John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

S.S. George Handley

When I was researching last week’s piece about Liberty Ships, I discovered that one of these ships was the S.S. George Handley named after a man who served in the 1st Georgia Battalion of the Continental Army where he rose to the rank of captain. He was taken prisoner at Augusta, Georgia in 1780. After the war, Handley served as Governor of Georgia from 1788 to 1789 and was instrumental in the drafting of Georgia’s state-constitution. He died in 1793 at the age of forty-one.

George Handley was the second of over three dozen of her sisters constructed at the Southeastern Shipbuilding Corporation’s pop-up yard in Savannah, Georgia. Designated. Hull No. 342, construction began on May 28, 1942 and the Handley was launched on December 7, 1942, the first anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

George Handley never entered commercial service. The government agency, War Shipping Administration Transport, (WSAT), requisitioned the ship and turned it into a troop carrier to be operated by the U.S. Army Transport Service, (USAT). Handley was used to transport European Axis prisoners to POW camps that sprang up in various rural parts of America including Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Imagine how lucky these POW’s felt escaping the war to perform manual labor in the lap of luxury.  

Handley had a carrying capacity of 550 men per voyage. There is no record, I could find of what Handley carried on its outbound voyages. Neither is there any record about its post-war career, if any. I did find that George Handley was scrapped in 1964 and it is reasonable to believe that the ship sent those 19 years mothballed in one of those reserve fleets like those on the Hudson River south of the Bear Mountain Bridge.     

Ordinarily, the saga about this ship would peter out right here. However, by a curious coincidence, when I first joined Marsh & McLennan in 1971, the manager of the firm’s world-wide marine operations was George W. Handley.

George was bigger than life and a natural leader. You knew Handley was present every time he entered the room. As one of my colleagues put it, “Working for Handley is like working for George C. Scott when he played Patton!”

Our George was a force that influenced and motivated all who fell under his spell. At the time I was beginning to come of age at the firm, I became his go-to guy for international business. George would travel to Europe and the far East to acquire shares of insurances for me to place in our domestic hull market. Soon, I came to realize that I was his assault trooper certain to fail in making the deal to convince marine underwriters to take a share of the latest international fleet George sent me out to peddle.

Sometimes, more aggressive underwriters gave me a lewd and blasphemous message to take

back to Handley. I never told him these messages and, when I’d report back to him that John Blackman, Terry Deeks, or Bill Petersen essentially threw me out of his office, he would thank me for my efforts and say, “I’ll get back to you later today.”

Later those afternoons, George would tell me over the phone to come up to his office. I was on nine, he was on eleven, at our head-quarters at 1221 Avenue of the Americas. I took the closest stairway two steps at a time.

George would explain to me what participations on our house clients I would have to set aside for those insurers he favored to place that risk. One time, I vented my frustration to him. I said, “You know, George, it can be tough being your sapper. I throw myself on the enemies barb wire with an explosive charge to create the path to glory.”

George got my message, In 1974, I was promoted to Assistant Vice President before anybody else. George, as was his style sent me the binder folder that the Marsh & McLennan directors received at their meeting in Dallas. It contained a personal note to me that read:

TO: JJD

From: GWH

Congratulations. It was a close vote, but I voted for you.

George Handley passed away in 1975 from a heart attack

The ironic part of this story is that in the 1960s and 1970s those Liberty Ships reached the end of any usefulness and were being scrapped in droves. One maritime entrepreneur thought up the idea to make scale model Liberty Ships cast from the steel from the actual sisters being scrapped.

George loved the idea and started collecting these steel models to give away to visiting customers and overseas brokers when they visited his office. I asked him one day: “George, I wonder what the Japanese and Germans really think about you giving them models built from the steel of the ships that heled to defeat them?”

That comment received a super scowl!

George never learned that one Liberty bore his name. There would have been no living with hm if he made this discovery.

Grant me this aside. George had a wicked sense of humor and loved to brag when good things were said about him. Sometime in about 1973, a short interview with Marsh’s CEO, Jack Regan.  appeared in Time Magazine when Time was an important news source. The piece quoted Regan as saying:

“Even Exxon, with all their expertise counts on Marsh & McLennan for their needs. For example, they depend on the advice of George Handley for their extensive marine operations.”

When George became aware of the piece, he let us all know, “Isn’t it nice. Time mentioned all four of us, Jack, Henry (Marsh), Don (McLennan) and me”

I informed those of us still around who knew George back in the day about my discovery. I voiced my opinion that had he known about that ship, he would have commissioned a heroic portrait of the SS George Handley fighting its way through rough seas on the North Atlantic in pursuit of victory.

Perhaps he would have lithographs made, framed for VIP customers, rolled up copies for the rest of us. Maybe, even Christmas cards!

The best reply to the idea of a framed original oil of the US George Handley hanging in GWH’s office behind his desk came from his former secretary, Diane Robertson, “John, you are absolutely right, and guess who would have had to feather dusted that stupid painting every single day!”

“On The Outside Looking In” will not publish next week, but, God willing and the Creek don’t rise, will return on July 13.     

Naming the Liberty Ships

June 2022 (Originally published in March 2014.)

During the first two years of World War II, Great Britain lost so many cargo ships that this island nation was forced to recognize a dreadful possibility; it would be starved out of the war unless it quickly acquired replacement ships. New ships had to be constructed rapidly, be simple to operate by the rawest of crews and be easily replaced. Only America had the resources to build them. Franklin Roosevelt adopted his “short of war” policy to d to authorize The Maritime Administration, (Marad) to adopt a modified British design for these new freighters, officially, the EC2-S-C1, but better known as the, “Liberty Ship.”

The first Liberty, Patrick Henry, was laid down on April 30, 1941, launched on September 27th and finished on December 30th.  FDR personally christened this ship one of fourteen launched that day. Patrick Henry took 150 days to fabricate from first steel to launch with a total building time of 244 days. Building time dropped dramatically to an average of 42 days as prefabricating techniques improved and, one ship, Robert E. Peary, went from first steel to launch in 4 days, 15 ½ hours.

In all 2,711 Liberty Ships were built in 18 shipyards. Almost all U.S. Flag Liberties were named after dead Americans. The famous included Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt but also James Buchanan and even Jefferson Davis. John Hancock was among signers of the Declaration of Independence so honored, but so were the less notable; William Hooper, Francis Lewis, Josiah Bartlett and Button Gwinnett.

Other patriots abound; Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Nathan Hale, Betsey Ross, Samuel Adams, Israel Putnam, John Paul Jones, Molly Pitcher, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine and Paul Revere. Names familiar from our Civil War; Julia Ward Howe, Matthew B. Brady, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Fredrick Douglass, Joshua Chamberlain, Barbara Frietchie, George A. Custer, Harriet Tubman, Jubal Early, Stephen A. Douglas, Winfield Scott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Longstreet and Philip H. Sheridan. (Alas, SS John W. Brown didn’t bear the fiery abolitionist’s name; John W. was an early 20th Century labor leader.)

Men and women adventurers and explorers included Davy Crockett, Wyatt Earp, Ponce De Leon, James (Wild Bill) Hickok, Amelia Earhart, Geronimo, Daniel Boone, Annie Oakley, Amerigo Vespucci, Kit Carson, Pocahontas, William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody and of course, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Famous American wordsmiths included Mary Austin, Charles Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, Anne Hutchinson, Zane Grey, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Emma Lazarus, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Ring Lardner, Joyce Kilmer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Cullen Bryant.

Song, dance, stage and sports; Abner Doubleday, P.T. Barnum, John L. Sullivan, Edwin Booth, Lou Gehrig, John Philip Sousa, Carol Lombard, Will Rogers, John Ringling, George M. Cohan, Christy Matteson, George Gershwin, Knute Rockne and George Gipp.

Inventors, industrialists, household names; Alexander Graham Bell, George Eastman, Samuel Colt, Richard Gatling, James Bowie, Edison, Morse, Robert Fulton, George Pullman, R.J. Reynolds, W. R. Grace, Goodyear, DuPont, John Deere, Glenn Curtiss and Wilbur Wright.

Architects, engineers, doctors, scientists, jurists; Mayo Brothers, George Washington Carver, Sanford White, George Goethals, Johns Hopkins and Booker T. Washington. Publishers, attorneys and politicians: Adolph S. Ochs, Edward Everett, Wendell Wilkie, Horace Greeley, Clarence Darrow, William Gorgas, John Marshall, James G. Blaine and Louis Brandeis.

Names local to New York; Al Smith, Samuel J. Tilden, Franklin K. Lane, C.W. Post, Floyd Bennett, William Floyd, Jacob Riis, and Peter Cooper.

The forgettable and forgotten; Uriah Rose (Arkansas politician founded the Rose Law Firm: see Hillary R. Clinton), Billy Sunday (evangelist), Sun Yat Sen (first president of the Rep. of China), Nachman Syrkin (Zionist), Andreas Honcharenko (no record found except her ship), Virginia Dare (first white person born in America), Albino Perez (Mexican politician, governor of New Mexico, assassinated one month in office), Archibald Mansfield (Reverend Mansfield led Seaman’s Church Institute), Sewell Seam (Appalachian coal mining developer), Hinton Helper (North Carolina, opposed slavery for curious reasons before the war; a white supremacist after the war.)

These and other names of ships can be explained by a fund-raising provision that any group that raised two million dollars in war bonds could nominate a name for a ship.

Far more Liberty Ships survived the war than had been anticipated as the tide for the Battle of the Atlantic turned in favor of the Allies by the later part of 1943. After V.J. Day, almost 1,000 U.S. Flag Liberties, declared surplus, became the backbone of international merchant fleets replacing the ships lost during the war. They remained a mainstay well into the 1960s until the container ship revolution finally sent them to the breakers. They were joined by their U.S. Flag sisters who had spent almost all of the years after the war resting and rusting tied up side-by-side in reserve fleets located in American bays and rivers. Deemed old and obsolete, they too were towed to scrap yards.

But two survived to carry on, the aforementioned, John W. Brown, based in Baltimore (named for the labor leader) and the Jeremiah O’Brien based in San Francisco. The O’Brien carries the name of a native of Maine who commanded the sloop, Unity that captured the HMS Margaretta at the Battle of Machias, ME, the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War. Both Liberties remain operational and make several short voyages in protected bays each season. May they live long and prosper.

The Long Life and Dramatic Death of the An 225 Mriya

Ukrainians proudly considered Mriya to be the queen of the skies. Mriya, meaning dream, and pronounced, Mer-EE-ah, like the heroine in “West Side Story.” Its existence ended suddenly and tragically on February 24, 2022 when Putin, began his war of aggression against Ukraine.

The An-225, a one of a kind, was at rest inside its custom-made hanger at Hostomel Airport outside of Kyiv. The crew had flown the giant home to its operating base on February 2nd, after it finished what turned out to be its last mission flying COVID test kits from China to Africa. On the first day of their invasion, the Russians bombed Hostomel and in the process, destroyed the An-225.

Ironically, the concept behind the design of this airplane was part of the Soviet Union’s (USSR) continual effort to compete with NASA’s space shuttle program. NASA had converted a surplus Boeing 747 to carry our prototype non-space ready shuttle Enterprise for non-powered launches allowing the crew to practice the necessary gliding techniques that the real shuttle pilots would need to make successful landings at the end of their missions.

Once the first shuttle, Columbia, went into space, the same 747 returned those shuttles that landed at Edwards Air Force Base back to the Kennedy launch center. Its final mission was to distribute the remaining shuttles to their retirement homes.   

The An-225 first flew on December 21, 1988. In 1990, it carried the Soviet’s version of their non-space ready shuttle, the Buran, model number, 1.01. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Buran space shuttle program was cancelled and the AN-225 was relegated to storage where it remained until 1994.

But the An-225 was clearly needed to satisfy the demands for an extreme heavy-lift cargo aircraft. No need to re-invent the wheel: the An-225 had a lifting capacity of 550,000 pounds.

Oleksandr Halunenko was the giant’s first pilot having the honor to be at the controls for its inaugiful first flight in 1988. Now, 76, he lives in retirement in a suburb of Kyiv not far from where the airplane he considers to be his child was destroyed.

Jeffrey Gettleman interviewed Mr. Halunenko for The New York Times, and wrote about his thoughts: “lt takes a lot to impress the Americans, but I’ll never forget the crowds that lined up to see us and no one knew where Kyiv was,” he laughed.

The Antonov Company re-purposed the Mriya for commercial use to fly extreme heavy-lift cargoes world-wide that no other airplane could handle. Powered by six monster jet engines, three under each wing and with a landing gear of 32 wheels, the An-225 was longer and heavier than any other airplane.

There are many videos made of the giant’s take-offs as the An-225 needed every foot of a runway to slowly lift off. Poised at the starting point of a runway, the airplanes wings drooped under the weight of its six engines and all of the fuel stored in those tanks. As the giant rumbled down the runway, the wings begin to rise as the giant gains speed. Still, the experienced crew knew that they must hold their charge bound to the runway for as long as possible while building up sufficient speed to lift the nose allowing the An-225 to leave the ground, overcome gravity’s pull and gently lift into the air, becoming airborne and achieving the miracle of flight.

“In 2001, Mr. Halunenko broke several aviation records, including for the heaviest cargo load ever lifted in the air. The plane also set the world’s record for transporting the longest piece of air cargo – a 138 foot-foot turbine blade – and hosting the highest-altitude art exhibition.”

“By 2004, Mr. Halunenko had retired as its pilot. But Mriya carried on. In the past two years it made hundreds of flights, often stuffed with COVID-19 supplies. For one journey to Poland, 80,000 people live-streamed the landing. Newly painted in yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, Mriya became Ukraine’s ambassador to the world.”

American intelligence warned that the Russians planned to seize Hostomel airport as part of their opening blitzkrieg, but for reasons we may never know, the Mriya’s owners didn’t fly their airplane to a safer location.

“At 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 24, the day the war started, Russian missiles slammed into a national guard base next to the airport. A few hours later, Russian helicopters blasted the airport with more missiles that hit the hangers where Mriya and other airplanes were stored.”

Like other giants of the sky from previous eras like the Hindenburg and the Pan American flying boats, this unique airplane is lost to history.

Still, Mr. Halunenko’s pride is intact. He told the reporter, “No other country has created such an aircraft. Mriya”, he added quietly, “(She gave) Ukraine prestige.”          

Mickey and Me

For over twenty years, everybody with whom I have come into contact knows that I wear a Mickey Mouse watch. They usually don’t comment on it, but I know they see it. Those that do initiate a happy conversation about the of joy they take to see me wearing what is essentially child’s time piece on the left wrist. I first began to wear it as an adult and I still do as a senior. I enjoy these conversations as much as they do, especially those special people who proudly reveal that they too are wearing Mickey on their wrists.

I didn’t always wear a Mickey Mouse watch. Growing up, I wore working men watches like Bulova or Longines and later Timex. My watch wearing joined the Big Leagues when my father presented me with an Omega Constellation at the lunch he hosted for me, my mom, and my future wife, Mary Ann, at the Officers Club at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when they still built warships there.

The lunch followed my graduation ceremony from St. Francis College held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. John, Sr. who sat in the balcony couldn’t resist telling me that his perch gave him a bird’s-eye view of the fact that the hair on the knob of my head was thinning, a sure sign of future baldness.

I thanked him for the watch and I silently cursed him for his unsolicited and deliberately cruel comment about my thinning hair that merely confirmed his S.O.B. status.

But I did love that watch that I wore for many years. My crowning moment wearing it came when my bosses at Marsh & McLennan assigned me to the Exxon account as their marine broker in 1978. At that time, our principal contact point with Big Oil was through their in-house insurance company called, Ancon, domiciled in Bermuda. Ancon’s president was Trig Tonenson, a senior financial professional at Exxon.

As I sat down in his office for my interview, I spied that he was also wearing an Omega Constellation. Slowly, I let him see that I also wore a Constellationt. No mention was made of this, but I believe this coincidence helped him to decide to accept me as part of Marsh’s Exxon team.

Unfortunately, as my Constellation closed in on its twentieth-birthday it became erratic requiring me to visit Tourneau for several expensive repairs. Eventually, not even the sacrament of Extreme Unction could keep my Constellation ticking.

My sorry state of being without a watch coincided with my approaching 25th anniversary at Marsh & McLennan. I decided to pay a visit to my buddy, Rich Mikulak, in our Human Resources Department to see if I could pick out a watch for my anniversary.

I explained to Rich: “I know firms have gotten away from the tradition of awarding members a watch to celebrate their 25th Anniversary of service, but I’m a traditionalist. My question to you is, do you have a specific jeweler I can use to get a discount on a watch I really want?” 

“John, I have to inform you that since you are a Managing Director (MD) at Marsh, you no longer qualify for a 25th Anniversary gift. Bob Clements, the firm’s President, has decreed that MDs would receive a clock on their 30th Anniversary.”

“Rich,” I replied, “Of course that would be the rule and do you know why? It will be just my f***ing luck that I won’t make thirty-years! I won’t get a watch and I won’t get a clock either.”

As it happened, I retired on April 1, 2000 and missed receiving my clock by sixteen months!

In August of 1996, our adult family made a trip to Disney World. We brought our son and daughter and their respective fiancée and fiancé and had fabulous time. At one of our dinners, they presented me with Mickey One, my first authentic Mickey Mouse watch. When his little arm is on the two and his big arm is on the twelvw; it’s two-o-clock!

 From the moment I strapped it to my wrist, this Mickey and his successors are the only watches I wear. Yes, Mickey One has had many successors in the last 26-years. I quickly learned that it would cost more to replace the battery than to replace the watch. Today, I wear Mickey Eight, or is it Ten or even Thirteen? I have lost count.

My current watch is an oversized version of the classic design. Because of this Mickey’s  size, comments on my watch have increased. This makes me happy as I know the joy he brings to other people.

Long live Mickey!  

“A Mike Fitzgerald Moment

We all own mental file cabinets. They are the place where we store all of the information that we acquire and decide to retain. The longer we live, the more extensive our filing cabinets become. One of the sad and crazy things about our filing system is the older memory files are the most familiar.

One of my favorite stories about recovering a little used item from her filing cabinet was told to me by my daughter, Elizabeth, who lived in Boston while in graduate school in the mid-1990s. “One night, I went to a party in Somerville and somebody at the party brought up the infamous 1978 playoff game where Bucky Dent hit a home run over the Green Monster that gave the Yankees the winning lead.

“Of course, they were all Red Sox fans and they gave me lip about being from New York.

“Yes, I admit, I am a Yankee fan and I watched the game on TV when Bucky Dent crushed your hopes.”

“Some guys challenged my sports credentials. So, I said, okay, how about I give you the name of every Yankees who started that game. They looked at me with awe as I accurately presented the Yankees players beginning with first base.

“As I repeated the team’s roll-call for that game, I had this strange feeling of wondering why I could recall this memory that I hadn’t thought about for almost twenty years and how I retained it. Even so, I didn’t give too much thought to why I had this power of memory. At the time, I was just glad to be able to put those obnoxious Red Socks fans in their place.” 

Both fortunately and unfortunately, the number of our filing cabinets grows and grows and senior moments occur with increased frequency. We learn to live with the frustration of losing immediate recall and learn to deal with this issue. One thing becomes obvious, “Don’t try to force it as that will only make it worse.”

Our best bet is to sit back, relax and let whatever that internal process is to work its magic until it can provide us with the correct answer. Of course, we hope it doesn’t happen at 2 am!

My friend, Mike Scott and I refer to this phenomenon as a “Mike Fitzgerald Moment.”

We named it after a chap who used to work for our firm in both the Minneapolis and Dallas offices. We both worked with Mike, but on different projects. Scott and I were riding on the Amtrak Northeast Regional on our way to Washington DC to see the sights and attend a Nationals baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Both of us hit a stone wall trying to recall his name. We went on to talk about many other subjects on the train, at dinner at the game and back at the hotel bar following the game. The next morning, as we were walking to a Metro stop, I blurted out, “His first name was Mike.”

“Fitzgerald,” Scott shouted back at me and we both stopped walking bent over in uncontrollable laughter. We toasted him later on at dinner.

On Mother’s Day, I had a Mike Fitzgerald Moment when I was talking to my son-in-law, Tom Briggs, about oddly named airports. “One of the curious ones is the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.”

But I couldn’t think of that historical entertainer’s name. Twenty minutes later, it came to me. I told Tom the name of the airport and then it once again disappeared from my memory. Rather than look it up which is the easy way out, I let my internal mechanism run with it. Before my memory of Will Rogers returned, I made stops at Chief Justice Earl Warren and the aviator, Wiley Post, (who ironically was flying the airplane when it crashed in Alaska killing himself and Will Rogers.)

Writing this piece should keep Mr. Rogers around for a while but I think I’ll say a little prayer for him that he remains resting in peace while he remains in my consciousness.

My latest happened last Thursday night at bedtime. As I laid down, I thought of the first American general to lead our troops in Viet Nam. I could see his tall and handsome image, his silver hair; but his name, not a clue. I told myself to go to sleep and wait for the morning. As I awoke, I silently demanded, “Who was it?” Without hesitation my mind replied, “Westmoreland, William Westmoreland”   

“Say goodnight, Gracie.”

“Goodnight, Gracie.”

(On the outside looking in will not publish next week and will return on June 8, 2022)              

“The Lady with the Braid”

I was delighted when Mary Ann told me that my cousin, Helen, had invited us to join her family for a week’s stay at Journey’s End located on the Connecticut River in Southwestern New Hampshire. We had heard nice things about this collection of cabins, the cost was reasonable even for us and we had no other plans. We jumped at the chance and Helen contacted the owner, Margaret Riling, to introduce us. 

That Spring of 1971 was one to remember. Mary Ann was pregnant with our second child, Michael, who was born on April 30th. Two weeks later, I lost my job as a cargo surveyor. This blow, shocking as it was, didn’t blindside me. I saw it coming but I hadn’t prepared for the obvious until it happened. Business had been slow for some time but ignorance is bliss. 

The culprit was the advent of containerization. For generations, cargo arrived at ports like New York on wooden pallets that were unloaded and stored on piers until delivery. Containerization changed that forever. By 1971 the number of surveys our firm conducted throughout the port of New York was halved from those we conducted in 1969. My boss, Don Lamont, gave me two week’s pay and agreed to pay me for two additional weeks if I didn’t find another job. 

My top priority was to find a cash and carry job to put money in our pockets while I sought a change in careers. I found an opening as a claims adjuster for Boyd, Weir and Sewell who represented a German steamship company, Meyer Lines. I interviewed with the claims manager, Henry Meehan, who was being swamped by a backlog of claims. My background fit but first, I had to meet with the principal of the firm, Mister Strauss. Strauss sat me down in his office but ignored my resume. He removed a yellow legal pad from a desk draw and began to ask me questions without looking up, jotting down my answers on the pad. When he finished, he put down his pen, looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you have a drinking problem?” 

I told him that I did not, and I was hired. Of course, I had no vacation days so, as our scheduled week at Journey’s End grew near, I confessed my dilemma to my boss, Henry Meehan. Henry was nice enough to give me off the Monday of the weekend we were to arrive and the next Friday when I would return to bring my family home. Henry’s offer exceeded anything I could have expected. I decided that I would clear up as much of their claims backlog as I could in my hopefully short time at the firm. 

Meanwhile, I had already begun my search for a real position. I applied to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for a position in their ports and airports division, the newly minted Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Marsh & McLennan as a hull insurance broker. The first two never panned out but I did secure a position at Marsh where I began the last week in August.

The time came for our Journey’s End vacation. Mary Ann and I headed north in our Dodge Dart with Beth, then twenty-months old, Michael, an infant of two months and our four-year-old mutt, Woffie. The ride was not without drama. Mary Ann made an exciting discovery as we headed out of Springfield, Mass when she realized Michael’s first tooth had popped through his gum. Not to be outdone, Beth put her hand in her mouth causing self-induced choking followed by vomit. Once things calmed down and we cleaned Beth, she announced that she could be sick again by saying, “Uh-oh, more schokin.” Fortunately, it was only a scare. 

We settled into Cabin No. 4, the Oriole, and I joined Don for a booze run to the Vermont and New Hampshire state package stores to get the best price. 

The weekend went by in a flash. Mary Ann’s mother, Dorothy arrived on Monday together with her grandmother, Kate to help with Beth and Michael in my absence. I reluctantly hit the road home Monday at mid-afternoon after their arrival.

Then, a strange thing happened just after I left my family and headed across the Connecticut River into Vermont and the southbound entrance to Interstate 91. The local AM radio station began playing a song I had never heard before. Its lyrics matched my mood just as I was about to begin my southbound journey: 

Would you care to stay till sunrise?

 It’s completely your decision,

it’s just that going home is such a ride.

Going home is such a ride,

going home is such a ride,

isn’t going home such a low and lonely ride?

I didn’t know the song was Dory Previn’s “The Lady with the Braid” that had just been released. It would haunt me for years to come until I finally re-discovered it on one of MS Previn’s albums.

My ride was uneventful except for the number of young semi-hippie hitchhikers who had taken to the road in that “summer of love.”

The following Friday, I left Middle Village at four in the morning and arrived a little after eight with a box of fresh Dunkin Doughnuts giving me a full last day before we headed home on Saturday. 

That Saturday was brutally hot, our Dodge Dart was without A/C and I still remember that long, hot ride through an oven called Connecticut. The only folks noticeably more miserable than us were motor cyclist in their leathers. Any breeze they found felt like a blow torch. 

Then and there I vowed our next car would have A/C.

(This piece was first published in 2018. With the title: “Journey’s End 1971.”)

The 2022 Opening

Spring was nowhere to be seen this last week in April when Mary Ann and I made our first trip of the season to open our vacation house in Marlow, NH (Zip Code 03456, I kid you not). The weather was more like winter with early morning temperatures dropping to 28 degrees.

We made this first trip to assess what problems have manifested themselves over the winter and what we had to do to get them fixed before family and friends began to join us. Our local plumber, JPP. had re-opened the plant by putting on the electricity and turning on the water earlier in April. He gladly let me know that he didn’t find any problems at that time which is great news as any water left in the system when he drained and closed the house in January would have surely revealed itself with breaks and leaks.

We also hire a neighbor to clean and vacuum the house and she too didn’t report any problems. Even so, we knew before we arrived that there were several issues that had to be rectified to put our house in order for this season. We had a list of work we knew had to be done. My Number One issue was pumping out the septic system. Since this is a vacation home, I arrange for this service every two years. The time was up this spring so I booked the work for May 2nd.

We also have two pine trees close to the house that have to come down. One is dead, but the problem is the live one is locked together with its dead cousin. I called Donny M, our local landscaper who concurred.

Donny came by in his 1960 Willys pick-up truck, painted a Dodger’s blue, proud as a peacock.  We talked about things going on in Marlow, the high cost of gasoline, how bad mud season was this year: “You know, John, at its worst, the school bus couldn’t get up Marlow Hill! Those folks had to take their children down to Route 10.”

He gave me a price of $400 to cut down the two pine trees and remove the wood. “Sounds good to me, Don, and I’ll include another $100 dollars to cover the first mowing of the season.”

My 2022 opening issues were exacerbated by my left knee that had become a bear reducing me to walking with a cane. Unable to handle basic chores, we asked our son, Michael and our grandson, Matt, to join us to help with the heavy lifting. Our son, did double duty helping us while at the same time working remotely on a difficult May 1 insurance renewal, But, between father and son, the tasks at hand were successfully completed

April 30 was our son’s 51st birthday and we celebrated accordingly with excellent Rib-Eye steaks, cooked on our Weber gas grill. We also gave Matt an appropriate payment of cash money for a job well-done.

WIFI in rural America, like electricity, is a habitual challenge. Our present provider is Consolidated Communications, who replaced Fairpoint, who bought out Verizon’s northern New England system about ten-years ago. It seems that Consolidated has finally done what is needed to adequately provide proper band width, etc., and we should have had a smooth 2022 resumption of service.

We should have, but that didn’t take into account the human factor, namely me. When I suspended service in early January, I also suspended our Direct TV service. What I forgot was the Direct TV satellite service automatically resumed on a date I gave them, but I had to call Consolidated in advance of our first visit to resume telephone and internet service.

My failure forced Mary Ann to make a series of desperate phone calls that ultimately resulted in a resumption of service. Thankfully, I got off easily.

All this confusion over electronic communications made me reflect back on that simpler time in 1984 when we first purchased Little House, a time before satellite TV, cellular, much less, smart phones, a time without internet or even computers when all we had was a single land line and a TV that picked up one television station by way of a roof-top antenna aimed at a signal being broadcast from Burlington, VT.

We packed up for our trip back to Port Washington on Sunday morning pleased with the condition to which we had restored Little House during our visit. Finally, a the promise of spring greeted us. Winter still ruled the land, but the sun warmed us as we finished packing the truck after 9 am. Our last task was helping to board our two very best friends, Max and Tessie, in their quarters in the back of our SUV.

As we finished that task, Mary Ann asked, “John, do you remember what today’s date is?”

I replied, “May 1st.”

“Indeed,” she replied. “Look around, what do you see?”

“OMG, May flies! I don’t believe they are actually making their presence known today of all days.”

The usual rule of thumb in New Hampshire for the black fly season is Mother’s Day to Father’s Day.

“Oh dear, first a terrible mud season, now a long black fly season; I can’t imagine what else we should expect to encounter this summer?”                      

That Should Hold the Little Bastards

Part Five: Early TV – Gaffs: The Road to Ruin

The title of this piece originated in a well-known, often told story of how to destroy a broadcasting career. Granted it supposedly happened on radio instead of television, but it was too good not to include. “Uncle” Don Carney had a half-hour kids’ radio show that aired on WOR radio from 1928 to 1947. As the story goes, one day after concluding his daily broadcast, Uncle Don uttered those words as he passed a hot mic: “There! That ought to hold the little bastards.”

Just one problem, dear readers: It never happened. Still, a great line like that will live on despite being but an urban legend and I’ll bet some of you actually believe that you heard it.

Tex Antoine

Herbert Jon Antoine Jr. better known as Tex Antoine’s faux pas was all too real. Tex began his weather career 1n 1949 for WNBT, a predecessor of WNBC in New York City. He worked with a cartoon sidekick he created known as “Uncle Wethbee. His nightly weather report, “…was a wonderful mix of weather, cartoon art and storytelling. He would start his weather segment standing next to an easel covered by blank pages, and he would proceed to draw the weather systems that were pertinent to the nation and the area. As his hands drew in the lows, highs and fronts, his voice would narrate their past and expected movements, and what their effects would be.”

Rumor had it that Antoine enjoyed imbibing John barleycorn which may have helped his demise?

Antoine left WNBC in 1966 for WABC-TV. On the newscast of November 26, 1976. His weather report followed a story about the attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl. Antoine quipped: “With rape so predominate in the news lately, it is well to remember the words of Confucius: ‘If rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.”

Say goodbye Tex – “GOODBYE TEX!”

Dick Schaap

Dick Schaap wore many hats while covering sports that included a stint as a local sportscaster on WNBC in the 1970s. Schaap was on duty during Secretariats triple crown run and victories during the 1973 racing season. After “Big Red” as the stallion was affectionally known won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, he was put out to stud and never raced again.

So loved by the public, Big Red’s celebrity status continued unabated. Sports writers filed stories from the stud farm on his progress. Unfortunately, the horse’s early attempts were less than expected and the papers were full of oddly written stories about Big Red and his mate, Riva Ridge. One night, Schaap had had enough so he noted during his broadcast that “Secretariat and Riva Ridge had become the most famous stable mates since Mary and Joseph.

The phone lines at NBC lit up after Schaap’s remark aired, but, fortunately, people still had a sense of humor in 1973 and cooler heads prevailed.

Jack Paar

For the record, the few times that I watched his incarnation hosting The Tonight Show, each time I walked away with the feeling that there was something really off about that dude.

On February 11, 1960, Jack Paar walked off the show in a huff that bordered on being hysterical confirming my belief that he wasn’t quite all there.

The flash point was a lengthy “shaggy dog” story he told the previous night that the NBC censors removed from the broadcast as being too risqué. A long joke made short; an English woman wishes to buy a house in Switzerland. She asks a local chap where the W.C. is located.

Failure to communicate leads the Swiss fellow to believe WC means a wedding chapel instead of a water closet (bathroom.)

The joke finishes with this Swiss person explaining that his daughter will be married there, inviting his British associate to attend her wedding and noting: “I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. Hoping to have been service to you, I remain, Sincerely, The Schoolmaster.”

A silly joke intercepted by stupid censors!

“Paar was really pissed off’ recalls hie then-sidekick, Hugh Downs. ‘He called a press conference the next day and announced he was going to do something really horrendous that night.’ Before the taping, Downs cornered Paar in his dressing room. ‘He was pacing back and forth, and finally said, ‘I’m leaving the show, Hugh.’ I assumed he’d tape the show and make a dramatic announcement at the end.”

“Paar had built his reputation on an ‘I-could-blow-at-any-moment’ emotionalism, and that night, he blew. After a three-minute skewing of NBC over the censorship, Paar, in tears, said, ‘There’s gotta be a better way to make a living,’ and walked off the stage.”

On March, 7th 1960, Paar returned to the show. He opened his remarks with, “As I was saying when I was interrupted…when I walked off, I said that there must be a better way to make a living than this. Well, I’ve looked and there isn’t.”

Paar left the show two-years later to be replaced by the best Tonight host of all time, Johnny Carson. Since then, all has been happy in TV land except for David Copperfield, Bill Cosby, Jamie Foxx, James Franco, R. Kelly, Matt Lauer, Les Moonves and Charlie Rose and Kevin Spacey, etc. etc. etc…’When will they ever learn…”      

Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night

Early TV: Part Four – Late Night / Early Morning TV

Today, TV is on the air twenty-four hours a day. Morning news programming on ABC, CBS and NBC begins at 4 AM. Fox starts at 4:30 AM. Between one am and four, they play re-runs of their popular shows.

Twenty-two years ago, when I was active, I would leave my house at 5:25 to catch the 5:36 Long Island Railroad train from Port Washington that deposited me into Penn Station at 6:20. Back then, WNBC’s local morning show hosted by Matt Lauer and Jane Hansen didn’t air until six am, followed at seven by The Today Show, one of NBC’s biggest money-makers.

Since 2000, Today has expanded from a two-hour broadcast into a four-hour monster. Understandably, NBC pushed this expansion after nine am so that their new entertainment segments didn’t interfere with early morning news, traffic and weather. ABC, CBS and FOX followed the same format. They all understood not to interfere with early morning commuter’s needs. Simon and Garfinkle explained these needs in, The Only Living Boy in New York:

“I get the news I need from the weather report,

I can gather all the news I need on the weather report.” 

On the back end, actual broadcasts once ended at 11 pm. We would realize that the broadcast was at an end when the stars and stripes flying in the wind appeared on the screen and a non-vocal recording of our National Anthem filled the speaker. Once the Anthem ended, the screen would revert to a test pattern, an image of a circle within a square with lots of curious information as an annoying tone filled the television’s speakers. This is the NBC test pattern:

(NOTE: For reasons beyond my control, I cannot include the test pattern in the body of this piece, If you are interested you can either look it up or let me know and I will send it to you separately.)       

The NBC Pattern was developed in variations of it became the staple of all television stations when they went off the air and before they resumed broadcasting the following morning. The lines and circles were designed to give electrical engineers the means to calibrate the stations visible image. NBC’s test pattern included an image of an “Indian Head,” positioned at twelve o’clock on their test pattern. The reason for using this image is lost to history, but my research found that it was used to set brightness and contrast. The test pattern was used by commercial TV from 1947 until 1977.

In their early days, most TV stations didn’t broadcast between midnight and Six AM on weekdays. Weekends, especially, Sundays, was anybody’s guess as “Blue Laws” prevailed in most of America. NBC was a leader in expanding these boundaries. First up was The Today Show that revolutionized morning news, information and entertainment beginning in 1954.

A late-night show followed that same year, Tonight Across America After Dark that originally aired from 11:20 to Midnight on Weekdays. The inaugural host was Steve Allen, but in 1957, NBC picked Allen to host NBC’s new Sunday night variety show. A gaggle of minor league talent filled in as hosts including Jack Lescoulie and Al “Jazzbo” Collins until Jack Parr took the reins of the newly formatted Tonight Show Starring Jack Parr.

NBC had gone two for two in re-defining weekday morning and late-night TV. Then, on October 11, 1975, they unveiled their latest venture, the show that revolutionized late-night weekend TV, Saturday Night Live. Produced by Lorne Michaels, SNL remains on the ai, r and has run for 47 seasons with over 925 episodes.

When you look-up the original cast, it is hard to believe that it included so many stars, all still household names: Loraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris and Chevy Chase.

Sunday afternoon was the dead zone. The 1950s church going Christian America’s ritual included the Three PM dinner centered around a Sunday Roast, beef, chicken or ham, mashed potatoes, beans and / or other vitals depending on geography, religion, family and origin.    

The oddest late-night show was Open End hosted by David Susskind. It was truly open ended with no set time to leave the airways. The show began at 11 pm on Sunday nights with suggested end time of one am, But it could continue into the wee hours of Monday morning. His guests included the likes of James Baldwin, William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer who would discuss, debate and at times shout at each other about current and controversial events, thoughts and beliefs.

Most guests were male smokers and a veil of smoke descended as the show continued. Alcohol also seemed to be available to guests at least surreptitiously as the FCC banned all alcohol on TV

I watched it several times especially if Buckley was a guest who could hold his own with anyone. I remember one memorable evening when Buckley went at it with Mailer. Mailer was pissed off from the start over the preface in Buckley’s new book. One of Buckley’s friend and associate wrote the preface and he made the comment that Mailer was a freak.

Mailer went on and on about the comment as Buckley posed in an armchair slumped down, head leaning on the back of the chair and with his legs dangling to one side. Finally, Mailer stopped for air. Buckley tilted his head toward Mailer so their eyes met then spoke in his peculiar Connecticut / Yale accent: “Ah, but, ah, well, ah, but, ah, Mr. Mailer, you are a freak.”

Now, that’s entertainment.

“And Away We Go”

Part Two: Early Network Variety Shows

When Drew called me to ask about early television, he asked one question that brought forth a tidal wave of memories: “Grandpa, who was the one person that stands out from all others on early television?”

My instinctive reply was, “Milton Berle! Drew, he was television’s first superstar and the first to have his own TV variety show. Uncle Milty was a veteran stage comedian who gained fame entertaining mostly Jewish people on vacation in summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains that became known as the Borsch Belt.”

“Berle depended mainly on sight-gags that mostly took advantage of him. Slapstick, overdressed in drag costumes, one mimicking Britain’s Queen Victoria, insulting the audience and being the victim of pranks by the crew and fellow actors were all part of his routine. Being hit in the face with pies was common. Uncle Milty took it to a new level. If someone used the expression ‘make-up’ in a skit, within seconds, a man would appear from back-stage holding an enormous bowl of powder. He’d come right up to ‘Uncle Milty,’ take out an enormous powder puff and smash it into Milty’s face while repeating: ‘Makeup.”

“We didn’t even have a TV when I first saw the show. The hour-long show was carried on NBC each Tuesday night from 8 to 9 pm and, one night, my mother and I were invited by our next-door neighbor, Mrs. (Florence) Meyer (who also didn’t have a television set) to join her in visiting a relative who lived two blocks from our house to watch the show.”

“I remember a crowded living room, a sea of adults, a very small screen in the distance where I could make out vague black and white images. I understood that this was unique even if only because my normal bedtime was 7 pm and my mom must have thought this was important enough that I was allowed to watch it.”

  “The actual name was The Texaco Star Theatre starring Milton Berle. Texaco was the only sponsor and the show began and ended with four male chorus line actors dressed like Texaco mechanics. They began the show by walking onstage in front of a curtain. One carried a gas pump, the second, a wrench, the third, something that looked like a metal soup plate to collect oil, and the fourth, a portable jack. They broke into song. The opening lines were:

Oh, we’re the men of Texaco,

We work from Maine to Mexico,

There’s nothing like the Texaco of ours…

Uncle Milty ran from 1948 until 1956 and his show was but the first nugget from a gold mine of variety shows that owned TV in the 1950s.

Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town soon followed on CBS. His 60-minute variety show aired from 8pm to 9 pm on Sunday nights. Sullivan was a former gossip columnist for the Daily News who had been writing a popular column entitled: Little Ole New York, since 1932. He seemed to know everybody who was anybody in New York.

One of the features of his show was Sullivan calling out members of his studio audience who had recently accomplished something extraordinary.  Pre-planned, he would seem to be searching for that individual. Once he spotted them, he’d announce, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are honored to have (for example) John Glenn in the house tonight. Commander Glenn has just broken the speed record flying his US Navy fighter jet from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds at a speed of 725.55 mph. Stand up Commander Glenn and give him a hand”

Comedian Alan King, a frequent guest summed up Sullivan’s talents: “Ed Sullivan can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t tell a joke, but he does it better than anyone else.”

Other shows joined Berle and Sullivan. Croner, Perry Como starred in the Perry Como Chesterfield Show, a 15-minute presentation that ran three nights a week beginning in 1950.

Arthur Godfrey switched from radio to TV in 1949. His most memorable incident was when he fired his singing sensation, Julius LaRosa, an act of anger that hurt both of their careers.

Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows had a relatively short life (1950 to 1954) and is best remembered for its brilliant writers that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond and Carl Reiner.

Jackie Gleason’s Cavalcade of Stars debuted in 1949 on the DuMont network before jumping to NBC the following year. Gleason would begin each show with an opening monologue and then transition to one of his set pieces with the line:

  • And away we go!

These pieces included, Joe the Bartender, The Poor Soul, Crazy Guggenheim, Reggie Van Gleason and the Honeymooners. By 1955, Gleason wanted to move on so he ended his variety show and spun off The Honeymooners as a half-hour situation comedy.

Gleason played Ralph Kramden, a city bus driver who lived with his wife, Alice in a walk-up Brooklyn pre-WW II apartment. Audrey Meadows played Alice on the big show and the comedy series. Art Carney, played their neighbor, Ed Norton, and, Joyce Randolph, played his wife, Thelma, “Trixie” Norton. Ed worked for the NYC Department of Sewers. The show’s staging was set in the Kramden’s kitchen.

Ralph Kramden had a line that was nothing less than a threat of wife-beating that was acceptable in those days: “One of these days, Alice, pow to the moon.”

Considered a classic situation comedy, the actual show that premiered in 1956 didn’t receive good ratings and only lasted 39 episodes.

The era of variety shows continued for several decades and included ones like The Steve Allen Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Laurence Welk, The Smother Brothers Show, In Living Color, Hee-Haw and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Today, reality shows like Survivor, various versions of Real Housewives, America’s Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor and American Idol fill the airwaves. Thanks anyway, I’ll take a pie in the face or “Make-up” instead any day of the week.