Friday, May 01, 2015

Ahead of my time

A 1963 Ford Falcom
I just read a description about "green automobiles" in an on-line magazine that states one of the options used in today's modern automobiles to save fuel and reduce pollution is called "Cylinder Deactivation." 

They state:

Cylinder deactivation, which saves gas by shutting down one or more of an engine’s cylinders when they’re not under load, such as when you’re cruising on a level highway

Back in 1973, Uncle Tom Feeney gave me Aunt Jo's old 1963 Ford Falcon. It had been Aunt Jo’s mother’s car and only had about 50,000 miles on it. But she was a bit past her prime (the car, not Aunt Jo) and was affectionately known to everyone as "The Blue Bomb." This nom d ’plume was partially related to the fact that the Blue Bomb had once actually been painted blue. She now had an attractive additional coating of gray primer paint on many of her surfaces with an equally lovely touch of romantic rust brown and white Bondo. She was a sight to be seen.

But the major reason the Blue Bomb was the blue bomb was because she was known to produce a lovely, effervescent aroma of burnt oil as it oozed a whitish-blue haze out of the exhaust pipe. When sitting at a stop light, the “haze” would sometimes become a full, immersive, smoke screen and completely mask the Bomb from sight. She was demure, and apparently didn’t want to be seen in public.

One time, while venturing across the Upper East Side of Manhattan, always a dangerous thing to do, I asphyxiated two old biddies on Park Avenue and was cruelly chastised by their doorman. Another time, while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the BQE, I got signaled by two of NYPD’s finest and made to exit off at McGuiness Blvd. As the smoke enveloped us, I feigned innocence and swore that “it just started doing this a few minutes ago, officers…” They let me go with a warning and I tried to stay away from traffic jams from that point forward.

The reason for the Blue Bomb’s digestive and effluence problem was the fact that she was only running on three and a half of her six cylinders. One was completely shot – a view into the cylinder head with the spark plug out revealed a black hole protecting a thick greasy quagmire of gunk. I suspected the connecting rod had long ago given up the ghost and any potential for combustion. The other sick cylinder, which I suspected was the primary culprit, probably had lost most of its compression from worn out seals on the valves. I would have to pull the spark plug out every thousand miles and clean off the grease and burnt carbon deposits. When she ran at high RPMs, the spark would fire and burn off any oil that had seeped in. But while sitting at idle, the valves would leak and the cloud would appear.

The Blue Bomb needed a complete engine re-build, along with a couple of thousand dollars of other things, and was only work about $12 in scrap metal. But she religiously got me around NYC, to school and other activities as needed and she was a fun old girl to ride.

The amazing thing about the Blue Bomb was that she got incredible gas mileage. Even though the price if gas in those days was a micro-fraction of today’s prices, I was getting 30-35 mpg. What I spent in motor oil, I made up in great gas mileage. I used to say she got 35 miles to the gallon of gas and quart of oil.

All I can say now is that this new information about “cylinder deactivation” means that the Blue Bomb was the first car in America to employ this technique as a means of improving gas mileage. Who knew we were so ahead of our time…

Image Credit: Image from American Motorcycle's YouTube page

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Mystery Signs of Augusta, Maine

Down the block and around the corner from my home in Augusta, Maine I noticed some strange markings on the pavement over the summer. This was not too unusual as over the past two year, two natural gas companies have been competing to win new customers as they have been bringing fresh new Canadian natural gas to the capital of the United States' northeastern most location. The process has involved lots of digging and the "Dig Safe" guys have been working overtime marking and re-marking where various underground utilities were laid.

So, I assumed that one of the gas companies was expanding their customer base and would be soon digging up the street yet again. But these markings were odd and pointed to a location where there was only a stand of trees. Perhaps the squirrels and birds in that location had saved up and were planning for a very warm winter.

The initial markings on the street cryptically stated: MDOT-sign. Soon, these were followed by more colorful signs suggesting that there were no underground utilities in the location and that it was apparently save to dig here. What followed - the signs
themselves - are truly confusing. As you can see in the images, they implore the public to "Post No Signs" - we got a bit of a conundrum going here, or haven't you noticed. They posted a sign to state - DON'T post a sign here. And they didn't stop with one - they got lots of them (see additional photos).

I have yet to figure out what the C.O.A might be - I'm hoping this post might generate some response. Some hint comes from the larger sign that appears below the "To Reverse Direction" sign which reads, "Controlled Access Highway - Official Highway Signs Only."BTW, this intersection is one of those famous "tea cup handle" arrangements where traffic heading in one direction on Western Avenue (a major road that has a center island preventing u-turns or crossing traffic except at intersections) can "reverse direction" without driving into some businesses' parking lot which they do anyway, despite the signs. I always thought these signs - "to reverse direction" - were rather enigmatic and perhaps a bit philosophical. Way too complicated for the average American with a 5th grade reading level to figure out.

Now, the fact that there are no signs posted in this location other than the Post No Signs signs that have recently been posted, and in the 19 years I have been in this location, I have never seen any signs posted here - even the temporary election signs, is a bit disturbing. Is it possible that these are in response to someone's complaint? Could there be a new law on the books that insists that our hard-earn tax money be spent frivolously on useless and cryptic signage that no one, other than me, will ever bother to look at?

Your guess is as good as mine.

In the meantime, the mystery continues. Post something if you got an idea!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Uncle Artie

Dr. Arthur Hughes
Fortunately, I had a chance a number of years ago to convey this story in person to Dr. Hughes. Indeed he was delighted by it and rewarded me with his customary and memorable hearty laugh.

I’m sure you all have experienced a recurring nightmare. You know, the kind that reveals your innermost fears and insecurities.

In my recurring nightmare, I arrive in a class and to my horror, I discover that there is an exam scheduled for that day and not only am I completely un-prepared for the exam, I realize that I didn’t even know there was going to BE a mid-term exam.

Unfortunately, my recurring nightmare is based upon a real incident; it actually happened. And, even though I still get cold sweats whenever the dream “reoccurs” – and it still does – I can safely inform you that this nightmare has a happy ending.

First, to dispel the mystery about the title of this offering. Many SFC folks may not know that Dr. Arthur J. Hughes also (occasionally) taught at St. Joseph’s College (for Women). My sister, Sigrid attended St. Joe’s and had taken a course with Dr. Hughes the year before my freshman year at SFC. Apparently, the “girls” of St. Joe’s thought Dr. Hughes was quite endearing and affectionately called him “Uncle Artie.”

My nightmare took place in the mid-term of the fall of my freshman year. I was taking the obligatory History 101 course and was thoroughly enjoying the class when the aforementioned event really happened. I still get chills recalling the fact that I had taken my seat in the middle of the room – no way to slip out without making a scene – and can still remember the command to “please remove all of the books from your desk…you will have the whole period to complete the mid-term…”
Resigned to the fact that I instantly knew I was going to fail the test and, quite possibly, the entire course, I took a deep breath and attempted to clear my head to at least remember my name. Within minutes I knew it was going to be a complete disaster, none of the questions stimulated any recall of anything. I briefly wondered if I was in the correct classroom. “When did we talk about this stuff?”

I went through the motions and after a few folks had finished and passed in their papers, I sheepishly turned in my test which quite noticeably had a lot of white space and left the room.

But something in the back of my head told me that I needed to seek out the good professor later in the day, throw myself on the ground in front of him and beg for mercy.

And that is exactly what I did.

The good news was, Dr. Arthur Hughes was not only an experienced veteran of the college classroom, and had no doubt met many a student in a similar circumstance, he was a true gentle man. With little fanfare he acknowledged that I had indeed “bombed-out” on the mid-term and that I could/would make up the poor grade by completing an extra credit assignment.

The clouds lifted. I would live to see another day.

When, many years later, I had the occasion to be teaching at the college level, and I encountered my own sad-sack of a student who had maneuvered himself into a similar circumstance, I thought about the humanity that that good man had shown me that day. I paid it forward.

I read today that, as part of a memorial tribute, Dr. Hughes is to be honored by being posthumously awarded with a special teaching medal named for him. I can think of no one better suited to be the recipient of the 2014 Dr. Arthur J. Hughes Award for Excellence in Teaching than Uncle Artie himself. May he rest in peace knowing that in additional to the hundreds, perhaps thousands of St. Francis College students who benefited from their time with him, equally as many other students have also, indirectly, benefited from his kindness and humanity.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Man on the Moon

Man on the Moon
Buzz Aldrin, the second Man of the Moon, has encouraged people to post videos and stories about "where they were" 45 years ago when he and Neil Armstrong stood on the Sea of Tranquility. So here is goes Buzz...


My mother had died in January of 1969. She didn't live to see a man walk on the moon, or more importantly, live to witness her beloved NY Mets win the World Series.

That summer we departed from our customary August vacation at Point O'Woods on the coast of Connecticut. Instead, my dad planned a few shorter trips including one in July to visit his brother, our Uncle Ralph, his wife Aunt Phyllis and our cousins, affectionately referred to collectively as the Wethersfield Brandt's. So that's where we were on this date in 1969, gathered around the black and white TV in the living room of the house on a Timber Trail.

My only clear recollection of the event was that it took place at night and after the landing there was several hours of waiting before the hatch was opened and Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words. That all happened rather late and there were few eyes still opened and a fair amount of yawning.

I was 16 and perhaps too young to sense the historic nature of the event. The 60s, after all, were a wild decade with multiple assassinations and many historic moments. The space race had many firsts so the actual achievement of putting a man on the moon was only one of a long list of events all taking place in a relatively short period of time.

At the time, I was a bit of a "junior exploder" - a term coined by my hero, humorist Jean Shepherd, describing what we would today call a geeky kid. I was more interested in the technical aspects of the whole event, descent rates, ground radar, were there Klingons there waiting with distrupters. Seriously, I was immersed in science and technology, less so in the human story. Today, I like to remind people that the computer used in the LM (Lunar Module) was less powerful than an average iPod and infinitely less sexy. It was basically a glorified electronic calculator. But it safely got people to the moon and back many times. So, ultimately, I don't remember much of importance.

But I do recall a bunch years ago being at the Air and Space Museum in DC and viewing the exhibit on the lunar missions. The exhibit listing the names of ten other astronauts that traveled to the moon; names I did not remember. They made the post that after the first few trips to the moon, America and the world lost interest in the project and ultimately defunded the Apollo Program due to a lack of interest.

So much for the "Giant leap for Mankind..."

Monday, June 02, 2014

My own brief story about Jean Shepherd

This was originally written and published in Fall 1999 on a website I owned at the time (pre-blogs). It was composed shortly after the death of Jean Shepherd (who died on Saturday, October 16, 1999) and I suspect, in writing this I was reconciling the loss. 

Over the years I have edited and added some additional comments. Today as I post this, I did a little more editing for accuracy and the occasional typo. I apparently didn't have a very good spellchecker in 1999.

The original web location of this reflection is long gone so I thought this was essentially lost. However, I found it today on an old backup drive hidden away in an sock drawer. I wonder what else is on there...

My purpose for re-publishing this is in response to a series of wonderful articles written by our friend and official Jean Shepherd biographer,Gene Bergmann. These recent posts on his blog provide a rich backstory of one of Jean Shepherd's greatest "fans." After you read this, you'll want head over to Shepquest and get "the rest of the story."

Jean Shepherd
It was 1971 and Shep had begun a tradition of holding a "press conference" for college newspaper and radio reporters at the Overseas Press Club in Manhattan. At the time, I was a freshman at Pratt Institute and a devoted follower. I also had two small radio programs on the campus based station WPIR which had a broadcast range of about three feet. Actually, it was a "closed circuit" system intended to only be played in the dorms and cafeteria. Good thing. My Barker Bill Show, which featured popular folk rock music and my occasional banterings, news clips and movie reviews, was probably pretty bad. I was known to mix Janis Joplin with the sound track from the movie, The Wizard of Oz back-to-back. Hey, it was the 70's.

Anyway, as per the directive, I sent off, on "official letterhead," a request for an "official press pass" to the Jean Shepherd's America Press Conference scheduled for April 8, 1971. In preparation, I "acquired" my sister's fairly new Norelco cassette tape player and planned to record the whole event (I still have, and just listened to the tape and will see about making it available to download). See info in the Notes at the bottom of this as to the status of the recording...

When the important day arrived, I made my way by subway from our apartment in Brooklyn to the Overseas Press Club on West 39th Street, adjacent to the main branch of the New York City Public Library. The OPC, an ornate Victorian style building, had a small clunky, funky elevator that was not too fast. Since the conglomeration of "reporters" all arrived at about the same time, and all had to take the same elevator to get to the upper floor where the press conference was to be held, it was pretty wild scene. As I was stuffing myself into the small, sardine-can like conveyance, a small, rather extremely attractive woman approached and begged to be allowed to squeeze in. Being the gentleman that I was, and noticing the stunning quality of this auburn haired beauty, I elbowed the kid behind me and pressed back making room for the latest fan.

In the creaky trip up to the fourth floor, I tried, somewhat in vain, to strike up a conversation with my brown-haired friend. It was obvious that she was significantly older than the median pimply-faced kids on the elevator, but not all that old. Maybe thirty? But, boy was she one fine-looking lady with a dark colored outfit and all that luscious brown hair.

The conversation I tried to initiate was not very memorable. She did respond briefly and admitted to being a "big fan" and looking forward to seeing Shep. I tried to find out where she was from, thinking that she too was a college student somewhere -- perhaps a graduate student. But, when the elevator door opened a few minutes later she quickly disappeared into the large throng of student reporters milling around and crowding into the small, humid room. Oh well, such is life.

Now, anyone who has listened to the Jean Shepherd radio show on WOR has heard Shep mention his producer, "Lee" Brown. In fact, during many programs, Shep would literally talk to the off-microphone Lee who was obviously in some sound-proof control room nearby. Since Jean's style was so often rhetorical, and almost conversational, it probably helped to have someone in the control room who could at least give the semblance of an audience.

Well, up until that memorable day in April, I assumed that "Lee" was some paunchy, middle-aged guy with a cigarette butt handing out of his mouth, thick glasses and perpetually wearing a set of old-fashioned radio headphones. I mean, what else could you expect. What kind of person would spend five nights a week working in a cramped control room listening to Shepherd's rants and raves. It had to be some guy!

As fate would have it, during the next hour of the press conference, which by the way was quite entertaining, Shep took occasion to explain, in detail, the production staff of his new TV series on PBS called, Jean Shepherd's America. And, one of the Associate Producers for that show was Lee Brown. Except -- it wasn't Lee Brown, it was Leigh Brown. A woman. A woman?

And then, before my very eyes, he brought Leigh up on the stage to introduce to the crowd.

My God, it was my auburn-haired mystery woman from the elevator. Holy Smokes! I had ridden up the elevator with Jean Shepherd's Associate Producer. And she had TALKED to ME. I'd been blessed!

Now, if you have made it this far on this page you are probably figuring -- this guy is totally wacky. Like, who cares! Big deal! Well, what I didn't know then, and only learned later, was that Leigh and Jean -- were "an item." That's right. They were more than just "professional colleagues." And in fact, in 1978, according to my spies, Jean married this old flame (his third, at least her second).

Sadly, I learned today that Jean had out survived Leigh. According to Jean's obituary, Leigh died last year after 21 years of marriage. I guess they are now just hanging out together in Heaven, talking about that goofy kid who called himself Barker Bill.

BTW, I suspect that Shep would be a bit amused at the outpouring of affection. He could at times be a bit vain, but I think he was also a realist and would encourage us all to get on with it and not to dwell on his passing. I understand a memorial service is being planned in NYC. Maybe then we can find out more about his final wishes.

Jean Parker Shepherd lived a long, full life and seemed to have fun doing it. He will be immortalized in his writings and his other crafts and I will always remember him.

Additional Comments: March 4, 2001

Shep was a self-described, personal friend and colleague of Jack Kerouac, the rather infamous author of the book, On the Road. Ironically, there was a story in this past Sunday's Maine Sunday Telegram about Kerouac, a native of Lowell, MA. The article begins with a reminder that Kerouac died 30 years ago this month. I remember that night. Shep devoted the whole 45 minutes of his show talking about Kerouac and claimed that one of the characters in the book, On the Road, was based upon him. And, as I remember it, the character was called the "angel-headed hippy." Perhaps some one knows more about this, but it sure seems fitting.

Additional Comments: January 2004

As a Christmas present to myself this year I purchased a copy of the 20th Anniversary DVD of The Christmas Story. Shep devotees should drop everything and run out and get this DVD today because it has some real treats. In addition to lots of memorabilia regarding the film, the filming process and many of the players involved (including Shep), there is a section with some original recordings of some of his radio shows.

One should make sure they listen to the Director's Commentary version of the playback. There are some interesting highlights and insights which I never knew. The biggest surprise for me - and I think this is fitting given the discussion above - was that in addition to Shep playing a cameo (you all know the scene), the woman standing with him is in fact his real-life wife and co-producer, Leigh Brown.
So gang, hang by your thumbs, write if you get work. And remember,

Flick Lives!

Original: circa October, 1999
revised: January 5, 2004

revised and re-posted: June 2, 2014


At some time in the mid-1990s a fellow Shep devotee offered to convert the ancient cassette recording from this Overseas Press Club event into digital format on the condition that he be able to post it on his website. I readily agreed, the posting made and the tape returned. I thought that devotee was Jim Clavin of the FlickLives website, but I cannot seem to find the recording on his site (although he has others listed as Overseas Press Club, the year is wrong).

I also checked web sites by Jim Sadur and Bob Kaye, but alas, no recording. If you know what happened to it, please contact me. Otherwise, I will see about finding the original and re-converting it. That is, if it has not already decomposed.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Everything old is new again

Innovations in shopping?

One of my father’s favorite jokes was about the telephone company. “Someday, the telephone will get so advanced that all when you pick up the receiver, someone at the other end will say, ‘number please.’”

This week at a technology meeting in Portland, the invited speaker told about a supermarket chain in southern New England where you can use special hand-held devices while shopping that scans your items as you put it in your cart and when you get to the checkout you hand over the device and the sale is already totaled up for you. This “shoppers’ convenience” was imperfect, according to the speaker, who envisioned that a better device would know where you were physically in the store and be able to offer you more services as you shopped. I thought, well that will probably be available in the next version.

Today, I read a NewYork Times article about Instacart, a two-year-old grocery delivery start-up that is now available in some larger US cities. The article explains, “When you buy groceries from Instacart, the company summons a green-shirted ‘personal shopper’ through the firm’s smartphone app. The shopper receives your list, scurries through a grocery store to pick up your items and then heads across town in his own car to deliver your stuff.” New idea?

Both these stories, and my father’s old joke had me reflecting on my childhood in Brooklyn, NY and made me think that we were now seeing was a re-invention of an old idea.

Myrtle Avenue, the business nexus of the Clinton Hill/FortGreen neighborhood where I spent my youth was a panoply of small businesses that provided for the wants and needs of the tens of thousands of local citizens. In those days, the large, one-stop-shop megastores and shopping malls were still futuristic, albeit we did have a couple of smaller, locally-owned supermarkets (Bohacks, A&P, and Key Food), but these carried a very limited line of products and were tiny as compared to my 50,000 sq. ft. local Hannaford in Augusta, Maine.

Competing in the next block of Myrtle Avenue were butcher shops, bakeries, greengrocers (stores that sold fresh produce), drug stores, fish markets, and hardware stores. In those days we had local clothing stores, shoe stores, and even a store that sold notions – whatever they are. There were also a host of smaller grocery stores and delicatessens that even had prepared foods. Add to that several smaller restaurants and pizzerias.

And all these stores “picked out” your item and offered free local delivery.

Add to this list, the local Laundromat, several dry cleaners, liquor stores, and even a florist. They all delivered and many of them offered free credit to local customers. This was a time before revolving credit cards. I think my father got his first Uni-Card (later to become VISA) in the mid-1960s. Many neighbors would purchase their daily groceries, have them delivered and pay off their bill at the end of the month. In many cases, we would pay the delivery guy with cash and he would even make change (“Make sure you tell that when you call in the order to bring change for a ten!”).

Yes, I think we have gone in a full circle. Number please!


Saturday, February 08, 2014

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today

The Fab Four from this time period
The Beatles from 1964 - credit below
Just like this year, my birthday was on a cold Saturday in February. I turned eleven, and remember nothing of that day, and little about that time.

I would have been in the sixth grade and probably relieved to have finally gotten to age 11, the age you are supposed to be when entering the sixth grade, not half way through the school year. I was always the youngest in my class, but my height - and girth - more than made up for the lacking in chronological age.

But there is one event that makes that day, that weekend, unforgettable. It had to do with the arrival in the USA of, as the New York Times put it, “…four rock n’ roll performers hailed by teen-agers…” 

Their single, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” was number one on the best-seller record list and their first album, “Meet the Beatles” was number three. The news was all over the local radio and TV. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knew about this, soon to be called, “British invasion.” And all anyone was talking about was The Beatles being on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night. 

My old man, the often-stoic FBI agent was also talking about The Beatles and made it clear he was an enthusiastic fan. Humming their music and allowing us to play our Beatle records over and over again on my sister’s new record player, it was a strange mixture of the generations. I remember thinking it odd at the time, but his fondness for the “four lads from Liverpool” lasted until his last day.

“Young” people today who were not alive then, or too young to have witnessed the phenomena first hand, simply can’t relate to this event. It was simply monumental.

I don’t remember if I had an official birthday party that year; perhaps we celebrated with my Nana and Uncle Ubie on Sunday – our official day to visit my grandmother in Sunnyside Queens who lived with my mother’s older brother Hubert. But I clearly remember the evening of February 9, 1964 and gathering around the black and white TV to watch the spectacle.

NOTE: Revised 2/9/14 when I realized I was 11 in 1964, not 10. Arithmetic was never my strong suite.
Photo Credit: Image licensed through Creative Commons. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c11094.