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PAYING HOMAGE TO THE WEALTHY

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

COLLISION!

I know why George Lamb was anxious to get moving, and so do you. But according to the “rules of the road” George was supposed to wait at the “3 mile siding” switchover at the southern edge of Lafayette, Indiana for no less than thirty-five minutes for the Northbound “Cincinnati Express” passenger train to pass him on its way to Chicago. Instead, after only twenty minutes, George turned to his fireman, John McClory, and announced, “We can make Culvers”, referring to a small station and water tower (later renamed "Clarks Hill") some ten miles to the south, where there was another siding that would allow two trains to pass each other safely. It was a few minutes after three-thirty on Monday afternoon, Halloween, October 31, 1864. And what George Lamb could not have known as he throttled his fourteen year old 4-4-0 steam engine, named the “Clinton”, pulling its nine car cattle train back onto the main line track was that his attempt to save fifteen minutes would cost the lives of thirty-two human beings. Railroads were still new technology in 1864. The Broad Street work shops of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, where the “Clinton” had been assembled in 1850, were the Boeing Aircraft of their day; employing 1,700 highly skilled workers producing 2,000 locomotives every year. But the history of American railroads is in large part a series of abject lessons in how not to run a railroad.
Most of the lines were single track, meaning there were many more collisions in America than in Europe. The valid justification for this was that America’s railroads had to cover hundreds of miles between cities, which made dual track lines outrageously expensive to build and maintain. But worse still, in terms of bloodletting, was America’s addiction to unfettered capitalism. While producing many centers of growth and innovation, this horror of regulation also produced extraordinary waste, death and dismemberment.In 1860 the first vacuum braking system was patented by a mechanic, Nehemiah Hodge. In 1868 Eli Janny invented the knuckle coupler. And in 1869 George Westinghouse was granted a patent on his centralized air braking system. But it would not be until 1893 before the Federal Railway Safety Appliances Act required all of these safety features to be installed and used on America’s railroads. In the intervening thirty years literally thousands of passengers would be killed or injured and hundreds of workers would die or suffer crushed fingers, mangled arms and severed legs, and untold fortunes would be lost or destroyed in damaged freight, because of obsolete and needlessly dangerous equipment. The problem of communication was paramount. It was not until the advent of steam engines that humans were able to move faster than biology could carry them. No human or horse could maintain twenty-five miles an hour over thirty or forty miles. A civil war era steam locomotive, like the “Clinton”, had no trouble maintaining that pace.
And even though the telegraph allowed George Lamb to know that the “Cincinnati Express” had left Lebanon, Indiana almost sixty minutes before, there was no way for George to know exactly where that train was in the 37 miles between Lebanon and Lafayette. That was why the company rules required George’s “special” to wait until the Express was 35 minutes late before moving past “3 mile siding”. And that is when the safety rules ran up against the opportunitism of capitalism. Normally George Lamb worked in the machine shops in the rail yards on the north side of Lafayette. (Purdue University students, who often found part time work in the yards, are still known as “Boilermakers”.) And the local ticket agent undoubtedly charged extra for the “special” delivery of those nine car loads of cattle, bound to feed the Federal armies blocking old John Bell Hood’s attempt to re-capture Nashville. The trick for George Lamb was to smoothly slip his “special” in between the already heavily scheduled traffic between Chicago and the war front in Tennessee, without taking too long or gumming up the works. For doing that he would earn a bonus. And so when he heard a distant whistle he assumed it was the regular southbound train bound for Indianapolis that he was to follow, and he felt confident in heading south twenty minutes early. So engineer Lamb accelerated across the Wea Creek Bridge, and slipped along the rails onto the flat prairie beyond. Twenty minutes later, as he slowed for the graceful curve north of Culver’s Station he abruptly realized he had made a horrible mistake.
He was staring into the terrible Cyclopes eye of the “Cincinnati Express”, barreling toward him at over thirty miles an hour. There were five hundred and eight souls aboard the Express. Engineer Lamb said there was no time to even apply the brakes. He and fireman McClory threw them selves from the cab just before the two boilers slammed into each other a closing speed of over seventy miles an hour, exploding in screams of steam and souls. Everyone aboard the first wooden passenger car of the “Express” was killed as it splintered and telescoped into the rear of the engine, slamming its cargo into a mass of bent iron and brass and broken bone and splattered blood. A rescue train was sent at once and carried aboard it eleven local doctors. It was after dark before the first of the 35 injured reached Lafayette, and were sheltered at the “Bramble House” hotel at 3rd and South Street, and katty-cornered, in a billiard room at the Lafayette House Hotel. The thirty-two deceased were left in a freight house at the bottom of South Street along the tracks. Ten were later buried in St. Mary’s cemetery. Twenty-two Union soldiers (most on leave) who were either too injured to be identified or whose bodies were unclaimed were buried in Greenbush cemetery in Lafayette, their tombstones lined up in rank. The Grand Jury blamed Engineer Lamb for “…reprehensible carelessness and disobedience of rules and regulations”, but at least they also mentioned that the Lafayette and Indianapolis Railroad had employed him, despite being the cause of an accident at Culver’s Station the year before which had caused property damage but no injuries. It seems likely after this latest disaster the L&I would not continue to make that mistake. After the Grand Jury verdict Engineer Lamb disappears from history. But his is a conundrum that sounds far too familiar.
There were always working stiffs willing to take Engineer Lamb’s job, desperate for a paycheck or a promotion, who would violate the written rules and risk their own and other’s lives to secure a job. (The Jury didn’t even mentioned the ticket agent who sold the “Special”.) Engineer Lamb understood the unwritten rules. Most people who survive paycheck to paycheck understand the usually unwritten rules. But, like the members of the Coroner’s Grand Jury, they are torn between the reality they know and what they have been taught, between how they know the game is played and their faith in the sanctity of the rules.
As I said, it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

DESPERATE MEN

I doubt if anyone took much notice of the two young men who boarded the 3:30 train for Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, October 31, 1950. The older of the two, 36 year old Oscar Collazo, wore a blue chalk striped suit with a “somber tie”. The younger man, 25 year old Griselio Torresola, carried a new $6 suitcase and wore glasses. After the four hour trip they blended smoothly into the crowd rushing through the cavernous Union Station. But these two men walking together were not merely members of the crowd on their individual ways home. They were political assassins. This pair had come to Washington to murder the American President, Harry Truman. And their greatest ally in their endeavor would turn out to be a British Admiral who had been dead for a hundred years.On the evening of August 24, 1814 one hundred British troops marched up Massachusetts Avenue. They were the scouts out front of the British army that had just defeated a hodgepodge American force at Blandersburg, Maryland. Behind them Capital Hill was already ablaze. They burst into the abandoned White House, feasted on the dinner laid out for James Madison’s cabinet by Dolly Madison, and proceeded to loot the silverware and plate. And then, under the personal urging of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, they piled the furniture in the center of each room and set it afire, in revenge for the burning a year earlier of the Canadian village that would become Toronto. For his act of arson Admiral Cockburn would be rewarded with the order of the Bath.After the debacle there was talk of moving the nation’s capital someplace safe, like Cincinnati, Ohio. But cooler heads prevailed and James Hoban, the original architect, was hired to supervise the rebuilding on the original location. To save time and money he kept many of the original supporting beams. But still it proved a career’s employment. James Monroe was the first President to reoccupy the structure, but the work was done so parsimoniously that the South Portico was not completed until 1824 and the North Portico not until 1830. Indoor plumbing was first installed in 1833, and a boiler for central heat in 1840. Eight years later James Polk replaced candles with gas lighting. Electricity was installed in 1892, but President Benjamin Harrison was so afraid of being electrocuted he rarely touch the switches.
All these additions of plumbing and wiring had turned the White Houses’ supporting beams into Swiss cheese. By Harry Truman’s January 1949 inaugural it was clear to the Missouri homeowner that something drastic had to be done. Floors were swaying. Plaster was sinking – as much as 18 inches in the East Room. The President’s bath tube was even sinking. His daughter’s piano had one leg poking through a hole in the floor. At Truman’s insistence engineers were brought in and quickly declared the building was still standing, “purely from habit.” The President and his family immediately moved across the street to a townhouse originally owned by the patriarch of the Missouri political dynasty, Montgomery Blair.
By October of 1950 the Presidential mansion was just an empty shell, 165 feet long by 85 feet wide, and 80 feet high. Inside the wooden beams were being replaced with steel, a deeper basement was dug that reached far beyond the old walls, and a complete electronic climate controlled plant was to be installed. But for all the additions and allowances for the future, for the time being, something important had been lost. Where a wrought iron fence and a couple of hundred yards of grass had once buffered the President from would be attackers, in the Blair House he was screened only short flight of steps and a single locked door.It was dark as the two assassins strolled casually through Union Station Park and up Massachusetts Avenue. It was an Indian summer night, warm and mild. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered close to 230. There were 33,000 new cases of polio that year. There had just been an attempt to murder the governor of Puerto Rico, Muñoz Marín, and shooting was still going on around the mountain village of Jayuya by members of the Nationalists Party. Forty percent of American families were worth at least $5,000. General Motors was reporting record profits of $646 million. That year Isaac Asimov had published his science fiction classic “I, Robot”, and L. Ron Hubbard his fantasy “Dianetics”. Last month, September, the comic strip “Beetle Bailey” first appeared in newspapers, and this month it was joined by “Peanuts”. There were over 100 television stations nationwide broadcasting 130 hours of programming each week. The Negro baseball leagues had just folded, and the New York Yankees have just won another World Series sweep. And, you might not notice it on the streets of Washington, but there was a killing war going on in Korea.
A block up Massachusetts Avenue Collazo and Torresola came to the Hotel Harris. They registered separately under false names. Each requested a semi-private room and luckily they were put in adjoining rooms, 434 and 436, and were each charged $3.50 for a one night stay.On the morning of October 30, 1950 there had been armed uprisings by the Nationalists Party in several Puerto Rican towns, but the only one that succeeded was in the mountain village of Jayuya. There the police station was surrounded, one officer killed, three wounded and the garrison taken prisoner. But with the failure of the assassination attempt against Governor Marín, and the refusal of the general public to support the rebels, the United States reacted strongly. Martial law was declared. The Puerto Rican nation guard began to move troops to surround Juyuya, and their aircraft began to bomb the rebel strong hold. In the late edition of the evening newspapers available in Washington it was clear that the Nationalists revolt was doomed to be an utter failure.After dinner the two assassins planned their next day’s attack using a map of the White House in the Yellow Pages. It would not be until the morning that they would learn the White House was empty, that Harry Truman was almost within their reach, and that because of a confluence of national passions, some almost two hundred years old, and some less than one day old - the next day would see blood flow.

By two forty-five the next afternoon, November 1st 1950, White House Police officer Coffet would be dead. But before he died, with dogged determination, Coffet would stop Griselio Torresola from reaching the front door of the Blair House, with a single pistol shot to his head. Oscar Collazo would be gravely wounded, as would two other White House security officers. And the dreams for Puerto Rican independence would still be alive, not because of but despite this foolish appeal to violence.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

WHAT WERE THEIR NAMES?

I can say she was a proud lady. She carried no graceful lines and there was no poetry in her sweep. At three hundred fourteen feet she was longer than a foot ball field, but just thirty feet wide at the beam. She carried four 4 inch and one 3 inch gun, twelve mid ship torpedo tubes, a stern-mounted depth charge rack and assorted .50 caliber machine guns and small arms for her crew. Her four boilers fed two twenty-seven thousand horse power turbine engines driving two 9-foot screws which could send her one thousand one hundred and ninety tons and her one hundred and forty-nine human crewmembers slicing through the ocean waves at 35 knots. She was a ship of war, built to late for one and too early for the second.
She was born on April 2, 1919 on the covered ways of the New York Ship Building Corporation on the eastern shore of the Delaware River, across from Camden, New Jersey. It was then the largest shipyard in the world, employing 19,000 workers.
Miss Helen Strauss christened her as the “United States Ship Reuben James” just six months later, on October 4. Her namesake had been a member of the boarding party from the frigate USS Constitution, who shielded his injured captain’s body with his own. At the graving dock the James was outfitted with guns and superstructure. And on September 24, 1920 she was handed over to the U.S. Navy as DD #245, a four piper flush deck destroyer.The James’ first serious duty was to accompany the cruiser USS Olympia to Le Havre, France to escort home the remains of America’s Unknown Soldier from the Great War. Nineteen twenty-six found her off Nicaragua, cutting off weapons shipments to rebels. In 1932 she was patrolling off Cuba during the Batista coup. And in 1941 she was assigned to President Roosevelt’s “Neutrality Patrol”, which escorted convoys from Newfoundland to 26 degrees west, where British escorts took over.Beginning in August the U.S. “Neutrality Patrols” sailed between Argentia, Newfoundland, and mid Atlantic, just at the limit of the James’ 375 ton fuel load. A refueling harbor was established in the shelter of the 18 mile long and 3 mile wide Hvalfjordur fjord just south of Reykjavík, where the James could pause after shepherding a convoy eastbound, and refuel to guard a deadheading convoy returning west.
It was a hard duty consisting of endless hours of mind numbing boredom, tossing in the fog shrouded North Atlantic, broken by unexpected moments of sheer terror. And the terror was real. On October 28, the destroyer Anderson (DD-411) while escorting convoy HX-156 dropped depth charges on a possible submarine contact. Her log reported a “considerable oil slick” observed after the attack. In the submarine war that was recorded as a “possible kill".
On October 30 the Reuben James, escorting the very same convoy, tracked a similar contact, detected by a sailor stationed below decks in the bow with a stethoscope pressed against the metal plating. It was a poor man’s sonar, used on ships built before such devices were even dreamed of, and before the Navy had the funds to install sonar systems in old hulls.
Having detected the suspected submarine the James made an attack run, and an “ash can” was rolled off the slanted rear rack. A metal flange on the rack was designed to catch the trigger of each depth charge and arm it just as it left the ship. The charge then sank to its assigned depth (in this case fifty feet) and exploded, hoping to crush the hull of a Nazi U-boat. But no oil slick was detected and the action was labeled as a “miss”. But it did leave an open a space on the rack. Rather than reload the heavy depth charges an inexperienced Ensign ordered the crew to simply tie “safety forks” to the arming pins and retreat from the frigid bare deck. This improvisation was to have tragic affects in just a few hours, as the Reuben James approached 51 degrees 59' Latitude North, 27 degrees 5' Longitude West.At 5:25 AM ship time, (8:25 hours GMT) a single torpedo struck the Reuben James on the port side about 200 feet from the bow. The six hundred sixty-one pound warhead vaporized the fire room, crumpled interior walls and sent a flash fire searching for anything to feed upon; furnishings or flesh. Almost instantly it found access to the forward powder room deep in the bowls of the James and in less time than it takes to suck in a breath it ignited the explosives stored there. In a great flash that split the Artic dawn the Reuben James was sundered in two. The 37 degree sea rushed in to fill the sudden vacuum. The integrity of the ship's water tight doors was overcome by the severity of her wound. Mercifully the forward section sank at once. Death came abruptly to over half the crew and all the ship’s officers but one as the bow went down. The stern section, being bigger, was able to float for a few moments longer. About seventy-five crewmen in the stern managed to scramble onto life rafts or into life vests. As they hit the frigid water they were they were instantly coated in a three to six inch layer of fuel oil. They sucked the poisonous sludge into their lungs. What was worse, they swallowed it. And as the stern dipped beneath the waves the depth charges began to slide off their rack. The safety forks could not hold them at the increased angle, and the armed charges fell free, one after the other, each to explode in their turn at fifty feet down. The carnage amongst the men struggling in the water was horrible.
Less than five minutes after being struck the only thing left of the Reuben James was forty-four men struggling to stay afloat in freezing waters. For a few brief weeks they were heroes . But withing five weeks their sacrifice was transformed into merely the first of a hundred thousand such sacrifices. The 115 dead from the Reuben James were the first Americans killed in World War II, 37 days before Pearl Harbor, on the Halloween dawn, 1941. “Well, many years have passed since those brave men are gone, and those cold icy waters are still and they’re calm. Many years have passed, but still I wonder why, the worst of men must fight but the best of men must die. Tell me, what were their names, tell me, what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”

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