John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: July, 2014

The Army That Went to Mail

Vincent Sombrotto’s died in January of 2013 and his obituary was promonetly reported in an obituary in the New York Times. Mr. Sombrotto was 89 and died in St. Francis Hospital on Long Island. His obit explained his claim to fame. It read in part, “Vincent Sombrotto, who was a rank-and-file letter carrier, led a wildcat strike that shut down post offices across the country in 1970, prompting President Richard M. Nixon to call out the National Guard…”


Those were crazy times. Starting with Michael Quill’s face off against newly installed Mayor John V. Lindsay on New Year’s Day, 1966, the results he achieved for his members of the TWU as the result of the 12 day strike that killed him less than a month later influenced the union leaders of municipal workers, quasi-city workers and others. They took to the streets as strikes seemed to spread like wildfire through the 60’s and 70’s until at one point forty different unions went out on strike in one calendar year.


It seemed that everyone who was a “union man or woman” joined the cause in those days of rage. Sanitation, police, fire, ambulance services, hospitals and even ballerinas from the American Ballet Theater took to the streets one even in toe shoes. Umpires picketed Yankee Stadium, cemetery workers engaged in a hunger strike. OTB clerks, prison guards, tug boat operators, milk truck drivers, school bus drivers, and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) toll collectors all walked. Albert Shanker led the teachers out in a series of nasty strikes that pitted minority controlled community boards against his United Federation of Teachers (UFT) culminating in a 36 day strike commencing at the start of the school year in September of 1968. Beyond material gains, the strike brought Shanker dubious fame thanks to a line in the Woody Allen movie, Sleeper: “(That) the world as we knew it had been destroyed by a mad man named, Albert Shanker who got a hold of a nuclear device.”


Another outrage to the citizens in a seemingly endless chain came in 1971 when bridge tenders belonging to Victor Gotbaum’s District 37 of the Municipal Employees Union opened all 27 draw bridges in the city before locking the doors, removing fuses and walking off the job after throwing their keys into the waters they guarded before leaving their posts. The chaos they left in their wake was insane. Only 7,000 of Gotbaum’s 400,000 members, actually went out but his 2 ½ day-rant included other vital workers at sewage treatment plants, garbage disposal terminals and school cafeterias.


But Vinnie and his gang were different. They were federal employees. As the strike spread from Manhattan and the Bronx across the land, it tested President Richard M. Nixon’s patience and on March 23, 1970, five days into the strike, he announced on television: “(I) just now directed the activation of the men of various military organizations to begin in New York City, the restoration of essential mail services.”


As members of various units in the 42nd Division of the New York National Guard, we reported to the armories where our outfits were housed. Bill Wilson went to the Armory on 18th St. where his unit, the famous “Fighting” 69th was housed. Geoff Jones reported to his outfit, Company B, 42nd Maintenance Battalion at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx and Bill Christman and I journeyed to an armory in Hempstead, Long Island, the home of Company C of the 242nd Signal Battalion. For the next eight days, these were our places of work until the strike was settled. Of the four of us, only Bill Wilson actually delivered mail on an assigned route in lower Manhattan. So little mail was sorted at the GPO that delivering it would take him less than an hour each day allowing Bill to go off to his regular job as an insurance broker while still in his army fatigues before returning to the armory.


Bill Christman remembered our greatest accomplishment: “Putting up a volley ball net between two deuce-an-a-halves (Two and a half-ton trucks) and that our First Sergeant, Sgt. Peter Stegle commented, ‘Once the postal workers envisioned us invading their work places, they figured they better settle.”


We never left the armory and when the strike ended, Sgt. Stegle ordered us into formation on the drill floor to address us before dismissal. He reminded us that although we never left the armory, “Those who stand and wait also serve.” As he finished these remarks one soldier let loose in a stage whisper, “Ah, the motto of Burger King.”


Vinnie’s passing reminded us, the veterans of the great mail crusade, of the joy he inadvertently brought to us by calling that wildcat strike. Unbeknownst to any of us, embedded in our National Guard contract for service with Uncle was a provision that, if we were ever Federalized by order of the Commander-in-Chief, we would have a reduction up to one year of our six-year commitment regardless of the duration of being Federalized.


Thank you Vinnie, thank you and Milhouse!


Only one obstacle remained, the governor of the state of New York. It seemed we also had a separate contract to be part of a State Militia, But Nelson Rockefeller turned out to be a player and he dispensed us from this commitment. Thank you too, Rocky, your wealthiness.


I don’t recall recruiters trying to get many of us to re-up; that would have been too funny and a waste of time.


But I do know that like other aging vets of the great mail crusade, the next time I put a stamp on an envelope, I’ll think kindly of ole Vinnie.



Mike Quill

Don’t you think that the “almost” Long Island Railroad strike scheduled to begin last Sunday morning was settled almost too easily? I know I do and when I saw all of the smiling faces belonging to Governor Andrew Cuomo, MTA officials, union leaders and hangers on as they shook hands and broke bread at Docks, the trendy seafood hot spot on Third Avenue and Thirty-Ninth Street, I knew that Mike Quill was spinning in his grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery. Michael J. Quill, the late, “great” leader of the Transit Workers Union of America, the same Mike Quill, who let the press know in no uncertain fashion how he was treating a judge’s order to halt the  New York City subway strike:

The Judge can drop dead in his black robes and we would not call off the strike. Personally, I don’t care if I rot in jail!


Now that was a top-notch donnybrook.  Quill was a rough tough, take no prisoners union man who was in the top three of the New York labor leaders the public loved to hate because they screwed up life so badly with strikes. The other two, in my opinion, were Bertram Powers of Big 6, the International Typographers Union who killed several New York newspapers starting with the Daily Mirror and Albert Shanker of the UFT, the United Federation of Teachers, who shut down the entire public school system.


But Quill was a special villain having the ability and chutzpah to hold the entire city and its suburbs hostage every other New Year’s Eve. Each go-round, he dragged negotiations beyond midnight agreeing to stop the clock all the while ranting about Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. Wagner, served as mayor from Jan. 1, 1954 to December 31,1965 and  endured being Bud Abbott to Quill’s Lou Costello or Dean Martin to Quill’s Jerry Lewis time and time again. Each go-round, Quill starred in this bi-annual “pantomime making bad faces, shouting ugly threats waving his Irish blackthorn stick, and generally doing his histrionic best to make the city shake and quiver.”


Wagner understood the seriousness of his role and gamely played his part. And serious business this was. During the December, 1963 contract battles, Mayor Wagner was forced to leave the bedside of his dying wife, Susan, or risk Quill’s vindictive retaliation with a last-minute breakdown in his negotiating strategy. And how did Quill react. Asked by a reporter to comment on Wagner, Quill rejoined in his twill brogue:

Mayor Wagner is the only man I know who can speak out of both sides of his mouth and whistle at the same time.


After three terms, Wagner had had enough. John V. Lindsay, the tall, handsome, progressive Republican congressman from Manhattan’s Upper East Side “Silk Stocking District” won the race beating the Democrat, Abe Beam, and William F. Buckley who ran on the Conservative Party line. (A footnote: When asked, “what would you do if you won?” Bill Buckley replied, “Demand a re-count.”)


Lindsay chose to refrain from participating in the negotiations or playing his assigned role in The Quill Show. Although many pundits considered this decision to be crucial to the failed process that followed, I am not so sure this was correct. First off, Quill had a huge chip on his shoulder heading up to the Jan. 1, 1966 deadline. Following the successful settlement of the 1963 negotiations, one of the two Transit Authority associate board members, John J, Gilhooley or Daniel Scanlon, publicly crowed how his side of the table had been able to snooker the TWU. But more importantly, Quill and Lindsay quickly decided that they despised each other. Humbly born Quill and patrician Lindsay rubbed each other the wrong way on sight. ‘Pipsqueak’ Quill sneered. ‘Amateur.’ He belittled the incoming mayor purposely referring to him as “Mayor Linsley.”


Jimmy Breslin take was: “John Lindsay looked at Quill and saw the past and Mike Quill looked at Lindsay and saw the Church of England.”


Quill threw down an impossible gauntlet presenting the incoming mayor with a list of 70 intractable demands including a 30% across-the-board wage hike, a 32-hour work week and six weeks paid vacation. The estimated cost for these demands was $680 million dollars as opposed to the Authority’s offer of $20 million worth of increases.


As the deadline neared the Authority won an injunction banning a strike. Quill came out swinging, “Injunctions make very poor track walkers. We defy the city to run the subway.”


He tore up the court order but cut his demands to an estimated cost of $216 million…a bridge too far!


The strike lasted 12 days. It was a nightmare. Quill went to prison where he promptly suffered a hear attack that put him in a hospital. If the strike had any positive results, the one that was the most lasting involved workplace dress codes. Prior to the strike, pants were off-limits for women in the office. But crossing East River Bridges on foot in the cold and winds of January made slacks acceptable at least on a temporary basis that quickly became permanent after the strike ended.


Mayor Lindsay finally enlisted labor negotiator, Theodore Kheel, to hammer out a new contract. A settlement was reached, Quill was released, but the ordeal finished his already weakened heart and he died on January 29 at age 60.  Pete Hamill wrote, “He stood in the moral wreckage of the labor movement as the last leader to go to his grave cursing the bosses.”


The settlement cost New York City $60 million, an amount Gotham could ill afford. Worse yet, it opened the door to a myriad of municipal strikes to come during the 1960s.


Pleased stay tuned for the continuation of this saga in next week’s blog.   

Brooklyn Fires, December, 1960

Disasters sometimes seem to have an awful habit of happening in a series. Air crashes coming in threes is a popular belief. Legend, perhaps, but strange as it seems, multiple events occur far too often to be coincidental. The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) went through such a sequence, two unprecedented catastrophes and two other large fires in an eight-day period in December of 1960.


It was a rotten month weather-wise described in the NY Times as, “…numbing cold and roadways made virtually impassable by snow and ice.” The first and the worst of the disasters happened on just such a day, December 16th. The weather began as snow before turning into light rain and fog. United Airlines Flight 826, a DC-8 out of Chicago on approach to Idlewild (now JFK) overran its designated holding pattern over South Amboy, NJ striking a TWA Constellation occupying the same holding area. The Connie, Flight 266 originated in Dayton, Ohio destined for LaGuardia via Columbus. One of the DC-8’s four jets engines was ripped off as it struck the Connie from behind crashing into its triple tail and fuselage tearing them apart and forcing the airplane into an uncontrolled dive. Derbies and at least one poor soul trailed the falling flight that smashed into a corner of Miller Field, a small airbase on Staten Island killing all 39 passengers and the crew of five.


There was no evidence that the United crew retained control of their mortally damaged jet which managed to stay in the air for nine more miles as it descended over Brooklyn where it violently came down at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place in the heart of Park Slope setting ablaze the Pillar of Fire Church, ten brownstones, the McCaddin Funeral Home, a Chinese laundry and a delicatessen. Six people on the ground were killed, the church’s caretaker, two men selling Christmas tress, a sanitation worker shoveling snow, a store keeper and a man walking his dog. All of the 77 passengers and seven crewmembers died including 11-year-old, Stephen Blitz, who was thrown onto a snow bank surviving the impact. He succumbed to his burns and injuries the next day. FDNY units from every borough except The Bronx responded to the Park Slope Plane Crash which claimed a total of 134 lives and would remain the deadliest U.S. commercial aviation disaster until 1969.


Three days later, on Dec.19, a forklift operator moving a metal trash bin on the hanger deck of the USS Constellation under construction in the Brooklyn Navy Yard shifted a steel plate that ruptured a diesel fuel line. Once the leaking oil came into contact with “hot work” being performed on lower decks, the insides of the aircraft carrier were transformed into an inferno that took 350 firefighters 17 hours to conquer this ten-alarm blaze. Most of the nearly 4,000 shipyard workers on board managed to escape using two main gangways connected to the aircraft carrier. Others escaped in more dramatic fashion. Several shed their shoes and heavy clothing and jumped into the East River where they were rescued by tugs that raced to the shipyard.


A crane operator lifted a thirty-foot narrow gangway to workers stuck on deck cutoff from the gangways. He began lifting them off of the flight deck a few at a time. As firefighters made their way through the smoke, darkness and oven like heat to reach men trapped below, this gangway became their vital escape route. When survivors and victims were brought up on deck, an FDNY officer would signal to the operator whether the next lift was for the living or the dead; thumbs up if alive, thumbs down if dead.


Once the fires were extinguished and the searches completed, 49 dead workers had been carried off the Constellation and one other, Paul L. Bua made it 50 when he died on Dec. 29th from injuries sustained in the fire. Three hundred and thirty workers and firefighters were injured in the mazes of construction scaffolding blinded by darkness and smoke.


While the worst was over, fire crews had to contend with two additional major fires on Dec. 23. The first began in the early morning hours of that cold day when units from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens responded to an eight-alarm fire at two lumber yards in Williamsburg, cheek by jowl with the Navy Yard. The fire raged across properties belonging to the Bridge Lumber Company and the Driggs Plywood Corporation beginning at five A.M. that forced the evacuation of the convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church and closures to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway disrupting morning rush-hour traffic.


The day ended with a final conflagration, a four-alarm fire in a gas station at the junction of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue L that began at 6:50 P.M. This final act destroyed the station and ten cars in the adjacent European Motor Cars building.


The one silver lining in this tale of destruction is that not one FDNY firefighter’s life was lost in any of these blazes.

Once Upon a Time in Ridgewood, Queens

A piece in the Metropolitan Section of the July 8, 2014 edition of the New York Times grabbed my attention. The piece chronicled the wake for Jason Wulf, 42, a “graffiti titan” who had been electrocuted last week when he came into contact with the third rail in a subway station while practicing his craft.


The article noted: “Mr. Wulf was a link to a vanished New York in which teenagers slipped through fences and etched wild letters on the metal husks of subway cars.”


Benjamin Mueller reported that aging so called graffiti artists, “…introduced each other by the tag names they once painted under bridges and on the walls along the Long Island Expressway…” But also, “…many brought along new wives and stories of recently born children.”


But what struck me was Mr. Mueller’s minor notation that this all happened, “At a funeral home…on the corner of Greene and Seneca Avenues…”  Seneca Chapels, 494 Seneca Avenue. I know this well, it has been functioning for many years but when I was a kid, the building where it is housed was once a third-rate movie theater with a lofty name, the Majestic. It was well down the food chain from our two most prestigious Ridgewood movie houses, the RKO Madison with a real organ and occasional live stage shows and the lesser Ridgewood Theater, still a showcase for new movies once they left the City (Manhattan).


The Majestic was below the next level too, semi-cut rate theaters that recycled better “B” movies. We had two, the Oasis and the Parthenon. The Oasis was the better of the two, cleaner and newer. The Parthenon stood on the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Wyckoff Avenue, a dirty house with an unruly crowd right under the el whose squawking trains could clearly be heard as they negotiated a sharp turn.


The Majestic was even a grade below its peer, the Grandview. At least the Grandview had a separate outdoor area where locals could comfortably watch a movie on warm summer nights.


The Dumps was a big box without a balcony or even a candy counter. A nickel vending machine was the only source for food. It was dirty, smelly, hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The movies were old and forgettable made worse by a balky projector that frequently broke down.


For all of these reasons, people never referred to it as the Majestic but rather as “The Dumps.” But the Dumps had two things going for it, it was close and it was cheap. Since it was only two and one-half blocks from my home, my mother let me go on Saturdays with other neighborhood kids. And the cost, if we arrived before 1 PM, it was eleven cents. After 1, thirteen cents.


(You may rightfully wonder why I remember this minute detail?)


It was a very important element in my life as a kid on Saturdays. I could not go to the Dumps alone and, if the Meyer kids, Blair kids or the Slezak kids were tardy; my day was doomed to failure. My allocation for the movies was sixteen cents and, if we arrived before 1, I had a nickel to use in the vending machine. If not, my three cents in change was useless.


The only movie I remember seeing at the Dumps was The Thing with James Arness (later of Gunsmoke fame). I didn’t remember much of it when I left the Dumps, all I knew was that Mr. Arness’ role as a creature from outer space who killed the scientists working at an Arctic base terrified me to the point that I had nightmares for a week and was banned by Mom from seeing another horror movie for a long, long time.


As for the Dumps, it was rightfully at the front of the first wave of the theaters to close succumbing to the early effects of television. I hope the resurrected Seneca Chapels gave Mr. Wulf a decent send-off



The Fast Plane

One Sunday afternoon in early spring, I joined my son-in-law, Tom and his boy, Cace, for a visit to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum. After Cace reached his saturation point of airplanes and flying hands-on mock ups of helicopters and jet fighters, we left the aircraft carrier. But on the way out, we took a quick tour of the British Airways’ Concorde parked on the pier.


As soon as I entered the cabin, I was drawn back to my own personal golden age of travel, an era that lasted from 1979 until 1993. During those fifteen years, marine and energy, the department where I worked was a top earner for Marsh & McLennan. New offshore oil and gas projects were happening everywhere. Our only real problem was finding new insurance capacity needed to cover the next project that required greater policy limits. We made crazy money for our company and, in return, we could expense things without much limit. In the words from a Jimmy Buffet song: We made enough money to buy Miami, but we pissed it all away.


In that time of expenses be damned, I flew in SST (Supersonic Transport) Concorde nine times all between JFK and London Heathrow airports. Just stepping into the gray on gray interior of the de-commissioned bird on that pier that day and stepping into its miniscule center aisle brought it all back, the two-by-two seats each no bigger, at best, than a domestic first class seat on a 737 but with less leg room. The tiny cabin windows and the tubular shape of the fuselage with a curve so narrow that for someone my size to squeeze into a window seat, I had to do it on a diagonal, legs first with my top shoulder brushing along the cabin wall. I remarked to Tom, “See the rest rooms, the toilets are sideways facing toward the back of the airplane.” Tom is 6’5” tall. “I don’t know how you could pee standing up. You’d have to contort your body on an angle to fit that curve.”


I told Tom about some of the other quirks of flying Concorde. “There are two cabins, fore and aft separated by rest rooms and galleys. For whatever reason, the forward cabin was considered Posh. Since most of my flights were thanks to upgrades, I usually rode in the aft cabin. Knowing my difficulties occupying a window seat, I quickly learned to ask for an aisle seat. What I didn’t expect was the unusual and somewhat disconcerting view this provided during takeoff. Because the airplane is so long and so narrow, the fuselage ungulates like a Slinky as the aircraft powers down the runway. By leaning slightly into the aisle, I was able to watch this scary scene down the runway from the aft cabin.


“If that wasn’t enough to get my attention, a member of the crew would first prepare the passengers for the experience of this bird during take off. Of course this was all explained to the passengers by a senior man enunciating a proper, re-assuring English accent. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, once airborne, you will experience a sudden deceleration and a falling sensation approximately seven seconds after takeoff. This will be due to noise abatement procedures as we shut down our afterburners used during takeoff. The aircraft will drop slightly and, simultaneously, the aircraft will bank left to avid populated areas.’ (Daddy wouldn’t lie.)


“Takeoff on the SST began with a WHooPoooOOOOOOOSSS-KABOOM as the afterburners kicked in. This blast of noise produced the G-forces that threw the passengers back into our seats as the bird rapidly accelerated. At takeoff speed the Concorde climbed quickly, steeply, very steeply with a lot of noise, a lot of drama; then, in an instant; relative silence, slowing down like someone hit air brakes or a brick wall. So too was there a noticeable drop combined with a left shear. Thank God for the warning otherwise the souls on board would presume it was time to meet our maker.


“When the aircraft reached international waters and it was time to go supersonic. The captain advised the cabin crew to stop service, everyone to return to their seats, seatbelts on. The afterburners were brought back on line and a second, albeit much quieter and relaxing takeoff ensued. Pinned back into my seat, I watched the mach meter go from 0.80 (or 80% the speed of sound) to 2.10 or more than twice the speed of sound. The thrust of the afterburners was the only sensation and there was no feel of speed as the SST accelerated. Cruising altitude was about 65,000 feet above the earth with the deep, deep blue of near space and the curvature of the earth visible through those tiny portholes.


“Landings were also unique and quirky. Concorde was most efficient when it was high and fast so the crew maintained altitude as long as they could. The resultant landings were steep, fast and dramatic.”


Tom thought a minute and asked, “It doesn’t sound like the most pleasant experience. Was it worth it to go that fast?”


“Oh, yeah.” I thought about what it was like, smiled and said, “Remember that only British Airways and Air France flew the SST and they treated Concorde like royalty. Only fourteen ever reached operational status. Special lounges were more opulent than First Class where many times celebrity spotting wasn’t a challenge. Each passenger received a handsome souvenir, a pen, leather luggage tag, notebook, etc. each with the Concorde logo and the pilot signed a Mach 2 certificate for each passenger giving the date, speed and time of the crossing.


“But none of that meant much. It was the mere act of flying supersonic going faster than almost anyone else on earth had ever flown. The only people who flew faster were a select number of test pilots, fighter pilots and rocketmen who were paid to do it.”


I had my own expression about traveling by SST: “You can say anything about Concorde, but all of them mean the same thing: ‘She’s fast!”

The group of us that flew Concorde knew she was special, knew we had lucked out to fly her. Luck lends itself to hubris and we had the nerve to call her, “the Grape” as in:

“How’d you cross the pond this trip?”


“Took the Grape.”


We made a pact vowing that whenever on board Concorde either alone or collectively, we would eat nothing but caviar and drink nothing but champagne or chilled vodka.


I do believe that from time to time we cheated about the food.


Ah, life in the fast plane!