Moments in a Life: Highs & Lows
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
High tides and low tides in my life
The jazz player
When I was in the army, in 1954, I played guitar with a couple of buddies. One was a trumpet player from L.A. His name was Richard Berg. Another guy from L.A., named Richie something, was a bass player. He was a friend of the trumpet man. There was also a piano man, a kind of straight character who liked to play things like “How much is that doggie in the window?” (Yechh!). The four of us used to get gigs to play for dances at the officers’ club at White Sands Proving Grounds, where we were stationed.
On alternate Sundays Richie, Rich Berg, and I would get in Richie’s Buick Roadmonster and drive to El Paso. On Dyer street, only a couple of miles from the U.S. 85 intersection on the north end, there was a motel called the Westerner (see picture) where they held jazz jam sessions every other Sunday. Anyone with an “ax” could come and play; anyone else could come and listen. A lot of really good up-and-coming jazz artists could be found wailing away there on Sunday afternoons, as well as some rather so-so musicians.
The Westerner Motel was a sort of rustic western type place, with big rough-hewn beams and large picture windows. It was the local Mecca for jazz aficionados.
The Westerner Motel in El Paso (1954). Photo by the author.
I used to bring my Gibson ES-300 electric guitar there and do my best to remember the changes to whatever was being played. Most of the time it was straight blues. Those who know anything about jazz know the standard blues changes and can do them in their sleep. I would play a solo when it was my turn—turns were never announced or pre-arranged, but everyone seemed to know when it was their turn. My solos were not very exciting, but they were usually adequate. Until one particular Sunday. That Sunday brought one of the moments that stands out in my life.
That Sunday we had brought the post librarian with us. She was a middle-aged woman who apparently thought young. She liked jazz and when we happened to mention to her where we were going, she asked to come along.
My moment came late in the afternoon, when we were playing one of those never-ending blues jams, with an almost endless succession of solos by a constantly changing series of musicians. One of them was a trumpet player who was very good. Good enough that Richard Berg didn’t even want to get up there and embarrass himself. We had never seen this trumpet player before, and we never saw him again.
About mid-way through this jam it was my turn for a solo. For a change, I came up with some good riffs. I ended my solo with one of them. To my surprise, the trumpet player—whose turn had come up—echoed back my closing riff. Rising to the occasion, I played another short riff. The trumpet man immediately came up with a riff of his own, continuing the theme I had just played. And we were off to the races.
For quite a while—it was probably five or ten minutes, but it seemed like a lot longer at the time—the trumpet man and I kept up an “answering voices” routine. When the instruments are the same, it’s called “dueling” whatevers. But we were really wailing. My fingers flew over the frets of my guitar as if they had a life of their own. Every note I played came out exactly as I wanted it to, and for me that was unprecedented. I was “flowing,” although at the time I had never heard the term and didn’t know what was happening.
When we finally stopped and gave one of the others a turn, we got a rousing round of applause from the other musicians as well as from the thin crowd of jazz aficionados who were listening to the jam session. When I went back to our table to sit down, the librarian looked at me strangely and said, “I had no idea you could play that well.”
I just looked at her—neither had I.
But from that day on, my guitar playing was at least one hundred percent better than it had been before. Something magical happened that afternoon. I’ll never forget it.
Before that magical jam session I was never very good at improvising. In fact, I could barely manage to fake it. Afterwards, everything was different. The proof of the pudding, so to speak, came several months later, after I had been discharged from the Army. I was staying at my parents’ house in Short Hills, New Jersey, and my mother happened to mention to her hairdresser that I played the guitar. Her hairdresser was also a musician, and he hooked me up with a couple of guys in nearby Newark who had lined up a potential gig in Asbury Park and needed a guitar man to round out a trio. One of them, whose name I have long ago forgotten, played the piano. The other one played bass as I recall.
I went to the apartment of one of these fellows so we could practice a bit before going to Asbury Park for an audition. We played a number of standards together, and whenever it was my turn to play a solo I literally blew them both away. All they could do was shake their heads in awe. They even said things like, “I can’t believe the way you do that.” Or words to that effect. Even I was impressed by their reaction.
But when we got to Asbury Park, everything fell apart. We were blind-sided when we discovered it was an open-air concession and that there apparently had been a communications breakdown somewhere, and the guy who owned the place really wanted some kind of honky-tonk band, not a jazz trio. Although the two others tried their best to line up something else, nothing ever panned out. I don’t think I ever played professionally again. A sad ending for what could have been an interesting career, at least as a sideline.
My guitar playing ended for good in the mid 1960s when a guy who was a house guest of ours stole my guitar, among some other items, when he left us in the middle of the night while he was supposed to be baby-sitting our kids. That’s how some folks will treat you when you’re trying to give them a break.
How to play the game
Once when we were living on Cherokee Way in Boulder, our next-door neighbors, the Barkers, invited us over for dinner. While the women were in the kitchen talking about the meal, the guy suggested playing a game of his. I think it was called “Bridges” or something like that. It proved to be a game of strategy. As we played, he pointed out what some of these strategies were. He beat me pretty badly in the first game and seemed rather smug about it. Sort of patronizing. Like here he was, the great expert, showing the nincompoop how to play the game.
By the time we started the second game, I had it figured out. The strategy seemed somehow related to chess. I was pretty good at chess, having beaten most of the people I had played over the years—except Victor Traibush. Vic was my life insurance agent as well as a life master chess player. He had been the Colorado state champion a couple of times. We played once, and he beat the bejesus out of me. But I digress.
As the second game progressed, it became evident that I was getting much better at it. The guy seemed quite annoyed that I had caught on so fast and was now beating him at his own game. I noticed this but figured it served him right for acting so smug during the first game. Rather than letting up, I pressed my attack and beat the stuffing out him. That really miffed him. He tried not to show it, but I noticed anyway. Well, it was his idea to play the damned game, wasn’t it? So he had nobody to blame but himself.
If you don’t like it hot, stay out of the kitchen.
As Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) used to say, people are so weird!
When you know you’ve finally made it
Back in the mid-60s we were into autocrossing. We were members of a group called TAC—Timing Association of Colorado. Every autumn TAC held a series of autocrosses which they called The Fall Four. It was a championship series, with the series winners being determined by their finishes in each of the four events. One of the members of TAC was a guy named Ron Hunter—Round Ron as we often referred to him. He was an SCCA race driver of some local repute. Ron also owned a business in Boulder called MotorSports. They specialized in fixing up cars for racing purposes. In fact, I was at Motorsports on November 22, 1963, keeping tabs on some work they were doing on our Corvair Monza Spyder. When we got home, we heard about Kennedy on the radio. An announcer was saying that so–and-so had just appeared and said that the president was still alive (which was false, of course). I thought that was an odd thing for him to have said, so we both started listening closely—and the rest is history. The following Sunday we were at an autocross in Broomfield when someone came shouting the news that Oswald had been shot. But I digress again.
Ron was always concerned about my driving. He didn’t think I was very good. I probably wasn’t at the time.
Now fast forward to 1967. I was driving our new 390 Mustang, named “The Bluebird,” in the Fall Four. My chief competitor was a guy in a BMW 2000 TI. He was pretty good. He beat me in one of the first three events; I beat him in the other two. But the points were so close that it all came down to who won the final event. After two of our three runs I was running just a shade ahead of the BMW. On my third run I went out and smoked the course. I knocked a full second off my previous run. Let him match that, I thought to myself.
I got out of my car and walked over to the timing board. The BMW was out on the course, and I wanted to see if he would beat my time. When I got to the timing board, I saw Ron Hunter standing nearby. As the BMW crossed the finish line, the timing people called his time in to the guy at the board, who quickly wrote it down. I saw immediately that I had won.
Then I heard Ron Hunter ask the guy at the timing board, “Did he beat his time?”
“No,” replied the timing board man.
Ron immediately turned to the guy next to him, put out his hand palm up, and said, “Pay me!”
I was stunned. Ron Hunter had actually bet money on my driving. I knew I had finally made the grade.
My parents celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in Las Cruces. We had a party at one of the local restaurants (“Billy the Kid” at the Holiday Inn). During the dinner we were having conversations about everything in general and nothing in particular. At one point I volunteered my definition of karma.
“Karma,” I announced, “is when your kids get to do all the things you never got to do when you were young. Except they do them to you.”
Dan, in particular, laughed uproariously at this remark, as well he might!
The best apple pie
My Dad used to do a lot of the cooking in our house. He was an excellent cook. One of his specialties was deserts. One particular evening—probably a Sunday—he baked an apple pie. Just as we had finished the main course and were preparing to have desert, a friend of ours named Mike Sadjera (yes, he was of Polish ancestry) came over to see my brother. Dad told him he could sit in the living room and wait until Richard could join him. Then Dad served the apple pie. He asked Mike if he would like a piece of the pie, but Mike said no thanks, he had just eaten. We dug into the pie.
It was a very good apple pie, and before you know it we had eaten the whole thing. At that point, Dad leaned back in his chair and announced, “Poor Mike! That was probably the best apple pie there ever was, and he didn’t have a piece.”
We all roared with laughter. My dad was no shrinking violet when it came to tooting his own horn (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?).
Take me out to the ball game...
On second thought, don’t bother. I’ve never been a really big sports fan. I guess it’s because I was not good at most games kids play. I liked some games, especially football. I was fairly good at football, mainly because I could run faster than most other kids. I also liked to play baseball, although I was never very good at it. Basketball I never got the hang of. All of this led to some strange happenings when I was in high school.
My mom gave me the weirdest shorts to wear for gym class. They were long and baggy. The other kids made fun of me, calling me “droopy drawers.” Man, was I ahead of my time, or what? Today I would have fit in perfectly. All the kids wear droopy drawers today. If one of them doesn’t, I guess he’s the one who gets made of fun of nowadays. How times change!
I suppose I could fit my high school sports highlights onto a single page. There sure as hell weren’t many of them! Once, during gym class when we were playing touch football on the regular football field, a guy named Joe Carty broke loose for a long run. I took off after him. I chased him clear across the field and finally caught him around the twenty yard line. When I tagged him out, he sure was surprised. After that the other guys called me “Sneaky Pete” for a while. Joe became a successful dentist. He died of a sudden heart attack in 1989, a few weeks after our 40th class reunion. One thing I am good at is being a survivor.
I had one shining moment in baseball, as well. One day I saw something on the back of a box of Wheaties breakfast cereal. It said that you should tap the outside edge of home plate with your bat to make sure you were positioned right. I don’t know if it really worked or not, but it did give me some much-needed confidence. The next time I was at bat in one of our gym-class baseball games I used it to my advantage. When the pitcher saw who was at bat, he threw a real easy pitch. He thought I was an easy out, as usual. Boy, was he wrong! I smacked that sucker for a solid double out into center field. Everyone was dumfounded—and I mean everyone. Comments such as “Did I see what I thought I saw?” were bantered about.
By the way, when I say “baseball,” most of the time we were playing softball. When we were kids we called them both “baseball.” One was “hardball,” the other was “softball.” Purists maintain that softball is a different game, and that only hardball is baseball. Bullshit! Both games are played with three bases and a home plate. In both you get three strikes, and you’re out. Four balls gets you a walk to first. The first two fouls count as strikes. You hit the ball with a bat. Each team has a pitcher, a catcher, three basemen, a shortstop, and outfielders. How similar can you get? The only real difference is the ball you play with. One is hard, the other relatively soft. Hence, hardball and softball. I rest my case. (I suppose, however, that the devil is in the details, as usual.)
Some strange things happened because I wasn’t very interested in sports. I enjoyed playing games, but I paid little or no attention to professional sports. One day in the school cafeteria, some guy made a bet with me as to who would win the World Series—when it was already over. I never paid him. I didn’t think it was fair, making a bet on something that was already history. That was probably in the eighth grade. By the time I was a junior or senior, I had gotten interested enough to watch the World Series on television. I remember watching a so-called Subway Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was years before they moved to Los Angeles. Their nickname was “The Bums.” I guess Brooklyn was a good place for bums to live.
I had more shining moments playing football. Most of the time we played touch football (today’s tag football had not been invented yet), but sometimes we played tackle. Once we decided to play tackle on the school grounds of the old Sherman Avenue school (I had been in the last class to graduate from that elementary school; the building is still there—they turned it into condos years ago). One of the players on the other team was an Italian kid from Montclair (we usually called them “wops” or “ginneys,” but not to their faces, of course; everyone took things like that for granted in those days—they probably had their own word for us palefaces). On the kickoff, I got the ball and proceeded to run down the field with it. Suddenly I found myself facing the Italian kid. I just ran straight at him. He apparently expected me to try to fake him out, as he suddenly cut to the left. I breezed by for the score. Afterwards he came up to me and said, “Kid, you fool me!”
A little later in the game the same boy came up to me and said, “Kid, you’re chicken!” I just stared at him. It was a pretty accurate diagnosis. But we played long and hard that afternoon. When the game was finally over, the boy came up to me and said, “I was wrong, kid. You’re not chicken.” Maybe he saw something I didn’t.
How sweet it is!
I suppose most of us at one time or another dream of going back to the old gang we knew in our school days and show them how we’ve made it better than they thought we would. My sweet moment came at our 15th high school class reunion, held at the Glen Ridge, New Jersey, country club in November of 1974. At the end of a fun and festive evening we were getting our wraps when Sally Croake came up to us—the same Sally Croake who used to live across from me on High Street and saw me pretend to drink water out of the gutter one day.
Sally was about three sheets to the wind by the time the reunion was over, but she knew what she was saying. In fact, she probably wouldn’t have said what she did had she been sober. She looked at Retta and told her, “When we were in high school, we all figured that David would have to settle for whatever he could get. But look at you! You’re beautiful!”
She was right, on both counts.
How sweet that moment was—because I knew she wasn’t the only one of my classmates who probably thought the same thing that evening. She was just the only one who actually came out and said it.
The look of reappraisal
I speak here of the wide-eyed, thoughtful look that someone gives you when they suddenly realize they need to revise their image of you. I have had this happen to me in a striking fashion at least twice.
The first time was in 1982 when I was doing some consulting work for the Septor Corporation in El Paso, Texas. Septor was the baby of a man named Roger Lovrenich (pronounced love-wren-itch). The company ultimately developed a modernized automobile assembly line system utilizing hardened microcomputers. It was used, I believe, on the Saturn assembly lines for General Motors. One of the men working there was a graduate student in computer science by the name of Harley Myler. We did not get off to a good start, and he seemed to dislike me. One day Roger came into the room where Harley and I and a couple of others were and announced that Robin, a British engineer who was working with Roger on some of the Septor development plans, had run into a programming problem. It seemed that whenever he got a program running using the Microsoft BASIC compiler and then transferred the program to a ROM (Read Only Memory), it stopped working. Roger wanted to know if anyone had any ideas on what might be causing this. I immediately replied with a list of three things that could be done to determine why this was happening. As I was doing so I happened to notice Harley out of the corner of my eye. He was giving me The Look. Afterwards, when the others had all left, Harley approached me and said, “Wow! Three ideas, all of them good.” He was obviously impressed. His look had already told me, I've got this guy all wrong—time to revise my thinking! After that we became rather good friends.
The second time I saw this look was in 1991. I had been working for six months in Phoenix on a project to develop the new RoomFinder III software for the Ramada Inn chain. We were working with software running on the QNX (pronounced cue-nix) operating system that would be installed on computers at each property (hotel world lingo for a hotel or motel—itself a word that was a big no-no). These would communicate via modem with the mainframe in Phoenix. I was supplied to the Ramada group through an outfit called Advanced Business Consultants, Inc. operating out of Mission, Kansas. My contact there was a nice (and attractive) young lady named Debbie Crandall. This particular night Debbie was taking me and two other guys who were working for ABC in the Phoenix area to a sort of farewell dinner, shortly before we were due to return to our previous occupations. During the course of conversation over dinner, I chanced to quote The Eagles. I said that something we were talking about reminded me of the lines at the end of Hotel California:
Relax, said the night man
We are programmed to receive;
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave.
Immediately after saying this I saw Debbie giving me The Look. Later she told me that she was surprised that I would be so familiar with the lyrics of a rock and roll song. I guess she figured all 60-year-olds were fossils. Boy, could I have given her an earful! But I didn’t. Some things are better left unsaid.
The tarantula that learned fast
This is far from the most amazing thing I ever saw, but it is certainly worth repeating here. It happened in the New Mexico desert near the White Sands Proving Grounds (now Missile Range) in the fall of 1953. Jim Andress and I, along with a few others whose identities I have forgotten now, were hiking across the desert from the Army post where we were stationed toward the Organ Mountains, to see what we could manage to climb. Along the way we had picked up some walking sticks harvested from sotels. The sotel is a plant that resembles a yucca, with long spiny leaves growing from a compact base. When the sotel blooms, it does not have a cluster of flowers like a yucca, but rather a sprig of fine, light-colored tendrils that looks something like a giant version of some kind of grass, like oats or barley. These flowers are supported by a long, sturdy stalk. (See picture.) After the flowers have long since gone to seed, the stalk remains on the sotel. They are not difficult to break off at the base, and once the remains of the flowering top have been removed, what is left makes a marvelous walking stick for use in the desert. Jim and I had both gotten sotel sticks to aid us in our hike.
Texas Sotel. Photo by the author
As we climbed up the gentle slopes behind one of the ubiquitous terminal moraines that line the edges of the Organ mountain range, we crossed several large slabs of rock. On one of these slabs we encountered a tarantula, walking slowly across the rock face. This was a fairly large spider, hairy and perhaps six inches from the tips of its front legs to the tips of its hind legs. Without really thinking about it, I suddenly planted the end of my sotel stick right in front of the marching tarantula. Instantly the spider pounced on the end of the stick and attempted to bite it with its fangs. Of course, this did not work, and the tarantula quickly abandoned its “prey.” After a few more seconds, I tried putting the end of my sotel stick in front of the spider again. But this time the tarantula completely ignored my stick, walking slowly around it as if it were just another obstacle to avoid.
The strangest coincidence that ever happened to me
Once upon a time … well, actually, it was about 1965 or thereabouts, in the winter time, probably around the Christmas holiday season, I was in a small gasoline station in Boulder, Colorado, which was on the corner of Pearl and 28th streets. The owner of that gas station was a friend of mine and a really nice guy. He let me go through the change in his cash register whenever I was in there, so I could pick out any coins of value to a coin collector—which I was doing at the time. Of course, I always replaced the coins I took out with common date coins from my pocket. The owner (whose name I have forgotten) trusted me implicitly, and I never let him down.
On this particular cold winter’s night, I was in the office of this gas station going through the coins when a customer came in from the dark. He struck up a conversation with the owner, and the word “Florida” came up. I looked up from what I was doing and remarked that my parents were vacationing at Pompano Beach, Florida, at that very time. But I mispronounced the word “Pompano,” putting the accent on the second syllable instead of the first (at the time, I had no idea what a pompano was). The stranger immediately corrected me, saying “That’s Pompano Beach,” putting the accent on the first syllable, where it belongs.
“How the heck do you know?” I asked.
“Because I live there,” he replied, and we all laughed.
I admitted that this was a rather good reason for him to know how to pronounce the name. But I was nearly struck dumb by the amazing coincidence. How likely was it that on a cold December night some fellow would walk into that service station who happened to be from the very place where my parents were vacationing at the time? What are the odds against it? A million to one?
My most humiliating moment
This happened when I was in grade school and we were living on High Street in Glen Ridge. It all started because of the rest rooms they had in schools in those days. The boy’s rooms (I never saw the inside of a girl’s rest room, so I can’t say if they were the same) were arranged with urinals along one wall and open stalls on the other side. There was absolutely no privacy. I was extremely self-conscious in those days and did not want to expose myself in front of other kids, whether they were boys or not. I think I imagined that all the other boys were hung like my father and would make fun of my puny penis. At any rate, I would go to great lengths to avoid having to use one of the rest rooms.
This particular day I had been fighting the urge to urinate for some time. I went to the children’s room at the library, which was in the nearby municipal building, to pick up some books I wanted to read. There was a long line waiting to check out books. As I stood in the line, the urge to urinate grew ever stronger. Finally, the urine broke the surly bonds of my bladder and began spraying all over the inside of my knickers. In a blind panic, I threw the books on an adjacent table and bolted for the door. I ran all the way home, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of a half mile away. It’s too bad nobody timed me, because I probably set a world record in the half-mile run for my age group that day.
When I arrived home, I carefully hung up my now-smelly knickers in my closet. Then I made the big mistake of announcing to my mother that I had hung up my pants. Since I ordinarily never did this, she naturally went to see why. Shortly she appeared and announced, “I found out why you hung up your pants, young man.” As you might suspect, I was in deep doo-doo. I don’t recall what happened to me for that one.
The day I ran away
One day while I was attending the Central Elementary School and we were living on High Street (hence, between fall 1938 and spring 1941), I decided to run away from home. I had no plan nor had I prepared for this wonderful adventure. But when I got the intersection of Belleville Avenue and High Street, I turned up Belleville instead of continuing up High Street to our home. I turned north at Ridgewood Avenue (the main drag) and walked several blocks. When I got to Bay Avenue, I turned east, and then west on Essex Avenue (see the map, which shows my entire route). Between Essex Avenue and Broad Street (in Bloomfield), I found an empty lot, which I decided would be my new home. I wandered about in that lot for the better part of an hour, I suppose. I watched a postman delivering mail to houses in the area. And I found a neat dirt cliff on the east side of the lot, overlooking Broad Street and some houses along it.
Finally, I decided I had had enough of this bizarre escapade, and I started retracing my path. By the time I got to Wildwood Terrace, it was late afternoon. I looked down that street and felt that if I turned there, I would get to our house from the opposite direction. I should have followed my intuition, but I didn’t. I continued along my original path, and when I turned up High Street to go home, I was accosted by some ruffians who had some sport with me for a few minutes. One of them threw my cap in the air and it landed on top of a parked car, where I could not reach it. They left, and after several futile attempts to retrieve the hat, I gave up and went home. Of course, when I walked in the door I was “in dutch” as we used to say. My mother did not buy the story of how I had lost my hat, so she never went the hundred yards or so down the street to get my cap. It was lost. And I was sent to bed without any supper. I think that was the only time that particular punishment was meted out to me, although other kids I knew had experienced it frequently.
It was not a very bad punishment, I thought. At least I hadn’t taken a licking for it, which I had expected. And later that evening, my mother brought me something to eat after all. She said she felt sorry for me. Like most mothers, she had a tender spot in her heart for her children.
My most embarrassing moment
This episode happened when I was about to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder. In mid-September of 1955 I arrived in Boulder and went looking for my friend, John Symonds, who had attended been enrolled in the summer session there. I knew he had been living in the Baker Hall dormitory, so I went looking for it. The map of the campus was, however, rather misleading, and I ended up going into Farrand hall instead of Baker. Farrand Hall was a women’s dormitory in those days. The place was empty, it being between the summer and fall terms at the time. I wandered up and down the hallways looking for someone to ask about my friend’s whereabouts. At last I spied light coming out of an open doorway. Hastening to the spot I looked inside only to see a young woman clad only in bra and panties. I was terribly embarrassed and—quickly realizing my mistake—I beat a very hasty retreat out of the building. As I hustled down the hallway I heard the young woman’s door slam shut behind me. I didn’t blame her at all. She was likely at least as embarrassed as I was, not to mention being pissed off that a male was in a women’s dormitory.
Okay, everybody into the back seat!
This amusing incident happened in 1955. Three of us—Meredith Ann Fairlamb, her friend Sue Crumpacker, and I—were returning to the East Slope of Colorado after having spent the Thanksgiving holiday at the home of Meredith’s parents, Samuel and Esther Fairlamb, who lived in Delta, Colorado—the ancestral home of the Nutter clan. The date was probably Sunday, November 27, 1955. In the gathering gloom of the early winter’s night it began snowing as we passed through the little town of Keystone on the long grade leading to Loveland Pass, at nearly 12,000 feet one of the highest passes over the Continental Divide. By the time we neared the summit the snow was accumulating fast and the rear tires of my 1949 Oldsmobile 88 began to slip. Quickly I told the two girls to jump into the back seat for added traction. Without a word they both vaulted over the front seat and into the back. Between the two of them I doubt they weighed 200 pounds, but it proved to be enough. We had just enough traction to make it over the top. We proceeded to Fort Collins, where Meredith and Sue were attending Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University). Then I returned to my boarding house in Boulder, Colorado, owned by the Everts, a nice elderly couple.
It was not until sometime the next day that I discovered we had made it over the pass barely in time. Some 15 minutes after we passed through Keystone, the Colorado State Patrol set up a roadblock there to prevent traffic from attempting to go over Loveland Pass, which was rapidly becoming treacherous at that point. What we would have done if we had been stopped there, heaven only knows.
John Driscoll was a guy who had a room in the same boarding house with me during the winter of 1955–56 while we were both attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. (The house belonged to a Mrs. Everts and was located at 2019 Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. The place where Retta and I spent the first eight months of our marriage was the Rainbow Courts, across the street at 2020 Arapahoe Ave.)
I remember one time when John and I had dinner together—something we did only rarely. We went to a little restaurant where there was a cute waitress named Betty Jo (I don’t recall her last name). Betty Jo had a gimpy leg, but she was an interesting person to talk to. After dinner we went outside only to find it had been snowing. A light layer of snow, perhaps a quarter of an inch deep, covered the road and sidewalk. We hustled across the street to John’s car, but he suddenly stopped short. It seems he had put his eyeglasses in his pocket and they had fallen out. Desperately, we began looking for them. While we were searching for them, a car pulled away from the curb in front of the restaurant. A few minutes later I found his glasses. One of the tires of that car had run smack over them, destroying them. John cursed, for which I didn’t blame him. How unlucky can you get in just one evening?
John once told me the following true story. He was returning from a night on the town in Denver and was “three sheets to the wind.” He was driving back on the Boulder-Denver Turnpike (at that time a toll road that cost 25 cents, now a part of U.S. highway 36). He was doing his best not to attract attention from the police, but a state patrolman stopped him anyway (he said what tipped him off was that John was driving “too slow”). John carefully rehearsed what he would say to the patrolman as he was walking up to John’s car. Running down the window on his 1955 Ford, John turned to the patrolman and said, “Now, officely honister…”. They both burst out laughing so hard that the patrolman let him off with a warning not to do it again.
John also told me some interesting stories about his tour of duty in Korea in the Military Police. He said once he was guarding a compound where some people suspected of collaborating with the enemy were being held prisoner. He said it was horribly cold at the time and he was stomping his feet to keep warm. Then he happened to look at a woman inside who was standing near the fence. He said she appeared to be Korean. Suddenly she spoke to him in perfect English, saying, “It’s very cold, isn’t it.”
John and a friend of his were the ones who first taught me how the Japanese word for “goodbye” is pronounced. Most Americans pronounce “sayonara” the way it appears in English: “say-uh-nar-a.” I found out that’s wrong after John loaned me the book Sayonara to read. When I returned it to him, he and a friend (whose name I no longer recall) were drinking 3.2 beer together at a local bar called the Timber Tavern (I saw his car parked outside, so I knew he was in there.) I handed him the book and said, “That’s a really good book.” John looked at me a bit strangely and asked, “What book?” Well, I smelled a trap big time (I knew that he and his friend had spent a lot of time on R & R in Japan), but I walked into it anyway. “Say-uh-nar-a,” I replied. John and his friend barked in unison, “Sigh-uh-nad-a.” That’s how I learned that the “r” is pronounced as a “d” in the Japanese word sayonara. Americans are so brainwashed that I’ve even heard Japanese actors say it wrong in movies. I wonder how hard it was to get them to mispronounce a word from their own language for the benefit of us ignorant Americans?
Another myth bites the dust
February of 1956 was not the first time I quit smoking. It was really the third time. I began smoking in 1949, when I was a freshman at Cornell University. I wanted so much to fit in with other students who smoked that I sat in my dorm room night after night, smoking cigarettes that nearly made me sick to my stomach, until I could finally tolerate them. I became a pack-a-day smoker. At my fortieth high school class reunion, I told a classmate, Wilmer Nelson, about how I made myself become a smoker. He grinned and said, “I did exactly the same thing.” We both laughed and became closer friends for our common shared experience.
In 1953, while I was in the Army stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, I and a friend named Bob Redden decided to quit smoking. We kept it up for about two days, then both succumbed to the habit. Two years after that, in the winter of 1954–55, I was riding in John Symond’s Oldsmobile 88 (like mine, except it was a four-door). I abruptly announced, “I’m going to quit smoking right now,” and threw the pack I had out the window (this was before littering became a really bad word). It was rough for about four or five days, but I did it. Then I worked at a gas station the next summer, and everyone else who worked there smoked. So I started up again. But oddly enough, I never again smoked while driving, something I had done regularly before.
I finally quit for good that February day in 1956. Once again, it was hard. But I’d done it once, so I knew I could do it again. By the time I met and married my wife Retta that summer I was a confirmed non-smoker. But something odd happened several years later, something that is not supposed to be possible. The conventional wisdom is that a recovered addict, whether his addiction be to nicotine, alcohol, or illegal drugs of some kind, is believed to be unable to partake of even a small amount of the substance of his former addiction without becoming hooked all over again. You hear people say things like, “That would be like giving a drink to an alcoholic,” with the implication that it would be something like handing a loaded gun to someone who was in a suicidal state of mind.
Nevertheless, sometime in the mid 1960s I began to smoke on rare occasions, perhaps an average of one cigarette a month or so. I used to hoard those little five-packs of Winstons and Marlboros that they once gave away on airplane flights. I kept them in the freezer of our refrigerator, and if I became upset about something, I would get one of them out and smoke it. Nicotine is an incredibly effective tranquilizer if one is not smoking regularly. But eventually my kids began getting on my case about this, so I threw all of them away around 1970. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since then. Nevertheless, I had discovered that it is not necessarily true that smoking a single cigarette can get a person started smoking steadily again. It just did not happen.
All it takes to quit smoking is will power. Evidently, there are a lot of people who just don’t have any of it. Our daughter-in-law, Brina Free Eng (wife of Edward Gordon Eng), was a pack-a-day smoker. But she also had a bad case of asthma, which must have been horribly aggravated by the cigarette smoke she inhaled continually. She said she tried to quit a number of times but always said, “I just can’t.” Frankly, I believe when people say they “can’t” quit doing something, it really means that they simply won’t. All it takes is will power. The question is, who is going to be the boss? You or the substance you are abusing?
In Brina’s case, the result may have been tragic. I’m sure that her smoking aggravated the various medical problems that finally claimed her life on August 6, 2006. She was only 23 years old.
The smoothest driver
It takes a fast car and a smooth driver to win a race. Okay, so the driver has to be fast and smart as well as smooth, but smoothness is probably the most important of these. There are many fast drivers, and lots of them are smart. But few of them are also smooth. Dan Gurney, now retired, was not only one of the best race drivers I’ve ever seen, he was also the smoothest. Two moments stand out in my memories of Dan.
The first time I was impressed by Dan Gurney’s driving was at an Indy-car race at the late and very much lamented Continental Divide Raceways near Castle Rock, Colorado. I think it was in 1964 or 1965. A. J. Foyt won the race, but it was Dan Gurney who most impressed me. Early in the race I stationed myself in the infield near turn six, which was well known to race drivers as probably the most difficult turn on the course. Coming off the back straightaway you negotiated turn five, a wide right-hand sweeper, at about 80 mph, then began climbing the side of a small hill. Making an equally fast left through an unnumbered turn, you went up a steep little rise and then bang—there was turn six right in your face. You never saw it until you were on top of it: an abrupt left-hand, decreasing radius turn. In an Indy car you could probably get around it at 50 mph—if you did it right. I positioned myself so that the cars came from my left, turned in front of me, then accelerated straight away from me.
I stood there for the better part of an hour watching the cars go through that turn. Most of the drivers, as they exited the corner, had a variation of about one foot in the position of their outside tires with respect to the outside edge of the turn. Sometimes they would clear the turn without running through the dirt at the edge of the paving, other times they would get far enough into it to raise a miniature dust storm. Not Dan Gurney. Every time he went through that turn he got just far enough off the track to raise a little puff of dust. And every time that puff of dust was the same size. It was well known amongst racers that this was the fastest way through that turn. Most drivers were happy if they could do it like that for 2 or 3 laps out of 10. Dan Gurney did it that way each time, every time. Even when he was caught up in traffic. It was an incredible display of smoothness and consistency. I was definitely impressed.
The second time Gurney amazed me was at Green Valley Raceway—also now defunct—which was outside of Dallas, Texas. In 1967 a Trans-Am race was held there. A couple of friends and I had entered a barely race-prepared 1965 Mustang in the race. Our sole claim to glory was that our driver was first out on the track in the Le Mans-type start (see The Racer’s Edge, below). Later, after our entry had conked out thanks to eating a few valves, we had plenty of time to watch the other cars. Dan Gurney—who won the race in a photo-finish with Parnelli Jones—was driving a Mercury Cougar, one of a pair race-prepared by Bud Moore (Jones drove the other one).
On the outside of the last turn at Green Valley, which emptied into the short main straightaway, there was a tall chain link fence. Every driver on the track who was making any time at all would hit that fence on his way out of the turn. The fence would bend over and then spring upright again, ready for the next driver to hit it. Most of the drivers in the race—including Jones and Jerry Titus—would hit the fence sometimes heavily, bending it almost to the ground, and sometimes lightly, barely moving it. Not Gurney. He bent that fence over to the same angle lap after lap after lap. It was a truly unbelievable performance.
Dan Gurney may not have been the fastest of them all, but he was surely one of the smoothest, most consistent drivers who ever took the wheel of a race car. I always wished I could drive like that….
The racer’s edge
This little vignette takes place at a small race track called Green Valley Raceway, which was located in Smithfield, Texas, a suburb of Forth Worth. The race track was a 1.6-mile long road course located about 3 km (2 miles) north of Smithfield. There was also an integrated quarter-mile drag strip in the complex, as was the custom then. This race course was in use from about 1963 until it closed in 1984. The illustration shows a satellite picture of the area of the old racetrack as it existed only a few years ago (it has now been overrun with home construction). The area in light magenta shows the approximate road course as it existed in 1967. This is the track upon which the lives of me and two of my friends, along with some notable figures from the 1960s racing scene, inexorably converged in the spring of 1967.
Satellite photo of the former Green Valley Raceway near Dallas, Texas
My two friends, Mike Allison and Dick Feather had purchased a two-thirds interest in the 1965 High Performance Ford Mustang that was once our family car. Mike and Dick
race-prepared the Mustang, with some help from me, in the winter and early spring of 1967, with an eye toward racing it in one or more Trans-Am events. The Trans-Am was a series of races held in the 1960s and early 1970s for pony cars, principally the Ford Mustang, Mercury Cougar, and Chevrolet Camaro, although later American Motors became heavily involved. In early 1967 the Shelby racing team, running Mustangs, was still predominant, although the Cougars were coming up fast, and Mark Donahue was beginning to scare the others with his Z-28 Camaro. By May of 1967 our Mustang was fairly well prepped for the racing scene.
The picture below shows our 1965 Mustang all decked out for racing, with Mike Allison kneeling in front of it. Notice the tape across the top of the windshield—more about that later.
Mike Allison in front of our race-prepared 1965 289 High Performance Mustang
To try out our car, we entered it in the SCCA driving school at War Bonnet Raceway in Mannford, Oklahoma, about 40 km (25 miles) west of Tulsa. This was a 2.4-mile road course, which is also now defunct. I drove the Mustang around that course for a goodly number of laps, and let me tell you—it was something like riding a rocket. I was used to the powerful acceleration of the HiPo Mustang, but this was something else again. With a lot of the weight stripped off and the engine tweaked to produce perhaps 370 horsepower instead of the stock 271 bhp, it was a handful. It ran through second gear so fast that it would be up to redline (about 7200 rpm) before I even had time to think about it. I won my class in the race for driving school pupils that was held at the end of the day and received the checkered flag as a trophy—the only one I ever got.
By the time we were to load the car back onto its trailer it was raining cats and dogs. The ground was so slippery that we could not get the car to go up the ramps onto the flatbed of our truck. So we left it there in the rain, and returned two weeks later to pick it up and take it to Green Valley. Amazingly, it was still there. Imagine the odds of that happening today!
Along the way to Green Valley, we picked up a sponsor—Quaker State Motor Oil. We needed all the help we could get. Ours was a real shoe-string operation. We didn’t even have any spare race tires, Mike and Dick had used the last of their money to buy the Goodyear R-3s that the Mustang needed to be competitive. Our aim was just to finish the race and hope somebody important would notice us. While we were standing around in our pit area the first afternoon, one of the big name drivers, Jerry Titus, came up to us, soberly observed our pitiful operation, and remarked, “Boy, you guys got a lotta braves!”
Besides Jerry, who drove one of the Shelby Mustangs, there were “Doc” Thompson, a dentist from Washington, D.C., who drove the other Shelby car, Dan Gurney, and Parnelli Jones (an Indy winner), both of whom drove Mercury Cougars prepared by Bud Moore. We definitely had our work cut out for us.
An amusing incident occurred late in practice the day before the race. Jerry Titus turned his Mustang over in the last turn coming onto the main straightaway (the curve at the top of the picture). The Shelby team drug the car over to the pits and began to work on it. Parnelli Jones came along and looked over the wreckage. He turned to Titus and said, “Now, Jerry! Why’d you go and do that for?” Titus, deadpan, replied, “Hell! I’d tried every other way of getting through that damn turn. I thought I’d try it just once on the roof!” Everyone around roared with laughter. These race drivers were definitely a jovial fraternity.
Needless to say, we qualified well down in the pack. Probably 75 percent of the cars qualified ahead of us. That meant we would be at a disadvantage when the race began. It was going to be a Le Mans start, where the drivers sprint to their cars, start them up, and take off. It just so happened that this was the last Trans Am race to ever have a Le Mans start, although we didn’t know it at the time. Dick Feather was to be our starting driver, and he would alternate with Mike Allison. I could not drive because I didn’t have the required license for it.
Feather spend most of that evening practicing for the Le Mans start. When the race actually started, he was the first one to get his car and the first one off the line. He would have been leading into the first turn had it not been for a couple of “clods” named Gurney and Jones who pulled out ahead of him from their one-two starting positions and blocked him off. I’ll have to give Dick credit for this amazing start, although it was one of the few things he ever did really right (see below). For years I had a cover picture from Autoweek with an aerial shot of that Le Mans start, showing our car clearly pulling out before anyone else.
Disaster struck at the first turn, however. When Dick hit the brakes, there was “nothing there” in his words. He had to brake by downshifting, which evidently over-revved the engine and damaged some of the valves. Meanwhile, the rest of the pack was circling the very short track, with Gurney and Jones near the lead initially. When the cars came around the final turn onto the straightaway at the end of the third lap, however, it was Jerry Titus who was in the lead. Afterwards, Dick told us how he did it: He cut off the corners of the second and third turns by driving across the grass and managed to get ahead of Jones, Gurney, and another Mustang. (See the picture of the course to see what he must have done.) When he came around the final turn in first place, a tremendous roar went up from the crowd watching from the grandstand, which was located along the main straightaway just past the final turn. We found out later that the local Mustang club had packed the stands with members, and it was they who had yelled their approval of Jerry’s appearance in first place.
It was only a few laps later that Feather had to bring our Mustang into the pits with bent valves.
The three of us then had a lot of time to observe the other cars and their drivers the rest of the afternoon. Race day had dawned sunny and hot, with that peculiar blend of heat and humidity that seems to be endemic in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The heat soon began to take its toll on those drivers who were still in the race. After a few dozen laps, Titus pulled into the pits and literally fell out of his car onto the grass, gasping like a fish out of water. He was apparently close to heatstroke. Doc Thompson took over his battered car, which was faster than the one Thompson had been driving. I don’t recall where Thompson finished.
The heat that day was incredible for April; it felt more like July or August. In a series titled “The Trans-Am Years” in Autoweek, Gurney was quoted as saying the heat was unbearable that day and that he was amazed he was able to finish the race. On Gurney’s All American Racers web site, the temperature that day is reported to have been “113° in the shade.” Although that is undoubtedly an exaggeration, it’s not hard to get the picture.
After a long, hot afternoon, with only a few laps to go, Gurney was leading the race by almost a lap over Parnelli Jones. No one else was even close. Dan then began “stroking” his car, allowing Jones to catch up so they could stage a one-two photo-finish. Gurney led Jones by about three feet as they crossed the finish line. An article about Gurney in Racer (June 1996) has a picture of this finish, with a caption reading in part: “In 1967, driving for the factory Cougar team, he scored this scintillating by-a-nose win over teammate Parnelli Jones at Green Valley, Texas.” This myth of the “ultra-close” 1967 Green Valley Trans-Am race has become legendary, although nothing could be further from the truth. Dan Gurney’s extremely smooth, consistent driving won the day over all the other drivers (see “The Smoothest Driver” for more about this).
We packed up our broken Mustang and went back to Boulder, Colorado. Mike and Dick began working on the car to prepare it for the August 27 race at Continental Divide Raceway (CDR), near Castle Rock (about 40 km or 25 miles south of Denver). The original Ford 289 block proved to be not repairable, so Mike and Dick located one of the few Ford 289 blocks ever built by the famous Traco race engine builders (of Los Angeles). They bought it from the fellow who owned it and installed it in the Mustang. Then one summer night when they were working on the brakes, Dick Feather made one of his fatal mistakes.
The first one was when he and Mike were building a “hot” Cougar for a client, and when they were putting the engine back together, Feather insisted on putting the main bearings in backwards. Mike tried to tell him he was doing it wrong, but Dick was bull-headed and would not listen. They charged this client several thousand dollars for the custom job, and when the engine predictably self-destructed, the guy sued them and won. They had to pay back all the money, and from that time on they were perennially broke. This time, Feather made his mistake when he left the cap off the master brake cylinder one cool and rainy Boulder night. This must have allowed moisture to get into the brake fluid, which ultimately proved fatal to the car.
On August 26, 1967, we took the rebuilt Mustang to CDR for race practice. For a while, things looked good. Mike was driving the car in practice, and it showed well against the factory-prepared cars. I watched from the pits, and time and time again Mike would come out of the last turn onto the main straightaway next to one of the factory cars. Down the half-mile long straight our Mustang would hold its own against the factory cars, until at the very end the factory car would pull ahead by perhaps a car length going into the first turn. It was a gratifying performance for a private entry.
Then disaster struck. Going into turn six, Mike hit the brakes—and there were none. The water in the brake fluid had turned to steam and blown the caps off the wheel cylinders. The poor Mustang ended up in the infield, with the front end in a small ditch. One of the front tires was destroyed and the front end was a mess. Neither Mike nor Dick had the wherewithal to repair the car yet again, so they ended up selling it.
Eventually, I sued Dick Feather for my one-third share of the proceeds from the sale of the car, and he lost that suit as well. Feather never did have any luck with legal matters.
So ended the Trans-Am racing careers of Mike Allison and Dick Feather, as well as my own.
Dick Feather faded away into obscurity, but Mike had a long and illustrious racing career. It was topped off when he and a co-driver won their class at Le Mans in 1988.
One final amusing tidbit, though. Somewhere along the line our Mustang developed a crack near the top of the windshield. Concerned that the tech inspectors might keep us from running with it like that, at my suggestion we put a band of tape across the outside top of the windshield, about four inches wide—just enough to cover up the crack. The picture of Mike squatting in front of our race-prepared Mustang shows this tape clearly. The darker strip of tape at the top of the windshield was not quite wide enough to cover the crack completely, so we added a narrower strip of lighter-colored tape below it. We ran at Green Valley with the windshield taped this way. On race day, we noticed that a few of the other cars had their windshields taped the same way. By the time we went to the Trans-Am race at CDR four months later, every car had a band of tape across the top of its windshield. We really started something.
By the way, Continental Divide Raceway (CDR) was a really nice track located near Castle Rock, Colorado, about 40 km (25 miles) south of Denver. The road course was 2.66 miles long and had 10 numbered turns. (See the map of the course.) It opened in 1957 and closed in 1972 after a disastrous, fatal accident killed some spectators in the pits. Their heirs sued CDR and won, forcing the track into bankruptcy. The waivers they had signed holding the track harmless in the event they were injured or killed were ruled worthless by the court, which stated that people could not sign their life away under any circumstances. R.I.P. CDR!
Offical Map of the Continental Divide Raceways (from a race program)
When we first were planning to move to Las Cruces, New Mexico, we stayed at a nice little motel on the west side of town. By the time we had found a house to purchase, the manager of that motel had taken a liking to us. He invited us to use the pool there after we had moved into our new home—an offer we took him up on for a time or two. After we had moved in, he gave us one of the bath mats from the motel stock when we complained about not being able to find a terry cloth bath mat in the local stores. He was nice people.
Now, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with somebody named Bob Larsen. Well, as you will soon see, this is background material that will prove pertinent later. But I digress.
Robert Larsen was a narcotics agent for the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police department, an occupation commonly referred to as being a “narc.” I first met him in the bedroom of my home in Las Cruces when he arrived with another narc to arrest my wife and me for growing—shudder!—marijuana in our little solar greenhouse out back. It was pretty good stuff, actually, and had acquired a reputation as “Mesilla Valley Green” over the short period of time during which we grew it. (It helped Retta’s pain from a bad case of sciatica that she had at the time.)
My first impression of Bob was his height—about six-one or thereabouts—and his stylish glasses, which “drooped” on the lower outside corners as was the fashion in the early 1980s. We soon discovered that he was really a rather nice guy. He and his sidekick, Rico, soon discovered that Retta and I were not your ordinary run-of-the-mill criminals. I think they felt sorry for us. So instead of tossing us in the clink, they gave us a break, and in return we agreed to try to feed them a notorious bad guy who was in the area. His nickname was “Scooter,” but I forget his real name. He was the ex-husband of Doris Eng, our daughter’s mother-in-law. He used to do freebase cocaine—what later became called “crack” to make it sound like something new—while he was driving his SUV (they didn’t call them that back then, but that’s what it was). He had a bad reputation as a hard-core druggie and rogue dealer, and few people wanted to have anything to do with him.
We soon agreed to set up a meeting between Bob and Doris at a local nightclub where she worked as a hostess. In a phone conversation one evening about Doris, I told Bob, “You’ve got to remember, we’re talking about a very unstable lady.” Bob laughed and said, “All women are unstable.” I suppose that said a lot about Bob’s outlook on life in general, and women in particular. I was right, though, for at that time Doris was descending into some kind of psychiatric disorder, possibly schizophrenia (our daughter, Jennifer, told me it was some kind of STD). It was a real shame. Once a beautiful woman—in prior days, Doris looked a lot like Natalie Wood—she now was beginning to look like a hag. In another year or so the transformation was complete.
Sadly, Bob Larsen was dead within a few weeks of this phone conversation, the victim of a drug bust gone bad. He had been the lead member of a team that was trying to arrest some guy for trafficking in heroin. They had a meeting with this dude in the general area of the same nightclub where Doris Eng worked. The plan was for Bob to drive this guy someplace where he was allegedly going to buy some heroin from the dealer. It didn’t work out that way. The dealer somehow got Bob into his car, so when they left, none of the other team members realized what was happening.
The dealer took Bob to a room in the same motel where Retta and I had stayed while house hunting a few years before. Once inside, the guy somehow managed to shoot Bob to death before Larsen could even get his own gun out of its holster. The rest of the team did not find his body until hours later.
About a week after this happened, Golden Earring came out with the song “Twilight Zone.” The lyrics were so much like what had happened to our friend Bob, that forever afterward this song came to symbolize Bob’s fate to both of us. We couldn’t hear the song without thinking of poor Bob Larsen.
They caught the drug dealer. He was tried for murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Fat lot of good that did Bob Larsen. Strange—the night he and Rico were busting us, he asked if we had any firearms in the house. I said we did not and asked why he seemed so anxious about it. He replied, “I don’t want to get hurt.” Looking back, that remark seems strangely prophetic.
Al Sanchez and the Geminid meteor shower
Al Sanchez was a strange guy. I used to call him “the only San-chez in New Mexico” because he pronounced his name to rhyme with “sand” rather than with “sonde” as all the other Hispanics did. He was a man way ahead of his time. He conceived the idea of automating check collection systems by using computers, evidently before anyone else had thought of the idea. But he never had the capital to effectively carry out his ideas, and he was soon overwhelmed with competitors. Nevertheless, he founded a company he grandiosely called Data Check International. He sold informal franchises (to avoid trouble with the law) for this system, the franchisees being called “Data Check” with some descriptive phrase, such as Data Check of Las Cruces.
Sometime around 1983 Al hired a programmer who was a graduate student at NMSU to write software for his Data Check system. This man wrote a system in Turbo Pascal. It was supposed to run the check verification program on a separate PC that was to be networked to the primary computer, where the database and record keeping software was run. In 1986, the Pascal programmer quit on Al, leaving him high and dry (a common occurrence with Al Sanchez), so he hired my friend, Don Knapp, who ran a computer business in Las Cruces, to redo the computer system. The programming involved was way over Don’s head, so he hired me to write the software. We tried using DesqView (a primitive multi-tasking system for MS-DOS, published by QuarterDeck), but the system was unstable and frequently had file problems derived from updating a file that was already being edited by another module. In desperation, Al turned to a couple of local programmers who had expertise in the UNIX operating system, which ran multi-user, multi-tasking software reliably.
One of these programmers was named Steven J. Hunyady (pronounced “hun-yacht-ee”). Steven wrote a module to do the check verification, which he named the “Merchant Call Handler.” A merchant who subscribed to the local Data Check business would dial in a person’s driver’s license number on a CAT (Credit Authorization Terminal—those ubiquitous machines that scan credit cards), which would relay the number to the phone line used by Data Check for verification calls, and the MCH module would process that number and compare it with the database. It would then return a code to the merchant telling him whether the person tendering the check was trustworthy.
Steve’s MCH module worked well, but there were two problems with it: (1) Steven wanted $10,000 for it, although he had worked only some 50-odd hours on the thing; and (2) it required the UNIX operating system, which was expensive. I took over the system from Steve Hunyady and tried running it on a low-end UNIX system published by a small company in California, but again the system proved unreliable. In September of 1988 I began reprogramming the entire Data Check system to run on QNX (pronounced “Que-Nix”), published by Quantum Software Systems in London, Ontario, Canada (now QNX Corporation). QNX 2.x was a very tight, compact, real-time operating system that relied on message-passing for all functions. It was multi-user and multi-tasking right out of the box. Within less than two months I had the entire Data Check system up and running reliably on QNX. Al Sanchez and I took to the road to install the new system at all existing Data Check operations, including ones in Athens, Georgia, Monroe and Shreveport, Louisiana, and Dallas, Texas. We began in Georgia and worked our way west, finishing in Dallas around December 12, 1988.
With our field work complete, Al and I began to drive back to Las Cruces, New Mexico, from Dallas. We planned to drive straight through in Al’s RV, one of us driving while the other slept. But that night we ended up both awake while we drove through western Texas—at the height of the Geminid meteor shower. For a couple of hours, brilliant meteors kept slashing through the skies. Some of them were almost in front of us when they came down, and I kept asking Al if he saw them. He always said that he did not see them, because he was busy driving. I was baffled, as it was the most spectacular display of meteors I had ever seen.
Finally, one exceptionally large, bright meteor flashed almost straight down directly over the road ahead of us. I remarked, “You saw that one, didn’t you?” “Yeah, I saw that one,” Al grudgingly replied. I think it was the only one out of the dozens I saw that he also saw.
I’ve never seen such an impressive meteor shower since that night in Texas in 1988.
Get your kicks on Route 66
Many people today don’t even know what Route 66 was, but back in the fifties it was the principal highway from Chicago to California. I first drove it in September of 1953 on my way from New Jersey to White Sands Proving Grounds (now White Sands Missile Range), where I was to be stationed in one of the Signal Corps units on the post.
Route 66 was quite a road in those days. It boasted all of two lanes, paved in either concrete or asphalt, with a few exceptions where four-lane portions had been built. Most of those were very short sections, usually going into or out of some city or town, although the Turner Turnpike in Oklahoma, which ran between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, was an exception to this rule comprising almost 100 miles of high-speed, four-lane limited access roadway—with no less than an 80-mph speed limit. Other than that one wonderful stretch of road, the famous Route 66 was a lot of hard driving on a two-lane road with lots of trucks to contend with. Passing soon became an art form on roads like that, believe me.
The song “(Get your kicks on) Route 66” was written in 1946 by Bobby Troup and recorded the same year by Nat King Cole, who later put the song on his 1952 album Harvest of Hits (on both the 10-inch LP and a set of 45-rpm records). Nevertheless, “Route 66” did not get a lot of airplay back in the eastern states, and I was not familiar with it as I started out on my journey to southern New Mexico. Driving west on U.S. 40 (the old “National Road”) I picked up U.S. 66 in St. Louis. Somewhere along the road—it could have been in Joplin, Missouri, or some dusty little cow town in rural Oklahoma that I’ve long since forgotten—I stopped for lunch at a roadside café. While I was eating, somebody walked over to the juke box, plunked in a nickel (that’s right—a whole nickel!), pressed a button, and Nat King Cole began singing “Get your kicks on Route 66.” It struck me as highly appropriate, given that I was travelling on Route 66 at the time. It was such a signal moment that I have never forgotten it. The town is forgotten, the café, a blurry memory, but the sound of that song playing while I ate lunch alongside its namesake highway has stuck with me ever since that day.
Even today, whenever I hear this song it brings back that moment in the long-ago America of my youth.
John W. Townsend Jr.
It may seem strange for me to include something about a person whom I never really knew, but I cannot easily dismiss this man. Dr. Townsend was the Associate Administrator of NOAA, for what exact period of time I do not know. I know that Dr. Robert M. White was the Administrator of both NOAA and its predecessor, ESSA (the Environmental Science Services Administration), but whether Dr. Townsend was his Associate Director at that time I no longer recall. In any event, Robert White was a typical “figurehead” director who made the “big” decisions but did not participate directly in the affairs of the agency he directed. It was well known among those of us who worked for NOAA that Dr. Townsend was the “real brains” behind the organization. He was reputed to have been an extremely intelligent man, and I certainly have no reason to doubt that assessment.
While I was working at the Boulder laboratories of the NOAA/ERL, Dr. Townsend was a distant yet important player, unknown in the flesh. Then in 1971 I was transferred to NOAA headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, and found myself working in the same building as Dr. Townsend. An amusing incident happened one day not long after I started working there. A colleague and I were walking back to the headquarters building from a nearby cafeteria where we’d had lunch together. As we walked along the main road a Datsun 240Z (now called Nissan, but then called Datsun) came dashing down the street and made a fast turn into the parking lot of the headquarters building. I turned to my friend and asked, “Who was that idiot?” He replied with a sardonic smile, “That idiot was Dr. Townsend!” Obviously, I was chagrined.
Several months later I attended a briefing that Dr. Townsend gave to the staff of a certain senator who happened to control funding for the Department of Commerce, which of course included NOAA. This senator, whose name was Holliings, once told members of NOAA who were applying for extra funding because of the disaster wreaked by Hurricane Camille in Mississippi in 1969, “You guys thrive on disaster!”
In any event, the senator had asked NOAA to brief his support staff on the various programs we were working on in the field of weather modification. My boss at the time was Donald C. House, a no-nonsense executive who was in charge of the Weather Modification office at headquarters. He attended this briefing as an observer and took two of his staff members with him, one of whom was me. We sat in chairs about 30 feet or so away from a small table at which Dr. Townsend was sitting, holding a small sheaf of papers, across from the senator’s staff members whom he was briefing.
To make a long story short, this briefing was an incredible experience for me. Dr. Townsend talked with great enthusiasm and fervor about several of our weather modification projects, such as Joanne Simpson’s efforts in hurricane suppression and the pioneering Doppler radar work being done at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma. He spoke on each of these programs with a depth of knowledge that was amazing, treating each one as if it were his own pet project on which he had been working exclusively. I could hardly believe my ears. To say that Dr. Townsend had his “homework” done would be understating the case severely. He was an absolute master of his material. If those senatorial staff members were not impressed by his presentation, I have not the faintest idea why. I know I was impressed—almost beyond belief.
I went away from that briefing—which lasted perhaps 40 minutes, if that—with a respect for Dr. Townsend that I have never forgotten. The man definitely earned his paycheck!
By the way, the Doppler radar systems developed by the NSSL in Norman, Oklahoma, were prototypes of the ubiquitous Doppler radars that are employed today by the weather forecasters in just about every television station in the nation. Just thought you might like to know….
The New York Conservatory of Modern Music
You probably never heard of this music school, which I attended for several months in the spring of 1951. It is not entirely unknown, even today—the name elicited 277 Google hits in April 2009. To explain how I got there, I have to back up just a bit. During my three terms at Cornell University, from September 1949 through mid-winter 1950–51, I spent some time in Ithaca, New York—the Cornell “college town.” At the College Spa, a nice restaurant located in downtown Ithaca, I discovered a small jazz group that played on weekend nights. The two principals were a piano man named Frank Natale, who played like George Shearing, and a very good jazz guitarist named Ricco Zizzi. Since I was an aspiring jazz guitarist myself, I struck up a friendship with Ricco. By the fall of 1950, I was taking guitar lessons from Ricco—and learning a lot. Among other things, he taught me alternate picking and lots of advanced fingering and chords.
Ricco told me about the music school he had attended in Brooklyn before coming to Ithaca (where he was a music major at Ithaca College). He had studied guitar there under Billy Bauer, who was a well-known jazz guitarist. Ricco told me that “Billy would make us all play in the dark so we couldn’t see our guitars and had to play by feel.” When Cornell University kicked me out at the end of the 1950 fall term (because I wouldn’t attend physical education consistently—a course that I hated), I decided to attend the music school in Brooklyn, which was called “The New York Conservatory of Modern Music.” I enrolled there soon after arriving at my parents’ home in Glen Ridge, New Jersey—a short train ride from New York City.
This was truly a fabulous music school. The instructors were all first rate. The place was run by a man who had been a professional trumpet player. He had a stage name, which I’ve forgotten, but his real name was Al Sculco (you can see why he used a stage name!). He had played with some big name bands; among which were Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Benny Goodman. He had assembled a remarkable group of music teachers, which included Max Roach on drums, Tony Aless on piano, Lee Konitz on sax, reed man Pete Mondello, and Flip Phillips on double bass. Sadly, Billy Bauer had moved on to other things before I arrived at the school. Al tried teaching guitar, but he didn’t know much about the instrument so I learned very little from him.
About June of 1951, the music school fell apart. Most of the students were World War II veterans going to school on the G.I. Bill (as had my friend, Ricco, who was some six years my senior), and it seems that Al Sculco had not kept adequate attendance records. The V.A. pulled the plug and the New York Conservatory of Modern Music quickly became history. After its demise, I took a summer job and later enrolled at Ithaca College, where I took more guitar lessons from my friend Ricco. In the early spring of 1952 I gave up on that, also, and returned to New Jersey, where I was drafted into the Army on July 22, 1952. I did not really learn how to play jazz guitar until the incident at the Westerner Motel in early 1954 (see “The Jazz Player”).
Funny about Ricco—he wanted to adopt a stage name. I told him, “You’ve gotta be kidding! With a name like Ricco Zizzi? It’s a natural!” He wouldn’t hear of it and seemed determined to have a new name. I don’t think he did, though. I got a Google hit on for him as the leader of his own band in 1954, still in Ithaca. After that, the trail goes cold, except for a Vestal High School, Vestal, New York, scholarship application form that lists a “Ricco Zizzi Memorial Scholarship” for a music student, especially one who is majoring in stringed instruments. The application form is dated 2009.
The New York Conservatory of Modern Music boasted a few notable graduates, including George Tucker, a bass player who performed with John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins, among others; Owen “Mo” Mahoney, a drummer who played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Al Hirt, and Sarah Vaughan, among others; and Jimmy Cheatham, a bass trombonist who played with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and others, before joining the University of California at San Diego as a professor and later Professor emeritus. Oddly enough, only Billy Bauer seems to have claimed credit for having taught at the New York Conservatory of Modern Music; the majority of Google hits for the name of the school are references to Bauer. Max Roach, of whose status as a teacher at the music school I am quite positive, does not list it among his professional experiences.
The birth of Rock and Roll
You will most often see “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets cited as the song that began the Rock and Roll era. But it was definitely not that way for me. It may be true that “Rock Around The Clock” was released first, but almost nobody heard it. It got practically no airplay on the radio. But it was another song by Bill Haley and His Comets (as they were variously known) that predated “Rock Around The Clock” as the first international Rock and Roll hit, and which became their first Gold record.
You often hear people say that they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when some major event took place: the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy, the explosion of the Space Shuttle “Challenger,” etc. Well, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard my first Rock and Roll song. I was driving down a wide street in Ridgewood, New Jersey, in July 1954, collecting used clothing for United Cerebral Palsy and listening to the radio in my Olds 88, when the deejay played a new song: “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” by Bill Haley and His Comets. That song totally blew me away. As soon as I heard it I knew that music would never be the same again. And it wasn’t.
In March 1955 the movie Blackboard Jungle was released, which featured the Bill Haley recording of “Rock Around The Clock” in the title scenes. The song became an instant hit and stayed at number one on the charts for eight weeks—the first Rock and Roll song to hit number one. Ohio disk jockey Alan Freed is often credited with originating the name “Rock and Roll,” allegedly—and logically—as a synthesis of the “Rock” in “Rock Around the Clock” and the “Roll” in “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” There is some controversy over this, and the matter may never be settled.
What is undisputable is that these early Rock and Roll songs paved the way for the Rock music era that continues unabated to this day. The sappy “pop” music that dominated radio in the early 1950s (does anyone remember “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” or “Wheel of Fortune”?) gradually faded away and largely disappeared by the late 1960s. The music referred to as “pop” these days could better be described as soft Rock and Roll. The Rock beat took over the popular music industry and is now ubiquitous.
But the stuff played today as “the new best music without the rap” is mostly junk. Where are the new Beatles? The new Jimi Hendrix? Led Zeppelin? Doors? Pink Floyd? Nobody today measures up to these geniuses.
Gregg Allman’s son Michael
This isn’t a story from my life, but it bears repeating anyway. Steve Vandergriff—a really world class guitarist—told me this story in August 2009 when I asked him about Gregg Allman, who lived in a house two doors from our home in southern Manatee County in the early 1980s. He said he never met Gregg, but he knew his oldest son, Michael (by Mary Lynn Sutton; they never married). It seems Mary got tired of trying to raise Michael when he was a teenager and sent him to live with Gregg. He showed up on Gregg’s doorstep and announced, “I’m your son.” Gregg looked at him for a moment, and then said, “Okay. Here’s the keys to the Corvette. There are only two house rules: Don’t touch my B-3 [a Hammond organ; Gregg is an organist], and don’t let Dickey Betts in the house under any circumstances.” Steve asked the kid if Betts ever showed up. “He was knocking on the door the very next day,” said Michael. “Did you let him in?” Steve asked. “Hell no,” replied the kid. “My old man’s bigger than I am and he would have kicked the shit out of me.” Dickey Betts, of course, was a guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band for many years and played lead after the death of Duane Allman. I talked to Michael Allman the night of May 17, 2013, when he and his band played at Ace’s Live in Bradenton, Florida. Michael confirmed that this account is “exactly the way it went down.”
Scott Freeman, in his book Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band, says that Michael was “conceived in 1965 … in Daytona Beach.” That would make him 17 years old about 1983. In the book, there is a picture of Dickey Betts playing guitar “in his den in Bradenton, Florida, in 1984.” After the Allman brothers Band broke up in early 1982, Freeman writes that “Dickey and Gregg lived within five miles of each other in Florida but they went a couple of years without communication.” Michael was born in July 1966, and he told me that he was 17 years old when he showed up at his father’s house. He said Gregg told him that he had moved to Anna Maria Island just one month before Michael showed up at his front door. It all fits.
The Grandest Canyon
Much has been written about the grandeur of the Grand Canyon—a term that does not require the addition of the phrase “of the Colorado River” to specify what canyon is meant. The Ken Burns film on the National Parks (being broadcast on PBS television channels at this writing) goes into some detail about the thoughts of various people on awesomeness and beauty of the Grand Canyon. It evoked memories of the first time I saw that remarkable place, in June of 1956. I, my friend John Symonds, and his then-girlfriend (later wife), Dorie, camped out in sleeping bags (no tent) on the North Rim near Bright Angel Lodge on a bright, clear evening. We were quickly absorbed in the beauty and especially the grandeur of the canyon.
I can still recall what impressed me more than anything else about that first evening on the North Rim. In front of us the rock fell away in a breathtaking drop of hundreds of feet—perhaps more than a thousand—to an outcropping of darker-colored rock, which in turn itself fell away hundreds of feet more. Across the canyon, ten miles in the shimmering distance, we could see the opposite side of the canyon with its many bands of light and dark rock looking like the layers in some immense cake. Then it suddenly struck us: The narrow band of light-colored rock running along the top of the gigantic sides of the distant canyon wall was the same band that dropped away from our camp site like the view from the top of some great building. And that immense, breath-taking drop was but the tiny little layer of rock we could see on the opposite side—a sliver that comprised only a small fraction of height of that canyon wall. The overwhelming vastness of the Grand Canyon slipped into my awareness at that moment, a revelation that has stuck in my mind ever since that mild June evening more than fifty years ago. Few things have ever impressed me as much as that.
The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Photo from Wikipedia.
Epilogue: On our way to the Grand Canyon, John, Dorie, and I had speculated on what the first persons to see the canyon might have written in their journals. We came up with things like, “Almost fell in a big hole today.” Much later we discovered an actual journal entry from one of those early viewers of the spectacle: “We won’t have to worry about where to throw our used razor blades any more.”
The sound of silence
Long before Simon and Garfinkel thought up the song they named “The Sound Of Silence,” I found it myself, quite by accident. I was, of course, born and raised in New Jersey where it is seldom quiet, anytime, anywhere. I don’t think I had ever experienced true quiet until one day in September of 1953. I was driving west to my new Army assignment at White Sands Proving Grounds in southern New Mexico. As I was approaching Amarillo, Texas, from the east on the famous Route 66, I noticed an attraction called the “Palo Duro Canyon” just a few miles south of Amarillo. I had time for a short side trip, so I turned down the highway leading to Canyon, Texas (which is now Interstate 27). In 1953 Amarillo was a small town with perhaps one or two traffic lights (in 2004 when we passed through Amarillo on our way to Florida, it was a thriving city of over 100,000 inhabitants).
I followed the signs from Canyon, Texas, until I came to the Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which at that time was free (as I recall). I parked my little Ford coupe at an overlook and walked to the edge of the canyon, my feet crunching on the gravel. When I stopped to look at the scenery, quiet hit me like a physical presence. It was my very first experience with the sound of silence. I could hear the whisper of a gentle breeze, so light that I could barely feel it on my face, from time to time. But in the intervals between I could hear nothing but my own breathing. It was like being in an anechoic chamber. Something invisible seemed to suck the sound out of my ears, leaving me with nothing to hear. I can still recall the moment to this day.
I experienced the blessed sound of silence numerous times in the western United States in the months and years following my side trip to the Palo Duro Canyon. But that moment stands out in my memory as the first time I ever felt such an impressive quietness, a silence that only served to emphasize the vastness of the scene that was unfolded before my eyes. It was the first time, but far from the last.
The Poor Willy sandwich was an invention of the lady who owned and ran the Hi-Ho drive-in on Arapahoe Street in Boulder, Colorado, back in the 1950s and early ’60s. Her name was Tess Gold. Sometime around 1955 or 1956, Tess had an idea for a new sandwich, the centerpiece of which would be piece of nice, hot sausage. She put together her new creation and looked around for someone suitable to try it out on. Her eye fell on her Cousin Willy, who worked for her on a part-time basis. He tried a few bites from the new sandwich and announced that it was burning the insides of his mouth out. This amused everyone else, some of whom said, “Oh, poor Willy!” The upshot was that the new sandwich was promptly named the “Poor Willy.”
When Retta and I were first married, in 1956, we lived for some seven months in a unit at the Rainbow Court motel, right behind the Hi-Ho drive-in. We started a tradition of eating out on Saturday night, and since our budget was quite limited, we would often go to the Hi-Ho for a Poor Willy. After Jenny was born in July 1957, we could no longer afford to go out to eat anywhere, since it would mean hiring a baby sitter. So for years I went out on Saturday evening and brought something home for us to eat for our traditional Saturday night dinner. Not infrequently this would prove to be a couple of Poor Willys.
Alas, time marches on and the Hi-Ho drive-in is history, and with it went the Poor Willy, which surely deserved a less ignominious fate. On these pages, however, the Hi-Ho drive-in still lives—as witness the picture below—and with it the memory of that fabulous hot sausage sandwich, the Poor Willy.
Arapahoe Avenue & 19th Street, Boulder, Colorado (1955). Photo by the author.
Notice the two Studebakers going in opposite directions in this picture. This was pure serendipity; I was just taking a picture of the first snowfall of the fall (October 1955).
Surfing the primitive way
In the late 1940s, during our three-week-long summer vacations on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, my brother Richard and I together with a good friend named Jon Somers decided it would be fun to ride the big waves that came crashing down on the sandbar about 100 yards offshore. These waves would either form a thick layer of foaming water or else reform into breakers as they approached the beach proper. We purchased some cheap canvas-covered rubber air mattresses, each about three feet wide, perhaps five feet long, and about four inches thick when inflated.
Armed with these primitive surf “boards” we would make our way out to the sandbar area—no mean feat in itself, since each incoming wave had to be surmounted by sort of squirting your way over the top of it without getting caught by the flow of water, which could have rather drastic consequences. Once out into the zone where only the biggest waves broke over the sandbar, we would paddle around waiting for the next really big wave to come along. When it finally arrived, we would paddle furiously trying to time things so that the mattress would slide down the leading edge of the wave. If we timed it right, we got a fast and furious ride clear onto the beach. If we mistimed it, we either missed the wave completely, or else we got caught in the breaker as it came crashing down.
Out on the southern California beaches, and in Hawaii, where the real surfers were already developing their then-new art form, they called getting caught by a breaker a “wipeout.” We called it “getting boiled,” because the turbulent water from the breaker would toss us around like toys under the water, sometimes scraping us on the sand bottom and almost always getting sand up our noses and in our bathing suits. This turbulent action reminded us of water boiling in a kettle, hence our name for it. To real surfers, they may be wipeouts, but to me they will always be “getting boiled.”
Oh yes, and one way of getting out to the big wave “pickup zone” was to find a rip tide (today called a “rip current”). Paddling into the rip tide on our mats, we would go for a quick ride out to the sandbar, where the rip tide usually petered out anyway, and even if it didn’t, all it took was one or two paddles parallel to the beach to get out of it. And there we were—perfectly positioned to wait for the next big one to come along. Only sissies and stupid people were afraid of rip tides. To anyone who understood them, they were nothing.
The Ferrari Berlinetta
In Boulder, Colorado, sometime around 1963 to 1964, a car dealer named Boulder Import Motors had a Ferrari Berlinetta (coupe, in Ferrari-speak) on display in their showroom. Of course, Retta and I had to stop by and take a look at it. While were there I asked the sales manager how they came to have that Ferrari on display, since it wasn’t the kind of car one saw every day—especially in Boulder (I don’t think I ever saw a Ferrari on the road while living in Boulder, a total of some 22 years altogether). He told me this interesting story.
One day a college student wandered into our place. I asked him if I could help him, and he said, “I want to buy a Ferrari.” I laughed and came back with some flip remark. He gave me a pained look and pulled a wad of hundred dollar bills the size of your fist out of his pocket, and reiterated, “I want to buy a Ferrari.” Seeing that he was actually serious, we sat down and did business. This kid was so anxious to get the Berlinetta that he paid an extra $750 to have it air freighted in. [In those days, $750 was a bit of bread.] And what do you know? On the day his Berlinetta came in, he was off in Aspen skiing. So we were able to put the Berlinetta on display for a couple of days. That’s kids for you!
And that’s the story of how we came to see a Ferrari 250 Berlinetta on display at an import car dealership in Boulder, Colorado, way back in the early 1960s. The Ferrari probably set the kid back around thirteen to fifteen grand (the original list price in 1962 was $12,600). Today, you would need something like twenty of those wads of hundred-dollar bills to buy a new Ferrari. Egad, you can’t even buy a Chevy for $12,600 any more!
Jim Lucas was a pre-law student I met at Cornell University in the winter of 1949-50. He was black and one of the smartest men I ever met (exceptions: Richard Feynman, whom I met about the same time, who was at that time an adjunct professor of physics at Cornell and way out of the league of any of us students; George Gamow, from whom I took an honors course while at the University of Colorado; and John Townsend, whom I discuss elsewhere). Once while Jim and I were having a beer at some local bar (drinking age was 18 at the time in New York State), he engaged in some serious discussion with another student, who was white. Afterwards I asked Jim what that was all about, and he replied, “Just a young man with the usual problems encountered by those whose facial features are arranged better than average.”
The time that stands out in my mind was when I happened to hear some lively discussion going on in one of the rooms in our dorm. I looked in the door and there was Jim Lucas, sitting on a chair in the middle of the room debating the entire roomful of students, most of whom were pre-law or pre-med—smart guys, all of them. And Jim was holding them off single-handedly. After I observed that he seemed to be saying that he did not have any real friends who were not black, I asked, “Jim, what about me?” “You! … You!” he stammered slightly (I was somewhat flattered that I had at least caused him to lose his composure for a couple of seconds). Then he proceeded to demolish me—and I do mean demolish. I probably turned red, I don’t know. All I recall is turning around and leaving the room. Jim had destroyed our friendship in a minute. Apparently, it was more important to him to win an argument than to keep a friend. But his energy and determination were impressive. I suspect he went far in his chosen profession. Whether or not he ever made—and kept—any non-black friends is another question.
Zola Levitt (December 3, 1938 – April 19, 2006) was a televangelist who headed an organization called the “Zola Levitt Ministries,” out of Dallas, Texas. In early 1984 Retta’s mother, Meta Holt, offered to finance a tour of Israel for Retta after she expressed a desire to see the Holy Land. I decided to join her, since I had made enough money with my software consulting business to do so. The first tour we signed up with, which was a highly-regarded group whose name I have forgotten, cancelled their tour because of the unrest among the so-called Palestinians (who are a mythical people, basically Arab squatters on land that never belonged to them). We turned to the Zola Levitt Ministries when we heard they were offering a similar tour. We had watched Zola on TV and found him to be an entertaining speaker on Christianity. Our tour commenced in late May 1984 in Egypt, and continued for five days in Israel, followed by three days in Greece including a cruise of Mediterranean sites of significance to Christianity (e.g., Patmos, Ephesus).
All of this would be of little significance here were it not for what I discovered about Zola Levitt during the course of the tour. The first time was when I tried to engage him in a short conversation about a rather strong argument for belief that I had come up with (“To the Atheist”). He brushed me off with the comment, “Maybe later.” I thought, Well, after all, he is a busy man. But “later” never came. Meanwhile I began to notice that whenever Zola had any free time—that is, when he was not giving a class or a lecture, or discussing a site of interest to Christians—he never, ever talked about anything religious in nature. On the Mediterranean cruise he spent most of his free time playing chess with members of the tour group. I thought this rather strange. The Apostle Paul, who was a true evangelist, was reputed never to have missed an opportunity to tell another person about the “good news” (the Gospel).
Before the tour was over, I had begun to seriously question whether Zola’s belief was genuine or not. The question was settled in my mind on the flight back to New York City on the return trip. Because of a mix-up in seat assignments, I was moved into the business class section of the 757, where I found myself seated next to Zola himself. As we settled in for the long flight back to the States, I remarked that we would now have a good chance to talk. He reply almost floored me. “Fine,” he said. “Just don’t make me work.” It hit me like a physical blow: He viewed his Christianity as merely “work.” He was not really an earnest apostle of Christianity. If he was not “working,” he wanted nothing to do with it. I was nonplused, to say the least.
In my opinion, Zola Levitt was a fraud. Ever after that episode in the Boeing 757, Retta and I both referred to him as “Zola (just don’t make me work) Levitt.” What a pompous ass!
Zola Levitt died of metastasized stage four lung cancer in 2006. Poetic justice?
The Dark Side of the Moon
I’ll never forget the first time I heard Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It was late in 1973, the year the album came out, and we were in our “party room”—a paneled family room on the bottom floor of a “four level tri-level” in Boulder, Colorado. The walls were covered with blacklight posters with enough 40-watt black lights to make them all glow brightly enough that you could see quite well with no additional lighting. We had a decent quadraphonic stereo system using four Dynaco A-25 speakers. It had enough power to blast you out of the place if cranked up all the way. Our teen-aged kids were with us, and they always played the music loud enough to wake the dead (some things never change!). We were passing around a bong and smoking some good Columbian grass. I put our newly acquired record of Dark Side of the Moon on the turntable, and we sat down to relax and enjoy the music.
It started off innocuously enough with this thumping heartbeat that gradually grew louder.† And louder. And louder. A crescendo of sound intruded: voices (“I know I’m mad; I’ve always been mad”), a metronomic, chafing beat, a woman’s screams—all of which built up to a surging peak and suddenly exploded into the smooth musical surround of “Breathe.” Musically, it was like suddenly being immersed in the deep blue water of some tropical lagoon It was mind-blowing. We looked at each other in amazement. We had expected the album to be good, but this was way more than we were prepared for.
As the music continued, each song seguing seamlessly into the next, I finally remarked, “Now I see what Roger Waters meant when he said ‘This may be the best thing we’ve ever done.’ ” I think Roger’s remark may have been the understatement of the year 1973.
A Wikipedia article about the album reads in part:
Engineer Alan Parsons was directly responsible for some of the most notable sonic aspects of the album, and the recruitment of nonlexical performer Clare Torry. The album’s iconic sleeve features a prism that represents the band’s stage lighting, the record’s lyrical themes, and keyboardist Richard Wright’s request for a “simple and bold” design.
The Dark Side of the Moon was an immediate success, topping the Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart for one week. It subsequently remained in the charts for 741 weeks from 1973 to 1988, longer than any other album in history. With an estimated 45 million copies sold, it is Pink Floyd’s most commercially successful album and one of the best-selling albums worldwide. It has twice been remastered and re-released, and has been covered in its entirety by several other acts. It spawned two singles, “Money” and “Us and Them.” In addition to its commercial success, The Dark Side of the Moon is one of Pink Floyd’s most popular albums among fans and critics, and is frequently ranked as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
The only exception to the pattern of seamless segues came at the end of “The Great Gig In The Sky”—when we had to turn the record over to play the other side. This was, after all, the era of the vinyl LP record album; CDs were almost ten years in the future. The second side began, of course, with “Money,” easily the most popular song on the album. But Dark Side of the Moon is not about songs, it’s about an album, a wonderful sequence of songs sewn together by master engineer Alan Parsons. When the album ended—all too soon—with the fading heartbeats following the last song, “Eclipse,” and the words “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it’s all dark.” (spoken by Abbey Road Studio’s doorman Gerry O’Driscoll, and audible only if you have the volume cranked way up—which we did), we all sat in our chairs for several minutes, stunned by the impact of the music we had just listened to.
I have listened to this album countless times since that day and to the various songs from it even more countless times, and it never fails to impress me. It was not only the best thing Pink Floyd ever did, it was the best thing anybody ever did (in Rock music, that is).
My Prophetic Dream about Angie
My nephew Glenn Thayer’s long-time “significant other,” Angie Degliumberto, passed away Sunday February 14, 2010, from the effects of metastasized cancer.
I had a prophetic dream about this on Friday February 12, 2010.
Background: Sylvia Marnie is the owner of Pelican Pete’s, a restaurant where we eat out often and listen to live music. Sylvia is a delightful little lady with a charming British accent, and we all love her dearly. What follows is typical of the way she speaks.
Friday morning, not long before getting up in the morning, I had a very strange dream, in which I was helping Sylvia make some kind of dessert. I said to her, “Thank God it’s Friday!” She replied, “Just because it’s the weekend, you’re not out of the woods. Shit still happens. Either you die, or someone you know dies.” With this shocking statement, I woke up in a cold sweat. I told Retta about the dream, and she said she thought it might be prophetic.
Sunday morning Retta came to me and said, “Oh my God! Your dream came true. Angie died.”
To say that I was stunned would be putting it very mildly. We both were.
We knew this was coming, but not this soon. In December we heard that a new treatment they were giving Angie would give her probably another 6 to 12 months.
—From an e-mail to my children dated February 21, 2010.
My wife Retta passed away August 5, 2011, of right heart failure caused by pulmonary fibrosis, which in turn was a complication of scleroderma. On that same day her gardenia bush, which had never before bloomed in the summer, began blooming. It finished blooming on our “monthiversary,” August 16, 2011 (we were married on September 16, 1956, and we always called the 16th of each month our “monthiversary”).
Several days after Retta's passing away, I began “teasing” her aloud in the evenings, “Retta, where's your broken bottle”? (This refers to the episode of the broken bottle evidently created by my dead grandmother in 1973.) This teasing was good-natured. I think I hoped to provoke her into doing something I could recognize. If so, it worked.
The evening of August 22 I came in overheated from doing some yard work, disrobed, and lay down on my bed. I soon passed into what was most likely a hypnagogic state (at the time I thought I’d been dreaming, but it is most unusual to dream that you are in exactly the same place in exactly the same condition that you actually are).
About 7:30 that evening, while in this hypnagogic state, Retta came to me. I sensed her presence over my right shoulder, just behind me. She was comforting and reassuring. I got the strong impression that she was young, perhaps the same age as when we first met (she was 19 then). She flung something gossamer-light over me, as though she was concerned that I might get chilled. Then she took my right hand in her hand. We held hands this way for several minutes. I never actually saw her, but I knew it was her. Her hand felt very real. I came out of this semi-dream state with a feeling of peace.
God bless her.
I must have accepted the reality of this experience on a subconscious level, because not once since that day have I teased her about a “broken bottle.” I'm sure I never shall again.
—From notes I made in Retta’s journal book the night that it happened.
Some Enchanted Evening
The evening I first met my future wife I literally saw her across a crowded room, just as in the song “Some Enchanted Evening.” It was a “mixer” held in a women’s dormitory (in those days men and women were put into separate dormitories) named “Farrand Hall.” Looking across the room full of people I saw a pretty young woman with long brown hair and a look of confidence on her face. I found this look intriguing and managed to see that I was next to her when it was time to pick up the evening meal (provided by the dormitory staff). At first she seemed reluctant to be paired up with me, but she soon warmed up. By the time our meal was over we were already becoming friends.
She invited me to walk with her to a rehearsal she had to attend that evening. Turned out that she had landed a part in the chorus for a school production of the play Oklahoma. And therein lies a strange tale. The lead part of Curly was played by Herff Applewhite, who later became notorious as the leader of the cult “Heaven’s Gate” when he led 38 of his followers to their deaths in 1997. He seemed like a perfectly normal young man to us during his performances in rehearsals and in the play itself (I only saw the actual production on its opening night).
Retta was known by her given name of Henrietta in those days. It was not until the mid 1970s that we agreed on the nickname of Retta, by which she was known for the rest of her life. She and I quickly became more than just friends, dating frequently in the days and weeks that followed our first meeting (on June 16, 1956). By mid-August we had become engaged to be married. In September we traveled together to her mother’s home about 15 miles north of Columbia, Missouri. We were married in a church in Columbia on September 16, 1956, three months after we first met. A whirlwind romance, to be sure, but our marriage endured for almost 55 years and ended only “when death do us part” as our vows stated.
The “white sheep” of the family?
Talk about your lucky breaks, check this one out. I have two siblings: my brother Richard, who is two years and three months younger than I am, and my sister Linda, who is just over nine years and four months younger than I am. All three of us married, Richard in 1954, I in 1956, and Linda in 1960. Of the three marriages, mine was the only one in which the bride was not pregnant at the wedding. The facts in the matter are as follows.
Richard married Jane Drennan on September 11, 1954; their first child, a boy they named Kevin, was born March 24, 1955. Working back 38 weeks we arrive at July 1, 1954, as the most likely date of conception. This was more than a month before his parents were married.
I recall a time when my parents and I were talking in the kitchen of their home on Tennyson Drive in Short Hills, New Jersey, and either Mom or Dad asked a rhetorical question as to why Richard had married Jane. I said, “He wanted to make an honest woman out of her.” Dad became quite angry at this remark and told me “That’s enough out of you” or words to that effect. But we all knew what I said was true. Jane herself had stood in that very kitchen some time before that and remarked how, when she and Richard were going by train from New Jersey to Coral Gables, Florida (where Richard was attending sch0ol at the University of Miami), she had been standing on a train platform somewhere in Kentucky “three months pregnant.” Indicted by her own words.
Richard and Jane nicknamed their baby Kevin “Little Bit.” He was quite small as a baby, although if you saw him as an adult you would have a hard time believing that. My theory is that “Little Bit” came from the song “With a Little Bit of Luck,” written by Lerner and Loewe for the Broadway Play My Fair Lady. Richard and Jane wanted to get married in the summer of 1954, but they knew that Dad would never agree to put Richard through college if he married Jane for no good reason. I suspect they deliberately supplied him with a reason he couldn’t refuse, to paraphrase The Godfather. The rest is, as they say, history.
Linda married Allen Dow Jordan on June 11, 1960; their first child, a girl they named Lisa, was born on January 7, 1961. Working back the usual 38 weeks from that date we arrive at April 16, 1960. This was almost two months before Linda and Dow were married. Right after their wedding, Linda and Dow went on trip to Europe (a wedding gift from my parents). But Linda returned to America after a short time, leaving Dow to complete the trip by himself. This led our grandmother (Bertha) to criticize Linda for leaving her husband in Europe. When I mentioned this to Linda once, years later, she said, “For god’s sake—I was pregnant!”
I married Henrietta “Retta” Holt on September 16, 1956. Our first child, a girl we named Jennifer Ann, was born July 8, 1957. Working back 38 weeks from that date we arrive at October 15, 1956, as the probable date of conception (which is about right). That is almost one month after we were married.
Am I saying that we did not have sex before we were married? No. I’m saying that we were lucky. On the third morning of our honeymoon, when we were staying in a little motel outside of Rapid City, South Dakota, Retta awoke to discover she was having her period. Her comment then was, “Well, I’ll be damned!”
Close encounters of the lurid kind
When I was young, say from my teenage years through my twenties, I’ve been told that I was somewhat effeminate. I don’t know why. Judging by the way I lusted after women in my heart (à la Jimmy Carter), there was nothing effeminate about my libido. Nevertheless, homosexuals often hit on me.
The first one I recall was a fellow who worked at a magazine stand in the middle of the Hoboken terminal of the Lackawanna Railroad. I went through there every weekday afternoon after attending the New York School of Modern Music, which was in Brooklyn. He started calling me “Good looking.” It sounded to me like more than just a friendly greeting. One day he told me he had some pornographic pictures to show me. Porn was illegal back then, so he suggested we go into the men’s room to look at them. Once in there, he handed me a little booklet with these porn pictures in it. As I started to page through the booklet, he suddenly unzipped my fly and grabbed my privates. “Do you mind?” he said. “You get tired of playing with your own after a while.” Well, I did mind, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t want to anger him.
After several minutes I finished looking at the pictures, and he hadn’t gotten a rise out of me. He did, however, ejaculate into the sink after telling me, “Watch this!” After we went back into the main terminal room, he asked me why he had gotten no reaction out of me. I said, “I just don’t go for that stuff.” Or words to that effect. So ended encounter number one. I managed to avoid him after that.
In March of 1952, I decided to attend the twelve-hours of Sebring after reading about it in an automotive magazine. This was the first ever Sebring twelve-hour race. I was in Ithaca, New York, at the time. I bought a round-trip ticket on Greyhound to Jacksonville, Florida, and off I went. A rebel without a clue. When I got to Jacksonville, I bought another ticket to Daytona Beach. Once I arrived at Daytona I realized two things: first, I was about out of money; and second, I hadn’t a clue where I was going. I didn’t even know where Sebring was. (It’s about 140 miles from Daytona Beach to Sebring.) So I went back to Jacksonville in the middle of the night and exchanged my return trip ticket to Ithaca for one to Newark, New Jersey. My plan, which I carried out, was to take a local bus from Newark to my parents’ home in Glen Ridge, where I knew I would be welcome and could pick up a little cash to get back to Ithaca.
The bus I was on stopped for a while at the Washington, DC, Greyhound station. I didn’t know it, but even back then DC was a hangout for gays (who weren’t called that back then). I needed to use the restroom, so I found my way there, passing a big restaurant on the way. In the men’s room I noticed this guy in the corner of the room watching me intently. I left hastily but saw that the guy was following me. So I pulled the old trick you seen in movies frequently. I went into the restaurant I had seen earlier and hid behind the door. Sure enough, the guy walked right past me and started looking all around, as though he were thinking, Now where did that guy go? I moved smartly around the open door and almost ran back to the bus, where I sat in my seat all scrunched down so if the guy came looking for me he wouldn’t be able to see me.
Fortunately, that ended the second encounter.
The third encounter happened about the same time as the second, although whether it preceded or followed that one, I can no longer recall. I had a room on the first floor of a boarding house in Ithaca. The upstairs was a three-room apartment. Two of the occupants were physics graduate students at Cornell University, and the third was a professor at Cornell named Hunter Johnson. He was about 46 years old at the time. One evening in the spring of 1952, I went upstairs hoping to continue a discussion on a physics problem that I’d been talking to one of the graduate students about. The two students were not there, but Hunter Johnson was. And he was obviously inebriated from the way he talked. He said the students would be coming back soon and invited me to wait for them. He said that his piano sonata was going to be performed at Carnegie Hall, which he was obviously proud of.
I sat down at the dining room table in the apartment and began looking at a Life magazine. Hunter was standing behind me. I was looking at a picture of a tiger (I think that’s what it was) when Hunter leaned over me and said something about it being a marvelous beast. Then he pretended to lose his balance, fell forward, and grabbed my privates through my clothing. I froze. Once again I didn’t know what to do. So I did nothing. He continued to fondle me for a couple of minutes, but not getting any reaction he finally said, “Well?” At that point I jumped up, ran down the stairs, went into my room, and locked the door. Sure enough, after a few minutes Hunter was knocking on my door, yelling “Gordon! Gordon!” I did not answer him.
After these three encounters I got better at spotting these types and managed to avoid any more confrontations with them. You must realize, it was a very different world back then. We used to make fun of homosexuals (males, anyway, I don’t think we even realized there were female versions) calling them things like “queers” or “fairies.” We told jokes about them. Example: Two fairies are standing on a bridge when one of them says, “Look! There’s a ferry boat.” The other one says, “I knew we were organized, but I didn’t know we had a navy.”
I was amazed that I remembered Hunter Johnson’s name after all these years (this was over 50 years ago, remember). I looked him up on the internet, and here is what Wikipedia had to say:
Hunter Johnson (April 14, 1906 - August 27, 1998) was an American composer. His compositions include a piano sonata and the orchestral music for Martha Graham’s ballets Letter to the World, based on the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson, and Deaths and Entrances. His musical style was a combination of neoclassic, neoromantic, and nationalist.
Johnson was born near Benson, North Carolina. He attended Benson High School and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before leaving the state to finish his undergraduate studies at the Eastman School of Music in 1929. UNC later awarded him an honorary doctorate. He taught at the University of Michigan (1929–33), the University of Manitoba (1944–7), Cornell (1948–53), the University of Illinois (1959–65) and the University of Texas (1966–71). He retired in 1971 and returned to the family farm in Benson. He was the first composer laureate of North Carolina, an award he received in 1991.
—Wikipedia, copied August 19, 2012
My memory did not fail me in this instance.
My Oldsmobile Rocket 88: A Blast from the Past
In June of 1954 I had just been discharged from the Army, and $650 in mustering-out pay was burning a hole in my pocket. I began driving all over New Jersey’s Essex County looking for a car I had dreamed of owning for years. Its name was magic in those days: the Oldsmobile Rocket 88. Unless you’re my age, it may be hard for you to imagine just what that meant then. The original Olds 88 was truly a legend in its own time. So much so that Oldsmobile retained the “88” model designation for 50 years after the first Olds 88 hit the streets—the last ones were made in the 1999 model year—even though the magic had long since disappeared. It was, in short, the car that started the notorious “horsepower race.”
The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 made its debut in the 1949 model year. It was equipped with a 304-cubic inch (5-liter) overhead valve V-8 engine rated 135 bhp at 3600 rpm with peak torque of 263 lb-ft at a modest 1800 rpm. It was usually mated to a beefed up four-speed Hydramatic transmission. (Although a few “three-on-the-tree” manuals had been sold, I knew they were harder to find than a pregnant nun and had resigned myself to settling for an automatic.)
There were other cars with the same technology. A similar engine displacing 331 cubic inches was used in Cadillac models beginning in the same model year. The 5-liter v-8 was also used in the big Olds 98 models. But it was the racy Olds 88 that was the talk of the automotive world. Tom McCahill—writing in Mechanix Illustrated when it was still 15 cents a copy—said “Even a duffer can tell with a toe push that this is something different.” And different it was. At a time when a fast car did zero to 60 mph in about 15 seconds, the Olds 88 did it in 13 seconds—and under. For years they were unbeatable by any stock Detroit iron, and in those days Detroit iron was just about the only kind that mattered. Sure, a Jaguar xk-120 could beat an Olds 88 in a zero to 60 dash, but in all my driving experience—over 100,000 miles in five years—I had never seen one on the road. In 1954 it took an out-and-out hot rod to beat an Olds 88. I was determined to have an 88 of my own.
I knew I could do it. I’d perused the for-sale ads and found that 1949 or 1950 Olds 88s were selling in the $600 to $750 range (equivalent to 4,500 to 5,700 shrunken 2006 dollars). I could practically taste the damned thing.
Sure enough, cruising the Morris Turnpike one day I spotted a gray 1949 Olds two-door fastback sedan in a used car lot. I saw the Rocket 88 emblem on the back, so I knew it wasn’t one of the stupid six-bangers. The finish was fading in places, but the car was otherwise quite clean. It had only 47,000 miles on it, which wasn’t much for a 5-year-old car. After a bit of haggling I struck a deal for it: $600 and my 1941 Ford coupe. The next day I came back and the Olds was mine. As I pulled out of the used car lot, I pushed the gas pedal about halfway to the floor. I could not suppress a sly little grin when I heard the tires give a loud chirp as the Hydramatic shifted into second gear at about 20 mph. The world was mine—all mine!
I soon found out that my Olds 88 was just about the hottest thing on the road. I was big on what we called “the red-light Le Mans”—dragging away from a traffic signal when it turned green. I never missed an opportunity when I was one of the first in line. The guy next to me had better have a fast machine, or when the lights changed his ass was grass—and my Olds 88 was the lawn mower.
I had memorized the test results McCahill had reported for a 1950 Olds 88. It reached 60 mph in 13.4 seconds, 70 mph in 16.9 seconds, and 80 mph in 22.8 seconds. I know 80 mph in 22.8 seconds doesn’t sound like much these days, but back then there were a lot of cars on the road that couldn’t even do 80 mph no matter how long you tried. McCahill said the 88’s top speed was “close to” 100 mph. I had mine up to 110 on the speedo once, which likely was very close to an actual 100.
Before long I became convinced that my Olds 88 was even faster than the one McCahill had tested. For one thing, there was the 1954 Buick Century. I knew they were fast as hell—my father had one, a two-door hardtop. It weighed about 3800 pounds, some 200 pounds more than my Olds, and had a 322-cubic inch overhead valve v-8 rated at 200 bhp and about 317 lb-ft of torque. According to Motor Trend it did zero to 60 in just under 11 seconds. One night I met up with one while driving my Olds. It was late at night, and the roads were nearly deserted. On Morris Avenue, I got caught by the light at the last traffic signal before a long stretch running into Milburn. I was waiting well to the right when—Lo and behold!—a 1954 Buick Century two-door hardtop just like Dad’s pulled up next to me. I looked at the driver; he looked at me. We both permitted ourselves a slight smile. When the light turned green, we both put the pedal to the metal. Immediately my Olds surged ahead. I pulled up about half a car length, his headlights just about opposite my door, while still in first gear—that Olds Hydramatic had a hell of a granny gear in first. I held that same half-car length lead all the way to 65 mph or so, where we quit by common consent. Afterwards, we pulled into a drive-in and compared notes. Sure enough, his Buick was exactly like my father’s. But it obviously wasn’t any faster than my Oldsmobile.
One day I borrowed a stop watch from a friend and set out to see what my Olds could do. I calibrated the speedometer against the mile markers on the Jersey Turnpike. It turned out that an indicated 67 was an honest 60. Then I found a nearly level road and timed zero to 67 in both directions. The two runs averaged out to 11.8 seconds—considerably faster than McCahill’s figures. I had a hot machine!
Later that summer I met a guy with a 1950 Olds 88 coupe. We had an impromptu drag race away from a traffic light, which I had to abort because I ran out of room. We stopped at a White Castle drive-in to compare notes and quickly became friends. It turned out he had a brother who also owned a 1950 Olds 88 coupe, which my new friend said was even faster than his. I think these two guys may have been gay, though I was never able to confirm it. Anyway, my new friend was sure his Olds was faster than mine. One night we arranged a drag race, which I won easily. He shrugged it off, saying his brother’s car would surely beat mine. We finally arranged a drag race between his brother and me one night, out on highway 46 beyond Caldwell. I beat him, too, although it was a lot closer. My friend (whose name I can no longer recall) was nonplussed.
It turned out his brother had once worked for General Motors and had information on the Oldsmobiles that shed some light on the speed of my machine. It seems the early 88s had a more powerful Hydramatic transmission than later ones. The transmitted torque was so strong it was tearing up the differentials (rear axles). The engineers in the Oldsmobile division solved the problem for the 1950 model year with two changes: they reduced the number and pitch of the vanes in the Hydramatic’s fluid coupling, and they reduced the ratio of the first gear in the planetary transmission. So my early 88 had good reason to be faster than the later models. What held that rear axle together with all of the punishment I gave it is almost beyond comprehension.
I put lots of miles on that Oldsmobile. In the first nine months I drove it over 20,000 miles. In the spring of 1955 I prepped it for painting, and some guy moonlighting in a nearby paint shop shot it for $25.00—about the standard charge in those days. I had pored through the GM color books, finally picking a color called “Bahama Blue, Metallic,” which was used only on the 1955 Cadillac Eldorado models. It was a beautiful bright, metallic cyan-blue. I had it mixed in enamel to avoid all the hand-rubbing a lacquer paint job entails. After taking my “new” car home, I decided 69,000 miles was just too much for a car that looked so good. I took the speedometer apart and, turning the dials by hand, managed to roll off 15,000 miles. Then it stuck, or I would have rolled off even more. Anyway, my “new” Olds had only 54,000 miles showing. Wherever I went it drew stares of admiration. No one had ever seen an Olds 88 that color before. It really was a handsome paint job.
Later that year I decided to soup up my Olds a bit. I installed the manifold and carburetor for a 1952 Oldsmobile. The ’52s were rated at 160 bhp, and the only difference I could see was the four-barrel carburetor. What I couldn’t see was the revised cam timing they had used to accommodate the larger carburetor, which shows how ignorance can lead one astray. After making the conversion I discovered that the engine, although it felt stronger in the higher rpm ranges, was now sluggish off the line. If I depressed the accelerator pedal too fast it would almost bog down. Previously, whenever I mashed it to the floor the hood flew up, the tires squealed, and the car took off like a banshee. The only way I could come near that kind of performance now was to pre-load the tranny—hold down the brake pedal while feeding a goodly amount of gas—and then pop my foot off the brake. In 1956 I did a few things to try to correct this. I put in a dual exhaust system, installed high-lift rocker arms, and had the heads milled about a tenth of an inch, raising the compression ratio from the stock 7.25 : 1 to some 8.3 : 1. These changes helped, but I never did succeed in really curing that slow-off-the-line problem. Oh well … live and learn.
In September 1956 I married Retta Holt, and the next spring we traded in the blue Olds on a 1955 v-8 Chevrolet two-door sedan. The Olds had 102,000 miles on it (the odometer, of course, only showed 87,000) at the time, so I had driven it 55,000 miles in less than three years. There, by the way, is the reason young people have to pay more for their insurance. It’s not that they’re really such bad drivers. By and large, I think they make up in fast reflexes what they lack in judgement—which is plenty. But they drive every chance they get. Naturally, drivers who routinely put over 20,000 miles per year on their cars are going to have to pay more for insurance than we old fossils who drive maybe 5,000 miles in a year. Let’s face it—I had four times the risk back then that I do today. But I digress.
The last time Retta and I saw my Oldsmobile was in the summer of 1957 on the Foothills Highway near Lyons, Colorado. It was occupied by several young men, one of whom had evidently bought it from the dealer in Denver where we got the ’55 Chevy. It still looked—and ran—great.
The cars we’ve owned since then are virtually a testimony to the horsepower race started by the Olds 88. The ’55 Chevy had a 265-cubic inch v-8 rated at 162 bhp. About a year later we got a ’56 Bel Air two-door hardtop, black with a white top, trunk, and “spear” (on the side). It had the same 162-bhp engine as the ’55. Then came a ’56 Olds Super 88 with a 230-bhp engine, followed by a ’58 Pontiac Bonneville with a 285-bhp v-8. It was very fast, but it was way too big. In 1963 we traded it in on our first new car—a Chevy Corvair Monza Spyder. It had one of the first turbocharged engines to appear on any American car (an Olds Cutlass model—the Jetfire—came out with one the same year). It was rated at “only” 150 bhp. Retta and I learned how to autocross in that Corvair.
We’ve owned several nice fast cars since then. One of the best was a white 1965 Ford Mustang High Performance two-door notchback sedan, which we named “Pegasus.” Its solid-lifter 289 cubic-inch v-8 engine was rated 271 bhp at 6,000 rpm. It was mated to a close-ratio “four on the floor” tranny and a 3.89:1 rear axle. It did zero to 60 in 7.1 seconds. With no other modification than a Shelby kit (a 750-cfm center-fill Holley carburetor and a “bundle of snakes” header set, which was supposed to raise the horsepower to 306), we turned quarter-mile times just under 15 seconds at 5,400 feet elevation—equivalent to very low 14s at sea level. A friend of ours, Mike Allison, had a go with a fuel injection Corvette on the Boulder-Denver Turnpike one night when he had borrowed our car to go to an SCCA meeting in Denver. They both kept upping the ante until Mike finally walked past the ’Vette with the tach right on the redline—7,000 rpm—which meant he was going an honest 130 mph. Whew!
Then came a blue 1967 Mustang with a 320-bhp, 390-cid engine, which we named “The Bluebird.” I won the sedan class trophy in the 1967 TAC (Timing Association of Colorado) Fall Four autocross series in that car, beating a guy who drove a BMW 2000 ti. We also owned a nice 1971 Mach I Mustang with a 351 Cleveland engine and a four-speed automatic. Not to mention our 1974 BMW 2002 tii—a real driver’s car.
By 1995 we were driving an Acura Integra GS-R. The Acura weighed about 2400 pounds, and its engine displaced only 1.8 liters. But what an engine! Honda’s VTEC (Valve Timing and lift Electronically Controlled) system, originally designed for the NSX sports car, gave it an 8,100-rpm redline and 170 bhp at 7,600 rpm. On a full-throttle take-off the engine pulled strongly but modestly until the tach hit 5,400 rpm. Then it was like an afterburner kicked in: the VTEC switched to full-race timing, the exhaust note changed abruptly to a loud snarl, and you felt a giant hand pushing you forward. It was dramatic. The zero to 60 mph time for that GS-R was 7.0 seconds—almost exactly the same as our ’65 HiPo Mustang. According to Car and Driver it hit 100 in only 20.4 seconds with a top speed of 133 mph. (I took their word for both those figures!) It was a real screamer.
But of all the cars I’ve driven over the years there will always be a place in my fondest memories for that beautiful Bahama Blue 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It really was the cat’s meow.
My 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 two-door fastback in Bahama Blue Metallic and my fiancée Retta, age 19.
Photo by the author, August 1956.
My debit card disaster
Back in the late 1960s I had a really brilliant inspiration. My wife and I were waiting in a checkout line at a Woolco department store (that alone should tell you something about how long ago this happened). A lady ahead of us was taking forever to get clearance for a check she wrote for her purchase. She finally cleared the line, and the next customer used a credit card for his purchase. I remarked on how much more quickly his transaction took than that of the woman with the personal check. Retta remarked that some people just didn’t want to use credit cards because it was too easy to get into debt that way. She had a good point, since at that time we were among those who eschewed credit cards for precisely that reason.
Watching the guy use his credit card and thinking of those who would rather use checks, I had a sudden inspiration. I turned to Retta and said, “You know, someday you’ll have a little plastic card that looks just like a credit card. You will hand it to the clerk, who will scan it, but then you will enter a four-digit code in a little terminal along the edge of the counter, and the money will be transferred directly from your bank account to the merchant’s bank account.”
Retta was flabbergasted. She said, “You know, you should patent that.”
Indeed, I should have. Could I have done so, I would doubtless be counted among the super-rich today. But alas! in those days the Patent Office would not issue patents on ideas. The idea of intellectual property was many years in the future. I told Retta, “I can’t do that. You cannot patent an idea. You have to have a working model of your idea in order to get a patent. And there is no way I can do that.”
If the patent situation then had been what it is today, I could have patented that idea and made millions.
As it was, it would be almost ten years before anybody else came up with the same scheme. “EHow.com,” a popular website, has this about debit cards:
The First National Bank of Seattle issued the first debit card to business executives with large savings accounts in 1978. These cards acted like a check signature or a guarantee card, where the bank promised the funds would cover the transaction without the customer needing a check to complete the transaction. The bank only issued debit cards to those customers who had a long history with the bank and were in good standing, because like a check, the funds were not immediately removed from the account. In 1984, Landmark implemented the first nationwide debiting system, built on the credit card infrastructure and ATM networks already in place. By 1998, debit cards outnumbered check usage around the world. [Their] preference over checks continues to grow every year.
—Tilden, Eric. “A Detailed History of Debit Cards,” www.ehow.com
What a killing I could have made if only…. How many people has this sort of thing happened to? I don’t know, but I suspect their number is legion.
The reader will note that I not only had the basics correct, but I even guessed the size of the PIN that would eventually be used for debit cards: four digits. This was just fast thinking on my feet, something that comes second nature to a gut physicist like me. Three digits is too short a number. With only 1,000 combinations it might not take very long for a credit thief to figure it out. Five digits is a bit long for the average person to remember. But four digits is just about right. There are 10,000 combinations available (a few of them not very smart choices, albeit). It would take a credit thief a long time to figure out what your PIN is. (By the way, there is no such thing as a “PIN number.” PIN is an acronym for “personal identification number” so adding the word “number” to the end of it is highly redundant. It makes one sound stupid.)
By the time I got to the part about the PIN, I had already come up with the figure or four digits in my head, thinking while I was speaking to Retta. How long does it take to say: “You know, someday you will have a little plastic card that looks just like a credit card. You will hand it to the clerk, who will scan it, but then you will enter a … “? Not very long I suspect.
The world is filled with four-digit numbers that are relevant to each of us, and therefore easy to remember. Do not, for example, use your birth year or current home address for your PIN. Those are way too easy for a thief to guess. But how about your grandfather’s birth year, say 1883? Or my great-great-grandmother’s birth year, 1823? Or the house number that your grandmother lived in back at the turn of the century? I could have used my grandmother’s telephone number from the 1940s. It was a strange one: MOntclair 2-4827m. The MO meant that your dialed those letters first: 66. The m at the end identified it as a party line, something that has faded into non-existence in the past 50 years or so. So her number was actually 662-4827-6 in today’s all-number calling system. The four digits 4827 would have been duck soup for me to remember, but what credit thief could come up with that information?
So passed my one and only chance to become a multi-millionaire by barely lifting a finger. Sigh….
Note to possible thieves reading this: None of the numbers I listed in this article have ever been used by me as a PIN for anything whatsoever. So lots of luck trying to crack any of my accounts with one of them.
Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.