The City After Many A Year

Now called Baker Street Pub, this was the original location of TGIF Friday’s – the chain survived, the founding bar did not!

By Cecil Hoge

It has been some time since I visited New York City for more than a few hours at a time. In the last several years I have visited Chinese, Korean and other American cities more often and for longer periods of time. And that is strange for two reasons. One, I live 60 miles from New York City. Two, New York is the city of my birth.

So when the chance came up for me to visit the city with my wife for a few days, I was hoping that there might be some time to see some of the changes that have taken place…what was new and what was old. Because the primary reason for coming to the city was to be with my son while he stayed at Memorial Sloan Kettering for a few days, there would be very little time for running around and investigating the city.

The city has not really changed that much since I was born there. There are still some 8 million people living there. It is still the financial center of the America. It is still America’s biggest city. And yes, it is still The Big Apple. Of course, there are the new buildings…occupying spaces that were either empty or previously filled by older buildings. And yes, the times and the vibes the city gives off have changed.

When I was born at Doctor’s Hospital opposite Gracie Mansion, the country was already in World War II. I suppose those times must have been full of doubt and fear and for my parents, a newly married couple, it must have been a leap of faith to have a child just as the United States was getting fully committed to the worldwide war. And I suppose until World War II was resolved in our favor, there must have been a pall of fear and anxiety hanging over the city as the war went on.

I do not remember what that felt like. I was just too young. I do remember my first experiences in the city. Growing up in NYC as I did for the first 11 years of my life in a rent-controlled apartment building at 520 East 90th, life in the city was endlessly interesting. Taxi cabs, subways buses, walking many city blocks…all became 2nd nature to me, although I quickly developed a prejudice for the cabs that would scoot you around the city, even if my parents would not trust me to take a cab until I got to the ripe old age of 10.

After the first 11 years at 520 East 90th, we moved to more gracious uptown digs, 1215 Fifth Avenue. That was on 102nd and Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks from where Harlem started. This was convenient because I had an aunt and uncle on 94th and Madison and another aunt and uncle at 1150 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 96th and 5th and a grandmother on 97th between Madison and Fifth. So almost all members of my immediate family were within walking distance.

Our apartment was on the 9th floor of this building

1215 Fifth Avenue was pretty fancy apartment building at the time. I notice that today there are 3 pending sales for apartments in the building, all in 4 million plus range, so I guess the building and the apartments are still pretty nice. We had a 3 bedroom spread on the 9th floor, with pretty nice corner living room over-looking Central Park and a real nice dining room for entertaining. I remember a rather glorious 12th birthday when my mother hired a real live magician to perform at my birthday.

I remember trying new things in that building – one hobby that I tried was kiting toilet paper. There were some serious wind drafts coming off of Central Park and a buddy and myself got the bright idea of flying toilet paper out of my ninth floor bedroom window. Imagine toilet paper going up and down and all around, floating and fluttering like white paper dragons over Central Park. It was really quite an impressive site. This probably would be frowned on today and when my mother discovered this new hobby she abruptly shut it and me down.

This is a picture of a corner apartment in 1215 Avenue like ours – I do not remember our living room looking quite like this, but it was sImilar. My bedroom window was around the corner.

Because kiting toilet paper was no longer an option, my best buddy and I got the bright idea to try dropping water bombs on pedestrians. It was quite amazing to see the reaction of pedestrians when one landed nearby. It made an incredibly loud noise and we could see some of the local New Yorkers were really frightened by this. I can say it is probably an excellent fact that none of the water bombs ever hit anyone, considering they were dropped from the 9th floor and gravity is a pretty impressive force.

Now we thought this was a perfectly harmless occupation, far less likely to get the attention that kiting toilet paper got. Fortunately, I found very quickly that it was dangerous to those below and to me personally. The very evening of the very day I learned to water bomb pedestrians, I chose to try dropping what I thought was a perfectly harmless water bomb on a cop who happened to be riding a horse. In those days, cops used to patrol the streets in the city on horses and it happened that one was conveniently riding below my window. The sound of the explosion was quite impressive, especially to the cop since it was my nearest miss. Neither the cop nor the horse seemed to appreciate my prank. The horse reared up, almost throwing the cop off of his mount. I looked down on this event and almost immediately the cop looked up. I sensed even from the ninth floor that the cop was not happy.

I immediately did the smart thing. I closed my window, hopped in bed and buried my head under the covers. That did not stop the cop from arriving at our apartment door along with an associate. Fortunately, my mother answered the door, assured the two cops that nobody in our apartment had dropped said water bomb. She even went on to invite the cops in and let them scan my bedroom to show that I had been asleep. Of course, my head and body was buried deep under the covers and the cops, who no doubt knew that I was the guilty party, gave up their quest to incarcerate. That experience left me with a deep appreciation of gravity. For some years thereafter I regularly had dreams of hitting cops and other pedestrians with water bombs. These dreams were quite frightening and it occurred to me that if had kept up my hobby I might well have killed someone.

Some of the many food carts along the street

Let me get back to the story at hand…our visit to New York City. We reserved a room at a comfortable, but antiseptic hotel called the Affina Gardens. It was on 64th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Since my parents had an apartment years earlier around the corner at 330 East 63rd, I was familiar with the neighborhood, even if I had not visited for a number of years.

The first thing I noticed in what I will call the new New York City is the proliferation of fast food places…little self-serve cafes where one can walk in, order a sandwich and a coffee or soda and then sit at a bare table where one can watch the passersbys. And then there was also the army of tall carts clogging up various streets selling fruits, sandwiches, Cuban, Mexican, Chinese, Dominican, African specialties. Some are truly excellent and no doubt I would test some of them if I had more time or if I was inclined to get food from a cart.

But I am spoiled former New Yorker who likes to sit down and be attended to in a restaurant or a bar. In any case, there is not to be much of that on this trip. I am here to be at the bedside of my son. The first couple of days were fully occupied getting my son checked in to the hospital, checking into the nearby hotel and staying bedside until he got through his procedure. I can say, if staying in and around a hospital is ever good, everything did go well.

By third day, I was able to take some walks each day in the neighborhood of Memorial Sloan Kettering. The particular section of the hospital where my son was located was at 1275 York, which is on 68th and York Avenue. This was quite familiar to me because as mentioned, 50 years ago, my parents had an apartment at 330 East 63rd Street, just a few blocks away.

The street and apartment building where I used to live with my parents over 50 years ago, only 5 blocks from Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital

The second thing that I noticed on my walks, in addition to the many new fast food places, was how truly universal the use of cell phones was in the city now. I know this true everywhere now, but in the city it seemed more so. Everybody was either talking on a cell, texting on a cell, carrying cell phone in their hand as they ambled down the street or accessing information on a cell phone as they were walking down the street. And the sheer number of different human body forms, male or female, was truly impressive…young, old, thin, fat, white, black, Asian, South American, Mexican, Islamic, Hindu, African. Of course, that is to be expected in this digital age. However, I remembered a time when people walked down the street without seemingly talking to themselves or pressing fingers against slim, little rectangles as they bumped into street signs or stepped off curbs or crossed in front of buses.

Now coming from the suburbs on Long Island, we of course see plenty of folks on cell phones. Mostly, we see people chatting on the their cell phones in cars, at traffic lights, speeding down the highway, motoring through school zones. Occasionally, we see ladies or guys walking along the road on their power walks chatting to someone or riding a bike with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the cell or sitting on a curb texting some lost lover. Or we see them walking through malls, guys and gals, talking to former lovers, long lost friends or everyday buddies, happily or unhappily chatting away.

What was different about cell phone use in the city was the sheer volume and multiplicity of different humans on cell phones. I noticed cell phone use seemed particularly important for cyclists. I saw bicyclists on cell phones in every conceivable condition or situation, some riding no hands on the wheel happily chatting away, leaning this way and that in an effort to steer through the crowds of pedestrians, other cyclists, cars and buses, some with one hand on the handlebar and one hand on the cell, some stopped at a light texting before it turned green, some smoking a cigarette with one hand while talking with the other hand as they yawed their way down the very crowded bicycle lane, trusting that their bike would navigate itself by their telekinetic powers. I saw cyclists with messenger bags, chatting on one cell and texting on another, weaving through the multitudes with remarkable confidence considering that were not steering. I saw bicycles attached to delivery carts powering take-out orders to their intended destinations, again, while chatting, texting, accessing ball scores, checking in with the markets. Yes, it was big doings in the big city.

And that was just people on bikes. Of course, there were also bus drivers, truck drivers, car drivers, taxi drivers, Uber & Lyft drivers on cell phones, delivery men on cell phones, policemen on cell phones, food cart owners on cell phones, construction workers on cell phones, old grandmothers and grandfathers on cell phones, American Indians on cell phones, Indian Indians on cell phones, 6 year olds on cell phones, 2 year olds on cell phones – in this case, friendly mothers usually held the cell phones while the 2 year olds gurgled and giggled and dribbled.

I saw a one-armed, one-legged black gentleman in a wheelchair on Second Avenue between 73rd and 74th on a cell phone industriously smoking a cigarette with two fingers of his remaining hand while pecking out text messages with one finger of the same hand while occasionally picking up a playing card for the solitaire card game that was laid out on tray attached to his wheelchair. How he managed all this was pretty impressive. Yes, I concluded New Yorkers are very attached to their cell phones.

In looking at the ebb and flow of humanity that walked the streets of Manhattan, I could only wonder if the city has become more or less diverse. It was hard for me to tell, remembering how diverse it was years ago and seeing the great multiplicity in front of me in the city after many a year. And while I cannot say if the city is more diverse, I do think the mix of diversity has changed.

A few things stand out. I saw more Islamic style ladies walking the streets. I also saw more Islamic style ladies in the halls of Memorial Sloan Kettering…some are nurse’s and doctors…some are patients. I saw more Spanish speaking folks. I saw less hippies – in fact, I can’t recall seeing any hippies. No, the folks of today’s New York City are much more buttoned up. Much more together.

I Do Not Recall Seeing This Gentleman

I do not remember seeing Moondog. For those who don’t remember, Moondog was an interesting presence on the city scene, standing as he would on 54th and Park in Viking helmet with a giant spear humming eerie dissonant sounds. In fact, I do not remember seeing anyone who even remotely looked like Moondog, but I can only guess that the city still has some strange and interesting characters. That said, I sense the city streets were missing the outstanding weirdos of days gone by. It seems to me that the city has gentrified itself in the years since I stopped living and visiting there.

I did see a lot more Chinese ladies and guys both in the hospital and out on the streets. Some, I suppose some of them are long time residents of many years…others seem to be newcomers…either urban professionals working in business and finance or young doctors, some or many, perhaps, students.

Whatever the reason, there does seem to be a definite increase in Chinese folks, which if you ask me, is a benefit. I also think it is quite logical since Chinese are the most populous people on the planet and now have surpassed Americans as the greatest travelers on earth. You even see a few old Chinese guys who look like they worked in the fields in Shandong province picking apples, gnarled and thin from years of labor in the fields or a long life of smoking opium. Then you also see elderly Chinese men in dark, well-tailored business suits with expensive understated ties, sometimes accompanied by their wives walking one or two feet behind them.

Then there are the smartly dressed sporty Chinese guys in pressed and new cleaned jeans and snazzy multi-colored sneakers with their cells either close at hand or in a nearby pocket. Let us not forget the striking and beautiful young student Chinese girls and professional tech ladies…they are on their cells scanning markets, accessing Google on all matters of interest, doing studies on the decadent American culture or living the decadent and free American life, studying their contact list for ditched or retrieved lovers. Whoever they really are, they all seem very aware and energetic and on top of their game.

Then there are the huge numbers of Indians (not American Indians, but Indian Indians) and again they have population on their side. They come in all sizes, all ages and all professions…little hunch-backed Indian ladies, prosperous business suited doctors, young students, tall, stunning young Indian ladies, with sharp elongated faces framed with dark straight hanging, meticulous groomed hair. I saw many Indians on the first few days of walking around the East Side of Manhattan.

After the third day in the city, our son was feeling good enough for my wife and I to go to lunch at some of the local places and me to branch out on my walks in this city of my birth.

My wife and I had lunch in an Irish pub called Sullivan’s. It was only a few blocks from the hospital. For some reason, my wife was looking forward to a Shepard’s Pie. Having had that delicacy about 50 more times than I ever wanted to in boarding school, my dislike of that delicacy had not waned. I opted for a flat iron steak. I can verify that the use of the word iron was well chosen because my steak was definitely on the tough side. My wife did not have much kinder things to say about her Shepard’s Pie, although she did say the beer that came with it was excellent. The fault was ours of course – who goes to an Irish pub to eat?

It was at Sullivan’s that a fortunate thing happened. You may not consider it so and certainly my wife did not consider so, but as my wife was digging into her not very tasty Shepard’s Pie, she realized that she had lost her cell phone. In this day and age, the loss of cell is almost equivalent to the loss of a close personal friend. The remorse, the recrimination and the investigation that followed to determine what happened caused quite a few tense and troubling hours for my wife.

And then a miracle occurred. We reported the loss of the cell phone to an Apple app for that and lo and behold, that evening, I got a call on my cell from an  AT&T office. It turned out that my wife’s cell phone was now residing downtown at 82 Wall Street. How it got there is anybody’s guess. The best we can figure is that my wife dropped it on the street outside the hospital and then some bystander picked it up, perhaps, on their way to Wall Street, perhaps, hoping to access some secret information that would impoverish my wife and reward the hacker. Anyway, whoever picked it up ended up dropping my wife’s cell phone off at the 82 Wall Street AT&T office. If they were a hacker, they were a very considerate hacker.

That necessitated a trip downtown the next day to retrieve my wife’s cell. Testing my memory of where Wall Street was, I got to direct a Spanish taxi driver down the FDR Drive to Wall Street – I was very proud. Because it was Saturday, there was some kind of street fair selling various Spanish, Korean and Middle Eastern delicacies. For that reason, Water Street was closed. 82 Wall Street happened to be at the corner of Wall Street and Water Street, a few blocks away. So I got out of the cab.

That required me to walk a few blocks on Water Street to Wall Street. I passed dozens of Chinese, Korean and European tourists taking selfies of themselves, with numerous family members feasting on delicacies from carts parked on the closed street. Wall Street was just a few blocks down, so I kept walking by the assorted tourists. This gets me again asking myself if New York is more diverse today than it was when I grew up in the city.

I still have not made up my mind on that question – the best I can answer is it is diverse in a different way.

I got to the nearly empty AT&T office at the corner of Water Street and Wall Street where 3 young sharpie salesmen seemed eager to sell me a new cell phone. Their enthusiasm diminished when they realized that I was there to collect a lost cell phone. That said they helpfully suggested it must be in safe Number 1. A young man went off and looked in a room off to side suggesting I stand by the door to be out the rush of real customers who were nowhere to be seen.

He emerged to announce that it must be in safe Number 2 which unfortunately was locked and could only be opened by the nice manager lady who would arrive around 1pm or in about two and half hours. That seemed disconcerting so I ask the salesman to check with the other two sharpie salesman where my wife’s cell phone might be. He went away, asked a few questions and came back to announce no luck…then he tried to reach the nice manager lady by phone – she apparently was employing her cell phone’s power off feature.

I then called my wife to announce the three possibilities:

1. Hang around Wall Street – I was already forming a plan to use the extra time to walk to the new World Trade Center – and bring back the phone after 1pm.
2. Take a cab back and then take another cab back three hours later, pick up the phone and take a 3rd cab back – as you may understand that was not my favored option.
3. Give up the effort and come back to the hospital in defeat. While perfectly all right with me, I was pretty sure this was not an option that would fly with my dear wife.

Given the above, I gave my wife a summary of the 3 options while I plotted my visit to the World Trade Center which I had not seen since it collapsed. Halfway through the call an ample young black lady walked out a back room asking,

“Did I hear something about a lost cell phone? I have it.”

The story ended well, although I would have not minded checking out the new World Trade Center and the memorial to 2001. The last time I had visited that area, I stayed at a Marriot hotel a few blocks from the World Trade Center. My brother came in to the city and we had some giant steaks at Morton’s. Coming back from dinner, I walked in the small city below in search of socks and a shirt. Six weeks later the hotel, Morton’s, the World Trade Center and much of the underground city below had collapsed from the 911 attack.

In any case, on this trip I would not have an opportunity to check out the reconstructed World Trade Center and the surrounding area. Within in minutes I back in a cab with my wife’s cell phone and an Islamic cab driver who was either getting instructions of how to take me to 68th and York Avenue or plotting some terrorist attack or considering whether I was kidnap material. The cab driver happily conversed throughout the trip back in some Middle Eastern language that I did not understand or recognize. However, he delivered me quickly and efficiently to Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital without kidnapping or proceeding with some terror plot. I was most happy.

My wife was also happy to have her cell phone a few minutes later.

The next two days were uneventful. My son was getting better every day and every day I took a somewhat longer walk to investigate the old streets that I used to know so well. And my wife and I would end going to dinner together after our day at the hospital. In this way we got to taste some other non Irish spots. We found a very nice Italian restaurant where we had some pretty decent Italian fare. The next day we ended up in a very simple, but quite decent American steak house that does not seemed to have changed since it opened in 1950. The food was not great but the wood paneling and the close musty atmosphere made swear I had gone to this same restaurant with my parents in the 1950s.

My father’s old office building, presently surrounded by scaffolding and high end stores.

That nostalgic dinner made me decide to cruise by my father’s old offices the next day. That was 699 Madison Avenue. In the 1950s he had an advertising agency called Huber Hoge & Sons that occupied the top 3 floors of the building. At the peak of its prosperity, my father over 100 people working for him. I remember as a kid visiting those offices quite regularly.

The high point of each trip was a pass through visit to the Gabor jewelry shop which located on the bottom floor to the left as you came into the building in a space now occupied by Jimmy Choo shoes. If my mother was dragging me along on a visit to my father’s office, we would always take a quick detour into the Gabor sisters shop, my mother checking out the latest offerings from the Gabor sisters and getting their advice and wisdom on marriage – a subject that the Gabor sisters were in a good position to opine upon. I did not know it that time, but my father’s marriage was on rocks and about to explode. On those visits, I was not concerned with the state of my mother’s marriage to my father which I thought had been ordained in heaven. Rather, I was too busy checking out the ample and lush figures of the Gabor sisters, which even from the point of a 12 year old, were very impressive.

Upstairs in the offices of my father’s advertising agency, everything was organized chaos. People were going in and out of offices, taking the elevator to different floors, sometimes running up and down the stairs if there was not enough time to take the elevator. My father had state of the art offices with people busily doing layouts, pasting down type and photographs. Everything was done at the last minute, even though everything took far longer to do, so ads that took two weeks to complete would be messengered across town to make some magazine or newspaper deadlines minutes before they closed. For those interested in such things, I can say it is almost the same today, although it often only takes minutes to complete an ad and e-mail a PDF minutes before various publications or websites needed the artwork or info to close or to make a post.

This was state of the art in my father’s day.

There were two machines that I rather liked in my father’s offices. One was the Dictaphone which was on my father’s desk. It recorded letters that my father spoke into it. It had some kind of flat paper-like material that went around in a circle and recorded his voice. It was beauty of a machine and my father would have used it a lot more if he wasn’t always in such a rush. So, most of the time, rather using this state of the art “time-saver”, my father dictated to poor Millie Clock, who was my father’s secretary, because usually my father could not spare the time to separately record his letter.

Another nifty device that my father had and I thought was the Cat’s Meow, was a tube transport system between offices. It worked like this. My father would try to call some employee who was on another floor and invariably the phone would be busy because even in the 1950s people loved to talk on the phone. No problem, my father would scribble some little note, usually no more that three words (i.e. “come to me”). He would tear off the note from the yellow pad that he was invariably writing on, roll up the ragged strip of paper, insert in a nearby tube and then plop the tube into a nearby hole in his desk and press a button with a number denoting the destination.

It was then that the magic began. The tube would suddenly disappear with an audible “whoosh”, sucked away to some unseen destination by some unseen entity. And then, if all went well, some fellow would appear in the office in a few minutes, usually carrying wide mechanicals for some desperately needed ad. My father would glance over mechanicals or rough layout or type-written documents and hand them back with further instructions. Now, sometimes something even cooler would happen. Another tube would come rocketing back with some short scribble inside like “see you in 20”. I thought it was all magic and wonder.

Flash forward 63 years later and what do I find?

Not only does the building still stand but the front entrance is just down from Hermes with Jimmy Choo occupying two storefronts on either side of the entrance. Things must be good at 699 Madison Avenue. Down the block are a whole bunch of very uppity stores in either direction. It is all very She-She with world famous high end brand stores as far as the eye can see…I am sure that the Gabor sisters and my mother would totally approve, although my father might have had something to say about the excessive and unnecessary display of useless wealth. Not so my mother, whose favorite store was Cartier and her favorite bar the Carlyle. Some things never change.

Nello in a spot I think was formerly occupied by Hamburger Heaven – note the snazzy vehicle out front – times is good on Madison Avenue.

Across the street a very nice looking restaurant, Nello, seems to be occupying the space that I remember Hamburger Heaven. The restaurant looks very nice with outside tables and some kind of parking attendants. I did note a very pricey looking sports car out front, so I am guessing this restaurant commands pretty robust prices. I would also guess the food is better than Hamburger Heaven, although those hamburgers truly were heaven.

My trip to New York was significant for all the places I did not go and for the fact that most of the time I was just in the 60s and 70s on the East Side. This is understandable because I was on hospital duty with my wife and my most important mission was to see that my son’s procedure and treatment went well.

So my wife and I did not take a Sunday walk in Central Park – I would have been curious if steel bands still played on Sunny fall days and whether the smell of marijuana would confront us every now and then as we walked through the park. I think that if I did go for walk I would have found serious joggers and bicyclists plying their healthy arts and absence of the scent of marijuana.

I would have liked to go down the village and see what was like. I would have liked to drop into McSorley’s to check out the local ales. I would have liked to go to some of the city’s museums and see what was on offering (maybe, Tutankhamen was coming back for a re-run). I would have liked to walked on the High Line. I would have liked to listen to music at some of the city’s many venues, I would have liked to explore some late night clubs and see what celebs were hanging out. Alas, it was not to be…there would be no Stork Club, no El Morroco, no L’interdit, no Ondine’s, no Max’s Kansas City, no CBGB, no Mudd Club…and I would not have time to check out their replacements.

il vagabondo, no longer in it’s former glory, closed for sale. Where will the bocci ball players go?

That said, I did get some time to continue my wanderings in the East 60s and 70s. Along the way, I stumbled across a long lost and favorite restaurant. Alas, it was closed or no doubt I would have taken my wife there the very evening I re-discovered it. But closed it was. Forever, I was told. A very well heeled young man saw me taking the above picture and took upon himself to hand me flyer from Cushman Wakefield. He thought I might be interested in purchasing the brownstone which included the restaurant. Even better than that, he informed me, the adjoining brownstone was also for sale – I could get a two for one price. I handed him the flyer back and told him not sell the two brownstones for a penny less than forty five million. I could not tell from his expression whether he was heartened or disappointed with that figure.

I did get to ask the young man what had happened to il vagabondo? It had closed in June he told me and now the building was for sale. I asked him if the bocci ball court was included. He began to get reanimated and said, yes, of course, the bocci ball court was included. You could turn the whole thing into your personal pleasure palace with the next door brownstone and after twenty or thirty million of fix up costs you would have yourself some boss digs. And then sensing that might be a little out of my budget range, he suggested a lowball alternative where I could have some nifty apartment above the restaurant and get some new trendy restaurant to take over the restaurant area. He was so convincing, I almost made an offer.

Anyway, he seemed like an exceedingly nice young man, wearing a suit and tie that cost no less than four grand, no doubt brought up by a very good family, who must have thought if he was not going to be a billionaire Wall Streeter, he could always sell some property in the city. I wished the young man well, while I lamented the plight of the bocci ball players who would now be forced to play in some local park where it might rain and where there were no lights to illuminate their evening games. I also would miss the wonderful waiters from il vagabondo who would come up to you and recite the whole menu without giving any opportunity to read a menu. It was always very impressive and the food was always good.

I walked around a little more the last two days before we went back to the country. The bars and restaurants…Friday’s, Maxwell’s Plum and yes, il vagabondo were all gone. It seemed their replacements had shifted a little closer to the Queensboro Bridge. There was a trendy looking Mexican place around 65th where people seemed to happy to wait outside for the next shift – I am thinking either the food or the tequila must have been very good. Friday’s, as noted at the beginning of this story, had morphed in The Baker Street Pub. From the outside it looked less crowded and more, how do I put it, authentic…no that is not the word. I suppose it does good business.

What was left of the old neighborhood that I remember? I can name one structure that seemed to be identical. It is not actually that impressive, but it was something that did not look like much had been done with it. Without further adieu, here it is:

Yes, the Avis Car Rental looks exactly like it did 50 years ago, although the cars are slightly different. Perhaps, it should be selected by the New York Historical Society for permanent preservation.

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Breaking News: I Talk to Swans – Charles and Monique Tell All

Charles The Swan

By Cecil Hoge

For 20 years or so I have been trying to talk to swans. They seem very intelligent and it was natural to me to try and communicate in some manner. In the process of paddling several days a week for over 40 years, you see a lot of birds on the water and swans are the largest birds you see and the least disconcerted by humans.

Now, I never thought you could actually talk to swans. I began by simply talking to swans in English. I know this does not make sense, but I felt somehow swans were very intelligent creatures and they would like me to talk to them and I thought maybe they might even understand me.

So, the first thing I would say is, “Hello, Mr. Swan,”  and then because I was never sure whether I was addressing a Mrs. Swan, I would go on to add, “And hello also if you are a Mrs. Swan.”

Sometimes, I would ask how he or she was doing, “I hope all is well Mr. or Mrs. Swan. I hope you are having a good day.”

I always had the sense the swans actually understood something of what I was trying to say. As the years went by, I added to my repertoire of one-sided conversation, telling them how good they looked, talking about what a good or bad weather day it was and sometimes giving them weather report that I thought might be of interest.

“It’s going to rain today,” I would tell them, “It might look beautiful to you now, but you wait, a little later, it is going to rain.”

The swans always seemed non-plussed about this, as if they already knew the information I was providing them with. That did not stop me. I went on providing them weather reports every day and since I paddle pretty much all year around that was a lot of weather reports. Little did I know that they really appreciated my efforts to provide them with this information, even though they already knew what kind of weather was on the way.

About ten years ago, I expanded my efforts to communicate and began to talk Swanese. Now, in truth, even to this day, I do not understand Swanese, but I did notice that swans make various kinds of noises, some of which were high-pitched screeches, others of which were low-throated squawks and quacks. So that is what I tried to do. At first my Swanese was pretty darn poor. Whatever sound I made did not sound remotely like the sounds that the swans nearby made.

But I kept at it and gradually I came to make sounds that I thought were a little closer to real Swanese. At first, the swans elegantly ignored me, cruising by as if I did not exist. But as time went by I got the feeling that they were warming up to me. Occasionally, one or two of the swans would give a schreech or a squawk or a quack in response. This made me feel my Swanese was getting better. Little did I know that my Swanese was really awful, but I did not find that out until years later.

Fifteen or twenty years went by with me saying hello in English, nodding, saluting the swans, squawking and schreeching and quacking in an effort to get to know swans better. I felt that I was making progress. I even felt that some of the local swans were coming to have some real respect for me. That turned out to be off the mark.

One day something strange and wonderful and truly unbelievable happened. I was paddling by a couple of swans when I heard not one, but two voices.

“I am tired of this charade, let’s speak to the stupid creature,” said one voice. It was a male voice, very assured and refined, not loud, but plainly audible.

“Charles, Mon Dieu,” said a female voice with a French accent, “You are not supposed to talk to zee humans.”

I turned towards the sound of the two voices and I saw nothing. Nothing, that is except two swans gliding quietly nearby Stone Bridge. Stone Bridge is a washed out bridge from the 1800s, the only remnants of which are left on the Strong’s Neck side of Little Bay.

Charles and Monique by Stone Bridge

Then I saw something, one the swans opened its mouth and began speaking to me…in English. You can only imagine my astonishment.

“Human creature,” it said in a deep authoritative voice, “we appreciate your efforts to speak to us, even if they are truly pathetic. I suggest you speak English to us so we can understand each other. God knows your “Swanese” is about as bad as it could be. My name is Charles and this is my bride of many years, Monique.”

I was quite surprised when this swan referred to “Swanese”. That was a term I thought I had coined and yet somehow this swan seemed familiar with my phrase.

“Really Charles,” said the other voice. This voice was female, lilting, sexy and somewhat sardonic, “I wonder why you bother. You know from experience how pathetic humans truly are.”

“Now, wait a minute, what do you mean humans are pathetic?” I said, already trying to defend my species, feeling particularly stupid because I was talking to two swans.

Monique was withering in her sultry way.

“Mon Dieu, zee imbecile speaks.”

“Don’t be so hard on him, my dear, you were human once.”

“That was in the court of Louis Quatorze,” I almost thought I could see a coy smile from the lady swan, “now that was a human worthy of the name.”

“My dear, that is enough of that…you do not have to go into your decadent past.”

I was beginning to feel I was some kind of a fifth wheel.

“Wait just a moment…what do you think is wrong with humans.”

I had never seen a swan giggle, but I swear that was what Monique was doing. She made a wierd movement and placed the tip of one of her wings in front of her mouth (or beak, as I should say), as if she was trying to hide something and then she kind of giggled and squeaked in delight.

“What is wrong with humans…the list is soo long the tide will go out before I finish it.”

I was outraged. I had to stand up and defend my species.

“Now, wait a minute.  I have been paddling by swans on this bay for almost 50 years and after trying to speak to you swans for the last 20 years, the first thing that you say to me is how pathetic humans are.”

Charles spoke up first in his steady, patient voice, “Don’t be so dismayed, we were both humans at one time and we know of your many failings. They come with the species. You cannot help it.”

“My failings, what are talking about?” I said, thinking what a strange experience this was…first to speaking English to two swans…second, being lectured like a child.

Monique was the first to respond,

“First and foremost, little man, you are screwing zee planet up 6 ways to Sunday. Look at this bay, Moron, it is full of algae and empty of almost anything living. Almost no fish, no minnows, no crabs, no clams, no oysters…what the hell do expect us to eat. We used to be able to eat gloriously here. Fortunately, if you eat the algae before it turns brown it does have some nutritional value, even if it is full of pollutants.”

“Now, Monique, do not be so hard on the creature. He doesn’t know the bay is dying?”

“Wait just a minute, all this is too much. First, you speak English, then you immediately launch into a tirade against humans.”

“First of all,” I went on, “Monique tell me why you speak with a French accent.”

I know this was not really pertinent, but I was really curious.

“Because I am a French swan you idiot and because I was once a French human. French swans and French humans are the smartest, most intelligent creatures to walk the face of the earth, you moron. Mon Dieu, zee idiot is beyond education.”

Obviously, Monique had an attitude problem. Fortunately, Charles came to my rescue.

“Do not worry yourself about Monique. She tends to be a little bit, how do say, stuck up.”

Just then another swan came splashing down just a few feet in front of us. You could tell this swan was not fully grown because its coloring was still a faded gray brown and not yet fully white.

“Don’t be alarmed, it is only our son Albert. Albert, this is that weird human who keeps trying  to talk to us. I decided to make his day and talk English.”

Albert came cruising right up to me. I was pretty sure he was going to attack, but at the last moment he slowed and made small circle around me, obviously checking me out.

“He doesn’t look that stupid,” was all Albert had to say.

“For a human, that is.”

I must say this was some strange introduction to the true world of swans.

And then Albert suddenly started flapping his wings and headed off in the direction of a lone swan a few hundred feet away. Albert made a tremendous amount of noise with his wings flapping over the water. He did not actually take off. Rather, he made a beeline for the lone swan. As soon as Albert got close, the other swan started to flap wings, apparently in a desperate attempt to avoid Albert.

“Mon Dieu, will zee boy ever learn? He is after Charlotte again. Charles, you really must do something. He is going to die if he does not get some nooky. Remember, my dear, love makes zee world go round.”

Charles gave a swan sigh which seemed to say “Do I have to”.

And then Charles cranked up his wings and began flapping in the direction of Albert and Charlotte.

In parting, he said, “We will take up this conversation at a later date.” And then off he went after Albert who he almost crashed into, forcing Albert to divert his course towards the swan who was apparently called Charlotte. It was all pretty weird.

Monique turned to me.

“The boy is incorrigible. We keep telling him, give love a chance, but Albert has no patience for chance, he wants it now and he wants it bad. He is worse than Charles was when he was a young swan…oh la la. I can tell you, there is nothing worse than a horny swan when you are not in the mood. Of course, zee lady always reserves the right to change her mind.”

I would swear she gave a sly smile, as if contemplating the joys of a lady changing her mind.

“That’s what Albert is hoping for.”

Well, I was outraged. This kind of attitude would never be allowed in the human world, except maybe at some High Tech Startups.

“So, you are lecturing me, while your son is trying to impose his ways on a lady swan.”

Monique looked perturbed.

“This conversation is over” she said and then cruised to Stone Bridge where a gang of several other swans were pruning themselves and relaxing.

The gang at Stone Bridge

I could take a hint and I continued my paddle, my head reeling by all the startling revelations. Swans could speak English. Who knew? Some swans had been humans before. Who knew? I continued to paddle into the next bay, pondering all that I had heard and learned. I needed to find out more about this.

After getting back home, I thought about telling my wife and perhaps some other close friends, but what would they say? The guy has gone off the deep end, the guy has lost his marbles? Dust in the attic has dimmed his bulb? So I kept my mouth shut and just kept thinking about this truly strange episode.

A couple of days later I was out again paddling. I had completely forgotten my swan encounters, but as I was passing stone bridge, I heard a familiar voice.

“I see you are out for another paddle. Perhaps, now we can continue our conversation.”

Almost immediately another voice chimed. It was coquettish with a now familiar French accent. It almost gay and happy.

“Oh, Merdehead is here again to defend the human race. As if it could be defended.”

Monique sounded curiously upbeat. I had the feeling that in spite of her harsh language she had taken a liking to me.

I decided to go on the attack.

“Look, white feathered lady, what do you have to boast about?” I said.

Charles immediately came in on my side, “You see my dear, I told you he might prove more alert than you thought.”

I am not sure I felt fully complimented by being called alert, but it was better than being called Merdehead.

“So tell me, what is it about swans that makes you so high and mighty?”

“I have seen clouds from both sides now.” Monique said mysteriously.

The reference seemed strange, remembering the Joni Mitchell song of that name.

“What are you talking about?”

“I am just saying this isn’t my first rodeo, dufus dear.”

She had an endearing way of insulting someone. You almost felt like it was a privilege to be scorned by her.

I must say I was particularly confused about her conversation referencing rodeos. How would a swan know about a rodeo? Especially a French swan who grew up as a human in the court of Versailles. I didn’t think they had rodeos back then. It was all too confusing. Fortunately, Charles came to my rescue.

“Do not be mislead by my lovely lady swan. She can’t help following everything humans do, even if it has been several hundred years since she has participated. Me, I take a longer view of these things, especially since I have not been human for over 1200 years.”

Information was coming at me so fast that I had a hard time comprehending all that Charles and Monique were saying. Anyway, my curiosity was piqued, so I had to ask.

“Just how do keep up on human events?” I asked.

“The internet, of course.” Monique butted in, “You would think the moron was born 200 years ago.”

“The internet…how could you know about the internet?”

“Mon Dieu,” Monique said in a gay, cheerful voice, “I begin to wonder how stupid humans have become. Maybe, we are just talking to an aberrant specimen.”

“What is your problem, Monique? Why are you so impatient with me.”

“Perhaps, I can help explain.” Charles interrupted, “as you may have read, swans and many other birds have an internal radar system. This allows us to fly great distances…over barren land, over Arctic wastes…over wide seas without seeing land for long periods. Our internal radar allows to know where we are going.

“Not all birds are as intelligent as swans.”

“Swans are the most intelligent, most beautiful and most elegant birds in the world,” Monique put in.

“A lot of birds,” Charles continued, “are like some of your fellow human beings. Slow, fixed in their ways, unable to think about or consider different ways or new things. So most birds do not have the intelligence or understanding of swans. Swans have a very highly developed sense of radar. This not only helps us fly thousands of miles out of sight of land, it also enabled us to learn about human technological developments.

“In the 1930s, when radio transmission became widespread, swans learned how to listen in on radio frequencies. At first, this was all very confusing for us. All we heard was all this gibberish that was coming out of radios. We thought it was some kind of static caused by the atmosphere. We did notice that some of it was music and some of it was just people talking. Of course, when swans first heard all of this, it was not clear what was what. It all seemed like just a bunch of noise…some of it was musical…some of it was pleasing…and most of it was just noise.

“But because swans happened to be one of the bird species chosen for re-incarnation, some of the swans had been human and they recognized various voice patterns and, of course, they understood some of what they heard was music.

“Now humans that had been re-incarnated as swans did not at first recognize their human origins. They had been reborn as swans and that is what they thought they were. But over time, many of these swans had a strange sense of deja vu…they felt as if they had been there before. This led to a lively discussion in Swanese, as you call our language, of just what these sounds they were hearing were all about. Some swans said they could almost understand the words and the music. So that is when our great enlightenment began.”

I listened to Charles with a strong sense of disbelief. Surely, this could not be true…surely swans could not listen to radio shows…surely swans could not learn about our music and our languages. And yet, there were Charles and Monique floating not more than 6′ away from me, talking in English, telling me this incredible story.

“Well,” Charles continued, “You can imagine our surprise when certain swans began to fully understand the words and the music they heard on radios. Now a lot of this did not make sense…commercials advertising the benefits of hair tonics…Amos and Andy talking in Blackface…Guy Lombardo and his orchestra…Louis Armstrong and all that jazz…there were many things that seemed strange, but the swans that had been human began to remember their past and in some cases, they began to remember the very words they used when they were human. You can imagine the disruption all this caused, but in a way, we were beginning to understand life in a way that it had never been understood by swans.”

Now this was getting truly weird, but I was transfixed by Charles’ explanation which, as hard as it was to believe, did make sense.

“So by the time TV came along, all of these transmissions began to be understandable and we quickly found that we were capable of accessing any kind of TV program we wanted…Kukla, Fran and Ollie…Milton Berle…Captain Video… We saw it all and yes, we realized these programs were incredibly simple and crude and, of course, much of it was truly stupid, but those of us who had been humans, remembered that many stupid things happened during their human lives, so it was not so surprising. TV, it seemed, was a kind of chewing gum for the eyes…it was just something to do without much meaning.”

“By the time the 60s had rolled around, we were getting used to checking out TV a few times a day,” Monique piped in, “And Ooh La La, that Marilyn Monroe was some looker and Jackie Kennedy had some sense of style…that was a lady…but who knew those two beautiful women were both after the same man…and what a hunk he was…too bad the mafia shot him, he was my kind of President.”

Just then a seagull came crashing down on the water. The bird hit the water so hard my kayak was splashed.

“Dis da one?” The bird said in what sounded like a Brooklyn accent.

“Yes, this is the human I have chosen to speak to, Tommy” said Charles majestically. “Cecil, this is Tommy.”

I was surprised when Charles refered to me for the first time by my first name. “How did you know my name?”

Charles was very patient, if somewhat irritated, “We went through that…we can read minds…of course, we know your first name, as well as your last, as well as your Social Security number and the numbers and any expiration dates of your five separate credit cards you have in your wallet.”

“Ooh la la, I do miss zee beautiful clothes. When we first were an item, Louis used to give me the most beautiful ermines and diamonds.”

“Dear, do we have to keep reliving your human times…you know they are not going to end well.”

“Do ya got food?” The seagull asked as it began cruise around me in a circle.

Things were getting weirder. Talking swans was one thing, but a seagull with a Brooklyn accent was too much.

“Why do you talk with a Brooklyn accent?” I asked

“Whadda ya mean, I’m from Brooklyn, dodo head.” Apparently, birds do not have much respect for humans or perhaps it was just me.

“You are a seagull from Brooklyn?”

“Not even close. I am seagull from South Africa, but before that I was a human.  I grew up in Brooklyn.”

“How did you get to Setauket from South Africa,” I asked.

“I flew across da sea, ya loser,” and then the seagull turned to Charles and started making screeching sounds like I had heard seagulls make when flying over a beach. Charles started squawking, chirping and quacking back in a high voice. Soon Monique was flapping her wings, clucking and squawking and quacking. I gather I must be the subject of their conversation.

“Just what are you birds talking about?” I asked.

“Well,” Charles replied in English, “we are talking about you, just as you were thinking.”

This diverted my train of thought, “What do mean, just as I was thinking?”

I forgotten that swans could read minds.

“Look Dimwit,” Monique injected in her sweet, but spiteful voice, “if we can listen to radio, watch TV and access the Internet, why don’t you believe us when we tell you we can scan you mind whenever we feel like.”

“I told you he was a moron,” Monique said cheerfully, “it’s just like having our personal court jester. C’est magnifique!”

And then she added, “Of course we can access the Internet, how else would I keep track of today’s celebs?”

“You keep track of today’s celebs?”

“Mais oui, zee dimwit does not know I like zee gossip. How you say, gossip makes zee world go round. Ooh la, la…I like zee Brad Pitt. I cannot wait to find out who he will hook up with after ditching zee Angelina.”

“Really, my dear,” interjected Charles, “must you always chitchat about those awful Hollywood people…they are truly below you.”

“But my darling they are so interesting…I just love their weaknesses.”

Charles seemed to be disgusted by the turn in the conversation and began to cruise off.

All this getting too much for me when a gang of Canada geese came in for a landing not twenty feet from where we were conversing. The Canada geese immediately formed a line and started to cruise around my kayak. There must have been twenty or more geese.

I felt like I was at a bird convention. Normally Canada geese are very shy, flying away at the slightest paddle motion as I would paddle by. And when they did fly, they always would make a giant racket, first by clucking and squawking and then flying off in cacophonous roar of flapping wings and splashing water.

But at this moment they did not show the slightest fear of me. Rather they seemed to want to confront me. The geese cruised around me in a wide, menacing circle. Monique and the seagull were inside the circle. The geese began squawking and quacking and clucking. Monique and the seagull began making different bird noises in response.

The seagull turned to me and said, “Geez, they think you are some kinda genius. A human who talks to swans. Monique, da broad, is settin’ them straight…it’s a case of swans and a seagull talkin’ to a dumbass human. You sure you’re not carryin’ any food?”

Trying to keep up with all the bird goings on, I responded, “No, I did not know I going to meet a seagull from Brooklyn.”

“I’m a seagull from South Africa, dumbass. Or I was for a while. Yeah, I did work in Brooklyn when I was a human. I worked in a shipyard.”

That piqued my curiosity.

“When did you work in that shipyard?”

“1906 to 1917…I met my maker in France during World War I. After that it was off to bird world in South Africa. I was a seagull the first few times, then I became an Albatross, crossed the great Atlantic and settled in Brooklyn again. That didn’t last long…a poacher got me, da bastad, but I had the last laugh…I came back as a seagull and moved out on an island to where all the tree huggers hang out…that way I could be pretty sure I would not get blown away again.”

And while the story of the seagull living different lives at different times was fascinating, I was more interested in his seagull story of having worked in a shipyard.

“Which shipyard did you work in?” I asked.

“Shewan Shipyards, we did the repairs for the Atlantic fleet.”

“I know, my grandfather owned it.”

“Da bastad, he was a hard-ass.”

“If his name was Edwin Shewan…he almost got me killed about 5 times. Lifting battleships is not for ninnies. It was tough work and you could get killed in them days.”

Now I was getting really interested. This was a part of my family history that I knew something about, but not much.

“Tell me more. What was the shipyard like?”

“They was 40 acres right on the harbor, just as you come in to New York Harbor. It was a choice spot right where 26th, 25th and 24th streets come down to da water. We was 2,000 guys and your grandfather Edwin and James. They was big drinkers and high rollers for them days. They both had several yachts moored out on Long Island. Your grandfather was a real boozer. You could tell da time of day by his whiskey bottle behind his big mahogany desk.”

“I still have his desk,” I put in. “It’s about all that is left from his shipyard.”

“Good for you, bozo. Anyway, your Grandpa was a gnarly old bastard, especially after a half a bottle of whiskey. But I will give him this. He was always straight with me, even if he was always giving me jobs I couldn’t finish. And they was dangerous jobs. You had to be on your toes or you was apt to lose your toes.”

“Anyway, he was straight with me. He advised me to stay on the job and said he could get me a draft deferment. I wouldn’t hear of it and off I went to France. 6 months later I was splatted into 50 pieces and I went to seagull land in South Africa. Never regretted it though. I liked being seagulls and an albatross. It’s much easier than being a stupid human. Life is simple as a bird, complicated as a human.”

With that, the seagull flew away…the conversation apparently over. This left me with Monique and about 25 Canada geese. The geese were still cruising around me in a big circle giving me the once over.

“Don’t be worried about Tommy,” Charles said sympathetically as he came gliding up to us, “he tends to be rough sort, but he tells you like it is.”

A seagull who knew my grandfather in another life. Talk about a small world! Not to mention a weird world.

“Tommy c’est magnifique,” echoed Monique.

By this time, I was on bird overload, so I said goodbye to Charles, Monique and the 25 Canada geese.

“Au Revoir, fair feathered friends,” we’re my actual words, as I paddled away.

“Au Revoir, mon Cheri.” Monique sang out gaily. Maybe Monique was going soft on me.

A week later I went down to my dock, intending to paddle. I was getting ready to put my kayak in the water when I heard this crashing, flapping, splashing sound behind me. I looked over to where the sounds came from and saw that Albert had just come in for a hard landing and was cruising right up to my dock.

“Can we talk?” which is a pretty strange statement coming from a young swan. I noticed that Albert’s coloring had become a little more white since I had seen him. I surmised he was coming into his full swan hood – if that is the correct phrase.

“What do want to talk about?” I asked.

“I am having girl problems. I really like Margaret and then there is Sally and Susan. I really like all of them, but I can’t make up mind. And worse than that, none of them want to let me have my way with them.”

I pondered Albert’s problems.

“First of all, Albert, I thought swans were monogamous. How come you going after 3 different lady swans?”

“Hey, I am a young guy swan and mother has always said that I should not make up mind too soon. Besides, young male swans play the field just like humans. It’s true later on swans become monogamous, but that does not mean we don’t get to play around when we are young.”

“OK, I understand that, but maybe going after 3 girl swans at the same time is not very diplomatic. Maybe, you should concentrate on one of the three. I don’t think girls like to think they are just one of many.”

Albert thought this over as he cruised back and forth next to my dock.

“The trouble is none of them are giving out.”

I thought this over for a while.

“Well, I do not know how swans feel about this, but in the human world, ladies like you to take some time. They don’t like to be rushed. And they don’t like thinking it’s just about sex. They like to think there is a lot more to the relationship. So in the human world, we have to establish a relationship, we have to do nice little things, like bring little gifts or flowers, go for walks on the beach, see a movie. Girls like to think you are not just interested in there bodies. Later, when you’ve got their trust and interest, the tables might turn and they might become very interested in sex, but with humans it often takes time.

“I don’t know what you have to do with your lady swan friends, maybe you need to cruise around with them, talk with them and try to do things they are interested in.”

All of this seemed very foreign to Albert and I could almost see a frown coming over his swan face. Then something seemed to click, as if the information had just been down-loaded. Almost immediately, he nodded his head, said thanks and flew off, taking about 75 feet of frantically flapping his wings and splashing water until he finally got airborne.

I did not think much of my encounter with Albert. Several days later I was out paddling when Charles and Monique cruised up to me. I was just passing the outer Setauket Bay, paddling along the scenic shore. It was quite beautiful there and almost looks as it must have before Europeans came to this country. Most of the houses were hidden by summer growth of trees and vegetation and the beach had a lonely, pristine appearance. It was only the muddy brown appearance of the water that reminded you that the clarity of the water was indeed different.

“Mon Cheri, I know I have often called you a dimwit and that is fair because after all you are human and all humans are dimwits, but I want to thank you for talking to Albert. He is a changed swan, much more assured and the lady swans are noticing. Ooh la la, the Sally swan is all over him now…they are a real item. All that boy needed was a little nooky.”

It was a strange rambling conversation, especially coming from a lady swan, but I took it as a compliment.

“I am glad if I was able to be of assistance.” I said, feeling closer to Monique even if I was a little surprised by her brash slang.

Almost immediately 7 terns came swooping down from nowhere and began to hover in front of me.

“Mon Dieu, zee 7 Female Furies are here, ooh la la.” Monique said.

“They always want to have their say, my dear,” put in Charles.

I did not know what she and Charles were talking about until I put 2 and 2 together, or perhaps, I should say until I put 7 and 7 together. I saw the 7 terns who were hovering in front of me. Now, my normal name for terns is helicopter birds because they like to hover about 15 or 20 feet above the water flapping their wings frantically and then dive down and snag an unsuspecting minnow. It was only after realizing that there were 7 terns flapping their wings directly in front of me, hovering in the air not thirty feet away, that they must be the 7 Female Furies.

The 7 female furies appeared.

“Honey do!” Said one with the minnow in her mouth.

“Whatever,” said another.

“Melancholy is the woman,” said a third.

“Love is the answer,” said a fourth.

“Stand by your male,” said a fifth.

“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” said a sixth.

“Never sign a prenup,” said the seventh.

And then as quickly as they came and hovered, they ascended up a few hundred feet and flew away.

“What was that?” I asked Charles.

“Monique just told you, they were the 7 Female Furies.”

“What bird ever signed a prenup or got a diamond?” I asked.

“You foolish boy, birds are not so different than zee humans. I love zee pearls and when I was with Louis Quatorze I loved zee rubies and zee ermines. And besides a lot of those birds were ladies in an earlier life…some were sexy ladies too.”

It did not make sense to me. It was a topsy, turvy world that I had stumbled upon. I could not understand the meaning of talking swans and hovering terns – aka, the 7 Female Furies.

“All this is too much for me,” I said to Charles and Monique and I paddled off to ponder the meaning of it all.

When I got home, I thought about all that I had heard and learned from Charles and Monique. I really wanted to tell someone and ask them what they thought, but every time I came close to telling the truth to my wife or a good friend or my brother, I backed off because I knew they would think that I lost my mind. So I kept quiet and I thought about all the I had and seen. What did it all mean? Talking swans, a seagull from Brooklyn via South Africa, hovering terns giving advice against signing prenups. What did it all mean?

KongMing comes to say hello.

Two days later something even stranger occurred. I went down to go for a paddle when I heard this voice.

“The human has always been a failure. In my life I tried to bring together the Han, but despite many battles, despite the victory at Red Cliffs, despite my magic, despite the 8 fold maneuver, despite winning many a battle, despite killing hundreds of thousands by fire, I was not able to unite the empire. Such was my fate that my body gave out before my task could be accomplished.”

Now here was the strange part. I heard these words in my head, but I could not understand from where they came. I looked around and the only thing I saw was a great white heron in a tree opposite my dock.

“Yes, I am KongMing and I am a great white heron.”

“But you are not moving your beak,” I wanted to say mouth, but beak seemed more technically correct.

“I have no need to move my beak, human. I can communicate by thought.”

These were strange words, but only by hearing them in your head and realizing that they did not exist outside of your head was far stranger. It seemed that the bird was right, he could communicate simply by implanting thoughts in my brain, I heard it loud and clear. But why was he talking to me?

“Because Charles told me he had begun conversation with you, human.”

Again, I made the strange realization that this bird was answering a thought of mine that I had not spoken. This was scary.

“You need not fear, human, I am but a bird and I will pass away just like you.”

And then without further adieu, the bird continued to speak in my head.

“Life is but a brief period of transition from one state to another. Death is what we all do. We come, we go. The greatest weapon is fire. The greatest gift wisdom. The greatest strength understanding. The greatest strategy deception.”

That was all the bird said and then he flew off. As he flew away he issued a strange squawk and released a white stream of defecation. What did that mean?

A few days later I was paddling by Stone Bridge and saw Charles, Monique and several other swans. In truth, I was not able to recognize Charles and Monique individually. All swans look alike to me. But when Charles spoke up, I recognized him immediately.

“Human, we hope you are enjoying your paddle. We prefer to see humans paddling. We hate to see humans motor around in their great speedboats, towing their young behind them.”

“That’s knee-boarding,” I said.

“Whatever it is, it’s loud and we don’t like it. And we especially do not like JetSkis. Why must you burn fossil fuels to churn up water and make noise?”

“Humans have to have their fun. Besides, I’m a paddler.”

“We would prefer it if all humans would just paddle.”

I decided to paddle on, figuring that I had defended the Mastercrafts folks as much as I could and had not implemented myself in further blame.

A few days later and I saw Charles, Monique and Albert all gliding along quietly.

“Hello Charles, hello Monique, hello Albert…how’s the love life going?”

I heard a huff from Charles, a giggle from Monique and saw Albert sneak a smirk.

“Pretty well, actually,” Albert.

“Son, you know what I have told you about boasting…we do not approve it in this family.”

I could tell by the earnestness and firmness in Charles voice that he was not pleased by his son’s enthusiasm.

“No bluster in this family,” Monique said, “Not like your president.”

This immediately led to another line of thought.

“What do you mean not like my president?” I asked.

“Well, your president does have a tendency to boast.” Charles added, “in my day, I never believed in bluster. Maybe, firm words followed by firm action, but never bluster followed by more bluster.”

“Charles, call a spade a spade, his president is an asshole.” Monique added. I wish you could have been there to hear this lady swan pronounce the word asshole. She deliberately extended the vulgar word. It sounded more like ace-hoole.

“My president is an asshole?” I repeated in disbelief.

“I kind of like him,” said Albert. “He says what he means, he uses Twitter and he likes to go after the ladies…he can’t be all bad.”

I can only say that I felt like a distant traveler who had fallen into a strange new world.

“So what do you think of your president?” Charles asked me.

I was on the spot and felt I had to answer.

“Well, I am a little bit afraid. He makes a lot of promises, but I do not see how he can keep them all. And I worry sometimes that his talk might get us into a war.”

“You see, my dear, the human sometimes thinks.”

Monique turned her head and beak toward me. I thought I detected a sly smile.

“Yes, it may be possible there is something in that head. But take it from me, your president is zee ace-hoole!”

“I still like him,” said Albert.

“We shall see…his term has not run out.” said Charles.

I was getting uncomfortable by this turn to politics.

“Let’s talk about this later,” I said.

Just before I was about to renew my paddling, 7 Crows came flying in for a landing on the lone tree on Stone Bridge. It was a strange sight.

The 7 male furies gathering on Stone Bridge.

“Cecil, I think the 7 Male Furies have something to say to you,” said Charles.

“Me first,” said the first crow.

“The boy with the biggest toys wins,” said the second crow.

“God is great,” said the third.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” said the fourth.

“My country right or wrong,” said the fifth.

“Better right than compromise,” said the sixth.

“Better to die rich and lose your soul,” said the 7th.

And just as suddenly as they came, the seven crows flew off, creating seven shadows on the water below before flapping away.

“Pay them no mind,” said Monique, “That’s the way they roll.”

It was all getting too weird for me. I paddled off, trying to comprehend as I glided by familiar waters and familiar scenery. The stranger these events got and the more I heard from Charles, Monique and other birds, the more it seemed impossible to relate my experiences to my wife or other friends.

In talking to Charles and Monique I found that I had many questions to ask. And perhaps, quite understandably, it seemed that Charles and Monique also had many questions to ask me. This led to a series of long conversations over the next months. Almost every time I would go for a paddle, about four or five times a week, I would run into Charles and Monique, usually in the back bay or by Stone Bridge or out in Setauket Bay on my way to Port Jefferson Harbor.

It seemed that Charles was most interested to know what I thought about the present period of time and politics. Monique, on the other hand, seemed more fixated on what I thought of present fashions and customs.

In truth, we talked of many things, current events, past history, the state of the environment, the health of the waterways. For me, I had a lot of questions on how it was that swans seemed to have lived previous lives. I explained that humans generally do not remember or think they had previous lives.

Charles was quite adamant of the subject.

“Of course, humans have previous lives,” said Charles, “they just don’t remember them. And if they get to live other lives as animals or birds, they remember it, but they cannot tell about it. We do not know why, but humans seem to be the only creatures that do not remember their previous lives…and yet they are they are able to talk to words each other. Birds and animals have always been able to talk to one another, but they never could speak words. Some birds, because of their internal radar, learned English and other languages, first from Radio and TV, then from the Internet…it was that knowledge that allows us to speak and be aware of humans and understand what they were up to. We were surprised and then concerned.”

That made me curious, “What were you concerned about?”

“Mon Dieu,” interjected Monique, “just when you think zee dimwit is beginning to understand something, he says something so stupid, you almost want to give up on zee human.”

“Well, what Monique is trying to say, we see you covering the earth, crowding out all other animals and birds, we see you dominating the land and the waterways and we see you despoiling it all. Frankly, that is why we choose to remain birds…we doubt the future of humans…at best you will make life intolerable for yourselves and all other living creatures, at worst you will destroy all life.”

“Zee humans do not have the ability to destroy all life, they can only destroy human life.”

You can gather from these comments that Charles and Monique were not optimistic about us humans.

“What do you expect?” I asked, “we are the dominant species.”

“Yes, for now, but not for long,” Charles answered, “there are many things we liked about being human. Being able to build things, being able to use tools, being able to talk to one another, writing poetry, novels, making films, these can be great achievements.”

“Don’t get me on the subject of films,” Monique injected, “only a few films are any good…of course, some French films…that is because French people are zee best humans, a few Indian and Chinese films and some old American and English films are good. The rest is zee crap. Especially the stuff from zee Hollywood. Mon Dieu, such pretty people making such crap…I don’t know why they do it.”

“Well, my dear, there some good films even today, but you are right. Mostly, it is fake explosions, stupid laughter and regurgitated boy meets girl stories. Yes, mostly, it just bad, not worth taking the time to see.”

Time and again I would cite films and novels that I thought worthy. Most of the time, Charles and Monique were not impressed, saying it had all been done several hundred years previously. How could a film have been done better several hundred years ago. I would ask. And they would counter, of course, films were not done better, but the plots for films had all been done several hundred years ago and they have been used and reused in today’s films.

The thing that seemed strange about what Charles and Monique were concerned about, were not the things I or most humans I knew were concerned about. Monique could, for example, go on for hours about the quality of the water in the bays.

“You’ve screwed it up,” she would say, “the bottom of the bays are all green with algae. The sand worms cannot do their good work because their sun is blocked by the algae, the waters are dark and murky and polluted. The shellfish are gone or dying. You have poisoned all the bays.”

“How did I poison the bays,” I would ask.

And then Monique would really let me have it.

“You wash your clothes with soap and detergent. Where do think that water goes? You build your houses on every piece of land surrounding the bays, you defecate and pee incredible amounts and all that waste goes into your so-called sewers which leak and seep into the bays. You fertilize farms and lawns and gardens with an incredible array of harmful chemicals. You spray insecticides on everything. All those chemicals run off into the bays. You drive cars that belch carbon monoxide that goes into the air before coming down into the bays as poisonous gas particles. You fly airplanes above that give off burn airplane fuel and rain down on us as chemical particles…there is no end to the damage and harm you cause. The very bays you paddle on are dead and diseased. They may look beautiful and healthy to you, but they are not. Yes, there are some birds and animals that survive that, but most life is being harmed by your actions.”

“My lady is quite correct on this issue…she may remember rubies and ermines and gay parties when she was human, but as a swan she knows the truth. And the truth is that humans are failing. When we were humans we had some very nice things, but that when the world was younger and there were a lot less people…but we do not want to go back to being humans…there is no future in it.”

“What do you mean? You said yourself that humans are the most successful animal species ever. We dominate the world. How can there be no future?”

“It is very simple,” continued Charles, “humans are taking up more and more space, over populating and over polluting the earth. Something must give…and when it does, life for humans will get worse. That is why Monique and I have no intentions of becoming human again. We do not want the stress.”

I was truly perplexed by Charles saying swans did not want the stress. I tried to counter Charles’s and Monique’s arguments…we live in the greatest period of history, we are surrounded by all sorts of marvels…central heating, central air, running hot and cold water, radio, TV, Internet, airplanes to fly on, cars to drive in, movies to see, restaurants, bars, theaters…truly humans have it all. But here were 2 nay-saying swans right in front of me disputing all that I had read and had been taught. I did not know to say.

“This is all too strange for me.”

Now I first met Charles and Monique and Albert in the spring. As time went on Albert’s feathers became pure white and he reached full male swan-hood. As far I could tell, Albert was still playing the field. The only way frankly I could tell Albert was playing around was that I noticed that some of the swans swimming along were different sizes…some small, some medium, some almost as large as Albert. And of course, I was not really able to tell the sex of the swans accompanying Albert, but often the ladies would speak to me directly.

They had heard that I had given Albert some advice…apparently Albert had told his lady friends of my advice and, all in all, I gather they appreciated me talking over Albert’s lady issues. One or two of these ladies were kind enough to say to me that they saw a real change in Albert. He was more patient, not so eager to attack and conquer, more likely to hang back and wait for the right moment. So, Albert and his ladies seemed very happy.

I gather young male swans are permitted a period of time to play the field and make up their mind. How long Albert got to play the field, I never did find out, because, as I am about to relate, my conversation with swans ended in October. It had begun in April and by October it came to a sudden and complete halt.

But before the end of My Swans Conversations, some other strange things happened. I met Bess the Hummingbird. She turned out to be a real romantic. She told me in a former life she had been a match-maker in the Court of Tsar Peter, so she was naturally inclined toward love and romance. Bess was an incredibly tiny bird. Charles introduced me one day when I happened to be near the cove in Setauket Bay that leads out into Port Jefferson Bay. We were near the shore, when I heard Charles say, “Hello, Bess.”

“Hi Sweetie,” Monique said almost simultaneously. And I saw this little blur of a bird hover in front of Charles and then dart over to hover in front of Monique. Monique and Bess seemed to knock beaks together. It was strange…this large lady swan with this tiny bird hovering a few inches from Monique’s beak. I saw the little bird dip her tiny, needlelike beak and Monique raise her much larger, blunter beak. For a brief moment the little beak touched ever so lightly the big beak…that was their hello.

And Bess flew over me and that was quite disconcerting. You do not know how scary a 2″ bird can be until it is flapping its wings six inches from your nose. Happily, Bess did not choose to touch my nose with her beak.

For a tiny bird, she had a booming voice.

“What be this,” she asked.

“This be a human,” I answered.

I thought I was being pretty clever and it must have been the case because immediately the little 2″ bird giggled. I would like to note while Bess’s body was only 2″, her wingspan was a solid 4″, so she was more intimidating than you might think. And if you are still thinking there is nothing scary about 2″ bird with a 4″ wingspan, imagine those wings are flapping a mile a second and think of it as a giant bumblebee 6″ from your nose. I guarantee you would be scared.

It turned out that there was really nothing to be scared about. Bess turned out to be all mush. She was love and lace, peppering me with constant questions about me and my wife, asking all sorts of personal questions I will not repeat, telling me I immediately needed go out and buy my wife flowers every day. This little bird was convinced that all we need is love, sweet love and she never wasted a minute not recommending it.

I also got to meet Luigi and Isadora, two Kingfishers that hung out in my little cove where my dock is. So every time I either put in my kayak or took out my kayak they would zoom around squeaking all sorts of derogatory comments.

“Here comes the swan talker,” Luigi would say.

“Hey swan talker, why don’t you catch some minnows for us.”

Luigi and Isadora were not much interested in conversation. Food was their true love…anything that was live…minnows, tiny crabs, flies, beetles, grasshoppers…if it moved they munched it. I tried to interest them in some bread.

“We don’t want your bread, man.” said Luigi

“Bread don’t move…what’s the sense of that?” asked Isadora.

I tried to ply those Kingfishers with bread, bits of beacon, some artichoke hearts…everything was a failure, until I put some bread in my minnow trap. That attracted a bunch of minnows. When I dumped the wire basket filled with minnows, Luigi and Isadora swooped instantly down and wiped those minnows out before the minnows had a chance to expire from lack of air. There was nothing left but some minnow eyes and fin parts drying on the dock. The dock was speckled with blood and minnow bits in less than 30 seconds.

All summer long I would paddle out and have discussions and conversations with Charles and Monique. As time went on, I really do think that Monique took a shine to me. She began to greet me with “Mon Cheri,” each time we met. It was nice to get so close and friendly with the local sea birds. I was not to know how brief and how rare my conversations would be.

One day I was paddling in the back part of Setauket Bay and I came upon a big rock. Just then KongMing landed on the rock.

KongMing gives his sermon on a rock

“Still here human,” I heard in my head, “still talking with Charles and family I understand…that is not long to last…you shall soon learn.”

And then KongMing began a strange monologue.

“All things are in flux.

All life is the same.

Nothing will remain.

Nothing will disappear.

The Empire, long united, will divide.

The Empire, long divided, will unite.

Thus it has always been.”

And then KongMing the Great White Heron flew off.

A few days later Charles and Monique glided into my little cove while I was pulling out my kayak.

“We have something to tell you,” said Charles, “we had a meeting – a swan convention. It has been decided that we can no longer talk to you. The Great Swan Council has determined that it is unnatural for swans to talk English to you. I knew it was a breach of protocol, I just did not know how many swan feathers it would ruffle. The decision is immutable…we must never speak after today. We are sorry. We have come to like you, but from this day forth, we can never speak.”

“Mon Cheri Dimwit, I too am sorry for this. I enjoyed our conversations. I most appreciate your little talk with Albert. He really appreciated your words. It is strange that the human words helped a swan to change. Maybe, there is more hope for your species. Ces’t la Vie. Au Revoir.”

With that Charles and Monique turned and glided their way out of my little cove.

“Wait a minute,” I called out as they glided away, “you never told me who Charles was in his earlier life.”

“That’s easy Mon Cheri, what starts with Charles and rhymes with Champagne.”

With that, Charles and Monique glided elegantly and silently out of my little cove, leaving a little trail of disturbed water behind them where they had paddled.

Author’s Note: It was some time after the strange events described above that I decided to to set down the experiences above in a blog story. This seemed the best way to tell the story. Reading it now, it seems even more unbelievable. I cannot help that. I can only say that I have tried, as best I can, to describe my conversations with swans and other birds.

PostScript: Shortly after publishing this blog story I received a strange e-mail from KongMing. It read:


I have had chance to review your blog story which does tell things that actually transpired. I was little disappointed with your photography and thought that I should send you a better rendering of myself. This was done by the artist James Audubon some time ago. It shows me in the full maturity of my third life as a Great White Heron.

While the rendering much better captures my essence, I cannot say it was painless. That was due to the fact that the artist, James Audubon, who was a great artist, decided it was easier to paint me after he had shot me. This caused me physical pain and loss of face. A great general and premier should not get shot in life. I certainly would have preferred if Mr. Audubon had been a great photographer rather than a great hunter, but such is my fate that the artist worked before the advent of really excellent hi resolution cameras. I had to wait until my sixth life as a Great White Heron to see the portrait below – when I happened to find it on the Internet.

Sincerely, KongMing, now in my seventh life as a Great White Heron



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The Age of Buffalo Chips

A Pile of Buffalo Chips – aka Kansas Coal

By Cecil Hoge

My brother, who happens to be almost 30 years younger than me, is under the impression that my generation was worthless and the source of many of today’s problems. My generation, according to my brother, was composed of loose-living, weak-minded liberals befuddled by drugs and a lack of a work ethic. He may be right.

I admit my generation, like all generations, had many faults and it was certainly true that many of our ideas went off the deep end. In particular, my brother has cited the wide scale drug use of my generation as an example of just how misguided we were. I cannot deny that my generation took drugs…lots of drugs…and those drugs, in many cases, had truly harmful effects. I cannot deny that our lackadaisical approach to life and some of our beliefs were wrong or, at best, misplaced.

That said, I cannot help but believe that the present period suffers from faults of its own. Specifically, I think this is The Age of Buffalo Chips. What are Buffalo Chips you may ask? Well, since this is a family type blog, I prefer not to call a spade a spade when it might be considered vulgar and profane. Therefore, I am not calling this The Age of Bullsh–t and I am not fully spelling out that crude term.

If you still have further questions about what I mean by The Age of Buffalo Chips, try to imagine you are an American pioneer setting up a homestead on the Great American Prairie. There were not many trees on that prairie. And during the winter it got cold and nasty. So how did they heat their mud brick homesteads. Well, Buffalo Chips of course.

What exactly were Buffalo Chips. Well, Buffalos, like humans, have to go the bathroom. And Buffalos did not have the modern advantages of present Americans, namely, indoor plumbing. So Buffalos did the thing that came naturally to them. They pooped on the prairie. And Buffalo poop, after being left out on the prairie tended to dry out. So Buffalo Chips were dried out Buffalo Poops. And fortunately for the first American settlers on the prairie, the Buffalos pooped a lot. Why, you may ask? It turned out that when the Buffalo Poop dried out and became Buffalo Chips, those chips burned nice and slow and made very good firewood where there was no other firewood.

I have no reports as to whether Buffalo Chips smelled when they burned. If you are interested to learn, you will have to organize a seance with some American pioneers who lived on the prairie or try burning Buffalo Chips yourself. Hint: Buffalo Chips may be hard to locate in this day and age.

Lady with a Load of BCs

So Buffalo Chips were used in the same way coal was and heated many of the first homes on the American Prairie before indoor heating and plumbing came into wide use. You could say that Buffalo Chips were the same as bullsh–t, even if Buffalos were not exactly Bulls. That is what I mean when I say this is The Age of Buffalo Chips.

My calling this The Age of Buffalo Chips does not tell you exactly why I am using that phrase, so I wish to go further into my explanation. First and foremost, I would like to say that while my generation did indulge in drugs and other intoxicants, it seems to me that the present generation is stoned out of its mind – translation: acting as if they were taking heavy drugs. How so, you may ask? Not in the sense that the present generation is actually taking drugs, although the recent emergence of head shops in my little town of Port Jefferson would argue that some youngsters are still into Wacky Tabacky.

I do hear a lot of talk about “Opiods” and heroin addiction, especially in those depressed mid-west towns that voted for our present President. But those people are not stoned out their mind in the sense that I am talking about. I am talking about the people who look and talk completely straight, as if they have never taken a drug or a drop of alcohol in all their life. I am talking about groups of people, leaders, politicians, pundits, experts, economists, statisticians, prognosticators, lawyers, stock market analysts, big company marketers who are not taking drugs or “Opiods” or heroin. I am talking about a generation of business and political leaders who I think are “stoned out of their heads”.

Let me give you an example of  The Age of Buffalo Chips. There is a company that is presently running an advertising campaign on a product that is supposed to help people lower their blood sugar levels. The commercial begins with a guy walking dog. There is one problem – the dog is refusing to move. I guess what this is saying is that the guy is being held back from walking his dog. You can see that from the commercial. The dog is obviously not co-operating, and I suppose the point of that is that something in the guy’s body is not complying.

Meanwhile, the commercial is discussing the difficulties of controlling your blood sugar level if you have diabetes. It goes on to show some kind of instrument that seems to be both an injection system and medicine holding system. This system seems to be able to assist you injecting yourself with some kind of chemical (presumably to control your blood sugar) and at the same time, it seems to have enough medicine in it to give you multiple injections over a period of time. That seems to be the gist of both the instrument and the medicine. At that point, the commercial says, in so many words, that this is an easier way to control your blood sugar level, something very important for people with Diabetes.

Man and his dog, now walking

Pretty soon that commercial moves on to show the guy now walking his dog, who mysteriously gets up, presumably now because his master has used the mysterious instrument and injected the medicine. As he is walking along the guy begins to kind of dance. We can tell he is happy. Things are going better. The dog is walking with him…oh happy day. Then the guy ditches the dog and seems to be dancing through a park past picnic tables and happy park people.

At that point the commercial begins to list a litany of potential side effects from the medicine and we hear this list of problems that might occur…shortness of breath, wheezing, constipation, heart palpitations, diarrhea, bad breath, cancer, hernia, seizures, internal bleeding…I am not sure if this list is a complete or accurate list, but it gives you a feeling of the commercial. Meanwhile, the guy gets happier and happier, wiggling and waggling, shimmying and shagging his way through the park, dancing away, dancing around picnic tables, smiling at everybody and everything, with happier and happier music as the list of potential ailments goes on.

This guy is so happy that he mows lawns in circles!

Then the guy moves to an office, presumably one where he works, dancing through the office aisles, around desks, past other workers, with get happy music. In the background, the list of possible side effects ends with a fatal heart attack or stroke and then moves swiftly on to the many advantages of this remarkable new system. The final few seconds of the commercial show the guy mowing his lawn in circles while the announcer provides the sensible advice that it is perhaps good to consult your doctor about using this delightful new system, advising you prudently if you have a history tuberculosis, heart disease, liver disease or several other ailments that it is probably best to stay from this new miracle system.

I, not having Diabetes or a problem with blood sugar level, do not pay too close attention to this commercial. I am guessing that this kind of marketing does work, not only because it seems to be running almost every night, but also because there seem to be many other medicines running commercials at the same time touting different medical benefits, while each listing several dozen possible side effects. I offer the man walking his dog commercial as a prime example of The Age of Buffalo Chips.

1 Buffalo Chip Up Close and Personal

Another example of The Age of Buffalo Chips is politicians, some on the left, some on the right, telling us about a proper solution to a problem that they know never has a chance of ever being accepted. So, for example, Democrats today love to talk before TV cameras and say that we need to improve and enhance Obamacare. Now these politicians know of course that a new Republican President of the United States was just elected on the promise of abolishing Obamacare. And they know the Republicans now control The Senate, The Congress and most States in the country and that the Republicans have sworn, cross their hearts, to abolish Obamacare. Therefore, these Democrats know, clearly, absolutely, without any question or doubt, that there is not the slightest chance of Obamacare being improved or enhanced. And yet they say quite earnestly in front of cameras that this is what we should do.

So why do they go on TV and recommend something that there is absolutely no possibility of getting done? Simply because they want to put their faces in front of cameras and show their constituents that they are doing something that will never get adopted. Truly, this is an example of The Age of Buffalo Chips.

But fear not, this is a beloved technique of both parties. When the Democrats were in power and they had passed Obamacare, the Republicans proudly got up and said they would abolish Obamacare. Now they knew they had no way to abolish Obamacare with so many Democrats in Congress and in the Senate. But that did not stop them from getting up in front of cameras and saying and recommending what we should do.

And now, after they did get elected, after the Republicans did gain control of the Senate, the Congress and many state governments, these same Republicans cannot agree to adopt the very changes that swore they would put in place when they knew they could not do it. Truly, another prime example of Buffalo Chips.

Sustenance in the The Age of Buffalo Chips

While we are on the subject of TV through cable or satellite, I would like to mention that once upon a time TV was free. Now, you did not have many channels and in the beginning it was just black and white. As time went on, TVs moved from black and white to color and the number of stations gradually increased. Pretty soon it was almost 10.

There were still a number of problems with early TV. The channel selection was quite limited – there were a few local channels and a few national network channels. And then there were the advertisements. There were lots of advertisements.

The worst problem with TV of that time (the late 1940s and the early 1950s) was the fact that you had to physically change the channels. It makes me break out in a sweat just thinking about it. You had to get up, walk to the TV and turn it on. After that you still had to turn the channel dial, while standing at the TV. When you decided what station you wanted, you would select it and walk back fifteen or twenty feet and sit down. And most of the time you watched that station for the next one or two hours.

If you wanted to change a station, you had to get up, walk over to the TV and turn the channel dial to the new station you wanted. Then you had to walk back and sit down and watch that channel until you wanted to change it again. Truly, watching TV in those days was exhausting. And if you happened to be a channel surfer in those days and if there were as many channels as there are today, you would never need to worry about going to the gym because the exercise you would get changing channels would greater than the best gym workout.

We live in an age of progress and we can thank the good Lord for the invention of the remote. The first remotes were developed in 1950, but at the time you had to have a wire that ran from the TV back to your remote by the easy chair you were sitting on. This was a true danger because someone could trip over it on their way to get more chips or another beer. But progress waits for no man and in 1955 the first wireless remotes were developed and mankind, or at least many Americans, were freed from the need of wires.

Very early on there were attempts to have cable systems for TV, but these were only very limited. That was because no one wanted to pay for cable. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s it was widely believed that TV would always be free.

But that is not what happened. In the early 1970s cable systems came into wide use based on the promise of commercial free TV. And for some years, cable TV was mostly commercial free, but you did pay for it. In the early days it was $10 or $15 a month. But as time passed and the cable networks saw new opportunities, the cost for cable went up and commercials began to work their way into cable TV programming. So by the 1980s people found themselves paying more for cable TV and watching just as many commercials as when TV was free.

Of course, because progress is always progressing, the number of cable TV programs was greatly enlarged. First to 30 or 40 stations, then 50 or 80 stations and then to hundreds of stations and soon to thousands. And that resulted in exponentially more channels to run commercials on.

It must be admitted, even by the most enthusiastic TV viewers, that the quality of these new programs was not always as high as the original programs that first aired when there were only two or three stations and when TV was completely free. And given the fact that instead of dozens of Tv commercials, you no had tens of thousands of TV commercials to work your way through. But, if channel quantity is a good indication of value, the cost per program became minimal and the opportunity to watch commercials became infinite.

So what cable TV offers today is a vast array of channel choices, some with good programming, good movies, some with myriad reality and Buffalo Chip programming and all with a sea of commercials for viewer to suffer through.

Given that we are in The Age of Buffalo Chips, all of this makes perfect sense.

Now my brother tells me that there are lots of new free digital programming available where the programming is much better and the commercials are either non-existent or at least far less. So this is a really good thing. Recently, my brother tried to convert his cable, internet and phone programming to just the internet. It sounds simple but this is a no no in cable land. I gather it took about three days and twelve hours in voicemail hell to obtain a talking, living person on the phone who said they might, just might, be able to do that although they absolutely recommended against making such a terrible decision as unbundling, since my brother would lose access all the wonderful programming cable, phone and internet that Verizon offered.

It is not clear if my brother John finally succeeded, but it is clear he is working his way through a giant pile of Buffalo Chips.

Let us move on to another field of activity…economics. Today we have a several cable or network shows reviewing and gleaning over and interpreting and pontificating on economic events on a daily basis and if one listens carefully to what these ladies and gentlemen say, one looks into the very heart of Buffalo Chips and sees that it is brown and dried out and, unlike the real buffalo chips, not even useful for heating homes.

What do these ladies and gentlemen of the dismal science tell us. Buffalo Chips is the answer.

Let’s make a few observations:

When the stock market goes down, the pundits interviewed tell us on the various national financial shows, that now is the time for “bottom fishing”. Oh, certainly, a few pundits are enlisted to say there may be some “risks” going forward, but then other pundits are interviewed immediately afterwards who point out that “the smart money” is “buying the dip”. Yes, we are told, at the time of maximum risk, the bold investor, the smart investor, the truly genius investor, is going into the market is…”bottom fishing”, “buying the dip” and surely, making a killing.

When the stock market is going up, the same pundits interviewed tells us about “the GoldiLocks economy” – that is when the business may not seem that great (for example, like today), but is still staggering upwards, while interest rates are held in check, while the Fed is still holding off raising interest rates too much, while the stock market continues to log increase after increase, though for no apparent reason. And so the pundits being interviewed always say the stock valuations are not really that high, even if they are higher than at any time in the last 150 years. Why? Because we are in a “GoldiLocks economy”.

And what happens if the “GoldiLocks economy” continues for years and the stock market goes up year after year and business stays about the same for year after year, as it has, for example, for the last seven years. Then these same pundits talk about “momentum” and “missing momentum”. Do you really want to miss the momentum when the economy continues to grow at a small rate and the stock market continues to surge upwards? Surely then, we are on the verge of a new boom, surely productivity is about to increase and there will be a growth rate that defies all others.

And yet, it does seem, when one looks at the stock market and the economy, that the stock market goes up 19% while the actual economy goes up 2.3%. Does that make sense. Not actually, unless, of course, you happen to be in The Age of Buffalo Chips. Then, it makes perfect sense.

I might slightly divert this discourse and mention that in recent years large corporations have discovered if they gobble up other companies and buy their own stock and downsize the overall number of their employees, they can see their stock valuations go up and they can show ever greater profits, even if the sales of all the individual companies they bought and own are declining. How does that work? In brief it works great for the brilliant business leaders of the company who draw millions and millions for their personal annual income. It does not work so well, however, if you are employed in any of these great corporations because there is a real possibility that you will be downsized. That is what is known as creative accounting in The Age of Buffalo Chips.

A Nice Toasty Fire To Gather Round!

This might be a good time to give my personal opinion of what happened in the collapse of 2007 & 2008. First of all, I wish to warn you that my opinion is most likely not held by many people and so, it should be considered just what it is, an opinion.

Here is what I think happened: The United States of America went bankrupt in 2007 and 2008. Now we all know that America did not declare bankruptcy in those years, so what I am talking about is a bit of a secret. I think when the Bush Administration (they were ending their administration just as the great collapse was starting) came to understand the true ramifications of what actually happened, they quickly and correctly understood that they could not tell the American public what actually happened. Why, because if they did, 50 or more million people might have been thrown out of work.

So they did the best thing they could: they lied. They said that the problem was only a temporary disruption and the government began writing blank checks to all the corporations that got us into trouble. I want to say something in favor of the Bush Administration: I believe they had absolutely no choice and they did the right thing. Yes, they could have let all the over large businesses that got us into trouble go bankrupt, but that would have resulted in another Great Depression and truly another 50,000,000 plus people would have lost their jobs and the government would have had no way to assist those people or deal with that problem.

So the government wrote checks and issued bonds for trillions of dollars to solve the problem. How did they do it? The Federal Reserve Bank simply purchased with bonds vast seas of bad, failing assets held by the companies that caused the problem. Now there was no actual money that existed for this. The American Government simply created funds, literally printing money or issuing bonds to purchase bad assets. They then took these bad assets off of the books of the companies that caused the problem and said they were now on the books of the Government. The total of those bad assets presently total $4,500,000,000. It is a big pile of Buffalo Chips.

In addition, the Government literally gave money directly to many of the same companies that got us into trouble. So the huge companies that created the problem were given cash to keep going in addition having most of their bad assets taken off of their books.

What do I think was the cause of all these problems and why was it so difficult a problem? I think it was one word: Leverage. For most of the 80s, all of the 90s and up through 2007, the new generation of financial experts were figuring out new and creative ways to create more and more leverage.

Let’s go back a bit. In the early 1900s, banks and stock brokerage firms lent money on the basis of having about 15% in hard assets and raising 85% in loans, stocks and bonds. The assumption at the time was that not all your loans could go bad at once and if you had 15% in hard assets, it was relatively safe to raise money in loans or stocks or bonds for 85% more. That worked pretty well up until 1920 and then banks and stock brokerage companies got together and figured out new ways for their customers to buy stocks, real estate and other bad investments while putting only a small amount money down.

That worked great as long as the stock market and real estate was going up, but when they went down many investors found they suddenly had to put up money they did not have. That, in essence, was the problem that the country faced when the Great Crash and the Great Depression began in 1929. It was also, by the way, the reason for the Glass-Steagall Act of 1934 which forbid commercial banks and investment firms from working together.

In the 1980s, when once again the stock exchanges began to truly recover from the terrible losses of the 1930s, the young people going into financial markets began to figure out new ways to gamble on investments. All sorts of new opportunities were created to invest and in doing so it became possible to greatly increase the money raised from hard assets. So, instead of having 15% in hard assets and raising 85%, it became possible to raise 99% from 1% in hard assets. Most of those people were still from my generation.

That was only the beginning of the trend of the rise of leverage. New younger guys and gals came on to the scene. They had borrowed money to get through college and they now found themselves starting careers with substantial college debts. Admittedly, this was nothing like the college debts as of May, 2017, which presently happens to be 1.4 trillion dollars. Let me write that number out – $1,400,000,000 owed by 44 million college student borrowers. Anyway, the next generation of younger guys and gals saw that stock market and investment businesses were prospering and they decided to join the prosperity train.

Now these young guys and gals were starting out with debts from college so they wanted to figure out new ways to create for more opportunity for themselves. And what better way to do that than to increase leverage. This allowed more money to be raised from the same assets so more investments could be offered and everybody could profit. And this generally worked really well all through the 90s. And by the end of century, Glass-Steagall was revoked and leverage surged ahead to become more like a half of one percent assets with 99.5% of all monies raised from that. If anybody had cared to think about that they would have realized that there was no there there.

When the 2000s began, colleges began to really get really expensive and each new class indebted themselves more. So it should come as no surprise that the newest generations of college students looked around to see where the best opportunities for enrichment were. Everybody could see that was in the go-go investment and stock brokerage and merger/acquisition companies, not to mention the formerly conservative banks who leaped into the game by selling stocks and bonds, gambling in currency markets and offering home mortgages and car loans to people who could not pay them back.

By the year 2007, things were beginning to fray a bit. The Age of Buffalo Chips was becoming evident. People were buying homes and cars and boats that they could not afford and it was all on credit made possible by, you guessed it, leverage. By this time, the money raised in mortgages, subprime loans, stock investments, real estate, government buildings was about 1500 times the actual value of hard assets available to borrow from. Houston, we have a problem. It seems there is no there there. Ooops.

I do not think the Bush Administration or the Clinton Administration before it ever saw this coming. To be sure, some people did see it coming – one only has to read Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short”, to know, without question that some people knew what was happening and made investments to counter what they knew would occur.

Now the gurus and the pundits and the economists interviewed after the collapse of the stock market and the economy all, almost to a man or a gal, said that no one could have foreseen or predicted the collapse of 2007/2008. But of course that is just another example of Buffalo Chips since there are still hard copies of “The Big Short” out there to directly contradict all those gurus and pundits and economists who, by the way, are still pontificating today about the glories of our stock market.

Anyway, when the Bush Administration did realize what had happened, the first thing they knew and understood was that they could not actually say that America had gone bankrupt. And frankly, this was a necessity. So they did their best and they printed a lot of money, wrote a lot of checks and bailed out the people who had created the problem because they knew if they didn’t a new Great Depression would arrive.

And shortly after, when the Obama Administration came to power and also came to realize the full extent of the problem, they also did essentially the same thing. They continued to pay off the people who caused the problem. And this is because the alternative was just too tough. In doing so, they also bailed out the American Car Industry, with the exception of Ford, who happened to be reasonably, well-funded. I believe this allowed us to get to the present period with a minimum of pain, but with a totally lackluster economy and it did, we must admit, save the majority of the American car industry.

Of course, today, 10 years after the collapse, we are still in a kind of economic haze of tepid survival. Today’s politicians lie about that. Maybe because they do not know better, maybe just because they want to be elected, maybe because they do know better. Whatever the reason, the economy is what it is because of the events we have passed through and because of the failure and collapse of leverage. At least, that is what I think.

I would also like to interject another opinion of mine here – that is, that America’s stock markets are rigged. Just how they are rigged I am not quite sure. I am guessing it is a combination of people and companies with faster computers than the computers used by the leading American stock exchanges, of computer generated algorithms that favor certain companies and certain trends and of many financial institutions working loosely together. Again, that is only my opinion and, like all opinions, it may be wrong.

But fear not, this is The Age of Buffalo Chips. As we speak, new, younger financial wizards are out there trying figure out new ways to increase leverage and to make money where there is no there there.

Moving on from the economy and back to TV, it is important to note that once upon a time, before The Age of Buffalo Chips, news organizations tried to report on news without taking sides. That is hard to realize in this era of “Fake News” and biased news where cable, radio and TV networks take sides and report the news with specific agendas. Our President says the main stream media is the enemy because they are distributors of “Fake News”. And surely it is true that the mainstream is biased because no matter the news organization, each has a point of view.

For example, surely CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and CNN are all left leaning, pro-Democratic and decisively against Mr. Trump and the Republicans. And if it were not for Fox News, you would have to say that all the mainstream media is decisively against Trump and the Republicans. A curious fact is that Fox News spends a significant amount of time saying that the mainstream media is completely biased against Trump and the Republicans. And that would be true if it were not for the fact that Fox News is the most watched and the most popular mainstream news media in the United States.

So the truth of the matter is that the most popular mainstream media, Fox News, has made a career of calling all the other mainstream media biased. At the same time, most of the rest of the mainstream media – CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and CNN – spends a lot of time calling Fox News biased and “Fake News”.

Both sides in this debate are 100% right. All media outlets have their own agendas and they are all, one and all, biased. And that also goes for newspapers and radio stations and the Internet in all its many forms.

I remember a time when the national media networks felt that they should only report the news and they should not take sides. I am thinking of Walter Cronkite and many other newscasters who at least seemed to be reporting what happened without saying what or who is wrong or right. Perhaps, my memory of that time is hazy or rose-colored. In any case, that era is long gone. We are now in The Age of Buffalo Chips.

I would like to say that I do not like The Age of Buffalo Chips. I would prefer news organizations to be responsible, but they are not. So, what is one to do? In my opinion, it is to look at the many different agendas and listen to the “news” as they report it and then make up your own mind and decide for yourself what is true, what is not true and what is Buffalo Chips.

This is not easy and I think it means listening to many sides and then reading history, thinking about all the different news reports and then making up your mind. It is my opinion, in The Age of Buffalo Chips, you have to think for yourself, decide for yourself and yes, make up your own damn mind.

Now as long as I am discussing this present period, I think it might be useful to consider lawyers. A lot of things have been said about people of that profession and almost universally, most of what has been said is negative. This is understandable when one sees some of the ads on TV for lawyers.

Whether it be Mesothelioma, Asbestos poisoning, or some terrible ailment caused by a wonder drug that has laid low a portion of the population, lawyers never seem to be at a loss to offer their services. In the old days, when advertising for legal services were forbidden or frowned upon, some lawyers were described as ambulance chasers. But the times have changed and there are much bigger bucks to be made.

Consider the prominent ads of the renowned firm, Yuckem, Suckem and Shuckem – I may have misspelled their name slightly. Their ads flood prime time TV. If you or some relative of yours has had the misfortune to contract Mesothelioma, leukemia, psoriasis, or some other disease that may or may not be related to some blockbuster drug, please apply to Yuckem, Suckem and Shuckem. They are the heroes of the people, they can get you big money, which, of course, is your God-given right to have.

Now perhaps the above is an example of what our President calls “Truthful Hyperbole”. Perhaps, there is no such firm as Yuckem, Suchem and Shuckem. You decide that. As far as I am concerned, this is just another example of The Age Buffalo Chips.

Perhaps This Is A Good Time To Reconsider This Lady

In reading this blog story I realize that I may have said many negative things about this period. I would like to mention some truly positive things about what I am calling The Age of Buffalo Chips. Perhaps the best starting point for that is the lady shown above. Let us consider her life when she and presumably her husband first arrived on the plains of Kansas to settle and make a new home in what was then the West.

Truly, her life and her husband’s life was not easy. We know from the picture above that she had adequate heating materials and she was strong enough to handle a wheel barrow. We can presume that she and her husband had access to water somewhere nearby. How far she or he had to carry the water we do not know. What seems sure is that she or her husband did not have indoor plumbing, did not have oil, gas or electric heating, did not have AC to cool the little homestead on those hot summer days on the Great American Prairie. Nor did they have a washing machine or a dishwasher, so house-keeping was not easy and starting out on the lone prairie involved struggle and endless hours of physically back-breaking work for she, her husband and her children.

Yes, they might have had a horse or a mule or a goat or a cow to provide some limited transportation, help with the plowing  or give the family some milk. They might have had some chickens or pigs to tend to and slaughter and eat. We can be sure they did not enjoy the modern benefits of an automobile that propelled them air-conditioned or heated according to the time of year back and forth to a supermarket packed with a myriad choice of meats, vegetables or sweets. A trip to town, where ever it was, might have taken many hours and the fare available to buy…be it hardware or foodstuffs or blankets and sheets…must have been limited.

Nor did our lady enjoy the creature comforts of the digital age. She could not call her children to remind them about soccer practice, she could not listen to songs on the radio or view soap or reality shows on TV. And most of all, she could not call her lady friends or perhaps even her boyfriend on the side and tell them or him her troubles and excitements and accomplishments of the day.

Yes, there are many enhancements and improvements in our life today in what I am calling the The Age of Buffalo Chips. There is much to be thankful about, there are many things that were issues for our ancestors that are not issues for us. So, the The Age of Buffalo Chips may be a period full of bullsh–t, but it also an age of privilege and wonder.

Perhaps the most wondrous example of this period is the ability to search for information on the web. Admittedly, sometimes it is hard to understand what is true and accurate because the choice and range of information available is truly mind-boggling. I am thinking specifically of a resource like Wikipedia. It is admittedly not the Encyclopedia Britannica, but it is a remarkable tool. Because it is an open source, ever-changing, ever-expanding media – kind of like our universe. It is not easy to be sure that everything is true and accurate. That said, it is resource that can be consulted at a moment’s notice almost anyplace at almost any time for free to check or counter-check some information.

I think the ability to access many websites for news, the weather or other desired information is a another remarkable advantage only made possible by the Internet and smart cell phones. The two combined provide us with a vast sea of portable, transmittable data and information. We can check things, verify things, look up things, photograph, record and video people and moments in our life. We can write notes, stories, novels, histories and even lowly blog stories. In truth, The Age of Buffalo Chips, as befuddling and confusing as it is, is also The Age of Great Possible Enlightenment.

It is great because there is an enormous amount of information available to access. It is possible because we carry around a tool, the smart phone, that can instantly access almost any kind of information. And that is possible because there is something called the Internet.

Of course, being possible also implies that it can be also be impossible. That is because in The Age of Buffalo Chips we are the ones who must inform ourselves and that means all of us must be willing and capable to stay informed, to judge for ourselves the information presented to us and to be able to determine the truth within. And that my friends is not always easy in The Age of Buffalo Chips.



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It Was The Music – Volume #2 – 1960-1963

A black gentleman who rolled Beethoven

By Cecil Hoge

In 1960 things were changing in the country fast. Blacks were integrating luncheonettes and riding buses in the front. Protest marches were beginning and some blacks were getting shot. John F. Kennedy was in the process of beating Hupert Humphrey on his way to best Richard Nixon. Nikita Khrushchev was banging his shoe in the UN and I was still at Portsmouth Priory School. Summer was still reserved for Southampton.

In 1960, the popular songs of the day were mostly concerned with love. The Everly Brothers were singing about being “Cathy’s Clown”, Elvis was trying to close a deal in “It’s Now or Never” and The Drifters were singing “Save The Last Dance for Me”. But other things were happening – folk music and jazz music were getting more acceptance from my generation. Me and my classmates were listening to it all, trying to make up our minds about what was good and what was not.


St. Thomas Aquinas, bright shining star of the Catholic Church

At Portsmouth the good monks were teaching me about St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinius and the principle philosophies and religions of the world. So I was learning about hedonism, epicureanism, Polytheism, Christianity, Islamism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. Of course, the monks’ viewpoint might have been a little skewed. Christianity is good, they said, the others are bad, they said. Of course, the monks were high IQ guys so they did it in a very high-minded way.

It went something like this: Hedonism is a simple dullard’s philosophy – pain is bad, pleasure is good – it leads to being a simple gross guy with no style – a drunkard, a sex fiend, a glutton. Epicureanism is one step above hedonism – you get to savor your food, slow it down, moderate your booze intake, enjoy stuff as you go – but, in the end, it is just the same thing, a pig with some paint on it, a dead end, an empty promise that leads to hell without hope of God or redemption.

Polytheism was a whole different can of wax for the Benedictines. It led, they said, to idolatry and the worship of the Golden Calf, Bacchus and Dionysus. There were a lot of different guys and gals who were gods and they tended to fight and be jealous of each other, so it was kind of hard to follow. Some were pretty good looking and tended to cause a lot of trouble. I have to say that Bacchus and Dionysus sounded like interesting fellows, but the good monks seemed to give them short shrift, saying they were just a couple of hedonists dressed as gods.

Regarding Christianity, having dog in that fight, the monks had a specific view. Christianity is the one true religion and provides the big payoff – provided you are good. And, by the way, they meant Catholic Christianianity. Not Eastern Christianity (a left turn off the true road), not Protestantism, not Episcopalianism, not Presbyterianism, and certainly not Baptists, all of whom the good monks regarded as misguided heretics. And in case you did not know it, Benedictine monks are, they said, the smartest, most noble and most correct guys wearing the black cloth and the white collar on planet earth. The good monks went on to explain that other forms of Christianity were just like movie reruns – never as good as the original. Yeah, they said more than that, but this is a blog story about music.

Regarding other aberrant schools of thought: Islamism might have some points, they said, since it was derived from Abraham and Islamic folks did regard Christ as a kind of prophet, but those guys really went off the deep end and found themselves on the wrong trail…after all, who would believe believe you will be feted by virgins with breasts like melons when you get to heaven.

Another gentleman that we discussed.

Buddhism was started by a rich wierdo, a prince who for all of his early life was sheltered by his parents. They did not want Siddhartha to know about death. But as happens Siddhartha left his home and, in doing so, saw death and poverty. This made him sad and confused and he meditated for many years on the meaning of life. Siddhartha tried starving himself to see if that would bring enlightenment. It did not and Siddhartha came to believe that extreme aestheticism was not the answer. Siddhartha came to believe that you have listen to your inner soul and try to achieve a state of Nirvana and thus escape pain and death. His big point seemed to be that the bow should not be too tightly strung or too loosely strung, meaning that any extreme was not the answer. Rather the middle way was the answer. That seemed like good advice to me. The Benedictine monks did not have a high opinion of “Nirvana”, which they considered a kind of negation of life, but they did admit Siddhartha was a guy to be reckoned with.

Regarding Confucianism and Daoism, the good monks also admitted these two philosophies were pretty impressive and intricate from a distance, but said they led nowhere. Confucianism wasn’t even a religion, it was really just a discipline to run an empire. After all, didn’t Confucius say, “Do not worry about the heavens, there will be time enough to worry about the heavens when you die.” Regarding Daoism, they said they did not have much use for “the way is the way” and water is stronger than rock and other such contradictory conundrums. Who would believe, that God is in everything? Why, that would mean that God was water, rocks, air, clouds, sun, stars…the whole kit and caboodle…everywhere and anything.

I know many folks may not like what is said above, but I am only the reporter. I am telling you what the good monks told me. So, if you have gripe about their opinion, I suggest you get in a car, drive yourself up to Portsmouth, Rhode Island and go talk to the good monks about it. But I will tell you something, if you do go, you better put on your best thinking cap. Those Benedictine monks are the sharpest guys wearing the black cloth and the white collar on planet earth, trust me on that.

Since this blog story is about music, I will tell you that I took a very interesting course at Portsmouth Priory called the history of music. Of course, it was rather limited. It only took in music from about the 12th century on. It did not cover Roman music, Greek music, Egyptian music, not to mention Chinese music, Korean music, African music, Indian music. And I don’t remember learning about Mayan music. I am guessing the good monks did not have any recordings available of the other stuff.

Actually, the good monks did not have recordings from the 12th century either, but they did have some information about what kind of instruments were played in those times. Seeing that people around that time were just coming out of the dark ages and were dealing with plagues, depression, constant wars, murder and rape, the music was mostly vocals and harmonies, including Benedictine chants. They did have some instruments that were not very complex, one or two string affairs and some gourds to blow into and create hornlike sounds. Anyway, the monks did have some recordings of that. It sounded a lot like the monks doing their Benedictine chants at our 5:30 am masses.

I will not say that I hated 12th century music, but it sounded kind of simple and dreary to me – like going to mass at Portsmouth Priory at 5:30am. But the music course moved on fairly quickly to cover some Renaissance hits. Those ditties were positively great by comparison and seemed to be almost band like. And apparently the guys and gals of the Renaissance had 3 and 4 and more stringed instruments, horn instruments and other things like piano like instruments and even drums. Yes, even in the 1400s, they were beginning to rock.

Well, I really liked the music of the Rennaisance. Not that I was going to go out to actually buy an album of it, but it sounded pretty damn good, especially when compared Benedictine chants. My course in music moved onto the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th century and eventually got to the 20th century. Going from simple English folk songs like “Greensleeves”, a haunting song about camp followers (aka, prostitutes) dating back to the 12th century. And then on to Renaissance dance music, to more orchestrated music of the following centuries, passing through Baroque music and onto Beethoven, Bach and other biggies of the classical world. I can’t say the high falutin’ music held me. Finally, they passed into what sounded like some bad modern music, before they came to jazz music, which the good monks disparaged as a lower form of music, but I really thought was great, especially the early hot and rude jazz of Dixieland.

Not only was I going to school and studying music in a general way, but I and all my classmates were developing our own musical tastes which were mostly centered on the popular music coming out at the time. We were listening still to the Everly Brothers who also came out with “Let it be Me”. Chubby Checker was singing about “The Twist” and Fats Domino was “Walking to New Orleans”. Elvis had another hit that year, “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.

About this time, other influences and sounds were being heard. I was listening to different kinds of jazz, not just Dixieland, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong from the 20s and 30s, but also new kinds of jazz, Charlie Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Theolonious Monk. And of course, we had heard as background while growing up the music of our parents, Benny Goodman, Ornette Coleman, big band music, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and many, many others.

As students, our dorm rooms echoed with different types of music…pretty much every student had a record player…so, from our rooms, you would hear archipelago singing, rock and roll, jazz, classical and folk music, dissonant jazz to Dixieland Jazz. I, like some others, took a liking to various “Folk Singers” – Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio and others. We were too unsophisticated to listen to Woody Guthrie and other more authentic folk singers. We did not listen to much country music so you could say we were Hank Williams deaf and dumb. We were listening to Johnny Cash and some of the more popular country singers.

An interesting musical interlude occurred during Christmas break when my new German uncle (he was the brother  of my new stepmother) moved to New York and took me out one night with his best drinking buddy in New York. I had come home for the holidays. Now this was a time when I was still 17, in the winter of 1960, when I had sworn a sacred oath to my Benedictine monks not to drink alcoholic beverages for the rest of my life. My sacred oath did last until the summer of same year, when I came to conclusion that it might work for monks, but it would not work for me.

In any case, during my winter vacation, I got the opportunity to tag along with my new uncle and his best drinking buddy. Now, because I was honoring my sacred oath and because technically I was below drinking age in New York (an issue that had not always been an issue), I went out with my uncle Jackie, better known as Ernst Von Kalkreuth. Ernst had come to this country to find fame and fortune as a commercial artist – in Germany he had studied for this occupation. And as mentioned, Jackie, although brand new to the US, had some friends who had moved earlier to the States. And his friend Gottfried was one of them. Gottfried not only was a heavy drinker, he was a heavy smoker.

Now because Gottfried was in the States longer than Jackie, Gottfried was our official guide to New York that evening. So the first place we went to was Eddie Condon’s on 52nd Street. I remember they had some jazzy band that did not seem that terrific, but after an hour or two of listening with me quaffing down cokes and Jackie and Gottfried slugging beers and Gottfried chain-smoking cigarettes, it was decided that Eddie Condon’s was to antiseptic and so we headed downtown to place then unknown to me. Gottfried mentioned the name, the 5 Spot Cafe, and they paid up the check and we piled in a cab and headed downtown.

Although I did not know it, the 5 Spot Cafe was a pretty famous place where the hippest of the hip jazz musicians went and played and hung out. We got down there (it was in the Bowery) and we were lucky enough to get in and get a table. It seemed that Gottfried had friends in low places. So, we got a table about two feet from a piano, in the center of place. It was not big on decoration as I remember. In fact, the main decoration, as far as I could tell, was smoke. That suited Gottfried just fine, as he settled down in his chair and fired up his thirteenth cigarette of the evening.

At the piano was a rather famous black man, Thelonious Monk. Now, because I had heard recordings of Thelonious Monk at Portsmouth Priory, I was familiar with him and his music. Being about six feet away from the famous man himself I could hear the man real well, even if he looked more like a shade from the other world rather than a real human in that dense smoke. Jackie and Gottfried were now very happy. Gottfired got to tell Jackie mostly in German and occasionally in English what a great place the 5 Spot was, how great a musician Thelonoius was, what a great city New York was.

Jackie was saying that music was “verruckt” and did not make sense, but the beer was “ganz gut”. He was quaffing down Heinekens, if I remember. Jackie, although just a few weeks in America, had already decided that Budweiser was better renamed “Budwasser” – translation: Budwater.

I sat there, looking at their dim, but animated forms as they talked music, while Thelonious pluncked away at the piano dissonantly and someone played a horn mournfully. I couldn’t see too much in the room, the smoke hung over the place like Beijing or New Dehli. I can say this some 60 years later, I was never in smokier room than that evening, except, of course, a couple of times, during kareoke in Korea. I slurped down Coke after Coke, Jackie and Gottfried slugged down beer after beer, Gottfried fired up cigarette after cigarette. Thelonious Monk’s sets came and went and came back again.

I found that experience exhilarating, listening to the strange and dissonant sounds of the great Theolonius on the piano with the solo horn backing him up in sad, lingering tones. All in all, it was an exciting evening. I was fired up on sugar and caffeine and second hand smoke. Jackie and Gottfired were blazing a trail on beer and second smoke, with Gottfired leading the way with first hand smoke. Since I did not know what it smelled like, I am guessing mingled with the smoke of cigarettes was the smoke of marijuana. Maybe I am wrong, but by the time we rolled out of the old 5 Spot Cafe at 2:30 we were all more than a little high on something. Perhaps, it was the music.

Going back to school and the monks was somewhat of a come-down, although I got to tell my schoolmates what a great night I had listening to Thelonious Monk. There were a lot of smaltzy hits that year. “Teen Angel” was one, “Running Bear” was another. A guy named Bryan Hyland had a catchy song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”. Strangely, the Kingston Trio had a minor hit with, you guessed it, that classic 12th century ballad, “Greensleeves”.

The summer of 1960 found me in the Hamptons staying in a rented monstrosity my aunt called “The Monster”. It was well-named since it had 26 bedrooms. About a quarter of mile from the ocean and a third of mile from the beach club, it held all four factions of our family and an equal number of house guests. On a big weekend there might be 40 or 50 people coming and going. It was so big, often you would not see fellow family members for days. They came, went to their rooms, got dressed for some event, went out and returned, often never having been seen. I am not quite sure how we got this house. I think it came about because a friend of the family was a real estate agent and the normal deal for that house fell through at the last moment. We were more than happy to fill the void at what was surely a distress price.

That summer the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy for President and Lyndon Johnson for Vice President. To me as a young kid just approaching drinking age, it seemed like a great thing that such a young, energetic and handsome man had been nominated. It seemed very hopeful to me. And speaking of approaching drinking age, I spent most of that summer sneaking into bars with my somewhat older friends.

Going back to Portsmouth Priory was a big comedown for me. I had had a blast of a summer, surfing, playing tennis, going to parties, sneaking into bars. The fall found me back in the land of the monks, getting up at 5:30 to go to mass and listening to Gregorian chants. During the day, I would attend classes and do all sorts of athletics in the afternoon.  We did still get our prescribed hour or so of American bandstand. We did, as seniors, also get our own single rooms, rather than sharing them with another classmate.

For the last four years of Portsmouth Priory, I spent all of my time trying to beef up with zero effect. As I was just turning 18 my weight was a magnificent 145 lbs. This had been a great struggle, starting in my first year at 125, and gaining about 5 lbs. each year. Of course, I was still growing, but I considered myself puny at 5′ 9″ and 140 lbs. as I entered my last year. I did everything I could think of to build up my body in that last year, playing soccer and tennis in the fall, hockey and squash in the winter, baseball, track and tennis in the spring. I even started doing sit-ups, chin-ups and push-ups every evening in my room.

Girls were almost an unknown thing at Portsmouth Priory. There were a few dances scheduled with some sister school not far from Portsmouth and we were allowed to write the young ladies after we had met them, so there was some correspondence. But nothing much happened except that 1960 gradually passed into 1961 and it dawned on me that I was going to either have to go to college or to work. Since I had never worked previously, the concept was unknown and out of the question. Fortunately, my father, having gone to the University of Virginia during the depression, was able to help me to get into that institution.

By June of 1961, I had built myself up to a magnificent 145 lbs and for the first time in my life I could say I was almost buff. This was accomplished by one or two hours of sports a day (soccer in the Fall, hockey in the winter and tennis in the spring) and one or two hours a day of calisthenics. As if that was not enough, I added chin-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups morning and night in my dorm room. I was pretty buff for a skinny dude and in probably the best shape of my life. That was not to last.

That summer, after graduation and before the big induction to college, I spent my summer with my rich kid friends, going to parties, laying on the beach and yes, surfing and playing tennis, but the emphasis was on fun, not on recreating my physique. Up in the morning by 10 or 11, down to the club by 12, laying on the beach and chatting with friends and fellow idlers. We would talk for hours, hang around in a rat pack and go out to bars and beach parties in the evening. It was indolence at it best, but I did hit the waves and play enough tennis to stay relatively mean and lean, finally, hitting the big 150 that summer and sprouting up another inch in the process.

That Fall I headed down to Charlottesville, the home of Mr. Jefferson’s University. Everyone called it the University and the dress was gentlemanly, with most students wearing jackets and ties. At the time, the University was about 10,000 students, with about nine thousand nine hundred being male. The fact that it was 99% male students was just about the only similarity between Portsmouth Priory and the University of Virginia was just about the only similarity. In every other respect, going to The University was different.

The first thing I discovered in this strange new world was that I could eat all the eggs and bacon I wanted at the University cafeteria each morning. At Portsmouth Priory, we were allotted small quantities of bad tasting, fairly well-balanced food. At the University of Virginia, you could heap any quantity of good tasting, high caloric food you wished on your plate. Moreover, you could come back for seconds.

The second thing I discovered was beer.

There was this place called The Cavalier, not co-incidentally named after the University’s football team, The Cavaliers. While I was not into to football, I did quickly get into the Cavalier. Every night I would go down to this local college dive and suck down 5 or 10 15 cent beers. Having come from a Benedictine monastery, I was unprepared for the freedom and access to the sins, the temptations, and the irresponsibility of “University” life.

In January of 1961, John F. Kennedy became President and there was a big space race going on. This race had started in 1957 when Russia sent a tin can called Sputnik up into “space”. Then there was a lot of concern about the “Russkis” getting the drop on us. The first guy to go up in space was Yuri Gragarian. He went up in April, 1961. But by May, 1961 we sent our first guy, Alan Shephard, up in “space”. He went up about 115 miles, cruised around a bit and came down. Bingo, we had upped the space race anti and showed we could get into the game.

Other things happening were not so successful. President Kennedy approved the Big of Pigs landing and some Cubans tried to retake Cuba. Fidel Castro, newly ensconced in power in Cuba did not like this idea. Nor, it seemed, did the Cuban people. In short order the Bay Pigs invasion failed and we had got a proverbial black eye over the incident. This was also the year that the Soviets tried to cut Berlin in half with a wall. Yes, this was the heart and soul of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was a much feared power.

And this was also the year that John F. Kennedy had chosen to send a few hundred U.S. personnel to Vietnam. From small acorns grow large oak trees. At the time the running argument was that the commies were overrunning the Far East, the French had lost their butts in Diem Bien Phu and if Vietnam was allowed to fall that whole part of the world would become part of Communist China.

What were the top songs in the heart and soul of the Cold War? Bobby Lewis had a single “Tossing and Turning”, Roy Orbison was “Crying” and “Running Scared” and Connie Francis was singing about “Where The Boys Are”. Another song, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker was still sweeping the nation and starting a new dance craze. That came just in time for me because The Twist was easy to learn and it was the first dance music that I could actually master.

Meanwhile, back at the University, this boy was in the Cavalier pretty much every night, drinking 15 cent brews with no more than 3.2% alcoholic content. Considering the number of 15 cents beers I was knocking back, the 3.2% was a pretty good idea.

And what about school. Oh that. Well, I was going to classes most days…at least in the beginning. Classes were really easy because most of my first year courses covered ground already taught me in last year’s courses in Portsmouth Priory. You could say that the first year courses were just catching up to the courses taught me the year before. So, I kind of cruised through that year with Cs and Bs. It was a blast and I was having the time of my life…going to keg fraternities parties every weekend with bands playing songs like “My Ding a ling”. Now, Chuck didn’t record that song until 1972, but his version of it kind captures that fraternity band music popular at the time.

While I discussing lowball music and even lower ball fraternity parties, let me tell you a little about that. Most of the fraternities were located on Rugby Road and they were lined up in two long rows on each side of Rugby Road. On a weekend, girls and guys wandered up and down, staggered might be a more accurate word, wending their way from one fraternity house to the next. Each fraternity had one or two kegs going, each had a small band blasting out music. The downstairs of the fraternity houses was devoted to the band and a lot of people crowded on to an impossibly packed dance floor.

If you could wiggle your way through, with you and your date – and yes, while there were very few girls going to UVA, it was possible to get dates from some of the nearby girl colleges. And believe it or not, in between the eggs and the beer, I was getting the hang of lining up dates. When you came into a fraternity with your date, there was usually a little room off to the left or right set up with a couple of kegs of beer and sometimes a very large punch bowl of some severely alcoholic mixture. A popular beverage to mix into the punch was grain alcohol, along, of course, with rum, bourbon and gin. If you ever tried to take a sip of the grain alcohol unmixed, you would find that it would simply burn your tongue off. It was powerful stuff and so was the punch that was often served on Rugby Row.

I would note this was before national networks discussed the horror of binge drinking in colleges. In fact, it was before the word binge drinking came into use. So, I can say with absolute assurance that we were not binge drinkers because we did not know what the term meant. I would admit that we did drink a lot. I might even admit we drank too much.

Now for a kid coming from a Benedictine monastery this was an abrupt and dramatic change in lifestyle. Hello hedonism, goodbye Christianity and all sobriety and all common sense had left the building. At the time I attended, the University of Virginia was designated by none other than Playboy Magazine as the biggest drinking college in the U.S. I can tell you one thing about the University of Virginia, while we all considered ourselves to be gentlemen of high honor because we were at Mr. Jefferson’s University, we were equally concerned that nothing that had been committed to writing by such a prestigious magazine as Playboy be anything but 100% correct. So we worked very hard at maintaining our reputation. And yes, it was true, many of us were young drunken fools.

I will mention a famous incident that had occurred on Rugby Row two years prior to my arrival. It was a famous story of my time. Louis Armstrong and his band came to the University to give a concert. It seemed that just after the concert, a few fraternity boys, perhaps several sheets to the wind, wound their way backstage and suggested to Louis that he come play at their fraternity house on Rugby Row.

Now it seems that the frat boys had no money to offer Louis Armstrong except a couple of hundred bucks and all the whiskey he could drink. I doubt that the offer of a couple of hundred bucks was very persuasive, considering Louis was one of the most famous and well-paid musicians of his time. But no matter, Louis took a shine to the frat boys and the promise of unlimited hooch and said sure, he and few of his band would come over to the fraternity. True to his word, Louis Armstrong came over to the frat house, whose name I do not recall, and started playing.

It seemed that Louis was having a fine time and in several nano-seconds word spread on Rugby Row that Louis was giving an impromptu concert. That invited a surge in the population of this particular fraternity. It was kind of like the Walt Disney movie where the mops keep bringing more buckets of water and the basement fills to the brim with water. Only in this case, it was young, drunken guys and gals, all jumping up and down on the dance floor. Well, dance floors can only take so much and apparently, after hundreds of people crowding on to it, jumping up and down and a bacchic trance, the floor gave way.

But fear not, it seemed there were no actual fatalities and the collapse of the floor did not end in total disaster. Now, the strange thing about this is that Louis Armstrong apparently did not notice that the floor had caved in even though he was only a few feet from a newly formed cliff leading to the basement. He just kept playing. Whether he just did not notice or he thought it was not that unusual an event I do not know. In any case, it was a famous story of events that occurred two years before my arrival and it gives you some flavor of the place.

By the time my first break for Christmas vacation, I had managed to pick up a quick 15 lbs. That was the direct product of eggs and beacon in the morning, robust lunch and dinners, followed up by mucho beers at the Cavalier. So I went from buff to flabby and paunchy in just 3 months. So much so, that when I got up to New York, I found myself being chided for becoming “chubby”.

That winter, when in New York, we visited the then famous for moment, Peppermint Lounge, the home of Chubby Checker and the Twist. Fortunately, in spite my quickly added weight, I was able to twist with the best of them, twisting the night away.

Back at college, I found myself more than ever entranced by the seduction of eggs and beer, picking up another 10 lbs. This instant chubbiness, at first surprising, was now becoming embarrassing. This led me to fits of limited athletic activity which prevented further decline, but did not get rid of the 25 lbs. that I had already gained. I had so quickly applied this extra weight to my body that it literally altered my appearance. I began to look like a young John Belushi, chubby before my time.

Well, to make a long story a little bit shorter, I spent the first two years of college flunking out. That was not my goal, but it was my trajectory. The first year was deceptive because I did pretty well scholastically, if you call you doing pretty well, getting B minuses and C pluses doing pretty well.

By the second year, things really started to go South – as in falling apart. After all, I had already gone South to Virginia so you could say that the South was catching up to me in my second year. I was partying hard and regularly forgetting that I should be attending classes. And a funny thing happened somewhere in the second year, I discovered that the courses were considerably harder. In the first year, it had not been necessary to study because most of the required courses I was given I had already studied in prep school. Yes, I did study a little bit, but in that first year, the courses were really easy.

In the second year, things changed. Suddenly I was taking Geology courses and Chemistry courses about things I had never been taught. I have to say that I was very surprised and intrigued by Geology. I was astounded to learn that the earth was very, very old. It seemed that the earth billions of years old. And more than that it seemed that the Universe was even older…who knew. The good professor who taught Geology said the Universe was literally billions of years older.

This was all pretty strange to me, but even stranger to me was how the earth evolved. It seemed it started as molten rocks and gases about 5 billion years ago. Certainly, that was not what the good monks had said at Portsmouth Priory. They had said that the bible had said the earth was 10,000 years old, but not everybody believed that they said, so it probably best to think of the 10,000 years as “biblical time”. That was an expression for a long time, but since the people writing the bible could not count very high, the 10,000 number meant a really long time. I’ll say, like 4,950,000,000 years instead of 10,000 years.

And if Geology was strange, Chemistry was weirder and mostly incomprehensible. Today, I wish I listened more and I wish I had attended more Chemistry classes, but in 1962, it seemed difficult to understand. I opted for partying. To make sure my descent into bad grades would continue, I joined a fraternity, Chi Psi, and upped my partying game because now I was living with 32 like-minded revelers.

A lot of other things were happening in 1961 and 1962 besides me chubbing up and failing to maintain grades. The Russkis decided to heat up things by erecting a wall between East and West Berlin. This was surprising to me personally because I had been to Berlin a few years before and had driven back and forth between West and East Berlin directly. I wrote about that experience in “A Fog Rolls into Berlin and I Gain a Stepmother.” So I was very surprised by the fact that a city that I had visited was now officially divided by a wall. It had, of course, been divided between East and West Berlin, but when I went you could back and forth to each part. Now the Russkis had made that almost impossible.

About this time, Bob Dylan was beginning to make his run at fame and genius, with a deadpan voice and profound sense of wording. At that time, his raw voice and the pure folk songs that he sang did not sound like very impressive. Bob was yet to sing, “The Times Were A Changing” and he way far away from adding electronic guitars to his music. Nevertheless, the times were a changing…people were coming and going. Among the many passers on, Marilyn Munroe, beautiful tragic lady, overdosed from drugs at the age of 36.

In the fall of 1962, I was busily doing everything possible to flunk out. In October, a major world event occurred and that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy came on radio and television and told the American people that a nuclear war might occur that week. That seemed like another perfect excuse to cut classes, drink a lot of beer and ponder the state of the world. So for three days, that is pretty much what everybody in my fraternity did.

We stayed in our fraternity house, known as the The Lodge. Our fraternity, Chi Psi, was almost unique in not being on Rugby Road. It was located about two miles from Rugby Road and the school campus. Our fraternity had a nice black couple who looked after us – Billy and Ester – Ester did the cooking and Billy did the driving. We had a Volkswagon bus that Billy drove us around in. We also a wierd triangular swimming pool located down a hill, surrounded by pines trees. The trees regularly dropped great quantities of pine needles into our pool, but in the fall of 1962, we were the only fraternity that could claim to have a swimming pool and that was a mighty powerful claim even if our pool was full of pine needles and the occasional beer can.

So, there we were, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, all hunkered down at The Lodge, huddled around a crummy black and white TV set and a not so bad radio. This was a period when all of America literally stopped and gathered around TVs and radios, watching and listening to find out if the world would end.

I well remember discussing the crisis with my classmates and fraternity brothers. As we huddled around the TV and the radio, the conversation wandered to what what we all wanted to do. One by one, each of us told our dreams. One wanted to go into the Air Force – he did and 5 years later he killed himself by accident crashing into an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. Another wanted to go to work for IBM – he did and to the best of my knowledge he worked there for about 25 years, before being down-sized. Yet another wanted to go into the secret service – apparently, he tried and did not get accepted – he went on to go into the infantry and served two in Vietnam.

I was the wierdo among the group – I said I wanted to design surfboards because I loved the ocean. That was true, but I never did design surfboards, at least not yet. Strangely, I did end up designing inflatable boats, kayaks and most strangely, stand up paddle boards, which are pretty close to surfboards. So you could say that in a way all our dreams, which we exposed to the world in heartfelt sincerity during those scary few days, came true. And hey, I still might design a few inflatable surfboards – it is on my bucket list.

So, imagine if you can, 10 or 12 frathouse brothers, sitting around a table, listening to a sad and partially defective black and white TV, listening to an almost decent radio, trying to glean information about whether world would continue. I remember those few days very clearly. There is nothing like the threat of the end of the world to help you focus. Even in the early months of that year, I kind of knew I was going to flunk out that year. The time discussing the Cuban Missle Crisis was a brief period of seriousness when we seriously discussed what we wanted to do for the rest of our life with the clear feeling that the rest of lives might only be the next three days. It was a strange period and perhaps strangest of all is how several of us correctly predicted our future life.

And while those three days seemed like they would never end, they did end and the Cuban Missile crisis passed. Russia withdrew the missiles from Cuba, the world took sigh and we went back to classes and partying. And yes, it did seem like flunking out of college was in my stars. And so as the year passed from 1962 to 1963 I found myself floundering and flunking and having a heck of a good time.

Author’s Note: “It Was The Music Volume #2” is the second blog story of a series of stories on the influence of music in my life. It is my intention to continue this series, but for the next few blog stories, I will return to some other stories.

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It Was The Music – Volume # 1 – 1953-1959


A Wild and Crazy Entertainer of the Time

A Wild and Crazy Entertainer of the Time

By Cecil Hoge

In the early 1950s, when I was growing up in Bellport, Long Island, there was not much happening in the music world. I remember one popular song of that day.

“How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” was a cute, catchy little song which, even if it was stupid, was memorable. It was about someone seeing a puppy in the window of pet store. I remember hearing “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” in front of a pet store with a litter of cute puppies in the window.

If you play the above video you can watch this song. The song was being used by an enterprising local tradesman to sell puppies. Yes, music was used for marketing as early as the 50s. It is my guess the music has been used for marketing purposes for hundreds of years, if not more.

But I am not here to discuss music in marketing, I am here to discuss music in my life.

In the year 1953 when the song, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” came out, Queen Elizabeth was crowned, Joseph McCarthy was getting discredited, Joseph Stalin died and, after three bloody years, the Korean War ended. In the United States, there was great concern about a nuclear attacks. Mr. Tippin, the nice old man who lived with his wife across the street, built a fall-out shelter for himself and his wife. I remember seeing their fall-out shelter. It was a pretty sorry affair, about ten feet deep, with a steel cellar door entrance. Inside it was a room about ten feet by twelve feet long. There was some shelving for jars and cans, a giant water cooler and a small double bed. It had no windows of course, but there was a ventilation shaft for air. I always wondered if you did go down there for two or three weeks, would you come out sane?

I remember going to a school in New York City, just before I moved Bellport, Long Island. In that school, once a week the teachers would ask us to prepare for a nuclear attack. So the students, who were nine or ten years old, were asked to get under our desks on our hands and knees and then told to put our heads down between our knees. John Noble, one of our smarter and more sarcastic young wits said the following:

“Now kiss your ass goodbye.” So much for nuclear defense.

1953 was not a big year for music. The year started out with the song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. Actually, that song had come out at the end of 1952 in time to catch the holiday season of that year. You could say America was kind of asleep. In addition to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and the “Little Doggie in the Window”, Percy Faith had a nice sounding hit “Song from Moulon Rouge”. Crooners were also big that year. Perry Como was singing, “Don’t Let The Stars Get in Your Eyes”.

1954 was not very different, Frank Sinatra was singing “Young At Heart”, Dean Martin was crooning, “That’s Amore”, Tony Bennett was swooning, “Stranger in Paradise.” But things moved along and sometime in 1954 Bill Haley and His Comets came out with “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. That might have been the first hint that new times was coming. Forgive me for using the singular verb rather than the plural verb, but I trying to get a point across and I really do mean, new times was coming.

By 1955, big changes were underway and America’s war babies were waking up to new sounds and new times. Something called Rock and Roll was coming on the scene.

The Maestro himself, Bill Haley & Comets

The Maestro himself, Bill Haley & His Comets

My first real introduction to Rock and Roll music was Bill Haley and His Comets. I had heard the song “Shake, Rattle and Roll” the year before, but the song that changed everything for me was called “Rock Around the Clock” . That song came out in 1955 like an announcement that something new had arrived. And that something new was Rock and Roll music itself. I first heard that song when I was going to Indian Mountain School in Lakeville, Connecticut. I remember hearing “Rock Around the Clock” in a small movie theater which happened to be playing a movie called, you guessed it, “Rock Around the Clock”. The movie featured a number of bands, but it was that particular song that made a kind of statement that a new kind of music had arrived in the world.

In 1955 times was moving forward and things was changing. General Motors had introduced their popular new Chevy model and it was hot, hot, hot…coming in at around two thousand dollars. Gas was running 25 cents a gallon so people were out riding. Boys and girls were discovering all sorts of way to get to know each other in cars parked along darkened streets. Nikita Khrushchev was running the show in Russia and Marilyn Monroe was getting photographed with subway air blowing up her skirt. Things was getting interesting.

Admittedly, Bill Haley and His Comets were not the greatest rock musicians, but that song caught the moment of that time. I am not sure what teacher at Indian Mountain School got the bright idea that it might be good to take the kids to a movie showing this new fangled music. It turned out to be a decidedly bad idea. And that became particularly evident when the song “Rock Around the Clock” came on.

“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock,

Five, six, seven o’clock rock, eight o’clock rock

Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock

We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight.”

The words were extremely simple and so was the message. Rock and Roll had come to town. Well, that little movie theatre, with about 90 of my male schoolmates – it was an all male boarding school except for about 6 girls who only attended day classes – went wild. All 90 of us jumped up from our seats and started screaming “Rock Around the Clock”, jumping up and down, throwing our arms up in the air. You could say that pandemonium was released, but that would be an understatement. Now we were not very old, I believe our average age was 12 or 13 at the time and I was one of the older guys. So try to imagine 90 11 to 13 year olds, all screaming, all jumping up and down, all waving our arms frantically in the air, no longer contained by the theater seats, wildly dancing in the aisles.

Now, up until that point, I think the teacher who guided us to that theatre thought of us as a pretty nice bunch of kids. All of that changed about 12 seconds into “Rock Around the Clock”. All sensible and responsible modes of activity went out the window with the opening lyrics of “Rock Around the Clock”. By time the first verse had gotten around to “We are gonna rock around the clock”, all dignity, all sanity, all decorum left the building and 90 kids popped up from their movie chairs and began flailing about in way that would make Dionysus proud.

Needless to say, after that event, we lost our movie going privileges. There was much debate among the teachers of the school as to whether we had collectively lost our minds or had been under the evil influence of one of Satan’s princes or had gotten hold of some powerful illegal drug. This question was debated and discussed among the school staff for several weeks afterwards, with different theories having precedence before being replaced by other new theories. I am not sure the staff was able to simply accept that it was the music stupid.

At Indian Mountain School, even if the teachers managed to keep us away from the local movie theater, they were not able to keep us away from the music that was just beginning to be played. In the afternoons, after classes we would go up to play pool and ping pong in the rec room. There we played endless hours of pool and ping pong and in doing so ended up listening to endless hours of music. That was because that spare and barren room, up on the third floor of our dormitory building, had one not so good Zenith radio which, if we were lucky, could get some local stations and pull in some pretty good music. And when it was working, that Zenith sounded pretty good.

I remember listening in that room to song like “Little Darlin'” by the Diamonds. It was not the most intellectual song, but had a message and a beat and it moved.

I remember first hearing Johnny Cash with “I Walk the Line”, his voice was like a deep-throated train with a driving beat behind him. It was not rock music, but it not country music either. It was something new, something elemental, something unavoidable. And so we played ping pong and pool for hours on end, each afternoon, listening to whatever we could get on the local music stations. And yes, there were still that pleasant popular songs that burst upon the scene, such as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” – these songs were kind of patriotic and had something to please everyone.

There were four of us at Indian Mountain School who used go up to that rec room as a group…Whitman, Tompkins, Ermentrout and myself…all around 14 years old. Off of the rec room was a small apartment for one of the younger teachers. I do not remember his name, but I remember that all was not well with him and his wife because he would emerge from his little apartment and ask us to turn the radio down or keep it quiet. Sometimes the teacher’s face was red and blushing, sometimes he almost had tears in his eyes. We would try to obey his plea for quiet but soon some song would come on and we would go back to turning up the volume, to shouting and arguing and telling each other what losers we were.


This guy who changed my life

This guy changed my view of music

The song that changed forever my view of music was “Heartbreak Hotel”. I remember first hearing that song in Bellport, Long Island at the local soda fountain shop. The year was 1956. I would go to the soda fountain shop every one or two days, usually before picking up my mother a couple packs of cigarettes and a bottle of scotch. That was the major errand my mother would send me on and I hated it because I knew no good would come of it. So to make my task less painful I would always stop off at the soda shop. If I was going to get my mother cigarettes and alcohol, I would at least get myself a vanilla milkshake.

This was in the summertime, when I was not at Indian Mountain School, but staying in Bellport at our small Cape Cod style house on 25 Thornhedge Road. Going to the fountain shop was a special pleasure for me. I was really into vanilla milkshakes. Occasionally, I would vary this with a vanilla ice cream soda. It was a big debate in my mind which was better – the vanilla milkshake or the ice cream soda. Some days I settled on the milkshake, other days I would come back to the ice cream soda, deciding that was the best in the land.

On one of those days, when I was innocently having a milkshake or a soda, the song “Heartbreak Hotel” came on the Jukebox. Now this soda shop had a giant Wurlitzer Jukebox. Those things were a piece of art unto themselves and a wonder to behold. And I remember when I first heard the first words of that great song come on:

“Since my baby left me,  I found a new place to dwell

Down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel”

It was not just the words, it was the sound of the song, and low, throaty voice of the King himself belting out what was for me one of his first hits. That song sounded so different to me, unlike anything else I had ever heard, that I went right up to the big Wurlitzer that was stationed between the soda fountain where folks sat on chrome stools that twirled in circles and the soda fountain booth area where young couples snuggled together slurping milkshakes and sundaes.

That song, when it first came on, demanded attention and I gave it all I could. I walked over to the Wurlitzer, sat down cross legged and put my ear against the giant speaker and listened to the whole song. I just could not believe the song, I could not believe the words. And when the song ended, I stood up and pulled out a nickel (the fee for playing a song on the Wurlitzer at the time), pumped it in the jukebox, selected “Heartbreak Hotel” and sat right down to listen to that song again. I listened to “Heartbreak Hotel” four or five times that day, only getting up to plug in another nickel in to the jukebox.

I am not sure if the proprietor of the soda fountain approved of my strange behavior, but he never stopped me as long as I was plugging in nickels. And he seemed more than happy to change the dollar bill I had for more nickels. The year, as I said, was 1956.

In that year, My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews came out on Broadway. I know because my rich aunt took me to see it. Grace Kelly married the Prince of Monaco and Arthur Miller, the playwright, married Marilyn Monroe. You might say it was a good year for marriages, but I would point out that it was also the year my father officially divorced my mother and Marilyn’s marriage to Arthur Miller did not last too long either.

“Heartbreak Hotel” was the first song that seemed to have the power to take me away. It pulled me aside and said here is another way to look at things. And in doing so, it got me through periods of time that were personally and emotionally difficult for me and set me to thinking about other things, other possibilities. Rock n’ Roll was literally taking me out of my 14 old body and introducing me to something, a kind of inner joy. And in that period of time, I needed that because the times were confusing and what was happening in my personal life was also confusing. And if you think about it from that point of view, music was a kind of balm, a kind of cure for the soul.

And while “Heartbreak Hotel” was always for me the first rock and roll song that I realized was Rock and Roll, another song came out that came out that announced that the end was nigh for old style music. I speak of the immortal Chuck Berry and his classic song, “Roll over Beethoven”.

In 1957, I was still at Indian Mountain School, which was a pre-prep school for boys whose parents were either unable to take care of us or who were in the process of getting a divorce or who just wanted us kids away. Whatever the reason, in Indian Mountain School I found a new identity, a new ability to take care of myself. I was learning to read books on the side, I was taking interesting classes learning about things that I knew little about.

Of course, as a teenager I was afflicted with many of the hormonal changes of youth.  I was having my first problems with acne, I was starting to think about girls. It was about that time that I had some problems with warts. This was not the end of the world, but it did bother me. The school nurse gave me some kind of poison to put on my warts which were all located on the palm of my hand. After about two weeks of being poisoned, the warts would drop off my hand – all, that is, except one persistent larger wart which was larger and more durable than the others.

imageIt was about that time that song “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers was released. It was another song that made a big impression. It did not have great meaning, but it kind of caught a quirky spirit of the times, telling the tragedy of two teenagers falling asleep in a movie theater. I remember that song because I first heard it in the office of the local doctor I was sent to in downtown Lakeville, CT. The good doctor was just cutting out my most obstinate wart and that song came on. It helped with the pain as I watched him use an exact Exacto knife (or what looked like an Exacto knife) to cut out the last elements of my lingering abomination. Most of the time the Exacto knife was cutting dead wart, but occasionally the good doctor got into real flesh and blood and that hurt. Fortunately, “Wake Up Little Susie” came to the rescue and I remember feeling pretty good as the last bit of the song dropped away and I walked out of that doctor’s office.

1957 was the year that Humphrey Bogart died from cancer. Sputnik was launched by the Russians and the Edsel car was introduced. In other words, not too much was happening. Elvis Presley was still churning out hits like “All Shook Up”. “Little Darlin'” by the Diamonds was still a hit. At the time, I had made a $5 investment in a radio that did not need batteries and did not have the best sound. It was a pretty simple affair. It was a plastic tube with a cone and an antenna on one end and a double wire coming out the other. At the end of the double wire was one snap clip and one earphone speaker. The idea was pretty simple – you clipped the snap clip to a radiator or some other metal pipe (effectively grounding the radio) and plugged the earphone into your ear and moved the metal rod back and forth. That brought in different radio stations, if you were lucky.

Now it so happened at Indian Mountain School my bed was right next to a radiator. This made hooking up my new fangled radio simple. The earphone was also a good call because lights out was 9:30 and it was forbidden to listen to radios, read in bed, talk or do anything but sleep. Fortunately, I had my $5. radio. I cannot say the reception was that good. It was kind of hit and miss, but every once in a while you would come across a station that came in real clear. That is when I first heard “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear” by Elvis, “A Whole of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, with the lights out, huddled in my bed on a cold winter’s evening. It was not the best sound, but at the time any sound was great.

“Young Love” by Sonny James was another big hit in 1957. It was soon to be knocked off by Tab Hunter. I, of course, only respected the Sonny James version, which had a twanging, haunted, driving sound to it. It was a song to remember. The only time I got to listen to that song was in the rec room playing ping pong or pool in the afternoon or after lights out in bed on my tiny, trusty radio.

In 1958 a number of things changed. I graduated from Indian Mountain School and enrolled in new school, Portsmouth Priory. This was a Catholic prep school run by Benedictine monks. These monks were pretty serious folks. Five of the people who were monks, including our headmaster at the  time, Dom Leo van Winkle, had come from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. If you did not know it, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was the place that brought you the atomic bomb. It seemed these five guys were so depressed by making the atomic bomb that they decided to become monks.

Now, having come from an all boys boarding school, I was used to living a pretty controlled life where we did not get to see girls, but the monks at Portsmouth Priory took my already esthetic life to a whole new level. The monks themselves got up at 4am for a round of dried bread, cold coffee and Gregorian chants. Not long afterwards (around 5:30am), we were rousted out of a perfectly good sleeps to join them for a few more Gregorian chants. And then it was on to mass, breakfast and five or six classes. I will say that the courses were interesting or the curriculum was truly educational, but sometimes you can go overboard and I think this was one of those times.

For that reason alone, music was more important than ever. This was the time that 45 singles were becoming more and more popular. The Italian song, “Volare” was extremely popular. The Everly Brothers had a truly great hit, “All I Have To Do is Dream”. Groups like the Silhouettes, the Platters, the Drifters, The Coasters all had great hits and were coming onto the scene. And of course, Elvis had a usual round of hits. Chuck Berry was singing about “Sweet Little Sixteen”. And then there was the great Jerry Lee Lewis sang about, “Great Balls of Fire.”

Benedictine Monks or not, the blood was beginning to pump and you might say, in today’s lingo, animals spirits were awakening.

In the afternoon, after the five or six classes, lunch and after two solid hours of  sports and calisthenics at Portsmouth Priory, we would get about an hour off before dinner. That was just on time to watch Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and for young guys holed up in a Benedictine Monastery that was a revolution unto itself. Singers like Little Richard, Dion, Jerry Lee Lewis would come on and sing songs like we never heard before. And American Bandstand had girls dancing with guys and while there was nothing much to be seen in that, we could let our imagination run free.

In the summer, after completing my first year of prep school, I came back to New York to spend my summer vacation and that year, unlike the last few years before, I spent my summer in Southampton. I have written some things about my family at that time in Southampton in this blog in “Our Family Secret” and in “The Zirinsky House”. In my case the contrast between Southampton, Long Island and Bellport, Long Island could not have been more different. Bellport was a sleepy little summer resort with zero pretensions and a great place for crabbing and snapper fishing and a few friends of my age.

But Southampton was something else altogether. In the 1920s, Southampton had been called the queen of New York’s summer resorts and as time passed, it became only more so. When I first went out to Southampton, I came to discover that it was inhabited mainly by rich people. Now most of those rich folks were older people, like Henry Ford, like the Wanamakers, like the Chryslers, like the McCormicks, like the Havemeyers. These people came from families that had made money and had become rich and had become social and who decided they no longer should work, because work, after all, was a kind of dirty occupation, and so they concentrated on being rich and living rich and doing very damn little.

All that is except my family, who were not rich and who probably had very little reason to be in Southampton other than the fact that we came from a quote, unquote “good family” and my family knew a lot of rich people who also came from quote, unquote “good families”. So we had good connections and very little money, but we had something some of the richer folks didn’t have. We had four families and we joined forces, scraped together some money, and by virtue of combined resources were able, just barely, to rent a big rambling summer house and join the two all important clubs. I speak of course, about the Beach Club, aka The Southampton Bathing Corporation, and the Meadow Club, aka, the Meadow Club.

So for me this was a whole different world. Not only was I now living in a house with multiple cousins, younger and older than myself, I quickly acquired a bunch of new young rich kid friends and instead working like other kids of our age, we would hang at each other’s houses, go to the beach club, go to the Meadow Club and swim and surf and play tennis and then go out to young kids’ beach parties, which, by the way, were truly on the beach. And of course, in doing that we listened to a lot of music, sometimes on nice stereos, but more often on transistor radios or jukeboxes. And by the way, this was around the time that the drinking age in New York was 18 and it was also along the time that we were figuring out how to sneak into bars and what soon were to be called discotheques, even if I was only sixteen at the time.

This was also the time that Buddy Holly and the Crickets were becoming popular. He had leapt onto the scene with “That’ll be The Day” in 1957. In 1958 he followed up this original hit with “Peggy Sue” and “Everyday”. By that summer, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were one of the leading groups in Rock and Roll. This success was not to last long. Several months later, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, along with Ritchie Valens and J.P Richardson, aka, The Big Bopper. This was the famous day that the music died.

Anyway, in the summer of 1958, I was hob-knobbing with a bunch of much richer kids than me in Southampton. Our days were truly carefree. Get up, have a late breakfast, head to the Beach Club, hang out on the beach. If there was surf, maybe we would stay in the ocean, coming out only to warm up for a few minutes on the beach, go to luncheonette counter and slurp down a hamburger and few cokes. If the surf was really good, maybe we would head down to the inlet, walk across the dunes and catch the surf break by the jetty where the waves broke slow and well-formed and where you could walk out a few hundred feet in the ocean and catch long lingering waves.

If the break wasn’t breaking, then we would head to the Meadow Club for two, three and sometimes four sets of tennis and then take a shower and then sit on the big porch and chit chat for hours, part gossip, part recalling what each of our friends did the evening before, part discussing important matters, like where we would go that evening, whose house we would visit, which bar or discotheque we would try to crash. Yes, these were simple pleasure filled days and we didn’t do a damn thing all day long. And we pretty much spent the evenings the same way.

For me, a person who had been used to going to a boarding school, to wandering in the woods by myself, used to fishing and crabbing in Bellport, it was a whole new life. Yes, kind of worthless, with a big priority on doing nothing worthwhile or useful. They were carefree days and nights. I cannot say that I improved my mind or moral purpose. I cannot say that I went to work for the first time in my life and learned new skills and lessons while I worked. I can say we lived days in the sun and water and we had truly fun times going with my friends in the evening doing things that were not very constructive, but having a good time anyway. And I cannot say I regret those days.

Every summer comes to an end and pretty soon I found myself in Portsmouth, Rhode Island in the land of Benedictine monks learning about more serious things…Gregorian chants, religious philosophy, world religions, mathematics, geometry, American, Greek, Roman and European history and reading English and American novels. I have to say that the folks at the good monastery were truly good teachers, dedicated to trying to make civilized creatures out of the wild human creatures they were presented with.

One of my first roommates was a guy named Michael Ward. It turned out he was the son of Jane Wyman, a beautiful and famous actress who had been married to Ronald Reagan. Michael was the progeny of another husband and so he ended up in Portsmouth Priory, like many of us, somewhat lost and disengaged from our parents. Michael was a very quiet guy who kept to himself, but he was a great pianist and he loved to play jazz on the piano, which, if I remember correctly, was located, somewhat incongruously, in the gym. Anyway, in the late afternoon, Michael would go off to the gym and play right up until dinner time.

Sometimes, if I was not watching something frivolous, I would go to listen to Michael playing jazz and while I did not know very much about that kind of music, I could tell he was highly skilled. I also remember Jane Wyman coming to the school and sitting with Michael, Jane Wyman and Dom Leo van Winkle, the headmaster and the head monk. I think there were one or two other students and one or two other monk teachers at the table. The food was traditionally bad to terrible, but I think they made a special effort that evening to make the food only poor.

I will say that in the evening we had a little more free time. Lights out in our dormitory was 10pm, so we had a whole extra half hour while away. Mostly, we chatted in our rooms and listened to 45’s on crummy record players that we had at the time. The 45’s got scratched up pretty quickly and we would spend hours listening to different kinds of popular music, arguing who was better…Elvis or Dion, Buddy Holly or the Platters…there was quite a division of opinion. Some of us were getting more sophisticated, listening to jazz, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, some of us even liked Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

The King himself in army gear

1958 was the year that Elvis went into the army and Boris Pasternak wrote “Dr. Zhivago” and I was spending my first year at Portsmouth. By 1959, things were changing – Fidel Castro took over Cuba, Alaska became the 49th state and Charlton Heston starred in Ben Hur. At Portsmouth Priory I was playing soccer, hockey, squash and tennis…fall, winter and spring. For a school dedicated to intensive intellectual and religious study, Portsmouth Priory had a surprisingly robust athletic department. Those monks believed in sound minds in sound bodies. After one or two hours of soccer, hockey, squash or tennis, the athletic director would send us off to run up hills, to do pole vaults, chin-ups, jumping jacks, climb 30 foot high ropes and other strange things.

The summer of 1959, I resumed my summer schedule in Southampton, playing tennis and surfing in the days and doing my best to be a young teenage wastrel in the evenings. We were chit chatting and laying around the beach on sunny days, going to parties and sneaking into bars in the evenings. In short, I was having the time of my life.

There was a French guy who I got to know during that summer. I do not remember his name, but he was a thin, tall, cool guy liked by all the girls we hung out with. This French guy was the summer guest of Mrs. McCormick, she was the great, great granddaughter of Cyrus McCormick. Cyrus was the inventor of the mechanical reaper. He founded the McCormick Harvesting Company, which later became part of International Harvesting Company. Needless to say, Mrs. McCormick was rich and because she was having a young French kid staying at her Southampton home for the summer, she decided to buy him a car, so he would have something to run around in.

If I remember that car was a Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie convertible. So, Pierre had this boss car and I was lucky enough to tool around in it with him. And while the girls were lined up to go out with Pierre (I will call him that for want of his real name), Pierre was much more interested in racing his Fairlane. I was lucky enough to accompany Pierre on a few of his racing expeditions. There was a kind of ritual to his racing.

We would head out around 8 or 9 at night from Southampton and take the back road to Shinnecock. Pierre usually had the top down and the radio blasting music. “Mac the Knife” by Bobby Darin, a cool jazzy ballad, “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price, another haunting ballad and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters, a great, moody undulating ballad were some of the songs that came on. As soon as we turned off on the back road, that was the sign that the race was about to commence. Pierre would pull over on the side of the road and raise the convertible top.

He was afraid having the top down might down might cause wind resistance. While I am not sure I bought into this theory, being the passenger, I did not argue. Besides, Pierre said we could hear the music on the radio better and that was sure true.

As soon as the top was up, secure and clamped down, Pierre would turn me and say, “And now we go!”

And Pierre really meant go because he would put the pedal to the maximum metal and we would peel out on that black top road, with the back end of that Fairlane squirreling about until we got a full head of steam and we were on the straightaway of that little road doing 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 miles per hour. Now this road did not at time feature street lights so you could truly say we were driving in the dark at ever faster speeds. Fortunately for me and Pierre, he was a really good driver.

Pierre was very serious about his racing. Each time he would ask me to mark the time. The first time we made the trip to Riverhead in 40 minutes, which I thought was pretty good because I usually made the same drive in 50 minutes. Anyway, that was not good enough for Pierre. He was convinced he could do better. I accompanied Pierre two other times when Pierre methodically reduced the time, first to thirty-five minutes and then to thirty minutes. The only thing that kept me in my seat was listening to “Mr. Blue” by the Fleetwoods as we touched 95 mph. Pierre seemed more satisfied with his performance. I, on the other hand, was terrified.

I did not accompany Pierre on his later runs. I found some logical excuse to bow out each time. About two weeks later, Pierre came to me that I should be sorry I did not accompany him the night before. He made the trip from Southampton to Riverhead in 20 minutes.

“That’s great, Pierre,” I said.

Despite my fear of Pierre racing from Southampton, I used to do a little racing myself. Some evenings I was granted use of my parent’s Nash Ambassador, which was a big hunk of American steel, about as fuel inefficient as a car can get, but pretty damn fast. Some evenings I would race up and down that quiet street with Megan, Shirley, Ricky and sometimes Pierre, just to prove my racing chops. And if truth be said, I could get that caboose car up to 90 or 100 mph. It was usually accompanied by the screams of my passengers, all this is, except Pierre, who kept saying:

“Go faster. You can do it. This car can do 110.” Fortunately, I always slammed on the brakes before getting to the magic 110 mph.

I loved that Nash Ambassador. Three years later I smashed it into Merrill McGowan’s car. Merrill was the grandson of Charles E. Merrill, and we were coming back from Charlotte Ford’s deb party. I was not going a 110, but I did get up the old Nash up to about 55 mph on Henry Ford’s driveway before realizing there was a car in front of me and slamming on the brakes. That proved to be too late and we slid into Merrill’s car.

He got out, looked at the back of his car, “Damn, Cecil, I am supposed to play golf at ten in the morning.”

That was all he said. Since it was then four in the morning, that did not leave Merrill much time for reporting the accident to the police, which we did, after I swallowed 2 tubes of toothpaste, which was happily provided by some other party goers who happened by. I told Merrill I was sorry about the car and that I hoped he still might get some sleep that morning.

In 1959 the streets of Southampton were virtually empty at night and if we saw another car on one of the back roads of Southampton at night it was often a friend. I remember cruising around one night with Charlie Munroe and myself. We saw a car coming down First Neck Lane and instantly recognized it. That was not hard to do because Ricky Harris’s yellow Chevorlet Impala was hard to miss, even at night. Both of our cars stopped in the middle of First Neck Lane (I guess we thought we owned the street) and we started up a conversation at twelve o’clock a night. Ricky’s Impala had the top down and Ricki was with his sister Megan and Fernanda Wetherill. We were just chatting and enjoying the warm summer evening with Ricki’s radio blasting and then “Hats Off to Larry” came on. It was a great song by Del Shannon. Listening to that song, parked in the middle of First Neck Lane, kind of captured for me that essence of that carefree summer.

I remember also going to a party with mostly guys older than me, drinking mucho beers and listening to Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. It was a kind of day the music died party. I remember there was Sidney Wood III and Merrill McGowan. Sidney Wood III was Sidney Wood Jr.’s son. The father was the Wimbledon tennis champion in 1931 and also a member of the Beach Club. Sidney Wood the III was his son, going to Yale at the time, the captain of the tennis team there and a truly great guy. Merrill McGowan was the a golfer that I had irritated a couple of years later the night of Charlotte Ford’s deb party. There was Ricky Harris, Charlie Munroe, myself and few other friends, all beered up in this small cottage on the beach, listening to the stereo.

Somewhere after about 5 or 7 beers, Buddy Holly’s swan song, “Rave On” came on. Now the great singer himself had died the winter before, but it was only then that I was realizing what a truly great singer he was. “Peggy Sue”, “Ready Teddy” and other Buddy Holly greats had already played on the album we were listening to. Then “Rave On” came on and we all went wild singing the lyrics, dancing in a horizontal line, in front of a couch, part staggering, all singing, 6 or 8 guys, arm in arm, still trying to hold our beers and dance at the same time:

“We-a-he-a-hell, the little things you say and do

Make me want to be with you-ah-ou

Rave on, it’s a crazy feel in’ and

I know it’s got me feeling’ and

I know it’s got me reelin’

I’m so glad that your revealin’

Your love for me

Rave on, rave on and tell me

Tell me not to be lonely

Tell me you love me only

Rave on for me.

Rave on, it’s a crazy feelin'”

Needless to say we were a little “buzzed” to use a popular phrase of this moment. More than that, we was happy, we was drunk, and we loved that song. I still remember that evening. I really looked up to Sidney Wood and Merrill McGowan, who were both older than me, far cooler than me, and I remember their smiles and laughter and their good cheer to this day. Two years later, Sidney Wood was killed in an automobile accident in North Carolina while on the way to a tennis tournament in Florida. He was truly an up and coming tennis player. Perhaps, if he had lived, he too would have won at Wimbledon.

Author’s Note: Music is a very personal thing. What I like, others may not like. What I choose as popular or good or noteworthy or earthshaking, may not be any of those things, but it was to me. And the small list of artists and the limited range of music mentioned are not meant to be inclusive of the music of the period discussed – 1953 to 1959. I have chosen to omit music after 1960 because that would make the list of songs and artists in this story far longer and this blog story far, far longer. I do intend to cover music from 1960 on, but this will take more blog stories, as the plot thickens and music evolved. That is, by the way, why I call this volume 1.

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Moses Drury Hoge – Preacher to the Confederacy During The Disunion

Moses Drury Hoge, one in a long line of family preachers

Moses Drury Hoge, one in a long line of family preachers

By Cecil Hoge

I have mentioned on this blog that I come from a long line of preachers and pirates. In “Grandpa Gets Busted”, I discussed the pirate side of my family, citing my grandfather, Edwin Shewan, who repaired ships for the Atlantic fleet and ran liquor during prohibition. In “Sailing Clipper Ships Around the World”, I recounted some of the exploits my great, great, great, great uncle, Andrew Shewan, who was a captain of clipper ships that sailed from Scotland and England to China and India, sometimes carrying cargoes of a dubious nature. Those two Shewan men came from a long line of sea captains who, the further you go back the more likely it was that they were pirates or privateers appropriating cargoes from Spain or some other unfortunate country…no doubt in the good services of an English Queen or King.

I would like to say that my claim to be related to a long line of preachers is equally secure. In this, I offer up my great, great, great, great grandfather, Moses Drury Hoge, shown above. Not only was he preacher, his father, Samuel Hoge, also was a pastor, as was his father’s father, named, not co-incidentally, Moses Hoge. Given this long line of distinguished preachers, I can say that coursing my viens is the blood of both pirates and preachers. This mixed heritage had left me confused at times and perhaps, sometimes led to a few mistakes in the direction of my life.

Here are some facts about the preacher side of my family. Moses Hoge, Moses Drury Hoge’s grandfather and Drury Lacy were both associated with the founding of a church in Richmond, VA. and with the founding of Hampden Sydney College – both having served as Presidents of Hampden Sydney College. Samuel Davies Hoge wed Elizabeth Rice Lacy in 1817. Samuel was a pastor at Bethesda Church located at the Culpeper Court-house. Moses Drury Hoge was born September 17, 1818.

John Blairsville Hoge, another relative, said at the time of his birth, “Take this child and train it for heaven.”

So it could be said that from birth there were high expectations of Moses Drury Hoge.

Moses was a constant reader, well read both in the Bible and the Classics. He went Hampden Sydney College in 1836 at the age of 18. After graduating, Moses became a trustee of that college at an early age. According to another preacher and relative, Peyton Harrison Hoge, Moses Drury Hoge was “a moral man and shrank from whatever was low and defiling.” In college and afterwards, Moses associated with Christians, many of whom were Presbyterian ministers. At college and as soon as he himself climbed the pulpit, Moses gained a widespread reputation as an orator and preacher. His speeches were considered brilliant and powerful.

In the 1850s Moses had the opportunity to go to Europe. In England he met many Presbyterian Ministers and became acquainted with the leaders of the Church in England.

While still in college, he was approached by the Reverend B.M. Smith, a young minister himself, to become a minister. Moses had all the right stuff…coming from a long line of ministers, preachers & pastor’s, being both serious and religious, well versed in the Classics. Strangely, at the time Moses replied that he doubted he would live long enough. It seemed his early health was not the best and for some time he thought he might die of consumption. That did not happen and some time later, after being approached by more preachers, he decided to enter Seminary School.

He was licensed as a minister by West Hanover Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg on October 6th, 1846. This was the same church in which his father and grandfather had been licensed. Thus three generations of the same family were connected by this strange sequence of events in the same church.

Apparently, Moses was a star preacher and orator from the start. Moses Drury Hoge was thought to be a great and powerful orator. In the early part of 1844, he became a minister at the First Presbyterian Church on Franklin Street, near the Exchange Hotel.

Second Presbyterian Church where Moses Drury Hoge preached to Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and many other leaders of the Confederacy.

Second Presbyterian Church which Moses Drury Hoge founded and later preached to Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and many other leaders of the Confederacy.

His church was crowded from the beginning, Sunday after Sunday.

On March 20th, 1844, he married Miss Susan Wood. They made their home at the Exchange Hotel. At this time, his health still was not good. This changed when he went to Europe. In the spring of 1854, he went abroad for five months to London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Dublin, Brussels, Antwerp, Cologne, Frankfurt, Zürich, Lucerne, Berne, Milan, Genoa, Turin, Verona, Venice, Lyons and Paris. In doing so, he also visited many of the finest lakes and the grandest mountains in the world. Apparently, it was the trips to the mountains and the lakes that improved his health.

In 1855, after returning from Europe, Moses and a Dr. Moore, another fellow pastor, purchased the Watchman, a respected Presbyterian publication. The two partners changed the name to Central Presbyterian. Moses became the editor of that paper and wrote editorials in that paper from 1855 to 1879.

By 1855, he had three children, one of whom, Fanny, died in 1851. In his travels around the country, Moses preached in Brooklyn at the Academy of Arts. It was gathering of ministers from all over the country and was well-received. His first son was born in 1859. It was around this time that debates about secession became prominent in Moses’s life. Moses did not think of the Civil War as having its origin in the debate over Slavery.

Moses, according to his nephew, Peyton Harrison Hoge, in his book “The Life and Letters of Moses Drury Hoge”, agreed with the words of John Randolf Ticker:

“The North fought for the great political idea – the idea of the Union; the South fought for another great political idea – the idea of local self-government. Preserve the two and the war will not have been fought in vain”.

Apparently, Moses did not approve of slavery. On receiving a number of slaves from his wife’s estate, he offered them their liberty. Interestingly, only one accepted and the others remained with Moses and his wife. At another time Moses bought 5 slaves, the relatives of his hired servants and then set them free.

In any case, Moses Drury Hoge still preached to slaveholders. He may have abhorred the institution, but he did not condemn it. Moses was apparently in favor of sending slaves back to Africa.

“I was pained in observing the extensive disaffection to the Union which seemed to prevail in that part of Virginia. It strikes me if you expressed anything too strongly it was when you spoke of the small number in the South who are in favor of secession, if it could be accomplished peacefully.” Moses Hoge wrote in 1851.

In 1859, Moses wrote to his brother, William Hoge, who was also a minister, at the time preaching in New York:

“Tomorrow is our Thanksgiving Day. One thing darkens its joy. Shall as many States ever again celebrate one day united in one Confederacy? I trust and pray He will save us from the wrath and folly of war. But my own hopes have never been so darkened. The people have in a great measure lost their horror of disunion. I still believe an overwhelming majority love the union.”

But as time went on Moses changed his attitude towards the North. In another letter in January of 1861 he says, “I have considered the state of Northern aggression very ominous for many years.”

And then he writes his brother:

“My Dear Brother: The thing we have feared is upon us. The spirit of Cain is rampart, and we seem about to plunge headlong into an unnatural and diabolical war. We may not long have the privilege of even writing to each other…You are right in the impression expressed in your letter to the Central Presbyterian that Virginia has nothing to expect by way of conciliation or concession from the North…The war spirit is fearfully aroused here, and the fierce demon of religious fanaticism breathes out threatening and slaughter. It is not safe even for a minister to counsel peace.”

By the middle of 1861, Moses Drury Hoge’s opinion of the coming conflict changed and he came to the conclusion that the South was right in its quest to secede. In another letter to his sister June 1, 1861, he says:

“With my whole mind and heart I go into the secession movement. I think providence has devolved on us the preservation of constitutional liberty, which has already been trampled under the foot of a military despotism at the North…I consider our contest as one which involves principles more important than those for which our fathers of the Revolution contended.”

After the war began Moses worked at “Camp Lee”. He wanted to become a chaplain to a regiment, but he was persuaded that he was needed at the center of the Confederacy.
Writing his wife on June 24th, 1862 describing the battle lines being set up at “Nine Mile Road” he wrote:

“The town is now all excitement in anticipation of the battle which is expected to come off tomorrow or next day. Jackson and Ewell are said to be in Hanover, ready to strike McClellan’s army in the flank. The conflict will be tremendous, but I have no fears as the result. I think we will utterly rout our enemies, by the blessing of God, and we live in Richmond in long suspense of it, and of the burden of having two vast armies in its vicinity, consuming everything there is to eat…All my concern is for the multitude who must fall, and for the number of the wounded who will crowd our houses and hospitals.”

Two days later the “Seven Days” fighting began, resulting in the withdrawing of McClellan and the present relief of Richmond.

In the early days of the Civil War or the Disunion, as some called it, there is the curious story of Moses overhearing some soldiers talking.

One soldier said, “I wish all the Yankees were in hell.”

Moses said, “Would you not see them sent to heaven?”

“No I would rather see them in hell.” Said the soldier.

“Oh,” said Moses, “I thought you would probably prefer them to be where there is less probability of your meeting them.”

This apparently caused laughter in the soldiers.

At this time, Moses was also made the honorary Chaplain of the Confederate Congress. Moses wrote his brother, William Hoge, about his many duties at the beginning of the war:

“When you saw something of my manner of life in former days, you thought me a busy man, but I am now the most pressed, the most beset and bothered brother you ever had. My 6 sermons a week, and funerals extra, might fill up all my time reasonably well, with pastoral visits thrown in to fill up the chinks, but it is only the beginning of the Illiad. I have opened Congress every day this session…life of late has been all work and no play with me…I have been preaching the last three Sunday afternoons to the Fourteenth Regiment near the reservoir.”

In another letter to his brother, he wrote:

“I had my first sight of the enemy day before yesterday…The enemy’s pickets were about 500 yards distant, in full view…It gave me new indignation to see them walking and riding about in a locality which I was so familiar. McClellan has his headquarters at friends Webb…There is no panic among our people. Resistance is to the death and is the calm determination of the citizens and our soldiers are confident of victory.”

As the war proceeded Moses found himself closer and closer to battles. Here is a description by Moses of The Battle of Seven Pines:

“We halted a moment at a building about two miles from the disease of the battlefield where we saw a great number of our wounded – which had been brought and laid, some of them on the floor, and others on the ground around the house – the surgeons standing over them with bloody hands and knives, busy making amputations, bandaging up wounds…Before reaching this building, we saw many of our men wounded, yet able to walk, staggering towards the city, other were conveyed on horseback, in ambulances, or in litters, carried by their comrades. Some of these men were groaning, others seemed ready to faint with pain or loss of blood, while others went along sang froid.

“Passing the temporary hospital, near the roadside, I begged to go in and take a look at the condition of things there. It was a spectacle at which the Angels might weep! No one knows what war is who has not seen military hospitals; not of the sick but of the cut, maimed and mutilated in all the ways in which the human body can be dishonored and disfigured. Inside the hospital on the floor, the men lay so thick that it was difficult to walk without stepping on them. I kneeled down and prayed for God to comfort them, give them patience under their sufferings, spare their lives, bless those dear to them, and satisfy to them in their present trials.

“On the ride back to town, the scene which the road presented was one never to be forgotten. Artillery and baggage, wagons were coming out, while ambulances, hacks, buggies and persons on horseback were going in. These meeting in narrow places, blocked up the way. Omnibus and other heavy vehicles were stuck fast in the mud, which drivers were trying to prize out; and in the midst of the noise and the confusion the groans of wounded men, jolted and jerked about, could be heard everywhere. I was glad when the first gas lights of the city came in view, fatigued as I was, covered with mud, and wet from wading the swamp road after I gave up my horse to the wounded boy. I immediately went off to the War Office and found Secretary Randolph still in his house. I gave him some account of what I had seen…on reaching home, I found good Susan, standing in the front door, watching and waiting for me.”

In the first years of the Disunion, Stonewall Jackson came to Moses Hoge’s church and listened to many of Moses’s sermons.

The beloved Stonewall Jackson

The beloved Stonewall Jackson

As a sign of his respect and trust, Stonewall Jackson gave Moses the following pass:

Headquarters, Valley District, Near Richmond
“Permit the bearer, the Rev. Moses D. Hoge, to pass at pleasure from Richmond to any part of my command.”
T. J. Jackson, Major General

General Jackson was a member of Moses Hoge’s congregation and General Lee was a close and personal friend. Moses’s friendship and association with Stonewall Jackson grew until Jackson was killed.

In 1863 Reverend Moses Hoge took a steamer from Charleston to England in order to get 35,000 bibles, prayer books and testaments. This was a dangerous mission because they had to run a blockade and the captain had instructions to scuttle the ship if capture was imminent. That meant that the passengers would have to get on small boats at the last minute, and make their way to shore. Moses wrote to his brother explaining this and asking him not to tell his wife who would be terrified.

Later, in a letter to his sister, after he had successfully passed through the blockade, Moses wrote enthusiastically about this escapade:

“Our run of the blockade was glorious. I was in one of the severest and bloodiest battles fought near Richmond, but it was not more exciting than that midnight adventure, when, amid lowering clouds and dashes of rain, and just wind enough to get up sufficient commotion in the sea to drown the noise of our paddle wheels, we darted along, with lights all extinguished, and not even a cigar burning on the deck, until we were safely out, and free from the the Federal fleet. In Nassau we chartered a little twenty-ton schooner, hired a crew of negroes, and made a fine run to Havana, where we got on the Royal Mail Steamship Line, to St. Thomas, and so to Southampton.”

In London, Moses gave an account of the Southern cause to Lord Shaftsbury who then announced that they would send 10,000 bibles, 50,000 testaments and 250,000 portions of the Psalms and Gospels.

Among the many people that Moses met when he was in England, was Thomas Carlyle. Apparently, Carlyle, because he was interested in the right of the Able-man to rule, took a steep interest in the Confederate cause. While Moses was obtaining bibles in England, his brother William was visiting Stonewall Jackson’s troops near Fredericksburg to engage in mission work among the soldiers. Shortly thereafter, Stonewall Jackson was killed in an unfortunate accident, shot by his own troops.

William Hoge, Moses Hoge’s brother, wrote his wife about Jackson’s funeral. Here is part of his letter:

“So I will begin with “Gordonsville”. About ten minutes after I our train arrived, the special train came slowly around the curve, bearing it’s sad, precious burden, the dead body of our beloved glorious Jackson. As it drew near, the minute guns, the soldiers funeral bell, sounded heavily. How strange it seemed that a crowd so eager should be so still, and that Jackson should be received with silent tears instead of loud-ringing huzzas. As the train stopped, I caught sight of the coffin, wrapped in the flag he had borne so high and made so radiant with glory so pure. Many wreaths of exquisite flowers, too, covered it from head to foot. Sitting near the body were young Morrison, his brother-in-law, our dear friend Jimmy Smith, and Major Pendleton.
“I asked if Mrs. Jackson would like to see me. And there sat this noble little woman in her widow’s weeds, a spectacle to touch and instruct any heart…And there, just before her lay her sweet little babe, little Julia, named by him for his mother, the babe he had never seen till her recent ten days visit abruptly ended by the great battle; the babe he delighted in…here it lay on its back, the best little thing, looking so tender and so unconscious of its part in these tremendous scenes, not starting, or ceasing the meaningless pretty motions of its little hands, as the cannon thundered.”

While Moses was in England, he also learned of the death of his son, Lacy Hoge. Soon afterwards, Moses returned to the States, first sailing to Halifax and then going to Bermuda. From there Moses steamed in the blockade-runner, “The Advance”. As they came to Wilmington and Cape Fear the Northern fleet was in full view. The captain, apparently drunk at the time, steamed ahead and soon they were fired upon by the Northern fleet. Fortunately, they came within range of Confederate guns at Fort Fisher and soon they were firing at the three Northern ships pursuing them. While this situation was not helped by the captain being drunk as he approached Wilmington, it perhaps gave the captain the courage he needed to run past the three Northern ships.

For Moses, now safely landed, the contrast between London and Wilmington apparently was stark. Wilmington had been decimated by yellow fever earlier that year and was a terrible and forlorn comparison to the bustling and prosperous London. Perhaps, more discouraging was the fact the his bibles and testaments never did make it to the Confederacy. They were captured December 6th, 1863. So it could be said that his mission was a failure.

Moses was able to carry some sample bibles with him which he then sent to various Confederate military men. And Moses did receive several letters of thank you from leading generals in the Confederate army, including letters from Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart.

In 1864, his brother, William Hoge, died, adding more sorrow to Moses. Apparently, after preaching and working in hospitals, William Hoge’s strength gave out and he passed away.

As the end of the Civil War approached, it fell to Moses Hoge to write a resolution appointing a day of fasting and prayer. Moses also accompanied Jefferson Davis and his cabinet as they withdrew from Richmond. If he had remained in Richmond he would have to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Moses was not willing to do that as long as the Confederate Government existed.

After the war, Virginia and all the Southern States were governed as a conquered province by military law and martial authority. It must have been a time of profound despair for Moses. He wrote to his sister in May, 1865:

“I forget my humiliation for a while in sleep, but the memory of every bereavement comes back heavily, like a sullen sea surge, on awaking, flooding and submerging my soul with anguish. The idolized expectation of a separate nationality, of a social life and literature and civilization of our own, together with a gospel guarded against the contamination of New England infidelity, all this has perished, and I feel like a shipwrecked mariner thrown up like a seaweed on a desert shore. I hope my grief is manly. I have no disposition to indulge in lousy complaints. God’s dark providence has enraptured me like a pall. I cannot comprehend, but I will not charge Him foolishly; I cannot explain, but I will not murmur. To me our overthrow is the worst thing that could have happened to the South – the worst thing that could have happened for the North, and for the cause of constitutional freedom and of religion on the continent. But the Lord has prepared his throne in the heavens and His Kingdom rules over all. I have not been very well since the surrender. Other seas will give up their dead, but my hopes went down in to one from which there is no resurrection.”

Moses became very active in helping with the reconstruction after the war, but in 1868 a new personal problem arose. An attack of facial paralysis made speech impossible. This of course meant that he could no longer preach. Fortunately, this condition only lasted for a few months. Thereafter, his ability to preach was completely restored.

During the 24 years of their married life, Moses Hoge’s wife had lost her father, mother, brother, five grown sisters, and four children; the last, little Genevieve, dying at Mr. James Seddon’s, just as their hearts were crushed with the downfall of the Confederacy.
In the spring of 1868, she contracted a fatal disease. On November 23rd, 1868 she died.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee wrote Moses a letter condolence to Moses. Here is part of what he said:

“I hope you felt assured that in this heavy calamity you and your children had the heart-felt sympathy of myself and Mrs. Lee, and that you were daily remembered in our poor prayers.
With our best wishes and sincere affection, I am
Very truly yours, R.E. Lee”

Two other disasters occurred in 1868, the Senate Chamber in Richmond collapsed and killed 65 persons and injured 200 others and the President of the former Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, passed away.

Because Richmond was almost completely destroyed, Moses was urged by many to restart his church in some other place. Moses thought this over, but decided to remain in Richmond. This proved to be a good solution in the end and the church in Richmond prospered as Richmond was rebuilt.

In 1872 Moses went north to Princeton College and preached in their chapel. This sermon was well accepted. This led to other sermons in Philadelphia and New York. These sermons were also well accepted. By this time, Moses Drury Hoge was a famous and revered Presbyterian minister.

Moses Hoge also spoke at the World’s Evangelical Alliance. He was invited to speak on the “Mission Field of the South”. His address was well accepted and apparently established his fame throughout the Christian World.

Here is what Moses wrote his sister in October 16, 1873 about his sermon in New York:

“I found the church packed, aisles and all. I preached a sermon I had arranged that afternoon (having changed my theme after dinner) without any notes, and I had what the old divines used to call “liberty” of feeling, thought and expression, which greatly helped me in the delivery.”

Where Stonewall Jackson spent his last minutes alive

Where Stonewall Jackson spent his last minutes alive

In 1875, Moses gave the oration commemorating the Foley statue of Stonewall Jackson. This statue was presented to Richmond by an Englishman sympathetic to the Southern cause. Here is part of what Moses said:

“And now, standing before this statue, I speak not for myself, but for the South, when I say it is our interest, our duty and our determination, to maintain the Union, and to make every possible contribution to its prosperity and glory, if all the States which compose it will unite in making such a union as our fathers framed, and enthroning above it, not Caesar, but the Constitution in its solid supremacy.”

Apparently Moses was upset when the London Times wrote an article suggesting that his speech had political motivations. Moses response was this:

“So far from it, I announced it to be the purpose of the Southern people to maintain the government as it was now constituted, though we should profess no love for a Union in which the Southern States are denied privileges accorded to the Northern.
Moreover, I said, “We accept this statue as a pledge of the peaceful relations which we trust will ever exist between Great Britain and the confederated empire formed by the United States of America.”

Moses was also upset at the New York Tribune because he thought they misrepresented the design and spirit of his speech at the unveiling of the Jackson statue.

Moses wrote, “The celebration here had no political significance whatever. It has not had the slightest political effect. It was not intended to excite animosity especially between the North and the South, not to stir up rancor between Great Britain and America.”

However, according to the account of D.H. Hill, perhaps, Moses got somewhat carried away by the event:

“Dr. Hoge made the mighty effort of his life. He was inspired by the grandeur of the occasion, by the vastness of the audience, and above all by the greatness of the subject of his eulogy. He impressed all who heard him that he is the most eloquent orator on this continent…Dr. Hoge, in closing his address, alluded to the prophecy of Jackson, that the time would come when his men would be proud that they belonged to the Stonewall Brigade. Rising to his full height, the orator exclaimed in his clear, ringing tones:

‘Men of the Stonewall Brigade, that time has come. Behold the image of your illustrious commander.'”

D. H. Hill concluded: “The veil was raised, the life-like statue stood revealed, recalling so vividly the loved form of the illustrious soldier that tears rained down ten thousand faces. Men of sternest natures, cast iron men, we’re weeping like children.”

For the rest of his life, Moses went around the country preaching in both the North and South. There was still a great deal of bitterness and tenderness in both the North and South, so what Moses had to say was not always received well. There was still discord between North and South sections of the Presbyterian Church. Various assemblies were held in the North and South which Moses attended.

Here is part of what Moses had to say at one of these meetings:

“Who are the men who cannot bear the test of the light of our purity. Is there no genuine Presbyterians but ours? If the only pure Church is the Presbyterian Church of these Southern States; if the problem of the development of Christianity as symbolized in the Presbyterian faith and form of government had been solved only by us; if after all the great sacrifices of confessor and maters of past ages, we alone constituents the true Church; if this only is the result of the stupendous sacrifices, on Calvary, and the struggles of apostles and missionaries and reformers in all generations; then may God have mercy on the world and on the Church.”

By the late 1870s Moses was coming to grips with the end of the Disunion and making a new life for himself. In 1877 Moses wrote his sister from New Orleans:

“This is the land of summer most of the year, and of almost perpetual flowers, but the brightest and the most fragrant was the one wafted by a Northern breeze from New Brunswick.
We are having a pleasant time socially. A few of the old families here still retain their wealth and former homes and style of living. I dined yesterday with one of them. As we went in to dinner, the old lady on my arm, in passing the broad staircase there came floating down two young granddaughters all in white, looking like the angels who came down Jacob’s ladder, to bless the men who waited for their coming below.
The dinners have many courses here – with proper sequence, with the proper vegetables served with each meat or bird, and a great variety of wines. Well, it is pleasant to sit by a good old lady at such a dinner (provided her tender granddaughter is on the other side) and take course after course, leisurely, with much conversation between, anticipating the crowning cup of cafe noir and cigar.”

One senses that Moses Hoge and the world in the South are returning to some kind of normalcy and Moses in beginning to enjoy life again.

Moses attended a delegation of Presbyterian ministers, representing the Southern branch of ministers.

Here is what a paper called the Daily Review said:

“Exceptional interest was excited by the appearance of the next speaker, Dr. Hoge, of Richmond, Va. He stepped upon the platform – a tall, spare, muscular man, of military type of physique, and features bronzed by the sun. His manner at starting was almost painfully deliberate, and with cool self-restraint with which he surveyed his audience and measured his ground before he opened his lips deepened the interest which attended the beginning of his speech…he set forth, with great dignity…the leading points of his many sided subject – the simplicity and scriptural character of Presbyterianism, it expansiveness and adaption, and its friendly aspect to other churches.”

In the summer of 1877, Moses went to England to preach and minister there, meeting again with many members of the Church of England. The next summer, he also went abroad. After returning, Moses wrote:

“The old world was not so interesting to me the last time I saw it. I have become somewhat wearied with galleries, museums, and antiquities in architecture, and I find Europeans inferior to our own people in so many respects that I am more than ever contented with my own country.
All we need is the continuance of a free and stable government to make this the happiest country on the globe…I find, however, many thoughtful men look forward to a near future of strife and disintegration, which Heaven may avert.”

In 1880, he went to Italy and then on to Egypt, Palestine and Syria. For the rest of his life, he traveled and remained active as a minister. He died in a streetcar accident at the age of 80 on January 6th, 1899. Apparently, an electrified trolley car ran into Moses when he was driving his buggy. This resulted in his buggy being overturned. While he did not die immediately from the injuries he sustained, it was said that Moses was never the same vigorous man he had been for most of his 79 years of life. He died a month or so later, apparently from complications from the injuries he sustained in his streetcar accident.

In reading about Moses Drury Hoge, I found one thing very strange. If you read his letters you find that Moses was a very passionate man with extremely strong convictions. It had been my assumption that if I read the sermons of Moses Drury Hoge, I would find the same traits and ardent feeling expressed. So, while preparing to write this article, I bought a book entitled “The Perfection of Beauty and Other Sermons” by Moses Drury Hoge.

Now, having been brought as a Catholic, I was familiar with sermons and with the common fact that generally a priest or minister did not have much to say about the present day. Rather sermons always seemed rooted in what happened 1800 to 2000 years ago and have very little reference to any modern day events. Nevertheless, even the most parochial priest would make some reference to some modern day events or ills, be it drug addition, crime in the streets, some far off war or political events affecting our daily lives.

However, in reading the sermons of Moses Drury Hoge, there seems to be little or no reference to what must have been the most important events in his lifetime. I speak specifically of the War between the North and the South, the Civil War or The Disunion, as it had been alternatively referred to.

Moses does make some reference to modern times in “The Perfection of Beauty” sermon:

“Why is it that in none of the great resorts and haunts of pleasure and fashion collections are ever solicited for the suffering poor, for associations organized to advance all the forms of benevolence?”

Moses answers his own question by saying:

“There is but one gate through which the benefactions of the truly charitable forever flow, and that is the beautiful temple. Yes, this is one of the elements that constitutes the beauty of the church, it’s boundless benevolence, it’s wide-reaching, far-reaching, all-comprehending charity.”

Obviously, this was before Welfare, Medicaid, Medicare and Obamacare. Moses goes on to cite the comments of the Poet James Russell Lowell, who when attending a dinner party in London and heard some eloquent guest disparage Christianity. Moses quoted the following comments of James Russell Lowell:

“It is very easy gentlemen, sitting in an elegant apartment, around a table covered with flowers…to speculate about religion in a jocose way…our friends…would do well to be thankful they live in a land where the gospel has tamed the ferocity and beastliness of those who but for Christianity might have long eaten their carcasses…or cut off their heads and tanned their skins like the monsters of the French Revolution…”

Here I wish to interject that there are two sides to every argument. While it is long true that many arguments have correctly been made that Christianity has been a civilizing influence on human beings, human institutions and civilization, there have also been many arguments made that Christianity and the adherence to Specific sects of Christianity has also been the cause of many wars and the deaths of many people.

Moses Drury Hoge’s argument in this sermon, “The Perfection of Beauty” is that Christianity, and specifically Presbyterian Christianity is profoundly beautiful, beneficial and benevolent. Moses ends this sermon with the following words:

“Yes, my hearers, where this gospel goes, Liberty goes, just laws go, education goes, churches are built, all benign and institutions which bless and benefit society appear.”

That seems to as direct as Moses Drury Hoge gets in the printed sermons that I read to referring to his times. His sermons are all eloquent, but they are undated (at least in the book I have) and mysteriously, there it no reference to the war which tore our Union apart and so demoralized Moses. What is the explanation of that? I can only guess.

I have used two main references to gather information on my relative preacher/minister. One is the previously mentioned “The Life and Letters: Moses Drury Hoge” by Peyton Harrison Hoge published 1899. That book contains an amazing of amount of letters that Moses Drury Hoge wrote to his wife, his sister and his brother. It also includes a large number of letters written to him, some by quite famous people of that time. I have liberally quoted from those letters. The other reference is the book I just cited – “The Perfection of Beauty and Other Sermons” published in 1904 by what is ominously referred to as “The Presbyterian Committee of Publication”.

While Moses’s letters refer to Civil War and speak of that time as tumultuous, sad and tragic, the sermons that I have read do not make any reference to those times. In Peyton Harrison Hoge’s book there is mention that many of Moses Drury Hoge’s notes and written sermons were lost in clamor and confusion of the war. I suspect a darker secret.

I can only guess that even in 1899, when Peyton’s book was first published, there was still a great deal of sensitivity to the events and to the long term effects of the Civil War. I suspect the written sermons might actually have been destroyed or that references to the Civil War were actually taken out from whatever sermons did exist. This is, of course, just a wild guess. And I have not fact to cite to say that I am right.

Jefferson Davis

The former President Jefferson Davis

I would like to know what Moses said on the pulpit in his sermons during the Civil War when he addressed Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and other leaders of the Confederacy. In Peyton Harrison Hoge’s book, which I have quoted extensively, it is said that Moses Drury Hoge preached to over 100,000 Confederate soldiers. My question is what did he say to them? Did he make no reference to the great struggle they were in?

My guess is that he did refer to the great events that they were passing through and that Moses Drury Hoge had much to say about the position of the South.

Did he, for example, get up before his congregation and say with utmost conviction in his loud, sonorous, slow Southern drawl (I am also guessing what his voice sounded like):

“God has ordained that there will be a 1,000 years of slavery and God is on our side. The South will rise to be a great nation and we will live free under the benefice of God.”

Or did he say in a slow, dignified, powerful Southern drawl:

“The Southern States are right and moral in their pursuit of an individual country and an individual civilization, preserving the most honored institutions and examples of our Southern Confederacy. We shall emerge a free country to construct our own civilization as God has mandated we will.”

My guess is that he did not stand up for slavery itself because Moses was reputed to have sold slaves in order to free them. So I would think that Moses was very uncomfortable with the institution of slavery itself. However, I suspect that he did believe fervently, ardently, with all his heart and soul, in the right of the South to revolt and establish their own independent country.

We know that people’s beliefs evolve with time and no doubt the beliefs of Moses Drury Hoge went through several evolutions. Perhaps, as a young man, he believed in the Union as it existed at the time. Perhaps, as the years passed, he frowned on, disagreed with and was against slavery as an institution. But as the Civil War came closer and the movement for secession gained traction, perhaps, Moses came to be a fervent and ardent supporter of the Disunion, a believer in the rights of individual States to decide their own future and their own fate.

After the Civil War, Moses views and ardent opinions probably changed again with the new times and the new reality that the South had lost.

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield was assassinated. This sent, in the words of Peyton Harrison Hoge, “a thrill of horror through the country”.

By a strange co-incidence, Moses happened to be near New York City at the time of Garfield’s death. The funeral for President Garfield was to be held at The Fifth Avenue Church in New York. The pastor of that church happened to be traveling and was not able to give the oration for the funeral. After asking many ministers and preachers around who might be a good replacement, The Fifth Avenue Church were recommended Moses Drury Hoge to give the sermon for President Garfield’s funeral. And so they did.

Here is part of Moses’s oration:

 “Our present sorrow shows how God, in his provenance, can arrest the attention of the world, and make the heart of humanity tender, and so cause all to feel the dependence of man upon man, of State upon State, and of nation upon nation. The news of the attempt of the assassin was flashed all over the world, and then across all continents, and under all seas came electric messages of sympathy and condolence – China and Japan uniting with the states of Europe; paganism and Mohammedanism joining with all Christendom in the expression of common sorrow. Thus God makes the very wounds of humanity the fountains from which issue the tenderest sympathies and the sweetest charities which bring comfort to the suffering, which at the same time, make the whole world akin in the consciousness of common interests and interdependence.

“More practically important to us is the fact that the great bereavement we commemorate today has hushed the voice of party clamor, and at once rebuked and silenced the discord of sectional animosity.

“Death is the great reconciler.

“A Federal officer was mortally wounded on one of the battle fields of Virginia. As he lay upon the ground, far from his comrades, conscious that his end was near, while scattered soldiers of the Confederate Army went swiftly by, he called to an infantryman who was passing the spot, and asked him if he would offer him a prayer. The man replied “My friend, I am sorry I cannot comply with your request. I have never learned to pray for myself;” but he did what he could; he moved the officer into the shade, put something under his head, gave him some water out of his canteen and then hurried on. Presently a dismounted Union cavalryman, who had lost his horse came by. The confederate officer called to him and made the same request, “Won’t you stop and say a prayer for me?” The trooper kneeled down at the side of the dying man and commenced a prayer but as he uttered one tender petition after another, the officer used the little strength that remained to him in creeping closer and closer, until he placed both arms around the neck of the petitioner, and when the last words of the prayer were uttered, he was lying dead on the bosom of his late antagonist in battle, but in the parting hour he was one with him in the bonds of the gospel, a brother in Jesus Christ – united in love forever.

“Yes, death is the great reconciler.

“I am here today, while making a brief visit to a friend in an adjoining State, taking the only rest I have had for a year, an invitation came from the officers of this church urging me to perform this sad office in the absence of its honored pastor; and I stand here to represent the feelings of the Southern people, whose interests and whose sentiments are mine, and to say that today your sorrow is their sorrow, and your bereavement theirs. Today Richmond and Augusta and Charleston and Savannah and Mobile and New Orleans, unite with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Chicago, in laying their immortelles on the tomb of the dead President. Today there is a “solid South” not in the low and unfriendly sense in which demagogues use the phrase, but in the nobler sense of a South consolidated by a common sorrow; and one with you in the determination to advance the prosperity, the happiness and the glory of the Union, and that, too, without the surrender of one just political principle honestly held by them. This is the day for the inauguration of a new era of harmony and true unity. The great calamity will thus be overruled to the good of the whole land.

“The providence of God sometimes wears a frowning aspect as it approaches, and men’s hearts grow faint with foreboding; but as the providence, which looked like a demon of darkness drew near, is passing away, it turns and looks back upon us with a face sweet and bright as the face of an angel of God. So now the angel of death seems to menace the land over which he is casting his dark shadow, but lo! As we look we see him transfigured. It is the angel of love, dropping peace and goodwill upon the world.”

We can tell from this oration that Moses Drury Hoge’s adamant and fiery feelings from the Civil War had mellowed and there came a kind of peace to Moses.

Moses Drury Hoge’s trek through this world, while already long, was not yet done. In 1884 he went abroad with his oldest son, who had been pursuing his professional studies for two years in Berlin. He also visited England and went to Copenhagen. He gave sermons and orations in almost every foreign city he visited.

 As further time passed, Moses became more and more at home with the change and evolution of his country after the Civil War. One could say he was almost becoming cheery.

In 1888, he again went abroad and attended the London Council of the Presbyterian Alliance. On July 11th of the same year, Moses wrote about a lucky circumstance that occurred while in London:

“It is like telling one’s dream, but it is a waking reality that I am the sole occupant of one the most elegant houses in the West End of London, on one of the most beautiful squares. It happened in this way. For ten days I was at the De Kayser Royal Hotel hard by Blackfriers Bridge; but while I was taking “mine ease in mine own inn,” one of London’s pastors told me a wealthy lady, a member of the church had gone to Scotland to be absent all summer, but had expressed the earnest wish that her’ house be occupied by members of the Alliance during its sessions, and he invited me and another delegate from the South to accept the proffered hospitality of his parishioner… my fellow member had to decline, but, I accepted it and…I found the kind pastor there to receive me and put me in the good care of the good housekeeper.”

So Moses Drury Hoge’s later life had its pleasant surprises.

A grainy picture of Moses Drury Hoge in later life

A grainy picture of Moses Drury Hoge in later life

He continued throughout his life to preach all over the world and all over this country. At times he said things that were committed no time and true for all time. Here something that sounds more as if it came from Confucius, not a Southern Presbyterian minister:

“A nation is but congeries of families, and what the family is, the nation will be.”

He spent 3 summers preaching in Baltimore in the steaming heat of that city. And his letters about that time, not only shows how truly busy he was in old age, but also that he possessed an active sense of humor:

“I was never more thoroughly well than I am this autumn,” he wrote, “although I worked steadily through the entire summer without a day’s rest. It was the hottest summer, too, known for many years.

“I had to go to Bridgeton, NJ on the 20th of July to deliver a centennial oration. It was a day of the most intense heat, so statisticians assure us, for twenty-one years. I spoke in a Grove to two or three thousand people in the afternoon the mercury marking one hundred and one degrees, and made my oration at night in the the church, but I do not know what record the thermometer made of the temperature. It exceeded anything I ever experienced, and when I returned to my room at the hotel, I sat most of the night in the window, sucking lemons and drinking ice-water. I passed the ordeal, however, so well that I converted to the theory of evolution from the lower animals, and think that one of my great ancestors was a salamander.”

As evidenced by the quotes above, Moses was busy and active all his life and, as time passed, his beliefs further moderated and changed. Perhaps, he came to think of the Civil War as the will of God. Perhaps, he came to think of the great and bloody Southern effort to secede from the Union as meant to fail. Perhaps, he came to think of this Great War as the glue which would forever make the American Union strong and immutable to further change. Of course, we all know nothing is immutable to change.

When I got the idea to write something about my great, great, great, great grandfather, Moses Drury Hoge, what intrigued me was here was a man of God, on the side of the South, who preached to Jefferson Davis, to Robert E. Lee, to Stonewall Jackson, to tens of thousands of Confederate troops, to the Southern people. I thought in the beginning it must have been a difficult moral position to be in…to be preaching for freedom in a land based upon slavery.

At the time, I had no real idea of who my relative really was. As I started to do research and discovered that there was an enormous amount of written information about him, I began to be amazed, surprised and then impressed, not only by what words were written about him, but also by his own words, which were so extensively quoted and which I have so liberally re-quoted.

As I read more and more of what Moses said and did, I came to understand that he was much more than the man I thought he was. One thing was fairly clear early on, as read more and more of his letters: Moses was an incredibly eloquent writer and I presume, an incredibly powerful orator. Obvious testament to this was the very breath and scope of his vocabulary. Yes, it was Biblically based, but it also was Classically based. I can only think he must have been far better read man than myself or most people today.

When I came to the time of the Civil War and Moses Drury Hoge’s descriptions of that event, I came to see it for a what was. A searing event that forever changed America and changed Moses. His descriptions of the battlefield, of going through a Confederate hospital, of walking home from the battlefield were detailed, harrowing and rang with sad and horrifying truth. I know many true and forceful things have been written about the Civil War and that there is an enormous amount of material on that conflict. But somehow, when I read the words of Moses Drury Hoge, that war became more near, more terrifying and more sad in my mind.

I think Moses was a truly great man. At the same time, I think he must have been a man conflicted on the inside, surely and clearly knowing that when he preached individual states freedom for the South, it could not continue as long as the South was the home of slavery. So at bottom, inside, Moses was conflicted. This does not show up in his outward words, but it must have been true in his inner self.

I would like to quote the end of Moses Drury Hoge’s oration on Stonewall Jackson:

“In the story of empires of the earth some crisis often occurs which develops the genius of the era, and impresses an imperishable stamp on the character of the people. Such a crisis was the Revolution of 1776, when thirteen thin-settled and widely-separated colonies dared offer the gage of battle to the greatest military and naval power on the globe…

“After innumerable reverses, and incredible sufferings and sacrifices, our father came forth from the ordeal victorious…

“But this day we inaugurate a new era…We come to honor the memory of one who was the impersonation of the Confederate cause…And at last it is Jackson’s clear, ringing tone to which we listen:

‘What is life without honor. Degradation is worse than death. We must think of the living of who are to come after us, and see that by God’s blessing we transmit to them the freedom we have enjoyed.’

“Heaven hear the prayer of our dead, immortal hero.”

So, Moses concluded his oration to Stonewall Jackson in 1875.

I cannot guess what the truth is about Moses, I cannot know how he really felt inside and I do not know how his beliefs finally evolved, but I would love to know and I think whatever he came to believe might have some lesson for us today.

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On Time and Travel

WeiHai in the rain Ocoter 2016

View from my hotel room of WeiHai in the rain October 2016

By Cecil Hoge

I started traveling at a young age. At least that is what I am told. I went to Chicago at the age of one and half to meet my rich aunt Nan. I do not remember many details of that flight, but I am told I was a real fire-cracker of a passenger, crying and screaming from time to time, trying to get out of the wicker basket that I was being carried in (seat belts were not the issue they are today), trying to peer out the window and look down at clouds and the landscape of America below. Yes, it was early flight experience and I do not remember much except the big turning propellers. That was over 70 years ago so I hope you forgive my lack of detail.

I did not travel very much in the next fourteen years…a few trips to Chicago to say hello to the relatives we had out there. I am not counting train rides to various schools, car rides to from the city to beaches and ocean, to Bellport and the Hamptons.

At 16 that changed.

That was when my father came back from a trip to Europe and announced he wanted to marry a German lady and told me he wanted me to meet my new German family. Three weeks later, I was on a Boeing 707 on my way to Berlin. The year was 1958 and the Boeing 707 had just been introduced for travel to Europe three weeks previously. So after my father had decided to remarry, I found myself in the cabin of one of the first 707 jets.

This is the jet plane I flew in.

This is the jet plane I flew in.

And that was a flight I do remember. For one thing, I remember being astonished by the fact that the plane had jet engines on the wings and that there were no propellers. The few earlier flights I had been on, all were in smaller planes and all with props. This was a time when airplane seats were comfortable to sit in. This was a time when pretty young stewardesses came over every few minutes to see if you were comfortable, if you needed a blanket or a snack or a full meal. And I had blast requesting multiple Coca Colas and potato chips and cookies and other good stuff.

What knocked me out about the flight was that they served full meals on the plane with real silverware. That plane ride was also establishing an historical speed record for commercial intercontinental flights because the flight only took nine and half hours – all previous flights to Europe took 14 hours or more and sometimes involved stop-offs in Iceland or Ireland, in which case the flight times were longer – more like going to Asia today. So this was a kind of break-through flight at that time.

The faster flight in the 707 and the sudden emersion into West Berlin culture was a shock to my 16 years old, jet-lagged body. I do not remember what going through customs was like, I just remember sticking close to my father as we were asked various questions. At the airport, we were met by, Fritzi, my new step-mother to be, Papilein and Mutti. Papilein and Mutti were slang for my step-mother’s father and mother.

Berlin was a tremendous mind blowing experience. Meeting my new stepmother to be, meeting her parents, and after we drove in from Tempelhof Airport, her sisters and her young brother was unbelievable. We spent two weeks in Berlin and every day we went different places and did different things.

In its heyday, this was the snazziest, the newest hotel and the tallest hotel in Berlin.

In its heyday, this was the snazziest, the newest hotel and the tallest hotel in Berlin.

I was seeing buildings and museums and restaurants and parks I had never seen. Berlin at that time was still a very barren city, despite the fact there were already a lot of gleaming new buildings. And we found ourselves staying in one particularly new gleaming building. It was a brand-spanking new Hilton Hotel. We were checked into two luxurious rooms. Yes, I had my own single room and this was just another wonder that was hard for me to understand. As I remember it, it was on the 8 or 9th floor. At night I could see the cars and buses and trucks bustling along on the Berlin city streets below with the city light bouncing off the roads below. It was an awesome sight, to use a present day expression.

On several occasions, I went through the Brandenbur Tor into East Germany. Once to listen to Bach Choir concert in some famous East German church, once to visit various Soviet museums where I learned about industrious Soviet women who developed better socket wrenches to improve production of various Soviet products. It was quite a contrast to West Berlin.

This was the Brandenburg Tor

This was the Brandenburg Tor

I have written more detail about this particular trip on this blog in a story called “A Fog Moves into Berlin and I Gain a Stepmother”. So to get more details on my first big trip to Europe and how my father came to marry my stepmother, just scroll down to that story. It is still on this blog.

For the next 8 years I finished Catholic prep school and eventually college, but I did not travel much, except for a few train rides and motorcycle rides back and forth from prep school and college. After emerging from college and a few false starts on the road to life, I entered my father’s business, married my wife, had a child and started to travel on a more regular basis. At first it was just trade shows for our fishing lures and inflatable boats, then it was to visit customers around the country. After a few years, it was to visit suppliers for our fishing lures and inflatable boats in Europe.

I did not mean to become a traveler, although I always thought it was a very cool thing to do. It was just that it became a kind to routine to attend certain trade shows around the states, to visit certain customers around the country and to visit certain suppliers, first in Europe and eventually in Asia. Well, if you travel for 60 years, the effect becomes cumulative and perennial.

I will try to give you an example of a typical year.

In January, I might go to the boat shows in New York or Chicago. In February, I might cruise down to the Miami Boat Show. In March or April, I might be at visiting some fishing lure or inflatable boat customers. In May, I would head to the grand city of Sidney, Nebraska to visit Cabela’s and then come back by way of Springfield, Missouri to visit BassPro’s headquarters. In June, I would head out to visit my big wholesaler fishing lure customer in Chicago and then cruise over to Seattle to visit Costco or a local inflatable boat dealer. And often in June, I would head over to a European Fishing Tackle Show which could be in Paris or Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Milan. In July, you could depend on me
being at the American Fishing Tackle Show, presently called Icast, in St. Louis or Kansas City or Las Vegas or Miami or most recently, Orlando. In August, I would be at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. In September or October or November, no doubt, I would being visiting suppliers, first in Italy and France and in the last 25 years in Asia, in Korea and China.

In some years, I would go two or three times to Europe or Asia, but most years, just once. But the trips to suppliers were always long because we always visited four or more suppliers in Europe or Asia. And if you were trying to visit four or five suppliers, you would have to take 1, 2 or 3 days with each and then were weekends, which meant that your Sundays and sometimes, your Saturdays, were free. Anyway, add it all up and the supplier trips were usually always 3 or 4 weeks, depending on which countries I going to and how long I had to spend in each place. These days I try to keep my trips to three weeks, but even that is very difficult.

Now I have been traveling like this for forty years, so that amount of travel really does add up. I have pretty much visited every major city in the U.S. once or more. I have visited France and Italy each about 20 to 25 times – I have lost count. I have been visiting China once or twice year since 1993 and Korea once or twice a year since 1997. Then there is the odd country here and there – Japan twice, Taiwan twice, Costa Rica twice, Germany four or five times, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway one or two times. So in the end I think it is true to say that I have traveled pretty far and pretty wide.

I have said in other places in this blog that is is very hard for travelers to explain their travels to non-travelers. It is my theory that the world is divided between travelers and non-travelers and while it is easy enough to tell someone about a trip, it is almost impossible for a non-traveler to understand what your trip is actually like. This is because, if you have not experienced travel, it is hard for non-travelers to relate to the stories of a traveler.

With that said, I would like to relate what a recent trip to Asia was like. I know it is an impossible to really capture the experiences I had, but I will try to explain just one trip.

This is a new city in Korea where we tested boats. Five years ago it existed only as an architech's scale model. Today there are 50,000 people living here.

This is a new city in Korea where we tested boats. Five years ago it existed only as an architect’s scale model. Today there are 50,000 people living here.

It happens that I am recently back from a trip to Korea and China. Now this trip is particularly short, just nine days, so it might be easier. In the last two years, I have cut back my trips because my wife has had some back and knee issues and I wanted to stay nearby. So this particular trip was less than half the normal trip to Aisia.

Any trip these days starts with an airplane ride. To get to the airport, JFK in this case, we chose to take a limo. So I got picked up by a nice driver some Central American country (Honduras, if I remember) named Julio from my house in Setauket and then with one heavy bag in the trunk and my business bag inside, we head off to pick Ryan Healey, a guy who works with us and handles our inventory management. That means he buys boats and accessories for our inflatable boat business.

We stop in St. James, pick up Ryan and head out to JFK. It is a trip that lasts a little over an hour. After some discussion with the driver about corruption in South America and the upcoming presidential election – Julio immigrated to the States about 30 years ago, thinks America is the greatest country in world and is worried about corruption in Central America, turmoil in the Middle East and the election in the States.

The ride goes quickly and Ryan and I enjoy Julio’s thoughts on the state of the world. Julio seems to be a very intelligent guy very up to date on world events. He is particularly worried that Iran, with Russia’s help, will takeover over the oil in the Middle East.

“What are we going to do without that oil?” He asks.

I try to console him by saying we are doing a lot more fracking these days (a practice I am not thrilled about) and now have quite a bit of oil. We get out of the car, start dragging our heavy bags into the terminal, leaving Julio to ponder how he might drive back and forth from Kennedy if the Iranians and Russians take all that Middle Eastern oil.

For the last 20 years or so we discovered that we can trade American Express points (of which we have a lot) for business class flights all over the world. This makes travel a whole lot more comfortable. Accordingly, we cruise up to the Korean Air business counter, check our bags, which conveniently are not that heavy ( just under 23 kilos/50 lbs.). That is not important for business class because they will accept pretty much any bag, no matter the weight, but it will be important later on our other flights inside Korea and China, as will be explained later.

Now business class is nice in many ways. It is not quite as comfortable as first class and nowhere near the comfort of flying  your own jet where you have full power to outfit the plane as you wish and where you employ people to wait on you hand and foot. But we are not billionaires. That said, business class is pretty damn comfortable. First of all, check in is a lot easier.

The line for economy is 15 to 20 times longer than business class. So, with business class, you can usually cruise through in less than 5 or 10 minutes. But after that, there is security and security is completely democratic these days. There were times in the more pleasant past, when there was a special lane for business class or first passengers, allowing them to cruise through security far faster, but these days we are all into in it together – at least in JFK on the October 15th, Sunday noon hour, 2016.

So getting through security involves winding around on a line that takes about 20 minutes (the line is relatively light on this Sunday), taking off your shoes, removing everything from your pockets and getting radiated or scanned by some infrared technology that helps detect bombs and weapons by perhaps imparting more radiation or something else which you may not need. No matter, while not without its irritations, it seems better to get scanned or to get a vertical MRI, than have people shoot you or place bombs on your plane.

Once through security, you then have to make your way to customs so they can can check that you have the proper papers (valid passport, valid visa for China) to legally leave the country. That takes another 10 minutes or so, and then, finally you are released to area where duty free shops, restaurants, bars and business class lounges are all available.

Now, I can say the process of getting through an airport was infinitely easier and more pleasant 20 or 30 years ago. 30 years ago, there literally was almost no security. Yes, you had to present your passport and ticket at the ticket counter and check your bag. And then all you had to do, was go through customs. There was literally no actual security. So the whole process took far less time.

Anyway, we head to the business class lounge to soak up some coffee and itty bitty sandwiches before getting on the plane. After and hour or so, the computer screen showing the flights that are boarding starts to start blinking for our flight. We head down to the terminal gate, get in on the business class line, which though about a tenth of the length of the economy line, still has a good 50 or 60 people waiting to board. The plane we are going to fly today is an Airbus 380, quite literally the biggest commercial airplane in the world.

In due time we file onto the plane and are lead to our seats in business class. Now Korean Air Business Class is different from some other airlines, like Delta. In Delta, for example, you have this magnificent angled bed, but you are absolutely separated from the passenger seated next you. Korean Air is more democratic having business class seats where the passengers can actually talk to one another. I like the Democratic setup because sometimes you find yourself seated next someone interesting.

And in this particular seat it turned out that there was a nice young lady next to me who is a shoe designer for Tory Burch. After the flight takes off we strike up a conversation. This lady is on her way to Hong Kong where she and another designer will be picked up and whisked into the city of Dongguan.

A couple of things about the city of Dongguan…it is a city that I regularly visit. When I first started going to Dongguan it was extremely seedy and depressing looking and there was only one hotel near the factory we were visiting that seemed reasonably safe, that was a 5 star hotel called The Silverland. In 20 short years everything changed. New highways were built in every direction coming in and going out of the city. Extremely well manicured gardens began to appear along each highway. New hotels and giant shopping malls were erected. Pretty soon the city began to have many beautiful sections. In that period, The Silverland became outdated and surrounded by 4 or 5 bigger and more glamorous 5 star hotels. This all took place in the space of 20 years.

Meanwhile, on the 380 Airbus, I had a very nice conversation with the young shoe designer for Tory Burch. It turned out that she had previously been traveling to and working in Italy, Spain and Brazil. So the young lady has gotten around.  As things would have it, Tory Burch, the famous company she designs for, decided to move its shoe manufacturing and shoe design facilities first from Italy to Spain, then to Brazil and then to China. Such is the state of modern out-sourcing these days. So this meant that first this lady was going back and forth every 30 days to Italy, then every 30 days to Spain, and she then every 30 days to Brazil.

And now this young lady found herself on the way to Dongguan, via Hong Kong. I did not envy the lady’s ride, having made the same leg several times. The flight today is thirteen and half hours from JFK to Seoul. After that, the young lady must move to the transit lounge at Incheon Airport, and after a two hour layover, she would have to get on a flight to Hong Kong. Of course, flights every 30 days back and forth to Italy and Brazil are no picnic either, so I am guessing this young lady is up to the trials she has to face. Travel requires stamina and it is most definitely a younger person’s game.

The young lady was in her own words, “Living the life.”

In her case, that meant she was living in Brooklyn with her artist husband and they were having a blast. Restaurants, bars, museums, theaters, movies, concerts, designer parties, artist parties. The future was wide open and the city was theirs.

Did she plan to have kids, I asked. Not just yet, she said. She wanted to get a few more years under her belt and then she and her husband would raise the nuclear family.

Anyway, we had a nice conversation. After lunch on the plane, we decided to go back to the lounge area and sit around and chat. My associate, Ryan came in and joined and so did the other designer from Tory Burch, who turned out to be a nice British lady in her forties. There we talked about travel, about changes in China, about Italy, Brazil, China, about shoes, about design, about travel, about the difficulty of explaining travel to people who did not travel.

It was a fun conversation and soon enough we ambled back to our seats, got some sleep and before you realized it, we were landing.

Benjamin Franklin, one of our country’s founders, scientist, printer, businessman, inventor, diplomat and man about town said something about travel that I always thought was quite true. And that was, when you travel, you ended up doing about twelve times more things. It was literally like living 12 years in one. He regarded travel as a kind of extension on life because you met so many people, did so many more things, dropped in on places that you never would otherwise have gone, did things you never otherwise would have done, talked to people you never would have spoken to, learned things you never would have learned.

I think this is still quite true. Today travel starts the moment you leave your home. Almost immediately you are talking to new people, considering new ideas. This happens in a limousine to the airport, in an airplane to a country. You meet people, you start interacting with them and your journey begins.

Now, you may say that the real journey only begins when you get to the country or place you are traveling to, but I think it starts before. I think it starts the moment you begin your journey.

Anyway, about fourteen hours after getting on the plane, I said goodbye to the girl designing shoes and made my way, with Ryan through customs, then down to baggage claim and then out the door into the terminal arrivals area. Sure enough, there was Chris Jung, our factory contact, there to greet us, there to grab my bag and ask if the flight had been satisfactory. Chris is the young Korean guy who manages our account and tries to keep up with our various requests to change products, to make new products, to deliver faster, to improve quality control, and in this case, to drive us to our hotel.

Chris leads us to the P. Diddy van. At least that is what we call it. I am pretty sure Sean John Combs never owned this particular van, but from the look of it, you could imagine P. Diddy and a group of his buddies piling into, drinking Courvoisier and heading out to the club. The van is a fine sight inside, with tinted windows and window blinds to pull down just in case someone was trying to peer in, a righteous stereo, GPS, Internet and a solid selection of action movies, with a movie screen just above the mirror.

Chris turns on the local GI station which seems to want to play an eclectic combination of rap, Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Ed Sheeron, Eminem, Bruno Mars, classic country and pop. Ryan and I feel right at home as we peel out of Incheon Airport and head for downtown Incheon. The idea that Incheon Airport might be next to Incheon City is a quaint one since it is about a 40 minute ride over spanking new expressways and over under passes before we make our way into the actual city of Incheon, but all things considered, after a 14 hour flight, the P. Diddy ride is painless and pretty soon we are pulling up to our hotel.

Just before we arrive, Chris asks the all important question, have we had dinner?

This is a picture of downtown Incheon, near where we ate

This is a picture of downtown Incheon, near where we ate

We reply no, since we do not count the dinner we had 12 hours ago on the plane, not to mention, the lunch and breakfast that came 8 hours and 4 hours ago. Riding a plane builds up your hunger. I am convinced of that.

So Chris Jung suggests that we go around the corner to a local Korean barbecue. First Ryan and I check into the hotel, present our passports, bring our bags to our rooms, take a few minutes to wash up, and then head down to the lobby. We walk across the street and about half a block away and within a few minutes we are enjoying Korean barbecue.

For those of you who don’t know, Korean barbecue is where you sit at a table with a charcoal or propane burner in the center of the table. Then a Korean lady brings about 15 little plates of different vegetables, spices, fish and meats. An absolute must among these dishes is Kimchi, which is a kind of sauerkraut that comes in 50 of so varieties. The simplest form of this a kind of cabbage that has been left to marinate in some kind of sauce. It sounds gross, but it is actually kind of addictive. It is a staple of the Korean diet.

As soon as they bring these dishes, you can dig in with stainless steel chopsticks and a stainless spoon. The stainless steel chopsticks are harder than wooden chopsticks, since they tend to be slippery. A couple of points about the 15 different little plates. It is not always clear which of these dishes are meant to eaten as food and which are meant to be spices for other dishes. Fortunately, Chris is there to help point us in the right direction giving a giggle whenever we might try to take a bite out some spice or sauce meant to be combined with something else.

Almost immediately the nice Korean lady brings tea, water and fires up the burner and the middle of the table. Then other plates of raw meats arrive, chicken, steak, pork and shrimp. All of this is delicious and within minutes we are plowing through a wide variety of Korean vegetables, meats and fish.

Ryan and I are having a good time demolishing all the 50 or so little dishes when my brother John suddenly arrives along with Greg and May May.

Now John’s travel story is different than ours. He is about two thirds through a trip around the world. John started about 10 days before us, first going to Berlin, then to a small town in East Germany, then back to Berlin, then on to Istanbul, and two days earlier on to Korea via Abu Dhabi. In Korea, John met with our fishing lure customer (we sell things in foreign countries as well as buy things) one day before we arrived. And then today, before we arrived in Korea, John drove with our Korean lure customer Greg and his associate, May May Kim, down to the middle of Korea to go fishing with some of our Panther Martin lures to see if they work.

John let’s us know it has been a successful fish and they have caught a number of Korean fish. The fish are apparently a small version of trout. Greg, May May and John are all pleased with the day’s fishing. Chris Jung is little bit confused wondering where John and these other Koreans have come from. After a little discussion, some short introductions, everybody gets the jist who everybody else is. Greg takes this opportunity to order some barbecue and we settle in for a kind of second dinner, which in Ryan’s and our case, might be called a fourth dinner since we have been eating nonstop our way from JFK to Incheon.

Anyway, It is a jovial fest. Greg explains what he does – primarily selling cosmetics and clothing into China. Greg has a special love of fishing and has decided that in the future fishing will become popular in China and Korea, even if his present is rooted in selling Chinese girls Korean clothes and cosmetics. It seems that young Chinese ladies are attracted to the hot young Korean ladies living and looking the life on Korean soaps. It is a strange world sometimes, hard to figure.

We finish dinner, Greg and Chris share the tab, and then we walk across the street to our new hotel and say goodbye to our hosts. A big thing with travel is hooking up the various electronics that you inevitably bring. Fortunately, in my room there are two good plugs, conveniently fitted with Western style plug fittings for 110 volts, even if the outgoing electric is 220 volts. Plugs and volts used to be a big deal on travel, but these days it is less of a hassle. I do carry spare converter plugs for different situations, but it seems that on my stay in Korea these will be unnecessary. I do have a double hook up that allows me to charge my cell and iPad at the same time. The second plug I use for charging my Jawbone speaker and iPod alternatively.

I believe in bringing music wherever I go because local Korean TV can be a little difficult and because I get bored with CNN or BBC English language news. Music allows a different mindset, which can be very helpful when making your way in a different country.

Now you would think that I would be a little tired after 14 hour flight and a long Korean dinner and you would be right, but I believe in ignoring time zones and staying up late when you arrive so when you do go to sleep, you really sleep. My brother John is a little tuckered by the Korean fishing and perhaps the ten previous days of travel from the other side of the world, so says he is going to crash. Ryan and I agree to meet downstairs to head out for a walk and a chat at one the local sit down cafes.

So after setting up my electronic paraphernalia, hanging up some clothes in my new closet which is large enough for about 4 hangars and washing my face quickly, I head down to the lobby and stroll outside where Ryan is waiting for a walk and sit-down chat. Now the weather in Korea on this particular trip is quite warm. I would guess the temperature to be in the low seventies or high sixties. So it was quite pleasant to go for an evening stroll.

Within a block of this hotel, The Hotel Koryo, are several brightly lit streets of bars, restaurants and cafes. Ryan and I settle down in one of the outdoor cafes and chat up our experiences on the trip so far, discuss a little of what we will be doing the next day. We are to be picked up at the hotel at 9:30 am and by this time it still relatively early, being around 10:30 pm Korean time. After about 45 minutes of chitchat, we head back to the hotel and our respective rooms. Both of us have been up for about 30 hours straight so it really is time for some sleep.

The next morning, I get up, do a few exercises in my room – I bring a kind of pocket gym with me – a handgrip, a jump rope, elastic arm and leg bands and, most importantly, a hackysack. After my exercises, I head downstairs to the second floor where they serve complimentary breakfast. It is a kind buffet style setup, with sections for American style food, European style food, Korean and Chinese food. A nice touch is that they have guy standing by wearing a nice white chef’s hat ready to make eggs on demand.

I like to stick with an American breakfast because after that I know that will be the last thing that I eat that is remotely American for the rest of the day. Now I do cheat a little bit and throw on some Kimchi and noodles on my plate, but mostly it is eggs over medium, croissants and jelly. This system seems to work for me and provides, I think, a good base for the many varieties of Korean fare that will come later.

When we get down to the lobby and walk out the door, there is the P. Diddy van with Chris waiting to power our chariot on to the new offices. Inside, Bruno Mars is singing about uptown funk. Today we are visiting Woosung, our Korean boat inflatable supplier. We wend our way through Incheon traffic. It is a city of 3 million people, not nearly as crowded as Seoul, which is just 20 miles away and can take an easy 3 hours to get across. That said, traffic in Incheon is crowded and slow, even by New York standards. After about ten minutes and a mile or so, we pull up to the new and impressive offices of our supplier.

When we first began buying inflatables from Woosung, they were quite a small manufacturer with one office and factory in a space of about 30,000 square feet. Like many Korean companies in the last 20 years, they grew rapidly, changed their original factory for another larger factory and then built on to their new factory building, which was originally about 50,000 square feet and then became 75,000 square feet of offices and factories.

Today, they now have a new building for their offices and are still using the 75,000 square feet for manufacturing. The office building is brand new and has six floors and a whole slew of young Koreans working as managers and designers. If you had visited their original space and then saw their new spaces you would be impressed and startled by the many changes. But that does not tell the whole story since Woosung also has two additional factories in China and one in Vietnam. This is a company that has probably increased it sales 30 times since we started visiting it in 1997.

To get in the building there is a special security card needed. This is helpfully supplied by Chris. Once inside the glass enclosed lobby, there is a display of various inflatable boat models, some of which are ours, that they have made for various customers. To left of the entrance is a mini Mistral Store – this is the French brand that they have licensed to sell clothing, sunglasses and other kinds of sporting equipment under in Korea. As we approach the elevator there is a digital screen a over the elevator scrolling the following message:

“Welcome, honored guests, Cecil Hoge, John Hoge and Ryan Healey.”

It is nice to be recognized as you come in the door.

We take the elevator to the fourth floor. We come out and take an immediate right to say hello to their Korean sales team that has assembled to greet us. This includes Walter Kim (our account manager leader), Larry Lim (head of production), his son Mike, now working in sales, Jenny Park, Kevin Kim, Chris Jung and about six other sales gals and guys. They are all young, thin and you might notice that they have all American fist names and a limited number of Korean last names. That is pretty much the case for the whole country. The American first names are strictly for sales purposes – the theory being if an English speaking person can pronounce your first name he might buy more and Because English is pretty much the official business language in Asia. Regarding last names, Kim, Lim, Park & Lee seem to account for about 80% of the last names in Korea.

After saying hello, shaking hands and half- bowing to the sales team, we about face and head for the conference room, which is located in the opposite direction, just to the right of a room ominously labeled, The War Room. We never got into the War Room so I am not quite sure what goes on there. I imagine, 50 or 60 grim-faced Koreans gathered in the room with Haji Lee, the owner. As soon as Haji arrives, he harangues them for an hour or so on some sales imperative of the day.

In any case, we case go off the big conference room which can sit 20 or so people and place our bags on one side. Outside is a nice view of the city of Incheon. Chris then tells us it is time to go and meet Haji, so we dutifully file out of the conference room, get into the elevator and head up to the fifth floor. There we take a right turn, where we see a sign saying “Oldest and Best Customer”. Below is our company name: Sea Eagle Boats, Inc. with a picture of John and myself.

We are one Woosung’s oldest customers, that part is correct, having first visited their far smaller offices and factory in 1997, during their great currency collapse. In the early years of doing business with them, we did become their best overall customer. That is no longer true. Today, we have been surpassed by many new customers. Woosung manufactures inflatable boats, kayaks and standup paddleboards for a wide variety of customers. Hobie Cat, Naisch, Starboard, NRS, are just a few of their staunch customers. While we are still a pretty good customer, we are nowhere near their best customer. Anyway, it is nice to be honored with a sign.

In the room beyond is Haji Lee’s office. It has a big, wide desk, piled high with papers and documents and a mini conference table also and a great view of city outside. Haji is sitting at his desk, looks up, says, “oh,” or something like it in Korean, jumps up and comes over to shake hands and greet. Haji is vigorous and energetic man in everything he does and he almost seems to approach you on the run.

We shake hands, chit-chat a little on our respective flights, our lack of or presence of jetlag, some discussion on where Ryan and I came from and a little discussion of where John came from. After that is done, we sit down in the very comfy chairs in Haji’s mini conference room. Actually, I call that the quality face time table. Asians seems to like to sit down, ask a few questions, look at each other for about 20 minutes, trying, I guess, to discern some inner meaning, and then after 20 minutes of some tea and mostly quiet saying little or nothing, suddenly get up and move back down to the big conference room on the floor below. It seems to be an important thing to do.

Haji tells us, as usual, that he has a few other things to do before joining us in the conference room. Judging from the stack of catalogs, documents and magazines, that could be a few minutes or several hours. Anyway, we head back down to the conference room. There we are joined by Larry Lim, Walter Kim and Chris Jung.

I do not know how other people conduct their foreign meetings, but in our case, we write up an agenda of points to be discussed and send it to them a couple of weeks before we arrive. After we make up our agenda, Woosung then makes up their agenda, which is half in English and half in Korean. It is not identical to ours, but it does tend to follow our original plan with a little Korean twist and turn here and there.

Basically, in the beginning we have general review of how the year went for us, how it went for them. Then we move on to general hopes and goals. In this part, Woosung usually shows us some videos on new products that they working on, some of which may be related to what we we do and some of which may have nothing to do with what we do. Then we go over problem issues. These can be quality problems, defects issues, payment issues, unresolved issues. Then we review new prototypes, discuss new products and here what suggestions Woosung wishes to make. Usually, we set also aside a day or half a day for boat testing of new models. Last of all, we discuss pricing.

That is the schedule of our meetings in one paragraph, but the reality of our meetings is that it takes 3 full and long days to go over all the various points.

Before beginning, I want to await for the arrival of Haji Lee. To bide our time, an young Korean lady comes in bringing green tea or coffee. When in Asia, I stick with a steady intake of tea, so I am happy to go with the green tea. John and Ryan stick with Western culture and go with the coffee. Shortly after starting to sip our tea and coffee, Haji comes charging in.

I begin by asking what their take on the year is. Haji says it has not been the best. The Standup Paddle Board business, which had enjoyed tremendous growth, now has slowed down. Transom boat business – inflatable boats taking 10 to 40 hp engines – is basically dead. His Mistral brand business, which he started last year, is now up to 12 shops around Korea, is growing, but not growing as fast as anticipated. Inflatable kayaks have been a bright spot (this is good since that is the main business we are in). They have hopes for a new business – inflatable rescue structures – but that business has not yet started. The cow mattress business has been steady, but not growing.

Before going further, I must tell you about Haji’s cow mattress business. It is a little out of the ordinary and perhaps not what you think about when considering inflatable boats. It seems some years ago a Canadian company came to Haji with a strange idea. They wanted to make cow beds for cows. After some interrogation, Haji found out that a comfortable cow is a happy cow and a happy cow gives more milk. At the time, the Canadian company was making cow beds using a fabric bladder with polyethylene foam inside. This seemed to work OK, except after a short time, the cow, weighing up to 3,000 lbs. and having relatively hard hooves, would puncture the cow mattress cover and shortly thereafter the foam would get ground to powder. Anyway, the Canadian company thought maybe inflatable boat material was stronger and better than the truck tarp material they were using for the foam covers.

Haji began to make some mattress covers to hold the foam material. The inflatable boat material did last longer, but the foam did not. This definitely did work better, but the fabric would still burst after one or two years and the foam basically was crushed to dust with two months. That meant they had to replace the inner foam section every two or three months. You might think this was unacceptable to the Canadian cow bed company, but in actual fact they were happy since they were getting longer life than out of the previous products.

Now let me explain something here that might surprise you. The cow mattress business is quite large. I certainly was surprised. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to go out to dinner with Haji, a number of his employees and two of the owners of Canadian cow mattress company. That evening the two Canadian owners gave me a little history on their company and the cow mattress business in general. For me, it was a whole new world.

Apparently, there is a great need to keep cows comfortable. This is because, as mentioned before, comfortable cows produce more milk. In the the history of cows and milk and how to manage that, at first there was mud and straw. This was the prevailing system for the last couple of thousand years, but it was messy and neither the cows nor the farmers liked the mud and straw. The cows because it was muddy and messy and cold and uncomfortable. The farmers because it was muddy and messy and hard to keep clean.

So in the late 20 century, some farmers got the bright idea put concrete and straw down where before there was only mud and straw. This was definitely easier to keep clean for the farmers, but the cows did not like it because, let’s face it, concrete, even with some straw on it, is not very comfortable. Along the way, it was noticed by the farmers that the cows seemed more agitated when sleeping on concrete and, more importantly for the farmer, they gave less milk.

This got the farmers to thinking. Maybe there was a way to make cows more comfortable and stalls easier to clean. So they consulted some experts who suggested using foam cushions. This was about the time the two Canadian guys began to get interested in the cow bed industry. They had been supplying farmers with needed things for farming such as straw for beds, hay for food, milk pales and other cow-milking equipment. It seemed natural for the two Canadians to start providing foam mattresses.

Now you would think that foam mattresses would be pretty durable and you would be right…for humans. However, as mentioned, cows weigh 1,500 to 3,000 lbs. and they have hooves. When they go to their stall, after grazing in the field, they are not real careful how they step on the foam mattresses under them. Two things happened from this usage. The cows’ hooves would break through the cover around the foam mattresses. The second thing that happened is that the cows hooves crushed the foam to dust wherever they stepped on the foam. This process of breaking through the cover and crushing the foam, did not occur instantly, but within two or three months and foam mattress cover would look like it had been shot through with holes and the foam inside would look like it had been ground into fine particulate matter.

Not helping this problem was the fact that the cows came to like to munch on the exposed foam. This made many cows sick and caused some to die. The two Canadian gentlemen were discouraged by this and decided to seek another solution. Perhaps, they could make inflatable air beds for the cows. This is when they suggested this improvement to Haji. Haji, always liking a new and different challenge, and also liking the idea of making the whole product where he could charge more, started making inflatable air beds for cows.

The inflatable air beds did do better than the foam mattresses, but the still got destroyed by the cows after two or three months. It seems that cow hooves and air beds do not get along. Punctures would occur and then the mattresses would go flat. Now the two Canadian guys were still able to sell this product, because while they lasted, the air mattresses were far more comfortable for the cows and that meant they produced 40% more milk. That was a good deal for the farmers. It seemed that farmers, once they got sold on cow comfort and more milk, were willing to pay for air mattresses even if they only lasted 3 months or so.

The business itself began to flourish. At first the two Canadian were selling a few hundred mattresses, then a few thousand mattresses. Pretty soon, they were selling over 5,000 air mattresses for cow beds a year. And this was a pretty good business for Haji and the two Canadian guys. Haji was was selling the cow beds for over $200 each and the Canadians were selling the cow beds to farmers for over $500. In other words, in pretty short order Haji was selling over $1,000,000 of cow beds a year and the two Canadians were selling over $2,500,000 a year. It was becoming a business.

Still, there was a problem of durability. Farmers were getting tired of buying replacement air beds four times a year. This is when a new innovation came along. The two Canadians figured that if they used gel, they might get longer life from their cow beds. And they were right. The inflatable cow beds, now filled with gel rather than air, did last longer, about a year.

On the basis of this innovation, the cow bed business grew rapidly. Soon Haji was selling 10,000 cow beds a year. He did not fill these with gel. Rather he sent them empty to Canada and the Canadians provided the gel. Everybody was happy for a while. Haji and Canadians sold more cow beds than ever, the Cows were more comfortable and gave 40% more milk and the farmers were happy because they bought cow beds less often, they got more milk which they sold for more money. It was a win, win.

But progress never stops. About this time, Haji started working with drop stitch material and starting making Standup Paddleboards with this new inflatable innovation. Drop stitch material is two layers of material with millions of woven threads going back and forth between the two layers of fabric. This allows you to make rectangular shapes because the threads hold the two layers of fabric at a specific width. This material, the two Canadians realized, was perfect for making cow beds. For one thing, you could add layers of fabric top and bottom making the material far stronger. For another, you could have quite high pressures and a flat cleanable surface. This is important when farmers who have to clean up cows after they have done their business. That is because cows do not pay that much attention to where they do their business and that often meant that cow beds became pretty dirty.

Again, the new drop stitch material, with its heavier layers of material and with air inside instead of gel solved a lot of problems and it also lasted longer. It was easier to ship, easier to setup and easier to clean. Even so, drop stitch cow beds did not last forever, but now they were getting two or three years of use. And as the technology improved, so did the sales. Sales were now over 20,000 cow beds a year. So that is a brief history of one the product Haji was producing.

So at this meeting Haji let’s know that the cow bed business is still good and he is hoping to sell another 20,000 cow beds in 2016.

Haji then explained some of the new businesses he is trying to enter. One is a unique rescue product that you drop from an airplane or helicopter and it automatically inflates providing an inflatable structure that 100 or 200 people can hang on to. This product is to be used in life or death situations, when a plane is crashing into the sea or when a ship is sinking. The safety device can be on board a ship or plane or it can be brought to the rescue site by a helicopter or plane or a boat. In any case, it can be deployed in minutes and it is large enough for 100 or 200 people to hang on to until somebody comes to rescue them.

Since this is new product, not yet on the market, I cannot really tell you more other than in the video we saw, it looked like it will really work. Haji and his company have spent two years testing and developing this product. They hope to start selling it in 2017.

Haji went on to tell us about some other new products – inflatable water bike (the bike was not inflatable, just the pontoons holding the bike), an electric moped that they are thinking to sell in Korea and some other products. We watch a video showing the water bike peddling along on water. It looked like it really worked and we immediately said we would have an interest in selling it when it was ready. Haji shows some literature on the electric bike. I am not quite clear why Haji wants to be in the electric bike business, since that seems pretty crowded and not directly related to water bikes, standup Paddleboards, inflatable kayaks and inflatable cow beds. But that is the way Haji is, he is always looking to get into something new and different.

We then went over how our sales have been. Down in Standup Paddleboards, up in kayaks, up in fishing boats, up in transom boats. We go over some of our hopes for the future…large sales of transom boats in India for rescue work (we have already sold over 100 boats to India for flood rescue work in 2016) and we are bidding on several new large contracts. In short, we think this can be a big new business for us. In summary, we mention that 2016 is our best year ever and that we will sell around 2o,000 inflatable boats, kayaks or SUPs in 2016.

By this time, we have already arrived at lunchtime in Korea, so we all evacuate the conference room and head upstairs to the sixth floor. That is where the new company cafeteria is located. There are 40 or 50 people eating there in a dining room off to the left. We head over to the executive section on the right which is a cordoned off table for about 20. Today, we are about 12. Haji has invited some wealthy friend of his to lunch with us and he tells us about some new relaxation device he is hopping to sell a million units. Apparently, this gentleman is very successful in the kitchen appliance business. At the moment, he seems more interested in talking up his new product.

We all try the device which kind of wraps around your neck and stomach. I can see it does provide some support, but it seems bulky and ungainly to me. Haji’s Korean friend enthusiastically explains how they plan to sell one million units, apparently, if I understand him correctly, in the next 6 months. He wonders whether we might interested in selling this in the States. We politely try to explain that it is a little outside of selling inflatable boats and fishing lures.

Anyway, we have a nice Korean meal, with different kinds of Kimchi, fresh fish, tofu, assorted vegetables, some fried eggs, some meats, a cup of rice, some delicious spicy soup and other things I am not quite clear on. Now my rule wherever I travel is to eat whatever is placed before me, so I plow through quite happily. It is all quite delicious and pretty healthy, I am guessing.

After lunch in the cafeteria, it is back down to the conference room. We are still in the introductory phase, not having discussed specific problems, new designs, new orders, shipping schedules, new order plans or a review of goods already ordered and on the sea somewhere. Today is Monday and it is mostly for introductory discussion and review of samples. Tomorrow, we are scheduled to test several prototypes on a nearby waterway.

So after sitting down in the conference room for more general chitchat, we head over to the actual factory, which is about a half a mile away. The traffic makes short distance another 10 minute journey. As we go into the factory, we slip on protective shoe covers that are required and are supposed eliminate or reduce any dirt coming into the factory floor. Putting these elastic foot covers on is not so easy, since you have to balance on one leg. I have developed a tried and true method for this by leaning on a nearby wall.

We start on the first floor where several prototypes are waiting our inspection. Today we are reviewing a fishing kayak, a racing Standup Paddleboard and a new kind of drop stitch transom boat. Since I am in the process of applying for a patent on the new kind of all drop stitch transom boat, I will not divulge too much information on that, other than to say that I am hoping it will be very light, easy to assemble, fast to row and motor. None of that is known when you make a prototype. Basically, the prototype process is a hit or miss proposition. You throw out your best ideas and they either work or they don’t.

I head over to the prototype of the drop stitch transom boat while my brother and Ryan head over to the racing SUP. Both look better than I anticipated. Again, that is something that is hard to know in advance. You make a drawing of something you want your supplier to make and it either comes out the way you think or it is close or it is way off the mark. Anyway, I am happy with the appearance of the new kind of transom boat. We are with Haji Lee, the owner, Larry Lim, the head of production, and Chris Jung, our contact for the Sea Eagle products that they make for us, and several workers and technicians in the factory.

I shake hands with the chubby Korean guy who always makes the first prototypes. He kind of bows. I bow back. I am thinking I must be a very frustrating guy for him because he has been making strange prototypes for us for about 10 or 15 years and most of the time, we end up only selecting just a few of those prototypes to be actual products. And worse, sometimes, I take a very long to decide what features and dimensions a new product should have.

For example, I took 5 years and 14 prototypes to decide what the actual final dimensions and features of our new Sea Eagle RazorLite all drop stitch inflatable kayaks would be. I can imagine that Haji Lee, Larry Lim and the somewhat chubby Korean gentleman who makes the physical prototypes were not very happy with me. But then again, we have now sold our first 1,000 RazorLites in less than two short years and now it is looking like all those prototypes might actually have been worth it.

Now some projects are much easier. The Sea Eagle NeedleNose SUPs (Standup Inflatable Paddleboards) turned out to be a much easier project. I made a drawing on my iPad at the Outdoor Retailer Show in about an hour and half. It came to me in a moment of inspiration that that inflatable SUPs could be made with a rigid bow mold at the front in order to pierce through waves. This, I cleverly called, a wave piercing design.

So, in an hour and half, sitting in my booth at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, amid talking to customers and to Chris Jung from Woosung (who happened to be there), I drew this new NeedleNose design – the shape, the dimensions and bow mold. It was pretty crude because I had just begun to learn the drawing program (which was called iDraw), but it was clear enough for my supplier, who happened to be at the show. So, an hour an hour later, I hit the send button and a PDF of the drawing went to Chris Jung and Larry Lim, both of whom happened to be in the States at the show sitting a few feet from me. That was in August of 2006.

Three months later they had made a bow mold of this new design and we were on the water testing the first prototype of this new model. Unlike almost all prototypes we receive, there was almost nothing to change – a slight movement of a few d-rings, the addition of a large D-ring for a paddle leash, the decision of where to put our logo and SUP safety instructions. Two months later we were selling and shipping this model and I applied for a patent on this design. The rest, as they say, is history. I got the patent and we have now sold over 5,000 of these NeedleNose SUPs.

After looking over the transom boat, I walked over and started asking questions and looking at the racing NeedleNose. It really is the same as our standard 12′ 6″ NeedleNose. It was 4″ narrower in order to increase speed. We were building this new model specifically for young lady in Okinawa named, Marta Hogan. She is an avid SUP racer and wanted to use our board for SUP races around Asia – you can see her picture below.

The board we designed for Marta was not only narrower, it has an American fin box without the two side skegs we usually have and it was missing the stainless steel D-rings we normally have for those who want to use a seat and the nylon D-rings and elastic cord we have to for those who want to be able to stow gear. This was because Marta wanted the board as light as possible and wanted the ability to change out skegs for different racing conditions. Other than that it is essentially the same craft and the same shape, although considerably narrower. The prototype looks beautiful, but I very worried that it will be unstable on the water. Going faster will not help if the paddler cannot stand on it.

This is the energetic lady we were making the new 26" wide NeedleNose SUP for. In this picture she is pivoting on our standard Sea Eagle NeedleNose.

This is the energetic lady, Marta Hogan, that we were making the new 26″ wide NeedleNose SUP for. In this picture Marta is pivoting on our standard Sea Eagle NeedleNose.

We move on to the third prototype which is our new fishing FastTrack. This is a fishing version of our Sea Eagle FastTrack. It features what we call “Crocodile” EVA – this is a 1/4″ thick foam padding on the side pontoons and on the cockpit floor. I decided to put this EVA padding on to protect against fish hooks and fish fins. Of the two, fish fins are far more likely to cause puncture problems, by the way. In looking at the prototype Woosung has made for us, we immediately decide that we should use more of the “Crocodile” EVA since it is relatively cheap, very durable and looks really cool. Accordingly, we tell Chris Jung that we want the EVA to extend further down and around on each sides of the pontoons.

We also discuss whether it is possible to add a fish ruler to one side of the kayak so a fisherman or fisher lady can measure the size of the fish they have caught without having to paddle to shore – this is important, especially if there are regulations regarding the minimum size fish that you can keep. We discuss the various ways the fish ruler can be added. Printing on the EVA – we reject this idea because we do not think the pebbly surface of the “Crocodile” EVA will be very suitable. After several suggested alternative methods, we decided we will print a ruler on fabric and then have the ruler glued on the EVA.

Here's what the Fishing FastTrack looks like just before going to production. We plan to sell these by May, 2017

Here’s what the Fishing FastTrack now looks like just before going to production – the white strip on the far pontoon is the fish ruler. We plan to sell these by May, 2017

Since we are in the midst of exploring new rod-holders for this model, we hold off further decisions until we finalize our rod-holder solution. And that is where we leave it. By this time it 5:30 in the afternoon and they propose to take us out to dinner. And so, after about 45 minutes of further chitchat, we head out in two cars for dinner – us in the P. Diddy van with Chris and Larry and Haji and Walter and Haji in Haji’s monster Hyundia. The monster Hyundia is South Korea’s answer to Mercedes and Rolls Royce, being slightly larger than a Mercedes and slightly smaller than a Rolls. I have ridden in this car a few times and comfort is its middle name. It comes complete with TV, computer, Internet and video, super plush leather seats throughout, etc., etc.

Pretty soon we are in downtown Incheon with lights blazing everywhere in a section of the city that is clogged with restaurants, bars and cafes, near where our hotel is. We disappear into one and sit down on some compromise Western style chairs. When I first came to Korea, in most of the restaurants, you sat on a seat cushion on the floor with your legs crossed yoga style. I am quite comfortable sitting like this, but my brother and Ryan, being taller and perhaps more Western, prefer to sit in a regular chairs. Anyway, this evening we are comprising sitting almost on the floor, on a chair that is sunken below the table. So the table is only about 10″ above the floor, but because the floor is sunken below the table, you can sit on it like a regular Western chair.

We enjoy another Korean barbecue meal, this time with more fish than meat and about 50 side dishes, including a selection of 5 or 10 Kimchi dishes. It is, as usual, an extremely healthy and tasty meal. I have to say I particularly like Korean barbecue meals since you see it being made right in front of of you and when you snag the food off the of barbecue, it piping hot, dripping with juices and spices. You then dip your piece of fish or meat into the 3 or 4 different sauce dishes. The result is always hot and tasty and hot dripping good.

At dinner we discuss a wide range of subjects, going from market conditions to sports, to Korean politics (their lady President is about to be impeached) to the upcoming American Presidential election.

Haji asks me who I think will be elected.

I predict Trump, saying while the polls show him losing, I think he will win because the people who will vote for him are not the people who talk to pollsters. Moreover, I say I think trump has tapped into a sea of discontent, literally finding a whole population of people who feel mislead, cheated, over-looked and unheard.

Haji finds this difficult to understand. Why won’t Hillary win?

Too much baggage I say.

“Who will you vote for?” Haji ask.

“Hillary,” I say.


“I am afraid of what Trump might do.”


“Because of his campaign promises.”

“Are you afraid he might not keep his promises?” Haji.

“No,”I reply, “I am afraid he might keep them.”

Haji ponders for a moment and then says, “We think Hillary will win.”

That seems to be the end of conversation.

After dinner, Haji tells us it his anniversary is tomorrow and tomorrow afternoon he will have to drive to the country with his wife to celebrate with his wife’s family.

I remember what Haji told me when I first met him.

“Woman is Buddhist, man is Buddha.”

It seems that Buddha will have to go visit his wife’s family. We shake hands and Buddha gets into the monster Hyundia and heads off to his Incheon home while we head off to the local cafe for some more chit chat with Chris Jung and Larry Lim. By 12 we are back at the hotel. I go to my room and put on some Michael Kiwanuka. His debut album is out a couple weeks and I decide this is good chance to take some time to get acquainted before snoozing off. This is my second or third listening to the album and I find myself really intrigued by it.

The next morning – Tuesday in Korea – I get up, do some exercises in the room (leg lifts, elastic arm pulls, a hundred skips, some hacky sack), shower, get dressed, go down and have an American / Korean breakfast – a little Kimchi, eggs over easy, noodles and sausage. Fit and ready for a new day I go down to the lobby to wait for the P. Diddy limo. Today we are heading to a new Korean city some early boat testing.

When I say new, I mean new. Five years earlier I had come and Haji told excitedly about the plans to build 5 new Korean cities close to Incheon Airport. Now they are up and running, brand new and glistening. Near the port of Incheon, the new building are erected of land that used to be tidal flats and now are city streets with waterways interesting the buildings.

We all pile into the P. Diddy van. Chris flips on the local GI station and Taylor Swift comes on tell us she and an undesignated person got problems and she is not sure she is going they are going to solve them. We head into the traffic of Incheon, wedge our way through city streets and city traffic, listening to an eclectic mixture or rock, rap and country, some out in the last few years, other stuff, like Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line recorded 50 or 60 years hence. After about 40 minutes we begin to enter the new city section with new modern building jutting up into the sky.

In due time, we pull behind a bus, park and get out of the P. Diddy van. I know we are at the right place because I see some of the guys from the factory inflating the racing NeedleNose, the new boat all drop stitch boat I am testing and a wierd prototype kayak we had seen in the factory that we asked to give a whirl.

We are not testing the all new green fishing kayak because we already know how that paddles. This is because we have already sold over 5,000 of our regular FastTracks, so our concern with model was features for fishing and appearance, not paddling ability.

The big question market is my new all drop dinghy. Some of the Korean factory guys set that up on a floating dock and pull that off the dock and get in. Immediatiately I am aware that is tippier and less stable than I had assumed. Ooops. The next thing I try is the oarlocks. This uses a wierd system of my device and almost immediately it becomes apparent that the grommets that I thought could make simple and cheap oarlocks do make simple and cheap oarlocks that do not work well. Ooops. I try rowing for about 20 minutes, become disgusted and get out to watch my brother and Ryan try out the new NeedleNose.

This is our new NeedleNose 126r racing board. It was good to go.

This is our new NeedleNose 126r racing board. It was good to go.

Here the story is the opposite. Despite my fears about stability, both John and Ryan try it and find reasonably stable and quite fast. Even Chris Jung gives it a whirl and finds it fast and stable. Their best guess is that the reduced width results in about a 20% faster to paddle board. This is huge, as our now new President might say.


In the distance you will see us out testing.

After that we test the wierd new paddling SurfSki that Woosung is working on. It shows promise, but this prototype is too tippy and not that fast. We go on to test my new dinghy with a 3 hp gas motor. Here the results are better, but not ideal. The space in the boat only seems to allow 3 people. When one of the passengers shifts their weight, the dinghy tips to the left or right. It simply does not have the stability of a traditional inflatable boat. It does look cool, it is remarkably light (just 61 lbs.), but it is not ready for prime time. Anyway, we try it it with one, two and three people and it motors pretty well, but even in that use, it does not performs ideally. I decide it is time to go back to the drawing board on that one.

By this time, it getting to be around 1 pm, so we head back to the office and up to the sixth floor for lunch. Haji is there to greet us and ask about about our testing. We tell him the NeedleNose was good and the dinghy was no good. On the basis of this testing I have decided to put my dinghy project on hold. I will ask them to fix the oarlock problem and send the existing prototype, but, for the moment, I am not planning to include in this year’s new models.

After lunch, we begin discussing some our conclusions so far, both from our initial visit to the factory to review the new models and with our testing of two of the models. We spend several hours trying to go over changes to the fishing kayak – we are extending and enlarging the protective EVA foam on the outside – this is to prevent fish fins and fish hooks and fish knives from ever puncturing the boat. We are adding a fish ruler on the top of the boat. We want to have cutouts on the front and rear spray skirts to hold up to 4 fishing rods and to also hold fishing tools and lures in a place where they are safe and easily accessible. There is a lot of discussion about how to do this. We finally say they should wait until we get back to the States and provide them with detailed drawings of how all this will work.

For the racing NeedleNose the path forward is much clearer and more immediate. They will make a second prototype for us. One prototype will go to Okinawa where a very fit Marta Hogen will race it in a Standup Paddleboard race taking place at the end of November. We decide this product is ready for prime time and say we plan to introduce in the spring or summer of 2017.

For the dinghy, I say I will provide them with an alternative idea of how to create workable oarlocks on the existing prototype. I tell them if we cannot figure out how to make it row properly, it will be game over. So again, we postpone a final decision on the final product until we can solve the oarlock problem. In this case, I say once they outfit it with workable oarlocks, The plan would then to either give up on the project or come with a final concept boat for 2018. If we do go forward with some version of this boat in 2018, it will mean we will have to get a final version of the new boat by the summer of 2017 in order to test and verifying it will really work.

Making a new boat is a long process. And as mentioned, some products come far easier than others while some end up taking years. And a lot never get developed at all. That is the process. I wish it was cleaner, simpler, more scientific, but that is how it works for us.

After going over new model issues, we move on to pricing and problem issues. We review different histories on different models they produce for us. Some are very good, some are not so good. Our computer system keeps record of every boat we sell – that is 20,000 a year. Woosung makes about 4,000 of those boats. The quantities are not the greatest of what we sell, but they are generally our most expensive boats, so the sales in dollars of the 4,000 boats is actually greater than the other 16,000. In terms of dollars, Woosung is our largest supplier.

The process of discussing pricing and quality issues is also long and arduous and sometimes quite contentious. Fortunately, we have good data for them to review and they do realize the importance of solving both of these problems. The day before I let drop the fact that we have moved some of our production to HiFei (another supplier of ours and a competitor of Woosung). There is nothing like telling one supplier that another supplier can provide the same quality product at a lower price. It gets their attention.

In the case of pricing, Woosung suddenly has a change of heart. It seems where before it was impossible for prices to go down, a new way has been found and now prices will go down on many products. This is something that I had hoped for, but not something I had planned for. So, naturally this is a big win for us. We do not say much, but inwardly we are most pleased by Woosung’s action on the pricing issue.

We move on to the quality issues. Here the details are everything and we spend literally several hours reviewing different problems, trying understand what might be the issue in each case. We look at detailed pictures which we e-mailed ahead. We discuss individual solutions. When you find a problem, the first thing to figure out is where it came from. In the construction of inflatables, there are many things that can go wrong…seams, material, gluing, welding, fittings, accessories. It is important first to focus on the origin of the problem, then to concentrate on the solution.

Generally, our supplier, is the best producer in the world for the products that they produce. We have 48 years of experience of trying many, many different producers. Woosung’s strongest quality is their fearless willingness to make new designs. Most manufacturers are unwilling to try new designs, preferring instead to stick with what has sold and worked in the past. This is not a bad policy if designs stay stagnant, but designs are always changing and it is the nature of things that better ways are found to produce different shapes and different products.

The problem with someone making a new design for the first time is that your supplier is learning how to make it and it takes times to develop the best way to make an individual product. Woosung is more professional than most manufacturers – making a CAD drawing of what a new product will be, establishing specs for every piece and part that goes into the product. All of that reduces possible problems in the future, but it does not eliminate all problems. The reasons for that is when you make something new you find that there are stresses and problems in the production or the use that you never anticipated.

Unfortunately, this process is further harmed by the fact that I love to design things that nobody ever made before. This means I only find out what problems a new product might have after we start the production. This is normal, but it would be nice if products could be perfect from moment the first one rolls off the production line. The situation is further complicated by the fact that most of our success comes from developing unique new designs. And that comes with the need to resolve and solve any problem that becomes apparent before, during and after the production.

About 5 o’clock Haji gets up and shakes hands and says it. Time for him to get back his wife before Buddha is chewed out by his Buddhist wife. That leaves Larry Lim, Walter Kim and Chris Jung with me, John and Ryan to go over the remaining quality problems. We do that for another hour. By this time the sun is setting in Korea and it is again time to consider dinner.

Off we go for another dinner, this time hosted by several of the Woosung workers. It is a jovial affair, with a long dinner and after chitchat. By 12 I am back at hotel, this night too tired to do anything but crash. We have been 3 days in Korea. Tomorrow, after a short wrap up morning meeting we will head out to the airport for a flight to China. Time to change countries.

The next morning the P. Diddy van arrives around 9am and we head off to the office. In the big conference room, my brother, Ryan and myself sit opposite Chris Jung, Larry Lim and Walter Kim. We run through a general review of all the things we discussed, basically repeating everything we said and did. We are interested to know about some of their future projects such as the water bike they are working on, we are proceeding with the NeedleNose SUP and FastTrack Angler. The all DS  (drop stitch) dinghy is on hold until we can figure out what to do about about the oarlocks and how to make it a truly functional boat. We thank them for their price concessions and we ask them to do their very best to eliminate all quality problems. Then we ask for them to give our regards to Haji and wish him a happy anniversary and thank them and all the other folks at Woosung.

All of this takes about an hour and a half and then we go outside, shake hands with the various Woosung folks who are assembled for our departure, bow to them, they bow to us and we get into the P. Diddy van and head off to Incheon airport. In the van, “We know our shit because we good at business and we know our shit” is again playing. I am gathering this is a popular song among the GIs living in Korea. In 40 minutes, we are checking into our China Eastern flight, heading through security, presenting our passports and Visas and finally settling into a very nice airport lounge not far from the China Eastern gate.

Our flight on this day is the polar opposite of the flight coming over Korea. It will not be business class. Fortunately, because we have something called Priority Pass, available through American Express, we get to settle into a very nice airport lounge for about 50 minutes before having mosey over to the gate and to board the China Eastern flight, which is about 124 notches down from the Korean Air flight coming over. The plane is a well worn Boeing of some earlier generation, the seating packed and fully booked.

A characteristic of flights from Korea to WeiHai, the city we are flying to today, is that almost every passenger aside from ourselves is carrying bundle of new bought goods from Korea. Haji has told us the reason for this – duty free in Korea is the cheapest in Aisia and there apparently is a big business in passengers ferrying new bought duty free goods into China. This results in every flight being completely booked and over-crowded because 9 out of 10 passengers are carrying duty free goods.

In my case, I am in the middle seats, wedged between two Chinese guys with duty free goods in their lap, below the seat in front and above in the bag storage compartment. Fortunately, these guys are relatively thin so instead being wedged against fat, fleshy people, I am wedged between cartons of Benson & Hedges cigarette carton, boxes of well-packed bottles of Courvoisier Cognac and boxes of Gucci shoes, Armani shirts. These guys are packing and while they do not take up much space, their goods do.

This would not be much of a problem except that it turns out that the flight is delayed and we have to sit on the tarmac while we wait for smog to clear at the WeiHai airport so it is deemed to be safe to land. Smog is, of course, a common problem in Korea and China. Often flights are delayed by it because it is literally hard to navigate in.

So we sit, wedged in together and I try to start up conversation with one of the guys next to me. He is very nice, seems to know some English, but very reticent about who he is and what he does. I get out out of him the fact that he not just visiting for shopping. Rather he has been in Korea for 12 weeks. When I ask him what he does, his English, which had seemed quite good, suddenly disappears and I realize the conversation is at an end. I have the suspicion that he might be in Korea to do a little surveying from the Chinese government. I have no way to know if this wild guess is untrue or correct.

Once off the ground, the flight to WeiHai is only 50 minutes. So it is a quick up and a quick down. I will say this for China Eastern, they do know how to serve people food in that short time. It comes in heated boxes. Some rice, some pork, some tea. And since our lady stewardesses could not begin serving until we had gotten off the ground and since the pilot is trying to make up for lost time, the lady stewardesses have to zip around, almost throwing the boxes of food at you and then jumping all over each other to serve the 175 passengers and clean up the leftovers of 175 passengers. Because the actual flight turns out to be only about 35 minutes, the stewardesses almost have to run to their seats after the last boxes are collected.

Once landed we begin the familiar experience of going through customs, getting our bags. WeiHai is a relatively small airport serving a relatively small Chinese city. The population is only about one and half million, which almost classifies it as a village by Chinese standards. It has been two years since my last visit to China and right away I notice some things have changed coming through customs. There are video screens above the custom gates. They are playing military music and showing videos of Chinese soldiers marching in formation, of Chinese soldiers practicing unfriendly moves with their bayonets, of Chinese soldiers practicing Marshall Arts. I get the impression that China is getting ready for something. I do not remember seeing these kind of videos coming into WeiHai two years ago. I get the sense that something has changed and that China has decided to be more on the defensive or the offensive – I am not sure which.

It has to be said that whenever you visit any place you usually come away with some impression and since any impression is coming only from yourself, it should be said that impressions can be very wrong. Nevertheless, my impression was that China had gotten a lot more militarized in the two years since I had been there. I know for a fact that this last summer there was a lot of concern about China going to war with the U.S. This was not reflected in our news, but it was passed on to me by Mrs. Zhong, who is our main contact at HiFei Marine, the company we were on the way. She had told me that many Chinese people were talking about the possibility of war with the U.S. because of confrontations between the U.S. Navy and the Chinese Navy around the islands in Pacific Ocean that China was building up from sand spits.

In the U.S. we hear a lot about what we think is an outrageous effort to extend Chinese sea power by literally constructing islands in the middle of the ocean where there were none. China has a different view of that and basically they think that particular area of ocean is theirs and so they feel they have to right to build up and militarize these islands. And if you happen to get into a genial conversation about this, it will soon turn adamant. The Chinese really think they have the right to do this since they have controlled this part of the Pacific Ocean for about 3,000 years.

Anyway, whether my impression on sensing a new militarization in China is correct or not, I do not know. I can only say the patriotic marching music with video of marching Chinese soldiers was real. That said, we were able to cruise through the customs line with little or no trouble.

Once we get out of the security area and start walking into the airport, we see a guy holding a sign with our names on. This must be our ride I surmise. I shake hands with the driver, he kindly takes my bag and we start walking out of the airport into the parking lot which is just across the street from the terminal. In no time, we are seated in a large minivan listening to ethereal Chinese music. Now the WeiHai airport is only about 40 minutes from WeiHai itself. It is a pretty pleasant ride take you through hills and small mountains with ancient China landscapes.

You know you are in the new China when you see Mercedes and BMWs and Maseratis and Ferrarris zipping by on the same road with ancient moped tractors that move at about 8 mph and are loaded with hay or apples. Along the highway you can see old Chinese people with ancient weather beaten faces either picking apples, loading apples, sweeping road with straw brooms or riding bycycles or mopeds with 3 or 4 people clinging to them. Meanwhile, the modern traffic moves along in brand new cars and SUVs, many of new and very luxurious at 70 to 80 mph. In WeiHai you see the new China and the old China on the very same road.

I should tell you that WeiHai is quite famous for apples and we happen to be touching down in the heart of the apple season. Along the road you see row upon row of apple trees each laden with an impossibly dense amount of apples. One wonders how the trees can support so many apples. These WeiHai apple trees are not very tall, 5 or 6 feet high and they seem to far wider than tall, maybe 20′ in circumference. I did not try to count the apples on one tree – it would be impossible – I can only say it looks like these trees hold about 10 times more apples than any apple tree I ever saw in America. I am guessing that 3,000 years of growing apples in the same place teaches you a thing or two.

Into the oncoming traffic lurch these little moped tractor trucks – I am not sure just what they are for – they look like a bicycle with a moped motor and a flat bed truck attached and strung together. They are, as mentioned previously, piled high with hay, or corn or, most often, with apples. These moped truck do not go very far. It seems they are designed to motor about 200 feet from the orchard to the side of the road. I am not sure if they are just severely under-powered or just heavily over-loaded or both. Anyway, they seem lurch out into the road with great regularity and apparently with no sense of oncoming traffic and then proceed about 25 feet at 8 mph to a full sized waiting truck with a real motor.

As we pass the ancient and modern Chinese landscape with smoky mountains shrouded in wispy smog, a call comes in to the driver. The driver talks a bit in Chinese and then passes his cell phone to me. It is Mrs. Zhong on the other end. She is at the factory of course. She says she will meet us at the hotel around 7. This suits us since it is only around 5 and we are just pulling into the hotel. I am look forward to laying out my clothes and maybe heading down to the lobby for some chitchat before dinner. So we agree to meet Mrs. Zhong in the hotel lobby.

The hotel is of the Chinese variety. That is to say big. The lobby has a very high-ceiling – least 60 feet or so with quite impressive pillars leading all the way up to the ceiling. We go to the front desk, present our passports and check in. I have been to this particular hotel four or five times. We first came it had only been open for about a month and so it was almost empty. Coming into the hotel this time, it also seems empty. There are a few hotel guests wandering around, but there is no crowd hovering before the front desk waiting to check in. The check-in is fast and easy and a few minutes later, the hotel check-in lady hands us back the passports and our room keys. Without further ado, we head to our separate rooms.

I did notice something in the check-in process and that was that I was assigned a different floor from my brother and Ryan. I am on the 8th floor and they are on the 7th floor. I think nothing of this, happily supposing that the higher the room, the better the room. When I get to the eight floor I sense something is different. I try to guess what it is and then it strikes me that I am smelling smoke in the hallway. I think nothing of this as the bellboy rolls my bag to the room. He opens the door, let’s me in and says something in Chinese which I suppose is enjoy your room. I hand him a 50 yuan note and he departs.

But almost immediately I realize that I do not enjoy my room since I am smelling the leftover residue of smoke. It is at that moment that I realize that I have been assigned a room on the smoking floor. I immediately call downstairs and ask to speak to a manager who speaks English. I explain that I would really like to change my room for a non-smoking. The manager says very politely in pretty good English that that is impossible since all the non-smoking rooms in the hotel are taken. I am not happy with this and ask if can I at least change rooms tomorrow. The manager says, in quite good English, of course, sir, we will be very happy to change your room tomorrow. There is something in the tone of his voice that tells me this is not the first foreigner assigned a smoking room when they probably wanted a non-smoking room. I decide to bide my time and accept this for the moment.

After opening up my suitcase judiciously (I want to relieve only the minimum amount of clothes because I know I may be moving soon), washing up and brushing my teeth, I go downstairs to talk with John and Ryan in the lobby. We sit down for a while and I tell them my plight. Immediately John suggests that I put Mrs. Zhong on the case. So we sit there for an hour or so and wait for the arrival of Mrs. Zhong.

In do course, Mrs. Zhong arrives in trendy jacket and machine weathered jeans, looking, trim, fit and ready to feed us. Mrs. Zhong is an example of the new Chinese power woman. She is successful, she is good at her job and she knows it. She says for this evening she is going to take us to the hotel restaurant since no doubt we are a little tired from our flight. She is right about that. John already has decided to give up on dinner, so it is only me and Ryan with Mrs. Zhong and we quite happily head into the restaurant, which is serving a kind giant Chinese buffet with what seems like about 1200 different dishes to choose from.

Some Chinese spinach, a favorite, and some other unidentifiables

Some Chinese spinach, a favorite, some shrimp and some other things that I am not sure about.

After acquiring about 27 of the aforementioned delecacies – it not easy to get 5 kinds of vegetables, 6 kinds of meat, 12 kinds of fish, and some odd things I am not really sure what they are on to one pretty big plate, but I manage it. As soon as I have a chance to get some of the food down, I explain my smoking room plight. Mrs. Zhong is very sympathetic. She explains how happy she was when her co-worker finally gave up smoking and how she came to hate the smell of cigarettes. She then goes on to say that she is furious at the hotel for giving me a smoking room.

I tell her that I already asked for a room, but the said they did not have one.

Mrs. Zhong looks at me for a minutes and smiles, “Well, maybe, that is because you are not Chinese.”

There is nothing like a Chinese person working on a Chinese problem.

Mrs. Zhong calls Ms. Wang, her assistant, who is still at the office, explains the situation and tells her to call the hotel manager and threaten to withdraw all future business if they do not immediately give me a non-smoking room. I tell Mrs. Zhong that I can hold out on the non-smoking room until we finish the 22 dishes left in front of me. Mrs. Zhong barks some instructions to Ms. Wang and then she turns to me.

Ms. Wang will call the manager and straighten out the situation, she tells me. In the meantime, I have some clams, some crabmeat, some pork, some chicken, some spinach, some sweet potatoes, some shrimp, some broccoli, and, as mentioned, some other things that I cannot actually identify.

A frown passes over Mrs. Zhong’s face. You have to eat more she tells me and Ryan. I had thought I was doing pretty well, but Mrs. Zhong is clearly worried that we are not eating enough. She calls over a waitress, barks out a bunch of instructions in Chinese and the waitresses goes bustling off towards the 20 or so buffet tables. This is a huge dining room, about the size of a hockey ring. In the distance I can see the waitress piling unknowables on top of two plates. Within minutes she returns to take away our old plates and replace them with two fully loaded new plates. So, now round two of dinner begins.

In round one, I was pretty careful to stay away from things I did not recognize. I round two the Chinese waitresses brought a whole new selection 20 or 30 untried delicacies. In travel, I have a rule – eat whatever that is put in front of you. I can tell that Ryan, while doing his best, is clearly avoiding some of the items on his plates. And indeed, some items can look a little unsettling, scorpions, for example, but at least the ones on my plate were not moving and so they did not present any danger of biting you. I munched away gradually reducing my plate to about third of it size. It was mostly delicious. I particularly like the eel and what looked liked robin’s eggs.

I thought I could safely say I was done, but no, Mrs. Zhong had the waitress bring over a plate of round scaly things. They reminded me of larvae from moths or some other insect. It turned out I was right on the money.

“One of these provides more protein than 3 eggs.” Mrs. Zhong said. She quaffed one down to show me that it could be done.

Since I had just had two robin’s eggs, I was not sure I needed more protein. Of course, they were only a quarter size of a regular eggs, so I guessed I could have a few of these brown, scaly things without overdosing on protein.

I picked one up and chomped into it. It was kind of milky and dense tasting. Not bad, I thought, as I felt my protein level rising.

“Oh, you should have more,” Mrs. Zhong said.

And so I downed a second one. I was beginning to like it.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Silkworm,” was the reply. Well, I had always thought that silkworms were highly valuable and here we were having some as an appetitizer. This must be a pretty rich country to eat silkworms I thought. Anyway, the silkworms were pretty good. I am still not sure whether they were cooked, warm or raw, but whatever, they were tasty and I could feel myself getting stronger by the minute.

That made me decide that maybe I was ready to go out and do battle with the hotel manager. I was dubious that I would have much success by myself, but with Mrs. Zhong along and the silkworms in my belly, I was ready.

So Mrs. Zhong kindly paid the bill and we went off to do battle with the manager. It did not take long. Mrs. Zhong snapped some hard Chinese at the ladies at the front desk and they bowed and kowtowed and a manager appeared. Mrs. Zhong barked some more sharp and hard Chinese at him and he bowed and kowtowed and then a new room key and a bellboy magically appeared.

We shook hands with Mrs. Zhong, thanked her again for dinner. I told Ryan I would meet him downstairs in the lobby in 30 minutes and I went off with the bellboy to retrieve my bag from one floor and move it down to another. Happily the room was as advertised – smoke-free. This gave me some time to hang up some of my clothes, set up my Bluetooth speaker, go on-line, brush my teeth, comb my hair and head back down to the lobby.

Ryan and I sat down there talking about the day, the flight from Korea, the differences between China and Korea and about some of the points we would have to go over. About an hour later we both headed up to our respective rooms. I took some time in the room to listen to some old Rolling Stones music – Exile on Main Street. Yeah, I was an exile in WeiHai! But I was definitely not on Main Street.

In the morning I did some exercises in my room, went downstairs, had a kind of American/Chinese breakfast of eggs, croissants, bacon, noodles & Chinese spinach. I love that Chinese spinach, it is not leafy like our spinach, more long and stringy. Around 9:30 Mrs. Zhong’s Cadillac Escalade SUV arrived with a company driver and John, Ryan and myself piled in and we were whisked away to the main factory and office.

HiFei is a pretty large company by my standards. The main factory and office were two buildings – maybe they accounted for about 150,000 square feet. Nearby, they have 6 other buildings for additional production, storage of materials and aluminum hull production. Maybe, those buildings added another 200,000 square. I am not sure. It is hard to tell when the two main buildings both had 5 floors and the other 6 buildings were generally one or two floors with very high ceilings – maybe 30 or 40′. The company has about 330 employees, making it relatively small by Chinese standards, but quite large by my standards. We have, for example, only about 30 employees and 24,000 square feet, although we have also use two logistics warehouses – one on Long Island, one in Nevada, to carry our inventory of boats.

After driving about 20 minutes from the hotel, we arrive at the new factory and offices. I say new because these buildings were only finished about 5 years ago, but already the buildings are showing signs of aging. There are cracks clearly visible on the front wall of the 5 story building. They build in fast in China and usually the speed of their endeavors takes a toll on the longevity of the building. Inside, the building is still in good shape, almost new condition, although some of the marble steps leading up to the third floor where we are going are showing signs of minor chipping. Perhaps, Chinese marble is not the same as Italian marble.

We first plop our biz bags in Mrs. Zhong’s office. This is very spacious, surrounded by glass walls. After some tea, we move to the conference on the fourth floor. Before doing so, we pop into Mr. Wang’s office, and say hello. Mr. Wang is the big boss. He is fairly tall, 6′, I would guess, somewhere in his forties, a young and successful Chinese business, sporting a short leather coat, an expensive looking knit shirt and some expensive looking Chinese jeans. In China, it is important to look rich, casual and sporting all at the same time.

Our contacts at HiFei are two Wangs, Mr. Wang, the big boss, Ms. Wang, Mrs. Zhong’s assistant and the lady directly in charge with our account, and Mrs. Zhong herself, the able administrator, 2nd boss to Mr. Wang, wearer of many hats.

Mr. Wang is full of cheer and broad smiles. He jumps up to greet us, we shake hands, gives us a hug and starts talking.

Almost immediately, he asks, “Who will be your next President?”

Consistent with my predictions in Korea, I voice the opinion that it will be Trump. My brother John chimes in for Hillary. The voices of reason will overcome the clamor of the masses, he says.

Mr. Wang is clearly disturbed by my prediction of Trump.

“Trump,” he says, “That’s not good. He doesn’t like China. What do you think?”

I tell Mr. Wang I think Mr. Trump is hard to read – it is hard to tell if he means what he says and it is harder to tell if he will do what he means. I guess if he gets elected, we will just have to wait and see, I say.

Mr. Wang does not seem particularly happy with my answer, but the conversation soon drifts to the general economy, thoughts about next year and our hopes for our two businesses.

I tell Mr. Wang it has been a good year for our boat business, not so good for our lure business. Mr. Wang is familiar with fishing since he first started in the fishing business, so he asks what is wrong with the lure business?

I tell him our largest customer, a wholesaler who services WalMart, is having some financial difficulties, taking less goods than in previous years and perhaps having some problems with WalMart itself, who, to put it mildly, is a difficult customer. I also explain that some of this wholesaler’s customers went bankrupt this year and that did not help. I go on to explain that overall our two companies, when taken together, had a solid increase for the year, even though the lures were down about 5%. This is because the boat business is the far larger business these days and our increase in the boat business was in the double digits.

Mr. Wang seems happy with this. He says he has some work to do, but he will see us for lunch. We go off to the big conference room. It is a pretty large room, maybe, 30′ X 60′ with a nice open space at one end and a large, mahogany conference table at the other end. We drop our bags on spare seats at the large mahogany table.

Mrs. Zhong and Ms. Wang come into the room. We discuss some general points. What parts of the inflatable business were up this year, what parts were down. In the case of HiFei they have several sections of business. They make small, portable transom boats that take wooden or aluminum floorboards or inflatable drop stitch floors. They make large inflatable rib boats with outside inflatable tubes around a fiberglass or aluminum hull. They make some kayaks and they now make quite a few inflatable Standup Paddleboards.

The transom boat business apparently is enjoying a recovery. It had collapsed because of the economic woes starting in 2008 and because of the recent problems of the Russian ruble. Since their two biggest customers were from Russia, the last several years was a problem for them. It was the more recent problems of the Russian Ruble that had really cut into their business because orders from Russia just ceased to come for about a year and a half. But now, apparently they are seeing some recovery in Russia, and a rise in general, especially for Europe in transom boats. Their kayak business is small and not important, but their Paddleboard business is healthy and growing.

I contrast their experience with theirs, telling them our transom boats sales had been in collapse every since 2008, but we’re enjoying some resurgence, thanks mostly to the Government of India who had ordered 100 transom boats for flood control work this year. Standup Paddleboard sales for us are now down, from a not too impressive total of a 1,000 units a year, fishing boat sales were stable and growing slightly, kayak sales were growing strongly.

So, if our difference experiences did not exactly match, it seemed that both of our companies were doing pretty well in a not so easy marketplace. We go on to discuss where we see the future and where HiFei sees the future. HiFei seems to be thinking that Standup Paddleboards are going to continue to grow, we are somewhat dubious, seeing our own sales hurt by an enormous influx of competition. I say that I think a good place for us is to concentrate on fishing kayaks and fishing SUPs. For this trip, I have sent the, designs of two new products we want them to make…a small fishing kayak and a fairly large fishing SUP. My brother thinks the future will be in the fishing kayak and I think the fishing SUP maybe the better product.

In the conference room, before going to review the two new products, we did go into a detailed report on how the products they made for us have done in the last year and how we think they will do. For the last several years, HiFei had made just two of our fishing boats. A small solo fishing boat and a little bit larger two person boat. Both models had done well, with almost zero defects, and a very high customer satisfaction level. During the year, because of this successful experience, we switched the production of a larger two person fishing boat to them and although we had only sold a 100 of these new fishing boats, we told Mrs. Zhong and Ms. Wang that we were pleased with their quality and with the sales so far.

Because of this experience and in addition to the success with the fishing boats, we also switched the production of another series, the Sea Eagle Explorers to them. By this point in the year, sales had been pretty good, with these models being up 36% for the year. HiFei had made their first production of these kayaks only a couple of months before, so our purchases so far only represented a small portion of our sales of these kayaks this year, roughly two hundred of the one thousand units we had already sold.

At that particular moment, they were making an additional 100 kayaks of a smaller size. Since we had not seen the smaller size kayak or the newer fishing kayak that they were making in the same size, I asked that samples of both be brought up to the conference room along with a sample of the original model they were making it from from – this is to compare and see if indeed the two models are identical. Ms. Wang got on her cell phone, barked a couple orders in Chinese and in about four minutes, three kayaks were brought in by four technicians and were laid out together.

So now we had an original production model kayak that we had sent them and a new production model they and the prototype of new fishing kayak.

The first thing that caught our attention was how good the new fishing kayak looked. This new model featured green EVA foam over the areas that might get punctured. They had decided to use a special green camo pattern and it did look good. Very professional, with sharp colors that I thought would appeal to fishermen everywhere and still look like a serious fishing kayak. But as I looked closer I noticed a couple of other problems.

On both of new kayaks made by HiFei the pontoon tubes were slightly larger than the original tubes and the cut-outs were slightly smaller. The oversized tubes was not a great problem. For our standard whitewater kayak it actually had some advantages. It would be more buoyant and more stable in whitewater because the tubes were larger. For the fishing kayak it would be more stable for fishing and casting, but it would also be slower to paddle on open water. That was because the HiFei kayaks with the wider pontoons were about 3″ wider than the original kayak.

The problem of the smaller floor cut-outs was more serious for the standard kayak, since that model was mostly used for whitewater. The smaller cut-outs in the floor meant that it was hard to reach and unscrew the drain valves where the cutouts were. This is important because you want the drain valves open when you are in whitewater and closed when you are on flat water – so the kayak drains water in white water and is dry on flat water. We discussed and hemmed and hawed over the two problems for about 30 or 40 minutes. Finally, we decided for this production of the 100 units of the standard kayaks being made, we would accept the slightly larger pontoons as long as they corrected the too small cut outs in the floor. They agreed to do and the crisis of the moment passed. That meant that they would have cut out larger cut-outs and remake 100 drop stitch floors. It amazing what you can do with a pair of scissors and some glue in China.

Since the the fishing kayak was only a prototype, the problem of the wider pontoons and the smaller cut-outs could easily be corrected in the actual production.

By this time, the lunch hour had arrived and, in China, as elsewhere, they do stop for lunch. So, we knock on Mr. Wang’s door, he says he will meet us downstairs and we trundle down the marble stairs, go outside and pile into Mrs. Zhong’s Cadillac Escalade SUV. Mr. Wang follows us in a rather exotic looking BMW. Chinese cars are not very popular with owners and managers of Chinese companies. And because cars are relatively new in China, it seems important for Chinese Owners to have very snazzy cars. Two years before Mr. Wang had a LandRover, but maybe that was not sporty enough, so now it is onto the Beamer.

Today, we head out to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. There is fish soup, some pork, some chicken, some Chinese spinach (a favorite of mine). Of course there is rice. Mr. Wang is wanting to know more about the SUP market and so he asks questions about who is the biggest seller, where the majority of SUP products are sold.

I tell him this is not our best expertise since we are more known for kayaks than SUPs. I posit that the market it still growing overall, but because there are many new entries to market, it is very difficult for the individual companies to grow. I tell Mr. Wang, it is the big surfboard companies that have had the best sales – Naisch, Hobie, Starboard and also, strangely, NRS, a company specialized in river running equipment.

Mrs. Zhong says that the market seems to be divided between the low-price sellers and the bigger brand names. I tell her that it is my opinion that is the big brand names, surf companies in particular, who sell the most boards.

After our general SUP market discussion and lunch, we pile into our respective cars and head back to the factory. After lunch, we head down to the factory floor, which is on second floor of the building behind HiFei’s general office and administrative building. There I spot my new fishing SUP. It is a kind of strange design that both Ryan and John are not too sympathetic about.

It takes only a short glance for me decide that this is a good new item. I particularly like the EVA camo foam. Now I have asked them to put green EVA foam on, but they have chosen the same camo pattern they used on our fishing kayak and I like it immediately.

This is a top shot of the finished SUP hull

This is a top shot of the finished SUP hull

The reason I like it and the reason I am excited is that I can see what it will be. Now, the board we looked at in the factory was not exactly the board you see above. The motor mount – the board at the back – had not been attached and the way it had to be attached had not been decided. We discuss the problem of how to attach motor mount. My original idea was to have 2 grommets (one on each side of the board with a bolt going through plastic dowel inside the grommet on each side.

We try that and immediately I see it is not rigid enough. We try two grommets on each side in front of the board and we find that is not rigid enough. Finally, after pulling out my iPad and drawing various solutions, several of which do not work, we come upon the solution shown above. That is a grommet in front of the board on each side and a grommet behind the board on each side with an inner plastic dowel and bolt and nut going to enclose and secure the motor mount board. It takes about and hour and half of going back and forth to get to this decision.

My brother, though not enthused with particular product, thinks it is interesting and jumps in several good suggestions, some off base, but with one that solves the problem. John’s solution is that is to have a simple grommet front and back of motor mount board. Of course, because these changes take time and implementing them takes more time, we do not actually get to see the solution finished. That is because they have to remove and replace the grommets, change the width of the board, drill large holes in the board, paint it, find the right size bolts and then glue the grommets in place. In truth, we will no get to see the final product for about four weeks, after it has been remade and flown over to us.

The next thing I go about is trying to explain to Mrs. Zhong, Ms. Wang, several of their technicians just how this strange looking board will work. This is a pretty big inflatable SUP – 12′ 6″ long and even stranger, it is 40″ wide. Most SUPs are only 30″ wide, but I wanted the extra width for stability because it is my theory that most fishermen do not want to contend with keeping their balance. Standing is great – you get a much higher line of sight and it is easier to cast. Nevertheless, most anglers do not want to have to worry about falling in while they are casting or pulling in a fish – that is my theory.

I ask where the swivel seat fishing rig is. They produce it after a couple minutes. There it is, still in the box, un-assembled, left untouched after I had sent it to them by air three weeks ago. I guess they figured that I would assemble for them when I got there. They figured right and I did assemble it and the first thing I realized was that my drawing put the 6 D-rings too far apart – in my drawing they are 30″ apart when they should have been 24″ apart. This is unfortunate because now my beautiful swivel fishing cannot be easily tied down. So the first thing I tell them is that in the next prototype they have bring the D-rings closer together. I tell them do not bother with this one because we first need to test on the water anyway. So fix the motor mount and decide to have the existing prototype sent as is.

In the meantime I assemble the swivel seat with the two rod-holders, place it on the fishing SUP and show them how the swivel seat will work after explaining about the D-rings. Suddenly, everyone, my brother and Ryan, Mrs. Zhong, Ms. Wang and the various technicians begin to understand why this may be a good product. Below is a picture not of what it looked like in the factory that day, but a picture of the final prototype before going to production.

This is a picture picture of what our Sea Eagle FishSUP 12.6fs will look like when fully rigged

This is a picture picture of what our Sea Eagle FishSUP 12.6fs will look like when fully rigged

When the swivel seat was assembled on the board, my brother John, Ryan, Mrs. Zhong, Ms. Wang and some of the factory technicians began to understand how this strange shaped SUP would work. It was a FishSUP, hence the name, something you could sit on in the swivel chair and fish, something you could stand up and cast and fish from. Something you could paddle and something you could motor with a small electric motor.

I was very happy with the way that the prototype came out. Of course, it still remained to test this craft on the water and see what it could do. Three weeks later, back in States, we did just that and, as I expected, it was very stable, paddled well, was easy to stand or fish, and motored really nicely. Of course, in WeiHai I did not know that. I only knew the prototype looked good to me.

We spent the rest of Thursday afternoon going over the small fishing kayak wandering up and down factory floors and then going over to the other 6 buildings and walking around them. I can tell you after a day of walking up and down concrete or marble steps and all over 8 factory floors, it can become tiring. Nevertheless for me it is always an interesting experience. Since I had not seen these buildings for about two years, it was interesting to see that the half empty, half built buildings I had seen two years ago were now all built and fully used. HiFei, like Woosung, is a company that has grown greatly in the last several years.

Mrs. Zhong says that tonight John, Ryan and myself will go out to dinner with Julian, their French rib sales guy that works from HiFei and Mrs. Zhong and Mr. Wang. Tonight we will be going to a Japanese restaurant. So after our meeting, we pile into Mrs. Zhong’s car and head out to dinner.

John and Ryan chowing down in the Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant.

John and Ryan chowing down in the Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant.

This proved to be excellent and a nice compromise between Korean and Chinese meals. We chow down on shrimp, steak, pork, vegetables, oysters, clams, veggies, sitting at a table with a built in griddle with a Chinese Samurai chef standing in front of us slicing, dicing, chopping, flipping knives, cutting up veggies, dumping various spices on them, throwing pepper shakers and other spice shakers in the air, using his knife to shovel food on to the hot metal griddle, chopping food up, down and around and then scooting mini size servings of shrimp, fish, steak, spinach, pork, chicken, or whatever to our small plates.

When these little plates in front of us became to crowded with leftover debris they were swooped away by waiters hanging behind us always ready to replace our dirty empty plate with clean little plates soon piled high with more little servings. During the small intermissions between arriving and departing plates, I get to talk to Julian about the state of the rib business. Julian had originally worked as an Asia sales manager of Penel e Flipo. By a strange coincidence, Penel e Flipo was the second company we imported boats from in France. I remember visiting their office in the seventies many times.

Here is Julian on one of the Highfield Ribs

Here is Julian on one of the Highfield Ribs

Julian is a young French guy in his late 30s, thin, dark, handsome, with long hair that occasionally flopped over the side of his face. It was Julian’s task to develop inflatable ribs for HiFei, which they sell under the trademark name of Highfield. Originally these ribs were primarily fiberglass hulls using Pennel e Flipo’s legendary hypalon inflatable boat material. Julian has now worked in China for HiFei for 6 years and has concentrated on the development of large aluminum ribs using the same inflatable boat material.

Now a lot of time has passed between my first visit to Penel e Flipo and the time that Julian had worked for the same company, but some things still remained the same. They still were a leading producer of inflatable boat material. At the time I used to visit them, they were supplying of Zodiac’s hull material. Zodiac, at the time, was the most famous inflatable boat company in the world.

How the times have changed. Today Zodiac has gone through many permutations, becoming first and foremost a supplier of military equipment throughout world. The recreational inflatable boat side of the business kind of collapsed, except for the business of selling big ribs to industry and national governments, mostly for rescue and military purposes. Today, Zodiac still exists, but the inflatable boat side of recreational use hardly exists and has been sold off to various corporate players who do not seem to know to do with it.

Anyway I am interested to learn more about building of inflatable ribs. For those of you who do not know, an inflatable rib is a boat inflatable section around a rigid hull. The hull is usually fiberglass and sometimes aluminum. In a way, it is the best of all worlds. You the great ability of rigid boats to cut through large ocean waves combined with the safety of having inflatable section to stabilize it on sharp turns and give inherent buoyancy so you do not sink.

You might think that the inflatable pontoon going around a rigid fiberglass hull is the weakest and most easily damaged part, but you would wrong because it is generally harder to damage inflatable air chambers than a rigid fiberglass hull. Aluminum is something of a different story. It really depends on the thickness of the aluminum being used. If the aluminum is quite thick, it is far stronger than fiberglass. If it is not so thick, then it is susceptible to dings and damage from impacts. Generally an inflatable pontoon can better withstand impacts because they tend to give. That is true as long as the impact is not into a really sharp object. Then, you can have a puncture, but since inflatables usually have multiple air compartments, there is still plenty of flotation left.

So I spend most of the dinner querying Julian on HiFei’s inflatable rib business. This is a growing part of HiFei sales and a part of the business that has become quite significant. We stayed out of this section of the market because we could never figure out how to ship inflatable ribs. Our business is based on selling things over the Internet and shipping them by Fedex or UPS. Selling $50,000 boats, which a rib often costs, is a hard sell on the Internet and shipping 800 to 1500 lb. boats is even harder for FedEx or UPS.

HiFei has been making inflatable ribs for about 1o years. At first they started with fiberglass ribs, but they found out that these could be easily damaged and the competition in that part of the part of the market was fierce. Then they started making aluminum ribs. There was far less competition in that kind of inflatable rib, so they quickly established themselves as the market leader of inflatable boats with aluminum hulls. Julian tells me this is the part of the business that he had the most impact on, having personally helped with the design of these models. Julian likes aluminum ribs over fiberglass ribs because they are far more durable generally and because the competition is far less. In the last few years, they have become the market leader for high end aluminum ribs.

We have a nice conversation between Julian, John, Ryan, Mr. Wang and Mrs. Zhong in between the endless plates of cooked and chopped shrimp, fired eggs and rice, sashimi (raw fish), chicken, steak, pork, fish, vegetables. In short, we did not go hungry and all was delicious at the Teppanyaki restaurant. After dinner, Mrs. Zhong drove us back to our hotel while Julian and Mr. Wang peeled off in there respective cars.

Back at the hotel, we talk a little bit downstairs, plan to go for a group walk down by the river in morning and talk about our upcoming visit to HiFei’s new SUP factory which is located about 30 minutes away. By ten, we are back in our respective rooms. I listen to some Black Eyed Peas to get in the mood for the SUP factory visit and nod off to sleep shortly.

The next day we meet downstairs for our walk around WeHai. The day before Ryan has taken this walk along a river canal that runs through town. He tells us it was very interesting so off we go. After crossing the street from the hotel, we take a right turn, walk two blocks and then come to a stairway that leads down to the river that runs through the city. This river does not have a natural river bed, rather it has a pre-made canal path. How old that path is I have no idea. It could be 50 years, 100 years, 500 years. It sure is pretty with a series of little bridges going over it. So the river flows straight and is about 75 feet wide. I gather it is tidal, or just very shallow. I am thinking it is tidal and it gets a lot deeper when the tide is in, but I do not really know.

This is not the bridges that we passed under along the river, but it might give you an idea of what they looked like. Ryan took this picture the day before our walk.

This is not the bridge that we passed under along the river, but it might give you an idea of what they looked like. Ryan took this picture the day before our walk.

As we walk along the river, I am struck by several sights. There seems to be a group of older guys and gals practicing Tai Chi up on hill among some trees. Now we are in the middle of this city with one and half million people, but somehow there is this quite open space with trees on a hill, the city buildings hang in the background, the city sounds can still be heard, but there they are practicing Tai Chi moving in slow motion, in tune with some different reality.

Along the river walk I see a guy with a giant bamboo pole dressed in what looks like a blue suit – it is sashed around the waist, the short is loose, the pants are loose, it is a Kung Fu exercise suit, I guess. I am pretty sure he could take out John, Ryan and myself in one smooth stroke, but he does not and I am grateful for that. Nevertheless, I take care to give the gentleman a wide berth. There is an old lady walking in sneakers, apparently out for a morning jaunt in the city, with chiseled face that looks like it was etched out of a pale white stone. I can see the muscles of her face wriggling and alive, yet there is another reality of her face, it is ancient, out of a different place from a different time.

There are joggers and walkers and one wierd guy who was practicing walking with his arms sideways on a stone wall. The walls have two inset grooves, each about 2″ deep, so there is something to grip upon. And while almost all of the strength needed for this strange sideways crawl is provided by his two arms, I can say that occasionally he uses a foot to stablilize his body when changing hands and more bring himself forward. Imagine a crab in human form scuttling along a wall and then you have the picture of this guy. I can only think that he was in good shape and also another good candidate to give a wide berth to.

We walked briskly along the river for about a mile breathing in the early morning air as the sun was rising and providing its muted glow. Because it is in WeiHai, China, of course there is no direct view of blue sky. Rather there is a gray hazy overhead with a dim sun providing the fact that it existed, at least in the background of the gray, yellow haze. WeiHai residents are out by the river by the hundreds. This is a vibrant and beautiful Chinese city, pollution aside, and the residents of WeiHai are taking full advantage of their beautiful city this early morning.

Just about then Ryan said follow him and we took a sharp left up a narrow stone walkway. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the middle of a farmer’s market right in the middle of the city. And this farmer’s market had everything one could want, raw oysters, cut up goat legs, alive and bustling scorpions ready for frying, blankets, radios, computers, live chickens, silkworms ready for whatever, wrapped crabs for Longshan Lake, lobsters, dogs, Chinese vegatables, Chinese fruits, WeiHai apples and much much more.

We walked through this market, amazed and thrilled and maybe a little horrified, by what we saw, but it was all there, and it was all Chinese and John, Ryan and myself were happy we took that stroll. The rest of the walk was rather prosaic, walking again on city streets, threading our way through the throngs of people now on the next few blocks, nevertheless, over the course of the walk I had the feeling that we had walked in and walked out of the real China. The walk itself was quite invigorating and even the somewhat polluted air felt good.

At the hotel, we went back to our rooms, showered and prepared for the new day to come. This was the day that we going to the SUP factory, so bang on time, Mrs. Zhong showed up with Ms. Wang, aka, Shirley. We piled in and off we went. The trip to the SUP factory was in a different direction and it took a good 50 minutes to get there. We drove by hills and valleys, mostly filled with WeiHai apple trees which were in the process of being picked and loaded to mini-moped trucks. As the trucks would put along for about 200 feet to where a real truck was parked and then the apples were off-loaded from mini-moped trucks to real trucks. It was October in WeiHai.

In a short time, we pulled up to the new SUP factory. This was an interesting visit for me because I had visited this same factory two years ago and at that time it unfinished. They did have little area in the factory then that was up and running, but most of the factory was either empty or not operating. When we arrived this day all had changed. I could see, even from the outside, that all had changed. There was a testing pool outside, now empty, but I presume it was full a month or so before. I not sure what they would learn from this testing pool. It looked about two feet deep and seemed to about 30′ X 70′. I would guess by the second or third stroke your board would be crashing on the other end.

The most visible evidence of this was the multitude of workers walking and milling around outside. Apparently, they were on some kind a break and 30 or 40 people are talking and milling around outside, some sitting, some playing some basketball around the one hoop they had standing watch over the factory yard.

It was evident that there were more people inside and that activities were going on. We went in, put on the regulations shoe covers to protect against dust in the factory. We were then given a kind of tour. Walking through the factory floors (there were several), looking at cutting machines, printing machines and various inflatable SUP manufacturing equipment, almost all of which busy producing SUPs for various customers. Mrs. Zhong explained that they had enjoyed substantial growth this last year. In particular, they were having good luck with both large and small customers in Europe.

We wandered up and down stairs, from one floor to another. We watched some of the workers putting together seams, a difficult hand gluing process that must be done with great care with both the humidity and temperature (F) between 60 and 75. We watched their printing machine as it spewed out hundreds of side panels with different customers names on it. We watching drop stitch material being cut into pre-programmed patterns. We walked past several hundred inflatated SUPs as they were being checked for air tightness. We walked around new and different designs they were working on.

I could see that everything had been changed and the factory was now up running. Mrs. Zhong explained how they were going to have to move their present factory – the one we had visited yesterday – to another location. Perhaps, she said they would move the factory to this location. They were waiting to hear from the local Chinese authorities just when they would have to move. The city of WeiHai was planning a whole new city right where their present factory was. Perhaps, tomorrow, Mrs. Zhong would take us to a museum that had been setup to show the plans of this new city.

I explained that John and Ryan probably could not go since they were going to visit another factory the next day, but I said that I love to go and se the plans for the new city.

As usual the drive to SUP factory and the tour of the SUP had taken more time than anticipated. We drove back around 2:30 in the afternoon and Mrs. Zhong took us to a new mall in WeiHai where we went to a fancy restaurant that served lunch in pots. This ended up being a mixture of foods, kind of part soup, part meat, part fish, all lunch. It proved to be delicious.

After lunch, Mrs. Zhong gave us a choice. We could head back to factory for more talk or she could drop us off at the hotel for some well-deserved rest. We opted for the well-deserved rest and even wimped out on an invite to dinner, saying that we would get something at the hotel and take the night off. And that is what we did.

Now the next day Ryan and John were headed to another factory that had invited us to visit. I opted to go HiFei to have what we call a wrap-up meeting. All of us decided to crash early and meet the next day at 7am in the lobby for a morning walk. It was not to be. When I got up, I could see it poring rain. So that morning I took the picture that is at the front of this blog story, did some exercises in the room, went downstairs for breakfast and met Mrs. Zhong around 9:30 am for the wrap up meeting.

We drove off to the factory while Ryan and John headed out to the other factory. I had a nice wrap up meeting with Ms. Wang and Mrs. Zhong, going over final changes to the next production, changes to the two prototypes and reviewing our hopes for the coming year. It was all pretty straight forward stuff and pretty soon it was lunchtime.

On the way to lunch, Mrs. Zhong me took to a museum that was displaying architect plans and a scale mockup of the new city the Government officials were planning to create in the next five years. By chance, one of HiFei’s former employees was working at this museum, so Mrs. Zhong called and they let us in. It seems the museum was not quite open to the public, we got a sneak peek anyway.


This is a mock up of the new city that is just being built in WeiHai. They expect to have 500,000 people living in this city in five years. The video screen in the distance is about 20′ high by 80′ long.

A lonely guard comes to the door of museum, let’s us in, leads us to a giant room where the mock up of the new city is and then turns on the video, so I can get the full impact of what is going to happen here in the next 5 years. Of course, the video is in Chinese, but from the pictures and from the mock up I can see this is going to be a big deal. Not only are they planning apartment building, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, they are also planning lakes, rivers and boating marinas and, like many a Chinese highway, all this area will be “gardenized.” That means they plan to landscape and pre plan everything, including, bushes, lawns, hedges.

This may seem normal to you, but you have not seen the area surrounding the museum where they plan to put up this new city. It is not exactly finished. Here’s a view of some of the surrounding area with some of the first buildings going up.

They started these buildings in July. They may not look ready for 500,000 people, but I bet they will be ready in five years.

They started these buildings were started in July, 2016. They may not look ready for 500,000 people, but I bet they will be ready in five years.

The lone guard in the museum is very kind while I wander around, taking pictures with my cell phone, asking Mrs. Zhong questions about the new city. He decides he wants to have my picture taken with him. So Mrs. Zhong takes a picture with his cell phone of me and the guard, arm in arm. He seems generally happy that someone has taken interest is the new city he is standing guard over. I am guessing he has been a little lonely in his new job, standing guard over a museum that is yet to open.

After seeing the video and wandering through the new museum, Mrs. Zhong and I went off to Koreatown for lunch. I should explain that WeiHai is quite close to Korea and so there is a large contingent of Korean companies in WeiHai. This includes Woosung, our Korean supplier who also has a factory here. So, Mrs. Zhong takes me in here Cadillac Escalade SUV to Koreatown to have a Korean barbecue. We had a nice lunch, chatted for a while about the changes coming in China and then she drove me over to the hotel where I would get a welcome another break. This is my last full day in China. Tomorrow, I fly back to Korea and then the day after fly back to The States.

Mrs. Zhong dropped me off around 4pm and said she would be back by 7 to pick all of us up for dinner. When I get back, I head up to my room to rest and gradually gather my stuff for the next day’s ride to the airport. Pretty soon I get a call in the room from Ryan, telling me they have returned and to me meet downstairs in the lobby. I head down, my bag almost fully packed and ready for the next day’s flight, and talk with Ryan. Apparently, they have had an interesting meeting. The supplier they met is promising to make SUPs for a far lower price than we currently buy.

This is a common softy in China. You meet a new supplier and often their price is very low. It is also a danger sign because often it is just a lot wall price to pull you in. Often a new company will actually sell goods at a loss, on the theory that once they get you, they can raise the price at a few production runs. But we have seen this before and I am concerned that the new price is just a come-on. Anyway, Ryan and myself and eventually John sit in the lobby discussing the ins and outs of new suppliers in China.

At 7 promptly the Escalade rolls up and we are whisked downtown.

Tonight we are heading to Chairman’s Mao’s favorite restaurant. The name of the restaurant is the The Great Wall. I do not know if it actually was Chairman Mao’s favorite restaurant but it definitely dates back to the time of civil revolution in China and the time of Chairman Mao. I have been to this restaurant several times in my visits to WeiHai. It is an old style restaurant from the Communist era. You could say that China is still in the Cummunist Era since they are still in power, but I would suggest that there have been so many changes since the time of Chairman Mao that it is in fact a different country. I may or may not be right about this.

In any case, the Chairman Mao restaurant is interesting in itself. You come in on the ground floor where you order your dinner before going upstairs to receive it. On the ground floor various kinds of food are on offer. Fresh seafood is kept in 3 concrete boats. Fish, eels, lobsters and many other kinds of living seafood is on offer. Next to the open boats with water and live seafood in them are platforms loaded with other different kinds of seafood, this time not moving. So on these platform tables were wrapped crabs, lobsters, clams, chilling on ice, ready to be cooked. Around the outer walls of this room are selection of meats and vegetables. The way all this works is the a waiter comes up and talks to someone to gives orders. In this case, the waiter ends up talking to both Mrs. Zhong and Mr. Wang while we wander from boat to boat, table to table, and the outer perimeter of the room. We are not so certain what to pick. It is kind of like Pin the Donkey where you throw darts blind-folded and you hits what you hits.

So we pick and choose, pointing to various kinds of food we think we might like. We are somewhat at a disadvantage because we do not actually know what we are picking out. In some cases, of course, various kinds of fish, swimming or laying out on an iced tray, are easy enough to get an idea of, but there are also a lot of things that either we have no idea about what it is or no idea of what it might taste like. In the end, we have to lean on our hosts, Mr. Wang and Mrs. Zhong.

After picking and choosing what we might like, we go upstairs and are lead into a room. Mr. Wang is not very happy with the room because he does not find it suitably big enough, but there is no helping the situation. It seems that all the bigger rooms are occupied. Chairman Mao’s favorite restaurant is very popular this evening. Tonight, not only Mr. Wang and Mrs. Zhong are present, but also Miss Wang and three other workers. One of the workers is the production manager, another is specialized in marketing and a third is a technician working on making new prototypes. Two or three waiters arrive bringing food and drink for the table. So with John, Ryan and myself we are a group of 8. And while the room could be bigger, it easily fits all of us.

Some yummies swimming in a concrete boat.

Some yummies swimming in a concrete boat.

We start out simple with peanuts (not so easy to pick up with chopsticks), veggies, some fish, some bits of pork, some fried scorpions (ah, so tasty and crispy). It gets more complicated from there with waiters bringing more and more servings to our room. This kind of feasting is very popular in China with those who can afford it and it is pretty obvious, Mr. Wang can afford it. So we dig in big, battling our way through plates of oysters, fish, steak, chicken, pork, Chinese spinach, and lots of other vegetables and servings of things I cannot quite identify. It is big, glorious Chinese feast and we go with the flow.

The things on the left are crabs tied with colorful strings, the rest I am not sure about.

The things on the left are crabs tied with colorful strings, the rest I am not sure about.

Our conversation covers many points. We discuss SUP design…the prototype manager and the productive and production manager are surprised that I, an old man, am using a drawing program and an iPad to make designs. Yes, I tell them. Originally, I taught myself to make drawings on a graph pad where I gave a measurement to one square, for example 6″. This would allow me to draw and calculate the exact dimensions of some future product. However, drawing with a pencil on graph paper is pretty slow and not very beautiful the way I did it. So, about 5 years ago, when I got an iPad, I also invested $8.99 in drawing program called iDraw. That was an Apple product and while a lot less sophisticated than Adobe, it was simple enough for me to learn and actually produce drawings that not only looked better, but were very accurate regarding dimensions.

So I explain all this to the prototype and production managers. It all seems very strange to them, an older man making drawings on an iPad.

“Who does your website,” asks the marketing manager, “we all admire your website.”

I explain that John does that and he started the website in 1996. In other words, 20 years ago. That seems like an impossibly long time to the HiFei technicians to have had a website.

John comes in on the conversation. He goes through the fact that we did not even have an order cart when first went online – all we had was an 800 number to call if you had any questions. He relates how we were surprised to find out that we had sold over $50,000 the first year. Then it dawned on us maybe it would be a good idea to have an order cart. We still worried, John related, whether anyone would use the order cart, especially at night. And then when we found out that most of the orders came at night, we finally realized that this had the makings of a business.

All the HiFei guys listened although they did not understand a word of English. Then Mrs. Zhong or Mr. Wang would translate what John said. This started a spirited discussion between all the HiFei people who seemed to discuss and argue about Web based marketing. The HiFei marketing guy, who was pretty young, was very enthusiastic about Web marketing. Then the conversation drifted on to e-mail marketing.

We had a discussion that some things were not possible in China since China had basically either outlawed or blocked most American social media. We explained that we thought YouTube, Facebook, WordPress, InstaGram all offered great ways to get information out on your products to your customers, but that could not be done in China because all were blocked.

I explained that when you looked at our website in China whole portions of it was missing. All the videos linked to YouTube, for example were just missing.

In fact, I pointed out rather cutely that if you want to seewhat our website actually looks like you have to go to Spain. This was actually a clever reference to the fact that Mr. Wang and Mrs. Zhong had just come back from Spain. So then Mrs. Zhong came, in on the conversation and began to relate what our website looked like when she was in Spain.

The three HiFei workers seemed very surprised to learn that various parts of our website were blocked in China.

Anyway, our feasting and conversation carried on for a good two hours and I felt good about it because we got to know each other better. I was particularly struck by the enthusiasm of all the workers. Our conversation drifted over many topics…the economy of China, the U.S. Presendential election coming up…I again prediicted Trump would win. We talked about life in China, the high prices of real estate, the never ending building of new cities and the never ending thrust of China into the future.

During the conversation I showed some pictures from home. Mr. Wang looked at some my pictures showing blue skies and open beaches and just said in English one word “Unbeleivable.”

I knew what he was talking about: what was unbelievable to him was our blue skies and the open waterways that we had access to. You see in WeiHai they rarely have blue skies…most of the time the sky was a yellowish gray. It often looked like it was about to rain. Sometimes, it was about to rain. But many times were no clouds in the sky to rain out of…just a dull yellowish gray.

Now WeiHai and the surrounding area are quite beautiful. The city itself has a strange European influence since it was occupied by Germans and, at times, English. They left some European style buildings that still stand. And some newer buildings also echo that style of architecture. The city is quite pleasant with wide streets and a wonderful road that passes a long waterfront park. The city is full of optimism. An example of that is a statue of two hands holding a concrete picture frame that might be 15′ high by 30′ wide. The picture frame is open and before you is the Yellow Sea stretching out into the distance. The future is wide open and for every citizen to make, that’s what I think the statue says.

The skies in WeiHai are not always a yellowish gray. This is a picture of a house that I visited in WeiHai a few years back and as you can see the sky is actually blue.

The skies in WeiHai are not always a yellowish gray. This is a picture of a house in the distance that I visited in WeiHai a few years back and as you can see the sky is actually blue.

And there are beaches and places you where you take a boat. I can vouch for that because we have tested boats in WeiHai on several occasions. Still the beaches in China are mostly crowded, the highways full of traffic and the sky a yellowish gray.

After dinner, we shook hands with Mr. Wang, Mrs. Zhong, Ms. Wang, and three other HiFei employees and Mrs. Zhong ferried us back to our hotel room. That evening I listened to some Elvis Presley and to Michael Kawanuka in my room. I was getting to really like Michael. My trip was coming to end. In the morning I only had to worry about getting to airport, getting on plane to Incheon, spending the night at the Grand Hyatt at Incheon Airport and then, finally taking a business class flight the next day back to JFK.

It sounded simple, but it turned out, like Odysseus, there were a few twist and turns to take before my final arrival home.

Sitting in what Ryan called a Big-Ass Chair at the Hotel Bliss, waiting for the arrival of Mrs. Zhong

Sitting in what Ryan called a Big-Ass Chair at the Hotel Bliss, waiting for the arrival of Mrs. Zhong

So all went well the next morning, at least until I got to the airport. Mrs. Zhong showed up around 9am to drive me to the airport. We had an exhilarating talk on the way to the airport, going over the different points of our meeting, the possible business ahead, the state of China’s economy, why she thought HiFei was positioned to grow in the future, why there were so many apples on a WeiHai apple tree (it turned out Mrs. Zhong had no idea – it is just that they always had a lot of apples), and several other topics before dropping me off at the front entrance of the airport.

Inside, things did not go quite as planned. It turned out they were not going to open my gate to accept passengers for an hour. After an hour passed, the gate did open and I filed in, presenting what I thought was my passport to a rather sleepy looking Chinese guard. I went in and found out that I had to wait another hour for China Eastern airline customers to present their passports and tickets. So, after the allotted hour, I waited in another line, happily talking to some German guy who was also flying to WeiHai. He was ahead of me and he got stopped for having a suitcase with more than 50 lbs. of stuff in it. He got thrown off of the line while he had took out his excess clothes and had to carry them in separate laundry bag. I felt sorry for him and self-satisfied for myself, since I knew about this regulation and planned my baggage accordingly.

Then I confidently walked to the ticket counter, handed the pretty Chinese girl my passport and my e-ticket papers. She started scanning the computer and a frown passed over her serene face. She could not find my name on the passenger list. I confidently pointed to my e-ticket papers and that was when she said “I do not understand, your name does not match your e-ticket.”

It was then she passed back my passport. The only then that I discovered that it was not my passport. It was my brother’s passport. I do not know if I can impart the shock and awe I felt when saw my brother picture and name on what I thought was my passport. Let’s just say I was not a happy camper. It meant, quite literally, that I could not leave China.

I did not take long for me to figure out what had happened. When I had checked into the Bliss Hotel four days before that lady who gave back my brother’s passport and my passport, simply reversed the order and gave my brother’s passport to me and my passport to my brother. It did not help that neither my brother nor I thought to look at the passports being handed back to us to see if indeed they belonged to us. I will not make that mistake again.

Unfortunately, that still left me on the line wit wrong passport. I now had to make way for the German passenger who had now replaced his bag and he, quite justly, had the same look of sad contempt at watching fellow passenger fail in the ins and outs of international travel. So, I had to turn around go back through where had come, explain to the sleepy guard who did not speak English that I needed to get into the airport. That is not as simple as it sounds because technically I had already passed through the first barrier out of China. Fortunately, another guard, not so sleepy, came over and waved me back through.

Back in China, I then had to call my brother. His phone did not answer. I then tried Ryan. Fortunately, his phone did answer. I explained plight and told Ryan that I not only needed to get John to bring my passport, but I needed John to get me a new flight to Incheon, since by this time, it was obvious that I would miss my flight.

Well, as they say, it darkest before the dawn. I settled in to the Airport Restaurant, munching down some kind soup stew – not so easy with chopsticks – fortunately, they also provided a spoon. In due course, I got another phone call from Ryan saying that my brother had booked a new flight for me, this one for 5pm on Asiana Airlines and that they would be at the airport and hour or so. They had to be at the airport because they were flying on to Shanghia and certainly John would need his passport just as much as I needed mine.

After more Chinese stew soup and several cups of green tea, Ryan and my brother did arrive, John and I did exchange passports and, in due course, after waiting a couple of more hours for the flight gate to open up, I did go through. The ticket lady at Asiana was polite and there were no problems with my passport or my bag and so it was not too long before I was actually on a plane headed to Korea. Of course, being on plane is not necessarily the same flying plane. It turned out that there were traffic problems at Incheon Airport, so we were not allowed to take off for about two hours.

Anyway, the Asiana flight going was far better than the China Eastern coming – all 35 minutes of it, not counting the two hour wait on the Tarmac. Going through Korean customs was pretty smooth, getting on the Grand Hyatt bus to hotel was relatively easy and by about 9:30 pm I was actually in my room. That left me about a half hour to go downstairs and get hamburger – I was due and after, I was now at a place that I could was almost home, ensconced in big hotel in big airport a mere 14 hours from home.

This is the skywalk from one part of the Grand Hyatt to the other part. I was almost home.

This is the skywalk from one part of the Grand Hyatt to the other part. I was almost home.

After dinner I wandered around the big hotel to get an idea of the facilities. You never know when you might passing through Incheon so I thought it would be a good idea to reconnoiter. Most of the hotel was empty. Restaurants, bars, stores, all were closed or empty.  I passed by a Casino. It too was empty. Enough of that, I thought. I went back to my room and set up my speaker and listened to some old Eagles’ music about the Dalton Brothers. Two men come to town, only only one man leaves, something like that. I was almost back in the States.

I will not bore you with many details of the rest of the trip. It was pretty routine. I woke on time, I got to the airport on time. I got on the plane on time and I landed on time. In a mere 14 hours I flew 8,000 miles and landed at JFK. There I was greeted by Julio, the limo driver, who ferried me through the heavy traffic, even though it was only about 12:30 pm. In less than two hours, I was home. Home with my wife and son. It was good to be back.

In looking at this blog story, I realize it is my longest. And yet, the last half of this story is devoted to one my shortest overseas trips. I guess it a good thing that I did not try to describe a long trip. Ryan and John, by the way,  continued on for another seven days, doing the second leg of the trip that I would normally go on.

I believe travel changes you and travel changes your perspective. I think Benjamin Franklin was right – you see more and do more when you travel. More importantly, you see things and hear things that you never would otherwise. And if Mr. Franklin is right that travel greatly extends and enriches your life, then I have lived 5 or 10 times longer than most humans.




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