John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: September, 2017

A Curious Obituary

A curious obituary appeared in the Monday, September 25, 2017 edition of The New York Times. This obit ran practically a full page and it was the only one in that paper. Only one obituary on a Monday; unusual for sure. In the normal course of events, Monday’s Times repeats the obituaries for notables and celebrities who died on Friday and Saturday. Nobody (except a few news hounds like me) reads The Times on Saturday. So be it, Saturday deaths get swallowed in the maze of Sunday sections. The Times considers it the duty of the Monday’s paper to reissue important obituaries so that important deaths will not go unrecognized. Curiously, not this Monday; perhaps it was a slow weekend for recognizable deaths?


This unusual obituary concerned itself with the life and death of a loser, a man named Edgar Smith who not many people will recall or remember. A third oddity is personal, I knew immediately who Mr. Smith was. You probably do not but the obituary’s headline may help: Edgar Smith, an Infamous Killer Who Duped a Conservative Wit, Dies at 83.


That “Conservative Wit” was William F. Buckley (WFB) who came to the defense of Smith in 1965 when Smith was a resident of New Jersey’s death row fending off his execution dates for the 1957 murder of Victoria (Vicki) Zielinski. Ms. Zielinski, fifteen at the time of her murder, was a resident of Ramsey, NJ. Smith confessed to killing Ms. Zielinski when she resisted his advances. The Times Obituary noted: “Taken into custody and questioned for hours without a lawyer present – this was years before the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling requiring the police warn suspects of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning – Mr. Smith confessed.”


The jury found Edgar Smith guilty and sentenced him to death. Following his conviction for first degree murder, Smith set out to educate himself about the law leading to a, “string of appeals that resulted in numerous stays of execution.” The Times noted: “One of Mr. Smith’s filings showed the ‘consummate skill of a seasoned practitioner,’ said the judge who presided at his trial.”


Smith also wrote a book about his conviction, “Brief Against Death,” that the Literary Guild, a book club, made an alternate selection. Coincidentally, I was a Literary Guild subscriber in the mid-1960s and I selected his book. Smith made his case for a re-trial to me and I came to believe that he was a victim of a rush to judgement, shoddy tactics and wrongful procedures by police and prosecutors. I also discovered I was not alone. WFB took up his cause and in 1965, wrote a piece for Esquire making the case that Smith had been wrongly convicted and was deserving of a new trial. He enlisted Edward Bennett Williams, the prominent DC attorney to take up Smith’s case. David Stout reported in The Times obituary what then occurred:


In 1968, the United States Supreme Court ordered the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to reconsider its decision to deny Mr. Smith a hearing that the confession was coerced and that the prisoner must be freed if prosecutors did not retry him.


On May 14, 1971, the Third Circuit so ruled. Without a confession, the Bergen County prosecutors knew they were in trouble so they offered Smith a deal; plead no contest to the lesser charge of second degree murder in return for a sentence of time already served. Smith pleaded accordingly on December 6, 1971.


When I read the news that Smith accepted this plea deal I thought to myself that this was wrong. I couldn’t understand why he took the easy way out. He had so eloquently proclaimed his innocence and so many high-powered individuals had gone to bat for him. It seemed to me that he owed it to them, but most importantly to himself, to clear his name. Granted, he had been on death row longer than any other person in the US penal system up until that time and granted, I was a kid of 21 who saw things in black and white with few shades of grey. But I just couldn’t understand how he could accept the stain of having to live with a permanent guilty plea for murder and not fight the last fight to free his name. Of course, it never occurred to me that he was guilty all along.


Smith faded from the spotlight, moved to California, married and divorced. On October 1, 1976, he abducted a 33-year-old San Diego woman. He stabbed her as she escaped from his car, stabbed her close to her heart, but she survived. Arrested and tried, he admitted during his trial that he had killed Ms. Zielinski. She too escaped from his car back in 1957 but he caught up to her in a stone quarry. “I picked up a very large rock and hit her on the head with it.” California sentenced him to life in prison for attempted murder and other crimes.


A sociopath, grifter and a con man, he bamboozled WFB, Bennett Williams and ordinary citizens like me. He died unnoticed on May 20, 2017. The Washington Post first published his obituary on September 24th without noting how they discovered he had died. His ashes were scattered into the sea.







When the City Died at Sea

This is my 200th Blog. The first, “An Incredible Story” appeared on October 16, 2013 and this followed a week later. Super storm Sandy will be five years removed this October but the flooding it brought to the Metropolitan area is reminiscent of the flooding Harvey brought to Texas and Louisiana and Irma to Florida.  


Pick your place of dreams, Rockaway, Staten Island, Long Beach, or the Jersey Shore. A place of quiet and charm, on the water, away from the noise, the clutter, the things that make Gotham intolerable to ever consider living there. Sure, the Big Apple provides the infrastructure, money, the halls of commerce inviting people to come on board. The opportunity is there to make a good living, to succeed, grow, prosper and seek to achieve the American Dream. But who wants to live there?


These places of refuge provide safe alternatives to leave it all behind when the work day, or, more importantly, the work week ends. Places where people let their burdens go, as their pressures and the frustrations drift away. When the ferry touches shore at St. George, or a car or bus or train crosses a bridge and reaches Broad Channel, Rockaway, Long Beach or towns along the Shore, escape is at hand. Soon these people will be home, safe, happy and in their own element.


But, there is a trade off. By choosing to live by the beach, the water dwellers accept the challenge of the unforgiving sea. This, their ultimate fear is subsumed by the challenges of every day life, relegated to the background, rarely discussed, even when state and City fathers need to drum up “Armageddon” scenarios at the start of each hurricane season. Poor garbage collection, ordinary post-storms power restoration and slow snow removal after a typical City snow storm are enough to worry about.


But this time, it all went wrong. The enemy was the sea. The one they always warned about, the one that was the unthinkable, the “what if,” doomsday storm. This time the jet stream left the coast unprotected. A combination of a full moon, high tide and Sandy slamming into southern New Jersey produced winds and a surge that drove the Atlantic west back into the Jersey Shore, through the Narrows into New York Harbor up the Hudson and East Rivers flooding coastal Staten Island, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.


It clobbered the historic islands in the Upper Harbor; Liberty, Ellis and Governor’s destroying the low-lying buildings. Fortunately, the Statue of Liberty, Castle Clinton, Fort Jay and the Grand Hall did not suffer water damage, but the infrastructure was severely damaged.


Next, to flood; Lower Manhattan and the East Side. The surge claimed office buildings, the World Trade Center memorial, NYU and Bellevue hospitals, inundated most of the subway tubes and the two automobile tunnels under the East River. Eighty-six million gallons of the Hudson River poured into the Hugh Carey-Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The surge covered runways at LaGuardia and JFK.


The engineers on duty that night at Penn Station saved their charge. When they received word of how high the surge would be, they made a conscience decision to open the flood gates protecting the two Hudson River tunnels to funnel the inundation into these passages to New Jersey and away from the station. Their actions closed these tunnels for three days. If not, the station, its signals, electrical equipment and switches would have been out for weeks.


Flood water swept the auto receiving yards and container docks at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, raced up the Hudson River flooding trendy Hoboken wrecking PATH, the old Hudson and Manhattan Tubes. Still, further north, the Hudson topped Metro North’s Hudson Division flinging boats and debris onto tracks and flooding nearby factories and warehouses in Westchester.


Sandy sent a monstrous wall of water into shore communities along the length of Long Island crushing its barrier islands. Starting in the west at Sea Gate, it spread across Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, east along the entire Rockaway peninsular striking vulnerable Breezy Point where wind, rain and fire conspired to incinerate more than one hundred homes and water damage those that didn’t burn; R.I.P. Breezy Point.


Long Beach, Jones Beach and Fire Island were clobbered. Waterfront communities along Jamaica Bay and the Great South Bay were not spared; Broad Channel, Island Park, Freeport, Amityville, etc., Life that these folks signed onto ceased to exist. Even the train line to Long Beach and the subway line that stretched across Jamaica Bay weren’t spared. The surge destroyed electrical sub-stations, tore up the tracks and washed away the fill that supported them.


The beach communities along the North Shore and Connecticut received their dose of Sandy as the tide rose in Long Island Sound and winds pushed the surge west back towards the City drowning coastal sections of towns like Port Jefferson, Bayville and Fairfield.


Thousands of homes were wrecked, a plethora of cars destroyed and those beach life-styles, carefully planned, cultivated and developed erased, gone as if they never existed. The shore communities will never be the same. Homes may be rebuilt but minds cannot be and the daunting question will remain for all who live near the water and survived: “Do I stay, do I rebuild and what will happen the next time something this evil comes my way?”

I’ve Got the Jet Blue Blues

Before I begin my tale of woe I would be remiss not to send a shout out to Jet Blue for the prompt action they took in the face of Hurricane Irma in capping the price for flights out of Florida at $99 a ticket. That is a fine example of what an airline can and should do. Jet Blue stepped-up and did the right thing.


Jet Blue began flying on February 11, 2000 with first flights to Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale from JFK. I first flew with them in January of 2001to Orlando and I become a regular flyer in 2003. Jet Blue became my airline of record because of their outstanding service by friendly staff on new airplanes with spacious leg room at reasonable prices


I understood why Jet Blue had an edge on those “so called” legacy airlines, American, Delta and United. Jet Blue, Frontier, Spirit and, to some extent, Southwest, didn’t have the burden of retiree benefits and pensions, current senior flight staff and ground crews most who enjoyed similar union contracts and benefits and old operating concepts. These upstarts had none of this baggage or burdens. Jet Blue and Southwest used this advantage to improve customer service while Frontier and Spirit settled on offering low-cost flying garbage cans.


Jet Blue grew and grew. They cast off the obsolete terminal at JFK inherited from the late TWA and built a super base surrounding the old historic bird shaped terminal. Time marches on and the burden of employee benefits is coming due. I saw the first indication of slippage when they announced that they would charge for baggage for the first time. Southwest now stands alone in advertising bags fly free. Admittedly, Jet Blue still gives you one free bag, yet I worry this a sign of things to come.


I didn’t waiver and Jet Blue continued as my preferred airline. Unfortunately, this commitment has been tested by a major glitch on a flight I scheduled from Tampa to JFK. Rather than explain to you what happened, I offer you the letter I wrote to their CEO and President, Robin Hayes:


Dear Sir,


This past June I booked four round-trip tickets on your airline for travel to Tampa, FL leaving on Saturday, September 30 and returning on Monday, October 2.


The New York Football Giants are playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 4:30 on Sunday, October 1 and I will be attending this game with my son, Michael and his two boys, Andrew (17) and Matthew (15.)


Your airline has become my carrier of record since I retired in 2000 and I find the service to be better than any of the legacy airlines. I was pleased to find your schedule of flights to and from Tampa to be convenient. I was particularly happy with the return Flight 326 scheduled to leave Tampa 11:06 AM as this will give my family time to enjoy a post-game dinner. Therefore, I booked these flights through American Express.


You can imagine my shock and horror last Sunday when I received an email from AMEX advising that the ETD for Flight 326 had been changed to 6 AM. Seriously, is this your idea as to how to run an airline? A change of flight time of this magnitude is unconscionable just over a month prior to departure. Instead of a 9 AM wake-up call, it will now be for 3 AM.


For the record, your only other non-stop from TPA to JFK is #426 leaving at 8:55 PM.


Unfortunately, this is not my only bad experience with your airline. My wife and I were horribly delayed on both of our flights between JFK and Las Vegas last March, the first delay exceeding five hours and the second two hours.


I sense your quality of service slip-sliding away like so many others. Your new nickname should be JALA, Just Another Lousy Airline.


My daughter, Beth, prompted me to send an abbreviated version electronically to their customer relations department and two days later I received Jet Blue’s reply. Its essence was set out in the following sentence:


We’re able to offer accommodation on another JetBlue flight for the same or neighboring airport the day before, the day of or the day after your original flight.


I quickly ascertained Sarasota was nearest to Tampa but Orlando had multiple direct flights to JFK. I quoted that sentence to, Aaron, the Jet Blue agent I reached and as if by magic, I had four aisle seats booked on a flight leaving Orlando at 12:18 with no change in fare, add-ons or penalties. (I intend to fight rental car charges when all is done.)


Case closed, or so I thought but not quite. Enter Hurricane Irma! Everything hinges on Irma’s effects on Tampa…will Tampa be open for business now that Irma has passed? Two days ago, I would not be willing to bet the ranch on that. It appeared that despite my best efforts this could be a classic case of, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”


But the airport has re-opened and the Buccaneers confirmed this Sunday’s game against the Bears will be played at home in Raymond James Stadium. All I need now is to reach out to the Hampton Inn to confirm they are open and we will be good to go.



The Super Mario Bridge

In March of 2012 I included the following excerpt in my piece entitled, “How We Name Things:”


A new bridge is being built across the Hudson River to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. Its name appears up for grabs. Some pundits are petitioning that it be named after Pete Seeger in recognition of his work in cleaning up the Hudson River. A couple of problems with that. Ole Pete, despite his talents, was a member of the Communist Party and a life-long apologist for the Workers’ Paradise. Also, the existing bridge has already been christened with a politician’s name. It is the Malcolm Wilson-Tappan Zee Bridge named after Nelson Rockefeller’s lieutenant governor who became governor when Rocky became Gerald Ford’s VP. Alas Malcolm only lasted a year losing to the same Hugh Carey of tunnel fame.


But most importantly, if the new bridge is to receive a new name, it’s my bet that Andy Cuomo will name it after his papa, Mario.


All hail Delach for getting this right and all hail the new Super Mario Bridge. Traffic began to roll over a portion of this $4 billion project early on Saturday morning, August 25. When completed next year the bridge will have two separate spans each able to accommodate four lanes of traffic and two breakdown lanes. One will also support a bike lane and the other a pedestrian walkway. The part of the 3.1-mile bridge that crosses over the Hudson’s shipping channel is a cable-stayed design with the supporting cables anchored to the tops of the angled central reinforced concrete towers. Each span has four of these towers that artfully soar high above the spans in sharp contrast to the appearance of the old Tappan Zee, a worn-out erector set cantilevered bridge.


These spans have a curious reason for being located between Tarrytown and Nyack, New York. Its purpose was to connect the New York State Thruway (I-87) with roads leading to Manhattan.

Then Governor Thomas Dewey and Robert Moses (RM) didn’t want their thruway to enter New Jersey. If it did, the new bridge would belong to the Port Authority of NY and NJ whose charter gives it sole responsibility for all bridges and tunnels between these two states.


Construction began in 1952 during the height of the Korean War when steel was scarce and expensive. RM decided to build it on the cheap. Although the main steel truss span was built to code, the long low viaduct of almost 2.5 miles that took the span to Nyack was built on a wing and a prayer. Instead of using concrete and steel pilings to support the roadway, RM opted for wooden pilings. When it opened in 1955, the bad news was its realistic life-expectancy was 50 years, but RM brought it in at $81 million ($361 million in today’s dollars.)


Albany politicians began playing kick the can down the road as the sands ran out and 2005 came knocking on the door. They funded one band aide after another to keep the aging structure safe, all the while crossing their fingers that when the rent came due, it would be some other politican’s problem. They ignored the rotting those awful worms made as they made meals out of the wooden pilings. George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson ducked the bullet and kicked the problem down the road. Enter the second coming of a Cuomo, son Andrew:


You don’t always get what you want but it seems sometimes, you get what you need.


Andrew Cuomo loves engineering and infrastructure, the bigger and more expensive, the better. In 2013, he performed a modern razzle-dazzle routine to fund this project: he beat off environmentalists, activists, lobbyists and s*** kickers all the while sucking up to the unions, the Feds the NYS legislature and other special interests needed to start work on the new bridge.


Andy boy did it. He took the bull by the horns and cast the beast aside and we are on our way to having an outstanding new bridge. Robert Moses, master builder and master of the razzle-dazzle would have been proud. Andy deserves using his power as the Gov. to name it after his dad.


Sure, $4 billion is a tough number to swallow, but did you know, Bob and Ray that…” it came in $1 billion under what the state feared it would cost.”


This money will also come due in good time. Cuomo anted-up and bet on the future. Yes, he kicked another can with a nut of $2 billion down the road. But he must have learned from RM: Build it first and answer questions later.


Hoorah for the Super Mario Bridge and Andy boy who utilized his inner Robert Moses to pull it off.