The cloud bank is sliding off to the East as I row past the stone embankment that once was a bridge. Row, row, row your boat gently on the bay, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, living day by day.
By Cecil Hoge
April 14, 2020
I have this recurring feeling that I am living in a dream. The only problem is that it is real. It is not some dream that I will awake from after a few minutes of fitful sleep. It is as if I found myself in a Haruki Murakami novel and we are all in some mysterious alternate world. I expect to look up one evening and see two moons in the night sky.
As I begin this blog story, there are now over a half million cases of the Coronavirus in this country with over 20,000 deaths. America now has the most infections and the most deaths from the Coronavirus In the world. That is not how I would like to see America First, but at this moment, America is First.
The effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic are widespread…schools, colleges shut down, restaurants, bars shut down, stadiums, theaters shut down, bowling alleys, offices shut down, gyms, beauty parlors shut down…almost 17,000,000 people laid off as of last week, hospitals brimming with Coronavirus cases, doctors and nurses working 24/7, sometimes without needed protective equipment, millions tested, yet millions more untested. Congress and the Trump Administration have enacted bills to aid laid off workers and small businesses, but there are doubts as to how fast the monies will come.
It is a confusing and strange time, but Mother Nature seems to be unaware of our human plights on this chilly and invigorating April day. Swans glide elegantly and slide silently across my bay, seagulls are circling in the partially blue sky, herons stand on stilt legs in shallow waters silently picking off unsuspecting young minnows. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. On this morning the sky is clearing as a cloud bank slides off to the East. The tide is receding, but there is still a good two hours of rowable water.
I have not explained the tide that comes to my dock twice a day. We have what used to be a 7 to 9 foot tide. Now it is more. The tide used to be in for about 8 hours and out for about 4 hours. Now it it is generally in for 8 and a half hours and out for 3 and a half hours. It varies with the time of year and the closeness of the moon, but generally, I have been blessed with more time to row or paddle each day. My wife does not see this blessing the same way I do. She is terrified that the tide will come into our house. I have a backup plan for that but my wife is skeptical that my preparations will work.
No matter. What is sure is that the tidal waters that come to my back yard are there for longer periods than in the past and this extends my paddling or rowing choices. I have to explain when the tide is out, it is really out. My whole bay, Little Bay, empties and becomes a giant mudflat. That makes rowing or paddling at low tide impractical. Another fine point I have to make about the tide is that it comes in at a different time everyday. Generally, the tide advances about an hour each day, but that can change according to the time of year, the height of the moon and whether we happen to have a strong storm coming on. In a strong storm…a NorthEaster or a Hurricane…sometimes the tide does not go out while the storm is going on. And sometimes the tide comes up on my front lawn and that makes my wife very nervous.
So much for the peculiarities of tidal waterways!
This last weekend was Easter Sunday and my wife, my son and I had a quiet turkey dinner. It began well on Long Island with a clear blue, cloudless sky. The temperature started the morning in the high 30s and then mosied up to the 40s and 50s. A hazy sky moved in on the day of Christ’s resurrection. Many wished to go to church, but the Coronavirus shut down those dreams. There would be no Easter Sunday services in churches, except, perhaps, in a few states where the pastors felt that spiritual healing was more important than the physical chance of catching a new disease.
Today it is a Tuesday, two days after Easter Sunday and, as I head out for my row, the weather is warmer and spring is bursting forth everywhere. Flowers are popping up all along the road that rings my bay. Green shoots on bushes and trees that soon will become green leaves are beginning to show all around my bay. New colors for a new season are appearing…yellow Forsythia, purple Violets, pink Crocuses, white Narcissuses, purple Hyacinths…white and purple, pink and yellow and every color and hue in between are showing up around Little Bay and Setauket Bay. Willow trees, always the first to show leaves, are fluttering in the distance now with yellow green leaves that soon will become full green leaves.
The signs of the new season are everywhere and it seems that the outside world is unaware of the fears of the inside world.
And on this day, there is a notable absence of familiar sounds…no planes roaring overhead, not many cars whizzing around the road that circles my little bay, no sounds of construction or new housing, no sounds of helicopters overhead. I know all that will come back in time, but for the moment I can enjoy the absence of man-made clatter.
Almost as soon as I start rowing, the sky clears and the temperature rises. I row out of Little Bay, through Setauket Bay to the mouth of Port Jefferson Bay…that is about 2 miles from my dock. There I choose to pause with my morning row half complete. You may say I am stopping to smell the roses, but actually I am stopping to take a few pulls on my Yeti cup. The coffee inside is still hot and steaming even though I have rowed two miles and the air is chilly. A wide expanse of water greets my eyes.
Not many folks out on the water today!
On this morning I have not seen another human even moving. No boats, no paddlers, no rowers…it is only me and the seagulls. They cry as they circle above in the sky, perhaps, disturbed by my presence, more likely informing other seagulls of the presence or absence of minnows. When the minnows are running, it is feeding frenzy time. Too soon for that, this season is still young and the minnows so far are not making their presence known. Lucky for them.
When the stock market opens later that day it is in an ebullient mood. Why, I do not know. The day before the stock markets went down, but today is a new day. There is news that the Coronavirus may be near the peak. Maybe, we can consider opening businesses and returning to normal, maybe the Coronavirus will go away with the advent of warm weather. The stock market pundits, the digital gurus, the scallawags, the financial experts, the master CEOs, the software programmers, the Quants…all take heart and leap into the market with great abandon. By the end of the day, the markets were up over 2%. Not bad when you just laid off 17,000,000 people in the last three weeks.
I continue to be frustrated by the markets. They do not behave the way I think they should. Not that I have a dog in that fight. No, I moved what little 401k money I have into a money market account. I am into preserving the money I have, not making a killing in the markets. Nevertheless, I cannot help but think the markets are all wrong. I cannot help but think we are entering a Depression such as only my father would know.
But the wisdom of the markets is greater than mine. They are in “Risk-On” mood. And so it goes for the rest of the week. On Thursday, April 16th, when the new unemployment claims are reported to be 5,200,000 more people, the markets shrug it off. It must be some kind of anomaly…that is the presiding wisdom. The country is getting ready to go back to normal. Restaurants and bars will soon be open. And then the 22,000,000 plus people who have filed for unemployment will so go back to work. By the end of week, the markets put in a solid gain, coming within 20% of their all-time highs. Happy days are here again.
So the markets end the week further up, proving once again their wisdom is greater than mine. I think a depression is on its way, they think the V-shaped recovery has begun. Expert economists, prolific pundits, ethereal quants, software programmers, oil traders, market gurus and assorted other scallawags predict we are on our way to new market highs. I sit back and wonder why. If you look at a V closely you will notice that the bottom of a V is a sharp point. We have have been going through this Coronavirus situation for over 6 weeks. I think it is time to admit if we are going to have any kind of recovery, the best we will get is a U shaped recovery.
I am just looking on from a distance. I am not severely affected by what is going on. Our two businesses have been remarkably lucky. We are still taking orders and shipping. We have 14 people working in our warehouse and 12 people working remotely. Our Panther Martin fishing lures seems to be doing pretty well. I am thinking part of the reason is that people can catch fish with fishing lures and therefore they can justify the expense. They can, after all, put food on the kitchen table with our lures.
The fact that our Sea Eagle inflatable boats are also doing well is harder to explain. I am somewhat baffled by that. Of course, customers can, like me, go solo paddling or rowing or fishing where that is permitted, but some states have closed boating. I am guessing access depends on where people live. For me, living directly on the water, it is very practical and very safe to go paddling or rowing. I literally have only seen a total 5 people out on my bays in the last 4 months. I have never been closer than 50 or a 100 feet from anyone I have seen. So I am rigorously practicing social distancing. In fact, getting close to anyone else on the water is almost impossible where I live.
I know that will change as the weather gets warmer. No doubt, more people will come out on the water, but even in the height of the summer season on my bays, I am never near another boat, SUP or kayak. And I would suppose that there are many places in this great Republic where that is the case. So perhaps that is the explanation of why our inflatable boats sales are still up. It is something people can still do without the fear that they are going to contract the Coronavirus.
Of course, another explanation could be that most retail stores are closed and our website is not. And since almost all of our trade customers are other websites, they also are not closed. So, unlike many other boat companies, we are open and able to take orders.
A last explanation could be that many people are getting really bad cases of cabin fever and while they are sitting home, they are scanning the internet ordering things that they plan to use as soon as this country opens up.
Whatever the reason our businesses have lucky in this crisis and I am grateful for our good fortune.
I cannot help but think and wonder how the country will handle the transition back to some kind of normalcy. Will we open up quickly? Will it go well? Will the virus fade as the cold weather of spring gives way to the warmth of summer. Or will the country open up in some places and find the virus coming back with a vengeance sending us into a new round of closures and quarantine? Who knows. In the meantime, I intend to paddle or row whenever the weather is favorable.
This week I rowed quite literally everyday. Rowing, as mentioned before, is a full body exercise and a way to get outside on the water and see wide horizons. I do enjoy that. But the real reason that I have rowed most days this week is because of the Northwest wind. It has been running at a steady 15 to 20 mph with gusts up to 25 and 30 mph. And because this is April, the temperature has been acting like…guess what…April. Meaning that total body exercise keeps your total body warmer, not to mention the simple fact that it is easier to row through a 25mph wind than to paddle through it. Two oars are more effective than one double end paddle. So this week I have stuck with rowing.
Geez, I can actually see the bottom. Yes, there is a good side to this Pandemic.
I have to say there is a good side to this Pandemic. The waters of my bay are cleaner than I have seen them in years. That is probably because no big boats have started to motor around our bays. Usually, by this time there are some young and exuberant kneeboarders are out in wetsuits motoring around in large Mastercrafts, churning up the bottom of the bay as they motor around in circles. I would imagine the large Mastercrafts have not been able to get out because boat yards and marinas are presently closed.
And so I have the clear waters of my bay to myself. I can only hope that means that our bays will have more minnows and fish this summer. That will be seen with time. In these last years, the quality of our bays waters have suffered from a multitude of problems…road runoff, soaps, detergents and fertilizer working there way from sewage tanks to the bay waters along with all the other ingredients that sewage tanks contain. There is also the not so small issue that Stony Brook University, which is about 3 miles from my house, dumps its treated sewage into Port Jefferson Bay, right in front of the electrical plant. So there have been a lot of culprits that contributed to the poor quality of our bay waters.
What I can say though is that the present waters are clearer than I have seen them in many years. Perhaps, that is because Stony Brook University is presently also closed and without 35,000 students creating the sewage, there is far less sewage to dump into our waters. Perhaps, that is also because there are fewer cars on the roads and they spew less fumes and gas onto the road which eventually makes their way to the bays. Perhaps, that is also because there are far fewer planes in the sky and whatever pollution that is falling to earth is far less. Perhaps, farmers are putting less fertilizer on nearby farms.
I am guessing the sewage from houses surrounding our bays has not changed much. In fact, they may be somewhat increased because the houses may be more crowded because so many are staying home and are unemployed.
Whatever the true case may be, I am happy to see the clearer waters and I am hoping they will stay clearer for the summer and we see an explosion of sea life. That may be too much to ask for.
I am sorry for those who have lost jobs in this crisis. I have friend who was a bus driver. He felt pretty secure about his job. When the first closures came, his boss told him not to worry, he would have a job even if the schools were closed. After all, the schools had signed a contract with the bus company and they were obligated to fulfill their contract. That idea seemed to work well for about a week, but then the Governor of New York said the schools were not getting monies when they were closed. The schools promptly turned around and said they were not going to pay bus companies to deliver non-existent students when they had no money. It was another classic of no money, no honey.
And so my friend was out of a job. His boss did call him up and said he had good news: now my friend could apply for unemployment and get an extra $600 a week for next 8 weeks and have unemployment checks for at least 39 weeks. Heck, he might even get more pay out this thing. My friend did not take it as good news. He called unemployment to sign up. They said they would call back in 3 days. They did call back 5 days later and tell him he was all signed up. Then, when he went to report that he was unemployed for the week, he was informed that his unemployment was not fully filled out and that he had to call back to complete his unemployment claim.
The only problem with that was that when he called back, he could not get through. So he has now called about 128 times and kept getting the same message: call back at another time when our operators are able to talk to you. It seems that this process of filing for unemployment claims is hit or miss. Of the 12 fellow workers that he was laid off with, one did get a call back and he did complete his filing over the phone and, in fact, he has received his first unemployment payment. So the system did work for him.
Interestingly enough, his friend’s wife, also a fellow employee, was also fairly lucky. She called at one morning at 7:36 am and was put on hold. She hung in there and by 10:02 am she did speak to an unemployment agent who did complete her filing. The agent said all she had to do was wait for a notice to come in the mail in 7 to 10 days and then she could call and then her unemployment payments would come shortly thereafter. So, theoretically, she will receive payments in two weeks or so…theoretically.
In the meantime, my friend, after dialing the designated unemployment number literally hundreds of times did finally get a call back. This time the person on the phone was very helpful and did get him signed up. Now, all has to do is wait for the money to start flowing, which should happen in early May. It is a good thing he had a little extra money to tide him over while he went through this process. That allowed him to pay his monthly bills for cable TV, rent, food, credit cards and other necessities. Lucky for him.
April 23, 2020
The stock markets started this week badly and then got better. The last two days the market has been up. Today, it was announced another 4,400,000 more people have filed unemployment claims. Of course, that is only the people who have successfully succeeded in filing their claim. The markets apparently are focused on the coming V-shaped recovery and take the news in stride. The markets start strong most of that day but end with small losses for the session.
Oil, that universal commodity, succeeded on Monday in doing something I previously thought impossible. WTI actually traded down to minus $37. per barrel. I had not thought that was possible. Some oil pundits came on financial channels to say it all was really very normal (even if I never recall it happening in the last 50 years). Nothing to be concerned about, the pundits said. It happens at the end of every quarter. Funny, I don’t remember that ever being mentioned on Bloomberg, Fox Business News, CNBC. I must have just missed it every quarter.
On that Thursday the weather is surprisingly cold and unappealing. There is not much wind, but low clouds hang over of my bay giving the day a cold and gloomy feel. By midday, it begins to rain, but that too, like the stock market that day, fades. I take the absence of rain as an opportunity to go for a row.
Out on the water, I am immediately accosted by incoming calls. My cell phone is always at the ready and so I talk about a new catalog with my printer rep and different working times for a couple of our remote workers. The calls go smoothly and I quickly return to rowing. I do not know why, no matter the weather or temperature, I never get bored, even though I am rowing on the very same bays. Somehow it is always different each time and somehow each row is new and unique.
That evening, I watched what I call the Donald Trump Show. The Donald Trump Show was a new feature that emerged shortly after the Coronavirus became a major cause of infection and death. This show was originally scheduled to be the Coronavirus Update Show headed by a couple of doctors, but then it was pre-emptied by the Vice President Pence’s Coronavirus Show, only to be finally pre-emptied by the Donald Trump Virus and Fake News Show. It comes on nightly somewhere around when CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CBS, NBC, ABC and other media channels would normally have peak viewership. And the Donald Trump Show last for one or two hours. It is like a 101 Fireside Chats in 30 days with our President, but these chats are more like Fire and Fury Chats.
Anyway, on this particular evening, The President introduced a gentleman from Homeland Security in a nice uniform who said part of his job was tracking and studying the effects of the Coronavirus. Apparently, Homeland Security is most interested in this subject. This man explained that he and his scientific team had discovered that the Coronavirus was killed quickly by alcohol, bleach and sunlight. This caught my eye. At a younger age, I might have taken this man’s study as a recommendation to drink a lot of Jack Daniels, but being older, what caught my eye was the fact that apparently sunlight would kill the virus in about 60 seconds.
Lessons from the New Scientific Study – Go Outside.
I have to say I really liked that conclusion of that man’s study. I might not go with drinking bleach or alcohol, but going outside in the sun seemed like a winner idea to me.
I think one of the points of this man’s study was that when the weather gets warmer and sun comes out, the Coronavirus will go away. I hope it is so. And if you ask me it will come none too soon for the Trump Administration. On that very day, the Coronavirus was approaching 50,000 deaths, up almost 30,000 deaths since I started writing this blog story. My, how the time and numbers do fly.
By April 24th, 10 days after I started this blog story, there were almost 50,000 deaths in the U.S. from the Coronavirus. That is an increase of about 30,000 deaths in 10 days.
So, as you can see from the chart above, deaths from the Coronavirus has been increasing rapidly. Earlier on the Donald Trump Coronavirus Show, our President had said that earliest projections of deaths for the Coronavirus could result one to two million people dying. But now, thanks to quick action by Donald Trump on testing and closing down flights to China and Europe, a later projection showed that they expected the real total to be somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000. Then, a few days later the President announced that a new highly regarded model projected only 60,000 deaths. That was about 7 days ago.
The only problem was now the death toll was already almost 50,000 people, so it was getting mighty close to that 60,000 number. Enter the gentleman from Homeland Security.
I gathered the message was like that little girl’s song in the play Annie: “The sun will come out tomorrow.”
April 25, 2020
I went for a row this Saturday. It was the first day you could imagine that spring had arrived. The temperature got up into the low 60s, the wind, while cool and a little breezy, was relatively mild out of the Northwest. Water clarity of my bay was at an all time high…at least in my experience. I could actually see the bottom even though it was over 6 feet deep. That was unique in the my experience. Many days last summer it was impossible to see my paddle blade even though it was only 6″ below the surface of the water.
Over the weekend there has been a big outcry because on the Friday Trump Coronavirus Show the President suggested that perhaps we could consider injecting bleach into our bodies to get rid of the Coronavirus. Or perhaps we could shine UV light into some internal parts of the body to blast out the virus. Both of the suggestions were met with wide derision from the medical community. The President then said he was just being sarcastic in order to answer a rude question from a rude reporter. I don’t remember the rude question or the rude reporter or thinking that the President’s remarks were sarcastic.
I suppose sarcasm is in the eye of the beholder.
In any case, the President was so miffed that he sent out a tweet saying as long as he faced questions from rude reporters maybe the Trump Coronavirus Show was “not worth his time”. That was strange because I thought these Coronavirus reports were supposed to be for the public’s benefit. I guess everything is in the eye of the beholder.
That did not last long, because two days later the President gathered some industry leaders (an impressive group of lab testing companies, major retailers and drugstores) and held a press conference that looked an awful like the Trump Coronavirus Show. The upshot of that was these various companies were getting together to provide more and better testing. Now, once and for all, America was going to have all the testing it needs.
Asked by a reporter whether we would be able to test 5 million people a day, he said, “Yes, we are getting there soon.”
The next day the President denied every saying we would ever be able to test 5 million people a day. That was echoed by another gentleman in his Administration, who when asked about testing 5 million people a day, said, “Not on this earth.”
April 28th, 2020
Jared Kushner, the President’s son in law, got on Fox News and said they had done a great job in handling the Coronavirus Crisis.
Later that day, the United States passed 1,000,000 Coronavirus cases and 60,000 deaths from Coronavirus. If you remember way back when, when I began this blog story on April 12th, there were just over 500,000 Coronavirus cases in the U.S. and 20,000 deaths in the U.S. In other words, in a little over two weeks, the number cases doubled and the number of deaths increased two and half times.
None of this seemed to bother the stock markets which went up strongly that day.
April 30th, 2020
It is jobs claims day and with it another 3.8 million put in claims for unemployment. That brought the total in just 6 weeks to 30,000,000 people who claimed unemployment. For the day, stocks go down, but for the month, stocks have their best month since 1987. The S&P, for example, ended the month up 13%. Go figure?
I wish I could say I was rowing and paddling each day this last week, but the weather has been pretty miserable with rain and high winds and temperatures in the 50s and 60s.
Tomorrow is the first of May and guess what: rain and high winds are forecast. The weekend looks a lot better with the hope of sunny skies and higher temperatures. It might actually get close to 70 degrees. I think I will row or paddle then.
March 14th – As I paddle out towards Port Jefferson Bay the morning sun is blocked by a cloud bank. Soon the clouds will clear and the sky will become a cloudless blue. Not so, the Pandemic.
By Cecil Hoge
March 14, 2020
On this Saturday, I took the opportunity to go for an early morning paddle. That is easy for me because I live by the water and have a dock about 100 feet from my back door. So all I have to do is walk out of my living room onto my back porch, walk down a few stairs and go another 100 feet. I am then on my dock where I have several inflatable boats at my disposal. On this day, the water on the bay is flat and glassy, the sky is still has a large bank of clouds off to the Northeast. The temperature is around 45 degrees Fahrenheit and the sky is still reflected in the shimmering tones on the glassy water.
Today, I choose to paddle my kayak. I have choice: on my dock I have a kayak and a rowing craft. I also have a solar powered electric motor craft I call the TriTiki. I use the TriTiki to cruise around our bays on warmer days. Today is not one of those days.
When I use my kayak on chilly days, I also use a kayak blanket that we sell for that occasion. I like to be warm when paddling a kayak and since my legs do not move when paddling that blanket comes in mighty handy for those who want to be toasty warm.
Out on the water in my kayak the air is clean and wonderful to breathe. Soon, I know, the winds will pick up out of the Northwest. Then the clouds will move out and the sky will be fully clear. And with the sun will come some extra warmth. No matter. I am well dressed for the occasion with gloves, a windproof fleece-lined nylon jacket and a warm wool hat with earmuffs. I am, as always, totally warm and comfortable.
I paddle out past the old stone bulwark that used to lead to a wood bridge that spanned my bay (Little Bay) and leads to Setauket Bay. The wood bridge is gone since 1898 when I assume it was washed away by a ferocious storm. On this tranquil morning I am wondering if I am paddling in an allusion – if this calm and beautiful scene is but a dream. Perhaps, in reality, I am paddling in an unseen and silent storm.
The broken down stone bulwark is still quite close to where I started, so do not feel that I have exerted much effort. It is the beginning of my paddle. I am in no hurry. A little further along a line of 7 Canada geese proceed out in front of me from the shore. I steer a little further out in order to give them space and time to figure what they want to do. I know either they will get all excited and start barking at me or they will change course and paddle their webbed feet back towards shore.
I am hoping they will not get excited because they make a terrible noise and the end is always foreseeable. They start barking, then their barking becomes louder and occurs faster and then they all fly away barking as they go. But on this day, they have wisely chosen to change course, stay silent and cruise back toward shore.
In what may be said to be the real world, other things are happening.
As I suggested in my last blog story, the Coronavirus has picked up steam and the stock market has gone, to use a technical term, kablooey. I cannot say where these events will lead. At the time I start to write this story, there are 91 cases of the Coronavirus on Long Island, 41 in Suffolk County (where I live), 50 in Nassau County. We shall see where that number is by the time I finish this story.
The Stock Market, another subject of my last blog story, has had its own set of blues, having gone down 20% since I posted “Into The 20s We Go”
Our President signed this stock chart on Friday, March 13th. It showed a 9% increase in stocks that day. It should be noted that the next week the market down over 15%.
It is true that on Friday the 13th, President Trump declared a national emergency and talked the Stock Market up 9% that day. Mr. Trump happily signed the chart above showing the Stock Market’s gain for that day.
March 15th, 2020
Here is my prototype rowing craft, rigged with all the comforts of home, thermo-bag with seltzers, cushion for seat, mirror to have an idea of where I am rowing and a life jacket.
Incidentally, this day, the 15th, is the Ides of March. That was a big day in Rome in the time of Julius Ceasar.
On this day in old Setauket (it was first settled in 1665), the weather is clear and reasonably warm for the time of year. I choose to use my rowing craft this day. This happens to be a prototype of a new kind of inflatable boat that I am tentatively calling the GoSkiff. Originally, I designed it to accommodate a sail, which I tested at the end of last summer. It sailed quite well, but with the advent of colder weather and winter, I converted it to a rowing craft, using my friend’s Urs Wunderli’s sliding rigger arm. I have been using this sliding rigger arm for 5 years now. Urs calls it “Row Board” and sells it on his website: DiscoveringRowing.com. I consider “RowBoard” an uninspired name, but the product is truly great. I have told Urs to rename it the “Wunderli Rower”. So far, Urs has ignored my suggestion.
A sliding rigger arm is similar to a sliding seat, except instead of the seat going back and forth, the rigger arm holding the oars goes back and forth. In truth, a sliding rigger arm is actually more efficient. I won’t go into all the details. Both systems improve the ability to row. What I like about rowing is that it provides a total body exercise. That is because your arms, your legs, your hips, your stomach, your back are all in motion. Rowing provides another advantage over paddling in that you are naturally warmer because all parts of the body are moving…so no need for my trusty kayak blanket.
Rowing is different from paddling in that you see where you have been, rather than where you are going. It also is a form of exercise that seems to feed on itself. Simply put, there is NOT a tendency to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Rowing seems to promote an exercise rhythm that becomes addictive. Once you start rowing you really do not feel like stopping. That does not mean you do not take in the sites…you do. The difference is that you usually row steadily for a long time, not wanting to slow down, but still seeing the sites as they pass into vision. And yes, after rowing steadily for two miles or so, I do stop and secure my oars. I then float silently on the water as the wind blows me where it wishes and I take in the sites while I chug down a selzer. The sparkling water is surprisingly refreshing after rowing 2 miles.
I characterize paddling as lolligagging whereas I characterize rowing as rowing. Paddling is lolligagging in the sense that there is always the temptation is to stop paddling, take a deep breath and take in the scenery that is always in front of you. And in fact, that is one of the most pleasurable aspects of paddling.
On my many paddling or rowing journeys, I see many interesting sites…loons diving for fish, hawks circling high in the sky, seagulls clustering over a school of minnows, elegant white swans cruising nearby with young brown tinted smaller and younger swans in tow, a seal popping his or her head out the water to check you out. Now these sites occur at different times of the year and some are far more often than others. I see seals only a couple of times in the year, always in the dead of winter, although two years ago a baby seal took up residence on my dock – see below:
Here is an overnight guest that came one winter day. I did not charge this youngster a residence fee for the night.
On this Sunday I take my rowing craft, tentatively called the GoSkiff 14. It is at this point I should tell you there is an obvious difference between paddling and rowing. With paddling you see where you are going, with rowing you see where you have been. Now I have to confess that I cheat. I have installed a mirror on my rowing craft. That allows me to see most of where I am going – my mirror does not have Xray vision through my body so I have to be careful. That still does not prevent me from occasionally running into a buoy or a boat. At this time of year all buoys and boats have been removed from the harbor except for one rather large fishing vessel named the “Lisa Jean” that floats by itself in Setauket Harbor as reminder of the fishing fleet that once was moored there.
So, off I go, rowing as I wish through the different bays. Paddling or rowing these days is practicing social distancing in the extreme. There are no other paddlers, rowers or boaters on this day or, for that matter, on most of the days during the late fall or winter. So, I usually have all the bays to myself. When I go rowing in the winter, I wear fleece-lined pants which keep my legs toasty as they push back and forth. As I have mentioned, I like to be warm and, if you dress properly, you always are. I would mention here for those concerned about my safety and boating regulations I always wear or carry a life jacket, so worry not, I am safety ready for my journeys on the sea.
It is another wondrous day on the water even though there is a chilly breeze. I carry other equipment with me that I consider vital. If it is an early morning, I carry hot coffee in a Yeti mug. If it is later in the day, I carry a couple of selzers in a thermo-lined bag. At this time of year, the thermo-lining is not required, but the bag makes it convenient to carry the seltzers. So, on this sunny and clear March day I row out past Little Bay, past Setauket Bay and into Port Jefferson Bay, the largest of our four bays. Here I can take a break, pull out a seltzer and take in the view. It is a good day to be alive.
Social Distancing at its Best
March 16th, 2020
On this day, the stock market was on the way back down in a big way, despite the fact that Fed Chairman Powell reduced Fed funds rate one full percent. The Dow Jones ended up going down 11% for day. I am not sure the President will want to sign that chart. New Coronavirus cases were also surging that day, adding to the panic into the market. Things are progressing rapidly with different states announcing the closure of theaters, hotels, bars, restaurants, stadiums, museums and all places where people tend to gather.
It is an ongoing question on how to deal with this sad and tragic story which seems to affect every person in America in one way or another. I go for a paddle or a row, but many do not have this option. The fact that I can go for a paddle or a row seems like a rare privilege, but for me it is also a way to find some meaning and peace mind.
And so, while America deals with closing schools, bars and restaurants, I intend to take my woes onto the waterways of America. From my dock, I can paddle into a small bay appropriately called Little Bay. From Little Bay I can paddle to the Atlantic Ocean.
Of course, paddling from my house to the Atlantic Ocean is something of a jaunt. Long Island Sound is about 5 miles from my house, but the Atlantic Ocean is another 60 miles to the East or the West. One has choice when coming out through the inlet into Long Island Sound to go West towards New York City through the East River into the Hudson River into the Atlantic Ocean with New Jersey just on your right. That’s a good choice if you want to paddle on to Miami. If you decide to go East, all you have do is paddle 60 miles East and pass Montauk Point and then you can head to Block Island or further north to Maine, if that is your fancy.
Needless to say, I restrict my paddling to the 4 bays that are most directly accessible from my dock. I failed to mention the fourth bay which is called Conscience Bay. It is off to the right as I come out into Port Jefferson Bay. Anyway, I think you get the idea that I have a lot of options, even if I don’t take them all. But paddling or rowing are the main options that I choose to ward off the sad events of the Coronavirus in America.
What seems to be disturbing the market is the ever worse news on the Coronavirus. The number of cases and subsequent deaths are growing rapidly and many States are announcing different kinds of shutdowns. Many businesses are being forced to close in an effort to contain the spread of Coronavirus. The Fed and the Government are doing their part to help mitigate the terrible news…lowering interest rates to almost zero, passing different bills designed to help workers, small businesses and large businesses.
March 18th, 2020 – I go for a very early morning row. It is mostly dark when I leave at 5:45 am. The water on the bay is a flat black glass. The moon is still out and it sports an unusual halo this early morning. I do not know what the halo is portends. It seems strange. In the distance, there are lights from the surrounding houses that circle my different bays. In the dark, I hear garbage trucks making dinosaur screeches as they stop and pick up cans. Today is plastic day. The town of Brookhaven (our township) has announced that it can longer recycle the plastic they are picking up. I wonder where the plastics will go.
Here is what I see on the bay:
The darkness before the dawn is fading. Soon the sun will erase the moon and spread its light over all.
I row out of Little Bay into Setauket Bay and then into Port Jefferson Bay. The dim light of the day gives way to a clear blue expansive sky and soon I can feel the first warmth from the sun. The wind is out of the Northwest about 10 mph and as come out of Setauket Bay, it pushes against my back as I row forward. When I get to the mouth of Port Jefferson Bay, I take a break, put up my oars, sip my still hot coffee and ponder the new day.
After a few minutes of contemplation, I pick up my oars and resume my journey. It is easier to row back since the wind is now pushing me in that direction. As I come around the bend in Setauket Bay, I row along the Strong’s Neck shoreline. I am now protected from the wind because I am in the “Lee of the Land”. And while I always dress warmly, the extra warmth that comes from the rising sun in area protected from the wind is much appreciated.
Tomorrow is the first day of spring. After my row I head into my office. A little later in the day, the Governor of New York announces a large increase in Coronavirus cases and deaths in New York City, Long Island and New York State. The Governor goes on to announce that all business must reduce their workforce by 50%. By this time “social distance” has become very popular concept at our business. All of our people, in our office and factory, are kept 6’ apart. We have 26 people working for us, 3 are already working remotely…one in New Delhi, India, two in South Carolina. So that afternoon we make plans to have only 13 people in the office and warehouse.
March 19th, 2020
The next day is rainy, windy and cold. I forego the idea of a paddle or a row. I head into the office to review our plans. By one that afternoon, our plans are thrown into confusion when the Governor announces another spike in virus cases and deaths. A new edict is laid down. Now only 25% of your work force can come in. Hastily, we make plans for different shifts to insure that there are never more than 6 people are in our building. We have 24,000 square feet of office and warehouse space, so even in normal times, our people are well-spaced part. With the 25% announcement, social distancing is getting truly easy.
March 20th, 2020
This day is sunny and warm, with temperatures making into the 60s. I take the opportunity to go for a morning paddle before heading into the office to review our plans for having 25% of the people working in our building. By 12 noon that plan becomes moot. The Governor of New York announces that all non-essential businesses must close by Monday the 23rd. A new plan must be developed.
I have the unpleasant and sad duty to inform our 26 employees that we do not know how long we can maintain salaries or keep people employed. It will be contingent, I tell them, on what support we can get from the government. One thing is true, I tell them, we cannot pay people for long if we cannot ship goods and receive monies for that. It is a sad and shocking day for me, my brother and partner, John Hoge, and for all of the employees. Many of our employees have worked for us for 10 or 20 years and some a lot longer. We are, after all, a family business that has continually operated for the last 62 years.
We contact UPS and Fedex to advise that them we will not be open for our regular shipments and pickups. We advise different trucking companies that will not be open for pick-ups or drop-offs. We advise our freight forwarder to have any incoming shipments sent on to the logistic company we use to hold additional inventory. That is because the logistic company can still operate. They are considered an essential business because they also distribute food and prescription drugs. So we schedule various fishing lure and inflatable boat shipments to go to Elm Logistics.
Personally, I consider fishing lures and inflatable boats pretty essential. The fishing lures catch fish – the inflatable boats let people get to where they can catch fish. I am thinking in this strange and troubling time, catching fish may be important in feeding people who perhaps have no money because they are unemployed.
March 21, 2020
On Saturday, we get some very surprising and very good news. My brother, who is very diligent in reading all government documents and reports about this, has discovered that the Governor of New York has issued new guidance on what is considered an essential business and what is not. Because we have a warehousing and distribution business we are considered an essential business. Immediately, we call back all our our employees and tell all our warehouse workers to come in Monday morning. It is a happy day. We still tell our office workers to work from remotely from home. That is pretty easy for us since before all this started we already had three remote workers. Adding more people to work remotely is actual pretty easy and simple, although it does require some instruction from our IT guy.
Since the weather is sunny and a pretty comfortable 52 degrees, I head out for a celebratory paddle on the bay. I encounter no other paddlers. It is still early for most kayakers to get out on the water. I take my trusty kayak blanket to keep legs warm and dry. The dry part is an especially handy feature because of “paddle drip”. This is something that most kayakers never mention, but water tends to make its way down the shaft of a paddle blade and drip into the cockpit of the kayak. But no worries for me, my trusty, toasty waterproof kayak blanket keeps me both warm and dry. It is a good day for a paddle and I come back feeling refreshed and happy at the news that we can continue operating.
March 23, 2020
On Monday I stay home because now I am a new remote worker. I spend most of my first day getting my Chromebook up and running. It is not easy, but, after several false starts, several Skype calls to our IT guy, who, by the way, is one our first remote workers and is located in South Carolina, I get it working. Now I can see daily sales reports, review email, review what is in our warehouses for shipping and make Skype calls far and wide.
On this day, I take the opportunity to call our biggest fishing lure customers to tell them the one basic message. We are open, for now, I tell them, but I do not know how long. One customer says sorry, our best account, is Dick’s Sporting Goods, and they have closed all their stores. Things are looking grim, they tell me. Another customer, quite a famous one, tells me that 6 of their 156 destination stores are closed, but for the moment the remaining 150 destination stores are open, but they are seeing a lot less foot traffic. They are nervous and do not want to buy much until they see the lay of the land. They promise to review their inventory and place orders, if needed. A day later, a nice stocking order comes in, but it is not bigger then usual. It is nice to see anyway.
The last customer is more enthusiastic. They service Walmart and they will review their needs and order out to cover the next 60 days of their needs. A day later a really big stocking order comes from them and we have scramble to gather everything we can to ship them and then we have to order more goods to replace what we have just sold.
My father told me many years ago, “You can’t ship from an empty wagon.”
I also know that many others have said the same thing and it is a kind of conventional wisdom among manufacturers and distributors. I have always taken that advice to something of an extreme…keeping more inventory on hand than most companies would. Simply put, we never want to be out of anything because we hate backorders…it is costly and it reduces what you can bill and get paid for.
Now, we have two suppliers for fishing lures, one is an American company in Florida. They buy American parts for our fishing lures and assemble and paint those parts in the Dominican Republic. Then they send back the finished fishing lures to us. The other supplier is a Hong Kong company. They make lures for us, doing their painting, plating and assembly in Shenzhen, China. Of the two suppliers, the American one is the slower and less reliable, sad to say. The quality of both suppliers is truly excellent, but the production abilities of Hong Kong company is better. For that reason, we give the new order to the Hong Kong company. We need goods fast.
Should you think cost is the reason we chose to use the Hong Kong company, it is not. Because of duties, tariffs and newly higher airfreight costs, the lures made by the Hong Kong company cost more. So, the main reason we placed our orders with the Hong Kong is that we know we can get the lures faster.
Strange to say, the Hong Kong company was shut down for an extended period after Chinese New Year, but now they are up and running. They have to comply to the strict regulations of the Chinese government still has in place regarding the Coronavirus. That means everyone in their factory has to wear masks each day. They must replace their masks every 6 hours. They have to have their temperatures taken twice a day – in the morning before being admitted to the factory and they then again after lunch. Anyone exhibiting an above normal temperature is sent home. And if they exhibit any symptoms of the virus, they are sent off to quarantine.
So we place an order with our Hong Kong supplier for all the products we are running low or running out of. I would mention that we have over 1,000 different sizes, colors and kinds of fishing lures, so there is a lot to keep in stock.
That proves to be a wise choice because three days later we find out Dominican Republic factory has been shut down for next four weeks. Apparently, the Coronavirus has reared it’s ugly head there.
We then set our employees to task of getting as much shipped as possible of the new order to our big customer. We are exceedingly lucky, I know, to have this kind of a problem. And so we set to work. In doing so, we implement many of the standards that the Chinese have put in place. We supply masks for all workers, we space out their work areas, we provide sanitizer and sanitizing wipes for everybody. And we go around every 3 hours wiping down doorknobs, keyboards, and other surfaces that might get touched.
We also order additional supplies of face masks, gloves, point & shoot thermometers and a special steam machine to disinfect desks, work stations, computers and work areas. Many of these items are not available presently in this country, so we ask our Hong Kong supplier to obtain face masks, surgical gloves, thermometers, and arrange for them to be sent by UPS Air.
The first 4 days of this week are fairly good for the stock market. It goes up substantially and erases some of its earlier losses from what I will call the Coronavirus Panic. Now, it is certain that there are good reasons to worry about the financial effects, as well as the health effects of the virus. Bars, restaurants, hotels, airlines, cruise lines and many other forms of businesses are either shut down or greatly reduced. By Thursday, new unemployment claims are revealed. It is a shocker, over 3,000,000 people have filed claims for unemployment.
Another shocker was announced the same day. On the 26th of March, the United States surpasses China in the total number of reported Coronavirus cases. Of course, the number of cases cited by China was questioned by many who think that the Middle Kingdom may have understated the real number of cases. I happen to be in the camp that does believe that China’s numbers are understated.
Despite the unemployment and Coronavirus news, the stock market takes this in stride and goes up one more day.
March 27, 2020
On Friday, the number of infected cases of the Coronavirus on Long Island surpasses South Korea. That is pretty amazing, considering that the population of South Korea is 51 million people and Long Island is 3 million. One might wonder how could Long Island surpass South Korea in the number of Coronavirus cases? I will leave that question to be asked after this is all over.
Below is a chart showing the rapid rise of Coronavirus cases on Long Island:
The number of Coronavirus cases on Long Island was rising rapidly by March 27th.
By Friday, stock markets get nervous and they take the opportunity to backtrack.
It is a new opportunity for investors to get some great buys, some stock pundits say that evening on the two business networks.
The weather on Friday was clear and in the low 50s. I take the opportunity to go for a paddle and ponder the state the world with a wide expanse of blue water in front of me.
It was a beautiful day and a wonderful paddle. The air was fresh and clear and I saw no one during my paddle. It was just me, some seagulls twirling around in the sky, some swans cruising elegantly by me, some great blue herons looking on at me in disapproval. I can tell you from experience herons, especially great blue herons, don’t like humans. They consider us interlopers on this earth.
The weekend comes and with it some nasty, rainy, cold weather. I stay home and light a fire. It gives a cosy and toasty feeling for me and my family.
March 31st, 2020
This Tuesday morning I choose to go for a row. That is both practical and smart. It is a cloudy, cool morning with a heavy bank of clouds stretching above as far as the eye can see. The temperature is around 40. The wind is out of the Northeast blowing at steady, cold and unforgiving 10 to 15 mph. My decision to row rather than paddle is practical because my kayak has gathered about 3” of water since I last used it. When I go down the dock, the first thing that I do is undo one of the drain valves on my kayak and drain out the water. Then I close the drain valve and flip the kayak upside down so no more rain can come in and the kayak will dry out.
“The Fleet” at my dock – a water filled Sea Eagle RazorLite to the left, a prototype “GoSkiff 14” on the right, a prototype “TriTiki” on the far side of the dock. The “”TriTiki” is 16’ long, holds up 4 people and features 2 solar panels, 2 lithium batteries, 2 electric motors. The solar panels charge the batteries, the batteries power the electric motors. The Green Revolution is in place at my dock.
My decision to go for a row is also smart because the kayak seat, having rested in 3” of water, is not going to be either warm or dry. So I then get on the other floating dock holding my rowing craft, slide it off that dock and get on my “GoSkiff” after I place a dry seat cushion on it. Fully prepared now, I begin my row out of Turtle Cove (my name for my little cove) and ply my oars into Little Bay. As mentioned above the temperature is still pretty chilly, the wind right nippy coming out of the unforgiving Northeast. Someone forgot to tell this March that it was supposed to go out like a lamb.
In Little Bay I hug the shoreline which means closely passing by the cemetery that is at the end of the road my house is on. Appropriately, my road is called Cemetery Lane. The cemetery houses many folks from the Revolutionary War. Strong’s Neck, where I live, was settled in 1655 by the Smith and Strong families. And many family members are now buried in this nearby cemetery. I stay close to the cemetery and the shoreline because it keeps me in the “Lee of the Land” and thus I am sheltered from the the nagging Northeast Wind.
I ply my way along the shoreline on this gray and cloudy day, happy almost instantly to be out in the clean refreshing air. I come around the stone embankment and pass into Setauket Bay & Harbor. Immediately, I run into the 10 to 15 mph Northeast wind. Now I can row quite easily through that. Because I am rowing directly into the wind and my back is facing the wind, I am quite shielded, thanks to my trusty Duluth Nylon fleece-lined jacket. I can plow through winds pretty efficiently up to 25 mph, but after that I prefer to let others try it. Rowing in 25+ mph winds is a younger man’s game.
I read that Teddy Roosevelt, when he was a boy, loved to row in Long Island Sound in high winds. Teddy was a sickly child and not strong, but as he got a little older he took up outdoor exercise with great relish, his theory being that outdoor exercise would help him overcome his early sickly disposition. It seemed to work. He went on to become a very energetic President of the United States. Teddy grew up in Oyster Bay about 21 miles west of here.
Here be the “Lisa Jean”. Maybe the last of her kind in Setauket Harbor. Two crows sit at the stern on this cloudy and chilly day. Here the wind is sheltered by the land on both sides of the bay. Just seconds before there was a seagull on the bow. He or she flew away, perhaps, afraid that I might digitally capture their soul.
I am not rowing in high winds on Long Island Sound today. Good thing too, because it would probably mean rowing against sizable whitecaps. I am rowing in brisk Northeast winds as I ply my way through Setauket Bay and Harbor. Pretty soon, as I row into the narrows of Setauket Bay, I come up to the one boat that is still moored in the harbor. It is the “Lisa Jean”. She stands as a lonely reminder this once was a working harbor, a place from which whalers set out into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in search of whales and whale oil, a place where fisherman and clammers and oystermen once made their living.
The “Lisa Jean” is moored about a half mile from Port Jefferson Bay, so this is about a one and half mile row from my house. I take a picture of the venerable fishing craft and row my way around it and head back home. It is not my longest row by any means, but it is enough of a row to get a full slug of fresh air and to be reminded that the real world is outside, not inside. I am hoping, like Theodore Roosevelt, that my paddling and rowing activities will bring me true peace of mind and strengthen my body. While I am it, I also hope that it will protect me against the Coronavirus.
Back on my dock, I walk up my dock gangplank and look back over my little cove and the bay beyond. I cannot help but think it is a beautiful morning.
The rest of day did not proceed as well as my morning row. The stocks markets had a rough day, going down for the second day in a row. The Dow ended the month with its worst first quarter ever. Later the evening the President presided over the Daily Coronavirus Update. The news was not good. And for the first time, the President gave a very somber and honest report of where they thought the Coronavirus was going from here. He announced that they expecting between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths in the U.S. from this Pandemic.
I must say that I was very impressed with the up front and honest presentation that the President gave. And while I might still think that the new projections of where this virus might might go may still be understated, I think it was a good and honest presentation that should be heeded by all. Those of you who might have read my last blog story, “Into the 20s We Go”, might remember that I have been tracking the progress of the Coronavirus in China and that was a main element of that story. That was because I was convinced that it was an important story and what was happening in China would most likely happen here in some form or other. Sad to say, that has come to pass.
I hope, with the rest of America and all the world, that this Pandemic comes to a swift end. I suspect its effects will be us for a long time to come. I suspect long after the physical effects of the Coronavirus on humans has been resolved, the financial effects of this tragedy will be with us. I think we may see an altered world. I hope that no matter what comes, we will find meaning and joy in life on earth.
Not all of us will get to see the final progress of this new disease. None of us knows where it will go.
In the meantime, I will continue to paddle and row each day that it is possible and hope that we all survive and thrive.
I gave this story a subhead: Chapter 1. That is because I think there will be more chapters to write about.
I mentioned when I started writing this blog story that there were 41 cases of Coronavirus in Suffolk County (the county where I live) and 50 cases in Nassau County (the adjoining county) – those two counties encompass the main populations of Long Island, although I am not including Queens or Brooklyn, which are boroughs of New York City.
Today, as of April 2nd, as I finish this blog story, there are 8,746 Coronavirus cases in Suffolk County and 10,593 Coronavirus cases in Nassau County. Presently, there now over 92,000 Coronavirus cases in New York and over 234,000 Coronavirus cases in the United States. Worst of all, today, according John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the world has over 1,000,000 Coronavirus cases.
I do not take pleasure in citing these numbers. I can only hope that this disease will die out soon and America will return to the country it was.
Whether you read books, surf the web, stream movies, go for walks, eat chocolate, lift weights, make love or practice yoga, I hope we can all find a way to “Paddle On”.
Sunset on one decade just before a new decade – December 2019 at West Meadow Beach, Long Island. The tranquil scene above would not last long before unforeseen shocks would come.
By Cecil Hoge
The 2020s began with a bang on January 3rd, 2020. At least, I am assuming it was a bang that accompanied the explosion that killed Qasem Suleimani, the Iranian general that Donald Trump ordered to be targeted by a drone. The stock market, which started 2020 making love to itself in the risk on closet, promptly heard the bang and ran into the risk off closet where it sat cringing with fear, shedding points by bushel.
Other things were going on in the first month of the new decade. The President of the United States had been impeached and his trial began. A strange new flu was making its way around China and showing up in other spots around the globe. There was a meeting in Davos, Switzerland where the rich and famous gathered to argue about the state of the world economy, global warming, rising stock markets, collapsing interest rates and yields. The U.S. President, the same guy who was about to go on trial for impeachment, was there touting “the good numbers” that the U.S. was enjoying and badmouthing all those who thought global warming was real. Greta Thunberg, a 17 year old teenager, was on hand to chastise the President and all others who thought global warming was a hoax. And so the new decade started.
I wonder if the 2020s will have some similarities to the 1920s?
I did a little research to check what was happening at the very beginning of the 1920s. It seems that the 1920s did not begin with a bang. No, it began with good intentions and the agonized cries of many an alcoholic. On January 16th, 1920, the 18th Amendment took effect and that meant from that moment on booze was illegal. Now this did not come as a total surprise because 25 States already had laws in effect banning the consumption or sale of alcohol. As you probably know, the 18th Amendment and all the other laws banning alcohol did not have much effect. America decided to celebrate and drink more alcohol than ever. So much for good intentions.
The Roaring 1920s had their own issues
Not much was happening in 1920. World War I had ended in November 1918 and the world was once again exploring the possibilities of peace on earth. Babe Ruth was sold by the Red Sox to the New York Yankees. Apparently, Communists were becoming a concern in this country and many were arrested that year. Fanny Brice, an entertainer of that time, was having some problems with her husband who was trying to steal 5 million dollars in securities and passing bad checks. Poncho Villa surrendered to Mexican authorities down Mexico way. A new strain of the flu was starting to hit hard again with over 5,000 cases in New York City. This was a new version of a flu that had killed over 20,000,000 people worldwide in 1918 & 1919.
In 1920, it was get it while you can!
Later that year, women won the right to vote in this country. In September 1920 there an explosion in Wall Street Financial district. 30 people were killed and over 300 were injured. William J. Flynn of the FBI believed the bombing was the work of an Italian terrorist group.
Today, in 2020, we do not worry much about Italian terrorist groups. Our worries are more centered in the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa where there seem to be more terrorist groups than we can name or number. And as fast as one disappears, two appear. The myth of Hydra is haunting us to this day.
I would suppose both periods were confused ages and I wonder if there was any age on this earth that was not confused.
I was born September 22, 1942. The way I figure it, I was conceived shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. To this day, I think my time in the womb was imbued with a sense of anxiety that came with parents experiencing the advent of World War II. That feeling stayed with me through the 1940s and the early 1950s when I went to various schools that regularly drilled you to get down on your knees, put your head under your desk and in the words of a fellow classmate, “kiss your ass goodbye”.
So, if you find this blog story a little paranoid, my time in the womb is the reason.
The war sensibility that I grew up with and the understanding that an atomic or nuclear attack was always possible continued with me through the 60s, the 70s and most of the 80s. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that I had some sense that the world had come to some understanding that mutual annihilation was not a good idea and maybe it was better to live in a world where there was not the threat of the end of the world. That did not mean, of course, that the threat of world annihilation had been removed. It only meant that the threat had faded in my mind.
With the bang that began 2020, I once again had this feeling of uneasiness, of doubt, of fear, that the world was still an unstable place, that war or calamity was always a possibility.
The day after the killing of Suleimani, Iran vowed to take revenge. A couple of days later 22 missiles rained down on two Iraqi air bases where U.S. soldiers were stationed. Luckily, no U.S. soldiers were killed or reported injured. Later in the month it was reported that 50 soldiers experienced brain injuries and that one of the air bases had suffered significant damage. Later still, it was reported that 109 soldiers had suffered brain injuries. Strange how numbers sometime change.
A few hours after the missiles from Iran went flying into the two American air bases, it was reported that a Ukrainian airliner, a Boeing 737, crashed and killed all 176 people on board.
The first reaction of the Iranian people was outrage at the killing of their general by the U.S. and for a short period of time it seemed that the Iranian people were united in outrage against the United States and President Trump. But that did not last.
At first the Iranian government said the airliner crash was the result of mechanical difficulties. That was their explanation for a few days. When a video emerged showing one or two missiles being sent into the airliner and the Canadian and Ukrainian governments announced that they had proof that the plane had indeed been shot down by the Iranian military, the Iranian Government fessed up and said that it had indeed shot down the plane by accident. It seemed that a few members of the Iranian military had gotten nervous and shot down the plane because they thought it might be an incoming American cruise missile delivering retribution and mayhem.
But it turned out only to be a jet airliner taking off from their own airport in Tehran. Such is the fog of war.
The fact that the Iranian Government finally admitted this mistake and a full blown war between Iran and the U.S. had not occurred, promptly sent the stock market scurrying back into the risk on closet and almost immediately stocks went on to new higher highs. In the meantime, the Iranian people had a funeral for Suleimani the General and in the excitement over 70 citizens were killed in a stampede.
The excitement did not end there. As soon as the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, admitted to the mistake of Iran’s military guard, the people of Iran got equally excited and disturbed and started protesting the fact that the Ayatollah had not been completely honest. It seems Iran is subject to changing whims…one day you are up, one day you are down.
In the meantime, President Trump said he had a perfect right to kill Suleimani because Suleimani was “a bad guy”, because Suleimani was planning to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, because Suleimani was planning to blow up 4 U.S. Embassies, because Suleimani had killed thousands of Americans and because Suleimani had said “some bad things about our country”. And while all of the above was no doubt true in some sense, there were those in the world, both friend and foe, who thought that the killing of Suleimani was a barbaric act and we should not have done it.
After all, it was pointed out that Suleimani was a general in the Iranian Army visiting a foreign country, Iraq. Civilized countries did not send drones into foreign countries to blow away high officials just because they did not agree with them or because they were “bad dudes” or even because the person being targeted had killed thousands of Americans. No matter, it seemed that our President did not agree with this sentiment and it also seemed that he had eliminated a guy who most countries would not miss.
That set up a big discussion as to whether the killing of Suleimani was wise or not. Those who thought it was good idea pointed to the fact that a really bad guy was gone from the world and this would set back Iranian terrorist activities. Those who did not agree said this was a dangerous and stupid precedent that might give other countries the idea that they could assassinate generals, secretaries of states, politicians, presidents and other high officials of other countries. Others argued this killing might lead to the very opposite result that the Trump Administration intended: namely, we might get kicked out of Iraq. That might leave Iran free to strengthen its position in the Middle East and become the most powerful country in that part of the world.
And so the argument raged on. It was not helped when the Iraqi Parliament (or at least a part of it) voted days after the Suleimani killing to kick American troops and consultants out of Iraq. The United States promptly said that our troops were not going anywhere and if Iraq did kick our troops out we would not allow them to finance their oil shipments.
So, good intentions abounded in the beginning of 2020 and some unintended consequences occurred on both sides and there was much to dispute about what was right and what was not.
Chinese New Year was the year of the rat – in China the rat is supposed to be a quick and crafty thinker always ready to take advantage of a situation. By the end of the month, the rat in 2020 seemed more like the rat we know in the West.
Other things were going on that gave this new decade a zesty start. Chinese New Year started in the third week of January. Just about that time, the first infections of the Coronavirus, the name of the strange flu that was going around China, were being reported. The timing was not good since Chinese New Year was also the time the greatest annual migration of people on planet earth. With 300 million people moving about a country the size of China, it is hard to stop a virus.
Other events were on the calendar. The actual impeachment trial of The President of the United States began in the third week of January about whether to remove the President from office. On the last day of the month, it was announced that the Senate voted down the option to have witnesses at the trial. The Democrats called foul while Republicans generally celebrated.
One senator, Lamar Alexander, voted against having witnesses explaining, “It would pour gasoline on the cultural fires burning out there.”
It seemed the senator thought if witnesses were called up the President would be impeached and then a civil war might begin.
On January 27th, it was revealed that 81 people had died and more than 2700 people were infected in China from the Coronavirus. On that day the Dow Jones went down 553 points. The next day it was revealed the same virus had killed 106 people and infected over 4500 people. In other words, in one day of reporting, deaths had increased 31% and infections had increased over 60%. The stock market took news in stride and went up over 250 points. Apparently, it believed events in far away China had no bearing on the American economy.
On January 29th, it was revealed that the Coronavirus had killed over 131 people and infected just under 6,000 people. That day the stock market took the news in stride, but back-pedaled at the end of the day to be largely flat, with the Dow up and S&P slightly down.
On January 30th it was announced that 170 people had died and 7700 people were infected in China. During that day a number of reports mentioned some unsettling conditions. Starbucks closed over 2,000 stores in China because of the Coronavirus and the Chinese New Year would be extended until February 10th. That meant that 2/3rds of all Chinese factories would stay closed until February 10th. The stock market was not concerned and went up that day.
It seemed that investors, market gurus, pundits, financial reporters, stock manipulators, computer bots, scalawags, carpet baggers, quants and software programmers all had some inside info that I did not.
On January 31st, the market decided it was concerned. Sentiment was shifting…maybe this virus thing might have some effect on business. By the end of the day, the Dow Jones Average was down 603 points and all U.S. markets were down for the year 2020. To say the least, the month of January was a topsy, turvy market with investers running this way and then that way, with no clear knowledge of whether to celebrate or run off a cliff.
Later the same day, the WHO (The World Health Organization) announced a global health emergency because of the Coronavirus. At the same time, Lawrence Kudlow, Director of the United States National Economical Council, said he thought there would be no impact on the American economy from the Coronavirus in China.
As soon as it became apparent that the Coronavirus was spreading rapidly, China decided to quarantine Hubei Province and some other cities containing about 60,000,000 people. That meant that no trains, planes or buses or cars could go out or into the quarantined areas.
In the meantime, I wondered whether not getting any shipments of goods from China might have an impact on the U.S. economy and the Western World. I had a personal stake in this situation since we had 8,200 inflatable boats on order, all to be shipped after Chinese New Year. To get a better handle on this situation, I e-mailed my 6 different suppliers. 5 had factories located in China. 1 was located in Korea and Vietnam.
The answers that came back were rather chilling.
One supplier could not make any prediction about when they might start producing products. They did say they expected to start February 10th and said “we stay inside all day and do not even go downstairs.”
That is probably very good for food delivery companies who bring food to individual apartments, but not so great for restaurants and bars who like patrons to come to them. And not so great for the people who have to spend day after day in their apartment.
Another supplier said the situation is “serious and we hear many rumors about it being far worse than reported.”
Another supplier told us they are not allowed to go out of their apartment building. Apparently, they have 6 entry and exit points, 5 of which are chained shut. At the 6th, a military guard is stationed. One person in their household can go out every 2 days to shop. To go to work, they need a permit and if they cannot show that they just have to stay in their apartment. This system of mandatory quarantine of people in apartment complexes is apparently being implemented throughout China.
I am not sure how that system would work out in the United States. I am guessing some folks here would not go along with such an idea.
Another supplier said that they did indeed expect to open on February 10th, but they were going to have to provide face masks and hand sanitizers for all employees. In addition, they would have to take the temperature of every employee every day. If any employee had too high a temperature or exhibited symptoms of the Coronavirus, the infected person would have to go off and be quarantined. And again, this system is being widely adopted throughout China.
None of my suppliers could even begin to say when they might be able to ship goods. The supplier that makes our boats in South Korea and Vietnam did not have a problem about opening those two factories up, but they were missing some parts and material from China and so they also could not say when they might start making boats.
At the end of January it was revealed that Coronavirus was doubling every 6.4 days.
You might think the first month of the new decade was primarily focused on the Iran situation and the Coronavirus, but you would be wrong. Other things were going on in the world. At the end of January, the U.S. and Israel announced “The Deal of the Century”. The deal that was being referred to was between Israel and Palestine, but strangely it was concluded just by Israel and the United States. The two countries had taken a different approach to having a final peace agreement in the Middle East with Israel and Palestine. Rather than consult the other main party to the deal, Palestine, the United States and Israel simply presented their deal to Palestine on the presumption or hope that Palestine would sign on to it. It took about 12 nano-seconds for Palestine to reject the deal. So much for “The Deal of the Century”.
This deal apparently will have some interesting side effects, even if Palestine never accepts it. For one thing, the United States agreed with Israel in this “Deal of the Century” for Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. That was a sticky point for Palestine since they thought it was their capital. It was also widely reported that Israel would use this “deal” to annex land on the West Bank that had previously belonged to Palestine.
Iran predicted that this deal would lead to calamity for the U.S., but of course, Iran generally predicts that any U.S. action will lead to calamity. It must be said, however, if you want to get a deal between two parties, they have to meet and agree to mutually acceptable terms. The Trump Administration apparently believes that one party can simply tell the other party what the deal is. An interesting approach for sure.
If one looks back a few hundred years in history at a real “Deal of the Century”, there are certain elements that need to be in place. I am speaking of when the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan for some trinkets supposedly worth $24. That deal apparently had the agreement of the Indians. Maybe, President Trump could clinch this deal if he just threw in Greenland, a piece of property he apparently is interested in acquiring anyway. Then the Palestinians would have plenty of space to stretch out once they got used to their large and chilly domain.
As February got under way, the Democrats and Republicans laid out their final arguments on whether President Trump should be impeached. It was widely assumed that the outcome would be acquittal. President Trump wanted this to be wrapped up before his State of the Union speech, but the Democrats, knowing they had lost the war, fought one more fruitless battle and delayed the decision until after the State of the Union speech.
The first day that stock markets were open in February, investors again charged ahead and bought stocks. Apparently, the markets had some information that I was not privy to. Although the infection rate of the Coronavirus as of February 3rd rose to 20,600 infections and over 435 deaths, that did not bother the ever wise stock markets. They used the first day the market was open in February to erase all the losses of the previous Friday. Happy days were here again.
That week the first primary of the new political season took place for Democrats and, like the Democratic efforts to impeach President Trump, the Democratic efforts to count votes in Iowa failed. There were only about 30,000 caucus votes to count in Iowa, but somehow that eluded the abilities of the Democrats. The night of the election they were unable to call a winner. Apparently, a new software program that was supposed to deliver speeded up results, delivered contradictory results. Oops.
The next day the Democratic Party was able to release some results (62% of the counts) which showed Pete Buttigieg as leading with Bernie Sanders running a close second. After that came Elizabeth Warren and after that Joseph Biden. Because only 62% of the votes had been counted and checked, it was still to early to declare a winner. One thing seemed clear. Joseph Biden, who had been the Democratic favorite candidate, now seemed to be running out of gas.
Later on the evening of the same day, President Trump gave his State of the Union speech. It was very well-received by Republicans and very harshly received by Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, perhaps frustrated by the fact that she was having difficulties impeaching the President, tore up a copy of the President’s speech while the President was still giving the speech. It certainly was a case of poor sportsmanship by a sore loser.
In the President’s speech, he referred to “The Great American Comeback”.
“Our country is thriving again”, he said. And certainly, no one could disagree that the economy had not gotten better while Donald Trump was President. Some might argue that it came at the expense of the environment and that it is easy for corporations to have extra profits if they spend less on pollution controls that are no longer required.
Some other points were subject to some skepticism: “Since my election, United States stock markets have soared 70%”. Exactly where that number came from was not immediately understood. The Dow Jones, for example, did rise about 40% from the end of 2017 to the present. In any case, it was clear that the stock market had indeed risen a great deal since Trump became President. Other statements were also not completely agreed to:
“Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting” Certainly, it was true the employment was up. As to whether incomes were soaring and poverty was plummeting, many would argue that was not the case.
“The years of economic decay are over,” the President said. Well, maybe, others said.
Whatever you might think of the President’s speech, one thing was true. It marked a new high point in his Presidency and the speech was a loudly applauded by all those supporting the President.
And the winner is The Winner!
The day after President Trump‘s speech, he was acquitted as widely predicted by everyone but the Democratic Party. The President had a news conference to declare what a scam and a hoax the impeachment process had been. At the same time, the New York Times published more results from the Iowa Caucus and reported that there appeared to be numerous inconsistencies in the votes. From the latest figures it appeared that Bernie Sanders was nudging closer to Pete Buttigieg. In any case, it was still too early to declare any candidate a winner.
By February 6th the market had roared ahead and reached all time highs. Investors were definitely in a risk on mode. At the same time, the number of infected and dead from the Coronavirus kept advancing. By mid week, China admitted to 28,000+ infections and over 460 people dead. That did not seem to bother the markets which kept cruising along. Apparently, market pundits thought that a effective vaccine or mix of vaccines would be developed that would shortly eradicate the problem and/or the Chinese Government would cut interest rates and stimulate the economy enough to make the infected and dead a mere bump in the road. And the best minds of the generation plowed into the market.
In that same week of February, I kept getting updates from my various suppliers in Korea, Vietnam and China. My Korean supplier was worried – apparently only 60% of the workers came back to their Weihai plant. Even though they were based in Korea, they had two factories in China – one in Weihai and one in Guangzhou. They wrote me saying it would still take weeks for factories to start up and get up to full production. And because some parts and materials were made in China, all production in Korea and Vietnam would also be held up until the needed parts and material arrived.
According to their e-mail, all Chinese factories were crowded with goods ready for shipment and ports were fully clogged and not accepting goods to go out or come in. At the same time airlines, trucking companies and all forms of transport were simply not moving. Factories that make parts and materials for other factories that make the final goods, were closed and not in a position to manufacture the needed parts and materials. Without parts and material, other factories were unable to start producing more goods. So, in truth, most of China was at a standstill.
By February 7th, there were reports in the Wall Street Journal and on Bloomberg essentially saying the same thing. Investors took the opportunity to sell stocks and markets dropped.
A cynical old man such as myself might think that there were a bunch guys in a room, along with algorithms and stock manipulators and software programmers and carpet baggers and scalawags working to drive the market UP for the first few days of each week and then shorting-selling the market DOWN on the last day or two of the week. Because that had been the pattern of the stock market for the last several weeks. Was it a plot, was it an accident? Who knew?
That evening it was announced that over 34,000 people were infected with Coronavirus and 720 people had died. In other words, in just 7 days it, infections had more than tripled and deaths had more than doubled.
February 8th – from 11,000+ infected cases to 34,000+ cases in just 7 days.
The next day a spokesman for the WHO (the World Health Organization) said it appeared the number of daily infection cases had stabilized in the last 3 days. That seemed wrong to me, but who could argue with a WHO official. And certainly the stock market went along with the WHO official.
In the meantime, one of my Chinese contacts sent me a picture of her on her first day back to work. It was kind on eerie. See below.
The first day back in the office – it looks as if the heat was not working yet. All employees are required to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and have their temperature taken daily.
As we moved into the second week of February, the count of Coronavirus cases continued to rise, but not at the same blistering pace – it appeared that the WHO official was correct. That is, assuming the reported number cases were correct. The stock market kept up the usual routine of going up the first few days the week. By mid week, a new name was given to the Coronavirus. From February 11th on it would be called “Covid-19”. This snazzy new name was thought not to imply any racial slurs, which apparently, the name Coronavirus did. I tried to research just where the racial slurs might be coming from Coronavirus, but was somewhat bewildered.
According to Google, corona refers to a rarified gaseous envelope around the sun and virus refers to virus. Beyond that there was the fact the name Corona was used by a popular Mexican beer, but since the virus began in China, I think we can assume the racial slurs that might come from the name were not against Mexicans. I do believe many Chinese people felt, because the virus first started in China, that they were being unfairly suspected as having spread the virus. But, of course, it is hard to deny the fact that this new kind of flu did start in China.
Regarding the name Coronavirus, I wondered if the real reason they changed the name to Covid 19 was because maybe Coronavirus spread as the name corona suggested: a gaseous envelope around each infected person.
Speaking of conspiracy theories, Tom Cotton, a U.S. Senator and a military veteran, suggested that the Coronavirus might have started in a special research lab near Wuhan.
”We don’t know where it originated, and we have to get to the bottom of that. We know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.”
I am not sure what Tom Cotton’s theory is? Did the virus get out of this “research lab” by accident? Or did the Chinese military release it in Wuhan to infect millions of Chinese in the hope of eventually infecting some Americans?
On February 12th, stock markets in the U.S. took the opportunity to cruise to new all time highs. Later that day, a surprise announcement came from China. Due to a new system of counting the infected and the dead, it was announced that there were 14,800 new infections and 242 new deaths. One might guess that infection count was just catching up to the reality of the Chinese under counting the number of previously infected people. So maybe it was just a case of catch-up. That did not explain the reason that there were suddenly 242 deaths whereas the previous high had been 97 deaths.
By week’s end, “Covid-19” reached 67,000+ infected and 1,500+ dead. So once again, it appeared that infections and deaths were still doubling each week. The stock market took it in stride, reasoning that maybe this was a buying opportunity.
Around the world, other things were happening. I have a gentleman named Navneet Syal who works for us in New Delhi, India. He tells me that in India they have serious problem regarding the high prices and availability of onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Apparently, the lady who is the Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, was asked about the high price of onions. She said that it was not a concern because she and her family do not use onions. So the simple solution to the high price and lack of availability of onions in India was to stop eating them. Problem solved.
When asked about the same problem affecting potatoes, she said, “Don’t worry, we are working on the problem of potatoes.” When asked immediately afterwords about the high price of tomatoes, she said, “I’ll get back to you on tomatoes.”
Apparently, it is also the age of cow chips
In another semi-related story in India, it seemed there was an Indian officer who had a simple solution to the problem of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. All any Indian person had to do was smear themselves with cow dung. The same gentleman mentioned that drinking cow urine was also helpful. Since the cow was sacred animal and cow dung was known to have many benefits, this simple prescription would keep everyone in India safe, if just a little smelly. I wonder if this same prescription might be applied to “Covid 19”?
The above story reminds me of my blog story “The Age of Buffalo Chips”.
And so it went India.
By the end of the second week of February, stock markets stabilized at all time highs. It seemed that the wisdom of the market was that Covid 19 was a little hiccup in a faraway place and that shortly there would be V recovery and the market would be ready to roar ahead to ever new highs.
The day before, a member of WHO, the World Health Organization, said it was possible that COVID 19 would become a true pandemic and eventually infect 60% of the world’s population. Most doctors in the U.S. said that was highly unlikely and there was little possibility that the new disease would cause any harm in the land of the free. Personally, I was wondering how much it would delay the shipment of the 8,200 boats we had ordered. From my discussions with my suppliers, it seemed that no one really knew.
Covid 19 was still increasing in infections and deaths each week, but there was much dispute about whether the disease would die out soon or infect most of the world.
In the meantime, it was announced on February 15th that 67,170 people were infected with Covid 19 and 1527 people had died.
In a related story, several cruise ships seemed affected by the Covid 19 virus. One ship, a Carnival Cruise ship, The Diamond Princess, was quarantined in Yokohama with 3700 people on board. At first 3 cases of the virus were reported, then 10 and then 20. As the cases mounted, the ship sat docked in Yokohama Harbor. Within a week, more cases were announced. Soon, the number of cases were up 355.
At that point, the United States decided it might be a good idea to evacuate the Americans on board. A plan was set in motion. Infected victims (over 40 Americans were already diagnosed with Covid 19), would be kept in Japan in special hospitals while the uninfected Americans would be flown home to the U.S. to be put in quarantine for another 14 days there. That was the plan.
You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Occasionally, they go wrong. In this case, after the remaining Americans were picked up and on the way, they found that 14 of the Americans were infected. That came as news just as the Japanese announced 99 new Covid 19 cases on The Diamond Princess and now 455 people of the original 3700 were infected.
Apparently, this news came too late to stop or alter the planned evacuation of Americans. So, now several hundred uninfected and 14 infected were on the same flight. Apparently, the infected would be sitting in a special quarantine section of the plane. Let’s hope the gaseous envelope surrounding the infected does not float too far.
And so, those were some of things that happened in the first month and a half of the new decade.
It is difficult to recite some of the happenings of the first 50 days of a year and say that they may indicate what the rest of the year might be like. It is even more difficult to say that the first year of a decade may indicate what a decade will be like. And so, out of an abundance of caution, I will not predict what any of the above might mean for the 2020s.
In coming back to whether there might be some correlation between the 1920s and the 2020s, I think it is also impossible to suggest that a comparison of the two periods may have any similarities. Some say those who do not study the past are condemned to repeat it. Others say history does not repeat, but it may rhyme.
We shall see as our present President says.
In regard to possible similarities between the two periods, it might be useful to mention some later events in the 1920s:
In 1921, the Communist Party in China was founded.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini became the fascist leader of Italy. That same year King Tut’s tomb was found.
In 1923, King Tut’s tomb is opened, releasing, according to some, a curse on those who opened the tomb. In November of 1923, Hitler and Eric Ludendorff attempt a national revolution against the Weimar Republic in Germany, called the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler and Ludendorff, a World War I general, started this revolution with 3,000 “Brown Shirts”. It did not go well. Hitler was thrown in jail and 14 brown shirts were killed.
That same year, other things happened: Warren Harding died of a heart attack and Calvin Coolidge became President. The Frigidaire (an electrical icebox) was introduced and refrigeration by ice went into a permanent tailspin. Pancho Villa was shot down and killed in Mexico.
In 1924, Gandhi fasted for peace and Calvin Coolidge was elected President. In December, Hitler was freed from jail after just 8 months.
Ku Klux Clan marching for America First in the 1920s. Almost 100 years later, President Donald Trump said in his inaugural speech, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”
In 1925, Hitler reorganizes German National Socialist Workers Party and publishes “My Kampf”.
In August, 40,000 Ku Klux Clan members march on Washington in white robes.
In 1926, television was invented by a Scotsman, John L. Baird. In 1927, Lindbergh, a U.S. air mail pilot, flies from Roosevelt Field on Long Island across the Atlantic to Paris, France.
In 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.
Of course, just because some things happened in the 1920s does not mean that anything that happened then might happen in the 2020s.
And so, into the 20s we go.
PostScript: I will update this story as time passes and more of the decade is in sight.
March 18, 2020 – The Coronavirus has soared in the few weeks since this blog was posted while stock markets of the world have gone in the opposite direction.
Sea Eagle and our Korean supplier team members after dinner in downtown Bupyeung, Korea. Ryan Healey, our Sea Eagle inventory manager, is the second guy on the left and I am the gray-headed guy on the right.
By Cecil Hoge
In November 2019, I returned from my last trip to Asia.
I began visiting Asia in 1973, starting with Tiawan, Hong Kong and Japan. In the 70s and 80s I went to Asia every few years and most of those trips were to Japan. In those years, Japan was feeling on top of the world. Toyota, Honda, Nissan had conquered the small car and mid-size car market. Real estate in Japan was booming. Japanese electronics led the world. And if you chose to have Kobe steak for lunch in Tokyo, it could set you back $150 to $200 for one sitting.
At the time, I was selling Frog fishing lures in Japan. It seemed that our SuperFrog™ lures we had developed in the States had a true market in Japan. After World War II, GIs introduced American bass fish to many of Japanese lakes and the new sport of bass fishing was born in Japan. And for a while we rode that wave and sold over 50,000 SuperFrog™ lures in Japan each year for about 5 years from the late 70s to the early 80s. In those years, I would go over once a year and meet with the buyers at Diamaru, which was the Japanese department store/trading company that I was dealing with.
The meetings were always intimidating since you would meet with 6 or 7 people in a large conference room, talk to them for about 45 minutes, give them your sales pitch and then someone would get up and say, I have to talk to my boss. The guy who said that and 2 or 3 others would get up and disappear from the room for another 45 minutes. Then all 3 or 4 of the original participants would file back into the room and say that they would send a telex or fax (those were the 2 modes of international communication at the time) informing me of their decision in about a week. Usually, they were good to their word and a week or two later a telex or a fax would arrive with an order.
By the late 90s I was going to Asia every 6 to 12 months. By that time, we had moved our inflatable boat production from Italy and France to Korea and China. Most of my trips were to Korea and China, with some stopovers in Hong Kong. All of these trips were either to investigate suppliers or to meet with suppliers for the products that we were selling. We make Sea Eagle inflatable boats in Korea, Vietnam or China and we also make our Panther Martin fishing lures in the Dominican Republic and Southern China.
This last visit to Asia was a relatively short for me…3 days in Korea, 3 days in China, 1 day back to Korea and then back to the States. The total travel time was 8 days, including the time lost on plane travel. That’s because of the weird time zone differences. Asia time is 12 to 14 hours ahead of us. It takes a whole day to get to Asia, but because of the time zone difference, it is more than a whole day later. And then, by a miracle of time zone travel, it takes zero days and zero time to get back.
How so, you may ask? Well, the flight from JFK to Seoul going takes 14 hours. On this trip I started out at 1 pm Saturday, November 2nd and arrived at 4 pm Sunday, November 3rd. Coming back was even more exciting. I started out at 10 am on November 10th and arrived, after 14 hours on a plane, at 10 am November 10th in New York. So, clockwise and date-wise, the return trip took no time.
This trip was not so short for my friend and colleague, Ryan Healey. Ryan is our inventory manager and after I came back from Weihai, the northern Chinese city we were visiting, to Korea and the States, Ryan headed, by train, to Qingdao, another Chinese city in northern coastal China. Then Ryan went down to Shanghai, also by train. Then, after a day in Ningbo, the port city of Shanghai, Ryan flew South to Dongguan and Shenzhen in southern coastal China for a couple days there.
But that was not all for poor Ryan. After enjoying those 4 Chinese cities, Ryan then would go down even further South to Vietnam to visit our Korean supplier’s Vietnamese factory. There is no rest for the weary business traveler. After that, Ryan would just have to take a plane back to Korea, hang out a day near the airport and then fly out to the States. His trip is exactly one week longer than mine.
Frankly, Ryan’s schedule was the normal I maintained in my earlier Asia trips, usually taking one, two or three days to visit each supplier, and then maybe a couple of days to check our one or two more new suppliers and then back home. So, the total time most of my Asian trips took two to three weeks.
Recently, I have cut back on the length of my trips, primarily to get back home faster to my wife and family. Ryan got the short straw on this trip and was scheduled to visit all 5 of our Asian suppliers. That, my friends, is just normal business travel. Hundreds of thousands of American business men and business ladies make this kind of trip each year and sometimes they make those kinds of trips several times each year.
On this trip, we were picked up at the Incheon airport (that is the main airport for Seoul, Korea) and driven into the town of Bucheon, a suburb near Incheon. For those of you not familiar with Korean geography, Korea is a peninsula of land jutting out between the Yellow Sea on the South and the North Sea on the North. Seoul is near the top of South Korea, about 30 miles from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) – the border between North and South Korea. It is interesting to note, roughly 50% of the total population of Korea is located in and around Seoul. So there are 30,000,000 Korean folks in and around Seoul and 30,000,000 more Korean folks in the rest of Korea.
After getting picked up at the airport by our supplier’s company driver and a new young employee, Gray, we were whisked into downtown Bucheon to something called the Koryo Hotel. The main virtue of the Koryo Hotel is that it is within walking distance of the downtown restaurant district. So, we checked in, dropped our bags In our rooms and headed out for dinner in Korea with Gray, the new employee of our supplier. Dinner turned out to be a favorite of mine – Korean barbecue – which, in this case, featured different kinds of red meats and vegetables cooked on a barbecue grill in the middle of our table. It was yummy and after dinner we headed back to the hotel to crash for a well-deserved sleep.
The next day we were downstairs bright and bushy-tailed as some would say. The driver and Gray were there to take us off to their new factory premises in Bupyeong, a nearby town. A word here is important. Our supplier had just gone through some difficult economic times. They had been on the Korean Stock Exchange cresting the wave of popularity of inflatable standup paddle boards. They were among the first companies to produce inflatable standup paddle boards and they got an early lead on the market, boosting sales of iSUPs (inflatable standup paddle boards) from almost nothing to over 60,000 units a year.
Their expansionary dreams did not stop there. They decided to get into the apparel business and began opening stores in various shopping malls around Korea. Pretty soon they were up to 30 stores. Unfortunately, the apparel business proved more difficult than their core inflatable boat and SUP businesses. It seemed that apparel was a very competitive field and having nice looking outdoor sporty clothes was not enough. Store rents in the new shopping malls that they had picked proved very expensive and sales were lackluster when they needed to be gangbuster. Within 3 years of initiating that business they found themselves losing some serious money.
As luck would have it, or what I would call “Murphy’s Law” – that is, “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” – took effect. Just as it was becoming apparent that the apparel business was is serious trouble, new and unforeseen problems arose in the core inflatable boat business. As their sales of iSUPs were peaking, literally hundreds of new startup companies entered the fray and my supplier found themselves dealing with lots of competition, most of it at much lower prices.
As if that was not enough, a part of the original core business, inflatable transom boats with fold-up floorboards began to collapse at the same time. The market had decided to move away from that kind of craft and instead move to what is known as inflatable RIBs. These are inflatable boats with either a fiberglass or aluminum bottoms permanently attached to the inflatable portions. It seemed that the public did not want to deal with inserting and setting up floorboards in a boat. So new consumers chose to buy inflatable RIBs, which, by the way, stands for Rigid Inflatable Boat. What the consumer got was a far easier to set-up boat that was considerably heavier and way more expensive, but a boat that motored much more like a traditional rigid fiberglass boat for the simple reason that it had a rigid bottom.
So this trend away from a core product that they regularly produced to a product that they did not regularly produce, combined with problems in the apparel business, combined with problems in the once booming SUP business all came together at the same time and created a sudden collapse in sales and some quite substantial losses. This is the very heart of “Murphy’s Law” because “whatever could go wrong did go wrong”.
To come back to my trip, one the important reasons I was going to Korea was to see just what the real status of my supplier was. I knew they had moved out their quite elegant headquarters, I knew their new factory location was in a really down and out looking area, with narrow winding roads going up and down little hills and cars, trucks and vans parked precariously on the edges of the roads. I knew this because we had checked out their new location on Google Earth.
What I did not know what their actual new facilities were like and what their financial condition truly was. So this was, in addition to being regular visit to a supplier, an exploratory trip to see and understand what really was going on.
My concerns were considerably appeased when we pulled up to their building. It was a large, relatively modern looking that stood out among the the smaller and more dilapidated shantytown buildings. In the building we soon found many of the former features of their last, more elegant headquarters. There were numerous conference areas with nice big tables for multiple people to have discussions. The owner had a nice open office with seating for 6 or 8 people to have more private conferences and what I would call “quality face time”.
In their offices for lengthy discussions on market trends, individual sales and and new products
Before seeing the Korean factory and the other warehouse areas of the factory, we sat down for discussions, first with the owner in his office and then in a conference room set aside for our discussions. Generally importer/supplier discussions follow a familiar path, first discussing general market conditions, problems areas, new factors facing both companies. Of course, in this case, this included a discussion of the financial difficulties that my supplier had faced in the last year and how they had dealt with those problems.
They were quite open about the difficulties that arose and how they had to work around them. They had to cut their staff in Korea from over 150 people to less than 75, they had to sell several buildings to pay off losses and secure future financing. They had now closed all their 30 stores and had exited the apparel business and their new plan was to concentrate solely on their core inflatable businesses.
All of this was very important for me to hear. I immediately felt that they had taken many important steps to secure their survival and long term recovery. I was sympathetic because I went through my own set of financial problems in the late 80s – I would refer anyone who wanted to learn more about that to read my blog story: “How The Stomach Eliminator Almost Eliminated Me” – it is a harrowing tale of lackluster sales, followed by booming sales, followed by collapsing sales.
Now, of course, everyone puts their own spin on things and no doubt what I was hearing had some spin. As my uncle once said to me: “It is all right to have your own press. Everyone has their own press, but it is fatal to believe your own press.” With that in mind, I was encouraged to hear about how they faced the problems they had and it did seem to me that they had made many of the hard choices a business faces from time to time and were emerging as best could be expected.
With plans for recovery revealed, we went on to other subjects:
The state of the inflatable SUP market – SUP sales were peaking, with cheaper and cheaper entries still selling large volumes and still coming into the market. Higher priced brand name SUPs were flat or declining, low end price point online sales accounting for 80% of the overall volume.
The state of the inflatable kayak market – Still healthy, but also plateauing. Fishing kayaks still vibrant and growing.
The state of the transom inflatable market: dead as a door nail.
The state of inflatable fishing boats: a small, but growing segment of the market.
We discussed worldwide sales:
Fading kayak and SUP sales in U.S.
Kayak and SUP sales still increasing in Europe, but generally, the larger inflatable boat market was down.
We discussed the state of tariffs in the U.S. and their effect elsewhere:
Now this is a subject affecting all importers whether they were paying tariffs or not. Since our Korean supplier was making boats for us in Korea or Vietnam, none of those products were subject to tariffs. However, since we also were importing other inflatable products from other suppliers in China, those products were sometimes subject to tariffs.
Here I had a lot to say:
We had started out the year (2019) in great fear because of the subject of tariffs. Tariffs of 10% were instituted in September of 2018 on inflatable boats and kayaks made in China. For those of you don’t know, inflatable boats and kayaks made in China represented 87% of all those sold in the U.S. So, effectively, almost all inflatable boats and kayaks sold in the U.S. were made in China.
By July of 2019, tariffs on Chinese made inflatable boats and kayaks increased to 25%. In our case, 40% of our boats were Chinese made and subject to tariffs. By August 2019 we had already paid over $240,000 in tariffs. This had forced us to raise prices on those boats made in China and immediately caused a sales decrease of most of the boats we raised prices on. It was a true case of economics 101.
However, things changed when we applied for an exemption on tariffs. Our case was based on three facts:
1. Certain kinds of inflatable boats could only be made in China.
2. There was no inflatable boat industry manufacturing inflatable boats in the U.S.
3. Inflatable boats and kayaks posed no risk to the security of the United States.
Now, we got assistance in our effort to file for an exemption on inflatable boats from the NMMA – National Marine Manufacturers of America. They wrote a letter of support which stated that inflatable boats were important to the overall boat market in the U.S. because they introduced many people to boating and that fact helped American Boat Manufacturers because in the future some of those people would buy rigid boats manufactured in the United States. That, of course, helped since their letter was attached to our exemption application.
My brother John, being a Republican, (something I am not), was also able to get a second letter from Lee Zeldin, a New York congressman, stating tariffs would hurt our ability to hire people on Long Island. While that is 100% true, I am personally dubious that we would have had much effect on the economy of Long Island. Anyway, considering the fact that Mr. Zeldin is a friend and ally of Mr. Trump, his letter was probably also very useful.
Perhaps, the most important fact about applying for a tariff exemption is that my brother and our inventory manager, Ryan, came into our office early one Sunday, in order to hit the send button on our exemption requests the instant the government website came up allowing people to make exemption requests. That resulted in us being the very first product to make an exemption request in the United States on what is known as list number 3. So, being the very first on the list also helped. We applied for 17 separate product exemptions and all 17 were filed within the first hour of the government website being up.
I have to say that while I fully supported making exemption requests, I was very dubious that our requests would be granted. Yes, we had truly valid reasons for our requests. And truly, importing inflatable boats, kayaks and SUPs was no threat to American security or to any American manufacturing company producing inflatable products, so those points were in our favor. In spite of that, I felt we were just too small a category of products to be considered. In retrospect, the size of our category may have been part of the reason we actually got the exemption.
So, surprise, surprise, we were granted exemptions on 7 products. Now you might think that meant that just those 7 products would be exempt in the future. But, that is not the way the government works. The government decided to give an exemption for the categories of inflatable boats, inflatable kayaks and kayak paddles. We had thought the exemption would be granted to just us, but that was also not the case.
Now, here is the strange part: we were the one and only inflatable boat company to apply for an exemption, but the exemption we got was for all inflatable boats and kayaks. However, since we were the only company applying, the specific exemptions for inflatable boats and kayaks were written around the specific boats and kayaks we applied for. So the exemption was for inflatable boats or kayaks made with PVC/polyester fabric that weighed under 52 kilos (114 lbs.) or 22 kilos (48 lbs.). This is truly case of the squeaky wheel getting the oil.
Regarding my assumption that getting an exemption was like winning the New York lottery, that was not far off. As of the end of December 2019, there have been over 31,000 requests for exemptions on list # 3. So far, about 5000 of those requests have been reviewed. Of the 5000 reviewed, less than 500 requests have been approved. Since we had 7 of those requests approved, we were over 1% of all the approved requests. So, in a way, I think it is fair to say, we did win the New York lottery.
While we had informed our supplier earlier of this fact, we had not given them a first hand, blow by blow description of what happened. I took time on this visit to give a complete rundown of what the present status of tariffs in the U.S. I also mentioned an important fact for them to remember about our tariff exemption: the exemption is only good for one year. Therefore, as of August 7th, 2020 we will either have to re-apply for an exemption and get it or we will have to pay 25% tariffs on all inflatable boats and kayaks received from China after August 7th, 2020.
Here, you have to understand the position of our Korean supplier: They do have two factories in China producing inflatable boats for them, so for those boats going to the U.S., they would not have tariffs for the time being. That would be helpful to them. However, since the boats we are producing with them were only coming from Korea and Vietnam, those products would not have tariffs anyway.
Since our supplier was one of the few companies who could make boats, kayaks and SUPs outside of China, this subject was of great importance to them.
That is not the end of the tariff story. There were other new points to discuss. As of September 1, 2019 new tariffs of 15% have taken place which affect Inflatable SUPs and the fishing lures that we also happen produce in China. Added to that there are continuing tariffs on boat accessories which include oars, foot pumps, piston pumps, electric pumps, carry bags and many other accessories.
All I could tell my supplier for the moment was that the overall tariff situation was “cloudy”.
I have to add a postscript to my conversation to my supplier – After I returned home, just before December 15, 2019, there was an announced “Phase 1 Deal”. That reduces the September 1 tariffs from 15% to 7.5% when “Phase 1 Deal” is signed. At the moment of writing this, the “Phase 1 Deal” has now been signed. So, the 15% tariffs are now 7.5%.
I spent a good one hour explaining all the ins and outs of this. Part of the reason that I came to visit my Korean supplier was to be sure that they would be ready to be an alternative supplier if the trade war took a turn for the worse. We had been given a reprieve because of our speedy exemption requests, but that had a deadline: August 7th, 2020 and in the meantime, there were still other tariffs in effect that we had to work around.
What I wanted to say to my supplier was that the situation was unknown and fluid and we had to adjust to whatever comes about. Since our supplier had many American customers they knew already most of this situation. The fact that we had secured the exemption for inflatable boats and kayaks was perhaps not fully understood by them, but after my meeting I think they were totally clear on the present situation and what twists and turns the future might bring.
That done, it was time for lunch. We adjourned to the company lunch room. The owner had prepared a nice 50 course plus Korean lunch for that. A German gentleman and his lady assistant were at lunch along with about 8 other employees from the company, most of whom I knew from my many visits to the company. The German couple proved interesting. They were importing some SUPs and kayaks to Germany under the name Da Vinci. I am not sure what that Renaissance gentleman had to do with inflatable standup paddle boards. I think the point was that these paddle boards where designed by like geniuses.
It gave me an opportunity to try out my rusty German which had not seen much action since 50 years ago when I worked a summer in the Black Forest. I was able to get a few points across and least encourage these new entrepreneurs. It seemed that they had been wending their way around Asia, photographing scenic paddling spots in Thailand and elsewhere for their next year’s catalog. They were an elderly couple but they seemed quite optimistic about the prospects for their SUPs and kayaks in Germany.
After tasting about 25 of the 50 different courses, most of which were delicious, even if I was not able to identify exactly what I was eating, we went back to the office for further discussions. It was now time to discuss the new prototypes. I had two major goals in mind for this visit:
1. Outfit our Travel Canoe with traditional wooden seats. This product, which is a unique patented design of ours was normally produced for us with inflatable seats. While the inflatable seats very comfortable, they were not appealing to traditional canoeists. I concluded, rightly or wrongly, that I might greatly increase the sales of the Travel Canoe if I could just accomplish that simple task – that is, offer traditional wood seats with this canoe. It was not as easy as it sounds.
2. Create a new model transom boat for the flood/rescue market. We had sold several hundred transom boats to fire departments around the country over the years, but we had never really focused on that market. The changes I envisioned were simple enough: add fabric re-inforcements where the boat might hit sharp objects, increase the strength of the D-rings and handles, add reflective strips so the boats could seen at night if a light was shone on them, offer a super rigid, high pressure drop stitch floor for incredible buoyancy and flotation. Again, all these changes sounded simple, but in fact, were not.
Here is a picture of the two boats we were working before final changes – the seat attachment system for the Travel Canoe (in front) looked good, but did not work and required some later modifications.
After some discussion of important points for the new prototypes, we adjourned to the factory floor. This was of interest to me because now I could see how their new factory floor was set up. The space was smaller than the previous manufacturing space, but it was still quite respectable. They had a large open space for the factory floor. At the moment it was fully occupied with making a boat order for the Korean Army of 100 inflatable transom boats. That was great since the flood rescue boat we were making had many similar features to the Korean Army boats, even if the Korean boats were designed more for troop transport than for flood rescue. In any case, both the boats they were producing and the boats we wanted to produce had one thing in common: they had to be as tough as nails. That was good from my prospective.
We went over to the area where they had our two prototypes set up. While they had completed the overall structure of each boats, they had not added the final details to boat, primarily because we were still discussing what those final details would be. So that afternoon, we discussed in detail just how new seats would fit on the Travel Canoe. My idea was to do it with D-rings (as shown above), which we knew were very strong and capable of taking over 500 lbs. of weight. The wooden seats not only had to be strong, but also the connection holding the seats had to be strong. That is because some Americans weigh 300 lbs. or more and they tend to be very disappointed if a seat collapses.
We decided that using stainless steel snap pins and D-rings would allow the paddler to easily put on or take off their seats and provide safe seat attachment system. That theory proved to be false, but I will come back to that later.
We went on to the transom flood rescue boat. The first problem we discussed was plastic handles. We had used these handles on our standard transom boats since 1997 and thought they were pretty bulletproof, but the fire experts we showed the boat to told us they were a total no go. The handles could bent when rolled up with the boat and when bent that made it difficult for these beefy guys to get their hands inside the handles.
We explained to the firemen that that could easily be solved by hitting the handles with some hot air from a hair dryer And the hot air would magically revert the handles back to their original shape, but that was also quickly shot down. Firemen had no time for plugging in hair dryers, they had to be ready to instant catastrophes and so they needed another kind of handle that would never suffer this kind of problem.
The new fabric handle did look great and was tough as nails
So, after some deep discussion of this problem, we came up with a far stronger fabric handle with a nifty PVC fabric covered with black PVC tubing that I was sure would bring tears of joy to any self-respecting fireman.
There were other issues to solve: it seemed that the heavy duty D-rings that we had selected for the inside were a little too high for the fire experts we were consulting (we had e-mailed them a pic), so we determined get a new prototype made.
The last point of discussion was on the drop stitch floors. We have been using drop stitch inflatable floors on both our transom boats and many of our kayaks for over 10 years. Drop stitch construction, for those of you who do not know, is a system of two layers of fabric with hundreds of thousand of 1000 denier threads going from one layer to the other. It is an important breakthrough in inflatable boat design that allows the construction of flat inflatable surfaces and flat inflated side walls. Hence, our Travel Canoe is made with drop stitch construction which creates flat and very rigid sides and floor and a true canoe shape. That construction system also makes it possible to make standup inflatable paddleboards that are virtually as rigid as fiberglass paddleboards.
So we went on to a discussion of how to make the drop stitch floors in the rescue boat even more rigid and even more rugged. Why, because our intrepid firemen wanted to be able use our fire rescue boats with up to a 40 hp motor. That meant that the boat transom had to be able to take that weight and more importantly, the drop stitch inflatable floor had to be able to not flex when powered by a 40 hp motor. After much discussion we decided to re-inforce the drop stitch with carbon fiber strips. Because carbon fiber had no stretch and PVC polyester (the base fabric of the floor) has some stretch, the added carbon fiber would greatly improve the rigidity of the floor.
By this time the hour was getting towards 6 pm Korean time or about 4 am back home. That meant it was time to close down discussions for the first day and go have dinner. That night we were invited by the owner to a big traditional Korean dinner along with the German couple we had lunch and 4 or 5 other company employees.
So off we went. We drove down some back roads, some major highways and then down some other back roads in some other part of the area. It was dark already, so it was not possible to see much. Within about 20 minutes we arrived at our destination.
Here we are with the many courses! I am the second to last guy on the left.
Dinner was fabulous and I tasted at least 37 of the 85 courses and I was good with it all.
After dinner, we all walked over to a coffee, tea, milkshake place – I was disappointed because they did not have my beloved vanilla ice cream, but I settled on green tea. By 8 o’clock we were back in our hotel for our second night in Korea. That also gave me an opportunity to call my wife, find out how things were going at home and report on how my trip was going. After that, there was still time to listen to rock on my Bluetooth speaker and ponder the trip so far.
The second day in Korea went quickly. We had a kind reiteration of our previous conversation going over most of the points from the day before. We had some time to sit for a few minutes with the folks from DaVinci SUPs and kayaks. They seemed quite nice and energetic, especially considering the fact that they were in their 70s. I gather their business model was more a labor of love than a new way to build an empire. The Da Vinci name of the company was the brainchild of the German gentleman I was talking to and he was very enthusiastic about his SUPs and a new version kayak he was making that had many similarities with the RazorLite kayaks I had previously developed and patented in the U.S. In any case, he seemed very happy to be going around Asia photographing his SUPs and kayaks.
That sounded like a pretty good marketing idea to me although I had a feeling my wife would not agree to such a sentiment.
Within no time, we found ourselves back in the executive lunch room for another fine Korean meal. After lunch, we went off to the factory floor to see the status of our prototypes. Frankly, not much had changed. The new handles were on, but almost nothing else done. More distressing, the owner came down to see our seat attachment system on the Travel Canoe. He decided to jump up and down on it and that went well, but after that, on a whim, he gave the seat hard slap from underneath and to my horror, the seat pin popped out and the seat disengaged from the hull. Oops, that was not good, especially, if you happened to be running down a white water river. Imagine the seat going east while the canoe went west.
Immediately, we had a powwow about this new problem and decided we needed a new solution. By that time it was already late in the day and quite obvious that whatever solution we countered upon would not be solved that afternoon. The factory owner suggested heavy duty side grommets with cotter pins and split rings. It sounded pretty good and that was the solution we settled on. Of course, it was simply too late to implement that change there.
Since time was running short and the factory was about to close down for the evening, we decided we would come back to the factory the next morning before our flight out Weihai, China.
For that evening some of the long-term employees decided to take us out for Chi Mek, which is kind of chicken dinner. Fortunately, the Chi Mek place was right around the corner from the hotel. So, after Ryan and I dropped our business bags in our rooms at the hotel and after I made a quick call to my wife, Ryan and I came down and walked out to join the Chi Mek dinner folks. This dinner include a couple people we had known for over 10 years, so there much good feeling about the semi-casual meal.
But hold on, it was not so casual that we would not have 30 or 40 different entree courses to nibble and taste. Besides some fried scorpions, tasty shrimp there was one delicacy that caught me eye. It was was a bowl of silkworms, deliciously soaked in some kinds of herbs and spices. Are you ready!
Here it is – ready or not – some yummy silkworms!
No matter, the silkworms were actually pretty good. I am sure they gave strength and health to my body and so it was.
From silkworms to other delicacies to delicious chicken…it was all good and we had great time.
The conversation did take a little left turn when I made the mistake of asking what was going on with South Korea and the rest of Asia. I expected to hear about the problems with their neighboring country: North Korea, but I was wrong. It seemed that Larry Lim, the production manager of the company, was particularly upset with Japan. In an effort to get his points across most accurately he asked another associate, Ray, to translate.
Larry soon launched into an excited conversation about Prime Minister Abe and Japan. I was not expecting that. Abe was a kind of Hitler, Larry explained, who not only had not apologized for the “comfort women” and who intended to invade South Korea.
This was news to me. I knew about the “comfort women”. This was a really sore subject in Korea because during World War II, Japanese soldiers occupied Korea. In doing so, they took many Korean ladies to be the “comfort women” of the Japanese soldiers. Now, you can easily guess what that might entail and you can surely see why this was and still is a very sore point between Koreans and Japanese. From the Korean point of view the Japanese have never officially and properly apologized about the “comfort women”.
I knew about the comfort women situation and I had always been sympathetic to the Korean feeling about this. After all, it was a truly terrible thing that happened during World War II. That said, it was now over 70 years ago, so you would think tempers had calmed down by now.
Apparently not, and apparently, there was now a prevalent feeling in Korea that Japan intended to invade South Korea. That was news to me. I asked some of the younger people at the table about this. In particular a younger lady next to me named Carrie Park who had only recently started working for the company. She was not so sure Japan represented a great threat, but then again, after some more questioning, she was not so sure that North Korea represented a great threat.
Now, having been to Korea 25 or 30 times, having visited both Korean and Chinese exhibits on the Korean War and having read the 3 histories of Korea, I could think of the situation between South Korea and North Korea as still very dangerous. But I was truly surprised by Larry talking about the antagonism between South Korea and Japan. I know that they were arguing about a trade pack between the two countries and I know that they had suspended an arms agreement recently, but I did not think the situation as that serious until Larry spoke up.
Jinny Park, a lady we had worked with some years, kind of represented the middle ground between the younger ladies and the older guys. She also was very concerned about the Korean/Japanese situation, but, perhaps, not as concerned as Larry Lim. Jinny was Heiley Im’s boss. Heiley was our new contact, in charge of managing our account.
Anyway, our conversation about that South Korean/Japanese situation was very colorful with various folks raising their voices in excitement and throwing in comments. I could say that there was definitely was a young/old divide regarding this situation with the older Koreans seriously concerned about the situation and the younger folks almost blasé about it.
I came away with impression that the younger members of my supplier had heard about these problems from their elders so long that they no longer felt they were real, while the older members, having mother’s and fathers who actually had been in the Korean War and had seen the Japanese occupation of Korea, were much more more concerned about the situations with both North Korea and Japan.
Needless to say, we did not solve any problems, but we had a great time talking about them. And the meal, while not elaborate, was truly delicious and fun was had, I think, by all.
We were back in our hotel rooms by 9 am, well fed and maybe not the wiser, but in plenty of time for a good sleep.
The next day went pretty fast. By 9 am we were at the factory. We talked with the owner and Heiley, discussing some of the general issues surrounding our relationship. By 10, we were downstairs discussing specifics of the two prototypes. We really were not much closer to a resolution of all problems – after all, there was no time to realize final new samples – so, we talked over different solutions and they said they would e-mail pictures of their final suggestions or solutions – I will save that explanation for the end of this blog story.
We did get a chance to review all the final details and at least outline what we thought the solutions might be, but we did not get to see those details realized. That turned out to be a good thing, since some agreed upon solutions turned out to be wrong.
Then we took time to shake hands and say goodbye to the owner and the different employees we were most directly working with. We waved goodbye, got into a car and the company driver whisked us away to Incheon Airport. Nothing very exciting happened there. We passed through customs, had a quick lunch and boarded our flight. Another day, another country.
The flight to Weihai, China is actually quite short since it is in Northern China, quite near South Korea. In less than an hour we were descending into Weihai. From the air you can tell you are coming to a whole different country. For one thing, there is open land around Weihai, Lots of it, with trees and mountains and views of the Yellow Sea which laps on the shores of Weihai.
At the airport we are picked up by Shirley Wang, the lady who is our direct contact at this supplier. I will note she was driving a large Buick SUV which seems very comfortable. General Motors has a pretty substantial car business in China and I guess Shirley decided a Buick was for her. I do not remember her having own car on our last visit, but things are always changing in China.
We have a little courtesy conversation about the trip so far, the flight from Korea to Weihai. Ryan and I give Shirley a little background on our last four days as we glide swiftly and silently along in Shirley’s Buick. The trip is about 40 minutes and we pass some scenic mountains and farmlands and lots of apple trees as we zipped along on the brand new highway that now leads to Weihai
When I first visited the road situation was considerably more primitive with one and two lane roads, that sometimes were paved and sometimes were not. At night, there seemed to be no lights on any of the roads and cars had an eclectic view of which lane was going in which direction. This was not helped by the fact that many motorists did not seem to feel the need to waste battery or gas on lights that might give them an indication of what was in front of them.
The main result seemed to be cars, vans and bicycles coming from every direction – straight at you, from the side where there seemed to be no road and sometimes, even in the opposite direction of the lane you were in, some trying to get around traffic on the other side of the road, some trying to make an unscheduled U-turn on a single lane road with no room to make a U-turn, some with their headlights on, some with their headlights off.
Complicating this was the fact that this situation existed both in the country and in the outskirts of town, so often in addition to cars coming at you in the middle of a jet black night, there were also dark figures of pedestrians, old men and women, young children and everyone in between, also walking down the center of these dark streets or suddenly emerging with seemingly no direction and no purpose. No matter, it all moved and I suppose not too many people were killed or maimed each evening.
Today the highway is three lanes in each direction fully paved with huge lights poles hovering over the highway. And on this late afternoon, cars and trucks cruised along at 60 or 70 mph, everyone going in the direction they were supposed to. About 5 years ago, China strengthened their speeding and driving regulations and instituted really strict penalties on anyone not obeying them – like death for all those who drove drunk, on the wrong side of the road or who went through a red light. The result seemed to be that the whole country seemed to learn how to drive in a 3 month period and after that, all was in order, as the Germans say.
WeiHai Windmills along the highway
And so on this beautiful day, we cruised along in total order. In the distance I could see giant windmills perched up on hills slowly spinning around generating free energy. Free, that is after you pay for the hundreds of windmills that they have installed in the Weihai area in the last 10 years. But now the windmills are in place, some in the hills, some by the seaside. They are spinning pretty slowly today so I am assuming the wind was not that great that day.
By 4:30 we get to the Bliss International Hotel. It has a large lobby, like all Chinese hotels with some very large wooden chairs to sit in. They are not very comfortable, but they look impressive. We check in, present our passports. Shirley stands by to make sure they have not lost our reservation or they don’t arrest us. In a few minutes we have our passports back and we are on the way to our rooms.
Before we head up to our rooms, Shirley tells us Mrs. Zhong, her boss, will be coming to take us to dinner that evening. Shirley will pick us up the next morning and bring us to the factory. We say thanks for the ride and and see you tomorrow and within minutes I am upstairs on the 13th floor in my room, unpacking my bag, setting out my toiletries and hooking up my blue tooth speaker in order to listen to some music from the homeland.
This was the view from my room. I would swear the buildings out there were not there 3 years ago when I last visited. Things change fast in China.
This is not my first visit to this hotel. Originally, when we came to Weihai we were staying downtown in another big Chinese hotel. After staying there for four or five years, the Bliss International Hotel opened up its doors and being closer to the factory, we ended up staying there the last four or five times. When we first came to the Bliss International Hotel there was almost nothing around it. Today, it seems the hotel is surrounded by new buildings every direction.
It is a nice hotel with large open inside lobby that makes you feel like you have stumbled into Disneyland because there are a whole bunch of fake palm trees and a large mural waterfall. There are little waterways and islands where you can sit down and, if you wave frantically enough, someone will bring you food or drink.
I come downstairs at 6:30 to my find Mrs. Zhong sitting on one the giant wooden chairs. A few minutes later Ryan appears and we walk into the hotel dining room. The restaurant is buffet style in a dining room the size of a basketball court. On offer are hundreds of Chinese delicacies and a few Western alternatives. We walk around the basketball court which is littered with opulent tables holding every conceivable kind of food, vegetable, fish, or living, dead or somewhat in between. Since most of it is difficult for me to identify, I let Mrs. Zhong pick out a selection of delicacies for us, while augmenting my plate with the few things I recognize such as Chinese spinach and noodles, 2 favorites on mine.
I have found while traveling in Asia it is best to eat whatever is put in front of you. I do not recommending asking what you are eating beforehand because you may not like the answer. I remember being in Beijing one time with a Chinese customer who was taking me out to dinner – strangely, we were selling flood rescue boats to the Chinese Fire Department, which was and is a division of the military. Anyway, I made the mistake of asking what was on the plate in front of me.
Since the gentleman did not speak English and we had a lady eating with us who acted as translator, he had to think quickly how to respond after the lady translated my question.
”Meow,” he said and from that reference, I realized that I was about to enjoy fine meal of cat. I then had to go ahead and eat it. It was not too different from chicken, so I survived.
Nevertheless, I think I would have been better off if I had not asked that question.
On this night with Mrs. Zhong, we did not have cat, although there were naturally some strange things that I was not smart enough identify.
At dinner, we had some general discussion about markets, how Standup Paddleboards were faring, how they were dealing with tariffs in the States, about how we got our tariff exemption. Here, it might be instructive to mention that in the world of Asian suppliers, everybody more or less speaks English. When I first came to China, Mrs. Zhong’s English was somewhat limited, but no more. She is quick to understand all that I have to say and to respond with comments or questions of her own in English.
Mrs. Zhong has not only been a good supplier contact, she has given me advice on what Chinese books to read. Early on in our visits, I had asked her about what Chinese books to read. She quickly compiled a list of the four most famous Chinese novels…A Dream of Red Mansions, The Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh and weirdest of all, Journey to the West. Little did I know that each of these novels was over 2,500 pages long. Nevertheless, I dutifully read them all and subsequently had many discussions with Mrs. Zhong either in person or by e-mail as to the what their meanings might be. That is a story unto itself, but these novels did give me some insight and understanding of Chinese history and the Chinese character.
One of the main businesses of my supplier was making inflatable RIB boats. They were not lucky enough to get an exemption for RIBs, so that part of their business was declining in the States. Apparently, no one in the inflatable RIB inflatable boat business in the U.S. thought to apply for an exemption. Each American company importing RIBs From China was now paying 25% more for the RIBs they were bringing into to the U.S. Sorry about that Zodiac.
My supplier was also selling into the States under their trademark – Highfield – and so the American company importing their boats had to figure out how to pass on the 25% tax they now had to pay. Sales apparently had fallen into the toilet because of that.
We talked about other things – how Mrs. Zhong’s daughter was doing and whether she planned to have another child now that the Chinese government had loosened up on their one child proclamation. The last time I was in Weihai, Mrs. Zhong seemed very positive about having a second child. This time less so. She was traveling a lot these days, she said, and she was working long hours. No, this was not the time to have a second child.
Mrs. Zhong, left us fully fed around 8 pm and that was good because we were now feeling the four days of jet lag and were happy to head upstairs for a rest. This also gave me an opportunity to call my wife – at was just after 6 am in New York and report that I was now in China.
The next morning Shirley Wang picked us up promptly at 9am Weihai time and drove us to the factory. It was only about 20 minutes away and as we drove I marveled at how all the roads had been rebuilt and how there were now new buildings and new roads everywhere.
It was another beautiful day, so I asked how do you say it is a beautiful day.
”Zhe shi meihao de yitian,” she said.
I tried to repeat it, but got it wrong.
”Zhe shi meihao de yitian,” she kindly repeated for me.
I tried repeating again and again muffed it, but after two or three more tries, I got something relatively close to what Shirley said. Then I promptly forgot it.
Within a short time, we were cruising by the little village that was located near the factory. In the past, in the fall, being corn harvest time, the little houses would have piles of corn by each door with one or two people pulling the skin off of the corn. But not today. Today the houses were empty and already partially torn down.
I asked what was happening.
“They will destroy the village very soon and the people have all moved to the new apartments that have been built for them, “ was the answer.
Yes, things were changing in China.
Within minutes we pulled up to the factory – it consisted of a large 3 story office building for administration and a larger still factory building behind it about 50 yards away, also three stories high. All of this complex is enclosed by a large wall going around a four or five acre space with an impressive metal gate that opened and shut at the push of a button.
Around the corner down the street they have another 6 buildings and several more acres of land. Those are there to manufacture inflatable RIBs, mostly with aluminum bottoms. Today we were on a tight schedule so we did not go off to see their RIB factory.
We climbed three sets of marble steps and went into a large conference room. In one corner Mrs. Zhong had a desk and she immediately jumped up to say hello. We sat down at the large conference table and began our first set of discussions covering some general points of the market, some discussion of the inflatable boat market, the inflatable kayak market and the inflatable SUP market. All 3 areas seemed to have some kind of trouble.
I went went on to outline my goals for this meeting…the first and foremost being to solve a technical problem that we were having with one of our models. I outlined my theories of what the problem was and they outlined their theories of what the problem was and since our solutions did not seem to coincide, we decided that after lunch we would go down to the factory floor and make some inspections.
That said, we went on to discuss some of the new models that we were planning to introduce. The samples were not yet ready, so there was nothing to see. So after discussing what I was hoping each new sample would show, I went on to discuss general business conditions and how our season went in the States. In many ways, I was repeating parts of the discussion we had with Mrs. Zhong the night before, but since Shirley was now present, I wanted her to hear everything in detail.
I started by discussing in detail the problems that tariffs had presented us this season and explained how we got an exemption for inflatable boats. I explained how most of the products we had gotten from them In 2019 cost us 10% more because the tariffs and how later, when the tariffs were raised to 25%, we paid a 25% tariff on 2 containers, one coming from them and one coming from our paddle and pump supplier.
This part of the discussion was particularly important for them since they had a number of American customers who were affected by the tariffs. And while the tariffs had no effect on them because they did not pay the tariffs, it had a big effect on their customers who had to pay the tariffs. The biggest effect on them directly was a decline in orders and a request from all their American customers to reduce prices because of the tariffs the American customers had to pay.
So, in the sense that tariffs did effect their sales and did increase the cost of their products to their American customers, it did have an effect on them.
I then explained in detail how we got our exemption for inflatable boats. How the National Marine Manufacturer Association wrote a letter supporting our request for an exemption saying that inflatable boats helped the entire boating industry because they introduced many new people and those people often went on to buy boats manufactured in the United States. I went on to emphasize how lucky we were to get this exemption since no other inflatable boat company had bothered to request an exemption and how only a small portion of exemption requests had even been reviewed and how a even smaller fraction of the requests had been approved.
Finally, I told them that our exemption was only temporary…after August 7th, 2020, we would either have to get our exemption renewed or hope that tariffs would be eliminated or plan to pay a 25% tariffs again starting August 7th, 2020.
In summary, I told them that this problem had been temporarily suspended, but we could not plan on it going away and we had to have plans for whatever happened in the future. In doing this, I mentioned that we were also importing boats made in Korea and Vietnam and those boats had no tariffs.
I think the most surprising thing to them was the fact that the tariffs might come back. That seemed unthinkable and indeed, it was a hard problem for me to think about. A major issue for me was the fact that this supplier generally not only had the best pricing for products that they made for us, but they generally also had the best quality. Of the two factors, price and quality, quality was always the most important issue.
Anyway, I was there to explain situation and tell them what we doing and then to set out a plan on what we going to do in the future.
We went on to have some discussions about how the season went and what they were hoping to do next year. Their report about sales in different parts of the world was almost identical to the report of our Korean supplier and very similar to our own experience. Sales were down worldwide. Yes, they were hurt in the U.S. by tariffs, but sales in Europe and Asia were also difficult. SUP sales had faded for them because there so many cheap new Chinese SUP manufacturers coming into the market. Prices of the new manufacturers were far lower than the more established manufacturers and the internet, because low prices were being offered on the internet, made it almost impossible for them to compete with the new low-priced manufacturers.
I commiserated with them, telling that our general SUPs sales were also down, but pointing out the our Sea Eagle FishSUP had been enjoying sales increases each of the last 3 years and now was becoming an important product for us. I pointed out that SUP sales were only a small part of our sales and that the core of our business was inflatable kayaks and fishing boats.
Now the manufacturer I was speaking to was one of the largest producers of inflatable RIB boats in the world, if not the largest. They had basically two businesses – inflatable boats, kayaks and SUPS and inflatable RIBs. The RIB business concentrated on aluminum rigid bottoms with inflatable sides or fiberglass rigid bottoms with inflatable sides. As mentioned, the RIBs were made in a separate factory about a half a mile away from where we were sitting and was managed, strangely enough, by a French guy who worked originally for company called Pennel e Flipo. That was particularly strange since I had originally imported inflatable boats from Pennel e Flipo about 45 years ago. What goes around, comes around.
Anyway, I gathered that the business that Mrs. Zhong was managing was having some difficulties. In particular, she told me that their Russian customers, who been among their best customers, had reduced their purchases dramatically.
Now the RIB boats, as I mentioned previously, which were sold under their trademark name, Highfield, were subject under a different tariff code # that still had the same 25% tariff we had been subject to, so this was hurting that part of their business. Considering the fact that RIB boats often cost more than $30,000 per boat, I do not know how the American importer of Highfield boats could sustain such a huge increase in cost.
I would like to point out that since tariffs are paid to U.S. Customs by the American importer (not the Chinese manufacturer) at the port before being released to the American importer, this also imposes a considerable cash flow burden on the American importer since they have to pay the full tariff before getting the RIB boats. I can only say that I am glad that was not my present problem.
By the time we discussed all of this, Mrs. Zhong and Shirley announced that it was time for lunch. Accordingly, Ryan and I got up walked down the 3 flights of stairs and got into Mrs. Zhong’s car, a Cadillac Escapade SUV. On this day, they took us into the Korean section of Weihai for a Korean barbecue meal. Mrs. Zhong does not recognize any country other than China as capable of making good food, so I always find it a little strange that she usually takes us one day to the Korean place, which, by the way, is always good.
I think this idea came when I came one time with my brother and Mrs. Zhong asked what kind of meal we would like and my brother said Korean. So after that, it became a kind of tradition to have lunch at this Korean barbecue place, although I am not sure that Mrs. Zhong actually likes the food.
You may think the Mrs. Zhong only likes Chinese food because she has never been outside of China, but you would be very wrong. She travels extensively around the world and has no doubt been subjected to all kinds of food – Korean, Indonesian, Russian, Indian, Italian, Spanish, French, German, American…yes, I am sure she has tasted it all. So Mrs. Zhong’s judgment on Chinese food is really based on an extensive testing program of alternatives and then returning to the original conviction that Chinese food is superior.
Anyway, the Korean lunch was good and soon we are wending our way back to the factory, on new roads, past new buildings. It seems to me the Weihai has more than doubled in the three years since I last visited.
Back in the factory, we go back to the conference room and sit down for more discussion. I go over my hopes for new models, I try to explain what my goal is for the new prototypes that they are preparing. In addition, I go over new improvements we want to make on existing models. Now these improvements are generally just to add features that we think will appeal to customers and make the boats more useful. Of course, each new feature adds cost so we have to ask what the added cost might be and then decide whether or not to go forward with the improvement or not.
There is another issue regarding improvements and that is the simple fact that they are usually always producing orders for us. So, in that case, we have to decide when to institute the change or changes. And then, we have to also consider if those changes need new photographs and new changes to our website, which they almost always do. So, in that case, we also have to schedule when the various improvements we are considering might actually show up in products, considering when it was practical for them to make the changes and when it was practical for us update our pictures and website.
By the time we go through all these changes in features and improvements it is getting dark and time for dinner. Somewhere during the afternoon, Shirley informs me the Mr. Koriyama will be coming by the next day.
That is a little bit a strange tale unto itself. I had known “Carl” Koriyama over 40 years ago. He was at the time the sales manager for Achilles Boats and because we were often at the same trade shows, we got to know each other.
The last time I had seen Mr. Koriyama was in Genoa when I was visiting the Genoa Boat Show. It happened that he and I were staying at the same hotel.
After Mr. Koriyama left Achilles, he formed his own company called “JoyCraft” and now, many years later, he is using my Chinese Weihai supplier as one of his suppliers. Small world it is.
I tell Shirley I will be most happy to see Mr. Koriyama, who said that he wants to stop by and say hello. Since he is coming from Japan, that is not as simple or as close as coming from Korea. The flight from Osaka is a good 4 hours, so I have to be very happy someone will come that far to say hello.
After talking for the whole afternoon, we get into Mrs. Zhong’s Cadillac and head to a Chinese restaurant. As you enter this particular restaurant, you pass aquarium tanks filled with different living fish and other sea critters, such as shrimp, sea urchins, and other creepy, crawly things that come from the bottom of the sea. But that is only a small part of the visual selection of Chinese seafood that is presented us. We also pass stainless steel containers of mounds of fish, shellfish, eels, crabs and other critters.
Some yummy fish
Needless to say, Ryan and I leave everything in the capable hands of Mrs. Zhong, who quickly collars some restaurant order taker who faithfully writes down everything Mrs. Zhong barks out to him. Ryan and I pick out a few basics that at least we can recognize. Mrs. Zhong, not satisfied with our meager selection, adds multiple items to the order. After that we are led ahead to a room with a large table where Mrs. Zhong, Shirley and 2 or 3 other of our supplier’s employees sit down to join us. So, now there are 6 or 7 people sitting around this large table. Waiters and waitresses wander in and out placing things of the lazy susan table that is rotating various selections to take.
More Weihai seafood at the same restaurant
Weihai is a seafood town. I am particularly fond of the Weihai clams. In any case, we have a fine meal, with a vast selection of different seafoods and all is good.
After a couple of hours, Mrs. Zhong whisks us back to our hotel where I can settle back to listen to some American rock in my room and give my wife a call.
On day 2 in Weihai, we are picked up at our hotel by a company driver and then whisked off to the factory. The morning is spent in more discussions on quality issues, new improvements, a general discussion of goals for the visit. Often we repeat ourselves some of the points made the day before. These supplier visits are always like that. We state a bunch of stuff, we discuss a bunch of stuff and then we go over it all again. And the reason for that is simple: you have to go over things multiple times to be sure your point of view and desired changes are fully understood.
We come 8,000 miles on a once a year to try and discuss every problem, every hope, every dream, every wish we have. This is really the only time we have to do that and like it or not, there always some language barrier and some cultural barrier. Suppliers have a tendency to always say yes and it is only prudent to repeat what they are saying yes to to be sure they really mean yes. They wish to be polite, but if you come 8,000 miles you wish to be precisely understood and the word “yes” does not always mean you are precisely understood.
On the factory floor or should I say factory table, taking a break from discussing some quality issues.
We find that out later when we go down to check some of the boats were were having a quality issue with. Despite explaining the problem in what you think is the clearest way, when we get down to the factory floor, we find some of the problems still exist. And so, we have to go on to discuss those problems once again, repeating in some different ways what you said previously. Asian people are incredibly smart and usually they understand most of what you a trying to get across, but sometimes they miss a part of what you are saying and in their effort to please they say yes, when they really do not fully understand what you are asking.
So the problem between importer and supplier is complex and it requires patience and repetition. The hope is always by the time you are done with your visit everything is clearly understood and being acted upon. Regrettably, that is not always the case.
So we launch into more extended conversations, going point by point, asking questions, getting answers, discussing problems, suggesting solutions. About an hour into conversation, Mr. Wang, the owner the company comes charging in, shakes hands, asks how things are, hangs out for a few minutes and rushes out to his office, which is down a flight of stairs.
Sometime before lunch, Mr. Koriyama arrives. He is much the same man I remember, thin and trim, but more fastidiously dressed. We shake hands, commiserate on our advance ages and exchange stories of how active we are. I feel somewhat undressed since I am in boating testing clothes – jeans, country flannel shirt, loafers.
Mrs. Zhong, Mr. Koriyama and casually dressed me
He still drives a car he tells me. He still travels to meet suppliers. He still works on new designs. I tell him that I also try to stay active and work on new designs. We exchange catalogs and business cards.
His company, JoyCraft, seems to be a quite stable and ongoing business in Japan. I am unable to read the Japanese in his catalog but he seems to have over 50 different models. That is a lot since we have over 30 models ourselves and we spent over 50 years adding new models. Anyway, it seems that Mr. Koriyama has found a good market for his products in Japan. I noted from his catalog, that he, like us, has many unique models, most of which are focused on the fishing market.
After some conversation, I tell Mr. Koriyama that later that day we are going to test some new models and if he would like, he is welcome to come along. He says he will. Then, Mr. Koriyama goes off to say hello to Mr. Wang, the company owner.
Since we do not have a lot of time and still much to do, I suggest to Mrs. Zhong that have sandwiches brought in for lunch. I can tell from the expression on Mrs. Zhong’s face that suggestion will not fly. It would be un-Chinese to have sandwiches, so we settle on steamed dumplings, which, after more conversation, are duly ordered along with some Chinese fish soup. After some more conversation, some more repetition of points and a whole lot of questions, the food arrives.
Before mentioning more, I have to point out another aspect of a supplier visit is asking endless questions. I like to take the opportunity to ask as many questions as possible about different manufacturing techniques, different alternate materials, different construction methods.
On this trip, I am most interested to know the difference in cost, weight and labor in making round tube construction versus drop stitch construction. Round tube construction is making round shapes using one layer of 1000 denier PVC/polyester fabric. Drop stitch construction is making flat, rectangular shapes using 2 layers of 1000 denier fabric with hundreds of 1,000s of polyester threads going up and down between the top and bottom layers. A complicating feature of drop stitch construction is the fact that drop stitch construction usually employs two additional layers of 1000 denier PVC/polyester fabric top and bottom. The extra top and bottom layers are generally called wraps.
So one of my missions was to understand the exact cost, weight and labor differences between the two different construction methods. I will mention that on this trip I also asked my Korean supplier the exact same questions. Now Shirley or Ms. Wang, as I call her alternately takes this mission very seriously, so with each technical question I ask her in the conference room, she promptly calls the factory, which is about 50 yards from the large office building that I am in. Since, I also have multiple other question about fittings, molds, D-rings, grommets, mounting brackets, handles, Shirley has to spend a good portion of this day calling her technical guys and retrieving answers, which also takes the time of a technician to delve into. My questions will probably take a major portion of this day (excluding the time we will with boat testing), but gradually, I am assembling answers to all my questions.
Now, you may think a guy who has spent 52 years working on inflatable boats would know everything and anything there is to know about the subject. And while it is true that I do know a lot about the inflatable boats and inflatable products, things change, things evolve, and the more I know, it seems there is still far more to learn. And so it goes.
And now back to lunch, just as the dumplings and soup arrive, Mr. Koriyama wanders back in and we all sit down at the big conference table for really pretty nice feast of dumplings and soup. It seems there are several varieties of dumplings, a simple fish broth soup, water, Coke , and, of course, tea. I steer clear of the Coke, not having touched that beverage in the last 30 years.
During lunch, I make the mistake to ask Mr. Koriyama where in Japan he comes from. He answers “Hiroshima”. My heart sinks and for a few moments I can say nothing auditory other than repeating several times, “Oh, my God.”
It happens that I had a uncle, Joe Cunningham, who arrived in Hiroshima 3 weeks after the bomb had landed. He told me that it was the single most horrifying time of his life, that he saw things so terrible that he never wished to repeat them, that for several weeks thereafter he had kind of given up on the human race and actually considered suicide. He did not, of course, commit suicide, but he did tell me some of the horrifying details that I will not mention here.
And so, I could only be terribly sad and moved when my old friend and colleague mentioned “Hiroshima”. It was something I never knew about him and I never remembered him mentioning this during the many times I met and talked with him at trade or boat shows.
After my first hesitation about this subject, I was able to ask some questions about how he had survived this terrible event. It seems he was 5 years old at the time the bomb was dropped. That would make him 2 years older than me. Fortunately, he was 40 miles or so away at a school, so he did survive. I assume that he must of had many relatives and friends who were either killed or injured by the bomb. And of course, you must remember, because radiation was involved, some of the injuries only became apparent and fully understood years later. As you may or may not know, birth defects were a common result in women who happened to be pregnant at the time. So the event was both terrible immediately and terrible over time. And of course this is not to say what was right or wrong about World War II, only to mention how this event in the war must have shaped Mr. Koriyama’s mind.
The lunch was filling and pretty soon we are ready to go off to test boats.
So, we pile into several cars and the technicians gather several boats and motors and place all of that in a fairly large flatbed truck. In truth, on this day, we are not testing new models. Rather, I am testing some prototypes of models we have produced by another supplier. We are considering moving production, at least temporarily, of these existing models because they probably will allow us to offer these existing models at much better price to American consumers.
This another aspect of having multiple suppliers and multiple models. Sometimes you shift them around for cost and marketing reasons. In particular, I see an opportunity, while we have an tariff exemption on Chinese made boats, to offer transom boats at much better values. And so we are testing these prototypes to consider that change.
On the way to our boat testing, I get to talk with Mr. Koriyama about old times in the inflatable boat business. After that, as we wend through the back roads of WeiHai, I move on to the discussion of the situation between Korea and Japan. I want to get Mr. Koriyama’s opinion of the present state of affairs between the two countries. I tell him about the reaction I got from some of my Korean contacts on situation. Mr. Koriyam’s first comment is instructive:
“When will our apologies be enough?” he asks.
He goes on cite how he thinks Japan has apologized and tried to make good.
However, considering the seriousness of the allegations, I am sure the answer is that Korea will never be fully satisfied with Japan’s apologies or financial efforts to make good. I mean no one wants their daughters and mothers pulled from their homes and families to be used by the men of an invading army. Again, this is not to say what was right or wrong, but rather to admit what happened.
Mr. Koriyama goes on to fill me in on the Japanese side of the story. Yes, it was a terrible fact of the war and of the Japanese occupation of Korea. But in truth the Japanese had apologized and paid reparations many times and still Korea was not satisfied. Of course, the truth is when something terrible occurs there never is truly a satisfactory resolution. Some things will never be forgotten.
Then Mr. Koriyama goes on to insert his own more light-hearted view of the matter which was novel to say least:
“I think it is the Korean food. It’s just too spicy…too many hot peppers.”
Personally, I always considered this more of a Mexican problem, but no matter. I do not want to dispute the origin of bad feelings and bad blood. Obviously, it is still there. And in fairness to Mr. Koriyama, when he made the spicy food comment, he was just trying to lighten up the conversation.
Off we go. Our first foray into Weihai waters is not successful. We head to a small fishing harbor where there a lots of scenic fishing boats with motors that look like they were last serviced in the 1930s.
Weihai fishing boats with well-used motors and a shadow of me
That turns out to be a very nice scenic location with one problem. It turns out to be low tide and there is not enough water or any good way to get to it, so it is decided to move the troops elsewhere. And off we go.
The next location turns out to be more practical, just still somewhat challenging. After driving another 5 or 10 minutes we arrive there. The technicians are hauling boats and motors down a steep embankment onto a side canal which leads out to some rather nice ancient Chinese canal waterway that seems ideal for testing and also seems to be tidal.
Just heading out for testing
The boat testing turns out to be disastrous, with neither of the 2 boats we tested working properly. Something in prototypes must different because these 2 prototypes do work properly at all. Instead of easily getting up on a plane, they plow forward with bows so high you can hardly see where you are going and they do not easily get up on a plane. This was not what Ryan and I were expecting, but it was what happened. It takes me only a few minutes in each boat to say further testing is useless and the present prototypes are unacceptable. And so it goes sometimes.
I have to say the testing did not go how I thought it would. This same supplier had made these same boats about 12 years earlier and the boats they made at that time had zero motoring issues and got up almost instantly on plane. So I was truly astonished that these prototypes did not work, but that was the fact. They were a no go.
Mr. Koriyama saw the problem almost immediately and started whispering in my ear the word “water tunnel”. By that I think he meant that the floors and the transoms of these 2 boats were not quite high enough in relation to the round side pontoons. And in truth, later on, this observation turned out to be right. At that moment I was not ready to conclude anything other than the two prototypes were of no use.
We piled back into the cars and technicians loaded up the motors and the boats into the truck. In truth, Shirley and Mrs. Zhong seemed as surprised as Ryan and myself. All of us had assumed that this test was going to be merely a confirmation that the prototypes worked perfectly and of course, the opposite was the result. Perhaps, Mr. Koriyama knew in advance. If so, he was polite enough not to mention it.
We cruised back to the office, had some further discussion of the problems we saw in the testing. Mrs. Zhong, sensing that I had quickly given up on this project and not wanting to give up, said, no, they will discuss this problem in the morning and remake the samples, retest the samples one or two weeks later and send one or both to us, if they worked correctly, by air at their expense. That was really the correct way to approach and possibly solve the problem. And, in fact, that is what ended up happening.
After going over the problems of the two prototypes, we moved back to the factory floor to discuss another prototype that I was working on. That was a weird 3 pontoon cruise about boat that I had been testing an earlier prototype of all the past summer. I wanted to changed some of the dimensions and make it handle a shortshaft 10 hp motor better. The original prototype worked great but the transom was too high to handle a short shaft motor. I had used all this last summer with 2 electric motors and two solar panels – it worked great.
This is the TriTiki that I have been testing all summer as a true solar powered boat. It worked great. Unfortunately, the newer prototype had issues.
Unfortunately, the newest prototype also had issues. The main change they were supposed to make was to make the 3 pontoons 16″ instead of 19″. Instead, for reasons beyond my understanding, they made the center pontoon 16″ and left the two outer pontoons 19″. I had named this new model the TriTiki 16. Again, the new prototype was just not ready for prime time.
The last prototype I was working was new smaller, lighter weight version of our Sea Eagle FishSkiff. It turned out because of the press of time that prototype was not ready. So you could say we struck out four times. Not good, but sometimes things do not roll your way. Anyway, we decided to call it an evening.
From the factory, we moved directly to dinner. That turned out to be a particularly elegant seafood restaurant located right on the water in Weihai.
At the dinner, Mr. Wang, the owner of the company, came along with us. So we were 8 or 9 people in this large separate room with a huge round rotating table. This is the typical way of Chinese feasting. It seems to be an important part of every relationship. The dinner was really quite impressive with numerous different delicacies making their way around table. This was easy because the table had a revolving portion the brought the delicacies in front of each and every person.
Shirley took the opportunity to discuss the most important issue then being talked about China. I refer to the astronomical price of pork. That subject came up just around the time some especially delicious port specialties were passing by. If you do not know it, about two thirds of China’s pig population had been killed off by the Swine Flu that was making its way around the world. Another lady, who worked directly as Mr. Koriyama’s company contact, also chimed in about the terrible rising prices. In the meantime we munched on pork and shrimp and clams and vegetables and chicken and fish and soup. It seemed a little strange to be munching on such high-priced fare while the cost of pork, the most popular meat in China, was going through the roof. And so it went.
The conversation then drifted over to the fact that the little village that had been next to the factory was being torn down because the government had decided to replace the ram shackle village with a large group of new high rise apartment buildings. That led to the curious story of how every Chinese person present at the dinner that night ended up owning two apartments each.
This is where Shirley lives. She still has a spare apartment somewhere in this group of high rises. Mr. Wang, Mrs. Zhong and three other employees also have 2 apartment each. They are undecided as to whether to sell, rent or move into their other apartments.
It seemed that just before the decision to tear down the local village, Mr. Wang got a call from a local official asking him to buy all the remaining unsold houses in the village. Mr. Wang thought this could be a good investment and that he would find some use for the land in the future – like building a large new extension of his already large factory. But Mrs. Zhong said, “No, we are in the inflatable boat business, not in the real estate business.” Mr. Wang was not fully persuaded and the local official kept coming back about buying the remaining houses in the village. In the end, Mr. Wang, Mrs. Zhong, Shirley and 3 other employees bought 6 houses – 1 each. I believe Mr. Wang provided some financial assistance in this program.
A little time after that the government announced that anyone still owning the houses would get 2 apartments each instead of the houses they had bought. Mr. Wang was a little undone by that because he had followed Mrs. Zhong’s advice to not buy more than one house.
Mrs. Zhong put it best: “If we had known the result, we would have bought the village.”
So they missed a buying opportunity, but they did come away with 12 brand new apartments. Anyway you look at it, it was sweet deal.
We had a fine dinner. After that, we walked out of the restaurant about 50 feet to the walkway that ran along the harbor side and Ryan and I took some pictures.
Myself, Mr. Wang and Mr. Koriyama at the restaurant
Directly after that, we shook hands with Mr. Wang, said good night and piled into Shirley’s Buick SUV. She took Ryan, Mr. Koriyama and I back to the Bliss hotel and we all promptly went up to our respective rooms for a good night of sleep. Just before going up, Ryan and I had a little review of things that had happened on the trip so far. That was necessary since Ryan and I were parting ways the next day.
Naturally, we are disappointed because the samples did not seem to work properly, but there was not much we could do about it. This trip is quickly coming to an end for me, but for Ryan, he had a long way to go.
Early the next day, Ryan was getting on a train to Qingdao. He was to see another factory there, move down to Shanghai, see one of our suppliers in Ningbo, the port city of Shanghai, then move further south to Shenzhen and Dongguan and then finally make a quick 2-day visit to Vietnam. That might seem like a fair amount of travel, but that is not taking into consideration the fact that Ryan has to get back and that meant that he had to fly back to Korea and then take a flight back to New York. Such is the way in international travel and I can say that I was happy not to have accompany Ryan on every leg of the trip.
My agenda is much simpler. Get picked up in morning by the company driver, meet Shirley and Mrs. Zhong in the morning, retrace and re-discuss all the issues, go over all the problems and outline all the further actions that needed to happen, have a quickie lunch and then be driven to the Weihai airport and catch a flight to Korea. From there, I am almost home. All I have to do is spend the night at the Grand Hyatt, located about 3 miles from the Incheon airport and catch a morning flight back home to JFK, New York.
The next day the company driver did come promptly at 9 to pick me up and within 20 minutes I was in the conference room going over the whole agenda so far. I must say the followup meeting actually left me feeling we had acccomplished something. We reviewed the transom boats, came to some conclusion about what was wrong. In this, it became clear that Mr. Koriyama’s comment the day before was correct. They had failed to notice that the floor was about an inch and half higher on our samples and they did not make them correctly. Anyway, it was agreed they would remake the samples at their cost, retest them in China and then send one or both to the States for our approval.
Regarding my beloved TriTiki model, I said hold off until I come back to them. Regarding the new smaller FishSkiff, they promised to finish up the sample the next week and send it with the transom boat samples. They said they would. Then we reviewed all outstanding problems and discussed future opportunities. As always, I said I hoped this meeting would lead to longer, stronger and more profitable business relationship in the future. In a little over two hours, we able to review everything and have in place a plan for future actions. In summary, by the end of the meeting, I feeling that we had accomplished a lot and in time all the issues we had would be straightened out. By then it was time for me to head to the airport.
Mr. Koriyama, who had been visited his contact at the factory, came out to say goodbye. Mrs. Zhong said goodbye. And Shirley drove me off to the airport.
The rest was pretty simple, get on a plane for Korea, get to the Grand Hyatt, have a nice dinner, sleep and fly out the next day. And so it went. Another trip to Asia under my belt.
1/18/20 Asia Trip Postscript: The Travel Canoe our Korean supplier was making was finished and sent on to us. The final solution was decided on how to attach the wood/web seats and it worked well. That product has been photographed and ordered. We will receive the first 100 in March and we have already put that model up on our website with the advice about its 3/15/20 arrival date.
The Rescue 14, our new name for the Flood Rescue Boat, is being remade and that final sample is expected in the next few weeks. We expect to order that model shortly after we have reviewed and tested the final prototype.
After returning home, in a fit of creativity or madness, I decided to make a new model not discussed in this blog story. You might characterize that new model as a new experimental concept. Our Korean supplier is finishing up that sample as I write this and I expect that prototype sent by middle of February.
One of the two models of boats our Weihai supplier was making was remade and retested with good results. We have received that sample, tested it ourselves with both a 10 hp motor and 20 hp motor. We found it worked well and have proceeded with an order for that model and expect to start selling that model in April.
The smaller FishSkiff sample was sent 2 weeks after my visit in WeiHai, was tested and it was found to have some really desirable characteristics (it went 17 mph with a 5 hp Honda). Unfortunately, it also had some undesirable characteristics which I shall not mention. I have remade my drawing of that model and our Weihai factory is making a new prototype. I expect to receive that prototype by the end of February. I am hoping to quickly test that, order a first production, photograph it in the Florida Keys this March and introduce it to the market and at ICAST (The American Fishing Tackle Manufacturer’s Show) this July.
I will add pictures of the above finished products when available.
And that is my report from the weird and wild and wonderful world of portable inflatables!
Here it is – the Iconic Landmark of Montauk – the Lighthouse that was ordered to be built in 1792 by President George Washington himself. It was completed in 1797.
By Cecil Hoge
My wife and I planned a quiet escape to Montauk this summer. That is not really the world’s most distant vacation, considering the fact that Montauk is only about 72 miles from our home in Setauket, Long Island.
And even though Montauk is not very far away, it is a place far away. Literally at the end of Long Island on the South Shore, this summer resort affords life literally on the beach. For this vacation we had booked a motel called the WaveCrest. It is on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on old Montauk Highway about 5 miles before you get into the actual town of Montauk.
We had checked out other housing opportunities, but it seemed that Montauk had changed a wee bit since we had last visited four years ago. We looked at the possibility of renting a nice 2 bedroom cottage by the sea, but quickly gave up that project when we got some price estimates which seemed more like a down payment on a million dollar home.
We then checked Gurney’s Inn which we had stayed at some years before. We were informed rooms were about 12 times what we last paid, but the lady answering the phone was quick to say there was still time to commit to a nice little condominium. Prices “for the remaining residences”’ go from 3.9 million and to 7.9 million.
Since in past years, we have stayed at Gurney’s a few times, I considered this seriously, trying to understand their pricing system: perhaps, single rooms were 3.9 million and double rooms at 7.9 million? Of course, that would include a host of amenities…bathroom, microwave, shorty refrigerator, maybe even a minibar. And of course, I suppose all the other amenities of the hotel would be included…jacuzzi, spa, pool, health room, restaurants, room service, yoga classes and maybe even daily cleaning services.
I wondered if I negotiated like our President could I get a better price? I seriously considered the techniques he might employ. Perhaps, I could show up with a suitcase full of money and say I’ll take the 3.9 million mini suite if you accept the amount of money in my suitcase. When they ask how much money I have in my suitcase, I’ll say “that is for me to know and you to find out.”
When they say that they cannot accept an offer if they do not know how much money is in my suitcase, I will get up in huff and tell them that I am taking my suitcase to Denmark.
In thinking this strategy over, I am guessing it might work for our President, but it would not work for me. In any case, I did a little math. I figured that even given my limited bargaining skills, I could probably sweet talk them down 20%, then maybe I could get a room for $3,120,000. Then say, if I use the room every weekend for the next ten years. That is 520 weekends times 2 for the number of days in a weekend. And then divide by 1040, the nights I might use the room. That works out to $3,000 a night. I tried to add in consideration of all the great facilities that I would have access to, but any way I looked at it, it did not pencil out. Nope, Gurney’s was not to be the answer for this year’s vacation.
We then looked at booking a room in the town of Montauk itself. That would have been convenient since you could walk to any number of restaurants and stores within a few blocks. But, here again, inflation, which from all the business reports I see on Fox Business, CNBC and Bloomberg, is reported as dead as a doornail, seems strangely alive and well in Montauk.
The hotel room that we had booked four years ago for a little over $200 a night, was now over $800 a night. It would seem that downtown Montauk was also outside of the budget that I had in mind.
Hence we settled on the WaveCrest. I cannot divulge the actual price due to a promise I made my wife, but I can say it was North of $200 and South of $800. It seemed like a good and prudent choice because at the WaveCrest we would actually have a room right on the beach with the Atlantic Ocean within a 100 feet of our porch.
Now that we had settled on the location, we had proceed from Setauket to Montauk.
They say that getting there is half the battle, but in this new age I would say it was all the battle. I had chosen a well trodden route. North Shore to William Floyd to South Shore to LIE to 27 East to Southampton. From there onward through Watermill, Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Wainscott and finally on the road to Montauk itself.
All of this seemed pretty simple and since we had started out pretty early (10:30am) on the road, I was guessing we would get to Montauk by 12:30. Then, if the room was ready we could settle in, and if not, we could have a leisurely lunch in town. That was the plan and both my wife and myself looked forward to implementing it.
The trouble began as we were coming into Southampton. The traffic really bulked up around 11:30 just as we were passing the Shinnecock Hills. Not only were there lots of cars, but there were also lots of trucks and vans. And then there was another thing that I noticed. And that was the way the cars, trucks and vans were behaving. It seemed it was every man, woman and child for themselves. Cars, trucks and vans were coming on to the road from all directions and every one them seemed to be in a game of chicken with all of the others.
It seemed to me in this time of Trump, not only was it America first, it was me first. Every car seemed to be imbued with a god-given grant to charge out in front of every other car. The thing that kept the accident and death count to minimum was the simple fact that the further we went the slower the traffic got. That did not seemed to discourage the Me First ethic that seemed to grip all the drivers on the road. No, that only served to encourage bolder Me First deciders. So, vans pushed in from the side of the roads, cars ran along the side of the road bumping over sand, gravel, grass and rocks, trucks decided to take abrupt U-turns (not easy if you are a 40’ truck), vans decided to go down driveways, through parking lots and back on to the highway, all in an effort to get another 50 feet ahead.
Southampton was tough, but the real challenges occurred when I decided to forego the back road through North Sea. That proved to be a true mistake. Instead we plodded on at 3 to 5 mph, occasionally breaking 7 mph and then turned left toward Watermill. That was agony, with more and more vehicles desperately coming in from side roads in a vain attempt to get on the main road. The main road was not acting like a main road. In about 40 minutes we made it to Watermill. It should have taken less than 10 minutes.
Highways, which I remember zipping back and forth at 50 to 60 miles an hour, were now having a tough time getting up to 5 or 10 mph. And so on and on we crawled.
In the meantime, I periodically dropped into music or business news on Sirius XM or FM radio. The news on Bloomberg was pretty somber – the stock market was tanking that day, but as my wife only allows me 3 minutes on Bloomberg before forcing me back to music, I could only get bits and pieces of the action. But as I understood it, China had just announced that it was instituting tariffs on American goods – soybeans, corn and automobiles. It seemed that two weeks ago, when our President got peeved at the little progress of his trade delegation, he decided to go forward with 10% tariffs on 300 billion dollars of Chinese goods starting September 1. As a gesture of peace and kindness, our President decided to postpone some of the tariffs until December 15th.
Apparently, the Chinese did not think too highly of that and surprise, surprise… they announced more tariffs on 75 billion dollars of American goods being imported into China. Who knew? And, then, surprise, surprise, surprise, it was announced that President Trump was totally blind-sided by that and was going to announce more tariffs later that afternoon. The stock market did not like the sound of that and plunged steadily downward as we were making our ways through the Hamptons and onward.
It could be the state of the stock market was having some influence on the state of the traffic in the Hamptons. It was a little hard to do a survey on how many of the folks driving that Friday were affected by the market, but judging from the way the cars, trucks and vans were darting in and out, pushing ahead into ongoing traffic, making sudden U-turns, I am guessing 79% of all drivers on the road were directly affected by the tanking stock market.
Onward we plowed. It was stop and go, sometime 3 mph, sometimes 5 mph. If it was not for the glimpse of occasional vegetable stands, wineries and restaurants, I would have guessed I was trying cross Seoul city on a weekday, or maybe Shanghai or Dongguan. But no, we were not going through the worst traffic in Asia, we were in the Hamptons.
Bit by bit, slowly we went, always on the lookout for cars, vans or truck suddenly trying jut in and out in. Progress was in the words of WB Yeats, “Satisfactory”. We were proceeding, we passed through Watermill, we approached Bridgehampton, we passed through Bridgehampton, we came, by and by, to Amagansett. We proceeded onward to East Hampton. I would like to say that at some point there was a break in the tariff, but there was not.
It was only after we got through East Hampton that the traffic began to move first to 10 mph, then to 20, then to 30. By the time, we passed Lunch, the restaurant, it was way passed lunch. That did not matter because cars were lined up a good half a mile before and half a mile after, the parking lot for Lunch was fully booked, with people still walking East and West to get to Lunch. It always was a popular place, but it’s popularity had apparently reached new heights.
From Lunch onward, it was a piece of cake. We forked off to the right when we came to Old Montauk highway and continued past Hither Hills State Park. Even that was fully booked, with large trailers waiting outside the entrance of the park waiting to get in as large trailers pealed out of the park.
WaveCrest was right up the road. We pulled in to find that our room was still not ready. Surprise, surprise!
No matter, we moseyed down the road and over the hills and curves of Old Montauk Highway. Soon we came into the little village of Montauk, which like other parts of the Hamptons seemed to be on steroids. Once again, cars, vans and trucks were vying to go forward, sneak in or make a graceful U-turn in the middle of town. Considering that town is only about a half a mile long and is composed of about 4 blocks, the congestion was impressive. No matter, we came through town and were able miraculously able to get a parking space right in front of the Shagwong Restaurant.
My wife and I were familiar with the Shagwong restaurant from many other visits to Montauk. At one time, it had really good food, but the quality had descended over the years. In years past they served really good fresh fish and some pretty good steaks. We knew that the gradual descent of quality meant that maybe the food might not be as good as our last visit and we were right. It seemed that the food had gotten even worse.
No matter, my wife and I were there to pass some time, get acclimated to the fact that we had made the 72 miles out to Montauk in just under 4 hours. As mentioned, in days of yore, this trip was closer to 2 hours, but the fact remained that we had achieved our goal.
The decor at the Shagwong was much the same
The food was not truly awful, but it was not good. I will say some kudos from the clam chowder which was pretty tasty after a long and hectic ride. The front room of the restaurant, better known as the bar, was fully occupied as the 3 o’clock hour approached. The dining room, where we sat in a booth, was spartan and somewhat depressing. The same old pictures of fishing and fish caught on boats were on display. The same old Marlin was hanging on the wall, but all the artifacts seemed more tired, with some of the old pictures and the Marlin now in need of a cleaning and dusting.
No matter, we munched on our simple fare and were satisfied enough. With bellies full, we headed back to the WaveCrest, where our room was indeed ready.
Thus began our real time in Montauk and I must say our stay was delightful. It was high-lighted by a glorious lack of activities. We sat each day several hours on our porch with the beach directly in front of us as the sun first shone on us and then fell behind the porch overhang. In the mornings, the beach was generally empty except for a few fishermen or runners or walkers. Occasionally, a group of surfers would be out early. In the afternoon, more beach goers. walkers, runners and anglers wandered out, some going off to do their chosen activities, others sitting under umbrellas until long after sun waned.
We had some unusual views of passers by on the ocean…porpoises, whales, sharks, striped bass. Some came in schools. The whales were quite impressive, jumping high out of the water and creating giant splashes several hundred yards from the beach. Yes, the fish were out in the ocean, clearly visible from our easy, go nowhere front porch.
The little wabbit that visited us each morning.
Our view also included a view of a lonely rabbit. He or she came each day to munch on the dune grass…happy and content as all wabbits should be.
In the mornings, I took advantage of the new enhancement to the WaveCrest. I speak of the WaveCrave…a food truck permanently parked about 50 feet from our motel room door. Strangely, the food was remarkable good. Freshly cooked egg sandwiches, donuts, good strong coffee…it was just too easy to get what we wanted. Freshly made lobster sandwiches and other goodies were on tap for lunch and the fare was really quite good.
Occasionally, we wandered off the ranch and took my SUV to John’s Pancake House or to Anthony’s, both located on Main Street Montauk, about 2 miles from the WaveCrest. I also augmented our donut supplies with an occasional visit to the local bakery just off of the Montauk Circle directly in town. John’s Pancake House still had killer pancakes and if I begged long enough I could actually get real Vermont maple syrup, for an additional fee, of course. I am not fan corn syrup. My wife stuck to other verities like eggs, English muffins and avocado on the side – all probably a little too healthy for me.
And as Mr. Dylan says, “It is (or was) all good!”
Each day, I would wander out of the room, go for a swim in the surf, ride waves if the conditions were good and go for walk in the late afternoon or early evening down from the WaveCrest, past houses up on the sand cliffs and past Gurney’s Inn, which in early years used to be several motel/hotels – Panoramic and some other names I forget – and now all these former independent motels seemed to be merged in to one large sprawling collection of hotel/motel rooms all under the egis of Gurney’s Inn. I suppose if you are selling condominiums from 1.9 million up, you need some inventory of rooms to sell.
Anyway, each evening I would walk up and by the new great conglomerate that is now Gurneys and after a mile or two turn around and walk back to the lowly WaveCrest. It was very pleasant, especially when walking barefoot, with my feet getting regularly doused by the incoming and receding waves, the sun setting and darkness approaching. Most evenings there was either a Southwest or a Northwest breeze. The Southwest breeze would create chop and sloppiness on the part of the waves, the Northwest breeze, would tend to give the waves formation and make one think one was wandering along the Pacific, not the Atlantic.
This is Gurneys, but they also seem now to own buildings to both the left and right
The scenery walking past Gurney’s included some privately owned houses perched up on the cliffs and dunes…some elaborate, others not. Several of the houses seemed to be under construction, either be revamped to address the higher needs of new wealthier owners or repair damage from the previous storms that afflict Montauk from time to time. The good news is that there seems to be plenty of sand and beach stretching out in front of the WaveCrest, Gurney’s and the assorted homes perched on the high hills of Montauk.
During the afternoon or evening we would venture out to different Montauk restaurants…Salvadors, Gosman’s, The Dock, The Muse, Lunch, etc. Generally, we would finish up with a trip to Ben and Jerry’s to satisfy my ice cream cravings. My wife is not an avid eater of ice cream, but once nearby a place for dessert she finds that where there is a way there is a will. And so, after acquiring our just desserts, we would either sit outside by Ben & Jerry’s or take our ice cream back to the room to enjoy on the beach.
So, aside from getting to Montauk and having to drive through the ultra busy Hamptons, I can say that the ocean, the beaches, the waterways in and around Montauk are all still there and they still offer the visitor a lot. There are not many places that you can reserve a motel or hotel directly on the Atlantic Ocean and Montauk is certainly one of those places.
In the afternoons if I happened to be on a driving mission without my wife, I would listen to the financial news, which in the first days, went from bad to worse and then in the next abruptly reversed course and the stock market headed on to high after high. I had the impression the stock was making love to itself. As the days passed, I lost interest and felt my more absorbed by ocean swims, afternoon paddles, long walks on the beach.
And whether a vacationer is sitting on the beach and drinking beer or swimming four times a day or walking miles in either direction along the beach or driving to a scenic restaurant overlooking the water or paddling on an inland bay or lake…there are still many laid back wonders for the vacationer to enjoy.
Unlike the Hamptons, Montauk does not have a too full of it attitude. Yes, the Hamptons are beautiful, yes, the high green hedges are impressive, yes, there are fancier and tastier restaurants in the Hamptons, yes, there are plenty of hopping nightspots to go to, and yes, the Hamptons also offers beautiful beaches and the wondrous cleansing waters of the Atlantic Ocean. That said, Montauk has it own charms which despite ever growing traffic and the new “Me First” ethic, those charms are still intact and there for all to enjoy.
A Picture of My Great Grandfather a few years before fighting in the Civil War.
By Cecil Cunningham Hoge
It is not often that you can say that a relative of your family affected the course of history in the United States. My great grandfather, Milton Joseph Cunningham, did affect the course of history in the United States. His actions did not improve or help the United States. Rather, his actions, whether they were done in belief that they were right or as matter of his duty to his office, had a negative influence on the course of American history.
I am closely related to this man. That is why my middle name is his last name.
I do not say that my great grandfather did what he did in order to set back our history some 59 years, although his part in the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson, had that effect. Nor is it to say that he was an a dishonorable or a racist person. His gravestone below says my great grandfather was “An honored citizen Louisiana”. From everything that I have read, Milton Joseph Cunningham was thought to be a fine man, a true gentleman and a hard-working and competent Attorney General of the State of Louisiana.
While it is clear that my great grandfather had a part in affecting the course of American history, it is also clear he was not alone in affecting the future of “separate but equal” laws in the United States. Many decisions, made by people in Louisiana and other states and by the judges in the Supreme Court of the United States, created this history.
As his gravestone says, Milton Joseph Cunningham was “An honorable citizen of Louisiana”
For those of you who have not read my previous blog story about my great grandfather or who are not familiar with the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson, I will recount briefly some of the details of that famous legal case. There was a gentleman named Homer Plessy, who was 1/8 black, who boarded an interstate train in Louisiana and sat down in the “White’s Only” car of the train. When the conductor came by, Homer was informed that he had to go to the “Colored Only” car. Homer refused politely and after some discussion Homer was arrested and charged with violating a law of the State of Louisiana.
The case first went to a lower court in Louisiana where Judge Ferguson ruled against Homer Plessy – hence the name of the case, Plessy v. Ferguson. Then the case went to a higher court in Louisiana where the Judge Ferguson’s judgment was upheld. Then, because the ruling was still being challenged, my great grandfather, Milton Joseph Cunningham, the Attorney General of Louisiana at the time, wrote the legal brief for the State of Louisiana. That legal brief and all other papers relating to the case up to that point were sent on to the Supreme Court of the United States. Then, after reviewing the first two initial rulings in Louisiana and my great grandfather’s legal brief, the Supreme Court upheld the original verdict in a 7 to 1 ruling.
So, in truth, my great grandfather was only cog in a large wheel that rolled from Louisiana to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The story of this case did not end with the final ruling of the Supreme Court. In fact, the final ruling was to affect the history of the United States for the next 59 years. Because of the Supreme Court ruling, it became the foundation of many “Jim Crow” laws enacted in many Southern States. In addition, this ruling became the legal basis for “separate but equal” laws that applied not only to railroads, but also to restaurants, schools, state offices and public buildings. In addition, it must be said after this ruling was settled, there was a great increase in hangings, torture and harassment of black people.
It is a sad truth that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Plessy v. Ferguson case led to many violent acts against black people
It was only after the case of Brown v. The Board of Education was ruled upon on May 17, 1954 that the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson was finally overturned.
So, without exaggeration, it can be said that this case, affected our history and our approach to racial separation and integration from 1895 to 1954.
As mentioned, there were a number persons involved in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. First of all, there was Homer Plessy himself who undertook to challenge the separate but equal ruling that was then affecting interstate commerce and railroads. But this case was more complicated than it might appear. For one thing, Northern sympathizers and many black people had wanted to change the existing “separate but equal” ruling for some time and in fact, the advent of Homer Plessy getting on a railroad and sitting down in the “Whites Only” car was a pre-planned action with the specific intention to overturn the “separate but equal” ruling that existed on railroad cars at the time.
The black people who planned this action and their Northern sympathizers, had been looking and trying to get the “separate but equal” law thrown out ever since the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Several cases had already occurred and had been tried. In each case, the “separate but equal” law held up, despite challenges. In the case of Homer Plessy, the theory of the black people and their Northern sympathizers who organized this challenge, was that they would lose in Louisiana, but they would win in the Supreme Court. As mentioned above, it did not work out that way.
From everything that I have read, my great grandfather was an honorable man simply performing the offices of his position. Moreover, from what I have read, it seems clear he was also simply the product of his times and his experiences. That said, he did what he did.
I now have had a chance to read more about this ruling and the effect it had on our history. It is quite humbling to find out that I had a relative who I believe was on the wrong side of the argument. And it was also quite surprising to find out the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, agreed with my great grandfather’s arguments.
In particular, I was interested to find out how my great grandfather came to argue for what seems to me to be “the wrong side of the argument”.
It so happens that I have cousin who is a lawyer. His name is Christopher Hoge and he is a well-known lawyer in Washington. When I wrote the first blog story, I asked Chris to read over what I had written to see if what I said seemed correct in stating the facts of the case. He had done that a few month ago before I posted my first blog story. At the time, he said that while he regarded my story as “wordy”, he thought that I wrote correctly about what actually happened. He then mentioned that he had a law clerk who might actually be able to dig up my great grandfather’s legal brief. I asked him to find it if he could, but at the time the law clerk was unable to find it.
Because I was kind of haunted by this story and because I recognized that this ruling had a huge impact on the state of segregation and integration in this country, I went on to do some more research to see what more I could find about my great grandfather’s involvement. In doing so I read an excellent book entitled, Plessy v. Ferguson by Steve Luxenberg. This book concentrated on the various persons involved in the case and a wide cast of characters it was.
There were the black activist community leaders in New Orleans. There were Northern sympathizers who helped plan the challenge to the “separate but equal” laws that were in existence at the time.
Some background may be useful at this point. As most people know, the Southern States had used a system of slave labor in order to create and build up the great plantations of the South. Colored slaves from Africa were brought over here in huge numbers from the 1700s on. In time, millions of slaves were brought in as the human property of other people. Slaves were not just brought into the South. For example, where I live, a gentleman named William Smith, better known as Tangiers Smith, came to this country and settled the land I presently live on in Long Island. In doing so, he brought 90 slaves with him.
Tangiers Smith was a pretty colorful individual himself. He had been governor of Tangiers for the British. When the folks of Tangiers became a little upset with that, they rioted and he had to leave. The Britich government apparently felt sorry for Tangiers and awarded him land on Long Island…specifically, Smith Point and a peninsula of land where I now live, Strong’s Neck. Tangiers not only came with 90 black slaves, he also brought the one and only carriage in New York State. Apparently he was kind of high style guy.
With the help of his slaves, he settled in Strong’s Neck for the winters and Smith’s Point in the summers. His family and their direct relations, the Strong’s, settled and farmed Strong’s Neck where I live. Some of his descendants still live here.
Of course, Tangiers Smith was not the only person to bring slaves to the North. In fact, before the advent of the Civil War, slaves were used in many parts of the North. So, I can say that both the North and South were affected by the influx of slaves from Africa and that is indeed is part and parcel of our history as a nation.
With that background I would now like to get back to my cousin and his legal assistant. From the “Plessy v Ferguson” book I was able to find a number designating the legal brief papers sent by my great grandfather to the Supreme Court. Armed with the document number, my cousin’s legal assistant was successful in finding a copy both of my great grandfather’s legal brief on the subject of Plessy v. Ferguson and the legal arguments presented in opposition by Homer Plessy’s lawyers. In order to have a clear idea of the two sides of this case, I read both the plaintiff’s brief and my great grandfather’s brief.
The first thing to mention that there are some stylistic differences between the two opposing legal arguments. The legal arguments for Homer Plessy were filed by his two lawyers – Albion W. Tourgee and James C. Walker. Walker was the basic legal advisor (a “just the facts, ma’am”, man, if you will) for the plaintiff while Tourgee was a more literary and romantic lawyer. That is a strange term for a lawyer I agree, but it fit Tourgee. Tourgee had been a soldier in the Civil War who, after the war, relocated to North Carolina where he was considered to be a trouble-maker, a carpet bagger and a fierce advocate for civil rights of black people.
Tourgee believed that the only solution for the South, if it was to be integrated back into the United States successfully, was a complete revamping of the educational system in the South and clear and unequivocal rights for black people. He became an ally to many black activists of the time and eventually was asked to assist in the defense of Homer Plessy. In addition, he was an active writer and novelist. He had a bestselling novel of the time called, “A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools”. It sold over 200.000 copies, which at the times was a huge success for a novel.
James C. Walker was more the nuts and bolts lawyer of the two, while Albion Tourgee was more the free thinker and revolutionary lawyer. Reading their arguments, it is not always clear what parts are Tourgee’s and what parts are Walker’s, but it seems fair to assume that greater the stretch of the arguments, the more Tourgee had to do with that position.
So here is my summary of the arguments of Tourgee and Walker:
They start out by saying that the Supreme Court has the right of “certiorari” – that is a writ or order in which a higher court reviews the decision of a lower court. So, in this case, what they were first arguing was that the Supreme Court, being the highest court in the land, could rightfully review and hopefully decide against the two decisions by the two lower courts of Louisiana.
They point out that Homer Plessy was not guilty of any breach of peace. He was not intoxicated and he was not causing any kind commotion. His sole act was to sit down in the “whites only” car and refuse to leave when the conductor informed him that he had to go to the “colored only” car.
They go on to argue that the Supreme Court should review and decide if a State has the right to require railroads to have two different accommodations for “the two races”. I would like to mention here that both legal briefs, that of Tourgee & Walker and that of my great grandfather Michael Joseph Cunningham, speak only of the ‘the two races”.
This is interesting to me because today in the United States we speak of and think of many races – blacks, whites, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Indian, not to mention different religions – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, etc. So, today, we think of many different races and many different religions, but in the bitter period after the Civil War, when the memory of brothers and sisters, white and black dying on both sides was still fresh and in the mind of all citizens, there seemed to be the assumption that there were only two races. I find that strange and somehow telling about the period.
In any case, Tourgee and Walker go on to argue that separating the two races is a violation of the 14th Amendment. If you do not know, the 14th Amendment was put in place to guarantee equality of all citizens and the civil rights of all citizens. So Tourgee and Walker were arguing that the very separation of races, though supported by some state laws, was a basic violation of the rights of any citizen, whether they be white or black or anything in between.
They went on to argue a number of other points: It was very difficult scientifically to determine the race on any passenger getting on a train. The State of Louisiana does not have the right to confer judicial functions on an officer of a passenger train. According to Tourgee, it was unconstitutional and void to give an officer of the railroad that power because that permits the imposition of punishment without due process. Homer Plessy’s lawyers go on to argue that the real purpose of the Louisiana law is to classify persons according to race and that the State does not have the right to do that. In doing so, the State is abridging the immunities and privileges of both the 13th and 14th amendments.
In case you are not aware of it, the 13th Amendent guaranteed the emancipation of all slaves.
As can be seen from the illustration above, “separate, but equal” was not thought to be very equal
So, Tourgee and Walker say the purpose of the “separate but equal” law is to discriminate between classes of people based on race and color. Tourgee and Walker were not arguing that the Homer Plessy was denied the right to choose separate but equal accommodations, rather they were arguing that Homer Plessy, as a purchaser of a first class ticket, was denied the right to choose his accommodations. In other words, his first class ticket permitted him the right to choose his accommodations.
That was therefore, according to Tourgee & Walker, a violation of his 14th Amendment’s right to equal protection under the law. Tourgee & Walker point out that if a white passenger went to the “colored only” car, the white person would be punished according to this violation. Tourgee & Walker’s conclusion was that either way it is an unjust discrimination on account of color.
They sum up their position by asking the court to issue writs of prohibition and certiorari and reverse the earlier two rulings by the Louisiana Courts and Judge Ferguson.
Now we come to my great grandfather’s response.
He begins by saying the State (meaning the United States) has no right to overturn a ruling that was proper and correct. In his legal brief, Milton Joseph Cunningham, states that Homer Plessy is bound by “a good and valid statute of the State of Louisiana” and that Homer Plessy is bound by the law of the land to abide by it.
He points out that nowhere in the information against Homer Plessy was it said that Homer Plessy was a white man or a colored man, or that he belonged to the white or colored race. Nor was it mentioned anywhere in the judgment that the court filed that “the said Homer A. Plessy interposed, either pleaded, averted or admitted that he is a colored man or belonged to the colored race”. In fact, Homer Plessy declined to acknowledge that he was in any proportion a colored man.
Because he was not referred to as a white man or a colored man, “there is nothing in the prosecution against him instituted in the proceedings had thereunder which could or does raise any question under the constitution and the laws of the United States”.
So, my great grandfather argued that Tourgee and Walker could not make a claim that Homer Plessy’s 13th and 14th rights were violated since there is no mention in the two Louisiana State rulings that Homer Plessy was a white or colored man.
He goes on to say that a Writ of Error would be proper if the lower court had acted improperly, but since the court did not act improperly, it is not right for Tourgee and Walker to ask the Supreme Court to issue a Writ of Error.
My great grandfather then reiterates that the two lower courts did not in any respect violate either the 13th or the 14th Amendments. The existing state laws were in place regulating transport of passengers and the courts ruled according to the laws of the State of Louisiana. He says that railroad legally provided “separate, but equal” accommodations in both the “whites only” car and the “colored only” cars and should any passenger refuse to go to the car assigned to them, the conductor has the right to refuse to carry the passenger.
My great grandfather then cites the law first enacted by the State of Mississippi in 1888. It was this law that was the basis of the State of Louisiana’s law. He points out that the Constitutionality of the Mississippi law was challenged and it was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States and ruled that Congress has no jurisdiction.
Upon appeal, the Supreme Court held that the “the statute of the State of Mississippi” does not violate the commerce clause of the Constitution. In other words, the State had the power to require that railroad trains to have separate accommodations for the two races and that the provision, as it affected only commerce within the State, was no invasion of the powers given to Congress by the commerce clause.
My great grandfather then went on to argue that “the denial to any person of admission to accommodations and privileges of an inn, a public conveyance or a theatre, does not subject that person to any form of servitude, or tend to fasten upon him any badge of slavery, even though the denial be founded on the race or color of that person.”
My great grandfather asks the question: “is it legal to separate passengers for any purpose because of race or color?”
His conclusion is that “A operation of passengers may be made solely on the ground of race or color as a reasonable regulation, provided accommodations equal in quality and convenience are furnished to both alike.”
He writes: “The Fourteenth Amendment is violated only when the States attempt by legislation to establish an inequality in respect to the enjoyment of any rights and privileges.”
As to Tourgee and Walker’s argument that the term “color” presents scientific and legal difficulties, my great grandfather argues that in this case the definition is clear and simple: “Color, especially in the United States, means belonging wholly or partly to the African race.”
On several occasions, my great grandfather describes Homer Plessy as a “contumacious passenger”, meaning that he was stubbornly disobedient of the existing law.
Interestingly, my great grandfather agrees with Tourgee and Walker that if a white man tried to enter the “colored only” car, the white man would also be guilty of violating the law and thus the law is equal in fairness of its application.
My great grandfather then cites a number cases that uphold the legal position of his legal brief.
He ends by saying:
“We earnestly maintain that the act in question, No. 111 of 1890, is a legitimate exercise of the police power; that it does not violate the 14th Amendment or any other part of the Constitution of the United States: and the plaintiff is not entitled to the relief asked.”
M.J. Cunningham, Attorney General of Louisiana.
To make a long story short, The Supreme Court reviewed both positions, that of Tourgee and Walker and that of my great grandfather, and ruled 7 to 1 in favor of my great grandfather’s position. As mentioned at the beginning of this blog story, this ruling had great consequences for whites and blacks in the United States for the next 59 years.
The Supreme Court, at the time of ruling, was one judge short and, as mentioned above, only one judge dissented. That judge was John Marshall Harlan. Harlan had grave doubts about the ruling and said so. Here most of what Judge John Marshall Harlan said about the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling:
“It was said in argument that the statute of Louisiana does not discriminate against either race but prescribes a rule applicable alike to white and colored citizens. But this argument does not meet the difficulty. Everyone knows that the statues in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons. Railroad corporations of Louisiana did not make discrimination among whites in the matter of accommodation for travellers. The thing to accomplish was, under the guise of giving equal accommodations for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep to themselves while travelling in railroad passenger coaches. No one would be so wanting in candor as to assert the contrary. The fundamental objection, therefore, to the statues is that it interferes with the personal freedom of citizens….If a white man and a black man choose to occupy the same public conveyance on a public highway, it is their right to do so, and no government, proceeding alone on grounds of race, can prevent it without infringing the personal liberty of each….
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution in color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved….
The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds
If evils will result from the commingling of the two races upon public highways established for the benefit of all, they will infinitely less than those that will surely come from state legislation regulating the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race. We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with the state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done….
I do not deem it necessary to review the decisions of state courts to which reference was made in argument. Some, and the most important to them are wholly inapplicable, because rendered prior to the adoption of the last amendments of the Constitution, when colored people had very few rights which the dominant race felt obliged to respect. Others were made at a time when public opinion, in many localities was dominated by the institution of slavery, when it would not have been safe to do justice to the black man; and when, so far as the rights of blacks were concerned, race guides in the era introduced by the recent amendments of the supreme law, which established universal freedom, gave citizenship to all born or naturalized in the Untied States and residing here, obliterated the race line from our systems of governments, national and state, and placed our free institutions upon the broad and sure foundation of the equality of all men before the law….
For the reasons state, I am constrained to withhold my assent from the opinion and judgment of the majority.”
It seems clear, both by the history of what came after the Supreme Court ruling and by the prescient dissent of Judge John Harlan, that the final ruling of the Supreme Court resulted in a kind of over-turning of the 13th and 14th Amendments and a reversal of sorts of the very results of the American Civil War. Surely, black people were affected adversely by this ruling, surely it became an instrument of prejudice and oppression, surely it affected the course of history in this country.
Now, to another question, was my grandfather guilty of the wrongs that came out of this ruling? Was my family and myself also guilty of having a relative who supplied the legal brief that ended up being upheld by the Supreme Court?
My cousin, the lawyer, who helped me dig up the actual document submitted to the Supreme Court by both Tourgee & Walker and by Milton Joseph Cunningham, our great grandfather, has a clear opinion of this.
“The sins of the father (our great grandfather in this case) are not the sins of the son.”
Or put another way, we are not responsible for whatever some ancient relative of ours did who we never met and never influenced. And surely, that is right in some sense.
But I disagree. I think in some sense, descendants are responsible for what their ancestors did. More than that, I think all Americans living today are in some sense, responsible for what came before them. It is, after all, our shared history.
And when you think of the present state of matters about race today, I think you have to say that all the problems, all the history of the past, all the events of past influences affect the present state of these matters today.
Yes, it is true that we have made many advancements in these matters, but it is also true that many of the issues and problems of yesteryear are with us this year.
This is a very old image of my great grandfather, Milton Joseph Cunningham – aka Joe Cunningham
By Cecil Hoge
I have to admit I did not see this coming. When I began writing this blog, I believed that my mother’s side of the family was the richer, more disreputable side of the family while my father’s side was the more respectable, more impoverished side of the family. That no longer seems to be the case. It seems that the more you mess around on a subject, the more you stumble on things that you did not know.
I knew, for example, that my grandmother, the mother of my father, was a Southern belle from New Orleans with politically incorrect views on race and family. That was acceptable to me because I did not share her views and she was my grandmother. I thought she was who she was and I was who I was.
I knew that she had grown up on a plantation with 5,000 acres and that before the Civil War they had slaves. I also knew that her father had been Attorney General and State Senator of Louisiana.
“Everyone said father would become Governor,” she used say in her slow and elegant New Orleans drawl, “Life is just so unfair, sometimes.”
My grandmother believed that when her father missed being Governor of Louisiana that was some form of rotten luck. I suppose it was, but there can be worse fates.
When I looked up my great grandfather, whose full name was Milton Joseph Cunningham, in Wikipedia, I found some other details of his life that were disturbing and more revealing.
My great Grandfather was born March 10, 1842. He went through the Civil War when he was in 18 to 22 years old. Apparently, my great Grandfather liked the ladies or he liked marrying ladies because he married four times. This came as a surprise and I do not remember being told anything about my great Grandfather having other wives. Apparently, he had two early marriages where his wives died after 4 or 5 years. He then went on to marry two other ladies. Milton Joseph Cunningham died October 19, 1916. Wikipedia lists his occupation is listed as attorney and landowner.
I had known all of the above, except the exact dates and the fact that he was married four times. What I did not know was who my great grandfather really was. And when I did find out more about my great grandfather, it came as both a shock and a surprise.
From Wikipedia I learned many things:
Joe Cunningham, as he was known, was one of 52 “Confederates” who were arrested and tried by federal officials during the Reconstruction Period. In the Civil War, he enlisted in the Second Louisiana Infantry and served from 1861 to 1865. Afterward, in the Reconstruction period, he was the chairman of the Natchitoches Parish Democratic Executive Committee. In 1868 he was the District Attorney of the 17th Judicial District. Then he became of the Chief of Police in Natchitoches and in that capacity worked to reinstate white supremacy. Yes, apparently, my great grandfather was a white supremacist. I am sorry about that, but I cannot change my family history. It is what it is.
In 1878, Joe Cunningham became a state representative and after that he served a four year term as a state senator. That was only the beginning of his career. In 1884 he was appointed to be Attorney General of Louisiana and he served in that capacity from 1884 to 1888. Then he took four years off and worked, I assume, as an independent lawyer. Finally in 1892, he again became Attorney General of Louisiana.
This is a picture of Homer Plessy, the subject of the landmark case, Plessy v. Ferguson.
It was in 1896 that as Attorney General of Louisiana my great grandfather wrote a legal brief for The State of Louisiana in a case called “Plessy v. Ferguson”. For those of you who do not know, this was one of the most famous legal cases in the United States. It established the “Separate but Equal” ruling that became the basis of legal segregation in the United States. This case involved a gentleman named Homer Plessy, who was 1/8 black and who sat down in the “white car” of a train. Homer was arrested and removed from the train. He brought a lawsuit against the State of Louisiana. Ferguson, was Judge John Ferguson for the State of Louisiana.
Judge John Ferguson ruled that the State had the right to take Homer Plessy off of the train and that he had to ride in the “Colored Only” car of the railroad. Homer Plessy then sought a writ of prohibition. That put the case in the hands of Louisiana State Court. And then, as mentioned, my great grandfather, being the Attorney General of Louisiana, wrote the legal brief that defended Judge John Ferguson.
In fairness, this case did not become law until it went on to the Supreme Court and was upheld as the law of the land in a 7 to 1 vote. That law remained in effect from 1896 until 1954, when it was finally over-turned in a new ruling called “Brown v. Board of Education”. That was another landmark ruling of the Supreme Court that essentially reversed the “Plessy v. Ferguson” ruling.
From my point of view Plessy v. Ferguson was a terrible ruling and it resulted in a kind of reversal of the outcome of the American Civil War. It was used as the basis for the justification of segregated schools. I am personally ashamed that my great grandfather wrote the original legal brief for the State of Louisiana, but as mentioned above, it is part of my family history and it is what it is. I would add that given the passage of time and differences between today and the 1890s, it is almost impossible to understand the reasoning behind my great grandfather’s legal brief or the raw feelings that were present in the times after the end of the Civil War.
At the time of the Civil War, New Orleans, the city where my great grandfather resided and worked out of, was the largest city in the South, having a population of 168,000 people.
Now it seems that my great grandfather was known to have many honorable and good traits. In the Wikipedia article on my great grandfather, it mentions what a hands-on kind of district attorney he was, how he prosecuted and prepared cases himself without the aid of assitants and how he did many things that were beneficial to the State of Louisiana, such as saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for the State and ruling against the State lottery, which was known to have been a corrupt institution stealing large amounts of money from the public. So there is good in the bad.
It is also important to realize that it was the job of my great grandfather to defend the ruling of Judge John Ferguson, so it is not clear that he had any choice in the matter or how exactly he felt about the merits or lack of merits of the case. His job was to defend Judge John Ferguson and the State of Louisiana.
Finally, it is important to remember what a great cataclysm the American Civil War truly was and how different the times of that period were from the times of this period. I can tell you from personally talking to my grandmother, the effects of the Civil War were permanently embedded in her very being. She took great care to act as a respectable Southern lady now living in New York and not to blame the North for the terrible defeat the South ultimately bore. It was only when speaking among family members that her true feelings about the Civil War became apparent. I remember she talked for hours about the injustices and hardships of the Civil War and how it affected her upbringing.
”Life is so unfair sometimes, don’t you know,” she would say, “Father was going to be governor and then it did’t happen and then everyone we lived next to discovered oil and we didn’t. Life is just unfair, sometimes, don’t you know.”
To be fair, my grandmother’s view of what constituted unfairness was quite different from most people. She was the product of where she came from. Growing up on a plantation with 5,000 acres when your father was attorney general of the State of Louisiana probably affected her point of view. And certainly growing up as a Southern belle in the Reconstruction Period in Louisiana, she was tainted by the many humiliations she thought her family endured. Losing their slaves, losing their way of life, having to accept life in the North…all must have come a shocks to her and her family.
Of course, that was her fate. She grew up in the South in a period when its history and its institutions had been severed and torn apart. Like the story of “Gone With The Wind”, everything that she and her family had known had been compromised and changed. Adding insult to injury she married a gentleman from fine Virginia family only to move directly to New York City, the very center of all that is evil and wrong about the North.
Of course, many people would consider my grandmother lucky and perhaps deserving of some loss. People in the North, myself included, would say that the Civil War in fact righted many wrongs and set our country back on the road to nationhood and greatness.
Learning about my great grandfather’s part in the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson was a shock to me. That case led to almost 70 years of segregation. It was a true reversal of the military outcome of the Civil War. You could say it was a case of lawyers making the law of the land. It led to almost universal segregation of schools in the South and it encouraged many terrible deeds, including brutal hangings and the torture of black people. Many black people suffered from this case for the next 70 years.
So how could of my great grandfather written a legal brief supporting Louisiana’s case against Homer Plessy?
I think that first you have to say and admit – it was times. Imagine, if you can, what the slavery period truly was. Slavery was quite literally the basis of the Southern system of plantations. Farming and the cotton industry that grew out of it probably would not have been possible without slavery. Imagine the many injustices that occured under slavery. Then imagine, as it did happen, that a Great War erupted and the South, the leading location of slavery, but not by any means the only location of slavery, lost the war and as a result the slaves were declared freed. That was the outcome. Then imagine that the people who lost the war were both bitter and defeated.
I think it is also fair to say that my great grandfather probably never imagined what his legal brief might lead to. Yes, he surely would have known that he was defending the State of Louisiana and the initial judgment of Judge John Ferguson and he probably knew and understood that this case would go on to the Supreme Court, as in fact it did.
What he could not have known is whether the first legal judgment of Judge John Ferguson would be upheld in the Supreme Court. Now, I did read in another book on the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that after my great grandfather wrote the legal brief he was invited to go before the Supreme Court and give oral comments on his brief and that he declined to do that. Why I do not know. Maybe he felt guilty about the legal brief. Maybe he felt too old to go to Washington and testify.
Perhaps most important of all, my great grandfather could not have known what the longterm and historical effect of this ruling might be. His job was to defend the verdict that Judge Ferguson gave. As to whether he thought or considered what the longterm implications of this landmark might be, it is impossible to know. What is certain is that at the time he wrote the legal brief is that it would have been impossible to predict the future verdict of the Supreme Court and the longterm results of that Supreme Court ruling.
Here I should give some background that I have only recently acquired about this case. The case itself was something of a setup job. Abolitionists, who before the war were actively working to free slaves, in the 1890s were actively trying to overturn the existing law that said blacks had to sit a special car. That was the intention of what became known as “Plessy v. Ferguson”.
So a group of former abolitionists got to together and decided that their effort to overturn the law requiring black to sit in a “colored only” train car would have a better chance if they found a black man who was only partially black and mostly white. So, they located Homer Plessy, who was 1/8 black and talked him into boarding a train, knowing full well that the conductor, if he recognized that Homer Plessy was partially black, would have to ask Homer to move to the “colored only” section of the train and if Homer refused, then the conductor would have to have Homer arrested.
Most importantly, Homer Plessy himself agreed to do this in advance and knew that the most likely outcome was that he would go to jail and the case would be later adjudicated in court. Knowing that all of this would most likely happen, Homer Plessy boarded the train and sat down in a “whites only” car. The conductor came by, recognized that Homer was at least partially black and said the he had to move. When Homer did not move, policeman were called onto the train and Homer was arrested.
Now the theory held by the abolitionists who had thought up this plan was that after Homer was arrested, they would defend Homer and he would win in the courts. They knew that he might not win in the State of Louisiana, but they felt confident if the case went to the Supreme Court, Homer would win in the Supreme Court and black people would never again have to ride in “colored only” cars. That was the theory. Unfortunately, as with all theories, until they are proven by fact, they are only theories.
It is important to realize that not only did the State of Louisiana win this case in the lower courts of Louisiana, but the Louisiana ruling also was upheld in the Supreme Court itself by an overwhelming 7 to 1 majority.
I am guessing that the 7 to 1 ruling says something about the mood and feeling in this country in the late 1890s. Without trying to shift blame or to say that my great grandfather was in any way right, I will say that it is hard to believe that the Supreme Court would have agreed with the lower court of Louisiana if there had not been some belief among the Supreme Court judges that the case should be upheld.
When you consider that most of the South and some of the North was built with the use of slaves, it also tells you something of the inheritance and the bond all of us have to the past. It is an unfortunate fact that this great country was built with the aid of unpaid slaves and indentured servants. It is also unfortunate that the arrival Europeans in this country resulted widespread movement and decline of American natives in this country.
This is all history and it is what it is. So you can say that the glories of Democracy and Freedom came in part from a heritage of slavery and prejudice and all were part and parcel of our new American Republic.
The realization that my great grandfather played a major role in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling came as a shock. I had always heard that grandmother’s side of the family came from a prominent and very respectable family. And indeed they did. According to Wikipedia, the father of my great grandfather was most likely a preacher among many other occupations, including being a landowner and a lawyer.
It was and has been the other side my family…the long line of sea captains… that I always felt were the more disreputable. I was sure that if you traced their heritage back far enough I would find I was related to true pirates…men who murdered and plundered and did other outrageous acts, perhaps with the blessing of the King or Queen of England. I knew that my mother’s side of my family has a somewhat questionable history. I had already uncovered the fact that her relatives were sailing Clipper Ships back and forth from England to Asia in the tea trade. I surmised from that fact that it was quite likely that they also traded opium for tea.
So, now it would seem on both sides of my family, there was a hidden past that I could neither ignore nor be proud of. Of course, I could always choose to do what many families do in a similar situation…that is choose to forget about it and never speak about it.
That said, I think many people’s families may lead back to events and actions that they might not be proud of. I am guessing that all of us, high or low, share some element of family guilt, whether it be in this generations or many generations ago. It is helpful to think we are better people now. Of course, that is not always the case.
So what do we do when we encounter some things in our past that we are not proud of…some things that we may not wish to remember in our family history. I have thought about this. I think we cannot ignore or hide those things. I think we must fess up and understand that perhaps we all have elements in our past that might be tainted and that we all share histories that we may not be proud of.
It is in the nature of families to remember the best and forget the worst. That does not change where we may have come from. I suppose it is in our best interest not to dwell on the worst things, especially when they occurred before you were born at a time when you had no part in what happened. It was what it was and we are what we are.