John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: February, 2018

Airplane Spotting

Geoff Jones-Part One: Westchester and Danbury


Bill Christman’s recent piece about flying home from Keene, NH on Mohawk Airlines reminded me that Mohawk served Westchester County Airport located in White Plains near where I lived during the mid-40’s and 50’s. Flying was as novel to me as John and Bill. My parents often took me there to watch planes take off and land. Most were small private craft both single (mono) and bi-wing, painted yellow, as I recall. I thought they were all Piper Cubs-I guess that was the only name I knew. The airport was small set off by spotty chain link fences with many gaps allowing my father to drive through giving me the chance to get close to the aircraft, a real thrill for a 10-year old.


Another destination, even smaller, was an airport in Danbury, CT. There he could drive up to the same small “Piper Cubs,” parked within spitting distance so we could walk around looking into cockpits and talk to the owners. There were no fences I can recall. It was a big weekend event for me because that’s when the planes were most active. I’m not sure exactly where in Danbury it was or if it still exists because the city has grown, and nearby Interstate 84 changed everything. I don’t remember ever seeing anything bigger than the planes I described.


To go on about Westchester Airport sometime in the mid-90’s Judy and I drove to the airport from our Pleasantville home 15-minutes away to visit their new parking garage and terminal. We sought out a small eatery in the terminal where we sampled their bloody Mary’s that were said to be excellent. They were. While sitting in our car at the now much improved chain link fence we noticed a big black chopper with rotors. A closer look revealed the Trump name on it. Moments later I heard the delightful click clack of spike high-heeled shoes approaching from the terminal and turned to look. A tall knockout blonde in a tight skirt was approaching the chopper. I’m not sure if it was Judy or me who said, “that must be Mrs. Trump,” nor do I recall which of us retorted, “or a hooker”.


Based on the woman’s attire, she could have been either but later we realized she must have been one of the Donald’s wives-I think, Ivana. That was easily worth the fifteen-minute drive and the cost of the bloodies.


John Delach-Part Two: LGA


In “An Outing with Mom,” I related one of our Sunday trips to Canarsie. Another favorite destination was LaGuardia Airport, (LGA.) Again, we travelled by trolleys and later the buses that replaced them. The original terminal was a sand-colored, Art Deco, four-story brick building. A circular driveway lifted taxis and private cars to deposit passengers at the departure level on the second floor. Vehicles tunneled underneath this ramp to meet arriving passengers on the ground floor. This small terminal was, in its day, sufficient for departing passengers to check in and arrivals to re-claim their luggage. The upper floors hosed offices and terminal was topped off by a glass enclosed control tower.


Passengers left from or arrived at two flimsy, single-story structures that curved out from both sides of the terminal for about a quarter-mile in each direction. The flat top of these structures accommodated observation decks open to the public. They were no more than one hundred yards from the airplanes. Passengers walked from the gates to their aircraft across the tarmac led by an airline employee and boarded via portable stairs mounted on trucks. The observation deck was a great place to say goodbye or hello. The public called this structure and the boarding/arrival process, “the sheep walk.”


As memory serves me, American Airlines occupied the western end of the western sheep walk and Eastern Airlines, the eastern end of the east walk. United, TWA, Northeast, Mohawk and Capital among others occupied designated parking areas between them. The airplanes included two-engine DC-3s, Convair 440s. Four engine planes included the Douglas DC-4s and DC-6s or Lockheed Constellations flown by both TWA and Eastern. Capital Airlines had a peculiar fleet of British built Vickers Viscounts turbo-prop, four engine planes with big oval windows.


I found these Viscounts to be alien and disturbing. Unlike the Douglas or Lockheed offspring, these foreigners didn’t start with a blast of sound and black smoke. They had to be subversive!


My greatest joy was witnessing the flight crews start those Pratt & Whitney piston engines one at a time beginning with an outboard engine. Electricity from the starter would force the prop to begrudgingly turn with a soulful screech until a spark caught and the engine belched to life in a cloud of black smoke as the propeller caught and began to spin faster and faster until it was a whirl. Just as this engine came to life, my attention would be drawn to the opposite outboard engine as it began to screech. And so, it continued until all four engines were firing hot and normal.


I never became bored but all too soon, it was time to leave. Mom softened the end by allowing me to purchase two nickel post cards depicting black and white airplanes on the front. The walk back to the bus stop was never fun, but at least I enjoyed watching those last few landings and take-offs.



Jean Shepherd and Me

Jean Shepherd was a great story teller. My favorite, told on a hot and humid night, still resonates:


Picture if you will, a sedan heading north on the New Jersey Turnpike between Exits 12 and 13. The boy is driving as his girl snuggles up against him. He has one hand on the steering wheel the other wrapped around her. The windows are open to catch the breeze inadvertently allowing an odd and unpleasant odor to penetrate the interior of the car. Neither one of them say a word, but he thinks it’s her and she thinks it’s him.


(Esso had a large refinery and chemical plant between those exits and Shepherd used his vocal talents and the listeners imaginations to bring to life the odors that permeate that stretch of the turnpike, odors that anyone of us who drove that road surely remember.)


Another time, seemingly out of the blue, he remarked:


Think of the wildest, most unorthodox and simply crazy or weird type of behavior you can think of. Guess what, no matter how bizarre it is, there is a group out there who are dedicated to it. They’re not only dedicated, they’re organized, and you can bet they have a newsletter.


Addicted to Shep, I listened to his radio show live on WOR, 710 AM, without fail. Not yet married, I still at lived with my mother in my boyhood home, 1821 Himrod Street.


Like many a teenage boy, I secretly listened to late-night radio. Transistor radios equipped with an earphone were our pathway to a personal freedom, a place our parents didn’t go. I found Shep accidentally. Shep’s 45-minute show, that started at 10:15 PM, proceeded Long John Nebel’s open-ended science fiction, science-fantasy, science-weirdos show. Unlike Shep, Long John had guests and callers. One night his guest was a self-described time-traveler who explained in detail that there were three portals in New York City where one could go backward or forward in time. I recall him explaining that one was in an apartment house. To access the portal, you rode the elevator to the basement, then pressed “B” three times to enter the portal. Long John rightly asked him, “Which portal do you use?”


“None of them,” he replied. “I Astro-project myself to where I want to go.”


That’s when I developed my doubts about Long John, but by then I was hooked on Shep. I became addicted to his radio show. He became my refuge from teenage confusion. Shep understood the torture of being a teenager: “Life is a shit sandwich and every day you take another bite.”


He had a sadness about him and his stories usually included an element of failure or of unfulfilled expectations. Sort of like Peggy Lee’s: “Is that all there is?”


Or as Shep put it. Suppose St. Peter isn’t a nice guy and likes to make people sweat? Makes them want to believe they could have done more. Especially, when a great person makes it to the Pearly Gates. He reminds them of all their failures and puts them down by telling them: “You could have done more but you were asleep at the switch.”


I did see him in person one night in the Limelight Club in the West Village where he did a live show. Somehow, I convinced Mary Ann to accompany me to this performance. That night, he chose to speak about his World War II experiences a state-side assignment at a radar facility. His story emphasized the monotony of being assigned to a radar station in some God-forsaken rural area. We had nothing to do day and night except to listen to the radar as it swept the horizon left to right and right to left constantly buzzing while it looked for Hitler.


Shep visualized this by crouching down on the stage as he spoke putting both hands up on either side of his head, palms open going back and forth sweeping the room.


These memories came flooding back when my cousin, Bill sent me a piece from The Wall Street Journal about Shep. Written by Thomas Lipscomb, who was his editor and a willing or unwilling confidant in the 1970s, Lipscomb recounts how, A Christmas Story, became a national Christmas tradition if not an obsession. Lipscomb was Shep’s editor for his anthology of his radio broadcasts that were published under the title, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” (I bought and savored this book, but with heavy heart, I admit, my copy is long lost.)


Lipscomb noted that Shep’s agent, Leigh Brown, tried to convince him to take a few of the stories from the book like Ralphie’s obsession with the Red Ryder bb-gun, Flick being triple-dared to stick his tongue to the flagpole and his old man and the flat tire, and use them to make a screen play. After a long and arduous fight, Shep conceded and A Christmas Story was made.


Still, Shep would have been reduced to a footnote except that when he agreed to be the voice of Ralphie, he perpetuated his persona in the American culture for as long as we celebrate Christmas in the land of US.


The movie allowed Shep and Leigh to earn enough money to retire to Sanibel Island. I will not suggest that it made him happy but at least he could be blue in paradise while looking for Hitler. He died in 1999. RIP Jean Shepherd.


You can easily listen to some of his broadcasts on the internet by typing, “Jean Shepherd Radio”. Just don’t blame me if you become addicted. I know I have, again, after all these years.



A Sunday Outing with Mom

Part Two

On board a Brooklyn trolley car bound for the Canarsie Pier with my Mom in 1951.


Rockaway Parkway, despite its grand name is a quiet street. Two-family attached brick houses line it for several blocks nearest to the subway station. Even so, as the trolley proceeds south, vacant lots gradually begin to outnumber houses until the scenery becomes mostly fields. The skeletons of a few remaining Quonset Huts dot some of these fields. Now abandoned, my Mom explained on an earlier trip, “The government built them in 1946 to house newly married ex-GIs because regular housing was so short. Two families shared half of building. It must have been terrible.”


Before reaching the pier, the tracks leave the street and enter their own right-of-way. The trolley runs along an uneven gravel and grass path bucking and shaking until it loops into the wooden covered platform that is the Canarsie Terminal. We tumble off the car, walk back to Rockway Parkway, through the underpass beneath the Belt Parkway and toward the pier.


A square parking lot occupies most of the pier. The only structure is a single-story red-brick park house containing an office, bathrooms and snack bar off to one side. Fishermen, using reels and rods, cast from various spots along the apron. Tin buckets and nets on long metal poles line their fishing spots to collect their catch. It is a warm spring day and Mom says, “Why don’t we take the boat ride around the bay?”


“Great,” I reply and follow her onto a gangplank that leads to a floating pier and a surplus navy whaleboat. Mom purchases two tickets for ten cents each and I hurry to grab an end seat on one of the benches. The boat ride though not exciting, is something different. As the boat weaves around several islands, I watch the afternoon aerial parade of Constellations, Stratocruisers, DC-4 and Dc-6 airliners as they follow the approach toward Idewild Airport just over the horizon.


We walk around the perimeter of the pier before my Mom makes her way to a bench to rest and read. I while away the afternoon, wandering among the fishermen comparing their catches, watch airplanes, seagulls and the occasional boat that sails by and, when Mom is not looking, lean over the edge and launch discarded ice cream sticks into the bay.


When Mom is ready to leave, we make our way back to the trolley.  Across the street from the subway station, she lets me buy a Three Musketeers candy bar. The toys and comic books in the store are off limits.


I look out the window at the low skyline of East New York as the Manhattan bound subway train approaches its next stop, Atlantic Avenue. The sun that is beginning to set casts orange light through windows on the opposite side of the car spreading it across the floor and the seats. My mother sits near me. She shifts her body to escape the light, but when the conductor opens the doors, a jolt of sunlight assaults her and several other riders forcing them to shield their eyes with newspapers, magazines, hands, or coat sleeves. I too turn away to duck the sun until the doors close again.


I am still enjoying the day and this last train ride. Mom is tired. She has given up another precious Sunday to entertain her eight-year-old son who is too young and too selfish to realize her sacrifice. The train moves on crossing the complex of switches and tracks that is Broadway Junction. I look down at the subway yard with its rows of tracks separated at intervals by cement firewalls, the red brick bus garage, the silver and green GMC and Mack buses parked outside and the remnants of an old Piels brewery. The houses, churches and schools of Bushwick line a ridge behind the train yard and brewery.


This is the last stop before the train descends into the subway erasing my view of Brooklyn. Through the portal, into the tunnel, the wind roars as the train pushes it forward. I look out into the darkness. The window ceases to be the canvas for the images I enjoyed this day and, instead, it becomes the disappointing reflection of my own image.


My day dies with the descent into the tunnel. Today’s adventure melts away as my thoughts quickly turn from the joys of this Sunday’s outing to Monday morning and the dread of returning to the fourth grade.


A Sunday Outing with Mom

Written in 2004, first published in “The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories” in 2011 and revised in February of 2018


Part One


My excitement begins when the 8:45 a.m. mass at St. Aloysius Church ends. Outside, I line-up on the Onderdonk Avenue sidewalk with other kids to give a vendor a nickel for a salted pretzel that he selects from his wicker basket lined with a clean dishtowel. It is the first piece of food I eat today. This is 1951 and my Holy Communion fast began at midnight.


Mom told me before we left for mass that we would have an outing today. I still don’t know where we will go, and I must wait while she chats with friends and neighbors. I have learned to keep my mouth shut. I am sure my body language gives away my growing impatience as these women continue to talk aimlessly. But one time, I made the mistake of wising off and my Sunday outing ended right then and there. I am happy and relieved when my mother and her friends say their final good-byes. Walking home, Mom announces that we will be going to Canarsie today.


This is fine with me because that is one of the few places we travel to that is still served by trolley cars. Before Mom heads for our apartment to start our breakfast, she hands me seventy cents. I run to the bakery around the corner to buy 4 seeded rolls and 2 crumb buns for two quarters and to the candy store where I leave twenty cents in a plate on the counter for the Sunday News and Sunday Mirror.


It’s a four-block walk from our house to the DeKalb Avenue station. No clerk is on duty on Sundays forcing us to use the automated turnstile. I hate this machine; a steel enclosed cylinder with room for only one passenger at a time. I must push it around by myself and I fear becoming trapped. I’m sure if I do, I will wet my pants, but fortunately it does not jam.


I delight in this train ride. Being a kid, I imagine that I drive the train through the tunnel as I look out of the front window holding on to the doorframe as the subway car bucks and rocks as it travels with speed between stations. A marvelous combination of sensations, the swoosh of the train rushing forward, its lights bouncing off the concrete walls creates patterns of shapes and forms that disappear before I can even think what they could be. In front of us, the tracks glow until eaten away as the train devours them. The white light bulbs lining the tunnel walls are the stars in a galaxy; the blue emergency lights with their pink halos are its strange planets. Signal lights change from red to yellow or green as the motorman eases or increases his throttle to keep pace with them.


Every now and again, I look over my shoulder to make sure my mother remains in her seat reading a newspaper or magazine. Satisfied, I return to my own universe excited to be riding the train on this Sunday outing.


The day is ahead of us. Morning light fills the train as it emerges from the tunnel and onto the elevated structure. Apartment buildings, tenement houses, schools and small factories melt away with each station as the landscape becomes less crowded. We pass junkyards, rail sidings and even an occasional farm and farm house as the train descends to ground level before it reaches the end of the line. I abandon my post as the train eases into the last station and follow Mom to wait for the connecting trolley car that will take us to the Canarsie Pier.


“Will we go on a boat ride? Can I get ice cream, candy, a soda?” “How long can we stay?”


I don’t see that I am testing her patience until it is too late. “Stop it and be quiet.”


I sulk but the sound and sight of the trolley distracts me. Few streetcar lines still operate and, soon this one too will be replaced by buses. I have watched the ones that ran near my house all disappear, so this is a treat for me. Visions of ice cream and Pepsi vanish with its appearance, at least for a while.


We board the trolley, a double ender dating from the 1920s. So much more fun to ride than buses, trolleys have their own unique sounds and smells. The sound of the electric motor purring as the car waits to be engaged. The crackle and smell of the electric ozone when the trolley pole sparks as it crosses other wires. The clang-clang of the bell as the operator prepares to leave a stop. The sound and smell of steel on steel as the car crosses switches or makes tight turns.


Mom allows me to sit next to a window when a seat is available. She sits next to me. I am only allowed to open the window so long as the breeze doesn’t disturb other passengers. Five black iron horizontal bars block the opened window, but her sharp words of caution are enough to prevent me from sticking my fingers through the bars.