been changed. The simple:

Command: May God be with you:

Response: And with thy spirit.

Has undergone a metamorphosis to new speak that my brain cannot remember. Then, out of the blue, I thought of my own ecclesiastical change to this exchange:

Command: May God be with you:

Response: And with the horse you rode in on!

“On The Outside Looking In” will not publish on July 7 and will return on July 14. Happy 4th of July.”

The Exchange Student

Gardermoen Airport is Oslo Norway’s principal entry and exit point. It is a cosmopolitan facility of modern terminals, shops, and clubs catering to the multiple needs of international passengers. A high-speed railroad line offers thirty-minute service from and to the center of Oslo. This facility opened to the public in October of 1998, so I can imagine that more up-to-date improvements have been made or are on its horizon.

My one and only departure flight from Gardermoen took place in August of 1987 before any of these developments were contemplated. At that time, Gardermoen was a secure base serving the Royal Norwegian Air Force and NATO operations. The military authorities begrudgingly agreed to permit commercial airlines flying 747s to use their airbase as Oslo’s main airport, Fornebu, could not accommodate 747s.

Other than that experience, all my Oslo takeoffs and landings took place at Fornebu, a postage stamp of an airport that was Oslo’s version of New York’s LaGuardia, Chicago’s Midway or DC’s National. Most of the time, I flew in and out of Oslo on MD-80s, Boeing 737s or Airbus A-300’s so I didn’t quite recognize its size limitations.

I even had a near-miss on a SAS MD-80 flying in from Stockholm on a rainy morning with a low ceiling. I was flying with David Clarke, a colleague, who like me, kept his fears to himself. As we descended for our landing and broke through the clouds, what I saw were houses, lots of houses. An instant later, the pilot applied power and put the jet into a climb. When he leveled off, he announced to us, his nervous passengers, “Sorry, the tower brought us in a little too close. We will go around again.”

This was in November of 1990, and as he began our second approach, I complained to David, “Damn, just my luck, the Giants are 10 and 0 and I am going to die in Oslo, f***ing Norway!”      

But I digress! In 1987, the only way to reach Gardermoen Airport was via a two-lane highway and travel time was close to an hour without traffic. Fortunately, Steve Pires and I were returning to New York on a Saturday, so traffic was not an issue. As the taxi approached the perimeter, we observed double rows of fences topped with barb wire protecting the airbase, soldiers manning the guard towers armed with automatic weapons and the signs in English, Norwegian and German warning passengers not to stop their cars, not to get out or to take photographs. The road continued along the perimeter away from earthen embankments shielding military structures, F16 fighters and AC 135 AWAKS.

Ahead, our destination came into view, a shabby wooden passenger terminal standing alone at the far end of the base    

The inside of the terminal had the same charm, as the customs officials and airline staff on duty. The people who worked there hated their assignment and attitudes reflected the complete lack of ambience in this facility.

We shuffled along to their grunts observing the signs repeated in every room and corridor, NO PHOTOGRAPHS. Steve noted: “John, I believe if you even took out a camera, you would be arrested and interrogated for a long time.”

I have been in primitive airport facilities before. For years, a so-called Temporary Terminal at JFK served many domestic flights when the airport’s name was New York International Airport, or Idlewild, as it was commonly called. I do remember having to navigate that maze of plywood for flights three different times to find my gates on visit’s my father in Miami in 1957, 1959 and 1961.

This attitude and the physical layout of this joint at Gardemoen made us feel like we’d already crossed into the other side of the iron curtain.

Finally, we reached the main waiting room, a large area with tables and plastic chairs. Food and soft drinks were available cafeteria style. Part of the reason the room resembled an old high school cafeteria was the presence of many teenagers; boys and girls wearing the same outfits, white tee shirts and yellow shorts. They filled the space with the sights and sound of youthful energy. Clean, pretty, healthy with beautiful Nordic coloring and hair. We just looked at each other.

I decided to get us two Cokes and joined the line behind a pretty blond girl. “Excuse me,” I asked, “Could you tell me what kind of a group this is?”

“We are high school students on our way to America for our next year of school.”

“Ah, how nice. May I ask where in America you are going?”

“Kansas.”

“Kansas. Nice and good luck.”

With Cokes in hand, I returned to our table and told Steve all about my encounter. I waved to the girl so Steve would understand and let him think about it for a moment. I mentally counted to ten as timing is everything, then said,

 “You know Steve, right now, as we speak, there is a good looking, solid, tanned 17=year old kid eating a big mid-western breakfast on a large farm in middle of Kansas. He’s thinking about today’s chores, and he doesn’t have a clue that his ship is about to come in!”   

Jim Fassel, RIP

I learned on Tuesday morning, June 8th, that Jim Fassel had passed away, a victim of a heart attack in a Las Vegas hospital at age 71. Fassel was head coach of the New York Football Giants from 1997 to 2004 and took the team to Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. He was a good man.

The Giants entered the 2000 season as an also ran in the NFC’s Eastern Division. Despite these negative predictions, Big Blue got off to a great start that continued into the middle of the season. The team achieved a record of 6-2 in their first eight games that included two victories against the Philadelphia Eagles, the team the experts picked to win their division.

But our team hit a crossroad when the Maramen were outclassed by the high-powered Rams, 38 to 24. Okay, the Giants got their butts kicked but, at least the kicking came at the hands of a nationally recognized power-house team already labeled, “The greatest team on turf.”

On November 19, the following Sunday, we had a 1 PM home game against the Detroit Lions on a beautiful autumn afternoon with sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50s. We enjoyed  another excellent tailgate before making our way to Section 107 of Giants Stadium with the highest expectations of enjoying a Giants victory.

Instead, after a scoreless first quarter, the Lions rattled off 21 points during the second quarter and added seven more at the beginning of the second half giving themselves a 28-point lead. While the Giants did manage to score 21 points of their own, the Lions added three more making the final total: Giants 21- Detroit Lions 31.

Expectations for Big Blue to make the playoffs diminished as our team’s record bottomed out at 7-4 and this debacle led to all sorts of abuse; booing, cursing and the worst of all, the team’s hometown crowd deserting them and leaving the stadium early. The joint was almost empty with ten-minutes remaining on the game clock. Radio, television and the Monday morning newspapers all cried doom as they stirred the pot. Radicals demanded Coach Fassel be sacked.

Bill Pennington, then The New York Times beat reporter remembered what happened next. “It was the day before Thanksgiving and Giants Coach Jim Fassel who looked like a librarian and generally behaved like the winsome air-conditioning salesman he once was, had a wild, restless look in his eye.

“His Giants, two weeks earlier a shoo-in for the NFL playoffs, had been booed off the field after two consecutive ugly home losses. Their postseason prospects were now dim, a mutiny was brewing in the locker room and management was agitated.

“Fassel stepped to the rostrum for what was usually a pro forma news conference and barked:”

YOU GOT THE LASER; YOU CAN PUT IT RIGHT HERE, ON MY CHEST. I’LL TAKE THE RESPONSIBILITY. GET OFF MY COACHES. GET OFF THE PLAYERS’ BACKS. I’M RAISING THE STAKES RIGHT NOW. THIS IS A POKER GAME  I’M SHOVING MY CHIPS TO THE MIDDLE OF THE TABLE. I’M RAISING THE ANTE, ANYBODY WANTS IN, GET IN, ANYBODY WANTS OUT, GET OUT.

THIS TEAM IS GOING TO THE PLAYOFFS, OK? 

Pennington recalled what he wrote the next day: “Jim Fassel, the Mister Rogers of football coaches, tore off his cardigan today, tied it around his head and joined the Hells’ Angels.”

This scribe further reported: “Two days later, standing with Fassel in the bowels of old Giants Stadium, I wondered what had gotten into the guy nicknamed Gentleman Jim. ‘If this doesn’t work out, you’re going to get fired.’ I said.”

“I was going to get fired before I did this,”’ he answered, “Now we’ll see what happens.”

Hokey, you bet; nonsensical, yeah, a bit; chock-a-block full of cliques, absolutely…but professional athletes are simple folk who just happen to make an inordinate amount of money for playing little boy’s games. Like little boys, those men in blue we called Maramen,  played their last five games of the season with a vengeance winning victories over all to clinch the NFC East. The final game against the Jacksonville Jaguars was played at Giant Stadium on a Saturday afternoon on December 13, 2000.

The following day’s NYT’s Sports Sunday front page included a photo of yours truly holding up an oaktag sign that demanded: BELIEVE IT, as I celebrated their 30 to 10, victory over the Redskins.

Fassel’s run continued through the playoffs. The Giants beat the Eagles for the third time to advance to the NFC Championship Game where they annihilated the favored Minnesota Vikings 41-0.

Our luck ran out two weeks later as my son and I watched our Giants lose Super Bowl XXXV to the Baltimore Ravens, in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, 34 to 7… and so it goes.

Please permit me to allow Bill Pennington to conclude this piece.

“Almost ten years ago, I had breakfast with Fassel and asked him if he saved his notes from his now famous Thanksgiving eve speech from 2000. You know, the stuff about the poker chips, raising the stakes and having no fear?”

“I never wrote anything down,” he said, laughing. “I just knew I had to put myself in the crosshairs – and nobody else. I had to cause a kind of distraction, so I just winged it.”

Well played, Coach Jim Fassel and RIP

The Saddle

Drinks in hand, Billy Mize and Leo Whalen stood together at the bar in the hospitality lounge of the Arrowwood Conference Center in Rye Brook, NY. As I entered the premises. Leo waved his green bottle of Heineken in my direction signaling me to join them. “Jonnie, let me buy you a drink.” Leo thundered as he looked to the bartender.

“Thanks, Leo,” I replied and asked the bartender for a Jameson on the rocks in a short glass. Billy was already enjoying his vodka on the rocks, and we toasted each other once my Irish whiskey arrived. “So, Billy, how was your flight from Mexico City?”

“Not bad, John. It seems it was only two or three months ago since we saw each other at last year’s managers meeting at the Breakers down in Boca Raton This place is  a dump in comparison!”

“Damn right, brother Billy,” I replied, “But then again times were considerably better for us and our company last year. That damn bond scandal combined with the melt down in the casualty insurance market has put us on our back foot. But, hell, we’ve survived and here we are. I am glad you had a good flight.”

We talked about Billy’s transfer from our Dallas office and how easily he and his wife assimilated Mexican culture and lifestyle. Billy’s wife is Puerto Rican, and he is a gregarious Texan who is fluent in Spanish. He then returned to the subject of his flight and said, “I did have a bit of problem getting through Customs at JFK.”

Seeing this look on my face, a look Billy understood about US citizens doing business in Mexico, he continued, “No, John, I did not carry drugs or more than $10,000 in cash. My problem was hauling the extraordinary and, in a way, the most ridiculous item I ever tried to check into the baggage compartment on an airplane.”

Leo chuckled, “I bet you did feel a bit foolish.”

I couldn’t ignore the tone of guilt in Leo’s throw out line.

I’ll admit, they had my attention as I had no idea where this story was going.  Billy explained,  “You see, John, the last time Leo visited our office in Mexico City, he remarked on how much he wanted a Mexican saddle for his wife.“

“Yes, ” Leo interrupted, “She was impressed by their craftsmanship and has always wanted one for her horses.”

Continuing, Billy added, “Knowing that Leo lives less than an hour from here, I promised to bring a saddle with me. What I forgot was that I had to claim all my baggage before clearing Customs.

“That meant I had to remove all my stuff from the cart I was using and drag my bags, golf clubs and the saddle through the Customs area. Only when I cleared could I recruit a skycap help me carry them to the limo.”

With that, Jack Shea joined us, and Billy and Leo related the story a second time. Jack was skeptical and wanted to know where the saddle was. Billy replied: “Why, Jack, it’s in Leo’s room where I delivered it.”

“Let’s go see it then,” Jack insisted.

With that, we left the bar, crossed the lobby and walked across a glass-enclosed bridge that connected the hotel’s rooms with the conference center. Leo opened the door and led us into his room. Sure enough, on a chair sat the biggest saddle I have ever seen. Jet-black with silver studs, the seat had a shine that reflected the room. Everything about it was big from the horn to the stirrups. No wonder Billy had such a tough time hauling it  through customs!

However, even a big Mexican saddle is only a saddle and not exactly an object that requires lengthy analysis. As for me, my interest wandered back to getting another drink and I wasn’t alone.

We were just about to leave when a young man opened the door. Startled to see us, he said, “Excuse me, I am here to turn down the bed.”

Leo asked him to come in and as he entered, I noticed that the bathroom door, directly across from the saddle, was closed. As this innocent steward came up to me, I stopped him.

“Do you see that saddle?” He nodded, yes. “Good. Whatever you do, don’t open that door!”

The steward’s eyes popped out and he did a double take, his eyes traveling from me to the saddle to the bathroom door several times.

We left the room closing the door behind us starting to roll with laughter. Leo said, “John, you have one sick sense of humor.”

Perhaps, but one of my best capers of all times!

Note: No horses or stewards were hurt during this caper.    

Canada’s Enduring Problems

God has a plan; the information is not available to the mortal man. This line from “Slip Sliding Away” was written by Paul Simon and I believe it may help us to understand the Canadian / Canadien dilemma. These gentle and kind people inhabit a huge country of infinite beauty and substantial natural resources. Canadians / Canadiens love their land. They appreciate their burden to protect it, conserve it and nurture it. To this end they are vigilant and, …Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

But they suffer dilemmas that neither God nor government can cure. Canadians / Canadiens never had a proper separation from their motherlands be it England, (Canadians,) or France, (Canadiens) or the civil war needed to reconcile this self-made and inordinately vital issue of sovereignty and identity.  

Had Canada struggled through a nasty civil war, the tediousness of Canadian / Canadien would have been eviscerated in the ferocity of cannons and the wanton spilling of blood. Without such carnage, Canada has been unable to achieve domestic national consensus and the English / French debate diverts vital interest and resources from more important issues. Consider the savings in time, money and psyche if they were just Canadian. Fortunately, the very idea of the French separatist movement remains dormant. Obviously, this obsession by a hard core of separatists is insane, but, though it sleeps, it lives on awaiting the day of resurrection.

So too is the ultimate Canadian paranoia, their fear of the monster that sleeps under their collective beds, the monster to the south. Canadians / Canadiens are like Adam and Eve this time given a second chance. “You may remain in the Garden of Eden, but you will be isolated from all others save one. The monster is powerful and is my eyes and ears. Screw up again and I shall cast it upon you.”

Canadians / Canadiens believe that someday, some way, the USA will annex them. I wish I could assure them that this fear is mistaken. The USA does not look at Canada with ambition, jealousy or envy. I believe we do not covet their nation or their wives, but, then again, I’ve been wrong before.

Years ago, on a business trip to Montreal, one of my Canadian colleagues handed me an unremarkable novel with a knowing look. It was political science fiction, that culminated with these United States declaring Canada to be part of the USA while allowing the provinces the opportunity to apply for statehood. It was a best seller in Canada!

Ridiculous, but still…what if?

The COVID-19 pandemic successfully tested our relationship. When the USA was hit hard, our neighbors to the north closed their border to all but essential traffic. Seems to me, neither one of us considered this closure to be an issue, much less a subject for controversy. Today, it’s Canada that has a COVID-19 problem. Borders remain closed, again without controversy.

Logic, logistics and National ambitions should make the case that the big, bad USA enjoys our relationship with the closest international neighbor and only seeks to enhance our strengthen and friendship.

Please notice that I have absolutely refrained throughout this piece from using the terms, America or American. Terry Manning, my Canadian friend, hated that term. Terry declared that we were all Americans. We could call them Canadians, but he would call us, Yanks.  

Still, Terry believed in the paranoia of the beast which he couldn’t always contain. For several years, our Managing Directors  gathered together for five days at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia for a management boondoggle. Late one afternoon, I decided to join Terry and his fellow Canadians on the porch of a cabin they were sharing for our meeting.

Terry decided to call me out in front of his mates: “You know, Delach, the problem with you f***ing Yanks is you think that Canada is the 51st f***ing state!”

“No, Terry,” I replied, “ Israel is the 51st  f***ing state; Canada is the 52nd

F***ing state!” 

Still, I get it. I understand that if our economy catches a cold, Canada faces pneumonia.

Thinking it through, I’ll admit that if I were living in the north country and being constantly forced to look south to see what those Yanks will do next to interfere with my well-being, Je serais avissi nerueux / I too would be nervous.            

“Baby Doll,” Carl, Carol, Eli, the Legion of Decency and Me: Part Two

Baby Doll has been described as: “An American dramatic black comedy.” If you read the script without any knowledge of how the dialogue sounded and the visual impression it presented, you might agree with that analysis.

Trust me though, as I watched the story unfold on the television in my Baltimore hotel room, I can attest that the dialogue was steamy, sensuous and seductive. It didn’t hurt that Carroll Baker wore the same short slip in every scene, a slip that revealed everything without revealing anything. Without any hints of nudity or any manifestations of simulated sex, Ms. Baker’s very presence exuded sensuality that turned ordinary lines that could have been comedic into sexual provocations. Witness:

Baby Doll (BD): (Silva caresses her neck) Don’t touch me. Please, don’t touch me. I don’t like to be touched.

Silva: Well, why do you giggle?

BD: Cause,  you make me feel kind of hysterical, Mr. Vacarro.

Silva: ( knowing smile) I do?

BD: (starts to get up) Mr. V. I think I’ll go and make us some lemonade. (he holds her back.)

BD: What did you do that for?

Silva: I don’t want to be deprived of the pleasure of your company. Not yet.

BD: Mister V, you certainly are getting familiar.

Silva: Don’t you have any fun-loving spirit about you?

BD: Well, this is not fun. (laughs breathlessly and smiles.)

Silva: Why do you giggle then? Hmm?

BD: Because I’m ticklish.

A word about the plot. Miss Baby Doll’s father forced her to marry Archie Lee Meighan (Carl Malden) as part of a semi-extortion plot to save the remaining assets of his cotton plantation. Baby Doll’s father forced Archie to agree to a wedding contract that the marriage would not be consummated for two years, not until Baby Doll turned twenty.

Silva Vacarro, (Eli Wallach) immigrates to town and establishes a cotton gin operation that ruins Archie’s gin. Archie, burns Silva’s gin to the ground. Silva goes to Archie’s home to set a trap to prove Archie destroyed his gin. He charms Archie who goes about his business allowing Silva to use Baby Doll to incriminate Archie. The script is saved from becoming a British romantic comedy, again,  by Ms. Baker’s sensuous performance.

BD: I told my daddy that I wasn’t ready for marriage and my daddy told Archie Lee that I wasn’t ready for it and Archie Lee promised my daddy that he would wait until I was twenty.

Silva: Then, the marriage was postponed?

BD: Oh no, not the weddin’. We had the weddin’. My daddy gave me away.

Silva: But you said Archie waited?

BD: Yeah! After the weddin’, he waited.

Silva: For what?

BD: For me to be ready for marriage.

Silva: Well, how long did he have to wait?

BD: Oh, he’s still waiting.

BD: We had an agreement that-I mean, I told him that on my twentieth birthday I’d be ready.

Silva: That’s tomorrow.

BD: Uh-huh

Silva: And are you-will you be ready?

BD: Well, that all depends.

Silva: On what?

BD: Whether not the furniture comes back, I guess.

Silva: Your husband sweats more than any man I know and now I can understand why.

Silva and Baby Doll engage in this dialogue while they lay together in the enlarged crib that Baby Doll uses as her bed. Tennessee Williams didn’t shy away from the generous use of the most base of racial and ethnic language in his script. These slurs were repeated so often that they had to be deliberate.

I believe Williams and  Kazan chose to test the limits of what was acceptable in 1956 Main Street America. If content was not enough, their publicity department commissioned a promotional billboard in Times Square featuring Ms. Baker, lying in her crib, wearing her short slip sucking on her thumb prior to the film’s release.

Two days before the movie’s premier, Cardinal Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, condemned Baby Doll from the pulpit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Sunday’s high mass. He  demanded that both Catholics and non-Catholics forgo seeing this film. He deemed it to be morally dangerous. One critic reported: “Spellman’s unusually harsh and unusually public sermon was unprecedented.”

Cardinal Spellman was one of the top ten power brokers not only in New York, but, also,  on the national stage. His nickname was the American Pope and his condemnation marginalized Baby Doll to art houses, off beat theaters and eventually, a hotel in Baltimore over fifty- years later.

The film didn’t make a profit, but it did set off a storm of controversy between freedom of expression and censorship with prominent people and organizations taking both sides of the divide. It was banned in several countries including Sweden, curiously, where Swedish movie makers produced the erotic: I Am Curious (Yellow) in 1967.

Time Magazine called Baby Doll, ”…just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.”

As for me, I’m glad I got lucky in Baltimore to understand what that storm was all about. My verdict: Using 1956 standards, I find Baby Doll, guilty as charged.

The Legion of Decency, “Baby Doll,” Carol, Carol, Eli and Me: Part One

Sometime in the mid-1950s when I was just short of puberty, but already intriguted by elements of the world, the flesh and the devil, The Tablet,  theofficial newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn began to arrive in our Ridgewood, Queens’s home for some unknown reason. Perhaps Mom had donated to some charity, or  joined a certain Catholic group where membership included a subscription to this publication?

Not once, did I ever try to read its contents except for the one feature that attracted the attention of every teen and pre-teen who saw the listing.

That feature was the National Legion of Decency’s ratings of Hollywood’s feature films. Each week, the Legion distributed a list of ratings for films so the members of their Roman Catholic flock would understand what movies were suitable for watching based on their moral content.

Films were rated according to the following code:

A: Morally unobjectionable.

B. Morally objectionable in part

C. Condemned

“Condemned.” The very word aroused a boy’s imagination and hormones. Week after week,  the Tablet displayed all the movies in those three categories. Since this was the mid-1950s, we lived under the illusion of a wholesomeness so there were only two that had earned the “C’ rating:  

And God Created Woman and Baby Doll

Oh, how exciting. All I knew about And God Created Woman, was it stared Bridgett Bardot. Photographs of that so called, “Sex Kitten,” filled Sunday magazine sections of the Daily News and the Daily Mirror so I easily understood what she looked like. No wonder why Adam never had a chance!

But what was Baby Doll all about? I understood that there was a style of women’s P.J.s named after this movie that were revealing, but so what? Strangely, all I ever encountered in that time of coming of age was that Baby Doll was a bad movie for Catholics and others of faith. I never saw its title, posted on a movie marquee nor met anyone who saw it.

Life went on and our world view of sex, morality and the Catholic sense of guilt turned into a roller coaster ride, or was it more akin to carnival ride called, the whip, where we were thrown around the cars with insane abandon? Either version; there was a whole lot of “shaking going on.”   

Cable freed TV from restrictive FCC rules. Pornography popped up in dingy midtown theatres. The internet followed blowing away the rules on almost all restrictions that prevented open  access to an electronic wonderland of pornography on demand where almost anything goes:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking

was looked on as something shocking.

Now heaven knows

anything goes.

Still, I remained clueless about Baby Doll until a fateful trip to Baltimore with Mike Scott to see an Orioles vs Red Sox game at Camden Yards about ten years ago. We took an afternoon off. I planned to nap, but serendipitously, when I turned on the TV, I found myself watching the opening credits for, Baby Doll! Mesmerized, I watched the entire movie.

I did try to tell Scott what I was doing, but he had turned off his room phone. Mike comes from that genre of older men who consider their cell phones, the modern manifestation of pay phones, only good for outgoing calls. Oh well, I tried.

I settled in to watch this black and white film set in Mississippi cotton country. That made sense, as, the author, Tennessee Williams came of age in Clarksville, a river town that was once the hub for the sale, storage and distribution of cotton. Clarksville also attracted the pickers of cotton, those Black Americans who lived under the yoke of Jim Crow. For this very reason, Clarksville also witnessed the birth of the blues.

Williams adapted the screenplay from his own one-act play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. It tells a story about rival cotton gin owners, one a son of the south and the other an Italian immigrant. It is a tale of revenge and seduction. Elia Kazan produced the 1955 film with Williams and cast three alumni from his Actors Studio in the lead roles, Karl Malden as Archie Lee Meighan, Carroll Baker as Baby Doll Meighan and Eli Wallach as Silva Vacarro.

Surprisingly, Kazan cast Malden as the villain and Wallach as the less offensive hero. Their difference in age was a factor, but Baby Doll presented a reversal of their traditional roles. Malden usually played a good guy, Father Barry in On the Waterfront and Omar Bradley in Patton. Wallach’s well-known roles include being different bad hombres like Calvera, the leader of the raiders who terrify villages, in The Magnificent Seven and, Tuco Ramirez in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Kazan originally wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Baby Doll, but after Williams saw Baker perform a scene from his script, he convinced the producer / director to give the part to her.

In Part Two, we will fearlessly, well, almost fearlessly, examine the film and why the shit hit the fan prior to its release .Heat up your popcorn and stay tuned.