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 Portrait of my Great Grandfather that is hanging in the Louisiana Supreme Court
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.
A newspaper drawing of my Great Grandfather at a younger age.
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.
This is the Nashville skyline from my 10th floor room complete with room door
By Cecil Hoge
In early January 2019 I headed down to a trade show in Nashville. It has been some time since I visited that town. Forty three years ago, if my sometimes faulty memory is correct. I will say the town has undergone some big changes.
No longer is the town the same sleepy funky place I remember. Yes, the main drag, Broadway, is still there and it is still filled with funky bars emanating funky country music just like they always did. There are more of them now and they seem to be tucked in every little corner on and just off of the main street. What seems to be a new innovation is the fact that now many of the bars and restaurants are also located on the 2nd or 3rd floors of Broadway. I guess they ran out of space for bars and restaurants on the first floor.
I would say that part of the town has become a kind of industry. I suppose it always was, but it seems to me there are far more bars and far more places with far more musicians that are trying to get some notice. And yes, a lot of them are very talented.
I remember many years ago wandering into and out of a lot sleepy music places. And each one had a singer or band going, but at that time, there were not that many. My visit way back then included a stop-over at the Grand Ole Opry, and as I remember it was a fine old place, but not very big. It was a little off of Broadway on 5th Avenue North. Today they seem to have moved. The Grand Ole Opry is now a couple of miles out of town off of route 155. I guess they needed bigger digs.
Since I was going to exhibit at a trade show in the Music Center, I stayed at a nearby hotel, The Omni. And it was a lot fancier than the hotel I remember staying in when I last visited. Actually, I think that was a motel a few blocks from the main drag where the quaint little bars and music places began the main drag.
Today the city is all growed up and there are a bunch of tall and serious looking buildings in places that once were just the outskirts of town. I am told that Nashville is not only a music center today, it is also a digital center, attracting all sorts of techies and start-ups and entrepreneurs. Yes, big changes is going on.
I can say that the town seemed pretty lively with people smoking cigarettes and things that looked like cigarettes on the streets, with people approaching you for handouts, with some folks walking a little askew like they had a few too many drinks. I got the impression of a junior Las Vegas without the slot machines and gambling. A little quieter, but a kinda roustabout city with lots of people roaming the streets looking for a good time and lots of establishments set up to take advantage of the booming marketplace.
This was Little Joe’s – home of some mighty good Pizza and Chicken Fancese. It is no more. Now the an orange paper sign scotched taped to the window says “For Rent”
When I came back from Nashville, I was devastated by an unexpected change. Little Joe’s was gone. And Pamela who used to take my order was gone and so was Linda or Melinda or whatever her name was. They were always kind to me greeting me like a long lost buddy when I came to pick up pizza or pasta or Chicken Francese. But when I came back, I naturally called for a special take-out order, but there was no answer…only a message that phone number was no longer in service.
I was distraught beyond words, so I cruised by Little Joe’s to see what was going on. Had they gone South for vacation? Were they closed for winter break? Did they fail to pay their phone bill? I was full of questions and when I cruised into the parking I saw a big orange paper sign scotched tape to the inside of the big window. It said “For Rent” and gave a phone number. I was crushed. What would happen to poor me and my wife. Where would we get our take out?
No worries, mate. I soon found out in the several years that I had frequented Little Joe’s several new take out joints had sprung up. It seems as fast something disappears something appears in its place.
But the demise of Little Joe’s was not the only change I noticed when I got back. The big new Fire Department building going up in place of the older smaller Fire Department building had changed just in the four short days that I was gone. When I left it was still looking like a barren construction site still underway. When I came back 4 days later a big boulder had been placed out front and a not so green lawn had been installed.
This is the grand new Setauket Fire House. It looks like it can house up to 30 bright red fire trucks. We don’t get that many fires, but it sure will be a nice place to keep fire trucks. The big boulder is on the left side of the picture, just beyond the minivan, and somewhat yellow lawn are two new innovations.
To say I was surprised is an understatement. I knew this new $15,000,000 facility was going up, but how they got that lawn and the big boulder in place was a bit of a mystery. Perhaps, they were brought in by helicopter? When I first heard about this, I was surprised to learn that the new building would cost $15,000,000. Now that I see the big boulder and the lawn in place, I can say that it was worth every penny.
I can only imagine the Fourth of July Parade when the Setauket Fire Department brings out their collection of beautiful red fire trucks. I am sure that 2019 is going be a banner year for Setauket and for the Setauket Fire Department.
It may be that every new year, we tend to think about new things and focus on them and wonder what they will mean for the future.
Here is a large clump of algae the I came across on my bay last summer. It measured about 14 feet by 6 feet. It was one of many such algae clumps that I saw this last summer. I will say that later in the season most of those clumps were dispersed when the big Mastercrafts began towing water skiers and knee boarders around my bay. I am thinking some of the water skiers had to pick this stuff out their bathing suits.
Speaking of changes in our little community, this summer I noticed ever expanding clumps of algae on the bay where I live. Algae first started appearing in our bay about 5 years ago. In the last few years, this algae would become quite visible on warm summer days when the tide was out. Then the bay, empty of water, but mostly covered with bright green colored algae, more resembled a golf course than than brown bay bottom of an empty bay.
A couple of years ago, after seeing my bay with increasing algae, cloudier water and less and less fish, I wrote a blog story entitled, “On the Deceptive Beauty of our Waterways” . In that story, I highlighted the fact that while our waterways look quite beautiful from a distance, when you got closer, it is apparent that our waterways suffer from some major problems.
Since I am concerned about the quality of the water where I live, I have been trying to join a organization called The Setauket Harbor Task Force. This group, led by our local New York Assemblyman Steve Englebright, has pledged to clean up and preserve the waterways of Setauket Harbor.
My house is located on Little Bay which leads out to Setauket Bay which leads out to Port Jefferson Bay which leads out to Conscience Bay if you go left and Long Island Sound if you go straight, which, if you keep going leads out to the Atlantic Ocean, which, if you really keep going that leads out to all the 7 seas of the world. So, you might say my little waterway is very well-connected.
Anyway, I wrote a letter to Mr. Englebright about what I considered to be the dire condition of our waterways. That must have struck a cord with Mr. Englebright because he came back to me and set up a meeting with him and George Hoffman, a gentleman who heads up the Setauket Harbor Task Force. That meeting turned out to be very congenial and thereafter, I had a couple of more meetings with George Hoffman in order to see what I might do to help the Setauket Harbor Task Force.
I will say I was full ideas about what might be done. I suggested setting up artificial oyster bars to filter the water. I discussed the possibility of raking up algae. I suggested planting reeds to encourage the return of fish, lobsters and crabs. I suggested seeding clams in various parts of our four bays. I volunteered to help organize a report on the history of our waterways since the arrival of Europeans. That was something Mr. Englebright thought would important in getting monies to support improving the waterways.
In turn, George Hoffman informed me of the different things he and the Setauket Task Force were doing to improve the quality of the water.
That turned out to be basically taking samples of water and getting them tested for the presence of vasrious chemicals. Apparently, that process only started this last summer and as of the dates I saw George, they had no hard data on what was in the water and so they had no theory or plan of what to do to improve the water. So I asked George to go for a ride with me so I could show him some the things I saw each time I went for a paddle.
So George came by my house and the first thing that I showed him was the condition of the water in front of my house. Before explaining what that was like I should mention my house is the very last place that the tide comes on the bay and that my bay empties out completely twice a day. That means that the tide literally picks up everything that is on the surface of the bay and brings it into my little cove which, as mentioned above, is situated at the very end of the bay.
As you can see from this picture, the scum that arrives at my house can look pretty nasty. It is not always like this. Some days the water is almost clear.
As you can see from the picture above, the water does look really nasty at times. George was kind of shocked and immediately said that when they do testing the waters they never actually come into Little Bay itself. I mentioned that Little Bay is connected to Setauket Bay and whatever goes into Little Bay can come out and go into Setauket Bay. George thought about this for a while and then said that maybe it would be a good idea to take some measurements and water samples in Little Bay itself.
After that George got into my little inflatable boat and I took him for a ride. I asked him where they took measurements and samples of the water. George said at the mouth of Little Bay, in Setauket Bay, at the mouth of Port Jefferson Bay and at the mouth of Conscience Bay.
I asked George what about Port Jefferson Bay in the harbor near the electric plant where Stonybrook University pipes in its treated sewage. I mentioned it could pretty important to test the water there because Stonybrook University dumps in thousands of gallons of treated sewage each day and that might have an effect on the water quality. No, said George, they had never thought to do that because it was pretty far from Setauket Harbor & Bay. I asked what about Conscience Bay. No, George said, we never go there, because that also was too far.
Hmmh, I thought. I asked George if he realized that all these bays were connected and that any pollution that happened to be in any part of the four bays might also go to some other parts. Yes, of course, George said, we know it is all connected, but our mandate it to improve the water of Setauket Harbor.
George then told me about their immediate plans for Harbor improvement. Apparently, they had gotten a million dollar grant and the money would be forthcoming very soon. That money would used to dredge parts of the harbor, tear out the Phragmites – these are a special kind of tall reeds which we used call Pampus Grass and which are apparently a bad kind of reed that grows near the waster’s edge. The harbor improvement plan also included draining out the creek that leads under 25A into Setauket Harbor, installing a new bulkhead and creating a new park area where people can come and walk and see all the harbor improvements.
While all of that sounded fine, I kept wondering what exactly would be done to improve the water quality. Of the one million dollars slated for the improvements, apparently $500,000 would go for the bulkhead, $250,000 would go to improve the town dock, $50,000 would go to dredge the harbor and the remaining monies would go to clean out Phragmites in the newly expanded park area and clean different drains leading into Setauket Harbor.
I could see how dredging might improve the tidal flow allowing water to go out and go in the harbor more freely. I could understand how cleaning out Phragmites might allow better reeds to grow and provide a home for fish and other sea life. I also thought clearing drains going into the harbor might also help, but it seemed to me that the plan for these monies was mostly focused on creating a new park, which certainly would be appreciated by local residents and visitors, but would not necessarily improve the present or future quality of the water.
I then asked George how they could improve the water of Setauket Harbor if they did not improve the water of all four bays. George was kind of silent on that question. I sensed it was a question he had not given much thought to. Not wanting to push my luck, I began to motor around and as I went, George would point out all the test spots where they took samples of the water. And sure enough, he pointed out the mouth of Little Bay, just in front of the old washed out bridge, a couple of spots in Setauket Harbor, the mouth of Port Jefferson Harbor and finally the mouth of Conscience Bay.
Here, I have to explain a little something about Conscience Bay. The mouth is right where there is a really big boulder on left just after where Port Jefferson Bay ends. If you go straight beyond the big rock and to the right you will end up in a little cove in front Jim Simon’s house, Long Island’s richest man. If you go to the left, you will enter a channel that leads to Conscience Bay.
I turned left.
As we began to motor toward the actual mouth of Conscience Bay I could see a kind of fog settling over George eyes.
“Where we going?” George asked.
“Conscience Bay,” I replied.
“I don’t think I have been here,” George said.
“You know,” George said a few minutes later, “this is really big.”
“It’s all connected George,” I said, “so anything here will go into Setauket Harbor and anything in Setauket Harbor will come into Conscience Bay.”
“I didn’t know it was this big,” George repeated looking around the broad bay surrounded by houses on shore.
I have to say I thought this was kind of shocking since George was in charge of cleaning up the waterways of Setauket Harbor. I realized that it was just sinking in to George that Conscience Bay was part of the waterway he had agreed to clean up. Who knew?
I have had a couple of other conversations and couple of short boat trips with George after that. We went with a lady scientist from Stonybrook one day and I told her about the clumps of algae I had seen and the discolored water I had seen and noted that it seemed to be red. She seemed a little dubious of what I was telling her. As we were motoring along I pointed out a couple of large clumps of algae. The lady scientist seemed very surprised.
I then pointed out some small areas of red discolored water and asked her if it could be red tide or some other kind of algae. She replied that there was no red tide in Setauket Harbor, but the small reddish areas looked suspicious.
It happened that about one minute later we passed a very large area of darkened reddish water…I would guess it was 30 or 40 feet by 100 or more feet long. The reddish, darkened color was distinctly visible and kind of ominous looking.
“What is that?” I asked. Both George and the lady were a little taken back by the sheer size of the reddish, darkened water.
When we came closer, the lady said yes, that does look some kind of algae. At the end of our ride, the lady from Stonybrook University said that it would be good idea to investigate what that dark red-colored water was.
It turned out that the answer was already on its way. The next day there was a lead article in Newsday about “Rust Tide” appearing all over Long Island. Apparently, it had been discovered this last summer (2018) on both the North Shore of Long Island and the South Shore. The article specifically said samples of the rust tide had been collected in Port Jefferson Harbor and Setauket Harbor on the North shore of Long Island as well as on Shinnecock Bay and Great South Bay on the Soputh shore of Long Island. It also went on to relate that Red Tide, a much more deadly form of algae, had been found in Northport Harbor, which is about 10 miles West of us.
I would like to interject a few words about red tide, which I first learned about when I rented a house for a month in the winter on the Gulf of Mexico in Englewood, Florida. Having seen seaweed and weird things in the water all my life, I never thought much about seaweed or algae washing up on a shore. But the year we rented a house on the Gulf happened to be a year when the red tide was present. I did not know anything about red tide when we moved into the very nice house directly on the Gulf of Mexico. Almost immediately after settling into the house, as is my custom, I decided to go for a walk on the beach.
While walking I could see that there was various kinds of stuff that had washed up on the beach. As I walked along the beach, I noticed that I was having some issues breathing. And then I realized the closer I come to the water’s edge and the clumps of stuff that had washed up on the beach, the harder it was to breathe. I did not think much of it until I got back to our house and happened to watch a local news broadcast later that evening. I was surprised to hear them talking about a red tide and I was even more surprised to hear them say it was not a good idea to walk where red tide algae had washed up on the shore.
Some people, the TV announcer said, found walking near clumps of red tide algae could make it hard to breath. This shocked me. They went on the say that red tide had been associated with fish kills in recent years. Apparently, the algae that’s consisted of red tide, could also make it impossible for fish to breathe. All of this was very surprising.
Now that was a few years ago, but this last winter it was widely reported that Red Tide had again struck the coast of Florida and this time it was responsible for some really large fish kills, not to mention the fact that it also made it impossible for beach goers to go to the beach, since it made breathing difficult and sent some people to the hospital. So, in summary, red tide had already proven to be a serious problem in Florida.
So when I heard that the red tide was in Huntington Harbor, just 10 miles West of us, I realized that could be a really serious problem for us. In addition, it struck me as strange that it was some other scientist on the South Shore who had discovered this and that George Hoffman and this lady scientist from Stonybrook had been unaware of this independent testing and research. You would think that all the people who were concerned with the water quality would be talking to each other and sharing information of what they were finding. Apparently, that was not the case.
Having lived at my house on Little Bay for over 40 years, I had noticed some very disturbing changes in the quality of the water. Not only had the water gotten progressively cloudier and dirtier over the years, not only had algae begun to increase ever year, but also the number of fish, crabs and other sea life that I saw on my paddle or boating seemed to decline year after year.
There have been many studies and reports on why this may be so. The increased use of fertilizers and insecticides, the runoff from roads and storm drains, pollution from cars drifting down to road and washing into the bays, the increased use of detergents for washing, the increase of nitrates coming from the detergents one other chemicals, the leaching of sewers into the bays…these are all reasons that have been cited for the decline in the quality of water and in quantity of sea life in our bays. And while the reasons for these problems are fairly evident, the solutions are widely debated with different agencies and groups having different ideas and sometimes contrary solutions to the problems that most people agree are present.
Some people want Long Islanders to change out all the septic systems and replace them with cleaner filtering septic systems. This is no doubt a good idea, but since there over 400,000 septic systems in Suffolk County alone, it would take some time and cost an astronomical sum to do that. Other people want detergents and soaps and insecticides and fertilizers banned, but most people are found of cleaning their clothes, fertilizing their gardens and keeping bugs at bay.
A few days after showing the lady scientist and George Hoffman the “rust tide”, I again went out for a boat ride on our local waterways with George Hoffman and the lady from Stonybrook University. I told her about the article and about rust tide. Yes, she said, she had read the article and in fact she knew the fellow scientist who had conducted the testing. She said that she had called him and he had said that he would release his findings about what his test samples showed. That August of 2018.
What seemed clear about all of this was that there are various people, groups and government agencies all doing various things to improve the quality of the local waters, but apparently they never really talk to one another about what they were doing and so there was no unified and agreed solution for the problems that all of Long Island are all facing.
Since the late summer I have been trying to get in touch with George but without much luck. I did get an e-mail from him saying that he wanted to catch up early this winter. I returned the e-mail, left some phone messages and sent follow up e-mails and haven’t heard from him since. It does not look like I am going to be doing anything for the Seatauket Harbor Task Force soon. I will keep pestering George in the hopes of getting involved. I would really like to know what can and might be done to improve the quality of our waters. As things stand, I have the impression that our waterways are vastly degraded and almost nothing is being done to turn that around.
It will be interesting to see what happens this spring. Right now the waterways are clear of algae, as they are every winter and early spring, and the water is almost clear. I would hope, of course, that the problems that our bay has with water quality and diminishing fisheries will solve themselves naturally. That may be a little bit to much to hope for.
Here is a very scenic pond nearby which this last summer acquired a dayglo green color from algae.
I would like to mention that algae is also present in our local lakes and ponds. Above please find a picture of the normally very scenic Ward Melville Park Pond. The normal color is blue, but this summer it became dayglo green. Perhaps, we should change to name of the pond to Green Pond.
I would now like to move on to another subject, not related to our waterways, but related to other changes that are going on the strange times we live in.
I have to say that this seems like a particularly strange economic time. In our little town there is this local business that does quite well. It is called Renaissance Technologies. Last year, according to Bloomberg, this hedge fund did $4,600,000,000. That a lot for any business but in a town that has a few thousand residents that is simply amazing. The founder of this company, Jim Simons, was reported to have made $1,600,000,000 last year. And if I remember correctly, that was not by any means Mr. Simons best year. The year before he was reported to have made $2,100,000,000 and the year before that $2,200,000,000. So, by those metrics, last year was a kind of collapse in prosperity.
Now I am told Mr. Simons is a very prudent and thrifty guy who used to ride around in an old Nissan car that ran just great for him. I am not sure if Mr. Simons has traded in his old Nissan. Not all reports of Mr. Simons thriftiness are consistent. Three years ago he was reported to have bought one of the world’s largest yachts. We would not know about that here because it was reported that his boat was too big to bring into Port Jefferson Harbor, although we do get to seem some pretty big boats in here during the height of the summer season. Yachts of 100 to 200 feet long do come in here, but apparently those only belong to some of Mr. Simons’ employees and some other wealthy folks stopping by.
Whatever Mr. Simons is doing, it seems to be working. According to Wikipedia, his net worth is listed to be 21.5 billion dollars as of February, 2019. Good work Jim.
I did a little calculation comparing his company to mine. Last year we had gross sales of a little over 13 million dollars. We have 30 employees and that comes out to a little over $430,000 generated per employee. I did the same came calculation for Mr. Simons’ company, Renaissance Technologies. As mentioned above, they did a little over 4.6 billion dollars. And if it is true that they have about 300 employees – the number reported in Bloomberg, that would mean that they generated about 15.3 million dollars per employee. In other words, Mr. Simons’ business generated more per one employee than our company generated for all 30 employees of my company. Sometimes I get the feeling I am not in the right business.
Let me move on to the subject of taxes. So here is what is weird about the economy here. We have some of the highest taxes in the country. My own house, which is only three bedrooms, costs over $20,000 per year in taxes. That I am sure is peanuts compared to the taxes that Mr. Simons and his employees pay.
Anyway, I am grateful to live in this seaside community with easy access to the water and outlying beaches. What I think is weird is that each week our local newspaper carries a listing of houses that are in foreclosure. Some weeks, it is truly astronomical with an entire pull out section devoted to a printed list of properties in foreclosure. One week last summer, I took the time to count how many properties were listed. I did not try and count the listings on every page. I just counted the listings on one page and multiplied by the number of pages completely devoted to listing properties in foreclosure – I believe there 48 pages of properties in foreclosure listed in that issue. With the aid of a calculator, I came up with an estimate that over 3,000 properties were listed. That is just for the town of Brookhaven, which is part of Suffolk County, not all of Suffolk County.
Now, as mentioned above, Renaissance Technologies employs about 300 people. And I think it is fair to assume that most of those people make huge amounts of money. The company, if I understand the reports correctly, specializes in software and computers which track, through the use of algorithms, the mood of stock market and automatically trade stocks thousands of times a day, buying or selling according to daily conditions of the markets. I understand that their computers are some of the fastest in the world and are, perhaps, even faster than the computers of the New York Stock Exchange.
Bloomberg ran a story on their website referring to Renaissance Technologies is as “The company that makes money like no other”. At one time, it was reported that Renaissance Technologies accounted for 20% of the daily trades of the New York Stock Exchange. I have no idea if indeed that was true or is still true, but what seems to be absolutely true is that our little town has this immensely profitable business that literally affects that real estate values of our local community.
One of the partners of this company was Robert Mercer. He and his daughter, Rebecca Mercer, were backers of Brietbart News, Steve Brannon and Donald Trump. It would seem that Mr. Simons and Mr. Mercer have had some disagreements in philosophy and maybe those disagreements extend to other employees. Whatever the facts of the matter, it seems that Mr. Mercer is no longer involved in the daily operation of Renaissance Technologies. I understand that he has moved down to Maryland to be closer to the political action going on in our capital.
The two biggest effects that we see in our local town is the recent appearance of million dollar cars in our little community…Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and super high end BMWs and Mercedes, for the more conservative Renaissance employees. The other result is the fact that our local area housing is amazingly high priced. The folks at Renaissance do not seem to be content with one house. They seem to buy up a cluster of two or three houses which they promptly tear down and rebuild into a more fitting single temple to their success.
So here I am in this little town of Setauket New York which according the Google, has a population of about 15,000 people. Yet, within this town are some really wealthy folks literally earning millions of dollars a year. And those people do not all work for Renaissance Technologies. We also have an amazing amount of doctors that seem to pull in a million or more dollars per year. Then there is the local Stonybrook University which has about 35,000 students in the next town over and some very wealthy professors. These days professors can be paid some pretty high salaries.
Speaking of professors, Mr. Simons began his career as a math professor. He was employed as a simple professor at Stonybrook University and then he got this idea he called “The Franklin Library.” It was a dictionary imbedded in a device the size of a calculator. Apparently, that device spurned the invention of other similar devices by Mr. Simons…a language translator, synonym dictionary, an electronic bible. Somewhere along the line, he got the idea to trade stocks and write algorithms to do that. So, from small acorns come large oak trees. His story is a true Horatio Alger story of success.
But at the same time, many of the people living on Long Island are unable to afford housing and are literally being kicked out of their homes.
I will give you a small idea about that. Two years ago, after we had rebuilt our front porch, one of the construction guys asked us if it was all right if a buddy of his took away some of the left over rotted wood from the old porch. Now the leftover wood we had was of no value as far as I could see, so I said great. Then we do not have to pay someone to take it to the town dump.
A few days later this not so well dressed shy guy came by to pick up the wood. He seemed to have several sweaters on even though it was a fairly warm fall day. I was curious so I went over to ask him what he was going to do with the wood.
”Burn it for heat,” he replied, then added, “It gets cold in the woods.”
This was shocking, so I asked “are you really living in the woods?”
”Yes,” he answered, “You’d be surprised how many of us there are.”
Where were they living, I asked. In the Pine Barrens, he replied. The Pine Barrons is a large undeveloped and heavily wooded area in the center of Long Island about 10 miles from where we live.
How did it happen that you are living in the woods, I asked. I have no place to go, he responded.
Then he told me his story. He had been working construction three years ago and the downturn in construction hit really hard. He ran out of money. His wife and kids ran out on him. He retreated to the woods and has been living there ever since.
The last time I spoke to him was the winter before last. Maybe his situation has gotten better since then. Perhaps, he has gotten a job. Perhaps, he has gotten housing and all is now well. I do not know.
I can only say that two winters ago he came several times to take the leftover wood. When it was all gone he stopped coming.
I will tell another story. This is the story of lady who had been married with a couple of children when the last child suffered problems while being born. The childbirth took several hours and for an extended period the child did not get oxygen. The result was that the child was alive, but comatose and unable to move any part of his body. Despite that terrible disability the mother opted to take care of this child at home. As you might guess this put a terrible strain on her marriage and within a few years her husband left her.
And as seems to be the usual lot in such separations, the husband found some reason not to pay alimony. I do not know if that was because he had no work or he was a bad guy or what. In any case, the lady was left without child support caring for a son who was alive but who could not move or speak.
This led to the lady trying to get work of any kind to support her kids. She worked for some time as a maid cleaning houses. She took odd jobs in stores to get an income. She worked for some time also as legal assistant to a lawyer, but unfortunately that good job did not last. And whatever income she was able to gather, even with some help from New York State, it was not enough to pay her mortgage on a timely basis. The result was that her house is now being foreclosed.
So, this lady and the homeless man I described are all living within 10 miles of Renaissance Technologies where many employees are multi-millionaires and some are multi-billionaires.
Yes, it is strange times in America.
Here is Mrs. May scolding Parliament
Let me move on to some issues of this political moment. As now doubt you have heard, poor Theresa May is having difficulties getting the good people of England to make a clear decision about Brexit. She spent the last year and half putting together a deal that apparently no one in England wants. It seems that their country, like ours, is divided fairly evenly in political opinions and a little more than half of the people in England want to leave the EU while a little less than half want to stay in the EU. Discussions about this problem has been going on for almost two years and so far the results of the dispute is Nada.
Last week, a kind of a breakthrough occurred – Parliament voted down the deal that poor Theresa had been touting for almost two years and voted to delay Brexit. Previously, Theresa May had said I will only allow a delay over her dead body. Well, maybe, she did not say it quite that way. Apparently, Theresa has had second thoughts about being dead and therefore, with great reluctance she permitted a vote, which promptly occurred, to delay Brexit – the exact opposite result she was hoping for. Truly, she is a lady much spurned and yet, she carries on trying to bring her country a solution. Now that is perseverance.
Now the curious thing about this is that the EU has not said it would allow a delay, but given the wish/washy convictions of the EU, it is widely supposed that they will go along with an extended delay. So, once again, the can has been kicked down the road, although it is not quite clear if there is a wall at the end blocking the road.
Speaking of a wall, Mr. Trump has run into to some disagreement with Congress. They just voted down his power to declare a national emergency to build a wall. Mr. Trump promptly vetoed the bill. Now Congress and the Senate must try to override the President’s veto. That does not seem likely, so it would seem that Mr. Trump is back on track to build a wall. That also seems unlikely since lawyers all across the nation, of various party persuasions, are all standing by to contest the President’s right to declare an emergency to build a wall. So, you can say again the can has been kicked down the road and all are dissatisfied, just like Theresa May and all the good peoples of England.
Mr. Trump has not had the best of months. He went off to Asia to conclude a nuclear deal with his buddy, Kim Jong-un. Previously, he had described their relationship as a love fest. It did not take long for Mr. Trump to discover that Mr. Kim was not in a love fest mood. It seems Mr. Trump did not want lift sanctions and Mr. Kim did not want to give away the farm, or in this case, his nuclear arsenal. So, Mr. Trump, who has always said he is magic dealmaker, said he also knows when to walk out on a deal that is not right. He then promptly walked out on the deal, apparently even before the scheduled meetings were finished.
Thereafter, there was a little dispute about what actually happened, who volunteered to do what, who was going to give up what in return for what. The North Koreans said one thing and Mr. Trump and his guys said another. What was clear was that there was true disagreement on what to agree about. After Mr. Kim got back to North Korea, he said he was re-thinking this whole negotiating thing and maybe it was a good time to go back to shooting off missiles and improving nuclear weapons for a while.
Emperor Xi to President Trump – Don’t walk out on me!
This seemed to have an effect on the Chinese who had been hoping to conclude a trade truce with Mr. Trump. Apparently, seeing Mr. Trump walk out of his negotiations with Mr. Kim gave the Chinese second thoughts. They were thinking that Mr. Xi, the Chinese Emperor, might come here to sit down with Mr. Trump and have Mr. Trump walk out on Mr. Xi. Nobody walks out on Chinese Emperors. So the meeting that was supposed to take place at the end of March has been postponed “for three or four weeks”.
It was just another case of the can being kicked down. Now, personally, I have lot at stake with this particular can. Our company imports about 40% of our products from China and inflatable boats, for some reason I cannot explain, are among the products coming from China that are being tariffed. I find this strange because there is no American industry for inflatable boats and therefore tariffs on inflatable boats do not help or support any American companies.
I know Mr. Trump has said he just loves that fact that the Chinese are paying billions of dollars tariffs into the U.S. treasury. I am here to say that Mr. Trump is fibbing. The Chinese are not paying billions into the U.S. Treasury, American companies are paying billions of dollars into the U.S. Treasury. That is the actual fact Jack. No bucks being paid by Chinese folks, only bucks being paid by Americans. I am here to tell you that is true and though I have not paid billions of dollars in tariffs, I have paid over $150,000 in tariffs in just the last 3 months. So, I for one, would like to see the dealmaker make a deal.
I cannot say that I am optimistic about that. I think the most likely event is that the tariffs will stay in place and American companies will keep paying the tariffs and the can will be kicked down the road. In the meantime, I will hope the Chinese promise not steal American trade secrets and America agrees to remove the tariffs. But that is only a hope.
Whatever you can say about the present moment, I think it is true that big changes are coming and not all of them will be good.
This is James Shewan, a pretty distinguished looking fellow if you ask me
By Cecil Hoge
On my mother’s side I come from a sea-faring family. I have already written something about my mother’s father, Edwin Shewan, in my blog story entitled “Grandpa Gets Busted“. In that story I told about some of my grandfather’s escapades on his yacht during Prohibition. He was a pretty colorful gentleman. I think it is only fair to write some things about his father, my great grandfather. His name was James Shewan.
The picture of him above comes from a book entitled, “Scots and Scots’ Descendants in America, Volume 1”. Now, I never met my great grandfather. He died in 1914 which is a pretty good reason why. What I know about him comes from my wife’s explorations of Ancestry.com, the book cited above, some newspaper accounts and some pictures that I or my wife have discovered on the internet. There are no living relatives who knew him personally who I could speak to or who knew about him to tell me more, so this account of my great grandfather will no doubt miss some important details of his life.
Because my wife has been researching Ancestry.com and other websites for the last 20 years, she was able to find passport copies, birth certificates, newspapers accounts of the Shewan family going as far back as the 1750s. This was very helpful in providing me unknown details of the Shewan family. It also provided me with pictures and information about family members that I never knew I had. And in particular she was able to find both book and newspaper accounts of my illustrious great grandfather.
My father did tell me that James Shewan was the man who made the real fortune for my grandfather, Edwin Shewan. I do not remember my mother telling me anything about my great grandfather, but since she was born in 1919, she also never met James Shewan. From his appearance in the above photo I would think he was a very upright, religious, hard-working man.
The description of my great grandfather as told in “Scots and Scots’s Descendants” comes a few pages after the description of Theodore Roosevelt, who apparently was another notable Scot. Other notable Scots written about in that book are Lord & Lady Aberdeen and Alexander Graham Bell, so he was among some pretty famous folks.
This is a very old picture of one of the dry docks owned by James Shewan
James Shewan was the founder of the largest dry dock and ship repairing yard in the Port of New York and as such, he was also the founder of the largest dry dock and ship repairing plant in America. He was born January 6th, 1848, a native of Aberdeenshire, Scotland in the little Scottish town of Rora, which was near another small Scottish town called Peterhead. Peterhead is a small port city on the North Sea side of Scotland north of the coastal cities of Aberdeen and Edinborough. Rora appears to be an even smaller town north and a little inland of Peterhead. I gather Peterhead was a well-known sailing port in the 1800s.
James Shewan’s father died when James was just 4 years old. After a few years of school, James became a ship’s carpenter in Peterhead. Apparently, he also went to night school in the evenings giving himself a general education in reading, writing, mathematics and history. At a very early age (I am guessing 15) he got the opportunity to go on a sailing voyage to Greenland. On that trip he ran into to some nasty weather because the ship became icebound for three and half months and he and the ship were given up for lost.
The ship and my great grandfather got back from Greenland to Scotland after what must have been a rather harrowing voyage. You would think after being stuck in ice for three and a half months in Greenland that you might swear off of all sea voyages. Apparently, my great grandfather was not the swearing off type because almost as soon as he got back to Peterhead, he decided to go to London and go on another journey with my great, great, great uncle, Andrew Shewan. I have described some of my great, great, great uncle’s journeys in my blog story “Sailing Clipper Ships Around the World“.
This was the ship that my great grandfather rode in with my great, great, great uncle Andrew Shewan. They sailed this clipper ship to Australia, Japan and many different ports along the Chinese coast. The ship, called the Norman Court, was supposedly the second or third fastest clipper in the world at that time. It could sail over 22 mph in heavy winds. According to Andrew Shewan’s book “The Great Days of Sail”, when there was a gale wind blowing and 40 or 50 foot waves breaking over the ship (apparently a fairly regular occurrence in the Pacific Ocean) and he was at the helm, he could feel the ship vibrate “like a diving board” each time he hit a wave. I am guessing that was not a good feeling.
So, at the age of 16, my great grandfather set off with his uncle, my great, great, great uncle on a another sailing voyage to Singapore. Andrew Shewan, by the way, was in his 20s at the time, so this was 2 young guys, along with 23 other “souls” headed around the world in a clipper ship that was 197 feet long by 33 feet wide.
It is probably impossible to imagine what a trip like that must have been like…sudden storms, dead calm seas, freezing temperatures, boiling, steaming heat, being baked by sun, drenched by monsoonal rain, perhaps, coming through tremendous typhoons, having mountainous waves breaking over the full length of the ship every one or two minutes, and sometimes encountering breezy, perfectly wonderful, beautiful weather as you sail over an ocean where you never see humans or other ships for days or weeks or months at a time.
Then imagine this clipper ship is commanded by a guy in his twenties, carrying the burden and responsibility for all the lives aboard…spending 12 or 14 hours at the helm through all sorts of weather, with far and few between breaks and sometimes little or no sleep. Imagine anchoring off of some exotic Pacific Island with beautiful islander girls welcoming you after weeks or months of not having seen even a passing sailing ship in the ocean. Then think of what my two young relatives must have thought of that experience and that scene. Imagine the opposite – being met by Malay pirates mounting a full scale attack on your ship and knowing if you fail to fend them off you will disappear from history and lose you life and all the lives on board.
James Shewan’s voyage to the Far East ended up taking four years, with my two relatives stopping at various islands along the way and various ports in Australia, China and Japan trading tea and other commodities. In my blog story about my uncle Andrew Shewan, I posited that one of the commodities that they transported and traded was probably opium. I do not know if that is true, but I do know that another great, great, great uncle, Robert Shewan, had started a trading company called Shewan, Tomes & Co. and that company, located in Hong Kong, was known to have traded opium for tea.
These are the old offices of Shewan, Tomes & Co., owned by another relative, Robert Gordon Shewan.
My great grandfather James Shewan parted company with his uncle somewhere in China or Japan and came back directly from Yokohama to New York in 1869 at the ripe old age of 21. So, by that early age, he had already been stuck in ice in Greenland for three and half months, returned, sailed to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Ningbo and Yokohama, among other places, visiting many a port and many an island in that four year period.
Now in New York for the first time in this country, James Shewan soon found work as a ship’s carpenter. Then, after only working for four months, he started his own dry dock and ship repair business under the name of Shewan & Palmer. Talk about a start-up company, James was just 21 years old at the time. That business later became Shewan and Jenkins. In 1877, my great grandfather bought out Mr. Jenkins and took over sole ownership of what became Shewan Shipyards.
Apparently, from the very beginning, the business grew rapidly and became a major industrial success. It was located in Brooklyn at the foot of 25th, 26th and 27th streets. His shipyards ended up occupying 40 acres of prime waterfront property. Apparently, it was central to all the shipping piers in the Port of New York and it was directly located on the 40 foot wide Bay Ridge Channel connected with the Ambrose Channel. That fortuitous location allowed my great grandfather to repair ships up to 12,000 tons.
Here is another picture of my Great Grandfather’s Shipyard – I am guessing this is a pretty old picture (late 1870s) considering that the boats seem to have masts.
The ship-building plant included a machine shop, a boiler shop, a joiner shop, a steam forge, cooper and blacksmith shops, and had “every appliance necessary for repairing ocean-going steamships”. It was, in other words, a one stop shop for shipbuilding and repair. By the time of his death, my great grandfather’s business employed regularly over two thousand workers and was one of the busiest firms in New York. Apparently it was fully equipped with “modern electrical lighting” so work could go on day and night.
His largest dry dock could lift ships weighing up to 12,000 tons and “was constructed of steel and was of the type adopted by the British Admiralty for docking warships”.
An ad for my great grandfather’s shipyard seeking various kinds of workers
In researching this story on my great grandfather, I scanned some old newspapers to learn more about my great grandfather and his business. I came up with some interesting stories:
I found two reports of fires that occurred either in my grandfather’s shipyard of nearby. I guess a shipyard has a lot of flammable materials.
Then there was the story in the Daily’s News about the odd fact that 17 boxer’s worked in the shipyard. Apparently, three gentlemen, Boer Rodel, Philly MocGovern and Bull Anderson all well-known pugilists of the time, worked in the shipyard. According to the story, the reporter from the Daily News journeyed down to my great grandfather’s shipyard only to be conforting by 7 burly policemen. Upon questioning the policemen, the reporter reported that they said wasn’t get a story that day. Apparently, the shipyard was on strike.
Here is a picture of Sir Thomas Lipton standing tall with a not too clear picture of his America’s Cup Challenger, the Shamrock IV.
There was another interesting story about Sir Thomas Lipton coming to Shewan Shipyards to check out his latest challenger in the America’s Cup Race, The Shamrock IV. Apparently, Sir Thomas was apparently suffering from a cold. Asked by a reporter how he was doing, he replied, “The American doctor’s know how treat colds. They prescribe a pretty girl’s arm around your neck.”
Sir Thomas then went on to say, “I have always found Americans anxious to please me and treat me fine. Nothing I have asked has ever been refused.”
Above you will a picture of Sir Thomas looking pretty hale and hearty, with no young lady with her arm around his neck.
I found another story about Admiral Peary’s daughter, Mrs. Mary Peary Stafford, who came to my great grandfather’s shipyard to christen a new ship. Mrs. Stafford was apparently known as the “Snow Baby” because she was born in the artic on one of Admiral Peary’s expeditions. Anyway, Mrs. Stafford came to christen a ship called “The Peary” which was going to be used by a gentleman named Donald B. McMillan. He was going to use that ship and another ship to chart unexplored territory near the North Pole. At the time, it seemed that there was concern that a new ice age was coming and Donald McMillan went off to the North Pole to investigate.
Then there is the not so cheerful story of Elsie Dahl, a pretty 17 old pictured above. Apparently, she was the girlfriend of one of my great grandfather’s employees, a boiler maker. It seems the gentleman named Harry Gleason had an argument with his girlfriend and then shot her to death.
That was not the only death that occurred related Shewan shipyard employees. I found several obituaries of iron worker, boiler makers, and even my great grandfather himself.
James Shewan died May 7th, 1914 and after that, the business, which had already changed its name to James Shewan and Sons, Inc., was passed on to his two sons, James Shewan, Jr., who acted as President, and my grandfather, Edwin Shewan, who acted as Vice President. According to the book on Scots and their descendants, “The sons received their training from an early age under their father, beginning at the bottom and earning every promotion. There is not a detail of the business of which they do not have a practical knowledge.”
In addition to being in shipbuilding and ship repair, my great grandfather was apparently big investor in real estate and his earnings in real estate enabled him to make further investments and improvements in the ship building business.
I am not sure everything was bliss and happiness at my great grandfather’s shipyard. I found an article about a strike at the shipyard in Brooklyn Eagle Daily (an old Brooklyn newspaper that stopped publishing in the 1950s). Now, this article appears in 1919 so it was in a period after my great grandfather had died and at a time when the firm was being run by my great, great uncle, James Shewan, Jr. & and my grandfather Edwin Shewan. Apparently, they were having some difficulty in getting workers to come back – see the article below.
Here is a copy of an article in 1919 about a strike that occurred at Shewan Shipyards. Apparently, there were some employee disputes that occurred sometime after World War I.
I believe my great, great uncle and my grandfather backed down and settled the strike quickly and the 1,000 or so iron workers soon went back to work. I would think managing a shipyard with over 2,000 workers had many challenges, especially when it happened to be a time when the shipyard was doing work for the Navy. It is my understanding that they had a contract to repair and outfit the Atlantic fleet during World War I. Now that must have been quite a contract.
In 1870 my great grandfather married a lady named Ellen Curry. She was born in Cardiff, South Wales. She was “a most congenial and inspiring companion” and she and my great grandfather had a total of five children, two sons – James and Edwin – and three daughters – Nellie, Agnes and Ada.
This was my great grandfather’s beloved house on the Hudson. He called it “Inverugie” after a Scottish town near his birthplace. Apparently, this house had its own golf links overlooking the Hudson River.
The whole family spent their summers in a house on the Hudson which they called “Inverugie” after a small town in Scotland. The original “Inverugie” was a 12th century castle two miles from Peterhead, Scotland, near where James Shewan was born. In the winters they headed back to New York City where they had a townhouse. Apparently, my great grandfather had several different homes. Perhaps, some of these houses were part of his “real estate investments”.
Here is another residence of my great grandfather. This was on Ox Pasture Road in Southampton. This was a summer retreat when my great grandfather was not on the Hudson.
Finally, according to “Scots and Scots’ Descendants”:
“Mrs. Shewan is a gracious and generous mother, and kindly and hospitable to the many friends of the family…Mr. Shewan was a genuine Scot, broad-minded and warm-hearted, fond of golf and of all out-door sports. Notwithstanding his busy life, he improved his mind by reading and by extensive travel, so he was well-posted on all literary subjects, especially history. He made many tours in Great Britian and on the Continent. In his own car, always accompanied by his esteemed wife and charming daughters, who were his constant companions. His home-life was most refined and hospitable; and he delighted in entertaining his many friends on his private golf links at ‘Inverugie’. He was a member of St. Andrews Society of the State of New York and had all the qualities of the Scottish race, which he exhibited in his daily life. He took a friendly interest in his employees and was greatly respected by the army of workmen whom he employed and applied in his business the ethics of the Presbyterian faith in which he was brought up and lived.”
This somewhat flowery description of my great grandfather can only make me wonder what sort of a man he really was? I am guessing his early years of sea-faring and working in the ship repair business gave him a lot of “can do” confidence. I am guessing he was a serious gentleman, stern in his bearing, upright and maybe somewhat rigid in his judgments. I am guessing he was a man very sure of himself and sure of the responsibilities and duties that he had as the owner of a large industrial firm.
I have a hard time imagining what it would have been like to manage 2,000 employees. In our two little business – Sea Eagle Boats & Panther Martin lures, I find it is complicated enough just to manage the 30 employees we presently have. I can only imagine that James Shewan and his sons had many challenges in managing their workers. The men must of had their opinions about their work, many loving it, and no doubt, some hating it. I can only think trying to keep 2,000 people working the way you think they should work must have been a true trial.
In closing, you might ask what happened to the great fortune my great grandfather and his son amassed. Sadly, it is all gone. I do have his really nice 150 year old wooden desk, a very nice Chinese bowl, a marble-topped piece of furniture dating back to Louis the XIV and strangely, the original corporate seal of Shewan Shipyards. The forty acres in Brooklyn are now the property of others. The extensive docks and shops and ship-building facilities are now all presumably torn down. And what that part of Brooklyn looks like today is mystery.
Never having met my great grandfather, I cannot say if all the above is true to his real personality and real character. But in looking at his picture at the top of this story, I can say he certainly looks the part of an upstanding and righteous acting gentleman. Considering what I know of the history of his later descendants, I am struck by the fact the families can rise to great wealth in one or two generations and then fall into relative poverty one or two generations later. I am also pleased to say that it is possible for families and descendants of those families to rise again. Perhaps that is the fate of many a family with some who are fortunate and others who are not.
In Volume #3 of this series within my blog, I had finally managed to get back in college after flunking out. The process had not been easy – two years in flunking out takes a lot out of a guy, two years in getting back in also took time and was not that easy. But by the Fall of 1965, I was back on track.
A young Bob Dylan looks pensive while a young Joan Baez looks to Mr. Dylan
By that time, Mr Dylan was singing “Like a Rolling Stone” from a new album called “Highway 61”. Whether he meant he was a big rock rolling down a hill or a wayward hobo hopping a freight train or one of the original members of that up and coming British band was not immediately clear. The Rolling Stones themselves were, by that time, really rolling and Mick Jagger was singing “I can’t get no satisfaction.” The Mamas and the Papas were flooding the pop airways with “California Dreamin’ “.
You could say that whole country at that time was not getting any satisfaction, which may explain why The Rolling Stones’ song was so popular. In August of 1965 the Race Riots in Watts raged for five days, giving new meaning to the term A Long, Hot Summer. The Vietnam War was also heating up big time. Young folks were protesting the war at big anti-war rallies and some were even evacuating to Canada. By September, there were a 108,000 American troops in Vietnam and the FBI had begun to arrest draft protesters who were ritually burning their draft cards. On the TV, there was a daily drumbeat of the dead killed that day. Yes, as Mr. Dylan had sung, “The Times Were A-Changin’ “.
Me, I was just happy to be back in Charlottesville, happy to have not been drafted, happy to have a second chance not to screw up. You might say I was on my best behavior. I did go classes. I not only bought the needed college textbooks, I read a lot of them and I did take my courses seriously. Speaking of courses, since I had flunked just about every course I had taken in my second year at college, I had to be a little bit nimble in choosing what I could take.
I decided that I was going to be an English major and so I took a lot of English lit courses. I also took a Creative Writing course in order to learn how to be a great novelist. My course instructor was a guy named George Garrett. He was a fairly well known Southern writer and quite a colorful guy. In checking his bio on Wikipedia I find that he was both a novelist and a poet. When I went to his course, I thought he was primarily a novelist, but apparently over time, he gained quite a reputation as a poet. I can say that I truly enjoyed his course, even if I never did become the great writer he was trying to teach me to be.
Young Tom Wolfe in his signature white suit
One of the highlights of that course was when George Garrett convinced Tom Wolfe to give our class a lecture on writing. This was not the famous Thomas Wolfe from the 1930s who wrote “Look Homeward, Angel” – that was understandable because that Thomas Wolfe had already died. Rather this Tom Wolfe was an up and coming young writer for magazines at the time. Not many years after Tom became famous himself for writing “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, “The Right Stuff” and “The Bonfire of Vanities”, among other books. But that was in the future. When he came to my course, he was a trendy young writer who liked to wear white suits, one of which he was wearing when he came to visit my class.
I enjoyed the lecture that Tom Wolfe gave. He told our class that he had decided to wear white suits and pink ties because it was a gray world and if he didn’t do it, no one else would. Tom had become somewhat famous by that time as a purveyor the “New Journalism”. That seemed to consist of creating his own bizarre language for what he was reporting on. I enjoyed Mr. Wolfe’s lecture very much and the creative writing course that George Garrett was overseeing. I think I did learn some things about writing. What I did not learn was much about was English literature from the Middle Ages. That was to prove to be a problem later that year.
In short order, 1965 passed into 1966. In January of 1966 an embarrassing incident occurred – a giant B52 air plane collided with K-C 135 fuel plane over Spain and then fell into the sea. In addition to killing 8 airmen, the B52 also dropped an H-bomb into the sea. Ooops! As far as I know they never found the H-bomb. Other things were happening, Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain was busy breaking scoring over 20,884 points on the court and busy scoring with ladies in the evening.
The music of 1966 was still pretty mellow with a definite leaning towards love. The Supremes, headlined by Diana Ross, were singing “You Can’t Hurry Love”, The Throgs were singing about a “Wild Thing”, The Rascals were singing about “Good Lovin'”. I had known first hand about The Rascals. They had been playing in Southampton at a place +called “The Barge”. I had gone to see them one evening with a group of friends and had made the fruitless, but enthusiastic effort to hire them for my fraternity. Hiring soon to be famous bands was something I was to try to do in future, only to be turned down by each every band for obvious reasons. In the case of The Rascals, it seemed that the boys had aspirations to make a lot of money in the coming year. They turned out to be right.
In the Fall of 1965 I was in Charlottesville, attending classes, taking English courses and generally keeping my nose to the grindstone – I am not sure what that actually means, but it is supposed mean you are working hard. It sounded painful, but my life back in Charlottesville was pretty pain-free.
For one thing, there were still significant opportunities for screwing off, going on road trips, having dates with Mary Baldwin and Sweetbriar girls, going to fraternity parties and assisting fraternity brothers with the heavy task of acquiring various kinds of alcohol and then mixing grain alcohol with grape juice, bourbon, gin and gingerale into a giant bowl.
It should be pointed out that at the time I attended the University of Virginia, it was primarily a men’s college, there being 15,000 male students and only around 100 female students. That meant if you were interested in the opposite sex, you generally had to travel 50 or 100 miles to either see a young lady for that evening. If you were able to have an ongoing relationship with one of those ladies, you could then arrange for her to come visit you for the weekend. And that generally meant that dates were pretty much limited to weekends.
One of the seminal events for me in the spring of 1966 was hearing the song, “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones. As mentioned in volume #3 of this series, when the Rolling Stones first appeared on the scene, I thought there must be some mistake. They were nasty, brutish and somehow their songs still sounded great. That was a big mystery to me because I could not figure how such derelict looking kids could make such great music. I did not ponder this question too long. By the spring 1966 I was hooked on the Stones and to me they were the greatest thing to come along since Elvis.
This brings me back to a fraternity party we had organized sometime that spring. We had all the right elements to empress young ladies who were coming from colleges far and wide. Most importantly, we had hired a band, named Sam and Slutmasters or something like that. As you may imagine, they were a little raunchy.
Not convinced that Sam and his boys would provide enough musical entertainment we also rented a giant Wurlitzer for the occasion. My duties that day, as I remember, included acquiring a couple of bottles of grain alcohol, which as I remember were 150 proof alcohol – aka it was the meanest, nastiest alcoholic stuff on planet earth. It had no actual taste and if you tried to drink it straight there was an almost a 100% possibility of blindness, heart attack or a stroke with 15 minutes of your first sip.
Being prudent college students, we figured adding a couple gallons of grape juice, several bottles of Ginger Ale, a quart or two of bourbon and a quart or two of gin would fix that right up. I can assure you our calculations were not correct. The results from our grain alcohol parties, even when moderated with lots of filler, were almost universally disastrous. That did not stop us from continuing to have these parties. Nobody ever actually died from drinking this combustible mixture, but many of my fraternity brethren did complain of severe headaches the next day and several either passed out or visited the bathroom more times than usual with violent results.
At this point, I should say I do not recommend this deplorable conduct to anyone, either young or old, anytime or anyplace. I only cite it here to give you some idea of how young, foolish and idiotic we were. At Chi Psi, my fraternity, the motto was “party on”. And that is pretty much what we did every single weekend.
Now, to get in the mood for that particular party I remember all of us thought it would not be a good idea to test of our dangerous grain alcohol brew in the afternoon. Nope, we left our grain alcohol punch for later consumption. That meant that there was only one alternative. Start dipping into our supply of 15 cases of cold beer. I may have taken part in that.
Along the way, I remember passing the big Wurlitzer an hour or two before the actual party was to get underway. It was then that I made the mistake or, some would say, the fateful decision, to push a button that said “Paint It Black”. This proved to be a song by the Rolling Stones that I had never heard before and for me, it proved to be the second most important rock song that I had ever heard up until that point in my short life. The most important song in my early life, as I have mentioned in Volume #1 of this series, was “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley.
It could have had something to do with those first few beers we were tasting. It could have been the mounting enthusiasm of a party coming on. Or it could have been just that particular song, “Paint It Black”. What struck me was the attitude of the song, which was really quite bleak and dark, especially when you listen closely to the lyrics, as I did, with my ear about 6″ from the giant speakers. The song seemed to me to be hypnotic, primal and absolutely great with a nonstop pagan beat, even if it was singing about a guy who wanted to paint everything black. For me, that song caught the feeling of that moment in time. The dread of the Vietnam War, the confusion of war protests, the TV daily coverage of the war, the feelings that all previous norms that you had grown up were in upheaval.
For me “Paint It Black” was an ode to the time. And like the first moment when I heard Elvis Presley sing “Hearttbreak Hotel”, also on a giant Wurlitzer jukebox, I found myself immediately pushing the replay button again and again as soon as the song had played. I had to be sure to hear all the nuances of that driving, blistering song. To do that, I sat on the dirty wood floor with my ears no further than 6″ from the giant speakers of the giant Wurlitzer. In this way I was able to listen to every wail, every snarl, every note, every beat of Mick Jagger plaintively wailing to the world that he wanted to paint everything black.
I had never heard anything like that song and I just could not get enough of it.
Even today, when I hear that song, by some quirky chance, when it comes over some radio station that I am listening to or in an elevator or in a fancy bistro, it brings chill over me, even though I have heard that song now, thousands of times, even though in this day and age, it is no longer considered revolutionary or even dark.
I have said earlier in Volume #1 of “It Was The Music” that music is personal to every person and what one person likes another may hate. I am sure that some people may be repulsed by that song, or worse, wonder what the hell I am talking about. But for me “Paint It Black” was the greatest rock and roll song I had heard up until that time, with the possible exception of “Heartbreak Hotel”.
I will not bother to go into to many details of the particular party where this all occurred, partially because I do not remember all the details that well and partially because the essence of what a fraternity party was quite well covered in the old movie, “Animal House.” I will say that Sam and the Slutmasters lived up to their prestigious name, to the horror of many pretty and sometimes demure Sweetbriar or Mary Baldwin lasses. You might say that they had a love/hate relationship with the music.
If I recall, that weekend I had acquired a local girlfriend for that party, a lady who lived in Charlottesville. At one point at the height of the party, I had to take her back because she had a few too many cups from our punchbowl and was feeling a mite sick. Fortunately, I actually did not drive her back. Fortunately, our fraternity had a built-in designated driver, Billy Hearns, a gentleman of color who, along with his wife, helped us through many a jam. Billy Hearns and wife were our official fraternity house helpers. Billy’s wife cooked us meals and Billy brought us back and forth from the main campus to the frat house in a not too new VW van. That was necessary because Chi Psi was about 5 miles away from downtown Charlottesville.
And fortunately on the evening question, Billy drove me and my somewhat sick date back to her home where I presented to her parents, one of which was a University Professor. Needless to say, that was the last date I had with that lady.
That first year back was glorious right up until the time I took what was known as our comprehensives. I did quite well in all my English courses, actually taking care to attend classes and read the prescribed textbooks. In the first semester of that year, I was racking a consistent B+ to A- average in the 6 courses I was taking. It was only in the second half of year when the dread “comprehensives” occurred that I suffered a temporary setback.
“Comprehensives” was series of tests that you took to see if you were eligible to move on to the major that you had selected. Partially by attrition and partially by desire, I had chosen English Literature as my major. To get fully prepared for my intended major, I was taking four English courses and two other required courses, one in chemistry and one in mathematics. I did not do nearly as well in chemistry and mathematics, earning a C+ and a B- respectively, but I did pass them both. That was important because both were required in order to graduate.
In the second semester, I continued with my creative writing course and three other English courses, one of which was Old English literature. And in order to rack up further requirements for graduation, I also took a business course and a European history course. I truly enjoyed all of these courses, except the Old English Literature course. I found Chaucer, The Miller’s Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight pretty heavy going. It is strange because after college, I came to read some of these works again and for some reason, I actually found them enjoyable.
Anyway, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my heart was not completely in tune with these old classics at the time. For one thing, I found it a little hard to get over the old English barrier which seemed confusing and hard to understand. So when the time came to take my “comprehensives”- in the spring of 1966 – I did great on most parts of most tests (according to one of my English teachers) but I failed miserably when it came to the parts on Old English.
Now, at the time, a good understanding of old English literature was considered an absolute must and because I failed that portion of the tests, I was failed out of English Literature. That left me with an immediate crisis. I had to come up with a new major. I surveyed the field of possibilities and a grim field it was. There was Sociology, a highly disrespected major, Physical Education, another major not known for its use outside of teaching phys-ed or coaching and, finally, there was Philosophy, another major not held in high respect, especially when it comes to practical usefulness.
Of course, it was possible for me to take business oriented courses, but I felt that the one course that I took, which I think was called “The History of American Economy”, was kind of dry, even if it was interesting to learn that the American economy was basically a boom and bust economy, undergoing some kind of violent change every ten or twenty years. Now, a business major might have been something that actually could get me job, but getting a job was not on my radar. I was going to be a famous writer and avoid all that. And if that went South, I figured I could always get a job in my father’s business. That part did prove to be true.
All of these considerations, lead me to choose Philosophy as my major. There was just one problem: I had never taken a philosophy course. To get permission to be allowed to choose Philosophy as my major, I had to go to the Philosophy Department and meet one of the heads of that department. He told me that I was out of my mind, that graduating in Philosophy in the last year of college was physically impossible. I do not remember what I said, but I was persistent and after some long heated discussions, the Philosophy guy said I could try, again, repeating that no one in their right mind or in any kind of mind had ever done such a thing.
So I elected to become a philosophy major. I would have to do that in my last year of college. And if that failed, I would have to stick around for another year and try complete my major. To make all this happen, I set up a curriculum of 5 courses in philosophy in both the first and second semesters. In addition, I also scheduled a course in German, which was another course I also needed to graduate. With all that scheduled and settled, I went on to complete my existing courses in English, math and chemistry.
I sailed through the rest of the year pretty easily. This time I was able to get an A- average. That put me on the Dean’s list. So in 3 short years (5, if you consider the two years to get back in), I went from college flunkie to Dean’s list. Talk about a turnaround!
Now that I had successfully completed my third year in college, I had to decide what to do that summer. It happened that at that time, my father was still importing pocket adding and subtracting machines from Germany and considering the fact that I had a German course to take the next year, I asked my father if he could get me a job with the folks making our pocket adding machines.
I have mentioned this business in another blog story, “A Fog Rolls Into Berlin and I Gain a Stepmother”. In that story I related the fact that my father sold a product called Addiator, which was a calculator before there were calculators. Over the years, my father had sold quite literally millions of this strange handheld device which, with a small stylus, could add and subtract. It happened that my father went to a trip Germany one year in an effort to get more these pocket adding machines. In doing so, he not only got more pocket adding machines, but he also got a new wife. And so, I gained a step-mother.
Immediately after gaining a step-mother, my father took me over to Germany to meet my new family. In doing that I also met the Schaffirts, the owners of Addiator Rechen Machinien Fabrik, the company that made Additators. That was when I was 16. In the years that followed I tagged along with my father and step-mother for two more trips to Europe. On each trip we would stop in Berlin and visit the Schaffirts. So, you could say that I was already well-introduced to Schaffirts.
After a few trans-Atlantic phone calls, it was arranged that I would work in the Addiator factory in the summer of 1966. By that time, the Schaffirts had moved their factory to a small town in the Black Forest called Wolfach, pronounced Volfach. So in June of 1966, I flew off to Frankfurt, Germany, took a train from Frankfurt, spent an enjoyable week in Munich where I got to test the German beer at the Hofbrau Haus. And then I took another train to the tiny town of Wolfach.
Now, I had studied German both in prep school and in my second year of college, so you would think that I had some understanding of German already. Nothing could be further from the truth. As many a language student will tell you, being able to read some words in some language does not mean you can actually speak sentences in that language and make yourself known and understood. This was particularly true in Germany, because I was now visiting Southern Germany, whereas I had studied what was called “Hoch Deutsch” which means “High German”.
Where I was going was the equivalent of going to Alabama. The German spoken in Wolfach was Southern German and it was heavily accented. Add to that the fact that my several years of German study had not resulted in me having a very good understanding of the spoken German language. Yes, I knew and understood many different German words, and yes, I could read German sentences when I had a dictionary to refer to, but when those words were put into sentences and most Germans do speak in sentences, and the sentences had other other German words that I did not understand, then I was lost. And of course, given the fact that I was now in Southern Germany and that many of words that I did know sounded quite different, it all added up to me being helpless in understanding anything in the first few weeks of my visit.
So when I first arrived at the tiny railroad station and the Schaffhirts came to pick me up, almost immediately I understood how little German I really understood or spoke. And this knowledge seemed to freeze and obilerate from my memory many of the German words that I truly knew. Fortunately, the Schaffhirts did speak some English and I was able to slide into the swing of things in Wolfach pretty quickly.
The Schaffhirts had arranged for me to stay at some nice lady’s house who apparently accepted borders. She did not speak any English but the Schaffhirts kindly introduced me to the landlady and she showed me to my room. A few of the house rules were explained. I was to be back every evening by 12 because after that the landlady locked the door. My room was a few steps from a bathroom, so that was convenient. It was then it was explained to me that every Friday, the hot water was turned on and then I could have a bath once a week. On all other days, I was to wash up in cold water that came out profusely into the sink faucet.
It all seemed a bit strange to me. I thought everyone in the world had hot water, but apparently that was not the case in 1966 in Wolfach. Later in life, I was to learn that even to this day, many people in this world do not have hot water. In fact, apparently, some people do not even have cold water and to get any they have to walk somewhere, collect it in some kind of receptacle and then bring it back home. Who knew?
After putting my clothes into my room and getting the official rundown of the rooming situation, the Schaffhirts kindly took me to dinner at a restaurant that was located right next to my land lady’s house. That was convenient that evening and was to prove very convenient for many a night in the coming days.
The Schaffhirts were most kind to me, treating me to a not so dietetic dinner of bratwurst, kartoffell and sauerkrauten – translation: sausage, potatoes and sauerkraut. That same evening they introduced me to a few liters of the local bier. Das war gut – my German was improving rapidly. Anyway, I was feeling pretty good, even if I was not understanding most of the German being spoken around me. The Schaffhirts shortly left me in front of my new home, saying they would come around the next morning to collect me and show me my new job.
After dinner, I took a little walk around town. My landlady’s house was on one end of the town and it was only necessary to walk about a half mile to be in the main part of town. Along the way, feeling quite cheerful and content at this point, I stopped at one or two bier cafes and tested a few more liters of the local beer. By that time, I had figured out how to order a bier, so that much I was capable of doing. I could tell I was going to enjoy this gig. I came back fairly early that first night and settled into a well-deserved sleep in my room.
What helped me a great deal was the fact that it turned out that the Schaffhirts were also hosting another American, also a young guy whose first name I remember as Steve, and between the two of us, we would try to interpret for each other and share any words that the other did not know. This proved very helpful because in almost every situation, going to the bathroom, ordering a beer or wine, going to the swimbad (the public swimming pool just out of town), eating various German delicacies, trying to get friendly with the local girls, I quickly found that while both of us had studied German, neither of us was very adept at conversational German.
At first, it was just hopeless…I was lucky if I understood one or two words in a whole sentence. And it seemed that I had a real weakness when it came to verbs. That was a particular problem in German because verbs dictated what a sentence actually meant. Worse, verbs always came at the end of the sentence which meant that you first had to understand all the other words and then figure out what the verb meant. If you did not understand most of the words, then you were lost. But you could still be lost if you did not understand the verb.
Fortunately, the young American guy who was also working with me understood most words I did not and I understood, strangely, a lot of words he did not. So Steve and I worked together to each help each other’s lack of conversational German. In the end, this was a very important element in actually getting a hang of how to speak German.
In truth, before coming to the Black Forest, my understanding of German was just a jumble of words. Yes, I did know most of the grammar and I did understand some sentences sometimes. But only when the sentences were said slowly in a clear accent. Now, the strange characteristic of the Southern German folks is that they neither spoke clearly or slowly. To my ears they spoke a strange garbled blur of words. In the first several weeks, it took me many days just to begin to make out what words they were speaking and to understand how their Southern accent was altering the words I knew.
But over time, with the help of my new American buddy, we were able to help each other and pretty soon we were getting down the rudiments of speaking. This often was helped to our visits to various town bars, which seemed to specialize in draft beers, 1/4 liter glasses of wine and a sweet liquer that the locals seemed quite fond of called Kirsh. After several evenings of hanging out in some of these bars, we would get up the courage to start a discussion with some of the local guys and gals.
They were generally suspicious of us. We quickly came to learn that Wolfach was a very ingrained type of town. Either you came from Wolfach or you did not. And if you did not, that was reason enough for you to be distrusted. So a lot of the time, we did not find a lot of openness and willing conversation. But over time, especially as we became known in certain restaurants and bars, some of the people became quite friendly.
A big event occurred when I found out that a local farmer was trying to sell a BMW motorcycle. He had run an ad in the paper and I had told Herr Schaffhirt that I had a secret dream to buy a motorcycle if that was somehow possible. It turned out that the farmer wanted $500 for his BMW (in German Marks). I, of course, did not have the $500, but I wrote my parent for some extra support. I think I put in $100, of my hard earned pay from Addiator and my parents sent the remaining $400. The process, from the moment of seeing the ad, visiting the farmer to see the motorcycle – cleverly placed in a barn behind a haystack, 5 kilometers out of Wolfach, where it had been resting peacefully for about 10 years – to the promise to buy it – to the arrival of the money took about four weeks. After that the motorcycle was mine.
It turned out that the BMW had not been started up since being placed in the barn some 10 years previously, so there was some doubt it would in fact start. There was no doubt in the farmer’s mind that it would start up – he was certain because it was, after all, a BMW. At that time in Germany, most Germans no longer wanted to ride a motorcycle because motorcycles were used for going to work and when you went to work on a motorcycle, you could get wet or cold. So most people wanted to get a real car which had actual protection from elements. Strangely, that was not the feeling I had about motorcycles. You could say that I was the beneficiary of a cultural change.
So, I took proud possession of the BMW 500. I remember it was a special 1951 racing BMW, so I was really quite lucky. With the help of a technical guy from the Addiator factory, I was able to get the BMW started. The great event occurred after getting a new battery and filling the gas tank after the third kick. Ten year laters, when I sold the same BMW, after 3 accidents, few dents and decidedly bent front wheel base for the same $500, I found out that I could have started it just on the magneto. Who knew?
Anyway, my first act was to get on my new stallion and drive directly into a hedge 40 feet in front of me. This was not intended, but I had not gotten the hang of either the gear shift or the steering bar and while I was able to get the thing into first and then second gear, I was not able to figure out to either downshift or to steer to the right. I could blame that on the limited English the German technician knew or his abominable Southern German accent or I could blame it my own stupidity, but whatever the reason I crashed my motorcycle within 2 minutes of starting it for the first time.
Not discouraged by the various cuts and bruises, I got back on and kept at it. After several tries I thought I had the process down pat. I cruised around the little town of Wolfach, even went into one the local pubs and had a celebratory beer. I drove up hills, down hills, around hills and covered just about every road in the village. I was king of the road on my BMW 500. There was only one thing I could not figure out and that was how to get it up on its stand. No matter, I just leaned my BMW against a convenient cement wall that was next to my landlady’s house. That worked as long as I had friendly wall nearby.
So, for the next three weeks, Steve and I cruised around on my new/old BMW. During the day we worked in Addiator Rechen Machinien Fabrik. We would try to hit on some of the young girls in factory, but it seemed that they were all either married or spoken for. They married young in the Black Forest and always they married within their own townfolk. We did not hear any stories of young ladies who planned to head off to Munich or Stuttgart to get a job and find a man in the big town. That was not the habit then. Perhaps it has changed today.
During the evening we would go out to dinner in some simple restaurant for some bratwurst, kartoffel salad (potato salad) and either ein liter bier or ein fiertel (quarter) liter of wine. After that we would hang out in the local pubs and try to brush up on German while we pounded a few beers. In time we got pretty fancy and could even delineate whether we wanted red or white wine. We even came to know the name of some of the local brews and could reel off a pretty extensive list.
A few evenings Steve and I would head into the next town, Schilltach, and try to make friends there. It was not easy.
For one thing, I remember that accent of people from Schilltach was quite different from the accent of people in Wolfach. Please understand that while there was a mountain dividing these two towns, the two villages were only about ten miles apart. So, it is not like these two towns were hundreds of miles apart. It took quite a lot of time to adjust to the differences of the two accents. Again, a few beers seemed to help our efforts. I know you are probably thinking that it is not a good idea to get on a motorcycle, motor 10 miles away and have a few beers knowing you had to motor back. I can only say I was careful and it was another time when drinking and driving were not taken as seriously.
I remember one time going to Schilltach and sitting in this NatchtClub – night club. Steve and I were sitting in this kind of open bar with some tables and a pretty empty dance floor. We tried to strike up a conversation with some local Schilltach guys and unlike some of the Wolfach guys, these guys were quite friendly and wanted to ask us lots on questions about the U.S. What kind of country was it, they asked. Land of the Free, we said. What did we think of Nancy Sinatra? She had just released what was to be her signature hit song, “These Boots were Made For Walking” and that hit was making its way all through Europe, even into the dinghy dancehall where we were in in Schilltach.
“Ganz Toll,” was what they said about Nancy. She was great. I am not sure they meant her voice or her looks. Whatever, she was “Ganz Toll.” All three guys from Schilltach agreed about that. A little bit later, when another American song came on called “Strangers in the Night” these edgy Schilltach guys picked up on the fact that it was sung by a guy also named Sinatra.
“Wer ist dieser Mann heist Frank Sinatra,” asked one the Schilltach guys.
“Strangers in the Night” was just beginning to become popular in Europe and these guys had picked up on the fact that there were two Americans, one female, one male, both of who had the same last name.
Steve and I looked at each other in surprise. We immediately launched into an effort in German to explain that Frank Sinatra was the father of Nancy Sinatra and that he was actually the more famous person.
“Das ist unmoglich,” the guys in Schilltach said, meaning they did not believe Frank Sinatra could be more famous than Nancy Sinatra. Yes, the song was pretty good, but it did not have the driving beat of Nancy’s song.
We tried to explain that was because he was the older person and his style of singing was not quite as up to date, but our efforts were unsuccessful. We left the guys from Schilltach with them wishing that the new guy, Frank Sinatra, have as much success as his sister Nancy and verifying once again, for the fourteenth time that evening, that Nancy was “Ganz Toll”. Some impressions are not meant to be changed.
I had a great time the summer in Wolfach and I did learn quite a bit of German. After working 6 weeks in the factory, my bosses, the Schaffhirts invited me to go with them in August to Isel Silt. That is, the island of Silt. It is located in the North of Germany in what is appropriately called The North Sea. So, the Schaffhirts and their daughter and I all piled into their Mercedes and cruised on up the Autobahn up past Hamburg. You have to take ferry to get to the island of Silt. Then you are almost in Denmark.
The North Sea is aptly named, since I found it singularly cold even in August. The beach was chilly and the water chillier. You did not want to stay in too long. Anyway, I had a good time. All meals and drinks were taken care of by Herr Schaffhirt, “Popilien”, as he was known by his daughter. His daughter was a rather cute 17 old brunette, not very tall, a tiny bit plump, but full of vim and vigor and well-rounded in the right places. I later discovered she was already engaged to some guy in Berlin and anytime away from her future husband was the end of the world for her.
Perhaps, the most interesting moment of this side vacation was when we all took a walk over to what was known as the Nacktbar Strand. That turned out to be the naked beach area. So Herr Schaffhirt, Frau Schaffhirt (his wife), Fraulein Schaffhirt (their daughter) and I were all walking down this beach when I noticed that more and more people were completely naked. There seemed to be a transitional area where it was half dressed and half naked and then you came to another area being almost 100% nude.
On this scenic journey down the beach the Schaffhirts ran into a friend. He turned out to be a tall pot-bellied gentleman of about 60 accompanied by a striking young lady of about 26. Both, of course, were entirely nude. It turns out that the gentleman was a judge in Berlin that the Schaffhirts had known. That made introductions in order. I must say it was an unusual experience shaking hands with a completely naked man and a very attractive naked young lady. In particular, I found difficult not to stare at some the more attractive features of the young lady. I did my best to soldier on.
As we walked down the beach, I heard Mrs. Schaffhirts make some mention questioning where the judge’s wife might be. Herr Schaffhirts was quite benign on the subject, suggesting that perhaps the young lady was just one of the judge’s more attentive apprentices. I was guessing she was quite attentive. I stayed out of the conversation feeling it was not my place to offer any conjecture.
My summer in Europe was almost over. We came back from the island of Silt in about two weeks of some chilly sun and some chilly swims. One week later, I decided to make another little exploratory trip of Europe. I had looked at a map. Europe seemed to be a pretty small place, after all, I had already gone up and down Germany.
I figured I could do my new trip in about 10 days. My plan was to head down to Italy, drive along the Mediterranean sea, through the Italian Riviera, through the French Riviera, stop a few days at St. Tropez (where I figured I had 50/50 chance of meeting Brigitte Bardot), mosey down the French Riviera to Barcelona, maybe head up a few days to Madrid and then cruise back through France and eventually slide my way back into Germany. That was the plan. It did not quite work out, but some of the above was accomplished.
By this time, Steve had headed back to the States so I was own my own for this new outing. I did one really smart thing before leaving. I left 100 Marks in my room before leaving. That was to prove to be a very wise decision. Anyway, I packed a small duffle bag, loaded with essentials…a pair of jeans, a pair of shorts, 2 pairs of underwear, a couple of shirts, a toothbrush, a razor, a bottle opener and my passport. I was loaded for bear.
I started in the morning and went South. Wolfach was only about 50 kilometers from the Swiss border, so I arrived at the border pretty quickly. Then I motored through Zurich Switzerland, through Lucerne and over the Swiss Alps. I was pretty sure I could do that in a few hours. However, I quickly found out that there was traffic, tunnels to go through, mountains to go over, bumblebees to annihilate, and roads the never seemed to go straight. And when I got into the Alps, it seemed to that I was either heading straight up or straight down in circles, somehow never really going forward.
Eventually, I arrived at Lugano, a Swiss city on the Italian side of Switzerland and kept going. I motored through to Varese and found a nice hotel called the Citi Hotel and spent the night. Varese turned out to be pretty nice little town and I remember walking around the old village square and enjoying some nice wine and pasta in a local sidewalk restaurant. It was all good.
The next day bright and early I got on BMW and headed down to Milan winding my way through that dirty and crowded city. I was quite surprised by the amount of traffic and how crowded the streets were. Since I had visited Milan with my parents a couple of times, I was somewhat familiar with that busy city, but it seemed to me that the streets had gotten a whole lot more active since I had last been there. It might of had something to do with the time of day (around 9:30am) and the fact that I was motoring around on my own motorcycle. Whatever, I kept going, eventually getting through the city and heading straight for Genoa. My theory was to get to the Italian Riviera where I expected the traffic to clear up and hit smooth sailing.
I should mention that this was the month of August and what I had not taken into consideration was that most of Europe was on their sacred vacation. After about 4 hours, I did get to Genoa, but I found the city also crowded, so I figured I would go a little further down the coast where I was sure the crowds would thin out. That did not happen. In fact, I was soon to learn that the entire coast of Mediterranean was teeming with tourists and vacationers and no roads were less busy than the coastal roads I had chosen.
After passing through Genoa, I found myself cruising along the Italian Riviera towards Savonna. By the time I got there there the sun was beginning to set on the Mediterranean. As I proceeded down the coast, I would get occasional glimpses of that beautiful sea. It looked beautiful and pretty soon I was dreaming of getting to St. Tropez and meeting Brigitte Bardot. I had heard that St. Tropez was the playground of Eurocrats, playboys, movie stars and general no goods. I kept wending my way down the road, which to my surprise seemed even busier than downtown Milan or Genoa.
As darkness descended, another reality settled in. I began to pull over and check some of the local hotels along the road. Two things became apparent, hotel rates were considerably higher than I had expected and that was generally an academic point since most of the hotels seemed be fully booked. Again, I was beginning to realize that getting a room, even if I could afford it, might be more difficult than I anticipated.
Speaking of finances, that brought me to a third reality. I had departed with what I thought be an enormous sum of cash…about $230 in U.S. money. At that point it was mostly in German Marks. I think that was a little over 500 Marks at the time, the exchange rate being something like 2.3 marks for each dollar. So each time that I pulled into hotel and asked a room, I would look at the little sign by the desk which listed the number of Lira it would give the traveler for different currencies. And while it seemed to be a giant amount of Lira, I did note that the rate for German Marks seemed to vary hotel to hotel.
Generally, I never really got to discuss the exchange rate since generally there were no rooms available. Occasionally, I would stop at a fancier looking place and they might have room, but it seemed require about half of my capital for the whole trip, so I had to politely refuse. I kept going further and further down the coast and eventually I did find a room in a rather seedy looking hotel along the road just before getting to Sanremo. So, once settled, I walked down the road a block or so and found a nice seedy looking restaurant that provided my with some great pasta and some pretty good Chianti. Things were looking up once again.
The next day I started out again, motoring my way through Sanremo and passing that morning on the Italian Riviera. Before I knew it, I reached the Principality of Monaco. As I passed through the coastal road going through I looked for the Prince and for Princess Grace. No luck there, so I kept going. Pretty soon I found myself in France on the way to Nice. I will note here that every time I came to a different country I had to present passport and pass customs. The process in those days was pretty quick, but it was not made easy do to the fact that I was constantly looking for a place to prop up my BMW. Where was a wall when you needed one.
Of course, today cruising through Europe does not require going through the customs and security procedures of the 38 countries that now compose it.
I must say that Nice was beautiful city to behold, with its white buildings cozily nested in mountains alongside the Mediterranean and the blue glistening sea stretching out before the gleaming white city. But I was on a mission to meet Brigitte Bardot so I kept pushing on to St. Tropez, where I was sure she would meet me with friendly beach cocktail in hand.
Well, I kept charging down the coast and being perpetually surprised how long it took to get from one place to another. It seemed like this Europe place was actually pretty big and worse than that that it had traffic that matched some of NYC’s worst. Who knew?
When I did finally get to St. Tropez, I was amazed by both how small it was and how crowded it was. I looked for Brigitte. She was nowhere to be seen. I am guessing she was hobnobbing some old wealth aristocrat on his 200 or 300 ft yacht.
It had been a long day and I could see that pickens was slim on St. Tropez, so I elected to keep going. I was about 30 miles out of town when I saw this sad looking American soldier hitch-hiking along the road. I don’t know what possessed me to pick the guy up, but as soon as I did, he kindly taught me how to put my BMW up on its stand – who knew you only had to keep your foot against the bike stand and then lean and pull with your weight sharply and up it popped onto the stand. This came about because we trying to figure out how to tie down his dufflebag on top of my dufflebag.
At this point it was getting late in the day and the sun was falling. We were still in France, headed towards Spain. The soldier’s name turned out to be George Simpson. George had been hitch-hiking from an Army base in Frankfurt Germany. He told me hitch-hiking in Europe was a tough deal. People did not take pity on American soldiers and generally frowned on the whole concept of hitch-hiking. But George was on a mission. He wanted to meet a pretty little Senorita in Barcelona town.
He told me he knew this great pension where we could get rooms and maybe he could hook me up with one of his Senorita’s friends. The proposition sounded good to me, so George and me headed down the road or as it soon became, up the road and then down the road. It turned out there was something called the Pyrennes, inconveniently placed between France and Barcelona. This was a small mountain range that we encountered as soon as we crossed through Spanish customs into Spain.
When I say small mountain range, it was small in relation to the Swiss Alps which I had only recently traversed. Actually, the Pyrennes seemed to be somewhat bigger than the Adirondacks in New State and considerably smaller that the more famous Swiss Alps. Nevertheless, it took time to get over the Pyrennes and the roads, as with all mountainous roads had a tendency to curve significantly while going up and down and in some cases, I once again had the impression that I was going up and down in circles. But after several hours, we passed over the Pyrennes. By the time we came down from Pyrennes and began to enter the outskirts of Barcelona.
How we found George’s Pension is something of a miracle. George had a map of the city with the location cleverly marked with an X. That much was clear. Where we were in that rather extensive Spanish city with giant traffic circles everywhere was another matter. We tooled around many a traffic circle and tried to ask various non-English speaking residents where we were. Eventually, someone recognized the name of the street and kind of pointed us in the right direction. After a while we got to George’s Pension.
It was at this point that I discovered that George had not been completely honest about the Pension we were going to and what kind of a place it was. Sure enough there was a girl who did recognize George and they seemed very happy to meet up. And to my surprise another girl appeared who strangely seemed very happy to see me. Now that did not happen so often to me, but I felt very good to receive some female attention.
To make a long story short it seemed that while this was in fact a legitimate Pension, it was also a business place. It had a restaurant, a bar, a dancehall and a lot of ladies who seemed to be looking for attention. I shall not dwell on this experience too much other than to mention that I stayed at the Pension for a few days and began to run grievously short of cash. Each day I swore I would leave that day. Each day re-calculated myh budgetary needs and decided that I could hang out another day.
I had converted most of my German Marks to Pesadas. At first I said I would leave when I got down to 20,000 Pesadas. Then I moderated my opinion and swore I would leave with 10,000 Pesadas. I finally left with 6,000 Pesadas. That may sound like a lot of money, but if I remember, it was about $6.
So, I left Spain with about $6., said Goodbye to George who had taken up semi-permanent residence in the Pension, headed out the city, over the Pyrennes. This time I took a little bit different route and headed back through the center of France, aiming to reach Switzerland on the French side. I figured that would be my most direct route. And at that point I had to think of the most direct route. I will admit that I did have some left over Francs and Marks, but their total value most certainly did not exceed $4. Considering the fact that I had to pay for gas, I was on a pretty tight budget.
I got to the middle of France at the end of the first day. Staying at hotel or pension was not an option considering that gas was my one and only priority. So I slept on the side the road. I did not get a restful sleep that night since pretty large trucks were buzzing by every few minutes bringing with them great gusts of oil-tinged air. By this time, my stomach growling from lack of food.
The next morning I hopped on my BMW, only to find that my battery was dead. That was kind of a low point. The part of France that I happened to be in, somewhere about 100 km for Lyon, seemed to almost completely flat. I solved my battery problem by rolling my BMW to the nearest approximation of a hill and then rolling the bike down that slight incline. I was just enough to get my BMW started. Off I went into the wild yonder.
The rest of the trip back was kind grueling since I realized I could not stop and face the chance that the battery might not restart the bike. On and on, I went. As I approached Switzerland the land became hilly then mountainous. Pretty soon I was cruising through the Alps themselves where I met an abundance of large, fat bees that wanted to commit suicide on the sunglasses I was wearing under my helmet. It was messy, but I kept going. I remember giving my last few Francs and Marks to some gas station along the way and hoping that the little bit of gas it bought would get me to the Black Forest, which was still at the last point a couple of hundred kilometers away (translation: about 140 miles away). On and on, I went.
I remember coming through German customs and the customs official being very suspicious because I kept my motor running while I presented my passport. After some efforts, I was able to convey the fact that the battery was dead. I could tell he was still a little dubious, but he passed me through and after about two hours I finally arrived in the Black Forest in the little dorf (village) of Wolfach. I immediately parked my BMW and went running to my room. I had not shaved in two days and two was a pretty accurate number of hours of sleep I had gotten in the same period. I was bushed.
Now we come back to the fact that I had left 100 Marks in my room just in case on the off chance I might be low on cash when I returned. That turned out to be a truly prudent move. So, back in my room once again, I changed clothes, washed my face in the cold water in the sink down from my room and went downstairs directly over to the restaurant with my 100 Marks well in hand.
Guess what happened? As soon as I came into the outdoor patio of the restaurant, I saw the Schaffhirts sitting down at table having dinner with their daughter. At first they did not recognize me because of the heavy growth of beard and the hard, beaten look on my face from 48 hours on the road. But as soon as they realized it was me, they invited over to their table and proceeded to serenade me with beer and bratwurst. Both were the best I had ever had, although after about 3 beers, I had beg severe exhaustion and excuse myself. I then went back to my room, collapsed on my bed and slept for a solid 10 hours before waking up. My days in Germany were almost at an end. Best of all, I never had to use the 100 Marks I had saved up for my return.
I worked for two more weeks in the Addiator factory, collecting some more wages so I could make my return to America.
Before doing that, I drove my BMW from Wolfack up to Bremerhaven where I delivered my bike to some guy who promised he would ship it off to Virginia in a week or so. I headed off to Hamburg for a couple of days, hung out in some of the rock bars that were then becoming big in Hamburg that year. I remember listening to a rock group that sounded to really great. On the spur of the moment, I tried to hire them for one of our fraternity parties. It turned out they were not interested. They were going to come to States and play all the big venues – this was their last gig in a seedy bar. The group turned out to be Ray Davies and The Kinks. Ray said he had sworn off of Frat Parties. The year was 1966.
Back in the States, I had just enough time to catch a week in the Hamptons before heading down to the University. This was to be my last year in college and because I had failed just about everything in college, I was about to attempt to learn philosophy in one year, taking 5 philosophy courses the first semester and 5 philosophy courses the second semester. As mentioned, the head of the philosophy department had boldly predicted that it was impossible for a student to take that many philosophy courses in the last year and actually graduate. Nonetheless, that is what I did.
Back at the University, I applied myself to these new courses and I must say it was a strange new world to me. It seemed to be divided into two schools of thought: the logical & empirical (those things that could be deduced by logic or physical evidence) and the hypothetical and theoretical (those things that could be theorized and argued over). It also appeared that philosophy had taken a recent right turn along the way. In early philosophy, early philosophers had a lot to say and not a lot of arguments to prove it. In later philosophy, philosophers seemed to say far less and spend a whole lot of time arguing about it.
And when I came to the 20th century, it seemed that philosophers had almost nothing to say, but were ready to write volumes arguing about the meaning of certain words. Talk about to be or not be or what was the difference between the body and the mind. And oh yeah, where is your soul? Modern philosophers did not seem to want to guess. They would rather argue about the meaning certain words.
I have to say that I liked the logic course that I took. It seemed actually practical to think about things in syllogisms – that is a set of statements that allows you to logically deduce whether something is true if you know the premise is true. Hence, if all men are equal and you happen to be a man, then you are equal. At least, that was the gist of it. I also like the concept of proving things empirically. Hence, if you found certain things to be true, then you could logically deduce other things to be true. Even philosophers like Kant seemed to be interesting, although incredibly dense.
So for the last two semesters of my college career, I took 10 philosophy courses. In the last semester, there was a test to see if I could be eligible for a masters in philosophy. It seemed my philosophy teachers were divided over my test results. When I went to see how I did, there was a message under my name – please see Professor So and So. I went to see Professor So and So and he told me that my philosophy teachers were divided on my fate with a some thinking it was simply impossible to graduate in philosophy by taking all my courses in one year and other teachers being somewhat more forgiving, saying let the kid graduate and let’s be rid of him. In fact, Professor So and So told me that in his opinion I rendered the clearest interpretation of some part of Kant that he had ever read. In any case, after some debate, it was decided that I could indeed graduate and I am guessing it was Professor So and So who came to my rescue.
So in the end all things turned positive and I was allowed to graduate. I remember it all as if it was yesterday, standing in line in my cap and gown in the steaming heat of Charlottesville on a early June day. It seemed like hours before my turn came up, but after those hours, my name was called and I walked and was handed a degree. I shook hands and returned to a seat on the great lawn of the Jefferson commons. Sitting down, it was hard to adjust to the fact that I had actually graduated. Two years to flunk out, two years to get back and two years to graduate. It was a long and winding road.
For years after that advent I would have a recurring dream and the dream was this: I am standing in the Graduation Line in my Cap and Gown, in the steaming heat for hours and hours. I am waiting for my name to come up. And just when I am about 5 graduate students from being called, a professor comes up and taps me on the shoulder.
“Are you Cecil Hoge,” he asks.
“Yes,” I respond.
“I am sorry. There has been a terrible mistake. You have to get out of this line. You have not graduated. We discovered you failed to take Math 304. You must come back to summer school if you are to graduate.”
There the dream ends.
To this day I occasionally wake up in a cold sweat, feeling the tap on my shoulder and hearing the tragic words being whispered in my ear. Usually, I am led away in shame with two University security officers as an escort with the long and sometimes giggling faces of my fellow students in line. It is a terrifying dream. I am told this kind of dream often occurs to college graduates. I can only say in my case, it is very real and very plausible.
Speaking of A Long and Winding Road, well before the Beatles broke up just after writing that song, I remembered at my graduation party, which I and several of my fraternity brothers who were graduating, gleefully participated in, the Beatles had just come out with their landmark album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That album was a big star at our graduation party and I remember, after downloading a number of beers, sitting myself as close as possible to what was then known as a “record player” and listening to the songs on that album.
The album had been released in the United States on June 2nd, 1967. I am guessing that I graduated on June 7th, 1967, so the words and music on that album were incredibly fresh and had a strange power over my emotions. First and foremost, I could not believe that that Beatles had recorded this extraordinary album. It seemed so much richer, so much more playful, so much more intricate than anything that I had heard from the Beatles before that my first impression was that I could not have been recorded by the Beatles.
But most of all, I could not help but wonder at the fact that I had finally graduated from college, after two years of flunking out, two years of getting back in and two years of graduating. It was all wonder to me, just like The Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In the last blog story on music in my life, I predicted that I would flunk out of college. Guess what? By the end of my second year at the University of Virginia, I did flunk out. That was in June of 1963.
1963 was a year of change…not only for me…but also for the country. In June, just as I was preparing to leave The University, John F. Kennedy declared “Ich bin ein Berliner” at the Rathaus Schonberg and Jackie Kennedy was wowing Europeans one and all for her beauty and her verve. I was not paying much attention. We got through the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962, when I still had some hope that I might not flunk out. As things turned out the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved in the country’s favor while my situation with the The University of Virginia was not.
“Surfin’ U.S.A.” was a hit that summer. Later in the year Peter, Paul and Mary released a song called “Blowin in the Wind” written by a fellow named Bob Dylan. It was almost as big a hit for them as “Puff, The Magic Dragon” which came out the same year. I wondered what that “Puff, the Magic Dragon” song was about…it sounded sweet and kind of mysterious. I missed the wacky tobacky reference altogether. Elvis was singing a song called “Devil in Disguise”. Music was changing, but just along the edges. The Beatles were just beginning to be popular. Bob Dylan released an album called “Free Wheeling Bob Dylan” and the Beatles came out with “She Loves Me”. There was change in the wind, but I was oblivious to it all.
What was I to do now that I had flunked out? I did what many young, red-blooded American lads would do in a similar situation. I hitchhiked to California. My plan was to find a new life, maybe become a surfer dude, hang ten on some waves and win fame and fortune as a great American novelist. Unfortunately, none of that came true.
This is not quite me – I was a mite chubbier, but it captures my best hitchhiking dress.
I hitchhiked from Virginia to California and it was quite memorable. I gathered all the essentials – a small duffle bag with all the important stuff…a toothbrush, a razor, hairbrush, a copy of Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”, some underwear, socks, 3 shirts, 2 pair of jeans and a bathing suit. In short, I was loaded for bear.
My first ride, from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, was with a famous architect. At least, he seemed to me that he must be famous, as he talked with great enthusiasm about his many projects which seemed to include roads, bridges and buildings. He had a bunch of rolled up architectural drawings in the back seat of his car and even let me take a look at some, which to my untrained eye looked pretty impressive.
I asked him why he was kind enough to pick me. Hitchhiking was a fairly common thing in 1963, but you often had to wait one or two hours for a ride. And I was mighty happy when, a half hour into my great journey West, I saw this guy slow down and pull off the road about 50 feet ahead of where I was practicing my best thumb action.
“I like to get a pulse on what is going on,” he said somewhat mysteriously. Somehow our conversation drifted to the twin facts that I had just flunked out of college and that he was on his way to Lynchburg to review a new building project…some corporate structure that he seemed very proud of.
When I told him about my year of failure, he was very supportive, “Some the best minds are not formed by college…the school of life is also a great teacher,” he said.
We had a fine conversation, talking about many things…the country growing up, things that were changing, or not changing, young President Kennedy, and the new-fangled music coming out of England and America.
“That fellow Bob Dylan…his voice isn’t worth a damn,” the famous architect told me, “but he has some interesting things to say.”
It was a strange statement coming from a much older man. I really hadn’t listened to Bob Dylan, but I made a note to maybe give it a go sometime.
The architect pulled over and said, “I have to turn right here…good luck on the next 50 years.”
I got out, feeling kind of sad and alone with my dufflebag, on the deserted road. The sun was still fairly high, the day still warm in the way Virginia is in June. Bumblebees and butterflies were fluttering in the afternoon sun, farmer’s fields surrounded by wooden post fences loomed off on either side of the highway.
It took another hour and half to get another ride and that almost immediately turned into a disaster. The guy who pulled over seemed decent enough. I told him I was hitchhiking to California. He told me I was in luck, he was headed to St. Louis.
It was about 7 minutes into the ride that I noticed this guy un-zipping his fly. Not a good sign, I thought, but maybe the guy had some good explanation for what seemed like a strange action. A little bit later I realize that the guy did have an explanation and it was not an explanation that I wanted to know about.
In this day of sexual harassment, I guess you can say that I was sexually harassed by this guy. In any case, I was not buying what he was selling.
About 30 seconds after the reason this man un-zipped his fly became clear, I said; “Pull over here”.
“I thought you were going to California,” the man said.
“That was then, this is now, pull over here.”
I cannot say that the man seemed very happy about my attitude, but he did comply, even if he was quite disgruntled. I got out and found myself about 5 miles further down the same lonely road. So much for getting to St. Louis anytime soon.
I resumed my best thumb action but it was not working. First of all, in order to get a good response to thumb action, cars must pass by. And that seemed to happen only about every 20 minutes or so. After two hours, I just started walking. It turned out that this section of the road was rarely used. So I kept walking and the afternoon sun started to fall and cast shadows on the green fields that adorned the left and right sides of the highway. The mid-day heat gave way to somewhat cooler temperatures. That was the good news.
As far as my trusty thumb was concerned, it had gone on strike. When cars or trucks came by, I would turn around, stick out my thumb and try to look as presentable as possible. It was not working…the cars and trucks came and went. Six hours into this project, the sun had fallen and darkness had arrived and I was walking down a dark and lonely highway.
About that time I was thinking that this idea of hitchhiking to California for fame and fortune might not be such a good idea. I was seriously considering turning around and walking back to Charlottesville. That would have taken quite a bit time, presuming my hitchhiking luck did not improve…I was already about 120 miles from Charlottesville.
I was getting seriously tired and hungry. My hitch-hiking skills, once so sharp and effective, had turned sour on me and I was getting so discouraged that instead of turning around each time I heard an approaching car or truck, I would stick my thumb out while still walking forward. In my mind, any progress at that time was important even if I was only making about two and half miles per hour.
They say it is darkest before the dawn. But that night it was darkest around 9:45pm. It was not actually chilly at that time, but since I was wearing a knit short-sleeved shirt, it seemed chilly, especially after a big truck would woosh by. Talk about blowing in the wind…I was blowing in the wind and it was an ill wind filled with carbon dioxide and dirt and dust flung up from the road.
It was then my luck changed and I proved categorically that you can get a ride hitch-hiking even when you have not bothered to turn around. I am not quite sure how my thumb was visible on that dark and dank night, but a truck lumbered to a halt a few hundred feet ahead and I sprinted towards it with my last bit to energy.
Fortunately, the man driving the truck was not a pervert. In fact, he was a very nice older feller, a little bit heavy for his size, in late 50s or early 60s. He had a smile and a large, round face as I got in. Immediately, I was greeted with a Johnny Cash song on the radio…I was back in the land of hope. It seemed my new ride was a country music aficionado. He seemed like a regular guy, with soft, Southern drawl and a kind dignified face.
“Where you headed,” he asked.
“California,” I said.
“That ain’t here,” he said with a laugh, “I can get you to just outside St. Louis.”
“Anywhere down the road is great,” I said.
And so off we went to St. Louis. I was back on track.
By around 11 I was realizing that I had nothing to eat since a super egg breakfast in Charlottesville. That was a good 14 hours ago, so I was mighty hungry. Fortunately, great minds think alike…maybe I should say hungry stomachs can align. It turned out the man was also hungry, so we pulled into some truck service station and walked into a big diner that was part of the service center. A sandy-haired waitress came up to us as soon as we walked in.
“Where you wanna sit, Walt,” and almost instantly afterwards, “Who’s the kid?”
Anyway, we had a fine meal. Walt downed 3 or 4 cups of coffee and I matched him Coke for coffee. The burgers and fries were greasy and most delicious. Within an hour, we were back on the road.
I rode the next day and half with Walt. Country music was our constant background. The conversation was good, but a little depressing. Walt took to criticizing my hitchhiking to California.
“What you doing that for? You should be going home, with your tail between legs, fessing up and starting over. Hey, I never went to no college. I learned on the road of life. Running away ain’t the way to go.”
I tried my best to defend myself.
“I need to do this, Walt. I need to find my own way.”
“There is nothing wrong with finding your own way, but you ought to tell your folks.”
I kept silent on that point and we drove on into the night with more country music wailing away as we went. I have to say Walt was very kind and considerate and concerned about me doing the right thing. He told me he had a son who was hard to handle and it was problem and his wife had passed a few years earlier. He told me life on the road, hauling goods across America was the only life for him. He liked the freedom and the control of the work. He would make 2 or 3 cross-country runs and take one or two weeks off, go fishing, hang out at honkytonks, catch up with a lady or two in some lost town along the highway. Yes, Walt was old guy and I enjoyed every part of that truck-driving experience except the lecturing on going back home and starting over.
Johnny Cash was singing, “Ring of Fire” concerning certain passions a man and woman face. Loretta Lynn sang, “The Other Woman” talking about who was first to cheat on who, and Buck Owens singing, “Act Naturally” regarding becoming a big star and acting naturally.
Sometimes when Walt ran out of country stations, he would flip on a pop station and something weird would come on like Lesley Gore singing “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I want to”. It was all good…..as Mr. Dylan was to say many years later.
We hauled down different roads, some back country, some major highways, winging our way to St. Louis. We went through Knoxville, down to Nashville and up to St. Louis and Walt let me out on a not so lonely road just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. He left me off, wished me well and turned to go back towards the western side of St. Louis where his cargo was supposed to go.
Just before letting off, he said, “You headed West now, son. If you keep going you’ll make it to California.”
I was making progress. I waved goodbye And wished him well, and assumed my best hitch-hiking position at 4 pm. I was almost halfway out West. I was at the great gateway to the West. This just could work, I thought.
I caught a few short rides in the direction of Springfield, Missouri. None took me very far, about 20, 30 miles at a time. It was getting dark and noticed a sign for a local motel with a restaurant next door that said “Good eats”. Luckily, the motel had a room and the eats was good. It was nice to sit down and have real meal. It seemed I was in a dry county, so my thirst for beer was not slaked. That said, I had a good night’s sleep, got up the next day with a whole new attitude, took a shower, had eggs over medium, sausage, grits and biscuits and headed out on the great highway of life, thinking, yeah, this just might work.
Not long afterward, I got a ride to the other side of Joplin Missouri and then, a little later, after exercising my best thumb action, I got the last ride to California. And what a ride it was. A seedy looking man in a big Chevy pulled off the road. I came running and he said, “Where you headed?”
“Malibu Beach, California,” I said.
By that time I had decided that Malibu was my official destination. There were so many choices open to a young enterprising man…surfer dude, actor, screen writer, novelist, busboy. The future was wide open, as Tom Petty was to sing many decades later.
“You are in luck, I can get you to San Diego.”
I hopped in, throwing my duffel bag in the back. I noticed that the center of the front seat was occupied by maps, a lunch box and a very large Thermos jug. This was good, in case the guy wanted to press his intentions on me, I had some obstacles in the way.
But, I had nothing to worry about. The gentleman turned out to be a sleep-deprived short order cook. Hence the large thermos, which I learned was filled, as it should be, with coffee. He had shaggy black/gray short hair, a stubble beard and deep-sunken eyes. If I did not know better, he looked like he might have been wandering around the Bowery after two or three weeks on a Ripple wine diet. But, in truth, he turned out to be a reformed alcoholic who had substituted his consumption of alcohol with his consumption of coffee.
This is a pretty good likeness of the guy who picked me up. Of course, I met him in his car so I can only imagine what he looked like in front of a stove.
Cooking eggs and sausage quick was his game and by the time we crossed the great plains of Kansas and Oklahoma, I had learned everything one needed to know about short order cooking.
“It’s hard work, it’s hot work. You are standing over a hot stove for hours, it’s sweaty and you drink gallons of water…when I was younger I used to drink gallons of beer, but I gave all that up…no more alcohol for me…you got to work fast if you are a short order cook because them orders keep coming, but it is good-paying work. It’s much better than bussing or waiting.”
This was probably more information than I needed to know, but he was in a talking mood and I guessed that was the real reason he picked me up. I quickly understood that listening was part of the price of getting a ride from Joplin, Missouri to San Diego, so I listened along and tried to be as respectful as I could. He also shared everything about the short order cooking trade. His employer was Howard Johnson’s, which, at the time, was the most successful motel/hotel chain in the U.S. He was coming from Wooster, Mass and he already was suffering from acute lack of sleep.
“I got to have someone to keep me awake,” and that also was part of the price of a free ride from Joplin, Missouri to San Diego. That was OK. I understood my mission and I soon found out that Burt was on his own mission.
“Why you headed to San Diego?” I naively asked. Almost immediately, I came to regret my question.
“I am going to pick up my son…the sonuva bitch ran out of money.”
I had a sense of future Deja Vu. Was that to be my fate?
“Why you headed out to Malibu?” he asked.
I pondered the question and came to the conclusion that a little creative fibbing was in order.
“I got a job waiting for me in Malibu. I am going to spend the summer with some friends out there and they got me lined up to be a busboy in big Malibu restaurant.”
“Ever been a busboy?” he asked, looking a little dubious at me with his deep sunk eyes.
“No,” I answered truthfully.
“It’s a shit job kid. You are the bottom of the bottom…you will be lucky if them waitresses share some tips with you. Most likely, they going shit all over you and give you nothing…no nooky, no money…not a goddamn dime.”
His eyes began to droop with tiredness and the car began to swerve, which is not a good thing when you are careening along in a big Chevy at 60 or 70 miles per hour. It must be remembered that at that time, American cars were not known for their tight steering controls. Driving a Chevy was more like driving a big boat…you kind of naturally swerved and that swerving was not helped by the fact that his sunken eyes were almost fully closed.
“Sir,” I said loudly, not knowing what else to call him, “you are falling asleep.”
That’s when he told me his name was Burt.
“Burt Tampone is the name.”
“Nice to know you Burt, my name is Cecil Hoge.”
“What kind of name is that,” He asked, now keeping careening to a minimum. I was happy to try and keep Burt awake and give him some family history…how my father’s name was Cecil and that was because my grandmother’s name was Cecile and how our family name came about. I even recited the little ditty my father had told me.
“Hog by name, hog by nature, changed to Hoge by legislature.”
I am guessing that Burt was beginning to think he was not on a need to know basis, but he took in my explanation fairly seamlessly and he kept driving, his eyes now open most of the time. And we kept plowing along down the road.
Most of the time, Burt kept the radio off. But every hour or so, he would check in on the news. The radio was talking about a mysterious airplane crash of DC-7 that went down in the Pacific Ocean somewhere off of British Columbia. Apparently, 101 people were lost. Most of the news was U.S. based, but even careening down that road there was talk of John Profuma, the British Minister, resigning because an affair with a young lady named Christine Keeler.
It seemed that Christine was a sexually active lady and she had also found favor with a Russian spy pumping her in more ways than one for info on her British boyfriend. And then there was the story about George Wallace trying to prevent blacks from enrolling in The University of Alabama. Apparently, the Governor thought that was against some cherished Southern tradition and I suppose it was. And then there was the story of two Russkis returning from space.
Occasionally, Burt would leave the news on for a little bit longer and some music would come on. That was a relief for me. On one of those occasions, “Please. please me” by the Beatles came on. It was not the deepest song every written, but it was a wonderfully vibrant and catchy tune.
As I soon came to learn, Burt’s mission to get to San Diego, was time sensitive. Apparently, his son’s money problems were rather dire, having just broken up with his wife, having been kicked out of his wife’s house, having almost zero money and presently living in some public park in San Diego. For this reason, Burt was planning not to sleep at all, except for an hour or two, when we would pull off the road just before falling asleep for the fifth time.
I became so concerned several times that I simply suggested he pull over while we both napped for an hour or two, for which he was only too happy to comply.
And sure enough, after a one or two hour nap we were wailing down the highway again, passing through Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, vast empty spaces, Amarillo, Texas and onward West. The trek across Texas is only recommended for the hardy. The miles flew by as we sped West, stopping only for some sandwiches and thermos fill ups and coke for me. We made ample progress and we did not stop when the sun went down, but kept going and going, with only an occasional stop for coffee, cokes and sandwiches. The only downside was that it was pretty hard to get any radio stations as we passed by some of the great stretches of road in Texas.
Two days of stubble adorned his face. He told me long stories of early hard-drinking days and how he had put that behind him. Burt said he used to drink 3 six packs of beer a day, but no longer.
It took us two full days to get to San Diego. Burt left me off at a Trailways Bus Terminal somewhere near the center of San Diego around 11 one morning. The sun was shining as it was supposed to in Sunny California. This made my life simple. I went into the terminal, chowed down on burger and fries, checked the bus schedule and got onto a bus heading past Malibu, my intended destination.
Seated next to me was a friendly looking young girl, seventeen or eighteen. On the way up the coast I got to talking with her and pretty soon I found myself getting friendly. It seemed we both had some things in common – the most being she was a girl who liked boys and I was a guy who liked girls. She had just finished high school and was planning to go to college. I had just flunked out of college and could tell her all the things to avoid…like classes. That led to a conversation about how much fun college was and the fact that I had just flunked out and that I was going to find fame and fortune in California.
Sally, that was her name, was heading further up the coast to a small town a couple of hundred miles above Malibu. One thing led to another and pretty soon we were making out. Happily, she brought along a blanket that was perfect for hanky panky. And so up the coast we sped, curving and swerving our way up old Route #1.
I was enthralled and when the bus driver called out Malibu, some hours later, I stayed on the bus. The bus driver called out Malibu again, muttering “I could have sworn someone was going to Malibu”. But, I stayed on the bus.
It was about two hours or so later when Sally suggested I come back to her home and meet her parents. Her home was only two more stops up Route #1. That sounded a little too serious to me. I decided that maybe love was not the answer. Shortly thereafter, I got off the bus promising to write her and hook up with her later that summer. That promise might have been fulfilled if I had gotten her last name and address. As it was, it turned out to be a short romance.
I got off the bus about 140 miles past my intended destination, went into the Trailways Bus Station and bought myself a bus ticket back down to Malibu Beach. About 5 hours later (two in the bus terminal, three on the bus), I got off in glorious Malibu.
This what Malibu Beach looked like when I got there – and that looks like the restaurant that I tried to get a job as a busboy – it did not work out!
It was not what I expected. Coming from the East Coast and used to the beautiful scenic beaches of the Hamptons, I was shocked to see that there was a major highway running right along the Pacific Ocean. More than that there were all these small beach houses and motels and gas stations and traffic lights and traffic. That was the biggest surprise. There was a lot of traffic going up and down the highway. And the traffic was not moving that fast in either direction. It was all a stop and go mess.
It was not the secluded and elegant houses that I was used to with huge “cottages” surrounded beaches by high green hedges. In fact, there seemed to be no green at all. The mountains and hills that ringed the coast were high, sharp, brown and sandy. Where was the surfin’ safari, I wondered? In truth, I could see it right across the street. Because on the other side of the highway was the beach and blue ocean water of the Pacific with surfers, catching waves and some paddling out through waves, some out beyond the break, bobbing up and down, waiting for waves.
Yes, I was in the right place, but I felt lonely and homesick.
I started walking the highway in search of a place to stay. Before going further I probably should enlighten you about my financial situation. I had started off with what I thought was a King’s ransom – $127. It turned out even cokes and burgers in the 60s cost something and in just the three and half days I had taken to hitch-hike out to California, somehow I had spent $43. That left me with $84. I was still good, but obviously I was going to have find a place to stay and obviously I would have to eat.
Not far down the road was a motel on the right side of the road. I went in and talked to a big man behind the counter who had a surprisingly gentle and flighty voice. Rooms were $27. a night. Not bad, considering that the motel was just across the street from the ocean, although crossing the street seemed decidedly hazardous. I secured a room for the night, told the big man I was looking to find a job fast and asked if he knew anyplace looking for eager young workers. He suggested that maybe the restaurant across the street had something.
I took the key, carried my dufflebag back to my room and got myself organized to go look for a job. A shower, a shave and a change of clothes did wonders. By this time it was about five in the afternoon and the traffic going up and the down the coast kept up a steady hum. This California living, I thought, was mighty busy.
Re-invigorated I walked down to the restaurant to see what were the chances of getting a job…quick. This restaurant was on the ocean side of the highway which meant that I had to negotiate the traffic. That was made easier by the convenient placement of a traffic light just past the restaurant. The manager of the restaurant seemed decidedly upbeat. Yes, they did hire help and the summer high season was coming on so no doubt they would need someone soon. Maybe I could get a job as a busboy. I should stop by in a day or so and see if they were ready to pull the trigger on a new hire.
That was encouraging. So I went back to the motel room and had nice long satisfying sleep. The next day it was sunny, as I gather was the norm. I walked along the Highway for a few block and found a seedy looking Cafe and had a greasy egg breakfast with some hot, strong coffee. Afterward, I walked back toward the motel and then walked across the street to see the Pacific Ocean and fantastic Malibu Beach.
To my surprise, access to the fabulous and fantastic Malibu Beach was not that easy. I had to walk several blocks to find an actual access point to the beach. No matter, in a few minutes I was out on the great sandy beach that California was so famous for. I was surprised by a lot of things. One was the fact that the beach seemed to have a lot of people on it. That was not surprising considering that it was a perfectly beautiful day in the low 80s. I guess I had gotten the mistaken idea that Malibu was this open, wild and secluded beach where the mountains met the sea.
I was right about the mountains (well, maybe they were hills) meeting the sea. Otherwise the scene was far different from what I imagined. Lots of people walking and sitting and sunning themselves on the beach. Surfers, just as I imagined hanging out in clusters just beyond the surf break…some waiting for the right wave, some paddling through the surf, some actually catching waves, but even the ocean was more crowded than I thought with surfers seemingly fighting for a good position to catch a wave.
There was a big pier not far from where I walked onto the beach. It looked big and ugly, as if it should not really be there. But there it was and I can verify that because I walked down to it, found away up to a wooden boardwalk and walked out over the ocean. Along the pier, the further I got out there lots of fishermen, also seemingly fighting for a position to fish in the ocean. It all seemed kind of industrial and seedy to me, not like the scenic rock piers jutting out into to the ocean by Shinnecock Inlet in Southampton.
What also surprised me was how close the houses were to each other and how close they were to the ocean itself. It seemed to me that the natural beauty of the beach had been lost. No matter, fate had decided that I was not to stay in Malibu long.
As I walked along the beach, there were couples and groups lying down or sitting on the beach, usually with a transistor radio cranking out some music. And of course, the music of the time was playing. It being California, I heard plenty of Beach Boys tunes, including, of course, “Surfin’ Safari”. Other tunes of the time were blaring out of different radios. As you walked down the beach different tunes would rise up in your ears, only to fade away as walked on by.
That afternoon, I walked back by the restaurant to see if my job prospects had gotten any better. This time the manager seemed a little put out.
“Give it some time, kid, I said we might have something in a few days. 24 hours is not a few days.” he said.
I tied to express my best bus boy interest without seeming desperate. I got the feeling that my efforts to appear professional and somewhat disinterested did not quite come off.
When I got back to the room, I checked my resources. Somehow I was down to $36. It seemed that my daily expenses were evaporating before my very eyes. I tried to figure out how the money seemed to be leaking from pants, but I could not come up with an exact reason, although I was beginning to realize that if you try to eat three meals a day and pay for a motel room, money disappears surprisingly fast.
From there things went downhill fast. The motel manager told me he had a room for that night, which I boldly paid for, leaving me $9 of remaining capital. Things were getting serious. My California Dream was just not working out. I tried to get by as best I could. The motel manager said I could stay with him one night.
By this time, I was already getting suspicious.
“Well, I suppose you could stay with me,” he had said. I could tell from the tone of his voice that he seemed overly eager to help me. I asked to see where I might be staying.
“I got this really big bed. I promise to stay on my side.”
That did not sound promising.
He showed me the bed and yes, it was big, but he was also a big guy. I figured two “me too” moments in week was too much and I politely turned him down.
He offered me a second alternative, which was to sleep the next night in the laundry room. And that is the alternative I took.
But first I had a real run-in with the truth and I asked to make a collect call to my parents. It was humiliating, but given the circumstances, it seemed like my best solution. Strangely, they were happy to hear from me. It seemed that they were glad to know that I was still alive. When I told my father that I was in a bind in Malibu, he offered to wire some money the next day and get me an air ticket home. It was all very humiliating, but staying in Malibu was getting pretty stale.
So I ended spending one comfortable night in my own room and a considerably less comfortable night on a cot in the laundry room. The next day I went down to Western Union and collected $50 cash. And the day after that, after tossing and turning the night on a cot in the laundry room, I took a cab to the airport where my airline ticket was waiting for me. I had crashed and burned, but at least I had found a way out.
And that was the end of my West Coast adventure. In almost no time, I was back in New York, comfortably housed in my parents summer house in Southampton.
This of course led to a new crisis. What to do with the rest of my life? I decided I better give college a second try. This caused me to review the damage I had already caused my scholastic career. I decided the best way to get back into Mr. Jefferson’s University was to take a correspondence course in American History. American History was a requirement of The University and in my second year, I managed to fail Russian History, which I had taken on a whim. I really liked that course, but attendance in Russian History conflicted seriously with attendance at the Cavalier (the local pub of distinction), not to mention fraternity parties, which generally accounted for 5 days a week.
But no matter, I was back on the East Coast, back in Southampton, reorganizing my life for an ideal college career. I signed up for the American History course and took a job with Betty’s Taxi. This proved to be an ideal opportunity to meet weird people and to brush up on my American history. That was because, at Betty’s Taxi, you often had to wait one or two hours for a call to come in for a cab and, even then, you were not necessarily chosen because there were 3 drivers to choose from…Thomas Jefferson, Claude Haines and me.
I have written about my Betty’s Taxi experience in another blog story in Tangled Tales called “I Am Sorry About Thomas Jefferson”, so I will not go into all the details. Should you feel the desire to learn more, please check out that story. I will only say that the interludes between driving strange people to various parts of The Hamptons offered ample opportunity to take my American History correspondence course and still left my evenings free to peruse the pleasures of the Hamptons in the 60s.
In no time, the summer passed pleasantly and I found that not only did I have many eclectic driving experiences running people around the Hamptons, I successfully completed my correspondence course and even got an A- in the process. It is simply amazing what you can do if you apply yourself.
As my parents house rental was being closed up for the summer, I had no choice but to go to New York City and live with my parents at 330 East 63rd Street. Now, even though I had successfully passed my correspondence course, that was not enough to get back into the University of Virginia. They had higher standards and they informed me that having passed my course they would let me go to The University the next summer and take some more courses. And if I passed those courses, then I could go back as a full-time student the following Fall.
So, now I had a plan to get back in, but I still had to find something to do the fall, the winter and spring. That led me to getting a job as a mailboy at Nabisco. The mailroom, as you may know, has been the starting place of many a company man and surely if I kept at it, I could rise up the corporate ladder of The National Biscuit Company. The thing was, the person in the human resources department, recognized that I was a short-timer. I could tell she had a gut feeling I would return to college.
I tried to lie about it, but the lady was rather attractive and in end the I blabbed the truth and told her the whole story about flunking out, hitchhiking to California, working for Betty’s Taxi and taking an American History correspondence course. I even blabbed my improbable plan to get back in college. I assured her that it was unlikely my plan would work and if not, I would be the best damn mailboy they ever hired and in short order work my way up the corporate ladder and become a Cookie CEO in the years to come.
This is picture of 425 Park Avenue in 1963 – Note the state of art vehicles!
I am pretty sure she didn’t believe my Nabisco dreams, but she hired me anyway and this gave me an interesting experience in the drab corporate world of Cookie sales. Learning the trade consisted of being in the mailroom located in the basement of the building with about sixteen other incompetents. We would chat and shout at one another and sort mail first by categories. Once we got the mail in a bunch of different bins, each signifying a department or a floor, we would then put the bin in a shopping cart. The bin had little folders, each subdivided into letters and envelopes, by either name, department or floor. We would take our shopping cart full of letters, envelopes and packages to the different floors or, if it was big enough, a different department.
I was assigned the fourth floor. So I would take my cart up to the fourth floor and I would wander around, trying to figure out who got what. At first, I blundered around a lot, but as I got to know “my route” I became more familiar with who was on the fourth floor. And most of the time, most of the people of the fourth floor got most of the mail. Occasionally, there would be a little mishap, like a letter falling on the floor while I was trying to chat up some of the younger and prettier secretaries. The mishap might mean that an envelope to two was lost for a day or two, or a week or two and just plain lost forever. Despite all, after a time, I became a pretty decent mailboy and pretty soon the fall of 1963 became the winter and spring of 1964.
Work during the day did not mean that there was no play during the evening. And so on evenings, I would go out with my rich buddies and we would hit the big city discotheques, jazz clubs and bars. Unfortunately, even though my income at Nabisco brought me in about $60. a week, money for nighttime activities was limited, considering I was contributing money each month to my parents (it was thought this would improve my character) and because drinks at L’Interdit, a hot discotheque of the time, charged about $4 or $5 a drink even in the lowly 60s. That meant that the money I had for palling around with rich kids was limited.
One of the things I also did around that time, was introduce myself to Mr. Bob Dylan. Not in person, of course…what I am talking is getting to know something about this new young guy who had voice that sounded like a croaking frog. So I bought “Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan”, an album released earlier the year before. After getting through the croaking frog voice, I realized that Bob had something to say and it came to me that this young man was talking directly to me. What I guessed I liked about Mr. Dylan was that his music made me kind of uneasy. It was as if he was channeling some kind of skill that mixed folk music with prophecy. I remember a particular song called, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. Bob’s message was a little different from the Surfin Safaris.
And almost immediately after hearing that song, a truly sad event occurred, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, at 12:30 pm in Dallas, Texas President John F. Kennedy was shot. They say that everyone remembers where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and I am an example of that being true. I was rolling around a mail cart on the fourth floor of the Nabisco building around 3:30 pm East Coast Time, when my supervisor came up and tapped me on the shoulder.
“The President has been shot. Everyone is being sent home.” he said.
At that moment it was not known what the Presidents condition was. I tried to ask my supervisor what he knew but he didn’t know anything other than his superiors had told him, that the President had been shot and everyone was to be sent home for the day.
I did not argue. Nabisco’s offices were located at 425 Park Avenue between 54th and 55th Street, a short walk to where my parents were living so I walked over to my parents apartment and sat myself down in front of the TV. My parents were not yet home so I had a good long time to immerse myself in TV.
This is just one of the haunting images that just kept being played on TV and continually popped up in my mind
I remember the apartment seemed particularly dark and lonely that day. The apartment itself, with two bedrooms and a fairly decent sized living room and was never that bright to begin with, but on this somber day, it seemed particularly dreary, dark and desolate. I flipped through the channels watching Ed Silverman and Ron Cochron of ABC, Chet Huntley of NBC, Walter Cronkite of CBS try to explain the horrific event that had just occurred.
In between viewing the TV explanations of the assassination of President, I would periodically turn off the TV set and turn on the record player and listen in particular to Mr. Dylan’s song, “A Hard Rain’s is a-Gonna fall”. It seemed to me that Bob had almost predicted our Good President’s assassination.
Within five minutes of me turning on the TV again, it was announced that John F. Kennedy had died from gunshot wounds. This was unthinkable to me…a 21 year old college flunky. I may have been kicked out of college, but I was basically optimistic about pretty much everything, and I was particularly optimistic about John F. Kennedy. He was older than me, but he seemed young and fresh and he had this aura of youth and invincibility and optimism about him.
“Ask not what your country can do for you,” he famously said when being sworn in, “ask what you can do for your country.”
At the time, I had the feeling that he was going to solve all of America’s problems. He was going to bring us together. He was going to heal us and he was going to be a great President.
And in truth, he had already done that when he led us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was a strange and terrifying time…a time when nuclear war seemed not only possible, but likely. I wrote about those 3 days in Volume #2 of It Was The Music and it was a scary time, when the world seemed on the brink of total destruction. There are no words to describe what those 3 days actually felt like. They were tense…tense like you are in a room and a guy has a gun and he is waving it at you and there is no place to hide. And Kennedy brought us safely through those few days and we had emerged with greater hope and a greater belief in the future.
All of America was shattered by the assassination on November 23, 1963. Suddenly, it was apparent that even the good can die. Suddenly, it was apparent that life takes unexpected turns. Suddenly, we knew chance played as big a role in the future as ability and youth. Suddenly, the optimism and hope of that brief Presidency was obliterated and we were left with sad and somber pictures of Jackie Kennedy hanging on tearfully to Lyndon Johnson while the new Prsident was sworn in. It was a tragic moment.
Like all terrible events that involve loss and despair after some months it subsided. But the feelings about it did not, they were always there. This new knowledge that something can go wrong, that the best of us can be destroyed was a new feeling that took literally years to subside.
Nabisco, aka, The National Biscuit Company, gave all of us a three day paid holiday to recover from JFK’s death. It was not enough, but it was well appreciated and for the next few days we all watched TV as the transition of power took place, and the funeral procession as it made its way from the Capital to the White House. We watched Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and other news people speak muffled words, trying to make some sense of it, trying to grab some meaning from a sad event that seemed impossible to conceive.
For me, at age 21, it was just impossible to understand. It just never occurred to me that a President of the United States, especially a young man, seemingly in the prime of his life, could ever be assassinated. Through the TV, I learned that 3 other Presidents had been assassinated. Of course, as mentioned above, I had just completed a course in American history and I had read just weeks earlier that Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley had been assassinated. But that was in a history book. Now I was watching it on TV and that experience of seeing the funeral on TV gave the word assassination and the event of John F. Kennedy’s death a special meaning.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the whole nation mourned the death of the President and that the whole nation, be they Democrat or Republican, came together to watch and mourn the death of our young President. Truly, it was a time when the whole country was shaken by an event that both sad and profound.
I went back to work, as did the rest of the country, and we all kind of started up again. This time with a new consciousness, a new sensibility, a new sense that you cannot control fate. The transition was relatively smooth with Lyndon Johnson, struggling at first like the rest of us, taking up his new position and of gradually leading the country on. Where we went is also history. Johnson went on to propose a War Against Poverty and to expand our involvement in Vietnam.
Me, I spent the remaining fall and winter working and going out with friends in New York City, exploring, drinking, having a basically carefree life, since I knew my job was temporary. The money I was giving my parents, which was token in itself, still left me with some actual cash to burn and burn it I did with my friends…in bars, in restaurants, in discotheques. It was an exciting time to run around as a young man in New York.
The fall of 1963 became the winter of 1964 which in turn became the spring of 1964.
In 1963 the Beatles first came on the American scene. By 1964 they had conquered the continent.
Douglas MacArthur died that year. He had famously promised to return when he had been kicked out of Korea. He was about as famous a general that existed at that time. The Beatles invasion of America came into full bloom and the Ford Car Company introduced the Mustang convertible. As I remember, gas was around $.25 per gallon and the Mustang cost just $2,368. That virtuous combination resulted in an explosion of Mustang sales.
I continued as mailboy up until the end of May. I was a pretty damn good mailboy, if I say so myself. And I had a heck of a good time gallivanting all over the city at night.
Pretty soon, I was back in Charlottesville, suffering through the already steaming summer temperatures. My father, who had also attended the University of Virginia, offered me the advice that he had received down there from an elderly black gentleman.
“Walk a little slower.”
And it seemed to me that everybody in Charlottesville took that advice. In fact, I often had the impression that I was walking through a thick, warm soup during that summer. One had the feeling of sleep-walking in slow motion.
Back in Charlottesville, knowledge of new music from England had taken hold. While the Beatles were singing about “A Hard Day’s Night”, the Rolling Stones had just come on to the scene with songs like “It’s All Over Now”. They seemed to be the polar opposite of the Beatles and they had a raw, new world sound that seemed to fit the new times that we were in.
At this early date, I could only think of The Stones as fascinating barbarians with a raw, down to earth sound. They had nasty long hair and they looked considerably shabbier than the Beatles. But music has a way of changing a person’s mind and that was the case with the Rolling Stones. At first I thought of them as this really nasty band that somehow had created some great sounding songs. I was sure that they were a one shot mistake, but as time went on, they came to be my absolute favorite band.
Back in Charlottesville, I fell into the slow swim of school and, unlike the my last previous year at the university, I took my courses seriously.
I took three courses, geometry, which I had previously failed and needed to get back in, geology, which I also needed, and English literature which I had also previously failed. Here I must defend myself. I did not fail that course because I did not know English literature. No, not at all, I was quite proficient in English literature and had even read many of the prescribed books. It is just that teachers are not in the habit of passing students that do not take the trouble to take their final exams. And unfortunately, I had scheduled a particularly good road trip before I was to take the above mentioned exam, and, as sometimes happened, fate intervened and prevented me from returning in time to take that final exam. I could blame it on a car breakdown that did slow my return, but a fearful hangover also had an influence on my absence.
No matter, I did much better the second time around. I did take the summer school final exam for English literature, Geology and Geometry. By the end of the summer I had completed and passed all three courses with two B+s and an A-. The A- was in English literature, proving the second time around is the trick. With these blisteringly fine grades, I was actually now able to get re-instated as a full-time student at the University of Virginia. In short, I was back on track.
There was only one problem with that. By the time I got these good grades and the University officially recognized those grades, they told me I was too late to get back in that fall. That meant, I had to wait out the fall, winter and summer to officially re-enroll.
This of course was a disappointment but I was always a late bloomer, so I took the news in stride. What did I do? I immediately headed up to Southampton and spent the waning days on the beach, surfing, playing tennis during the day, partying and dining out during the night. In short, I had blast for a few weeks before the shocking news settled in that I would have to find a job.
I called up my buddy Merrill Magowan and asked him to get me a job at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith, which was what it was called then. Since Merrill was the grandson of Charles E. Merrill, the founder, I figured he could help me out getting a job. Now this is the same Merrill Magowan whose car I smashed into coming back from Charlotte Ford’s debutante party. Now Merrill always seemed pretty cool and friendly after that in spite of the fact that I had destroyed his car and ruined his golf date the next day.
In any case, when I got Merrill on the phone, he did not sound too enthusiastic about the prospect of recommending me to his famous company. Despite that, he said he would put in a word at the “HR Department”. I let him know that any help he could give would be greatly appreciated. He asked me to call in a few days. And I did and the HR Department told me to come down to their offices on Wall Street and fill out the appropriate employee application.
I told them I had been kicked of college (which was true) and that I wanted to set my life on a new career course (which was half true) and that I planned to work for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith for the rest of my life (which was not true).
The skeptical lady said the only job she could offer me was a job in the Proxy Department. She didn’t think it was the greatest job but I said I had to start somewhere and maybe in time I could work my way up the great corporate ladder. I had no idea what the Proxy Department was, but I took the job. She said that was the only opening that she felt she could assign me to at that time.
I was very grateful and asked the lady what the Proxy Department did. “It’s where they count the votes of stockholders.” That didn’t quite clear it up for me but I took the job anyway and started my job as a “proxy supervisor”. It sounded very important to me but it turned out that the title was somewhat misleading. The manager of the Proxy Department was more skeptical that I was a long-term employee prospect.
“I know what you are going to do,” he said, “after 12 months you are going to scoot your way back to college.”
Since I was already enrolled to go back to college, I thought I had come across some kind of corporate prophet. I tried to lie my way out of his prediction and said that it was my dream to become a Merrill Lynch man for the rest of my life.
“Fat chance,” said Charles, the Proxy Department manager, “Anyway, Steven will teach you the ropes.”
Steven turned out to be this really great guy with an Irish boiled red face and a broad smile. He took me under his wings and in no time I was counting paper ballots with the best of them. It turned out that “proxy supervisor” was a glorified term for paper stock ballot counter. The job basically consisted of opening envelopes, stacking ballots and then counting them by hand. High tech it was not.
There were computers in those early days, but they were reserved for more important work, like figuring out paychecks and keeping track of stock prices. Merrill Lynch had rooms filled with these giant computers, but even that entailed a certain amount of manual labor. People seemed to take stacks of what looked like 3″ high x 9″ long cards with a lot of holes and perforations in them from one end these giant box computers and move them to the other end where they seemed to be eaten by the computer. What happened thereafter I will never know.
Anyway, within a few weeks I was getting the hang of proxy game and me and my fellow employees would go out for lunch for drinks. Whether we went for lunch or for drinks after work, it usually amounted to same thing – drinks. We tried all the local hot spots…The Blarney Stone, a really seedy Irish bar that Steven favored because hot corn beef sandwiches came free with the beers, to some trendy bars/lunch places, to some high-end places such as Delmonico’s (that was my idea, having heard from rich kid friends it was the place to have lunch or dinner when on Wall Street). We even occasionally visited Fraunces Tavern where old George Washington once held court.
In short, I quickly acquired a lay of the land and while working was kind of a drag, gallivanting around the Wall Street area was a gas. The pay at Merrill Lunch was somewhat better than my pay at Nabisco, so now I could contribute more at home, and certainly I had more money enjoy my evenings in the city.
It turned out that Steven Donahue (that was his last name) was a truly fun guy who had a serious taste for booze. He would regularly knock back three or four beers at lunch and an uncountable quantity drinks and beers after work. He lived in New Jersey which meant he had to take a number subways and trains to get to work. Speaking of that, I also had to contend with transportation issues, experimenting with subways (always standing room only, but fast), buses (standing only with a view of daylight between buildings, but slow) and taxis (exceedingly pleasant, but often, also slow).
The previous summer, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred where Communist boats supposedly attacked U.S. ships and Congress had given had given President Johnson additional powers to expand our involvement in Vietnam.
I did not pay too much attention to that as I was too busy finishing up summer school.
By the spring of 1965 many things were happening in the country. The Vietnam War really started to heat up. In 1964 136 Americans had died in the Vietnam War. In February of 1965 we began launching air strikes on North Vietnam in earnest. By April, it was reported that we were regularly using napalm on the “Viet Cong”. By that time, young people were beginning to protest our involvement in Vietnam.
By June, American soldiers were officially authorized to fight alongside of their Vietnamese counterparts – it seemed the South Vietnamese soldiers lacked good old American discipline and get up & go. Surely, our boys would soon turn round the dismal performance of the South Vietnamese soldiers.
It was then that a strange event interceded with all my plans. Guess what came in the mail…a draft notice. This was a surprise since I was scheduled to go back to college in just a few months and college students were generally not called up for the draft.
It turned out that my case had fallen through the cracks, you might say. Sure I was scheduled to become a college student, but I wasn’t one yet. Hence, I was fully eligible for the draft. There was a lot of excitement then, many young people were fleeing to Canada to escape the draft. And, many were burning draft cards. Not me. I was horrified by the increasing daily death count in Vietnam that was being reported on TV each day. You could say that I thought that our involvement in Vietnam was a profound mistake, but that did not mean I was going to burn my draft card.
This was the drab and depressing building itself. In 1969 it was blown and rendered unusable.
Given the fact that I did not plan to go to Canada or burn my draft card, I went down to 39 Whitehall Street, which was as depressing a building as you can imagine. It was gray and drab and a big box of place with many floors and many doors. This building was later made famous by Arlo Guthrie’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant”. That song turned out to be a pretty exact description of my own experiences down on Whitehall Street.
I went into that building, showed my draft card and my draft notice and was sent to a line after which I was sent to another line, after which I was asked to go upstairs and get on another line, after which, I was sent to yet another line, and another. After which I was asked to go downstairs, take off my clothes and get on yet another line holding my clothes, after which I was poked, prodded, inspected and injected, just as Arlo’s song says.
All of this took 5 and half hours, with multiple trips up and down stairs. At the end, when I got into what seemed like the last line, a doctor put on a surgical glove and poked me a sensitive part of my anatomy and said, “Cough.”
I coughed and he said, “You got a hernia kid. You need to get that fixed one day. It is not a problem just now, but you should get fixed someday…you don’t want a hernia in your 60s or 70s.” I was then sent over to, you may have guessed, The Group W Bench and there I sat for another two hours until somebody said all of us reprobates could go home.
I always wondered if that doctor took pity on me or if he really thought I had a hernia.
I did not go to another doctor until some years later who said I did have hernia and that I probably should get it taken care before it got serious. And yes, eventually, about ten years later I did.
So, how did I feel after going down to the Whitehall Street building? Well, fortunately, around that time there was a song that kind of captured my sentiments about the Whitehall building.
In the meantime, I had escaped the draft with no deliberate intention to do so. It seemed I was not fated to go to Vietnam. Surely, my life would have been different if I had gone. Maybe better, maybe worse. I went back to the University of Virginia and eventually graduated. But that is another story and probably soon to be the subject of “It Was The Music – Volume #4”.
If the internet goes down, I may have to get out of town!
By Cecil Hoge
My father was a man of media. That was in our family blood. My grandfather had an advertising agency in New York City during the early 1900s. It was called Huber Hoge Inc. and it was specialized in handling advertising for some very large companies and some not so large companies, like Standard Oil, Meyrowitz Optical, Smith and Wesson among others. My grandfather specialized in an early form of direct marketing advertising. That meant he conducted direct mail programs for these companies to build brand awareness or convince the public that Standard Oil or Meyrowitz or Smith and Wesson were these friendly hometown companies providing oil and gas, eyeglasses and guns at the lowest possible price and the best value.
My grandfather was also a man of media. He took a particular interest in following photography, which was then in its early stages of development. So he was a member of the New York Camera Club and a patron of the famous “291” art gallery where Paul Westin and Alfred Stieglitz showed their photographs along with a wide variety of other artists, including Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe and others. He was an early subscriber to Alfred Stieglitz’s magazine, Camera Work. Photography was becoming an important part of advertising in those early days of marketing and my grandfather felt he had to follow the latest trends.
My grandfather taught my father and his other sons about the different forms of media of his day and about the unique brand of advertising that he was creating. And whatever he transferred to my father in knowledge and enthusiasm must have been very infectious because my father was a man of great enthusiasm and great optimism about the wonderful world of marketing and media. In my grandfather’s time, media consisted mostly of newspapers and magazines, but as 20th century advanced, it came to include radio, TV, cable and eventually the internet.
An early form of the internet that sent messages to people around the world in just minutes.
My grandfather’s advertising agency was successful in the 1920s and if you go back to old copies of something called Printer’s Ink, you can still find references to his advertising agency. In 1929, the whole family had moved to a very nice and very large house in Scarsdale, New York. Two years later, the depression forced my grandfather to close his advertising agency and the whole family had to move out of the big house in Scarsdale and come back to the city to find someplace to stay. Those years proved to be very difficult for the family.
My father, who had started his college career at the University of Virginia and had successfully passed through his first year, decided to come back home in the middle of second year. The depression was raging and my father felt it was his duty to give up college and partying and go to work.
“That was when your father put on the hair shirt,” said my uncle Francis. For those of you who do not know, putting on a hair shirt was a popular tradition in the Middle Ages when monks like to walk through towns whipping themselves on the back with chains and sharp, pointed steel balls. These same fellows, not content with bleeding to death, wore hair shirts in an effort to increase itching and to cleanse their souls while fleas bit their flesh and gave them the plague. You could say they were working out their frustrations. I am not quite sure how successful that system was.
So my father came back to New York City to pitch in and help the family finances and to learn how to earn an income. It must not have been an easy time in the depth of the depression. 25% of the population was unemployed, banks were failing everyday and his parents, my grand parents, were having to move from one grand apartment to another every 6 months for lack of funds. Fortunately, apartment buildings took a desperate view of the situation and decided it was better to let a good family pay almost no rent, at least for a short time, than to let crime ridden criminals and other low-lifes into the building at full rent. It was a period of strange principles.
This was the paper that my father first worked for. It was started in 1834 and disappeared in 1950.
My father got his marketing and advertising training by selling advertisements at a time when almost no advertisements were being bought. His first job was with The Sun, a New York paper that was started in 1834 and disappeared in 1950. At first, my father sold classified ads in The Sun. This was done mainly through telephone sales. If an account was a repeat advertiser and happened to be local, then my father might actually go to their place of business and try to sell them on more classified ads, person to person. Apparently, my father was fairly successful in this, even though he drew no actual salary and lived only on commissions. It seemed that the newspaper liked my father, and so he moved up to selling display ads. These were larger format ads usually with both words (copy as it is known in the trade) a pictures (art, as it euphemistically described).
That proved to be the beginning of a very long career for my father in advertising. He worked for The Sun for several years and then went on to sell advertising for the original Vanity Fair Magazine. That magazine was the scene of many an escapade. My father told me that it was run by a gentleman who was very fond of his drinks. Coming to the office and reporting sales successes or failures to this gentleman could be a very exciting and somewhat chaotic since the gentleman publisher was frequently in his cups. By 1936, that publication (the original Vanity Fair Magazine) disappeared. Times was tough during the depression, but my father was not discouraged.
My father told me if it was true that 25% of the working population had no jobs that meant it was also true that 75% of the working population had jobs.
“Hell,” my father said, “if 75% of people have jobs, there was no reason I cannot be in that 75%.”
I am not sure in this opioid addicted age that out of work folks today share my father’s enthusiasm or his same work ethic. No matter, after losing his job at Vanity Fair, my father went back to The Sun to sell more ads. Somehow, he and his family got through the depression years and survived physically and financially through that terrible period.
When World War II came along, everything changed.
“Suddenly,” my father said, “everyone had a job and the depression was over!”
And I guess it was so.
After the war, my father and his three brothers started an advertising agency which they named Huber Hoge and Sons. That agency, which had its offices at 699 Madison Avenue in New York City, enjoyed success and eventually grew to employ over 100 people. My father first specialized in newspaper and magazine advertising, but also became proficient in radio and TV advertising. So the media of the day included newspapers, magazines, radio and TV.
Over time, my father came to advertise his own products and in doing so he used all four of these media. When I came into the business we were selling a wide variety of the different products…pocket adding machines, ladies dress forms, paint brushes, Killer Joe Piro Dance lessons and fishing lures. While these products were wildly different, the one constant was my father’s adherence to advertising them. All were direct marketed through mail order advertising and most products were sold, one at a time, direct to the public.
When I came into the business, fishing lures had become the main part of the business, even though we continued to sell paint brushes, ladies dress forms and pocket adding machines. As time went on we found we could sell the fishing lures to retail and wholesale customers and that became, over time, the main business. And in the 1968, my father bought a little inflatable boat business and this also became a part of our sales. During my first years in the business, mail order was still the most important form of advertising.
As time went on and trade sales to retailers and wholesalers became more important, a part of our advertising was directed at promoting trade sales. This came primarily in the form of advertising in trade magazines and in running go to your dealer ads in newspapers. We did, from time to time, run TV and radio ads asking for people to send for a catalog or go to their dealer to actually buy our products. Throughout all these years, advertising was an ingrained value of the business and it was our belief that you had to promote products in order to successfully sell products.
In the 1970s my father backed away from our business and decided he wanted to be known what was then called a “mail order maven”. What was a “mail order maven”? In short, it was a person who knew a lot about the strange art of mail order.
What was so strange about mail order? You had to gamble money before you sold a product, sometimes even before you had a product. Few people had the confidence to do such a thing. However, if you did have the confidence, the belief and the starting money, it could be very, very rewarding. Perhaps, the most intriguing thing about mail order was the fact that you could start a business from zero and build it up to something substantial in a very short time. The key to that was having successful ad.
The only problem with having successful ads is that most ads failed. So that meant that you had to have something of a gambler’s spirit, understanding that 9 out of 10 times an ad failed, but sometimes, if the ad succeeded, it could bring very big rewards. And if you could look at your investment in mail order advertising as something of a gamble, realizing that most of the time the gamble would lose money and if you could be patient and try different things, you could occasionally find that mail order could be very profitable, very fast.
The trick to mail order was to lose little when you tested ads and to project big when you had a successful ad. It sounds simple, but in truth, like many things, it was tricky with it not always even being clear what was a successful ad. In many cases, you had to run several ads to truly understand whether an ad was truly profitable.
By the 1970s I had learned something of the strange art of mail order and, my father, sensing that I would never stand on my own in the business if not left to my own devices, kindly and altruistically backed out of our little family mail order business. That left me and stepmother to feud over the direction and shape of the business for the next 20 years. And that left my father plenty of time to become a true “mail order maven”.
How do you become a ” mail order maven”? You write several books on the “art” of mail order. That my father did. You interview and talk to almost all of the practitioners of this fine art, and that my father did. You go to conferences and meetings about mail order. That my father did.. You meet everyone who is anyone in the field. That my father did.
He, over time, became a recognized expert on the subject. And yes, my father was an expert on mail order and what was then being called direct marketing. His first book was called “Mail Order Moonlighting” and it turned out to be a kind of classic in the field. That was published by Ten Speed Press and within a few years, it had sold over one hundred thousand copies. My father went on to write several other books. Two other books – “Mail Order Know How” and “The First Hundred Years Are The Toughest”, one providing more pointers on how to get into the mail order business and the other chronicling the rise of Sears & Roebuck and the fall of Montgomery Ward, also enjoyed considerable success.
My father’s last book was called “The Electronic Marketing Manual”. This book, published by McGraw Hill, came out in 1993. It discussed new digital forms of marketing that were then coming into use. My father discussed CDs, magnetic tapes, e-mail transmission, electronic kiosks, telephone marketing and other forms of electronic marketing. Many of the things that my father predicted did not come true, but some did.
One of the things my father discussed in his book was online marketing. At the time, he called websites “online catalogs” because that is what they were known as at the time. In the direct marketing community, the internet was first foremost recognized as a simple extensions of print catalogs. Of course, websites were much more and became much more.
In the early 1990s, my brother, 29 years my younger, came into the business and became my partner. My brother had many ideas about transforming our business, not the least of which was to ditch the IBM 36 we had running our company records on and replacing it with a simpler software program and a collection of PCs to replace the old IBM 36 clunker. We had to have the “old clunker” hauled off to the dump because by that time no one wanted to buy a used IBM 36.
By 1995 we had a new PC based system, using a direct marketing and trade software program called Madi, to keep track of inquiries, orders, direct customers, trade customers, inventory and all other aspects of our business. That system, while completely re-written and re-designed, is still in place today.
Our father was an early and adamant prophet of the internet. He predicted that it would become the next big thing…replacing telegraph, phone, radio and TV. He was right. Not only could you send e-mails and text messages to friends and foes, but you could transmit orders, deposit credit card monies, print picking tickets, send wire transfers and get tracking numbers, transmit artwork for ads, check bank balances, buy stocks and bonds, get answers to strange and little asked questions, buy and sell things on websites that did exist before the 1990s.
As we moved into the early 1990s, our father was still a very active guy and while he did not direct our business, he still had a lot to say about what he thought would be good for our business. Having written an entire book on electronic marketing and several articles on the coming of the internet, he had some very strong opinions on what we should do. His absolute strongest opinion was that we should get on the internet. By 1994, a few companies were actually launching websites and my father came to the conclusion that this was the most exciting thing to happen in the last two centuries. Both my brother and I were somewhat more dubious about that opportunity.
We wondered, for example, why would anyone actually order from a computer screen? At the time, the majority (about 70%) of our “mail orders” were coming by telephone. The remainder of orders were coming the old-fashioned way, by the mail itself. It had taken almost 10 years to make the transition from physical mail orders to telephone orders, but that had happened.
My father was a very persistent man.
“You got to get on that God-damned internet,” was the way he put it time after time, morning, noon and night. The “God-damned” part of the description was really directed at us. He was frustrated with what he perceived as our incorrigible slowness. Now, in 1995, most companies did not have websites. Amazon.com was incorporated in 1994, but it’s website was not up and running until the spring of 1995. Very few smaller businesses, and we were most certainly a small business, had actually made a website and started selling online. It seemed a bold stretch for us to go forward and get on the internet.
Our father was still a very persistent man.
“Don’t you understand,” he would say, “This is just like the telegraph, just like the telephone, just like radio, just like TV…it is the new media that will change everything.”
My brother John and myself were not so sure. Yes, maybe it would be helpful and yes, maybe it would actually occasionally get orders.
In any case, in March of 1996, we listened to our father and we launched SeaEagle.com. Because we were afraid of scaring off trade customers and because we were dubious that anyone would actually order, we just put up a few product pages and an 800 number to call during office hours. We figured customers would naturally want to ask more questions and the best way to answer that need was to allow them to call us directly.
When I came into the business, this had just started to get the majority of orders.
And certainly, in that year, it did work. Customers did call in and customers did ask questions and customers did order. By the end of the year, we figured out that we had over $50,000 of orders from our SeaEagle.com website. This was not a significant part of our business, but it was enough to get our attention.
We thought the $50,000+ of new-found business was terrific. After all, the only thing required to set up a website, was some basic computer knowledge, some time, and my brother was able to provide both.
Our father did not think it was terrific.
“Why don’t you have an order page, you need a God-damned order cart. That’s what they call it”
Whenever my father thought he was dealing with a slow tool from a shed of slow tools, he used the adjective “God-damned”. He really did not mean to take the Lord’s name in vain and most of the time, he was a quiet spoken guy, extremely well-mannered, a true gentleman, but sometimes, when he got agitated or excited or frustrated the “God-damns” would come out.
“I spoke with that fellow Bezos, he uses an order cart. He told me you got to have a God-damned order cart.”
At the time, Amazon.com was just a website starting to sell books and Jeff Bezos, who perhaps always knew he was destined for fame and infinite wealth, was kind enough to take my father’s call and give an interview.
“Amazon is going like hell,” my father said.
That was another phrase my father used, “going like hell”. In his mind, “going like hell” was the ultimate compliment. It meant things were moving. It meant there was activity. It meant there was promotion going on. And in my father’s mind, there was nothing more interesting than promotion going on. In truth, he found the state of our business as completely boring. Yes, it was profitable. Yes, there were sales and some activity. But there was no real activity in the sense of active and aggressive promotion, just boring year after year sales and profits.
Well, my brother and I were not so sure about the internet thing. Yes, we could see that we were generating some orders, but was it a first time blip or was it the future?
Our father’s persistence and insistence drove us to expand the website and to put up the God-damned order cart. And for while, we had internal debate. Would people actually use the order cart? Would they order without asking questions first, would they order at night? These were the questions my brother and myself asked ourselves. My father of course had no questions about that. It was obvious to him that we needed to get the God-damned order cart up and start accepting orders directly online.
And so we did. And it took only about two weeks to learn my father and Jeff Bezos were right. We were surprised to find that in the second year we sold $326,000 of boats on the internet. And yes, people often did order without calling and asking a bunch of questions. And yes, people often did order a night. Who knew?
That was the beginning of the internet becoming a big part of our business. Every year thereafter, our internet sales grew. That is true to this day.
Today, we are still a relatively small business, but the internet has become an increasingly important part of our business. It represents about 50% of our total sales, 60% if you add phone orders coming over our internet based phone system. I am speaking of firect orders that came, one at a time, from individual consumers And if we thought about it, almost all of the remaining sales also came through the internet because we use something SPS Commerce to accept trade orders and almost all of those trade orders also get transmitted through the internet. So, in truth, we are almost 100% an internet based company. Yes, occasionally we still get a fax and actually have to manually input the order.
All the above is a way of saying that we have some knowledge about both the beginnings and the strengths of the internet. And all of the above leads me to thinking about what the future of the internet might be…not only the about its past history of constant growth, but also about its possible weaknesses and problems going forward.
One of things recently discussed about the internet is “net neutrality”. This is a fairly simply phrase that means that all people on internet, whether they be individuals, small companies, large companies, small organizations or large organizations, small countries or large countries, enjoy equal access to the internet. It may interest you to know that as I was writing this blog story, the FCC has just voted to repeal “net neutrality”.
For those of you who may not be following this somewhat arcane subject, “net neutrality” was repealed as of December 14th, 2017, by a 3 to 2 vote of the FCC. Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman appointed by the Trump Administration, has announced that the FCC should not be in the business of “micromanaging the internet”. So, it will now be legally possible for the great internet providers, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and a few other really large companies to charge higher or lower fees for faster or slower speeds on the internet. In addition, they will be able to “throttle down” (translation: slow down) the speeds of existing websites.
I worry about that. I think that is dangerous. I think that opens the door for larger companies to have faster internet speeds which they can easily pay for while smaller internet companies will either have to pay far more for the existing internet speeds they have or may be forced to accept far slower speeds on their websites. This, I think, could be harmful to smaller companies. In particular, this possibility could also prevent new companies from launching new businesses on the internet simply because they do not have the money to do so.
One of the extraordinary aspects of the advent of the internet is that it gave many new companies a new way to start their businesses. And it certainly gave many existing small companies like ourselves a way to have new business that otherwise they would not have. That may not be true in the future. It may be that the necessity of having fast internet access on your website may not be affordable. It may be that an internet provider might decide to slow down or halt the transmission of different websites, either for economic reasons or for content reasons.
I think the same huge internet providers that are able to charge higher prices for higher internet speeds could also use pricing as a weapon to discriminate against certain companies that they do not want to able to compete. Worse still, I think this power, the power to charge more or less for faster of slower transmission speeds, could also be used to stop or slow down websites that the government or someone in the government does not approve of.
Call me paranoid, if you will, but I think the end of “net neutrality” allows huge internet providers and possibly governments to discriminate by pricing and to literally “slow down” certain media or messages that either compete with their interests or that they simply do not like. I also feel the government or someone in the government could easily exert pressure on a large internet provider, let’s say a company like Verizon, and quietly suggest that some media organization, let’s say Fox News, should not be permitted to have the same internet speeds as perhaps another media concern, let’s say, CNN. Of course, given the present political climate I doubt these two examples are likely, but maybe, the reverse might be possible.
No matter, let’s just say that I am worried that the end of “net neutrality” could also “slow down” or block a free press. Moreover, in this environment, I think the individuals are also at risk. Perhaps, the speeds of e-mail could also be adjusted, according to the perceived views of a user or sender. Think of the possibilities. They are almost endless.
Call me paranoid, if you will, but I would note that Andrew Grove, one of the founders of Intel, wrote: “Only the paranoid survive.”
So I will remain paranoid.
What will the end of “net neutrality” mean. I think it could mean the corruption of the internet itself. Imagine the many ways the internet effects and controls our lives today. Imagine what it might happen if some company or some government could arbitrarily control the speed of your internet access. What if it took you 10 minutes to load a web page you were interested in. What if your bank’s website took an hour to let you know how much money you had in your accounts? What if the New York Times took two hours to come up.
Admittedly, these are extreme examples of possibilities that I hope would never happen. But one thing is true if internet provider can slow down or speed up the loading speeds of an individual website, people will probably go to the faster websites and not go to the slower websites. I would call that the not the end of “net neutrality”, but the literal corruption of the internet itself.
To be fair, not everyone thinks the end of “net neutrality” is a bad thing. My brother, for example, thinks it will not have a big effect on our business. That is because he tells me that most of our data usage is taken up by videos and all our videos are hosted by YouTube. That would transfer that part of the problem to YouTube, which being owned by Google, is theoretically a large enough company to defend itself from an AT&T or Verizon or Comcast or some other large provider.
The next biggest usage of data on a website, besides videos, is photos. Our photos are hosted by a local internet company on our own company server. The space or data usage taken up by photos is far, far less than videos, which require very large bandwidth to load promptly and smoothly. My brother does not think the space or data usage taken up by our photos is significant enough to alter greatly our actual internet costs. And he points out, if they did, we could always move the photos to some really large cloud provider, like Microsoft or Amazon.
The last usage of significant space on a website is the actual html programming of our actual software running the website. This is minimal in comparison to the data usage taken up by either photos or pictures, but it is something that you need. In any case, my brother feels that we are not apt to personally be affected by the end of “net neutrality”.
I am willing to concede that my worries about this issue probably have more chance of affecting other companies…either new startups who find the cost of launching their new business is far too expensive, or existing media competitors of some of the really large internet providers, who also happen to also own competing media companies.
A couple of more points about “net neutrality” before I move on to even more paranoid concerns. Even though “net neutrality” was repealed just recently, it will be a long time before the demise of “net neutrality” actually takes place. For one thing, there will be a number of legal challenges brought against the repeal and that could reverse the repeal. For another, Congress could pass a law requiring that there be equal access and equal speeds available to all, whether they be simple consumers, small companies or truly gigantic companies. Finally, even if the repeal of “net neutrality” is upheld, it will probably take years for the true long-term effects to known and understood.
Finally, before moving on to more apocalyptic concerns, in an effort to be truly fair to this issue, I must mention that the Chairman of the FCC, Adjit Pai claims that the end of “net neutrality” will actually allow companies to more easily compete. The Wall Street Journal has also just written an editorial that echoes this opinion saying the end of “net neutrality” will clear the way for more competition and more innovation, freeing the FCC of being “a gatekeeper”. So there are legitimate opinions out there the repeal of “net neutrality” will actually make the internet better and allow more competition.
I do not buy that theory. My gut tells me this move is about power and control of the internet itself. I believe inevitably, if “net neutrality” is really ended, the internet will be less free, less innovative and subject to monopoly type pricing and possibly subject to governmental discrimination. And if that does happen, I would call that the corruption of the internet.
New York City during the 2003 Great Blackout – Could it happen again? And if so, for how long?
I now want to move on to other concerns about the internet – namely, the disruption of the internet itself. Early on, the internet was developed as a “could not fail system” wherein it was said you might be able to bring down a small part of the internet for a short time, but, you would never, never, ever be able to bring down the entire internet itself.
Call me paranoid, but I disagree! I think it could be brought in a number of ways.
I would ask you simply to type in on Google the words “The Great Blackout”. You may be surprised to be confronted with a list:
The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 – that occurred on November 9th, 1965, when portions of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ontario (Canada), Rhode Island, Vermont and New Jersey were without power for 13 hours, affecting 30,000,000 people. That resulted in 30,000,000 people being without any electrical power for 13 hours. Now the internet did not go dark then because there was no internet – other than an internal government internet system.
The Great Blackout of 1977 – that blackout only affected New York City and some surrounding areas. It lasted for 2 days, July 13th & 14th, 1977. Some 10,000,000 people were affected and were without any electrical power. Again, this was before “the internet” existed as we know. And while the first e-mail transmission was sent out successfully in 1971, it general use did not become popular until the 1990s.
The Great Blackout of 2003 – that blackout was the widest known blackout in the U.S., affecting North Eastern and MidWestern states. I would note it did affect cellular, e-mail and internet connections. So, not only did the electrical grid go down, but also cell phone and internet service and the ability to send e-mails. This blackout occurred August 14th, 2003 and affected 10,000,000 people in Ontario, Canada and 45,000,000 in the U.S.
I would like to note that these blackouts do not include blackouts that have been caused fairly regularly on a local basis by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, lightning or simple thunderstorms.
Now, it turns out that I have a friend who may be more paranoid than me. His name is Ron Foster, and his concern is a solar storm. He tells me sooner or later a solar storm is going to hit us and it will knock out the internet and all electrical connections, frying computer chips in everything from cars to toasters to microwaves to computers to cell phones. Not only is it going to knock out the internet, it is going to knock out our entire electrical grid. And it will not just be the Northeast or the Midwest, it will not just be the just the good old USA. No, the solar storm that Ron says is coming is going to knock out the electrical grid across the whole world.
Ron tells me we have been hit by solar storms in the past. In fact, in 1859, Ron tells me that we were hit by something called the “Carrington Event”. Now that solar storm (you can Google it) did not cause great damage for the simple reason there was no widespread electric grid to go down and the internet had not been invented. Apparently, there was another solar storm in 2012 that could have done a lot of damage, but luckily that solar storm missed the planet and did not cause widespread damage.
Anyway, Ron is a “prepper” – someone who prepares for catastrophic events. I got to know Ron when he called me up and told me he wanted to use one of our inflatable boats on the cover of one of his books. It is Ron’s opinion that our boats make great “bugout boats”. That is the term that preppers use to refer to vehicles that allow them to “bug out” safely when the lights go out and Google doesn’t Google. Ron has now written 3 books with our boats on the cover as the perfect “bugout” vehicles.
I do not know how much our boats may help you in the catastrophe that Ron has in mind – I worry someone might steal your “bugout” boat when you are not looking. Nor do I know when the next solar storm is going to hit us. It could be next week, it could be next year, it could be next century. It could be in 6,702 years.
In any case, that is not all that I worry about. “One Second After” is a book written by William R. Forstchen. It describes another possible catastrophe – one where a EMP (electro magnetic pulse) is emitted by a nuclear explosion over part of the U.S. and it goes on to describe the chaos that comes from such an event. This book features a foreword by Newt Gingrich who writes that this is a highly plausible event.
I do not know if Newt is correct, but I do know that as recently as a couple of months ago, Kim Jun Un threatened to set off a nuclear bomb over some American city to make the whole country go dark. I do not know how serious young Kim is about that, but I offer it up as evidence that there may be several ways for the internet could go dark.
Will this guy bring down the internet?
Above you will see another guy who might have the evil intention to bring down the internet. The guy above, a hacker for sure, might have such an intention. My guess is that he would not bring down the whole internet, figuring that it would be a lot more profitable to bring down some part of it, like, for example, a major airport or the northeast electrical grid or our President’s Twitter feed. Finally, I am thinking he would leave up a lot of the internet up because what would he have to do if was the internet was completely down? He is, after all, a computer geek and what good is a computer geek without the internet?
Me, I am more worried about World War III and laser beams. The way I figure it, there are only so many cans circling the globe. Those cans, aka “satellites”, provide the internet to the whole world and if a war did break out, it is my guess that some power – I cannot say or guess who – China, Russia, the U.S., India, Israel, Iran, England, France, North Korea – who knows – there are so many to choose from – but some power might seek to eliminate some other power’s access to the internet. And if I was betting man, I would suggest that laser beams would prove pretty damn effective in knocking down those cans. I might mention that satellites orbit this earth anywhere from 120 miles above the earth to 1200 miles above the ground, so they are not that far away. My theory is if you can shoot down a plane, you can shoot down a satellite.
So, to summarize: I think there are many ways that both our electrical grid and the internet could be knocked out and I do not know if that is a comet (in which case we will not need to worry because we and the planet will also be knocked out), or a solar storm or a super hurricane or a nuclear explosion during the outbreak of World War III or laser beams from a third world country.
Whatever the event, if something did knock out the internet, you can say bye, bye to Google, bye, bye to Amazon, bye, bye to your bank account, bye, bye to cell phones, bye, bye to reality TV – hey, it might not be so bad after all.
It is interesting to note at this point how right my father was about the internet. In fact, I think even he would have been surprised by how much the internet has crept into our daily life. I know as a relatively small business with 25 or so employees, how important that internet really is to our business. We process all our orders, we approve all credit cards, we deposit all checks, we print picking tickets, we print labels, we notify Fedex and UPS when we need more trucks, ship containers from and to China, England, Korea, Italy, Germany and yes, the good old USA. In short, it would be very difficult to survive a true disruption of the internet.
Presuming we actually lived through such an event and we were not attacked by either Zombies or starving citizens or maddened criminals, I do have an idea how our business would survive. We would go back to old-time mail order, back to the time my father was processing $50,000 of orders a week, opening envelopes, licking stamps, depositing paper checks, hand writing labels, walking or running or bicycling to the bank. Yes, we would do it the old-fashioned way, the way our Dad taught us how to do.
Of course, I would hope someone else could get analog phone lines, central heating, washing machines, automobiles and the AC going.
Let’s hope that the internet remains in place, up and running, faster, and better than ever, without corruption or disruption.