My license plates from very state I have lived in, except Pennsylvania.
Preface Here are a few photos of your humble Quoran: Does parting your hair one way or the other influence how others perceive you? (Contains photos) This note will appear throughout, to speed up this post loading.
Let me just say that my children and grand children matter a lot, a whole lot. They know about most of all these events, and maybe there will be a surprise or two. It seems as if our family has taken roots up in several states, none real close to me. But once your children have their own families and careers and their own children that is wonderful in its own way. Enjoy this abbreviated recount of my journey. I love you all!
Introduction The yelling will never stop! “Why can’t you ever make up your mind! You are the most miserable person ever…!” Then, more yelling, I refuse to listen to, my poor mother never has a moment of peace. She is trapped here in our house, does not drive a car. She has six children to deal with for weeks at a stretch, while the bully, our father, is out of town. He is never referred to by the familial name “Dad”, for justifiable reasons, as you will see.
When he gets back home he barks orders like an obsessed drill Sargent! No one is happy. We prefer him to be “on the road.”
One summer afternoon, my younger brother ran away from home. It was a family tradition; my older brother would do the same in a year or so. My memory has been fried. He never returned. Ever. My father ran away from home back in the 1930’s. My little 14-year-old brother couldn’t stand it anymore, and he was too young to drive so he hitchhiked west bound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, an adventure I would take a few years later. I came home from an adventure, he came home to the terror of his father. Trapped. He was too young to be treated this way too, others knew this but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help. The bully was ever-present—always mean, and always our father. I was, and I still am, a seeker of balance, a good “Libra”. Some take drastic measures, I would go into the military and never live at home again.
We all knew that Ricky was smarter and gentler than our father. He was my “younger-smarter brother”… A lot smarter (IQ 160+)! He and I were a few years different in age—three—and played outdoors together. We built a fort, one could call it a hideout, from old lumber we found near our house. It was only 5 feet high, by 6 feet long and 3 feet deep. The roof always leaked a little. We were mischievous little buddies, and could hide without leaving our backyard.
When our older sister got married and lived a block away, Ricky was introduced to guns by his brother-in-law Cesare, who was an avid gun user. He practiced safe usage and proper use of such a deadly weapon. He didn’t use and own guns to hunt with, they were for personal protection only.
The note on their apartment door, several years later, in central Philadelphia comes to mind. “If you haven’t been let in here, please leave. There is a loaded shotgun behind the front door.” The sign was correct, I saw that weapon personally.
One afternoon, in that last spring of his life, he asked Cesare, “What happens if I put this rifle into the ground and pull the trigger, will it make a loud noise?” Cesare explained the physics in his typically interesting English/Italian mangled English and thick Roman accent, “No, why do you ask a question like that?” The reply has been lost to eternity. I forget, and Cesare is dead now too.
My brother has run away and I’m scheduled to be on a camping church retreat for the week end. I go on my adventure assuming he’d come home by the time I got back Sunday. He did come home. He wrote his suicide note. His time remaining on earth was growing shorter by the minute. If I were there could I have talked him out of this? I will never know.
The events of my camping trip are also lost to eternity, as is much of my childhood. Lost in a fog of yelling and bickering that was the background noise—the sound track of my early years. His younger sister was told, “Go up and tell Ricky there was ice cream served downstairs.” When she entered his room, her world was turned upside down. She was around 10-years-old….such horror! I can not imagine.
While I was camping, my brother came home and asked (about his father), “Is he home?” He was told, “He isn’t home, I don’t think he’ll be back until next week.” Our older sister raised most of the four younger kids. Her older brother, completed the sextet of the Byron Clan.
We all think we are unique, and at the same time we realize that we are not. I have pondered this and have explained events in my life and many times I get the same response: “You should write a book!” I smile and agree. I have reviewed a few events here, and I’m either afraid to put this together, or I’m the worst procrastinator in history. I agree with the former and hope to disprove the latter. This is a start, there will be more added to this foundation.
My parents’ first child was conceived out of wedlock. This is key to understanding the family hostilities, which I am trying to discuss. Everyone was lied to about this for 50 years. I researched and found their original marriage license in a Tennessee court-house, and confirmed the lie. I never confronted him with this detail. But my father stoically preached the same morality and honesty, until his death. Common? Probably. The only reason to mention this is that prior to my parents wedding, my father’s life was a tumultuous series of “incidents and accidents”. He, too, had been a run-away. He rode a 1938(?) Indian motorcycle. He was wild and reckless, there are stories I’ve heard. Around 1938 or 1939, he told his then girlfriend, not my mother, that he couldn’t marry her, he was 24 or 25 then. She was pregnant and she then committed suicide. That refines my unique history a little further. Another item is that my younger brother was born in February, the real month that they were secretly married. They lived in New Jersey and drove to Tennessee, where there is no waiting period for marriages. Did our father remember his phony wedding anniversary every year my little brother had a birthday? No one alive to ask that question.
My father was the traveling salesman, the “proverbial type”, and if it were only one comment addressed to me, as a young man, “You sure look like ‘Jimmy’, is he your cousin?”, I have wondered along with the questioner, and I always have.
My father’s family is buried in Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island, New York City, the same Cemetery where the more famous Vanderbilt family are interred. How is that unique you ask, rightly so? My family, on that side, was in a contentious battle for years with the Vanderbilt’s over ferry service in New York City.
Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1834. Vanderbilt competed on the Hudson River against a steamboat monopoly between New York City and Albany. Using the name “The People’s Line,” he used the populist language associated with Democratic president Andrew Jackson to get popular support for his business. At the end of the year, the monopoly paid him a large amount to stop competing, and he switched his operations to Long Island Sound.:99–104 Cornelius Vanderbilt
You know, obviously, who won. Now they are together for eternity—only a few hundred feet apart.
Robert Fulton and the steamboat: an interesting history here, as well. A member from my father’s family worked as an engineer with Mr. Fulton on that project. That led to the Vanderbilt conflict. Steamboat Voyage, 1807
What a journey it has been, living my childhood in the midst of hostility and anger; and, begging your indulgence, I will relate some detailed thoughts (year by year); opinions and experiences which I have observed along the way. As Paul Simon’s song said, “There were incidents and accidents”, along the way. There would be, as I will relate.
When “I got here”…
…prices were quite low, as were wages, but post-war expectations for consumption were high. The war-time economy would transition into a peace-time economy and there was plenty of pent-up demand. The production of cars, houses and consumer goods was growing rapidly. Our baby boomer generation was huge and we received a lot of attention; all 3.4 million of us, many of whom went (not me) to the largest rock concert ever—Woodstock 1969. We are turning 70 this year, or would have turned 70 (Vietnam would take a lot of us). We are the largest numbers of births ever recorded in America for one year. I went through schools in two different brand new buildings as I progressed through junior and senior high. They are still in use today, but still as crowded as they used to be, since my small town keeps growing. The world war was over, and our generation was going to be in the next group to be charge, in a few decades.
* Gas prices were @15¢/gal
* Average new car cost was $1200.00
* U.S. postage for a letter was 2¢ ($0.02)
* Minimum wage was 25¢ in the U. S.
1946 I was born just 13 months after the first nuclear weapons were used in war, I have been on quite a journey in America ever since. I was conceived in 1945 on a Christmas leave. Why was I ever told that I do not know. Truman was my first President (# 33), politics was not in my blood…just yet.
1949 I distinctly remember being this old in 1949:
This was a few years earlier than the walks I will mention with my older brother (9 then) and sister (8 then); but they were young too, my older brother and sister with our father (the one who told me about his time on leave in 1945)!
We used to climb the rather steep hill behind our house and make it an adventure. There was a “monastery up there”, so I remember being told. It may have been only a block or two away, but it was far from home at the age 2 or 3.
I also used to help my neighbor Bill get rid of the bees on his front porch.
I was having a fun early life up until I was two…
I had plastic surgery when I was two. I was hit in the mouth with a lead pipe thrown at me. It hit me in the mouth and split my lip wide-open. Never can catch a ball thrown at me to this day, 64 years later. My chances at playing football and baseball were dashed at that point!!
While I was recovering from this, I was helping my neighbor burn some yellow jackets (bees) out from around his wooden porch steps. I was stepping on the bees that were getting away. The last step I remember was a bottom one, that collapsed under my little foot.
BuZzzzzZzzZzz…I was stung over 200 times. Covered head-to-toe with bee stings! What is one interesting thing about you that most people who know you do not know?
I can also remember playing here on the steps in front of my house. The wall was pretty high for a little tot like I was then. I had to have plastic surgery after getting hit in the face with a piece of steel pipe I did not catch! It hit me right in the mouth— ooowie!!! I can never play baseball or football due to the fear of things thrown towards me. What is your earliest childhood memory? (Contains photos)
What was it like to grow up in America during the 1950’s? (Contains photos)
1951 I have a few faint recollections of this time, but much of who I was has been destroyed in my being brought up in such a disharmonious home. I related those few highlights I can remember in the introduction.
I (think I) overcame all of this and it made me a stronger person. You decide; I gave up wrestling with this issue too many years ago for it to matter now. Occasionally I stop when I see a family from the 50’s and ask myself, “Am I really over all this?” “Was this how my childhood was?” The answer to the first question surely must be an emphatic, “No!” To the second, a tentative “Yes…” I have been told that I am a psychoanalyst’s nightmare or best customer ever. I don’t know which; or, I just refuse to admit my answer.
I “ran away” one afternoon with my neighbors to go shopping. 1951 or 1952. I never told my mom where I was for several hours. In the 60’s I would travel 300 miles away and tell my mother I was a mile away at Johnny’s. more on that later. I had to have been 5 or 6 on this misadventure. I never got yelled at and looking back on that, now, I wonder. Why I didn’t get asked if I was o.k.. My mom just asked, “Where were you?” Odd. My childhood is terribly fuzzy. Much of what I remember are the arguments between my parents. About stupid stuff. Petty arguments over going out to see a movie or not going out to see a movie; escalating into yelling! Random, but upsetting to a 10-year-old.
I knew that my father was a closet alcoholic; was that the reason for the mood swings? The reason I erased my childhood? His rationale was, “You never see me stumbling around, do you?” I do remember a late night event where all six of us children were lined up and grilled to find out, as our father demanded, “Who stole my pencil!!!?” It was scary. All of us were quiet. Either, one of us was a liar, or he was drunk. I decided the answer was, “I did it!” This stopped the madness; I forget what my punishment was, but the yelling ceased! My sisters still praise me to the present time for this valor.
My childhood is blank except for some of these flashbacks.
On yet another night, I remember being woken up one night (around nine?) in the evening and being told I was going to the drive-in; they used to show movies outside, in large empty fields. Drive-In Theater You put a speaker hanging from a post on your car window and watched from the comfort of your car. My sister had one she purloined, and still had it for decades after she stopped going there. An alternate plan was to go to the movie with a girl friend and “watch” the movie from your “car-bedroom”. Who wants to guess what really happened. I remember I was (half) asleep, in the backseat, and my father and (?) were in the front seat. Just another weird piece of memory from what’s left of my childhood. Redacted.
My father was rarely home, for weeks at a time. He was the “proverbial” traveling salesman of which old jokes were/are told. They were jokes, but I saw them as real. Maybe this explains where the child in me went. Maybe “he” is hiding inside me? Maybe “he” is dead; my brother took that option at age 14. I can’t ask him, and I can’t really remember much about that, except one telling exchange.
I came home from having been camping up in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania Sunday. Another escape, you say? Probably. When I came home that day, a hot July afternoon, I carried my pack into the house. It became apparent at this point why our narrow street was crowded with parked cars. My older brother greeted me when I came inside. He said, “I thought you were dead!!!” I was not, but soon found out our little brother committed suicide the night before. The rest is also blank, as I have previously mentioned.
Perhaps, not long after this, this same older brother left home. He never returned. He went to Washington state, as far west as you can go. He had just graduated from high school and I was in the 9th grade. It was a long hot summer, we never had air conditioning at home or in our cars back then.
My child-self died on one of those hot summer days, 50 years ago. I am here as his (unauthorized substitute) replacement. The show must go on, right? What happened to the child in you?
1952 I remember flying for the first time at age 6 in a red bi-plane with my father. Open cockpit, two-seater, pilot in the back, Stu Dowdey, and I sat on my father’s lap when I wasn’t standing up looking out over the edge of the plane.
Air travel has changed a lot since then. Then you could go to a commercial airport, walk in and go to the departing area and even get on the plane to see someone off. No screening. Everyone dressed like they were at church; we always dressed well in public unless it was just play time. No security. No X-rays. The airlines let you smoke and even gave you small 4-packs of cigarettes…gave, as in free.
1953 There were only 48 states (no Hawaii or Alaska) and my phone number was 1619J, my friend Johnny’s number was 0211J. There was no dial on that phone. I had “voice-dialing” then, “Number Pahleeze?” Funny that I could have seen a dial without glasses then, now I need glasses to read, but I can use Siri….full circle.
1955 Polio was being fought as I grew up, we had all heard about how President FDR was crippled by this disease. Years later I would visit Warm Springs, Georgia where he visited and later died. There was finally a pill you could take, and I remember, around 1955 or so, those white paper cups like the ketchup holders at McDonald’s. We were handed a pill and that small paper cup of water, or was it Kool-Aid™? So many kids had been crippled by this disease, only a few years earlier. We also got those scar producing shots to prevent Smallpox (finally eradicated by 1980) which we wore on our arms, even to this day, with the scars as proof. The girls could get them on their upper thighs to hide the scars, if they ever chose to wear sleeveless dresses.
Our health, as “boomers”, was important, but curiously, our cars did not have seat belts then, even until 1968 were any laws passed. Kids didn’t wear helmets or knee pads. I did drink creek water though and real spring water, ate wild berries, crab apples, honeysuckle, etc. all summer, every summer. We didn’t have gyms to go to for exercise; we never needed them because we never sat around watching TV or playing board games in our homes. I was “thin as a rail” until I got married and settled down. Then? Well, unless the weather was horrid we were always found outside doing something. I built my own skate board from a broken old metal roller skate and a board I found someplace. No helmets were used, they weren’t invented for home use then. Sledding all winter if there was snow, or swimming all summer, if we were lucky. I’m surprised I never grew gills—maybe that contributes to my skepticism towards evolution theories…?
1954 edited addition
1956 There were not even any interstate highways until President Eisenhower decided, from his experience in WWII seeing the German Autobahn, that we needed better faster roads. That was 1956, I was 10-years-old. Now we have 46,000 miles of non-stop highways. Amazing. You can now drive non-stop across the U.S. except to change drivers and get gas. This is why we now have motels and fast food chains everywhere too.
Perhaps I have some family influence to blame for my political interests. My Uncle Clarence Francis was in politics, and a very successful “fruit peddler”, as he referred to himself. He retired as Chairman of The Board of General Foods and also served as President Eisenhower’s Economic advisor. I actually did vote democrat in 1972 for McGovern. War protest vote, as I recall; I was two years post-active-duty then.
I became very active in politics beginning in the mid-1980’s. I became interested in a local annexation battle. A current U.S. Senator now, but Governor then, wanted me to run for the state legislature. I was part of a political group who then sued a major city and won in court. The adage, “You can’t fight city hall”, certainly isn’t true. My “future-ex-wife” at the time said I couldn’t run. “Harrumpf!!” But I acquiesced. Regrets? Not a lot about the political part of the decision, but I would probably not have gone on to meet my lovely second wife; life would have taken a totally different path. Life, I’m finding out, is exactly that—odd twists, turns, and joys, sorrows. “Incidents and accidents.” Unexplainable at the time, but valuable reference points in retrospect as we age.
1957 One summer day, my brother Ricky and I built a crude “Huck Finn” wooden raft, and traveled down stream for an adventure. No one drowned and we didn’t make any discoveries, only that we could build something creek-worthy and fun.
1958 I was about 12, and I was with a church group one summer afternoon. It was in New Jersey, or near Philadelphia—I don’t know, memory wiped clean. The day was meant to be an outing to enjoy a fun time swimming at a state park. It has become one of my most vivid memories of my youth. Like it was yesterday. At least parts of this day are etched in my mind like a carving in an Egyptian tomb.
I was thrust into adulthood quite suddenly and permanently. It was a preparation for another event to happen a few years later. My youth ended this day, as you will see.
I met death head on, face-to-face, from my personal experience, not to read about, but to see for myself. Up close. Only censored by time that has passed these 55 years later. But the details that matter have remained…I will re-visit now.
There were about 15 to 20 of us and a few adults. There presence and their names and faces have been shoved from my memory. The mind is like that. It is laser-focused on the details that are important, not the trivial details surrounding the day. Month? Day? Place? Gone. But not what I will relate, from a kids-eye view.
I do not remember the date. I do not remember the place by name. But I do remember the landscape, the view, grass, trees, as if I were there as I type. It was hot! There was a wide, slow moving, idyllic creek. Muddy, but inviting on that hot summer day.
Along the bank of the creek, wide and muddy, was a large overhanging tree with a big rope dangling right over the water. We took turns pulling the rope back to the shore and grabbing hold of the rope and swinging out over the creek and letting go. KERSPLASH! We fell into the water. I had never seen such a contraption. We took turns laughing as one of us would try to show off and do a flip as we let go. Some were more athletic, some were lucky, but it was fun. It was a hot day and the water felt great. We had no concerns about the muddy water, or any hazards doing this. I think the water was plenty deep, nothing to worry about.
As we gathered under this tree, maybe 15 or more of us, I wondered who this young man was laying before me and my companions before us. On the ground. Surrounded by panicked adults and kids talking to each other, walking around confused.
Moments earlier we had been watching a group of older kids, playing out towards the middle of the creek. Perhaps 100 feet from us. They were yelling and rough-housing and splashing. We were jumping off this tree-rope, they were not with our group.
There were perhaps four of these older kids grouped together out in the middle of the creek, separately having fun away from us. I noticed, as I waited my turn to grab the rope, that their playing suddenly changed. Their voices came across the water in shouts. Staccato. Replies. Screams! Commands! Urgency!
As my attention focused on them, I noticed one, then another would disappear beneath the water for a few seconds. They were not playing any more. Then another would surface and yell, followed by another who would dive below the water and suddenly pop back up to the surface. I could sense their panic and fear as I watched this. But what exactly was going on?
Here I am, standing with a large group of 30 kids and adults, trying to see what was going on. An older kid was laying on the ground. There was an ambulance parked near by, on my left. As I watched, he was splayed out on the ground, face down, with his arms extended over his head. A grown up knelt across him, he was trying to get him to breathe. The old fashion method of leaning on his shoulders and pulling his shoulders up after pressing down on him.
After I heard some of his friends talking to other adults I found out. He had been pretending to drown, but wasn’t drowning. He would pop up out of the water and surprise the others!
Not the last time. Not now! He didn’t come up and they kept waiting, laughing. Their wondering became panic. He really was in trouble. THEY knew something was wrong!!!
Now he was near my feet on the grass. He wasn’t moving. They kept trying to get him to breathe. After a long time (5 minutes or 30 minutes?) they decided to turn him over. This is where my memory of this ends. I saw his face, and his color, and I knew…
About three summers later, my younger brother would die suddenly. Was this a cosmic preparation for me, a preview of the “Death Angel’s” visit? A harbinger..
p.s. …harbinger indeed. As I finished this answer and got a cup of coffee and looked out the window here at my apartment.
The “Death Angel” has just visited an elderly neighbor. He was taken by ambulance. This is downright eerie and spooky. I am shaken…What did you see as a child that affected your life (Contains photo)
1960 The last two weeks in July, for many years, we all packed up (5 kids and parents) and went to the ocean. My oldest brother had already left home. His reasons, and that story is a long and tedious road for another tale. They did not mix, like oil and water…another time I might cover that. I remember loading up in the family’s 1958 light green Ford station wagon (no air conditioning) and heading to the Jersey shore. I remember the smell of tobacco every time he lit up. Most of us children went on to become smokers. I have since quit after a clean bill of health—50 years was enough.
What an adventure, walking two blocks every day down to the beach. What a troupe that was! It wasn’t until decades later that I would learn that the great white sharks would berth their young in Brigantine Bay. Right where we swan when not in the ocean. That was before the movie “Jaws”, a shark thriller. I didn’t know to be scared, no one really did. Not while we were there out in the ocean. Alone.
One afternoon I swam and wadded out to a sandbar (1/2 mile out?) with my little brother. On our way back to shore we had to stop swimming and wait for a shark (between us and the shore) to swim across in front of us. Too close, even though it was 200 yards away. We didn’t even worry. Those days will never return…
I have fond memories of Steel Pier and the more famous Boardwalk. We were given a dollar or two for candy and allowed to walk around. It was memorable once to see the real “Mr. Peanut”.
Every fall, before school started, we would go to the local shoe store, “Reagans” and get new shoes. They had a fluoroscope where you could look into a small screen and see an eerie green moving X-ray of your feet to make sure your toes weren’t being smushed in your new shoes. Clever. More here: What existed when you were a child that doesn’t exist now? (Contains photos)
1961 The world was a crazy place. It still is and my childhood is always remembered because of the odd things I remember. Take 1961 as an example of my own craziness. My grandfather was 3 in 1881. I was 15 in 1961—both “upside down years”. Flip 1881 or 1961 upside down (literally) they read the same. I actually thought about that THEN! If he had lived 2 more years he would have seen two “upside down years”! 6009 is the next upside down year.
I was told a few fibs, by my parents, as a child, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” (Or the devil’s back?) There was a “Sandman”, a “Toothfairy”, a Santa Claus, and an “Easter Bunny”. Odd that two of those myths were religious-centric…but that’s another story of my time as an acolyte at the local Episcopalian church. Getting to church for an early morning mass on a weekday, on a school day, on foot. 30 minute walk to and from, then walk to school before classes started. All kids were a bundle of energy, and a shame to waste it on kids. But I digress.
I had to clean my plate when the eight of us sat down to supper, six kids grabbing and fussing, if you didn’t eat it someone else might, plus waste was a taboo in those days! I grew up eating my meals without drinking my milk during the meal. Our mother got tired of cleaning up the inevitable spilled milk. I still don’t drink and eat at the same time.
One Easter morning, I entered the dining room where we ate (fought over food), I expected to see (the usual) six Easter baskets resplendent with colored eggs and candy chocolate bunnies etc. it was another childhood moment for history. Never to be forgotten.
All six baskets were empty; except for the green straw, the baskets were devoid of jelly beans, candy, and colored eggs. They had just been plundered by who knew? Years later I heard my older brother that he and his pal did this nasty stunt. What a screwy family!
Fall, 1961 The Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cuba, occurred while I was in high school (1961) and America was trying to oust Fidel Castro. He’s still alive in Cuba today, and his brother Raoul is now in charge. We came so close to war during that time. The Russians had our military ready for war. It would be ironic that five years later, I would join the United States Air Force and be assigned to a squadron of F-101’s. Those Voodoos, as they were called, were used to as reconnaissance aircraft (the RF version though) to photograph those weapons all over Cuba. Details later of my chance to fly in one of these happened in 1968.
1961 From 1961 until 1989 there was a wall separating East and West Berlin, I had grown up under communist threats; we practiced “Duck and Cover” in schools. We also read a bible verse in class to start every school day. That is true! The wall is down and I have a piece of it.
Summer, 1962 I hitch hiked 600 miles on a weekend. I hitch-hiked 600 miles at the age of 16 to visit a girlfriend. I did this in 3 days, and told my mom I was a neighbor kid’s house.
Several rides were in large semi trucks (18 wheelers) and I was fascinated by the tandem gear shift requiring some fancy shifting. “No wonder, I thought, they hate to slow down and down shift.”
Many years later I confessed to my mom about this adventure, and we both had a good laugh. It was a pretty dumb stunt!! Tom Adventures: What is the most insane thing you ever did?
November, 1963 As I would prepare for my senior high school year, President Kennedy made a campaign trip to Dallas, Texas. Only after 40 years did I visit Dealey Plaza. It was a surreal visit. Indescribable. Sad. Moving.
I remember that it was the last class of the day. 22 November 1963 was my future wife’s 17 birthday—we would not meet until many decades later. This was a Friday and Thanksgiving was the next week, we might have had that week off, I do not remember, but we were all relaxing and goofing off in the Shop Class I was in. I was not an academic student, I was just trying to “have fun”. I was a kid, we would all be turning 17 that year. I never looked at a clock, but I heard the radio in the teacher’s office. A crowd had gathered. We were all about to become adults at the same moment. Here’s how we saw the news on B&W TV: JFK assassination: Cronkite informs a shocked nation
One of those rare and momentous events of life you can remember and date yourself by and with. Where exactly were you when…(Blank)…happened. It was one of those times. I don’t remember anything after that. Life was fractured and we were collectively a nation of “Zombies”. It was mortifying.
Getting married in the famous 1967 Chicago blizzard was another moment I would not forget. The 1969 Moon landing was one of those dates. The 1986 Challenger explosion was one of those dates. The 1987 murder I witnessed was one as well.
New Years Eve, 1963 A New York City trip with two friends from high school. After a short 90 mile train ride to Grand Central Station in mid-town NYC, we were going to join in a party with a 1/4 million others. All strangers to the three of us. Aaaah, youth! Why not? Police on horseback monitored the crowd. A small town suburban kid knew nothing about horses. Intimidating to stand next to a horse that towered over you….and you had to look up at them and you needed to look down and watch what you could “step in” if you didn’t smell where you were walking.
A grand time was had by all, and I even had a bonus to cap off my night. My cousin lives in Queens, NYC along with several millions of other people! Crowded for a kid from a town of 3000 where everyone knew everyone. I literally was standing in Times Square and was backing away from a moving flow of people celebrating when I ran into my cousin. Not seeing who he was I said, “Excuse ME!” and then turned around and we were both flabbergasted. Neither of us knew the other would be here. Try telling someone, “Hey, meet me in Times Square on New Years Eve!” That ain’t happening….but it did.
Jan 1, 1964 I slept on a bench in Grand Central Station from 2:00am until the train back to Philadelphia was ready to board at 6:00am.
June, 1964 52 years after the Titanic sank, I worked at my first job two days after graduating from high school, in the same building where the SOS signals were heard that dreadful early morning. There was also a telegram sent.
Telegram from Titanic proves owners lied about hearing nothing from it “Yes, here is one. I have not held this telegram in my hand but, a Telegram from Titanic proves owners lied about hearing nothing from it, this copy says telegraphs do still exist from that night.” ref?
I might point out that the founder of NBC (Mr. Sarnoff) was listening to his radio on the upper floor of John Wanamaker’s Department store in Philadelphia (USA) and received many messages from the Titanic that night.
I used to work in that same building in 1964. Radio to the Rescue: “David Sarnoff and the Titanic Disaster”
June 8, 1964 My first job was selling film cameras at Wanamaker’s Department Store. It took almost a week to actually see the photo you took was out of focus and my friend’s head wasn’t shown in the photo. Oh well…I did come from six generations of photographers. Byron of New York, and James Byron Clayton & Joseph Byron Clayton, Photographers of Nottingham. Color film was fun, since TV was still B/W with only 3 channels to watch: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Sunday nights around 7:00PM “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” (1961–1969) was a treat. If you had an expensive color TV, you were lucky. It was probably an RCA model that weighed around 30 pounds. If it happened to be a warm summer evening there was never any air-conditioning in our house or most houses. It was a sweaty evening, but the color was great to watch, I don’t remember it being hot, I was used to it. There wasn’t even air-conditioning in our family car.
Summer 1964 The New York World’s Fair was only 90 miles away. I went, I don’t know how many times. I do remember on one visit saying to my mother, “All these buildings are crooked!” This, after coming out of an island exhibit that sold Rum punch. I had my first taste of booze and inebriation with my dear mother! I was nearly 18 and nearly legal by a few months—but mom was there by my side.
July 11, 1964
I was 12 when that happened. Ricky had turned 15 on Feb 6,me turned 12 March 31st. I never heard that shot,. All I can tell you is,. Ricky used to pay games. He’d hide up in those rooms from me. I went in and called his name. No answer. But I did hear something. Something I’ll never ever forget. This swooshing, gurgling, muffled sound coming from across the room. I had already checked the other bedroom/storage of old stuff. Then I checked the bathroom. No Ricky. Then I zero in on the sound. The bed. Bedspread off of the bed, mostly all of it. I was not in the mood to be playing hide and seek. I wanted to go to my room. I didn’t want dessert or to be anywhere near dear old shit head sperm donor, that was my father. I go around that bed and as I’m pulling the Bedspread up, telling Ricky, I’m tired of playing this game. Mom says it’s time for dessert and she wants you to come down for it. I pull up that Bedspread and first thing I notice is the strong smell of gunpowder. Like the over powering smell while watching fireworks up close. (Years later I realise, that the smell of fireworks is a big bad trigger to me. It all comes back. I see him just laying there on his back, his head turned and the gunshot wound (already the blood has dried). I scream. Take the 10 to 15 stairs down to the second floor screaming. Ricky Ricky somethings wrong with Ricky. First one up the stairs is the jackass. Hollering and shaking me, screaming in my face. What are you screaming about. At this point all I remember is just crying and pointing up. Then mom comes up the stairs. He won’t let her up there. I guess he calls the police and the Dr. The utter chaos that was in front of our house. Lights flashing, sirens blairing. My head is spinning. Dr comes up to see mom. To comfort her. I’m standing there crying, then suddenly I start laughing. Hysterical laughter. Dr was going to give mom a shot to calm her down. I know that was the plan. But after I went intro this, ( my first nervous breakdown ). I’m dragged into my room and given a shot. I don’t remember much of that summer after that. What strikes me as strange, is it was in my room, under his room. I was that close and never heard a sound. That bothers me to this day.
The sounds of that night haunt me. The body after death is not quiet. Stuff still is functioning. Process I don’t get. That sound and the smell are my triggers. 53 years later, I’m still a fucking mess.
One other cruel thing that that man did to me. I was told that I had to go to school and let them know Ricky wasn’t going to be attending school. I told dad ,the whole town knows he’s dead. Why should I have to tell them, they already knew. He insisted I be the one to go to the office and tell them. That was cruel beyond words.
I never saw the suicide note, never saw the weapon. I was told I couldn’t go to the funeral. It would be to upsetting. WHAT’S MORE UPSETTING THAN FINDING HIM DEAD.
Then every time I was in the car with them. He would turn around and ask me every time. Why did Ricky di this to him. Why dud he kill himself. For years on end. Even in the house. It was an obsession to nag at me. Why why why. One day I remember this. I told him. He killed himself to get the fuck away from you. Told him I’d thought about doing the same thing, but hadn’t. The only reason, was I didn’t want to hurt mom. But if it was just you left, is kill myself to get the fuck away from you too. But I love my mom to much and hate you, you fucking asshole. You killed him. Now leave me the fuck alone. That outburst was the end of those questions.
Okay, so I ask and get my own phone and phone number in my room. Nit sure what age. I don’t remember much about how I got out. It did help me connect with a few friends. I was so lost most days, I missed so much of my classes. I needed to call some friends and get some help. No problem. I spent time in there to escape from him. Too late to go out and play. My room was my sanctuary. So, here is am almost finished getting caught up over the phone. HE struts in and says GET THE HELL OFF THAT DAM PHONE. I tell him in almost finished getting caught up. I’ll be off in a little while. He didn’t like that I didn’t immediately hang up the phone. Of well. Next second, he comes over and rips the phone, wires and all, out of the wall and throws it across my bedroom. Then storms out yelling I was supposed to be in bed.
You know me. I’m a smart ass. I push back when I’m pushed. So, I’m not stupid,I know how to put those wires back together. I fix, call my friend back, apologies for dad pulling phone out of wall. Now, let’s get back to what we were working on. Ok ,few minutes later, after explaining to my friend, we get back to work. Door flies open, dad screaming I TOLD YOU GET OFF THE PHONE AND GO TO BED. And repeats what he did first time. Rips out and tosses it across room. He does this probably 5 or 6 times. By now, ive had enough. I try to be quiet on the phone. Nope ,sneaky bastard was outside or in his room with his ear to the wall, listening in on my call. Boom ,door flies open. Same thing. Phone ripped out of wall and thrown across room. I’d had enough. So I reach for the phone (what did they weigh like 10 lbs). And before he gets the chance to slam the door shut, I had my arm back, ready in full swing. Perfect landing. Hit him (heard a Crack, his head I was hoping) that phone bounced off the back of his head and fell inside my room. my last words to him were, COME BACK AND TRY THAT AGAIN I’LL PICK THE FUCKING PHONE UP AND BEAT YOU WITH IT. He never did that again.
I went camping with my, then girl friend’s, Dad and a few other guys. I remember very little about that weekend. I do absolutely remember arriving home on a hot Sunday afternoon and noticing there were several extra cars parked along the street in front of my house.
As I walked up those 7 or 8 stairs, I was oblivious that my world had been turned into a nightmare.
Saturday evening around 8:30pm my brother took his life. Upstairs in his bedroom. Alone. At the time I entered my front door I was met by my older brother. Unaware of the details at this time, my brother met me and after he gasped and then inhaled, “I thought YOU WERE DEAD!” He had been told, “Your brother is dead!” They didn’t explain and he didn’t ask which one…(we were a little dysfunctional anyway, this didn’t make things better.)
The rest of that day, and the next, and the next, must have been traumatic. Very! They have been blocked out of my mind. I remember being in the church a day or two later. The priest said, …blah blah blah, …”We know what Ricky did was wrong”,… blah, blah, blah…
September, 1964 “The Belly Dancer” incident. I’m the only survivor of this event, of which I would be remiss if I excluded it from my “Long And Winding Road”, even the short version.
My sister worked in Philly, as did I. She and her Roman husband, “not Italian!”, his words, invited me and our parents to dinner at a Lebanese restaurant on Sampson Street named Eddie Taeoon’s (phonetic spelling) Middle East Restaurant. The restaurant was old (I was young), dark paneling, a live band, made for an intimate dining experience. The dining area was long and narrow with tables along the walls with a center aisle for waiters and servers. There was room along here for a belly dancer as well, with music and alcohol it was festive. As we were eating our appetizer of Hummas Tahini a young lady came down the aisle, her colorful silken dress flowing and finger tambourines jingling in her hands. My eyes followed her as she went by, slowly, as she reached the end of the restaurant and turned around. She was now coming towards our table and facing me and my father. My sister, her husband, and my mother had their backs to her as she approached our table. To my delight, she stopped right in front of me. Smiling she said, “Hi there…” Then I secretly realized what had just happened as she continued on down the aisle. My father looked at me with a very puzzled look. You obviously don’t know this epitome of “the traveling salesman”. The look was pure and unadulterated jealousy. Shocking!
I knew this young lady as a customer from Wanamaker’s Camera Shop…My father was clueless!
1966 The Vietnam war was a huge mess. I registered for the draft in 1964. Life began to require choices, risks and responsibilities. I would exit civilian life and really grow up quickly in uniform, away from home, in a place where I was in charge. In charge of who and what I wanted to become. Would military rules be for me, would I rebel? I had to find out. By the Spring I had been trying to understand South East Asia and the Viet Cong, etc. life was demanding my closer attention now. Consequences for which I had some input. I was 19 and knew I would get drafted soon. My choice to “volunteer” was the best option with the most choices. I would become a “fly boy” that April and never live at home again. Instant adulthood. Besides…(What’s the most awesome thing you’ve ever done?) my answer on here, to this question was sailing on Titanic Memorial Cruise… in 2012. I would also consider a very risky adventure of mine occurred during my time as a hydraulic mechanic in the U.S. Air Force in 1968.
One of my adventures in ’66, while courting my first wife, was to sleep on a park bench, under the stars, in Grant Park. That was bold, but that was a long, long time ago.
July 2, 1966 Chicago, Illinois
I went into Chicago for the weekend with a fellow Airman from Chanute, Illinois AFB. We rode there on the Illinois Central Railroad City of New Orleans (song). Not expensive if you went in uniform.
I met this Midwestern young man who wanted to ride on a subway…groan…I was from Philadelphia, PA. I was tired of subways and the hassle. Too crowded, not real safe, noisy, and dirty!
I am a nice guy so I decided I would humor him.
We started the weekend by taking what would become Amtrak in 1971, north to Chicago. We were having a good time, but the entrance down into the bowels of the city was still ahead. I don’t like subways.
Oddly, and as an aside, my parents also met on public transportation. The Staten Island Ferry, New York City many decades earlier. It was going to be my turn in a few steps— but I didn’t know that. Yet.
I forget my friend’s name now, after all, it was 49 years ago! Here we were, on the subway platform. In uniform. I suppose women will always like “a man in uniform…” Waiting for our train, we noticed two young ladies waiting for a train like we were.
“Do you mind if we ride with you on the train? It is kinda late and we will keep ya safe…”, I said. Or something like that.
We talked for 10 minutes as the train stopped every few blocks, station after station. We had no particular place to go, so we decided we were exiting when they exited. Brave, and soldiers! A dangerous mix, but it was a lovely 85° degree summer evening.
We were allowed to walk them home. Yak for a while and see them home safely.
6 months later, in the worst blizzard ever to cripple the city of Chicago, I married one of these young ladies. History repeated itself.
Life was never to be the same! What incidental encounter changed the course of your life?
January 1967 The worst blizzard in the history of Chicago! (Google it) The October before I got married, and a view from my barracks. (October is not a typo.)
My first marriage—Mother Nature was trying to warn me. Not much to say, no wedding photos, no reception, no guests, her parents, her sister, us, and the preacher. My second wedding was my friend, my bride’s friend and a judge, and one photo. Strange that years later I would be a wedding photographer.
1967 What does AWOL mean? They shave your head. They give you a new mug shot. They put you in the brig. You walk around all over the base picking up trash and are publicly humiliated. You are busted down a rank.
Now, after 5 days away from your job, you get out of jail. Jail wasn’t much worse than boot camp anyway.
Finally a few months later your First Sergeant (CMSGT) comes to your defense. He finds out you were wrongly charged. You were off base for the week-end with permission from your superior (SSGT). You did not go AWOL, you took a week-end off. One big lie from your staff sergeant has been made right.
Then you find out that your First Sergeant (CMSGT Clayton Teem) has sent your boss (SSGT) to Viet Nam as punishment for you getting put in jail. OUCH!
Fast forward 15 years. [Note: I will post photo of the newspaper as soon as I find it in “my pile of stuff”] I find out that my now ex-staff sergeant has experienced a tragedy in his life. We haven’t seen or spoken to each other in a decade, at least. I noticed a big headline in the paper that his son had been killed in a military plane crash. I find his phone number after a few hours of searching and call him expressing my condolences.
Of all my military experiences, this AWOL story is my most vivid memory of my time there.
Also see story about this plane I worked on at this same base. What’s the riskiest thing you’ve ever done? In the military, what is it like to go AWOL? (Contains photo)
1968 I was a hydraulic mechanic on the F-101A_Voodoo. Having pestered many test pilots for a “free ride”. I was suddenly offered the chance one August afternoon in 1968. The pilot took me over to flight ops and found me a flight suit that I could wear, and a helmet. [Background to this flight], it was not approved to fly in these fighter jets unless you passed the course of “altitude chamber” school. I never did this since it was not part of my work routine. I was a ground crew member, not a flying member. But, oh well.
After getting some quick instructions on when and how to eject (good plan for just a fun ride), the engines were started and off we went out on to the runway. It would be pertinent to mention two minor details at this point. (1) I had just finished a minor hydraulic repair to a flight control system. (2) One of the two engines had just been replaced. The purpose of the test flight was to make sure the new engine worked properly. NICE…mmm?
I love to fly. First flight was in open cockpit bi-plane at age 6 or 7. I assumed that as we got airborne I would experience a nice view of my air base…and flying like it was a routine flight. Wrong!!
The pilot and I sat at the end of the runway, (he in front, me behind him) and prior to take off ran the engines up to take off power. He then idled a few moments and got radio clearance to take off. As he released the brakes and we accelerated we began our take off roll! At this point (80 kts?) he flipped two switches on the throttles and lit the after-burners (180 kts.) !!!
There was no view to see with 3 G’s pressing me back into the seat as we took off and climbed straight up! Boom! We were at 25,000 feet in no time. We leveled off around 35,000 ft. and it was surreal. The glass canopy allowed a view. Rolling over, the view of the ground was even more it was an amazing feeling while being inverted in flight!
The real reason for the flight was the next phase and the reason to go flying. Test the new engine. Simply put, this involved turning the engine off in the air. (what were those ejection rules?) Nice! We immediately slowed down dramatically, and then using the forward movement from the remaining engine, he air-started the new engine. Whoa! More G-forces again. Having completed this part of his job, he decided to do a little “showing off” for me and put the jet through some loops, rolls, twists, and turns. Interesting, to say the least! Very expensive roller coaster.
The landing was not what I was expecting, nor was it your typical commercial jet landing where it takes several miles to descend 25,000 feet. We did this in 3 or 4 miles, not in 50 to 75 miles; landing like a brick!
I was glad to finally be on the ground. The ride of a lifetime, 44 years ago, as if it were yesterday! Dangerous? Yes! Scary? Yes! Fun? Heck yea!!!
Engine and hydraulic repairs all checked out fine… Now time to be sick to my stomach and hope after my ears stop bleeding my hearing is still ok…What’s the riskiest thing you’ve ever done?(Contains photo)
More on the 60’s in part II
1970 I served 3 years, 9 months and 27 days. Time for civilian life again. I was a civilian again, but married and having two small children it was more serious than April 1966 was! I had fun in the service, and only spent 5 months in jail.
1971 I started my college career. This is not the easiest way to get an education, but why not try. Uncle Sam said this was my benefit for being in the USAF. What a great time the next 17 years were. A family, a mortgage, a fledgling career and night school. Read about this learning experience here: What is your “Dawn Wall”?
1976 My career began afresh this year. I finally had the title of Engineer. I also moved to Tennessee and would stay in the south, even as I type this. I began to listen to country music, join a Baptist Church. I was entering my “Thirties”, had a real mortgage. This telephone work would get me sent to Louisiana, and Alabama and then Kentucky. My kids liked/hated this, but they have friends from several states. Now I have a son in Ohio, a daughter in Kentucky and a daughter in Alabama. Life is full of additions, changes, and corrections as we get older.
1986 During a training class in Northern New Jersey, a group of us decided to visit New York City, not my first visit, but a memorable visit. Part of our day there we saw a Broadway play but that, as memorable as “Cats” was, does not compare to my first visit to the Twin Towers.
A short cab ride from midtown down to lower Manhattan was fun. There were 7 of us and we had to take two different cabs. The traffic was terrible, or normal, depending on your perspective. NYC is a noisy, crowded place all the time. We separated and got in our cabs, and ended up getting separated by traffic and the cabbie’s route he chose. It was interesting both cabs arrived within moments of each other to The WTC site. Both cabs took different twists and turns and the fares were both the same as we figured out.
1987 My second life began this year when I divorced and remarried, and also graduated from college. My oldest child was now graduated from high school, and her younger sister was married this year. It was a difficult year.
Witnessing the murder of someone close to you is traumatic. It is not like the Hollywood depictions—ever! I don’t talk about this but it is also in the deepest reaches of my mind, like a catacomb. There but rarely disturbed. It is a coping mechanism I learned from childhood. Partition and leave alone. Over the years I did this to my childhood and much has been locked away in a catacomb of my mind and irretrievable. Is that good? Is that bad? Do I want to find out?
1993 Elvis stamp issued. I was there for this event and it was my first time to be interviewed by CNN. The second time was in 2012 (see video interview).
For the stamp event I waited in line for hours and hours. I was the first person, actually and my wife (major Elvis fan) wanted to be seated down front to see Priscilla Presley. Earlier in the week we met Patsy Presley (Elvis’ double-first cousin).
Rain and fates were not aligned this night, in January. Chilly rain fell all afternoon. The celebration was a tent event, like a Southern Gospel Meeting.
My wife and I were seated in row two, the front row was for the dignitaries—Post Master General, the Governor of Tennessee and the Mayor of Memphis.
As the festivities began and a large group of singers came on stage, the mood was festive. Within moments I heard an odd sound behind us, to our right. Nothing loud, nothing scary, just out of place. Back to the music. The Hume High School girls chorus was singing something from the 50’s. Elvis was the theme and the focus. It was grand.
Not 5 minutes after the first noise the was a second noise. Louder. Sharper. It was followed immediately by low murmurings which continued to grow louder, as I turned from the singers on stage, I looked back where I had looked a few minutes ago. The folding chairs for this event, were on their sides and people were standing. Uninsured but confused.
The music suddenly stopped as the emcee came to the mic. “Your attention, please.” Firm but not panicked. “Will everyone please calmly and immediately proceed to the exits.”
The seating area was built on plywood sections raised above the ground about 4′. As I said it had been raining. What no one knew was the cinderblock pillars holding up the flooring had been slowly sinking as the rain continued all afternoon and now into the evening.
We were the last ones out since we were the first ones in. No one was happy, except the big shots got to watch the show and see the presentation and unveiling of the Elvis stamp. As a final insult, Elvis’ wife Priscilla and their daughter Lisa Marie showed up. A rare public appearance and we missed it.
October, 1998 I was living in rural Western Kentucky. A short walk down the road from home was the closest point I could see the Northern sky with fewer trees, and my favorite place to watch the stars. Only a year earlier I was able to view the less famous Hale-Bopp comet; this was a comet that history said help the Norman Conquest in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. Any time I get a chance to see anything periodic that is viewable without a telescope, I’m game. Both of these comets were fun to watch with binoculars.
2001, 11 September, Tuesday, my generation’s “Pearl Harbor” moment. A day that would never end, and would touch everyone deeply. Much has and will be written about this moment that is still not over, 15 years later as I write these words. 15 years before this day, I was in New York City and made my only visit up to the observation deck. Stunning. As their brochure said, “The closest some of us will ever get to heaven.” Irony. Tragic. Commemorated in our family, from 2002 onward, as my grandson’s birthday. Celebrated by my step son’s being named after his father’s college friend who died there, that beautiful blue-sky morning.
2003 My mother dies in Vermont, near my youngest sister. My parents decided to move from Florida to Vermont to be with some family in their final years. They had alienated five of their six children. One daughter lives in California and one in Arizona. My brother lives in New Mexico and one has committed suicide as his means of escape from what he perceived as a tyrant.
March 27, 2004 My dear sister passes away in Arizona, in my presence. She waited for me to arrive from Kentucky. It was so, so sad to see someone survive lung cancer only to succumb to a super-bug, caught in the hospital.
The 2000’s aren’t starting off too well; but they will close with us moving to Georgia and having a new President a few years later.
Some retrospect about these 70 years before I end:
* Politics was always, and still is, interesting: For the first time since Presidents Adams (#2 and #6), father and son, we had another father and son Presidency—history rarely repeats like this, let alone witnessing it. Presidents Bush #41 and 43
* George HW Bush was the first sitting VP since President Van Buren (1837) to be elected President. History was continuously being made and it was interesting.
* I saw the first President to be impeached since Andrew Johnson in 1868. The spectacle was riveting and I hope we never go through that mess again! I saw the first President to resign in 1974, and prior to that VP Agnew resigned, only the second since 1832 when John Calhoun resigned after serving only 16 days.
I remember before VISA™ and MasterCard™ I could tell who the rich and the poor were very easily—the car they drove. The fact that new cars are now $25,000 and can be financed, new cars dominate the roads. Since 1966, the credit card began to replace cash, and interest payments became a significant revenue stream. When Were Credit Cards Invented? A Complete History
Now, we have a large amount of wealth being created by businesses who produce no physical product, no factories. Sports franchises produce games or events and billions in revenue; Hollywood makes billions in revenue and produces only images on a screen. The music industry makes digital songs, nothing physical, without records or albums—just downloads. Factories are fading from America. Skilled trades are declining. We have no repair shops for radios and TVs, everything is thrown out and better models of everything are bought. We hire cheap labor to fix things around our home if we even do that. I remember people who could fix most anything I used that broke. I became one of those home handy men. From the age of around 6 years old I began taking things apart. My mother was always after me, “Stop that, you’ll never be able to put that watch back together!” My children and grandchildren never do that.
It would be no surprise to anyone that I ended up as a telephone engineer designing phone systems and where to place poles and cables. I got to actually see the physical results of what I figured out was needed for customers who requested telephones. Those days are gone now, all cellular. A foreign company makes and launches a satellite and a person in China makes the phone I use. My old job doesn’t exist.
All this while growing up, there were no satellites, no computers, and color TV was still years ahead, as were seat belts in cars—but I survived that.
2007 My father dies at 93, finally, the generation he leaves behind begins to heal. Though we in this family are too old now to fully recover, we have learned a lot. We understand manipulation, and being mentally abused—alcohol, tobacco, drugs and suicide are the escape mechanisms. And moving away from home.
2012 It would be 48 years later I would actually visit the scene where the Titanic sank. That ocean was blacker and scarier in person seeing it at 11:40 PM, 100 years later. What is your most memorable travel moment?
The following paragraphs may become one of the few focal points in my life, aside from births, marriages, and deaths.
Here is my interview with CNN: Celebrating on Titanic memorial cruise (A Journey Of 100 Years, follows)
Here is my novelette about that memorable trip. We were one and two of 220 people from the U.S. to travel to Titanic’s resting place on her 100th anniversary of her sinking.
2012 (photos in link): A Journey of 100 Years
The ocean presents itself to me, as it did the morning of 10 April 1912 one hundred years ago. Instantly I feel as if I am the only one on these waves. Alone. I will spend many days at sea, thinking about this, as mile after mile of open ocean rises and falls beneath my land legs.
Sailing out of Southampton, at four from the dock next to where the Titanic left on its maiden voyage with the hopes and dreams of hundreds of immigrants is exhilarating. Many of the world’s most powerful and wealthy were returning home with their servants and maids on “the ship of dreams”. My journey takes me back 100 years, and I know all those 1500 people will never see land again. We are given a celebratory send off, with a band playing joyously. Everyone waving goodbye as the crowds did in 1912, they shared our anticipation as the ship’s propellers increased power and we enter the main shipping channel. The similarity is haunting, as I think of those faded black and white photos we have all seen. The tugboat pushes us into the right direction and we are under way.
The next morning is foggy as the sun rises to warm the cold morning air. The seas are calm and serene, at least from the deck of the Balmoral. It is hard to imagine how close death can be, only a few feet in front of me. I know THIS modern ship will not sink, and the Titanic passengers knew THEIR ship could not sink. The difference between ‘can be and will be’ is a haunting reminder that is on my mind as the day unfolds.
A warm cup of coffee is a welcomed treat in 40 degree air as day two begins. The seas have turned angry over night, reminding me and many others that we have not yet earned our sea legs as easily as we thought we would.
Arrival in Cobh, Ireland one hundred years after the Titanic was here, is a http://grahttps://norybmot.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/20130530-122754.jpgnd celebration for this community. If anyone had ever heard of the Irish story of Leprechauns and the proverbial “pot of gold at the end of a rainbow”, as the rain stopped and I looked toward the east, they became believers. The day ended on a very hopeful note, both literally and figuratively.
The announcement comes over the ship’s intercom suddenly and unexpectedly. From the bridge our Captain, Robert Bamberg tells us that we have an emergency. The collective gasp of the passengers is palpable! We are memorializing a disaster on a state-of-the-art ship, and WE HAVE AN EMERGENCY? Certainly not! Over the comforting sounds of the powerful diesel engines carrying us over the ocean at 17 knots we are told the devastating news. “Heart attack”, on land this is a frightful statement, but over 100 miles out on the open ocean, it is your worst nightmare! You hope you can survive this event if you get to a hospital in a few minutes. Modern techniques and medical treatments are amazing in 2012. In 1912 you would likely not survive. With the nearest hospital 100 miles away, this would be serious if you had to travel by ambulance-but if you had to wait 3 hours for the medical team to reach you and then had to ride 3 hours to the hospital, terrifying. Now imagine your ambulance is a helicopter…
As the Irish medical helicopter arrives several hours after the Captain’s announcement, me and my 1300 fellow passengers are given our instructions. We are all involved in this “rescue operation” as it is referred to over the intercom. “Attention! Will all passengers and crew please leave all outside deck areas and remain inside the ship until further notice.” Roaring and whirling helicopter blades are heard as the rescue chopper approaches our world out in the open ocean.
We all watch anxiously as the rescue team approaches, all heads craned upwards to watch as the drama slowly unfolds. My thoughts are no doubt shared by others as we watch silently with our own ideas. Will this be successful? Is it too windy? We have stopped here with no land in sight. With no back up plans. This is success or failure right now. As the red chopper hunts overhead for the correct approach, the down force of the blades on the glass ceiling is protecting us from a potential catastrophe, but the chopper is mere feet above us we all wait. The first attempt is slow, noisy and meticulous. The medical team is lowering a basket that swings precariously above us. Everyone who has a camera is clicking away, as the seconds pass for the patient. As quickly as the basket is lowered, with a brief hesitation, it raises and this huge red invader of our ship’s tranquility lifts away and out of our line of sight. After only a few seconds we assume the mission here is over and the patient is headed back to Ireland. No! No sooner is there a collective sigh of relief, and chattering about, “did you see THAT?”, when it is realized there is a second chopper approaching the ship from the clear blue sky above us. No. Is it the same helicopter taking on yet a second patient? We are not given details, just a warning to stay under cover inside. We can not see what is happening, we all have to guess. The chopper again descends towards us-rescue lift basket dangling perilously close to the ship. Apparently, it is suggested, the first try was a failure. After maneuvering and adjusting to the pilot’s commands from a slightly different angle, down comes the basket. The medical team, over our heads, out of our sight, guides the rope dangling from the chopper to the proper position and quickly raises the basket for the second attempt. We are not able to see clearly who or what is going on, since the thick glass sheltering us is covered with salt spray. This is not where we normally look, we want to see the ocean not the skies overhead. SUCCESS! The chopper is rapidly angling up and away, towards a hospital in Ireland, and medical help. It was a “Titanic” effort. Now we can relax.
It is still 5 days until we will reach the grave of the most famous ship wreck on the planet. The marking of time becomes confusing, “what time is it, and, “what day is it”, becomes a common question we all ask. For these next few days we all have various plans on how we will spend each day. The choices are varied between sunning out on the decks, attending lectures, reading, or eating and drinking more than we do back home. But all the while our conversations evolve to Titanic discussions: “…did you know that…”‘ and have you seen this or that photograph?” Everyday my knowledge about this ghost, lying over 12,000 below the surface, intensifies.
I awake today after a night of somewhat calmer seas. I learn later on that the waves were around 30 feet high. My “alarm clock” is now the TV. Since our cabin is much like the size that steerage accommodations were, there is no port hole view. I do not know what time it is and we are under “ship time”. The TV in the cabin has a channel that shows a web cam feed from the bow, so glance at this tells me if the sun is up or not. When I come out on the aft deck I notice immediately two things. The reason sleep was better last night, and the haunting comments made in every Titanic story I have ever read are related: the sea is “as calm as a mill pond”. Now I have this eerie feeling of coming out on deck, from my “steerage” cabin and seeing how peaceful and inviting the sea is today.
When there is any free time, which there is plenty of, my time is spent just watching the sea. The wake from the ship, trailing behind us is a deep blue with white foam. Quite hypnotic. No birds. No ships. The clouds and the waves have become my skyline.
The sunrise today is typical of every morning, broken clouds and some fog. As the sun rises higher, I have time to capture some pretty photographs. There is no smog to ruin my view.
Part of the rest of my time on my second cup of coffee is “whale watching”. There have been rumors we might see them, so I would really like to get at least one chance to take this photo-if I am super lucky! After several more days further east toward the wreck site I have another photo goal shared by other photo-hounds aboard: ICEBERGS!
There are plenty of lectures to attend everyday, today it is Mr. Littlejohn, the grandson of a first steward on the Titanic. He told us that story, and it was interesting, but the idea that he was a relative was my main reason for listening to him. Nothing specifically informative, just being a little bit closer to the passengers who were on the Titanic was exciting enough.
Of the 1300 or so of my fellow Titanic Memorial Cruise passengers, one chap deserves special mention. The are hundreds of Brits, Irish, and Australians, as well as many people on this trip older than myself. John, from Scotland, also is among many other Scots traveling on the Balmoral. John is also using 2 canes to walk, but, again, there are other wheelchair users, and handicapped people. John Strachan did tell me something shocking: He is traveling alone at the age of 87!! Every time I passed him on my trips around the ship he always had a big smile and really was having as good a time as the younger passengers were having.
I have realized one item that will increase my sense of the Titanic’s journey and foundering. I have learned that the ship’s construction number was 401. When I stayed at the Grand Harbour Hotel in Southampton, the room number was 410, and the cabin on the Balmoral is 4010…mmm…? Everyday my knowledge about this ghost, lying over 12,000 below the surface, intensifies and I get several hundred miles closer to her.
Another lecturer spoke to a large gathering of perhaps 200 of us who are always interested in another Titanic story. Mr. Haisman, age 73, did not disappoint. He told us about his mother Elizabeth, who was among the 705 passengers who finished her trip to New York on the Carpathia. She was 15 when she was placed into the life boat and was rowed away from the Titanic as it slowly died. I am now able to understand, at least partly, how this experience must have felt. The North Atlantic is so pitch black. So cold. I can hardly imagine how terrified that must have made her feel. Having stood at the railing of the Balmoral and looked out into the ocean at night was scary. I realize it was much clearer that night in 1912, but since I have not seen any stars yet, I don’t know how much light they actually added. If I will have one regret on all my days at sea it will be that I never saw those stars that were out that night…”A Night To Remember”.
Mr. Haisman is the youngest of 10 children his mother bore, and to sit and listen to him talk about someone who told him about that night was mesmerizing. A connection to that night, one hundred years ago, was stunning. This is one of the reasons I took this voyage.
WHALES! Finally my time spent staring at the ocean is rewarded. Do you think 5 seconds of seeing 2 Orcas was worth the 4 days of hunting for them on a vast ocean? It was. Once I yelled out that I had sighted a whale, a small group gathered next to me and saw them also. I told them I had seen a spout of mist, then another next to the first one a second or two later. Then I saw simultaneous large black fins rise above the surface and immediately disappear. No, there was zero chance to aim my camera, focus, compose, and make a photo!
There are still 3 days remaining before we will reach the location of the Titanic wreck. Our Captain gives us a daily report at noon, which concludes in his Norwegian accent, “…and from ‘za’ bridge, all…is…vell!” This saying is said in unison by all the people around me as he speaks. Uplifting. We know our location, heading, speed, distance traveled, sea depth, temperatures of air and water. The excitement is building as we make our way westward since his report also tells us the distance remaining to the “wreck site”.
There is always a group on the Lido deck to chat with, and interesting stories to be told when ever I ask, “How did you become interested in Titanic? What country are you from?” Jane, from the UK is a good example of one those answering these conversation starters.
Jane has been interested in the Titanic for a long time. She collects what she can that is Titanic-related, like we all try to do. She tells me that recently she has found something on eBay that catches her eye. Like most of us, we have all seen those iconic photos of Titanic at the dock in Southampton. A very old Titanic print…
When she receives her photo she notices two things immediately: it is very old, and it is water damaged. (For those photographers here, I think it is a silver-gelatin print.) Jane’s question is simply whether this is the Titanic or the Olympic. Where else to get a good opinion but here on this cruise. It is determined to be the Titanic, and it is also realized that this photo was probably made on 2 April 1912, and maybe after her return from fitting out and sea trials. It is known that a dinner was held on the ship for VIP’s that same day.
The print is not in 100% condition, but it is a professional, very sharply focused photograph. Plenty of minute details can be seen. During her handling of this 100-year-old photo, tragedy befalls her prized Titanic photograph. The print and the cardboard mat it is mounted on breaks in half. The irony is gripping! Here is an original photo, not a copy, of the Titanic, being shown to fellow Titanic enthusiasts, on this memorial voyage of the break up and death of this “ship of dreams”, out on the same North Atlantic as in 1912…
After a week at sea, I have become friends with many people who are now regulars on the Lido deck 8. We drink (coffee and beer) together, discuss our ship board experiences about all things Titanic and spend our time between lectures and meals having a relaxing trip. I am still trying to understand my 3 Scotsmen- Ally, Nigel, and Henley. It might be my English/Irish DNA I share that allows me to understand the Irish, but not sure. When the Scots have had a lot more to drink than me, well, it is all English…but, “huh”?
For 3 days I am on a team putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Claire is a true puzzle aficionado, and even has a large carrying case on which to assemble a puzzle. The scene for this huge puzzle (30″ by 40″) is the Titanic at debarkation from Southampton in 1912. I helped Claire, and was joined by Lauren and others. It became a team effort for many hours there on the aft deck! Slowly the picture came together, and we had others watching and helping with this process. We all enjoyed finally finishing this and knowing that there really were no missing pieces among the 1,000 we had on the table. Claire would later tell me that this puzzle was given to the servers at the Lido Lounge.
Every evening at 8:30pm is a formal dinner on deck 6 with three other couples. Kris and Kurt from Alaska; Susie and Gary from Ventura, CA; and Karen and Susan from Santa Barbara, CA. At our first dinner, Gary asks if we are all Democrats…oh my! If he had only known. I raised my hand acknowledging my political leaning to the “right”. It was 7 democrats, 1 republican, and it was interesting for the rest of THAT dinner. The next several dinners did not involve any political talk because I didn’t mention politics, and Gary didn’t either. I do learn that our Alaskan friends are in the Merchant Marine service and they share their ship experiences with our cruise experiences. I find that Kris and Kurt really enjoy living in “the-middle-of-no-where”, Alaska.
I am ready for our arrival at the wreck site tomorrow evening, and while I am listening to Anthony Stuart Lloyd sing, my mind is dwelling on how all this will go on the 14th. I am certain the cruise will organize a memorable, respectful time. Today is Friday the 13th, not a good time or place to be a superstitious person. Tony, as we call him, has a huge bass-baritone voice, and sings opera, mostly. Fine with me, not so fine for some. Tony is a fellow smoker and, along with many other regulars, we swap stories and drink long into the night! Tony is Welsh, as well as being about 6’5″ and is the only person I have ever heard speak Gaelic and or Welsh.
As I retire, I am aware, from the Captain’s report, that the depth of the sea is over 2000 meters, air and water temperature below 20 degrees celsius. I hope the sea stays calm…
14 April 2012, Saturday, is going to be THE day of this voyage. We are in the 7th day of, “A Journey of 100 Years”, and it is rough sailing after a long calm stretch of open ocean. The talk of the day centers around the events happening at 11:40pm tonight. Our Captain tells us we have set the ship’s clock back 1 hour and 27 minutes. What? Where did the 27 minutes come from? In a later one-on-one Q and A with the Captain, I am told it has a little to do with leap year, and a little to do with historic time, but, “…way too complicated for me to explain”, he tells me. I will figure out this 27 minutes issue later. I am told that the ship’s people and the Titanic people disagree some on this point, but Captain Bamberg has the final say. 27 minutes.
The Captain tells everyone in his noon update what to expect tonight when we are at the exact wreck site: 41 43′ 32″ N 49 56′ 49″ W. There will be two minutes of silence at 11:40pm, there will be three wreaths dropped overboard from the aft deck 7, there will be a brief Christian ceremony led by The Reverend Canon Huw Mosford, Director of Chaplaincy, The Mission to Seafarers, Halifax, Nova Scotia. There will be a song by Tony Lloyd. There will be tears shed, hugging, and people staring blankly off into the abyss in front of us. Am I ready?
Our formal dinner tonight is in the Ballindalloch, named after the Speyside village and castle in Scotland. The Balmoral is named for the Scottish home for UK’s royal family. The dinner was the same dinner served on 4/14/1912. Seven courses:
First: Poached Salmon with Moussline Sauce, or Quail Eggs in Aspic with Caviar Second: Consommé Olga, or Creame of Barley Soup Third: Asparagus Salad with Champagne Saffron Vinaigrette Fourth: Punch Romaine Fifth: Baked Haddock with Sharp Sauce, and Buttered Green Peas and Boiled Rice, or Calvados Roast Duckling with Apple Sauce, and Roast Potatoes and Braised Cabbage, or (my selection) Filet Minons Lili, and Sliced Baked Potatoes, with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Baby Carrots, or Roast Pork with Sage and Pearl Onions, and Boiled Potatoes, Creamed Carrots and Minted Pea Timbale, or finally Vegetable Marrow Farci. Sixth: Waldorf Pudding, or Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly, or Chocolate and Vanilla Eclairs (my other choice) Seventh: Assorted Fresh Fruits, and or Selection of Cheeses After Dinner: Tea and Coffee.
Personally, I could never eat a selection from ALL 7 courses-at 8:30pm…but wow! Grand dinner!
We return to the Lido deck to digest and reflect on the reason we booked this cruise, and for drinks and smokes. You could, by now, begin to sense the emotion of the night. It was chilly, perhaps 39-43 degrees, not cold, but surely a bad night for swimming about in the blackness of this ocean. I can not imagine the terror of that night based upon being warm-ish and dry on deck. There are no stars to be seen, or when the clouds parted, nothing like 100 years ago! As the time approaches, the second ship arrives at the site. The Azamara arrives from New York. This second ship was added late in the planning of our trip due to the high booking demand for this one time memorial on this night.
There is no way, no words, no photos to convey the sense of what I am witnessing. There are hundreds of people gathered on the aft decks: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, no room for one more person. The minister, the soloist, and 3 young men dressed in 1912 sailor suits are gathered at the edge of the aft deck 7 with three biodegradable commemorative wreaths, and three candles to be lit. It is difficult to jostle into position to have a clear view of everything happening.
After the candles are lit, the wreaths are thrown overboard into the ocean, there is a brief participatory ceremony, and Anthony Stuart Lloyd approaches the microphone. Cue the music. He starts singing in his lovely, deep, rich bass-barritone voice, “Nearer My God To Thee”, and if there were any dry eyes, they are not now…Powerful, haunting, sad, gut wrenching. To realize that 100 years ago, as the Titanic sank below the waves, as the survivors rowed away from her, these were the words and melody they heard. My imagination can not get there. Time is frozen, we are one mass of humanity, weeping and hugging one another.
Halifax, Canada is where the Carpathia took all those passengers who did not find a life boat as the Titanic sank. As we head for that safe harbour, I am on the look out this morning for any sign of land, and the appearance of a sea bird should tell me we are getting closer.
We spend all day Sunday, 15 April, on a calm and cloudy sea. Now it is not as cold as the last time I was out on this deck. I am not entirely sure if the cold air is solely to blame for feeling cold last night. My thoughts of still being in a wooden life boat and at this hour of the morning, as the 705 survivors were, while they were hoping and praying for rescue. Everyone was a little tired from staying up until past 3:00 am, and struggling to process the events of just imagining where we just were, stopped in the North Atlantic. WE are looking for land, THEY were looking for salvation from the ocean.
On the 16th, as the mist cleared, and warmer air returned, it brought some sense of how those who were being rescued at this same hour must have felt. On board a safer vessel. As I sit and look at the ocean, my attention is drawn to a sound that I have never heard before. There is a Japanese man standing at the railing of the aft deck, at the same place where the last passengers on the Titanic stood, as 800 feet of iron and wood and safety sank beneath their feet leaving them in the 28 degree water. I should point out there was one particular survivor from this situation-the ship’s baker. He was very drunk, having unceremoniously, and alone, finished off a full bottle scotch(?) In a stupor, he was carried off this same part of the ship where I now hear this music coming from. HE SURVIVED!
I will learn later that the person playing the Ocarina was Mr. Hiroshi Otomo, and when he finishes this lovely song I thank him for sharing this haunting music with me. I will never know if this was his commemoration to all those who died 100 years ago, or just a tune he liked to play. Was it a coincidence he was playing on the aft deck by the railing? I must point out though, this was the first and only time I saw him on the Balmoral. I am glad he gave me permission to take several photographs.
I am excited to spot a sea bird, perhaps a tern. Land is still about 100 miles away, by my rough calculations, but it will be good to feel the earth beneath my wobbly feet. It won’t be until later today (the 16th) that we reach Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
I finally see more birds, a few tanker and cargo ships, and land around 3pm, but it won’t be until 5pm that we are in the harbour. As I wander around the ship this afternoon, I discover there is a wedding taking place on deck 11, the Observatory deck. The couple, from Ireland, are dancing their first dance, and are accompanied by a lovely singer playing something (I wasn’t listening, just watching) on the piano. Lauren Casey and my wife Sheila had met earlier in the dining room. This was the first wedding I have been to after retiring from being a wedding photographer-odd to just sit and watch…
By 6:15pm the ship is tied up at the dock. Solid feeling, no rocking, and I know sleep will be peaceful and restful finally. Tomorrow I will be on terra ferma and visit the cemeteries.
Halifax cemetery trip is going to be very interesting. Considering that this is the only place I have ever seen photos of that can actually be visited, I am ready to go on this tour. The security getting on and off the Balmoral is very efficient, just a card swipe of your I.D. and you can hope they will not sail off and leave you behind. Their system has all your info on a magnetic strip on a credit card sized I.D. As much as I dislike being driven around with a tour director announcing this and that, I have no choice. The tour covers other interesting places between our ship tied up at the dock and the three cemeteries: historic mansions in the $10M range, military installations, old churches, and several places related to Halifax’s connection to the Titanic.
First stop is the most famous, and most viewed cemetery, Fairview. The Titanic section is an area within a large, actively used cemetery. There are 121 graves here, all including an number as well as other obvious information (of what was known at the time). The number is a grim reminder of the enormity of this tragedy-as their bodies were recovered on to the deck of the Carpathia, they were numbered: 1 through 334. The stones, mostly just inscribed with the name and “Died 15 April 1912”, stand forever to remind mankind that when we think we are indestructible, we learn humility.
Every grave is decorated with flowers, and it is a time for quietness and remembrance. Different groups in Halifax feel a loving sense of connection to these souls. The stones placed by The White Star Line are simple and uniform in size and shape. The black starkness of their plain shiny granite is also a stark reminder to all who visit this resting place for so many families. These rows of monuments laid out to form the outline of the bow of the Titanic, and silently remind us all of the lives lost 100 years ago.
We conclude our brief tour of Halifax and re-board the Balmoral, ready to sail away around 6pm, and back on the open sea by 7pm.
We spend the 18th starting to realize our memorial cruise will soon come to an end. There is a “Queen” tribute concert our last night, Gavin does a good job but Freddie he is NOT. A few pints of Guinness and our last night on the ocean ends, but tomorrow will be amazing. As I leave the Lido deck very late I notice that even though NYC is over 100 miles away, there is a faint, but certain, glow on the western horizon. The City.
By 6:00am I have my coffee and a place in my regular location on Lido, and the crowd grows. My hope for this harbor sight of New York is rewarding, as the morning darkness changes into a heavy mist, which the sunrise quickly burns away. By the time we pass under the Verrazano Narrows bridge, there are not many free places to stand at the railing and get a last few unique photos. This massive 2 mile long suspension bridge, at dawn, orange sky, the droning of the ships engines, is something to behold! Immediately after this comes Lady Liberty, the focal point of America that every immigrant knows. It’s symbolism is a proud invitation to come to the USA, and all those steerage passengers surely thought about this sight as they left Southampton, and now lie eternally at Fairview Cemetery. As I sail into New York City, seeing the Freedom Tower under construction, it is yet another symbol of hope and resurrection. My journey of 100 years has ended, and I will always feel a small sense of understanding of all that I experienced.
As we part with our new-found friends, it was said more than once, “have a good life.” We know these goodbyes could be as final as the ones we give the Titanic. Farewell and RIP…
© Byron 2012
September 5, 2016 Not a happy way to close out my 69th year, but I am now the oldest member of my immediate family. We were six kids originally, plus mother and father. Now we are only three, myself and two younger sisters. RIP my dear brother—This is also my step-granddaughter’s 20th birthday, celebrated while she’s at college. Time adds and subtracts to all of our lives as it sees fit…
Speaking of adding and subtracting, my brother won’t get to vote anymore. He would be thrilled if one democrat switched their vote this year and voted for Trump—which I will claim that vote as his vote, in his honor.