John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: June, 2015

The Wonder of Flight

Planes, Trains and Ships run in my DNA. For as long as I’ve had a memory, these three forms of movement and commerce have fascinated me. Today, I address the wonder of flight. My two favorite aviation books are Earnest K. Gann’s, Fate Is the Hunter and Richard Bach’s, Stranger to the Ground.  Each captures the majesty of flight.


I am about to add a third offering, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. The author, Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airlines pilot invites readers to submit their favorite photographs taken from window seats. I have never photographed such a moment, but I do have four experiences permanently implanted into my memory. Each happened serendipitously on business flights. My brain recorded each of these images as I peered from a window seat when the air was crystal clear, three happened at night and one during the day. They are  as vivid to me today as when I witnessed them.


We begin one afternoon in 1974. I was summoned in the afternoon to make a flight that night to Miami. Those were our salad days, Mary Ann wasn’t working, the kids were five and three; we had one car. Mary Ann packed a bag for me, drove to LaGuardia with the kids and kissed me goodbye. By the time the Eastern L-1011 lifted off it was night. The flight pattern was unusual, north across Long Island Sound, west over Westchester County then south down the Hudson River. Manhattan shined like a constellation as I sat in awe taking in this unimpeded and uninterrupted view of this city of towers and lights from a First Class window seat. I remember glancing back into the mostly empty cabin realizing I was alone to witness this incredible display. “Damn,” I thought, “Lucky me.”


The same powers that sent me to Miami decided to have a marine conference in San Francisco open to Assistant Vice Presidents and above. As a newly elected AVP, I just made the cut. We were still living in Middle Village and a snow storm on Friday night threatened to postpone my Saturday morning TWA flight. But the morning report on WCBS radio advised John F. Kennedy had one runway open so it was off to JFK for the   flight. A group of us had chosen this airplane, in this case another L-1011 and I recall a universal joy when we lifted off.


My moment of record came when the aircraft was flying over the Rocky Mountains in Western Colorado. Looking down, I was so disarmed by what I thought I was seeing from 30,000 feet, that I asked my seatmate, Dick Sullivan, to change seats with me. What shocked me was that I thought I could see the shadows of evergreen trees set in the snow. “Sullivan, look down at the trees and can you see their individual shadows in the snow?”


He looked down, looked at me and simply remarked, “Yup, You got that one right Delach.” Remarkable, truly remarkable.


My third experience happened on a late night flight out of Atlanta. I began my journey in Mobile, Alabama but delays conspired so that I didn’t check in for my connecting flight out of Hartsfield until after 10 PM. My airline of record that night was Republic, a short-lived successor to three disparate partners, Southern hubbed in Atlanta, North Central based in Chicago and Hughes-West out of LA. Back then, if you flew with a full-fare coach ticket and boarded a flight after 9 PM, you’d fly first class.


And so it went. I sat in a window seat up front on the left side of an empty 727 on a perfect night. From Atlanta north I watched the panorama of the megalopolis that is the East Coast present its brilliant light show from Richmond through, DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia and Trenton, The show grew in intensity as we neared Gotham; all the while the flight attendants catered to me, their only charge with beer and peanuts.


My last observation happened near the end of a non-descript flight back to New York. My airliner was making a routine approach into LaGuardia over Brooklyn. Mundane to most passengers, this flight path over Brooklyn and Queens flies over the places where I grew up, went to high school and college; where I came of age. So I remained alert to the sights on this passage. On that particular crystal-clear night I looked down as we passed over the ice skating rink in Prospect Park. A girl / woman was twirling and as God is my witness, I saw her outstretched arms.


Each of these moments touched me and gave me opportunities to understand the reverence of the aviators and authors about such wonderment.



Baltimore: June 2015

Mike Scott and I yearned for a trip leading us to develop plans for one to Baltimore for the spring once Major League’s 2015 schedule was released. We picked early June when Mike’s Red Sox would be in town. As if by magic, Mike received an offer from Hotwire for the Holiday Inn Express-Baltimore Downtown for an outstanding price of $100 per room per night. He reserved the hotel for two nights and used StubHub to acquire tickets to the Red Sox – Orioles outing on June 9th. We each booked round-trip passage on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional trains and put this aside.


Unfortunately, then came the trouble in Baltimore that developed into serious disturbances. In my normal grab-ass manner, I sent Mike the following e-mail: “Just who the f*** picked Baltimore for our trip?”


Things only got worse when Amtrak suffered a deadly crash when a train derailed in North Philadelphia about a month later prompting my second question: “Just who the f*** put us on Amtrak?”


Regardless, we pressed on. The trip down went without a hitch until the immigrant cab driver in Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station decided to put his Prius into gear before my both legs were in. A, “Whoa, whoa, whoa” shout bought that drama to a halt.


On arrival, our location seemed unfamiliar compared to my other stays in town. But the building was charming. The Holiday Inn is located in the former headquarters of The Old Town National Bank, an eight-story, granite faced, handsome building erected in 1924. The hotel opened in 2009 and is in great shape with a restored, high-ceilinged lobby featuring large, comfortable rooms.


BUT, the location, 221 North Gay Street, sucked. It’s on a seedy street with the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center diagonally across the street and in sight of a small tent city on an embankment for an entrance to an elevated highway a block away.


Fortunately, the Holiday Inn provides van service to most parts of the city enabling us to avoid recon foot patrol missions. After checking in we boarded the van for the Inner Harbor. I asked our friendly young Black driver his name. “Dominic,” he replied.


“Dominic, aye now, you could have fooled me, I didn’t suspect that you are an I-talian.”


Dominic shot back, “Where are you from?”
When we replied, New York, without hesitation, he noted, “That’s great. You guys are the best tippers.”


And so we were, because he was a great driver.


Mike hadn’t seen the Inner Harbor so we grabbed the water taxi for Fells Point. I insisted our first stop should be The Horse You Came In On Saloon for obvious reasons. A couple of beers later, we moved on to Riptide by the Bay for crab. A young group; two girls and three boys spontaneously adopted us for a while. One girl who called herself, “Chino,” was wasted, the other cold sober. Two of the three boys were also well on their way. They did shots, we didn’t. It was starting to wear thin when a chap from management arrived convincing them to leave. This was done quietly and with superb efficiency that impressed the two of us. So did Dominic who returned us to the hotel despite a raging rain storm that swept in that night.


Midday Tuesday, we visited the B&O Railroad Museum; an excellent find. They have a top notch collection and two guides, Lou and Jack, were all too happy to take us around as we had the place to ourselves. To go further will bore all but steam engine aficionados so I’ll limit our impressions to their pride and joy, locomotive # 1604; a C&O Allegheny articulated Mallet locomotive used to pull coal drags over its namesake range. For the record, the wheel arrangement is 2-6-6-6 and the tender sits on fourteen wheels. Built by the Lima Engine Works in 1941, they rival Union Pacific’s 4-8-8-4 Big Boys for the claim as being the largest locomotives in the world.


From the museum, we walked to Oriole Park at Camden Yards where we ate in air conditioned restaurant, Dempsey’s, before taking our seats on the Club Level in Row 1 of Section 212 out toward right field. More of a feeble hitting night than a pitcher’s duel, Mike had to suffer through a 1-0 loss that the Orioles scored on a wild pitch thrown by Sox rookie reliever, Matt Barnes! In the process, we ducked several line-drive foul balls that cascaded into 212 and surrounding sections. Dominic had almost a full load of Sox fans for the return ride.


Next morning, a final van ride back to Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station started us on our way. No Dominic, so the tip was not as good as his would have been.


We talked about a trip to Pittsburgh for next year. Mike won’t fly but that’s ten hours each way via a slow Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian. Still…

He Failed to Negotiate a Curve

Such a poetic phrase, I lifted: “He Failed to Negotiate a Curve,” from The New York Times’ obituary for Joe Don Looney. Joe Don, a former football star died while maneuvering his motorcycle along a winding road in East Texas. Forty-five, when his obituary was published on September 26, 1988, he died the same way he lived; chaotically.


Memories of his comet like life and death were reawakened recently. Twenty-six years after Joe Don’s death, he still retained the power to co-op his father, Don’s obituary despite the elder Mr. Looney having lived a long and successful life first in sports then in the oil patch, passing at 98.


Don Looney, (the father) born September 2, 1916, starred at Texas Christian University and was named MVP of the 1938 National Championship team that finished 11-0 beating Carnegie Tech 15-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Don went on to play three years in the NFL before joining the Army Air Force where he continued to play football with his base’s team known the Randolph Ramblers. After the war, Don embarked on a successful Fort Worth based career that included many civic, industry and charitable honors. When he passed, Don was the oldest living former NFL player and the last living member of TCU’s 1938 team.


When it came to football, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Unfortunately it must have bounced too many times before falling into a hole so deep that most obits found it a must to reference Joe Don in his father’s last earthly recognition. Once again Don was usurped by the life and crimes of his only son.


Joe Don played for Pascal a high school in the Fort Worth area where he gained fame as a senior beating rival Arlington Heights on a thirty-five yard run in the fourth quarter to make the final score, 14-12.


In 1962, he was a bench warmer at Oklahoma University. OU was losing to Syracuse with five minutes left to play. Joe Don took it on himself to walk up to legendary head coach, Bud Wilkinson, to announce, “If you want to win the game, you’d better get me in there.”


Stunned, Wilkinson was speechless so Joe Don inserted himself into the game, told the quarterback to give him the ball and bolted for a sixty-three yard touchdown and an Oklahoma victory, 7-3. A magnificent runner and punter, Joe Don led the Sooners to a berth in the Orange Bowl.


Things went badly the following year. Wilkinson kicked Joe Don off the team following a smack down delivered by Looney to an assistant coach.


Despite this incident, the New York Football Giants picked Joe Don as their first-round draft choice in 1964. He lasted a grand total of 25 days with the team before the Giants traded him to the Baltimore Colts. This is how I described his tenure with the Maramen in my book, 17 Lost Seasons:


It was said of the 6-3, 230 pound back, “He can run, he can punt, he can block, but, most of all, he can run.” It also should be noted that Sooners’ head coach, Bud Wilkinson had cut the 21-year-old handsome Texas native mid-way through his junior year at the request of his teammates. Joe Don had run for 852 yards in 1962, averaged 6.2 yards per carry, scored 62 points and led the nation with a 43.4 yard punting average. When Wilkinson cut him the following year, the coach was quoted as saying, Joe Don was, “…a bad influence upon other members of the team, was indifferent about practice and discipline.”

“We’re not interested in the past,” responded head scout and former head coach, Jim Lee Howell when asked why the Giants drafted this product of four colleges in two states as their number one choice. Question: Didn’t anybody from the Giants think about contacting Bud Wilkinson, the Sooners’ world class head coach to ask just how screwed up Joe Don was and how much he lived up to his last name?

Perhaps it was the fact that his dad had played for the Eagles and served as an NFL official? Joe Don’s career with the Giants lasted twenty-five days during which he refused to participate in workouts and slept, on occasion, 22 hours a day.


The Giants traded him to the Baltimore Colts for cast-offs. Even though he helped the Colts to win a division championship, head coach Don Shula refused to let Joe Don punt: “I was afraid to put Looney in the game to punt because I didn’t know if he would punt. He might do anything.”


At his next stop with the Detroit Lions coach Harry Gilmer told Joe Don to go into the game and tell the quarterback to call a screen pass. Joe Don replied to his head coach, “If you want a messenger boy, call Western Union.”


From there he went to the Washington Redskins where he punched out an opposing player. The army sent him to Viet Nam where he began his love affair with automatic weapons. He then wound up in India under the tutelage of a peculiar swami who prophesized the world as we knew it would implode in the mid 1990s, the anti-Christ would make his appearance and guns would be used for currency. (The story that Joe Don punched out the swami’s elephant may be an urban legend.)


Joe Don believed he was prepared for the end of all things. He lived alone in Alpine, TX off the grid with his automatic assault guns in a solar-heated dome without electricity or a telephone.


The principal feature at his funeral service was some fellow playing Stardust on a piano.

Joe Don could have done worse than to be sent off to the sound of Hoagy Carmichael’s soothing hit melody.

An Improbable Drone

What do you get if you purchase a rather sophisticated flying electronic toy and have untried rookies attempt to operate it in a restricted area? Answer: Great drama!


My son-in-law, Tom, decided to treat his children, Marlowe and Cace, to a small plastic drone from a company called Dromida. He selected Model DIDE01GG dubbed Ominus, a fully assembled quadcopter. (Ominus, what an appropriate name for what was to follow!)


The proprietor of Toy City in Keene, NH and one of his customer’s recommended the unit to Tom as being, safe, reliable and easy to use.


The copter advertised itself as “fun to fly,” “easy to fly,” and “nearly impossible to break.” Tom charged the batteries for the flying machine and its controller on his return from the store. I was out and missed the arrival at the house and by the time I arrived first flight preparations were well along.


I watched from a safe distance on the porch as Tom ventured outside, set the copter on a table and engaged the controls. Smoothly and effortlessly the copter popped into the air rising about ten to fifteen feet. Working the controls Tom sent it forward, backwards and sideways. First flight ended in a crash about 15 seconds later.  The duration of subsequent flights varied as Tom began to master his expertise of the controls but all ended in crashes of one sort or another. But the copter was none the worse for these crashes. Although the quadcopter remained undamaged, our household quadruped, four-year-old Golden Retriever, Max, decided this darting, semi-controlled interloper was something he wanted no part of. Max joined me on the porch.


Marlowe and Cace joined the fray and the copter headed up higher and traveled further away. Granted, the house is located in a decent clearing but the fact is we live in the woods and it quickly reached a tree line. It cleared the trees for brief seconds then fell into a strand about 100 yards away as control was lost.


Drama descended on the once happy scene as a desperate search began. Tom spotted it dangling from a tall spruce tree too high to permit ground retrieval. Even so, being a dutiful father, Tom grabbed an extension ladder and attempted to climb up the tree, no small feat. He first had to clear low branches using a saw and clippers that prevented the ladder from being made at least somewhat secure.


I held the ladder more for morale support than in doing any real good. The copter was just too high but he couldn’t get anywhere near the copter to flick it off the tree even with a ten-foot pole. But Tom effort was a tie; no retrieval but he didn’t fall and break a leg, arm, etc. in the attempt.


One by one, crushed family members left the scene and returned to other activities. I decided to clean up some of the items we had used that day for the spring clean-up. One was an electric power washer used to clean an outdoor deck. It’s heavy and I decided to move it back to my GMC Arcadia on a hand-truck. Mission accomplished and with no further need for the hand-truck, I headed for the shed where we keep it. The ground was uneven so I looked down as I walked to avoid obstacles. So it came as a surprise when I heard a whooshing sound coming from the trees to my right. I looked up just as the copter hit the ground no more than a yard from where I stood. The tree had given up its prey safe and sound making me its emissary to return the unit restoring peace, tranquility and joy.


After dinner, eight-year-old Cace, who had taken the afternoon’s loss the hardest, walked pass me as I sat on the porch. In his hands he carried the copter and the controller. “Say, buddy, where are you going with those?”


“Outside to fly it.”


“Sorry, Cace,” no more flights today.” I replied as I decided to play the bad guy.


With less fuss than I expected, he accepted his grandfather’s edict.


One miracle a day is enough!


 Author’s note: Next weeks blog will be published on Thursday.