John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Category: Uncategorized

My Quarantine Time Capsule Vignette

Cace Briggs

Cace Briggs is my youngest grandchild. He attends MS 442 located in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. He wrote this piece as an assignment for a remote class. God willing, he will enter the Eighth Grade this September. Cace agreed to permit me to publish his piece. I edited his piece for clarity but, with the intent to leave its essence and his use of language unchanged.   

Every day starts with the sun coming up Vanderbilt Avenue chasing the shade away and bringing a new day. The cars start beeping at the repair shop in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard across the street from my apartment just like a rooster waking up at an urban farm.

Slowly, a meager number of cars lumber along the streets bringing essential workers to their destinations like soldiers to their posts. Many workers carpool and are dropped off by friends and family members. These cars drive off into the distance leaving only a faint noise and the smell of exhaust. And so, Brooklyn wakes up to another day of the pandemic with the rest of the world.

I begin my day by looking out onto the barren streets wondering when the day will come when cars can again populate the dark canvas. I feel sad but, after a while, I bring myself to go out for a bike ride. I believe it would be a good distraction from the somber state of the world. As I ride through the streets it feels strange to not see the bustling of cars and  people riding their bicycles or walking their dogs. I had become used to their absence on previous rides, but this is such a nice day, I thought maybe it would be different.

As I cross the Williamsburg Bridge, I stop for a minute to admire the beautiful though desolate view of the East River. When I reach Manhattan, I expect at least a little traffic, but I am surprised to see almost none. After riding through the Lower East Side which only seems to take seconds. I return homeward on the Manhattan Bridge. I reminisce on prior summers when the city was so alive and intriguing. Back home, I retire to my bedroom trying not to think negatively about what feels like the apocalypse.

As the day ends, shadows consume everything making the world dark again. The cars return to reclaim the essential workers. The drivers listen to the workers’ stories of hard work and never-ending sacrifice.

That night after I heard the cars coming back, I had the feeling I hadn’t had in a while, hope.

In bed that night I know that one day I will look back on this not with sadness or hate but thankfulness and gratitude toward the people who made sure we survived and prospered.

“On the Outside Looking In,” will not appear next Wednesday and will return on July 15.     

Interment at Arlington

Part three of my Father’s Day Trilogy. This story was originally written in 2003 and a version of it appeared in my anthology: The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories.”

He died on December 12, 2002 shortly after his eighty-third birthday, cause of death, cancer in multiple organs. He had been diagnosed less than a month before his death and he died at home, in his sleep, under hospice carefree of pain. An atheist, he had little concern for the disposition of his remains except that they should be cremated, but shortly before dying, he decided to have his ashes interred at Arlington National Cemetery. His wife, Marilyn, followed his instructions having his remains cremated without family or friends.

The administration at Arlington processes twenty to thirty-five services a day, Monday to Friday. Even so, with casualties from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and with so many World War II veterans dying; our family was told in March that Dad’s service would not take place until Thursday, June 19, 2003.

We are a small family, and everybody decided to attend. Mary Ann and I drove down from New York as did our son, Michael, and his wife, Jodie. Our daughter, Beth, and her husband, Tom, rode down on Amtrak.

Steven, my youngest half-brother, flew to Florida from Oregon with his wife, Cathy, and son and daughter, Jeffrey and Kelsey to stay with Marilyn. They flew to Norfolk and drove to Richmond to meet up with Steve’s oldest brother Mark and, his wife, Nancy. Together, they drove north to Arlington that morning. Nancy’s mom and dad also drove from their home in Emporia, Virginia to attend. Two nephews of Marilyn also attended. Our sister, Diana, rounded out the group at sixteen when she arrived that morning from Maine.

The Catholic chaplain, a “full-bird” colonel, insisted that my Dad have a service in the Fort Myers chapel adjacent to the cemetery rather than in the administration building. I found this curious as Dad’s freely and publicly atheistic beliefs were well-known.  He had had little contact with anything Catholic since he divorced my mother shortly after World War II ended. The chaplain’s insistence led me to surmise that Dad never changed his Air Force records.

Fortunately, the chaplain kept the service simple and almost non-denominational. My daughter and son read from the old and new testament, Kelsey read the petitions and the priest led us in the Lord’s Prayer. Unfortunately, he did not keep his homily simple, choosing instead to wax poetically, showering Dad and our family with qualities and attributes that never existed. As I listened to him, I wondered how he’d react if I changed Dad’s eulogy and included the line, “The sons of bitches of this world have lost their leader!”

But I didn’t. Here is what I said:

Dad led a remarkable life. He demonstrated fortitude, courage, honor, loquaciousness and grit for as long as I can remember. He had an unending thirst for knowledge that took him both figuratively and literally to all parts of the world.

His zest for life never diminished. His need to know things to understand them never diminished.

He was combative, and the Lord knows the confrontations we each had with him. But he did love and care for his family.

When his body deserted him, when he knew he had terminal cancer, he accepted this with dignity, honor and humor.

It is time to take joy in his life, in his memory. It is time to celebrate his life.

That is why we are here.

This was true enough and made for a proper eulogy. Good thing too, in view of the size of the interment detachment that waited outside the chapel. Dad’s rank, years of service, war record and metals qualified him to receive a high military ceremony. A horseman with drawn saber led the formation. Behind him six horses stood hitched to a caisson. Three horses had riders. A band and honor guard stood at attention as six pallbearers followed two others who inserted the urn into a compartment at the end of the coffin mounted on the caisson.

A four-man color guard led the procession away from the chapel. A twenty-piece band and a honor guard consisting of twenty-one airmen followed. They led the flag draped caisson flanked by the eight pallbearers. We followed in our cars as part of the procession. Slowly, we proceeded through Arlington to the Columbarium where his remains were to be interred following a last military service. Workers along our path ceased their activity and stood at attention as we passed.

Because it had rained earlier that morning and the forecast predicted afternoon showers, the airmen wore blue raincoats. The humidity was not kind to them though they did not display their discomfort.

The pallbearers carried the urn to the central square where they set it down. They unfurled the flag with great ceremony, holding it outstretched imitating how it would hang if draped over a coffin. The band played and the chaplain spoke. We were asked to stand while a separate squad of eight airmen positioned in a grass field two hundred yards away fired a twenty-one gun salute after which Taps was played. The honor guard re-folded the flag, handed it to the chaplain who handed it to my father’s widow. A retired military wife sat next to Marilyn during the entire ceremony providing guidance and comfort. Mark carried the urn to its assigned vault. The chaplain made a few more erroneous remarks and the service ended.

We walked back to our cars crossing the central square one last time. I calculated that about sixty air force personnel had participated in the ceremony.

 “Well Dad,” I thought, “you received your due today. Too bad you weren’t here for it; you would have loved it.”

Two Photographs, Two Crews

Originally written on October 2002 this piece appeared in “The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories.”

Before me on the kitchen table are two photographs, one in color, one in black and white. Publicity photos of Eighth Air Force crews and their B=24s. taken some time during the fall of 1943.

The black and white photo is familiar; I first saw it when I was a child. It shows the crew my father trained with and with whom he went to war. The photographer framed ten men in two rows, five squatting, five standing. Behind them, their bomber, a B-24H their pilot named Miss America.

My father stands closest to the airplane, left hand on his hip, his overseas cap tilted left. Twenty-two years old, he wears a confident smile. He is a Second Lieutenant, the navigator. The others are Marfia-pilot, Bonder-co-pilot, Moor-bombardier, Brown-radio operator, DiSimone-assistant radio operator, Sekavec-engineer, Emerson-assistant engineer, Cunningham and Simpson-gunners.

I knew that my father alone survived the war. I learned this from mu mother and later, as an adult, from him,

In October of 2002, John Sr. traveled from Florida to Greece with a layover in New York. I agreed to meet him by the Delta baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport. He was 82, traveling alone on a flight that began in Melbourne, FL at 5:30 am with a connection in Atlanta.

I watch him as he descends the stairs and comes to me. He looks spry and energenic. I collect him and take his carry-on bag, Amazingly, this is his only bag for a week-long European trip.

I am taking him to lunch before driving him to the Delta Terminal at JFK. I pick a diner on Northern Boulevard in Douglaston just off the Cross Island Parkway, convenient to our route to JFK. He orders Pastrami on rye. Good for him. I stick with grilled chicken and two Heinekens round out our order.

John, the father, brings items from the past folr me, part of his legacy. A curious collection, but I understand. Things a father would think important. His service records, drawings of the B-24H and a washed out color photograph of a B-24 and its crew.

I look at the photo then at him. I have never seen it before, I look at my father and ask, “Where did you get these?”

“At a reunion,” he casually replies. I look at the photograph, again. The six enlisted men squat, the four officers stand. The name of the airplane is not visible and only the officers are identified. From left to right, Wyatt-navigator, Slipp-co-pilot, Colburn-bombardier and Gonseth-pilot, Wyatt has his hands clasped behind his back. His shearling lined leather jacket is half-zippered open. He is hatless.

The caption reads:

“On 13 November 1943, Gonseth’s crew was elevated to Lead Crew and Delach joined them as Lead Navigator. R. Wyatt was transferred to Mafia’s (sic) crew replacing Delach as Navigator for Miss America.”

“Both crews 13 November, target Bremen, Germany. Miss America attacked by ME 109s received extensive damage and ditched in the North Sea.”

I know most of these facts. I knew my father returned safely to base. I know he completed his tour, returned for a second tour and finished with a total of 47 missions. I know Miss America was last seen disappearing into the Borth Sea cloud cover.

But who in hell is R. Wyatt? I have never a mention of his name. Why now? Why did my father give me this photo now? Did he even know Wyatt?

But these thoughts come later, long after I drop him off at the Delta terminal. They come as I look at the two photos before me on the kitchen table over a glass of Irish whiskey.

Wyatt died that day in place of my father! Two crews, two photographs two navigators and two destinies.

Afterward

I wrote that story the day after I saw my father for what turned out to be the last time, He returned home early feeling poorly. I spoke to him several times by telephone and remarked about the second photo. I deliberately addressed my remarks in a such a way that it would open him to wanting to talk about Wyatt. He chose not to respond to my questions so I didn’t pursue it.

I told my friend, Dick Sullivan all of this. “I feel it is his call. He gave me the photo for a reason. I believe I have planted the seeds. I believe he will tell me when he is ready. ” Sully agreed.

It did not. That physical problem turned out to be an aggressive cancer. After a brief hospital stay, he returned home to hospice care. He died in his sleep on December 12, 2002, three days after his 83rd birthday. RIP COlnel.

An Unwanted Intruder

My father graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn Tech) in 1938 where he excelled in mathematics and engineering. He was accepted by the new United States Merchant Marine Academy that Congress had authorized only two years previously. At that time, the college was a school in name only and the cadets were sent to various American flag fleets to learn their trade through study and practical experience.

The academy preferred that the cadets be assigned to passenger liners that could accommodate several on each ship. The hosting operators included American Export Lines, American President Lines, Delta Steamship, Grace, Matson, Moore McCormick and United States Lines.

John, Sr. was assigned to the United States Lines SS Washington, as a deck cadet. He would be taught the requirements for the successful navigation of the ship. (The opposite was an engineering cadet, who would be taught how to make the ship run.)

John liked to say, “I preferred being where I could see which way we were going.”  As it turned out, he was a natural as he possessed extraordinary vision, 20 / 10, and saw things in the distance before anyone else on the bridge could. 

The SS Washington and its sister ship, the SS Manhattan, operated between New York City and ports in Europe; Southampton, Hamburg and Cherbourg until September of 1939 when war broke out between the Third Reich – England and France.

Both ships were withdrawn from North Atlantic service. Even so, both were deliberatively decorated to identify as being neutral ships.  Two enormous American flags were painted on each side of their hulls. Between the flags, the name of the ship was painted in giant block upper-case letters and beneath this: UNITED STATES LINES. At night powerful floodlights lit these marking to prevent a hostile warship or submarine from misidentifying the Manhattan or Washington with another ship.

For the remainder of 1939 and the beginning of 1940, the pair ran between New York, Portugal and Spain with continuation to Naples, Italy. In mid-May when the Nazi’s lightning-fast blitzkrieg galloped through the low countries and smashed into France, the U.S. Maritime Administration requisitioned the ships and ordered them to Europe to evacuate Americans stranded there.

Washington evacuated American nationals from Bordeaux on June 3, then set sail for Lisbon arriving on June 6. Wartime complications delayed departure from Lisbon until June 11. Leaving Lisbon, Washington began its third leg of the voyage to Galway, Ireland.

The New York Times reported on June 12, 1940 that the well-lit liner was stopped southwest of Cape Finisterre by a German U-boat.

 “The submarine ordered the liner to stop, warned that she was to be torpedoed and gave a time limit of ten-minutes for leaving (the) ship. Captain (Harry) Manning, a veteran skipper and a hero of many shipping rescues stood on the bridge and personally flashed the signals that averted the pending disaster.”

“Following are the messages which were exchanged by blinker signal:”

          Submarine – ‘Stop ship.’

          Submarine – ‘Ease to, ship.’

          Submarine – ‘Torpedo ship.’

          Washington – ‘American ship.’

          Submarine – ‘Leave ship.’

Washington – “American ship.”

Submarine – ‘Ten minutes.’

Washington –‘Washington, American ship. Washington, American ship,’

“There was a pause and again:”

Washington – ‘Washington, American ship. Washington, American ship.’

Submarine – ‘Thought you were another ship. Please go on, go

on.’

My father was off duty when the confrontation began, but he double-timed his way to his emergency station once the Prepare to Abandon Ship sirens and horns blew.

By the time the ship returned to New York, newspapers could not get enough of the details. Unfortunately, or fortunately; my father’s terminally ill mother had heard the news and begged her son never to return to sea. He consented to her dying plea guaranteeing that this experience would be his last voyage.

Instead, he went to work for the New York City subways, but that only lasted until Pearl Harbor was attacked. Soon after, he joined the Army Air Force. Being a city kid, who hadn’t driven a car, he had poor eye – hand coordination and washed out of pilot training. The air force decided that he be taught to be navigator to take advantage of his remarkable eyesight.

He was assigned to a four engine B-24 named Miss America. His new crew trained in the desert of New Mexico. My mother was permitted to join him there in early 1943.

From there the crew flew the bomber to England and war. My mother returned to Ridgewood, Queens and I was born the following February.

Remarkably, he survived flying 47 missions in B-24s with the Eighth Air Force over occupied France and Nazi Germany even though Miss America and its crew were lost over the North Sea after just five missions. (My Father had been transferred to another B-24.)   

Had he remained in the merchant marine; the odds were just as bad of surviving the North Atlantic U-boat menace as they would have been serving in a B-24 bomber over Nazi Germany on daylight missions.

He didn’t know it until the war was over, but he made the right choice.

Once Upon A Time in Gotham City

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead or actual events is purely coincidental.

Gotham City is a metropolis located in the state of New Gotham. With a population of 17 million people, it has the most of everything that a mega city needs to prosper. One of these is its school system.

Long before Covid-19 descended on Gotham City, the city’s leaders faced an enormous crisis. Inspectors discovered that many of Gotham’s public schools had been constructed using liberal amounts of asbestos to insulate pipes, structural steel and other critical elements. Asbestos polluted many spaces, classrooms, kitchens, lunchrooms, and bathrooms. Everybody knew this was a fact of life, but it wasn’t until an investigative reporter for the New York Journal-American made it public in screaming headlines like: Gotham Is Home To  Killer Schools, that this outrage erupted into an instant scandal.

Tessie Apple-Sammy, the City Council chairperson proclaimed, “Heads will roll! Blah, blah, blah…”

Mayor Pissant Parker huffed and puffed, huffed, and puffed and declared: “HOW DARE THEY!”

Governor Sholmo Guano III. inferred that Parker was a, “Small minded, pot smoking jackass of dubious intellect who lacked the ability needed to run Potter’s Field on Heart & Soul Island, never mind, Gotham City.”

Trouble, trouble, trouble. Yes, we have trouble in Gotham City, with a capital T… 

The collective leadership decided to remove all asbestos over the summer and re-open in the fall. We will never know for sure, but meeting this deadline was fixed. Someone in power decided that the schools would re-open after Labor Day regardless of their actual condition. Was it, Apple-Sammy, Parker, or Guano, or was it the school superintendent, T. Ruby Maxwell IV?

MS-33, the Thomas E. Dewey Middle School for the Curious, was one of those schools. MS-33 was considered a magnet school for unique talent and the truly disruptive. The asbestos scandal broke at the worst time for Dewey. Their revered principal, Doctor H. Spencer Hezekiah, had been forced to resign for ritualistic beliefs better left unsaid.

When Chancellor Olympia (Buckwheat) Meade, Jr. confronted Dr. H and barked at him, Dr. H’s only defense was: “It’s coming, it’s coming. Time is short, but if we act now: There is still time brothers.”

Dr. H’s removal left Dewey in the hands of a crazy person who had managed to walk the line, avoid the mine field and work the system. Let us call her Peterette Paul otherwise known as Fishy.

The District Superintendent, Jackie D’Ripper, hated MS Paul and considered her to be a fool who tried to oppose her. It was not a good idea to cross Superintendent D’Ripper nor try to arm wrestle her.

By the middle of August, the lack of progress to remove the asbestos was becoming serious. Principle Paul turned out to be a paper bully. She could intimidate weak people, but MS Paul couldn’t make a hard call even if her life depended on it. She refused to make the call to re-open Dewey.

D’Ripper had had enough of this lack of willpower. On short notice, just before the school was scheduled to open, she arrived to inspect MS-33. The first classroom she inspected was sealed with plastic sheets taped across the open door, “Take down the plastic,” she demanded.

The workers did as told. D’Ripper looked inside and pronounced: “Open the fucking school.”

Where is D’Ripper when we need her now?

Long Tall Sally and Me

Little Richard passed last month at 87. RIP: Richard Wayne Penniman.

In 1955, he exploded out of the Rhythm & Blues (R&B) backwaters of the deep South and crashed into the early days of rock and roll with his hit song: Tutti Frutti. Granted, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Bo Didley had previously crossed over from R&B to white rock, but Little Richard initiated a revolution and rightfully deserves to be called the Godfather of Rock and Roll!

As Tim Weiner explained in his New York Times obituary: “Little Richard, pounding the piano furiously and screaming as if for his very life, raised the energy level several notches and created something not quite like any music that had been heard before – something new, thrilling and more than a little dangerous.”  

Dangerous, indeed: Take my favorite Little Richard tune: Long Tall Sally. Most renditions muted the theme of the song that Uncle John was having an extra marital affair with Sally. The significant verse is:

Well, long tall Sally

She’s built for speed, she got

Everything that Uncle John need.

This verse was altered to:

Well long tall Sally’s

Kind of sweet, she got

Everything that Arkansas need.

Really! If it’s about Arkansas, then why did Uncle John have to duck back in the alley when he saw Aunt Mary coming?

But I digress. I was on my way home alone on a Friday afternoon at the end of another London business trip. (I made over a one hundred from 1976 to 2000.)

Seeking a hidden treasure, I stopped at the bookstore in the Heathrow’s Terminal Three. Luck was with me as I discovered a cassette featuring the mid-century R&B entertainers / song writers who became the roots of rock and roll.

Of course, Little Richard was one and the tape featured four of his songs: Good Golly Miss Molly, Lucille, Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally.

Pleased with my discovery, I made my way to the British Airways lounge to relax, have a bloody Mary and listen to my new tape as I waited for my flight to be called for boarding. When I saw it flashing on the departure board, I left the club and headed for my gate.

Back in the day, BA’s gates for flights to America were a relatively long distance from the club. From repetition, I knew my gate’s location, so I strolled along the corridors listening to these great singers filling my headphones with songs like Long Tall Sally.

I was in the groove by the time I reached the gate. Cassette player off, I received my boarding pass. I thanked the agent and made my way on to the jetway. As I stepped onto the 747, I offered my boarding pass to the flight attendant at the door who examined it and directed me to my seat.

I began my usual drill to settle in for the long flight home. I removed the items I expected to use during this flight before I put my carry-on into the overhead.

Suddenly, I heard the following announcement: “Would John Delach please identify himself?”

I rang my call button identifying my location.

“Mister Delach, may I see your boarding pass?”

I handed it to the flight attendant. She examined it, then asked, “Where are you traveling to with us today?” (Got to love Brit-speak!)

“New York’s JFK”

“I see. The problem is the destination for this airplane is Boston. It seems that you boarded the flight at Gate 73. Our British Airways flight to JFK is at Gate 75.”

Fortunately, time was on my side, the correct gate was only one away and this crew had alerted the JFK crew that I was on my way.

“Long Tall Sally” had been my undoing but I wasn’t the only one asleep at the switch that Friday afternoon.     

Once Upon a Time in Findlay, Ohio

Bill Smith as told to John Delach

Part Two: The Journey

The Imperial House Motel, next to the interchange of I-75 and Route 157 was the ideal spot to begin and end our journey. We picked May 30 to accommodate me as I was getting married two Saturdays later. We hoped that a starting time of 9am would put us in New York City sometime on Sunday morning to avoid heavy traffic

A small, but enthusiastic crowd saw us off as we headed north. Destination – Toledo, 45 miles away where we turned onto Interstate 90 East for the 582-mile run to Albany. Weather and traffic were fine as adrenalin began to wear off and we established our routine. We decided to rotate drivers every four hours and service the car every eight hours. The first driver would hit the rack at that first service stop and we followed that rotation at each additional service stop.

Upon reaching Albany, we made a planned detour to allow our route to include the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. We selected US 4, a route that took us 250 miles through Rutland, Claremont and Concord before reaching Portsmouth. US 4 was then mostly a two-lane road with limited passing and speed limits as low as 30 MPH for many towns. One advantage, we drove on a Saturday night when traffic was light. From Portsmouth, we crossed over the Piscataqua River to Kittery, Maine, paid our respects to the Pine Tree State before turning onto I-95 for the long journey to Florida.

As planned, we crossed through NYC about 7am and began our second day somewhere in New Jersey. Sunday took us through DC, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. We did not exit onto I-10 in Jacksonville but continued south until Daytona Beach where we transferred to I-4 for the run to Tampa. (Although this detour cost us an additional 425 miles, we considered it to be the correct route not to exclude I-4.)

Interstate-75 sent us back north to I-10. Day 3 began near Tallahassee where we navigated a gap of 264 miles in Interstate-10 using US 90 that slowed our progress until Pensacola. Back on I-10 we headed west through the night passing Mobile, New Orleans and Houston before reaching Fort Stockton, Texas and the start of Day 4.

We cruised through Texas, New Mexico and into Arizona where we witnessed the power, beauty and fury of nature as the night exploded courtesy of a powerful electrical storm in the desert. Never had I participated in an event like that before and never would again. It was still dark when we reached San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.

Day 5 found outside Fresno heading north on Interstate-5, destination, Seattle and Interstate-90. We were forced to transverse several gaps along this stretch of I-90 before we could cross into Idaho. We reached Lake Coeur D’Alene close to the start of our sixth day where we were blessed by the sight of that lake in the morning sun. It dazzled like a jewel.

I also experienced a far less pleasant episode as we exited the Cascade Mountains. Pollen invaded the car bringing on an asthma attack that forced me to put my nose and mouth right up to the A/C vent and breathe deeply for several minutes before I found relief. The big sky country accompanied us for most of the daylight hours before we slid into darkness of North Dakota and Minnesota.

A sunrise west of St. Paul greeted us and in the next ten-hours, we buzzed by Chicago and turned south at Toledo for the last run on I-75 for Findlay. We reached the Imperial’s parking at about 7 PM on Friday evening making our total elapsed time: 6 days, 10 hours, and 30 minutes.

Once the formalities ended, I made my way home to sleep, clean up and begin my preparations for my wedding ceremony the following Saturday. Comments about my journey, both positive and negative, consumed my poor bride and me at our reception.

As I look back on our trip, I can’t help but smile. None of us had travelled extensively at that stage in our lives and this adventure gave us the opportunity to see our country in all its geographical glory.

For me it was also an excellent bachelor party.

Once Upon a Time in Findlay, Ohio

Part One: The Plan

The year was 1969. Two other twenty-something colleagues, brothers Bob and Roger B. and I had a light-bulb moment: “How long would it take to make a car trip along the Interstate Highways that follow the perimeters of the USA at the legal speed limits stopping only for fuel, food and to freshen up?” (Alaska and Hawaii need not apply)

What-if, indeed! Instead of returning to a netherworld, we began figuring out the what-ifs and a plan began to form.

Our timing was favorable. Most of the perimeter interstates: I-5, I-10, I-90 and I-95 were nearly complete. The price of gasoline was relatively cheap, and the speed limits were set at 65 and 70 in most rural areas and in a few at 80. Findlay was a perfect place to acquire sponsors. First things, first, we needed the right type of automobile. Since our journey would be one of endurance rather than speed, we decided on a large, comfortable vehicle. By coincidence we were all Pontiac men, and each had recently purchased a new car from, Jim Herrin, our local dealer.

Mr. Herrin caught our enthusiasm and convinced his regional manager to lend us a 1969 Executive Safari Station Wagon 400, a 4,636 pound beast that normally sat eight. One problem though, was its range. Even with its 20-gallon fuel tank, given the Safari’s MPG of 13.4 for highway driving, its range was only between 245 and 290 miles for time-consuming fill-ups.

We three adventurers worked for Marathon Oil Company at its national headquarters in downtown Findlay. Our pitch to management was well-received. Marathon, then considered to be a regional operator, was looking to expand its brand and hasten the development of their own credit card.

As our plan took shape, Cooper Tire Company, also domiciled in Findlay, came on board as a sponsor fitting the Safari with top-of-the-line tires.

We didn’t plan to use the third rear-facing seat in the station wagon during this trip so Bob, who was a car buff and excellent mechanic, ameliorated  the driving range limitation by installing a second 20-gallon tank in this seat’s foot well. The tank was connected by a hose with a pump to transfer gasoline on the fly. We installed a plywood floor behind the front seat for a padded sleeping area, an electric camper fridge that plugged into the cigarette lighter socket and a porta-potty for “urgent and unscheduled necessities.” We even rigged a makeshift café curtain to afford a degree of privacy

Paper maps and atlases were used to identify routes and planned stopping points. Bob acquired a ship-to-shore radio-telephone, a God-send in this era before the concept of cellular phones even existed. Crude, by today’s standards, the originating party called a special operator who connected the call to the desired phone number. Only one party could speak at a time and the conversation was open to any third party listening on a shortwave radio.

But the device enabled us to call ahead to our planned service stops to give our ETA, a list of what supplies, food, or other things we needed and approximately how much fuel we expected to pump on board. The radio-phone also allowed us to remain in contact with family, friends, and our buddies at Marathon. (Having the phone came in handy when we were travelling in the humid air along I-10 near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Our windshield began to fog up on the inside. Befuddled, we called an engineer back in Findlay who worked us through how to clear it.)

Before we left, other Marathon engineers gave us advise that included a mind trick to maximize our miles per gallon. “Before you step on the accelerator imagine that there is an egg under it. You don’t want to crush the egg so you can only ease the accelerator down each time you begin and when you want to speed up.”

As the trip progressed, WFIN, the local radio station, became aware of our endeavor leading us to call in status reports to the station’s morning drive-time show.

We did not realize that our lack of movement and activity would affect us, but our food consumption diminished as the trip progressed. We wore loose fitting clothing, tee shirts and sweatpants. Our company doctor suggested we wear athletic socks under sandals to reduce foot perspiration and swelling. (I still wear sandals this way. Before you say it looks dorky, try it first.)

The Imperial House Motel, located next to the interchange of I-75 and Route 157 was the ideal spot to begin and end our journey. We picked May 30 to accommodate me as I was getting married two Saturdays later. We hoped that a starting time of 9am would put us in New York City sometime on Sunday morning to avoid heavy traffic.

(To be continued)

The People You Meet

The genesis for this story began when I read a delightful piece written by my fellow scribe, Janet Pomeranz. Janet called it; The Joke’s on Me, about a class she attended advertised as Writing Humor for Profit.

The class’s final assignment was to: to “…write an interview of a Chippendale.” Janet was confused. “Why would I interview a piece of furniture?” But a classmate intervened: “Janet, the modern-day definition of a Chippendale is a male stripper.”

My reaction was the same as hers, but after being corrected, my thoughts didn’t remain with male strippers. Instead, I thought about the most intriguing seatmate with whom I ever flew, a chap named John Chippendale.

In the early months of 1982, we flew together from London’s Heathrow Airport to JFK in business class on a TWA 747. For whatever reason, we connected with each other and initiated a long conversation covering a range of topics, but mostly, aviation stories.

John pronounced his last name as “Chippendall” and explained his family used this pronunciation to avoid confusion with the furniture family. (I imagine today’s descendants are only too glad they cannot be confused with the current co-opted meaning of their name.)

I informed him I was on my way home from a business trip where I had arranged insurance coverage for a major US oil and gas company. He replied that he was going to America to inspect airplanes that his company was interested in buying.

As our flight progressed, John described his flying experiences. He was a life-long aviator who had come up the ranks, first at British Overseas Airline Corporation or BOAC and then at its successor, British Airways.

“I finally became bored with their seniority system, the numbers game and the politics. I took the ex-pat route, joined Lebanon’s Middle Eastern Airlines (MEA) and moved to Beirut. Now I am their chief pilot and I spend the bulk of my time negotiating contracts for new airplanes. Most people still don’t know who we are, but MEA is a growing airline backed by wealthy investors.”

Time melted. It didn’t hurt that we both enjoyed a cocktail or two that enhanced our comradeship and conversation. Eventually, we discussed the exact purpose of his trip: “I’m on my way to Texas to inspect two American Airlines 707s in active storage at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW). MEA ordered several new Airbus A-340s to expand their routes and destinations.”

“My problem, Airbus is behind schedule. The American 707s could alleviate the problem if they are useable. Experience has taught me to personally inspect any used airplane before I buy it.”

We spoke of other things. I asked him what living in Beirut was like? “Up until 1976, it was a fabulous place to live, truly the Paris of the Middle East. My apartment is still safe, but electricity and access to drinking water are haphazard. It’s becoming ugly, new barricades are erected daily. Something bad is going to happen soon.”

We shook hands said goodbye at JFK. He joined the line for foreigners while I joined the one for returning citizens. I walked away knowing this was an encounter I would not soon forget.

Talk about an understatement! Flash forward to an early morning that June. I boarded my usual Long Island Railroad train for the commute to Manhattan, taking my self-assigned seat where I unfolded my copy of The New York Times. I noted the lead story: Israel Invades Lebanon.

Beneath this headline, I examined a photograph of the Beirut Airport. A burned out 707 with MEA markings laying on the tarmac filled the forefront of the photo. Then I realized that just behind the wreck stood a seemingly undamaged 707 bearing American Airline markings.

“Son of a bitch,” I exclaimed to the train, “He bought those airplanes after all!”                     

.    

Lighter Than Air (Part 2)

After the loss of the Macon, only the Germans remained in the game. Unable to secure helium from the USA because of our distaste for Hitler and his Third Reich, the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei filled their flagship, the Hindenburg LZ 129, with volatile hydrogen. Their queen of the skies made her first voyage in 1936 and spent a successful summer carrying passengers across the North Atlantic between Berlin and Lakehurst, New Jersey. 

Their good luck ran out early in the next season when Hindenburg was consumed by fire during its spectacular cremation while landing at that Naval Air Station on May 6, 1937. Thirty-five of the 97 passengers and crew on board perished in this disaster whose cause is still a matter of speculation.  

The whimsical concept of developing a fleet of zeppelins for commercial or military use should have died on that rainy afternoon but Hindenburg was the lead zeppelin of a projected fleet of three luxury liners. Hindenburg’s twin, LZ 130, was then under construction at the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin works when that disaster struck. Construction began in 1936 with its first flight on September 14, 1938. The airship’s intended name was: “The Graf Zeppelin II.” 

“The designer and chief engineer, Dr. Hugo Eckener, vowed never to use hydrogen in a passenger airship again.  This led to modifications such that the Graf Zeppelin II could be inflated with helium.” 

Since the United States remained the only source of helium. Dr. Eckener traveled to Washington to meet with President Roosevelt. Speaking from the heart as an aviator, he gained FDR’s trust. The president agreed to authorize the export of helium to Germany solely for peaceful purposes. Unfortunately for the good doctor, when Germany annexed Austria, any trust FDR had for Germany vanished and helium would never be available. Hydrogen became the only gas available for LZ 130.

“The airship was christened and flew for the first time on September 14, 1938. Only Zeppelin Company officials and Hermann Goering were present; no other government representatives came to the christening. Eckener alone, made the inaugural speech welcoming this new airship, the last of her kind. A banner hung in front of the massive hanger announcing the birth of the Graf Zeppelin II, but the absence of that name painted on the airship was significant. Without access to helium, “It became obvious that the ship would never serve its intended purpose as a passenger liner.” 

Nazi Germany’s aggression would have curtailed actual passenger travel in any case. “The Reich Air Ministry permitted the LZ 130 to fly for one year until September 1, 1939 without any transportation of passengers and outside tropical areas.” 

Instead, the air ministry arranged for the passenger accommodations to be fitted with radio surveillance and navigational instruments. LZ 130 was then dispatched as a mail carrier or to participate in several air shows, then called, Flying Days, to acquire vital data for future combat operations. 

One of the last series of flights brought the airship over the Southeastern coast of England between August 2 and 4. The purpose of this espionage trip was to secretly collect information on the British Home Radar System. 

With war imminent, the air ministry ordered LZ 130 removed from its hanger, turned around and re-inserted for easier dismantling. Its gas cells were emptied, and sophisticated electronic equipment was removed. 

The last great airship remained immobile in its hanger until February 29, 1940 when Goering ordered the Graf Zeppelin II and the third sister, LZ 131, still under construction, to be destroyed. 

On May 6, 1940, an enormous explosion leveled the hangers allowing the framing for the inert LZ 130 and the partially built LZ 131 to be collected for the war effort. 

Curiously, Goering’s order was carried out three years to the day after the destruction of the Hindenburg.