St. Patrick’s Eve Tragedy: Blizzard Four Dead 3/16/56

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Some stories, buried in time, cry out to be told. “The St. Patrick’s Eve Tragedy 1956” is one of them. Four brave sailors froze to death that night in a blinding blizzard.

In late October 2007, daughter Jenny and I were attending an Andover Alumni Council meeting.  After dinner she arrived at my table with a young man in tow.

“Dad, meet Harry Flynn. I think you were in the Navy with his dad.”

Indeed I was. We were roommates aboard the USS Preston (DD 795) in 1955.  I had not spoken with Harry Sr. in 52 years. The next morning, between meetings, Harry called his dad and handed me the phone.  The years vanished as we caught up. What a warm feeling watching our kids talking as we spoke.

As a result of that chance encounter, we began to swap stories.  One of his particularly caught my attention; “Safe Harbor – Not,” which described the harrowing events of St. Patrick’s Eve 1956 in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. 

Months earlier, another chance encounter at the 19th Hole of our golf club on Long Island, conversation turned to that same ill-fated day. Doctor Petit, a neighbor, had also been home ported in Newport.  Doc, then a Medical Corpsman aboard the Destroyer Tender, Cascade (AD 16), added a gripping eyewitness account of the same terrifying events.

Their stories triggered my own memories.  I couldn’t get them out of my head; how two old friends from different parts of my life had both been there, at the scene of the tragedy; how I had almost been there with them; why all three of us had been spared, while our fellow shipmates hadn’t been nearly as lucky.  I spent days researching what happened, tracking down long forgotten newspaper articles from the Newport library and piecing together events.

*     *     *

St. Patrick’s Day has come to be known for parades, parties and celebration.  For four brave Navy men, the date in 1956 was just the opposite.

Excerpts from “Safe Harbor”…

My friend Harry had been attached to the Commodore’s staff headquartered on the USS Picking (DD- 685), temporarily based in Newport.  That night, Harry had the staff watch. “A lot of people had already left the ship on liberty,” he recalled.  “We were nested together, four Fletcher-class destroyers, 21 hundred tons of seagoing greyhounds.  I was waiting for my fiancée and her cousin to visit for supper, by launch, return and drive back to Boston.

“We had arrived from the Charleston Navy Shipyard in Boston after our overhaul. A ship just out of the yard is always in a state of flux.  New people and old hands are getting familiar with or reviewing their duties. This time everything worked against us.”  Adding to the problem, a number of senior officers were not aboard the ships at that time, leaving their junior counterparts in charge.

Harry said that the ship’s crew could tell a storm was coming, but storms in Newport in February weren’t exactly headline news. He describes his first encounter, “As we rounded Nantucket Light on the trip from Boston, the hatch above my bunk sprang open and water from the bow flooded the sleeping area. I leapt up and headed topside.” 

On St. Patrick’s Eve, the storm came up quickly and violently.  The winds howled, and snow turned into blizzard with 70 mile an hour winds overnight.

In Harry’s words: “Storms aren’t unusual, but never fun.  We sent the liberty launch in at four o’clock (1600 hours). The wind had come up and the trip was very rough.  When the boat crew returned for another trip, the 50-foot liberty launch landed between the sterns of the Preston and the Irwin. I went to the Commodore, my boss, and suggested that he decide when to cease boating.  It was getting very rough out there.  He said to stop them after the next boat returns.  I went to the stern of the Irwin where the launch was tying up.”

Meanwhile, crewman Kenneth R. Kane, a fireman rate from New York City, was part of the crew manning the 50-foot motor launch that was being moved to a more sheltered position behind the nest of four destroyers tied together and moored to a buoy (Mike). 

“A gust of wind ripped through the air, tossing the launch so high on the waves that its keel could be seen from the destroyer deck.

“As the launch neared the USS Preston, two of the boat crew jumped across to board the destroyer.  When Kane tried to follow, he fell into the freezing water.  The men aboard the ship yelled to throw him a line, but a rope could not be found.  Suddenly, the launch heaved high on another huge wave and crashed down on Kane likely breaking his back.  Crewmen from the Preston scrambled down and grabbed Kane by his life jacket, but he was torn from their grasp when a strap broke.  He slipped through the jacket and disappeared into the churning water, leaving the sailors holding the empty jacket. The liberty launch drifted away.

Officers aboard the Preston, tied outboard in the 4 Destroyer nest, quickly ordered out a whaleboat to aid in the rescue, with five brave men aboard. Two of them, Lt., jg, Juergens and Reese B. Kingsmore, boarded the 50-foot motor launch, restarted its engine and returned to the Preston.

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Whaleboat similar to the one used by the men of the USS Preston

 

The others: Moore, Britton and Hutchinson stayed in the whaleboat and kept up a vain search for the missing Kane.  Moore served as coxswain, although that was not his normal duty.  Before he left the Preston, he told shipmates he was going along “to make sure everything went right.”

As Harry recalled: “The men set out into the now swirling snow. The wind had come up with a wild ferocity and the heavy snowfall limited vision to a few feet from the nest.  I reported back to the Commodore who wanted me to stay on the situation and report to him.  There wasn’t much to report for some time.  I stayed in the Ward Room, with an Ensign I didn’t know too well and his girlfriend aboard for a visit. The storm was wicked that night and we were constantly worrying about the nest breaking up or drifting.”

Tragically, Harry was right to worry.  My friend and bar mate from Long Island, Doc Petit, also in the harbor that night, witnessed the second, somber part of the story: “As dawn broke on St. Patrick’s Day, the three-man crew of the Cascade’s Gig (another whaleboat) and I got underway and started to search for the boat from the Preston.”  Doc and his mates traveled down the bay, looking for the brave men who had willingly put their lives on the line for another.

One of Doc’s crew finally spotted the whaleboat, washed up on the shore of the Douglas Estate, on Ocean Drive, near the mouth of the harbor.  As they approached, they found the bodies of Moore, Britton and Hutchinson, “their cherry red faces frozen, grotesquely contorted in death.”  The three valiant sailors had died from exposure while searching for Kane.  Their 26-footer was washed ashore, miles downstream.   The Newport Daily News later reported it was the worst storm since possibly1938.

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“George!  George!  Wake up. Deanie Gilmore just called to see if you were all right.” She had heard on the radio that there had been a terrible accident aboard the Preston. Mother was standing next to my bed.        

I woke up from a sound sleep at my parents’ house in Brightwaters Long Island.  I was home on a 72-hour pass from my new ship, the USS Abbot (DD 629), having recently transferred from the USS Preston.  Both ships had been undergoing updates and repairs at the Charleston Navy Ship Yard in Boston.  The Preston and the three other ships in her Division were scheduled to leave for the West coast to join the 7th Fleet for assignment in the Pacific.  The Abbot was part of the 6th Fleet and would remain in the Atlantic with the 3 remaining destroyers in our division, operating out of Newport, RI.

I knew instinctively that some of the men in my old division had to be involved.  I spent most of the morning trying to contact the base for more information.  The weather was God-awful.  The Abbot was due to get underway from Boston early Monday.  I couldn’t take the chance of getting stuck in Newport and decided against my first impulse to go there immediately.  I sent a telegram to the Captain of the Preston offering my prayers and any help I could be, still not knowing the details of the tragedy.

As the day progressed, the story unfolded.  Sketchy details began to appear on the radio and TV. I finally got through to the office of the Base Commander. The Duty Officer confirmed the loss of four Sailors, and the fact that, indeed, three of the four had perished in the Preston’s whaleboat, trying to rescue the Sailor from the Irwin. 

Sometime in the early afternoon, the names of the Sailors were released.  I tuned in to the news on the radio.  My heart sank as the commentator read the names: Boatswain’s Mate 2, C. Robert C. Moore of Marked Tree, Ark, Seaman Donald Britton of Bayville, NJ, and Seaman Gary C. Hutchinson of Holland, Ohio. I had been their Division Officer. 

I felt helpless.  My thoughts turned to the three men aboard the whaleboat.  I knew R.C. Moore the best.  He was a rangy, easygoing southerner, with a great sense of humor, who took his responsibilities to heart.  He was popular with officers and crew alike. R.C. had taken me under his wing when I reported aboard, as a young inexperienced Ensign. 

I thought of Britton and Hutchison – two squared away seamen whose promise was yet to be fulfilled.  The Deck Force is the training ground from which other activities aboard, staff their personnel.  They were both headed for greater responsibilities. 

The whaleboat in which the men perished had been my responsibility while I was aboard. During ASW exercises, we used that same boat to retrieve spent torpedoes and return them to the subs. I had been the Boat Officer.

It had been decades since I had thought of them, and their courage. Time has not diminished the memory of their heroics. I can’t help but think it’s no coincidence that I ran into Harry and Doc, and pieced together again the story of that night.  For me, it’s a stark reminder of the need to honor and remember the sacrifice of those who give their lives for another, and a reminder of how important it is to make people aware of those four brave men.

As each of us readies for the St. Patty’s day celebration, take a moment to reflect on these brave men and all the other men and women who have served to make this great holiday possible. Raise a glass to absent friends. 

Some stories, buried in history, cry out to be told. “The St. Patrick’s Eve Tragedy 1956” is one of them.

 

                                                   George S.K. Rider

DESTROYER

Author Unknown

 

Over the green hills the bay lies, and after the harbor the sea,

And a grim, gray gaunt Destroyer is steaming there swiftly and free.

With a roll that strains her stanchions and a pitch that peels her paint

With a roaring red heat in her bowels that would make the devil faint

She backs on the crest of the billows, she washes her side in the trough

She ships twenty tons of ocean and then like a dog shakes it off

Her seamen cling tight to the lifelines, her black gang is gasping for air

From mess cook to skipper they curse her, but no outsider would dare

The smoke billows down on her taffrail, the white smoke unrolls in her wake

The hissing steam throbs in her boilers, but she has a speed run to make

She lurches and trembles and staggers, alive from antenna to keel

She reeks of burned oil and hot bearings and rings with the pulsing of steel

Wild winds lay symphonies topside, below crash the drums of the sea

And far to the west of the sunset, green isles call to her and to me

She is brine-caked and crowded, they call her a salty old can

But those aboard grin when they curse her and each one aboard is a man.

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Reaching Critical Mass

February 20th at 1500 hours (that’s 3PM for you land lubbers!), it was determined that I had reached “Critical Mass.” With my wife by my side, I was led into my Internist’s office, contrite and ready to take my medicine. I was ordered to strip down to my skivvies. I offered no resistance. I had not followed instructions since last I passed through his door. I gained 3 pounds rather than losing the 25 he prescribed. All other vital signs and blood levels were well in line, except for the blood sugar. The weight was way out of whack, and I knew it.

The fight was out of me. To compound my dilemma, my daughter was adamant. Jenny will be married in June. On her last visit she pointed out matter of factly, “Why don’t you lose weight so that you can dance at my wedding – after all you’re paying for the band.”  (I am????) Her comments, though searing, were made with a great smile and meant to get me going. They certainly did!

The dye was cast. Dorothy joined the physician and me and took notes at my inquisition. The good doctor provided his choice of a diet doctor with a telephone number. My goose was cooked!!!

With all the rough winter weather we’ve had, it was my bad luck that it didn’t snow on February 25th, the morning of my appointment with Dr. Slim Down. We arrived early and were greeted by a bubbling assistant armed with a fist full of intrusively detailed forms to fill out.

Halfway through the pen to form ritual, I was ushered into Dr. Slim’s office. I again stripped to my skivvies. In a lifetime ago, I could have accompanied Rose La Rose at The Old Howard Burlesque in Scully Square Boston!!    

I was examined and measured almost everywhere. Twenty minutes later, Dorothy joined us with pad and pen. The game was on!!

The instructions flew. All the ingredients for the rest of my life (or at least until I lose 40 lbs.) were spelled out. The diet to accomplish my weight loss goals came through with depressing clarity. At the end of his soliloquy, I had little left, but to ask him timidly,

“How about an occasional drink?

To my surprise and joy he replied, “You can have a glass of red wine with dinner.”

My mind immediately raced to the cabinets in the kitchen to choose the largest glass in the house. The attitude adjustment was still far from complete! A store in his office was stocked with the requisite ingredients to make me thin or, better said, less round. We departed for home, armed with two full bags of goodies, the instructions, and an appointment to return in two weeks for my first weigh-in.

The condemned man ate a hearty meal that evening. My Last Supper! The bill of fare began with two gin and tonics, two helpings of a fine sirloin steak – rare, a baked potatoe (That’s how I spell it!! Guess I’ll never be VP either!), cheese and a large scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

I slept like a top. D-Day dawned. I began my daily routine consisting of downing 5 pills, nothing to do with weight loss, and starting my daily eye drop discipline; three different drops to alleviate the pressure from my glaucoma, dripped at different times, a total of 7 drops in each eye daily. It was like warming up in the bull-pen!                                                                                     

I settled in at the desk in my office writing away and watching the news. It was snowing like hell. I sat and pondered my fate – three carefully prescribed and measured meals a day, three health “snacks” and doctor’s orders to drink ten 10-ounce glasses of water every day.

Dorothy called out from the kitchen, “Dear, your breakfast is ready!”

I took my seat at the dining room table. Time for the new no-holds-barred diet to kick off.   

Dorothy presented me with a small dish containing 3 opaque fat burners (about the size of rabbit pellets) and 4 turbo-charged capsules: 2 fish oil and 2 fat burner enhancers.                  

My gullet was ready.  Down went the 7 pills and capsules aided by draining my second 10-ounce glass of water. Nine more dietary pills and capsules rounded out the pill count for the day.

Next on the bill of fare came a large chocolate, weight management milk shake. Not an English muffin buttered with raspberry jam in sight. I had to admit that the milk shake was really tasty.

My mid-morning snack consisted of half a nutrition bar with a capsule that prevents diabetes and a green tea mix in a glass of water. Lunch featured another tasty milk shake and a garden salad with vinaigrette dressing. My mid-afternoon snack consisted of the other half of the nutrition bar and a second green tea mixed in a glass of water.

Dinner was a mixture of vegetables and protein, a choice of meat or fish. The first night I chose chicken.  A before bed peanut-butter diet snack capped off the day. Where is my G & T, where are the crackers and cheese?

The combination of pills and capsules: fat burners, enhancers, multivitamins, diabetes preventers and fish oil capsules spread over the day totaled 16. The water intake was 100 ounces. Ugh!!

I made it through the first day. Today is day 8. So far I have lost 7 pounds. My sense of humor has improved. I now have firsthand knowledge of every men’s room in a 10-mile radius. If I were a dog, my left hip would be dislocated from seeking out handy trees or fire hydrants.

The old adage that he “pees like a racehorse” has me heading for the fifth at Hialeah. All that aside, how thankful I am that my loving family bludgeoned me into a health regimen that will pay dividends. Jenny, I will dance at your wedding!! Thanks, Dorothy and son Graham!

PS Word travels quickly. Late yesterday I picked up the telephone. The caller spoke with a British accent saying that he had just heard of my diet, and was representing the manufacturer of one of my supplements. He asked me if I would fill out a questionnaire on their product and then proceeded to ask me a series of increasingly personal questions.

When I demanded to know where he got my name, he said that he had received his information on Facebook. I immediately fingered Jenny as the culprit. Wrong again!!

After my chilly reception he persisted until he cracked up laughing. It was my college roommate Richard Haskel calling from California. He had learned about my dietary debacles from another close friend and classmate Stan Pinover in Madison, CT.

Glad someone is enjoying my plight!!!

PSS This afternoon I peeled back the wrapper on the remaining half of today’s nutrition bar and took a bite. Daughter Jenny asked for a taste. I broke off a corner (a very small corner), reached over and handed it to her. In the process I fumbled the remainder. It fell on the floor, inches away from Ladybug’s nose (our Lab), as she slept sprawled out at Jenny’s feet. 

Ladybug came quickly to life. She looked at what was left of my afternoon snack, stared up at me with her big brown eyes, licked her lips and prepared to lunge.

I sprang into action!!! The face-off between two aging carnivores! The athlete in me took over, I moved swiftly and deftly and snatched my treat from Lady’s open-mouthed attack. I downed the remainder without even dusting it off and damned near swallowed it whole.

Guilt set in, and I rewarded Ladybug with a bone for coming in second. She pawed at my lap for another treat, and I gave her a stern talking-to about dietary discipline.  I told her, “Like it or lump it, Ladybug, this house is on food and fun lockdown until I can jitterbug at Jenny’s wedding.” Lady sighed, and I joined her. Who knows, with luck, maybe Jenny and Bill will just decide to run off and elope!

The Forgotten Lore of Squaw Valley 1960

The reporting from this year’s press in Sochi has overlooked, for the most part, the importance of the 1960 Squaw Valley Gold Medal heroics and the sub stories that are such a part of this fabled history. There has been hardly a mention of the fantastic upset victory by the U.S. Team, which against all odds beat all of the favorites on its way to Olympic Gold — the first Gold Medal ever for U.S. men’s hockey.

Three last minute additions to the U.S. roster proved a key to the outcome, causing some disruption to the team’s chemistry at the time. Forwards Bill and Bob Cleary of Harvard fame and defenseman John Mayasich from Minnesota all played key roles as the drama played out. Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 team, was among the last cuts. The inclusion of the Cleary’s was not universally heralded in the locker room. All of which was set aside when the first puck dropped.

February 25 1960 – In the final round, the U.S. beat Canada 2-1. Bob Cleary scored from Mayasich at 12:47 of the first period. Paul Johnson scored at 14:00 of the second period, unassisted. Connelly scored for Canada at 13:38 of the third. Jack McCartan, the U.S. goalie was spectacular, making 39 saves.

Two days later, the U.S. prevailed over the U.S.S.R., 3-2. Bill Cleary scored at 4:04 of the first period from brother Bob. The Russians answered with two goals. At 11:01 of the second period, Bill Christian scored from his brother Roger to tie the game. Bill Christian scored the game winner at 14:59 of the third assisted by Roger and Tom Williams. McCartan made 27 saves.

The Gold Medal game took place the next day against Czechoslovakia. The U.S. matched 3 goals by the Czechs in the first period with Weldon Olson scoring from Paul Johnson and Dick Rodenheiser; Bob McVey scored assisted by Bob Cleary; and Roger Christian scored from brother William and Tom Williams. The Czechs scored at 6:58 of the second period to take a 4-3 lead into the final period.

The U. S. locker room was visited between the second and third periods by the legendary Russian defenseman Nikolai Sologubov who spoke little English. He gestured to the Americans and demonstrated to them to take oxygen before returning to the ice for the start of the third period. The U.S. went out and scored 6 unanswered goals to secure the Gold Medal.

R. Christian scored from W. Christian; R. Cleary from Mayasich; R. Cleary from B. Cleary and Jack Kirrane; R. Christian from Mayasich and W. Cleary; W. Cleary unassisted; and R. Christian Completing his hat trick, from W. Christian.

Coach Jack Riley’s U. S. team won all seven games on its way to the Gold and the unquestioned contributions of the Cleary and Christian brothers combinations added another intriguing element to what many believe was the real start of our hockey prominence on the world scene. Jack McCartan was voted Best Goalkeeper. Nikolai Sologubov was voted Best Defenseman and Nisse Nilsson, from Sweden, won Best Forward Honors. Bill Cleary led the U.S. team in scoring with 14 points, followed by Bill Christian with 13 and John Mayasich with 12.                                                                                                           

Hats off to the 1960 and 1980 Gold winners. Go U.S.A. 2014!!!

Watch highlights of the amazing 1960 Gold Medal game here at 4:50 minutes into the clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lat3BRzgkMY

Best, George

 

 

 

Corey J. Swinson

Five months ago this week, Corey Swinson passed away of natural causes at age 43. At six feet five, three hundred and thirty five pounds, his physical prowess was only exceeded by the deeds and accomplishments that endeared him to his family and all who loved and admired him.

Corey grew up in Bay Shore, Long Island, the youngest of ten, raised by hands-on parents whose example inspired him and his brothers and sisters, all of whom prospered and became valued members of their communities.

Corey graduated from Bay Shore High School in 1988. He starred in basketball and played football briefly.

He entered Hampton College in Virginia, studied social work and played football. During his three years at Hampton the team’s record was 31-4-1. Cory made 144 tackles. He played in the Senior Bowl and was the seventh round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1995. He spent the season with the St. Louis Rams.

Corey retired from football and returned to Bay Shore where he worked as private security for several NBA stars before changing jobs after his son Messiah, now an 8th grader in Bay Shore Middle School, was born. Corey became head of security for the Bay Shore School District from 2002 to 2012. At the time of his death, Corey was Director of School Safety and Security for Copiague Public Schools.

Evelyn Blouse Holman, retired Superintendent of the Bay Shore Schools, told Newsday: “No one was more caring or committed to the young people in our schools than Corey. He was certainly a role model.”

Corey also coached youth football. His son meant the world to him. Messiah plays defensive tackle in the football youth program, his dad’s position, and wears his number, 90.

I grew up and lived in the Bay Shore/Brightwaters area for most of my 81 years before moving to Essex, CT, and attended Bay Shore Schools through freshman year. After retiring in 1995, I started a program where my alma mater Phillips Academy Andover provided Summer Session scholarships for 31 deserving students from Bay Shore and neighboring communities. I got to know Corey. We worked together in the mentoring program.

He exemplified the spirit of a town that had taken its lumps – with the advent of malls and shopping centers and the ensuing empty storefronts downtown – but was determined to rise again.

A number of willing hands and strong leaders from every corner of Bay Shore and Brightwaters and every facet would not take “no” for an answer. Today Bay Shore is experiencing a dramatic comeback. Along with the bricks and mortar that rebuilt and repaved our town, the rekindled spirit of our citizens was led by the example of people like Corey.

Michael Cohen, former Brentwood School Superintendent and former Assistant and Director Of Curriculum at Bay Shore High School and now Editorial Director of BK Nation, delivered this tribute:

Corey Swinson, A Remembrance!

“Corey Swinson was a force of nature. For those who knew him and loved him – and there were countless folks who did – we know that we will never see his like again.

“High school athlete, intercollegiate athlete, NFL player, personal bodyguard, school safety director, and most of all, single father of a 13 year-old young man, Corey played many rolls… all with distinction. At 6’ 5’’ and around 375 pounds, he could not be missed. If you traveled anywhere from 125th street in Harlem to Montauk Point with him, someone would recognize Corey and hug him effusively. He was that charismatic.

“Aside from his prodigious physical gifts, Corey Swinson demonstrated keen intellect and an unquenchable thirst for learning. In fact, in one of his last conversations he discussed the President’s upcoming speech on Syria.

“Corey used twitter on occasion. In his own words, the last two weeks of Corey’s life:

‘Heaven is my mother’s back yard, with my brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces, my son and of course my mom. Fish frying, ice cold beer and lots of luv.’

‘Relationships should be a duet not a duel.’

‘Watching Patty Lupone on HBO’s A Young Arts Master Class. Amazing!’

‘OK, I finally found the combination of fruits and vegetables that I’m going to juice and enjoy consistently. Spinach and apple is the real deal.’

‘Gotta be disciplined for this to work.’

‘Not sure what Obama is doing, but it has me concerned. The last thing we need is 2 b engaged in more warfare. There has to be another way.’

‘That first series exhausted me. The Eagles may have something here.’

“Exhausted? Corey was never exhausted. He exhausted those of us who knew him and loved him. May he be granted his own definition of heaven… surrounded by his loved ones in his mother’s backyard!” – Michael Cohen

Last year Corey earned the Special Recognition Award from the Suffolk County Detectives Association.

Dr. Boyce Watkins, Finance Professor at Syracuse University and Founder of Your Black World Coalition, and a leading Black Scholar in the world, said of Corey, “He is responsible for creating one of the best black history month programs in the country. He believed that it is important for black youths to know their history and made it his life’s mission to make a difference.”

Michael Cohen is right. “We will never see his like again!” A gentle gentleman!

Meet the Family

Happy Thanksgiving all…. Back by popular request, I’m reposting a story about our family gathering in 1944.  “Thanksgiving Day 1944” was my first real accomplishment and was published in the Spring 2009 Southampton Review in the Memoir and Personal Essay section along with pieces by Frank McCourt and Melissa Bank.

Of the three generations featured in this story, only two of us are left — myself and my youngest cousin Mike Furgueson.  Members of both families, spouses, children and grandchildren will gather again tomorrow to celebrate.  Hopefully, we will be better behaved, but no one hold their breath! 

Enjoy the holiday, George

Thanksgiving Day Turkey Shoot – 1944

I was twelve.  The year was 1944.  On top of the turkey and stuffing, the ingredients included theft, shotgun blasts, state troopers and a neighbor bleeding profusely from a self-inflicted razor wound.

The setting: The small town of Brightwaters, Long Island.  More specifically, my Aunt T. and Uncle K. ’s house.

The cast:  In addition to my aunt and uncle, “Gramp,” my revered but distant grandfather, patriarch of the family and a respected doctor, author and bank president; Ruth, his second wife; my parents, who for some reason were constantly kicking me outside, along with my brother Ken, 10, and our younger cousins, Tony and Mike.

The annual routine: Arrive early in the day, allowing ample time for the adults to down several rounds of Old Fashioneds, smoke hanging heavily in every room – a pleasant interlude, awaiting Gramp’s arrival.  He took a dim view of drinking of any sort so, to pacify him while making Thanksgiving with the family more palatable, the adults pushed up the start of the cocktail hour.  As my British Dad used to say, “It’s noon somewhere in the Empire.”

The doorbell rang.  Glasses were hastily secreted under the couch, under a chair and behind a large framed picture of my aunt in her wedding dress on the piano.  Gramp entered, followed by Ruth.  Coats were hung in the vestibule closet.  The grandsons were lined up to greet him.  Ruth headed straight for the kitchen “to help,” muttering hello’s on the way.  Her first order of business was to retrieve the chilled drink awaiting her in the ice- box, compliments of Uncle K.

Mother and Aunt T. soon followed.  Back then, they took turns alternating preparing Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at their neighboring homes in Brightwaters. Because of the war and stretched budgets, the days of maids and cooks had ended.  We were home alone, and the time-honored familial rules of decorum had already begun to fray.

Dad, on his way back to the living room after a visit to the down-stairs bathroom, opened the door to the attached garage off the back hall.  To his surprise and consternation, he spied two incarcerated turkeys quietly contemplating their uncertain future. Uncle K. had received them as a gift from a friend in South Carolina for use over the Christmas holidays.  They were billeted in a cage with a latch secured by a large wooden peg.

Positive action was called for. Dad removed the peg, folded the latch back and rolled the garage door up and open.  He returned to the chair he had vacated in the living room just moments before, no one the wiser. Gramp was clucking over his four grandsons who were soon ordered outdoors (yet again) to play.  Just about this time, the delivery boy from our local drug store/ice cream parlor, Friedstadt’s, appeared with the dessert.

The kids had just started to play catch with the football in the back yard when cousin Tony noticed that the garage door was open.  He went to check and let out a war Whoop, “The turkeys are missing!”  Gramp and Uncle K. burst on the scene from the house.  They concluded immediately that the culprit had to be the delivery boy. Uncle K. placed a call to the State Police Barracks, not far from the crime scene.

Dad was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible – happy for the turkeys and their new found freedom, but more than a little concerned for the fate of the unsuspecting delivery boy.

“We’ve got to retrieve the turkeys. Boys, start looking!”  Uncle K. was now in command.

Uncle Donny and Aunt Bunny (close family friends) occupied the rambling two-story brick house to the south, across the wooded lot half cleared for a victory garden.

Uncle Donny had over-imbibed the night before with several of his Wall Street partners, arriving home just before midnight.  He decided to sleep in and arose near noon to ready himself for the holiday feast he and Aunt Bunny were having at their home.

Their master bedroom was on the first floor with a large bathroom looking out over the victory garden.  Still in his pajamas, lathered up and bare-chested, the straight razor in his unsteady hand, Uncle Donny absentmindedly looked out the window.  There, perched on the ledge, was a live turkey staring in at him.  Startled, his hand jerked.  The razor slipped opening a gash in his left cheek.  Blood spurted out, dribbling from the wound to the basin and onto the tile floor.

“Bunny, Bunny!  Come quick, there’s a turkey staring at me!”

Still annoyed by her husband’s antics of the night before, Aunt Bunny opened the bathroom door.  The turkey had disappeared into the woods and there stood her husband bleeding profusely from the four-inch slash in his cheek, the blood mixing with the shaving soap forming a dark pink coating on his chin, some of it dropping onto his hairy chest.

“Donny,” she screamed at him.  “Your drinking is getting out of hand!”

The neighbor to the north was away for the holiday.  Another neighbor, who knew about Uncle K.’s gift, phoned to tell him that he had seen a live turkey entering the first neighbor’s barn.

Uncle K. calmly unlocked the gun cabinet in the den, took out a 16-gauge double- barreled shotgun and four shells and headed for the neighbor’s property with Gramp in close pursuit.

Shortly after they departed, two uniformed troopers appeared at the front door.  Brightwaters was and is a small community.  In those days, everyone knew everyone including the troopers.  Dad ushered them into the den where the bar was set up and poured them each a stiff holiday drink.  He promptly confessed, “I liberated the turkeys.”  The delivery boy was off the hook.  The troopers, sworn to secrecy, finished their drinks, exited smiling and returned to their barracks.

Bang! The sound of a shotgun blast.  That can’t be good for the turkeys, Dad later recalled thinking.

Uncle K. had spotted one of them perched on an overhead platform in the neighbors’ barn.  Making sure everyone was well back, he took aim.  Bang!  The turkey dropped to the garage floor, followed by a haze of feathers fluttering in the light from the new hole that had just appeared in the barn’s back wall.

Gramp and Uncle K. walked back with what was left of the fugitive fowl.  The rest of us continued the look for turkey number two.

Shortly after returning from “the hunt” empty-handed, the front door bell rang again.

Uncle Donny, still clad in his pajamas, robe and slippers and sporting an oozing bandage, was invited in.  Bunny followed at a discreet distance.  One look at the cut convinced Gramp that further treatment was called for.

“Georgie!  Get my bag from the car!”  Gramp always traveled with his medicine bag, which included a complete set of surgical instruments and other necessary items for emergency repairs.

Uncle Donny was led to the dining room, which had the best light in the house, and was seated on one of Aunt T.’s antique chairs.

A basin of water was heating on the stove.  Ruth and Mother cleared the crystal water glasses, Wedgewood china and place settings from the near end of the table, then covered the linen tablecloth with towels from the powder room.

Gramp administered two shots of novocain, the stitching began, eight to be exact.

Aunt Bunny, still barely speaking to her husband, deferred viewing the repairs in favor of downing a double Scotch in the den as Uncle K. was replacing the 16-gauge in the gun cabinet.

As Gramp proceeded, the grown-ups disappeared one by one and joined Bunny in the den.  Those passing in the hall could hear the unmistakable sounds of ice cubes clanking on glass.

The last stitch in place, Gramp excused himself, moved a strainer full of peas to the side of the kitchen sink and washed his hands and instruments before returning to the living room to read his paper.

Mother and Ruth removed the water basin, the bloodied monogrammed towels and gauze pads and placed them in the kitchen sink, next to the instruments and boiled peas, and just a few inches away from the stove where Thanksgiving dinner was simmering over a low flame.   The table was reset.

Uncle Donny stopped by the den to thank Uncle K. and joined Aunt Bunny, who had now mellowed perceptibly, Scotch in hand.  They finally exited after thanking Gramp, and dinner was served two and a half hours later as though nothing had happened.

Just before we sat down at the table, the phone rang.  Aunt T. answered.  “It’s for you, dear.  The Troopers’ barracks.”  Uncle K.  picked up. “Sir, after a lengthy interrogation, we have concluded that the delivery boy did not let the turkeys loose.  We’ll continue investigating and keep you informed.  Happy Thanksgiving!”  Dad greeted the news with a sigh of relief.

Two years later, same place, same setting.  Just before dessert was served, Dad clicked his water glass with his butter knife, rose from his chair and cleared his throat.  He started to speak, slowly at first.  “I have a confession to make.  I let the turkeys go.”

The first reaction was disbelief, followed quickly by anger.  Uncle K. was furious, Mother even madder.  Then, a pause.  Dad still standing.

All eyes turned to Gramp.  He looked out sternly over his thick glasses, glancing around the table from face to face, finally fixing his eyes on Dad.  He began to laugh, “That was a day for the ages.”  Dad looked more than a little relieved.  Gramp stood up, raised his half-filled water glass, and toasted, “To family.”  The grown-ups smiled and toasted back, “To family,” then one by one disappeared to refill their glasses.  Once again, we were told to go out and play.

Oh!  The day after that fateful fest, Turkey #2 was cornered and captured in the empty lot.  Uncle K. pardoned him, and he lived out his life on the family farm on the East End of Long Island.  I imagine the little fellow had somewhat mixed feelings about joining the clan.

GEORGE S.K. RIDER

 

Big News – Luck Beats Brains!!

Thomas Jefferson once said, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

Branch Rickey added to that train of thought, “Luck is the residue of design.”  Later re-told as, “Luck is the residue of desire.” I like both!

Why do I dwell on LUCK?  I’ve had more than my share of it lately, all good!

Many of you have read and commented on my blog posts and class notes; helped me write memoirs, essays and short stories; or just lent a sympathetic ear as I progressed with my writing.                         

Several years ago, I began to assemble favorites and put them together to develop a book, “The Rogue’s Road to Retirement.”  Writing was the easy part.

My wife Dorothy and daughter Jenny attended an Author’s Reading at Gather last April. Gather is the heart and soul of Ivoryton, a little borough in the town of Essex, CT.   Housed in the former Ivoryton General Store in the 1800’s, Gather serves old and young alike, as a high-end gift shop… and home to Sue McCann’s Essex Books Store.

In this very special setting, my LUCK began to perk!!

After the reading, Jenny met Anna Termine.  Their talk turned to writing.  Jenny mentioned that her dad had written a collection of stories and had enjoyed starting a blog.  One thing led to another and Anna told Jenny that she was in the business and would like to see some of my work.  Jen and I had put together a book proposal, which she sent along to Anna several weeks later. 

Lo and behold, Jenny called 10 days later, in mid-June, and asked me to look at my email.  I was dumbfounded and asked her if what I was reading was real.   Not only was Anna willing to take me on, and serve as my agent, she had a publishing house that wanted to BUY MY BOOK – Skyhorse publishing, based in New York, NY!!!

WOW, am I lucky!  My dream come true!!!! 

I am now busy at work getting my manuscript in shape, and very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the very talented editor, Holly Rubino.  The book should be out next fall!!!

Jenny and I just returned to 4 Shell Walk, Lonelyville, Fire Island, our bayfront Shangri-la, this week to work on the “Rogue’s Road.” All is not grind.  This picture was taken from our 2nd floor deck two weeks ago on an earlier trip.  

Thomas Jefferson and Branch Rickey were right. It’s now up to me to make my LUCK a reality.  THANK YOU EVERYONE FOR ALL OF YOUR SUPPORT!!  Just goes to show you’re never too old to chase rainbows (even if you’re 81 and arthritic). 

And thanks to my “dream team” Anna and Holly!

Best, George “The Rogue!”  :)

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How the Mighty Have Fallen — Redux!

It’s that time of year again… the time when my family responsibilities are downgraded to chief leaf catcher in the backyard pool.  Yesterday, I banged my knee trying to fish out a clump of stubborn maple leaves from the deep end, while simultaneously rescuing a drowning frog.  (Happy to report the frog is alive and well; my knee, however, is stiffer than the tin man’s joints in the Wizard of Oz after they left him out in a rain storm.)  Anyway, amid the excitement of my heroic lifeguarding feats and the pain of the aftermath, I remembered this post from last year about my pool follies… my daughter said it’s one of her favorites, so here goes… “How The Might Have Fallen Redux.”  Happy Labor Day Weekend one and all!!  George

Early Autumn 2012

This once omnipotent family leader has recently been relegated to a bit player in his own kingdom.  I’m one step away from being left off in the stands of our local football field with a six-pack of smoothies and a note pinned to me, “His name is George, leave him at the nearest VA facility.”

This intrepid competitor will not go easily…  I recently proved my mettle, interceding in the design and decoration of a new den, replacing our screened in porch with a winterized knotty pine, tongue in groove look and a wide board oak floor of differing lengths fastened with old fashioned iron nails. Two beams and an open ceiling with a large sky light will leave plenty of room for a large Christmas tree.

Dorothy and my kids huddled with the builder, “accidentally” forgetting to invite me to the project kick-off meeting. (Though somehow they had no problem later remembering to present me with the bill.)  Together, they agreed upon the scope and timeline for the project, the type of heating and insulation, the size and shape of the windows and skylight, the location of the electric and cable TV outlets, the type of wood paneling, as well as the patina and color of the stain.  Even my eldest grandson got a piece of the action, casting his vote on where to locate my grandfather’s antique brass ship lanterns, which now hang proudly on the wall abutting our kitchen.

And what about me?  The grand patriarch of the family and resident eminence grise?

I was put in charge of one decision they all assured me was hugely important.  I had my doubts, but they were awfully convincing.  I got to choose which side of the pine paneling would face out, the one with the wainscoting look or the smooth side.

I was too imperious. The short-term high contributed to my eventual fall from grace.  After hours of consultation and consternation, I called them all into the room.  Standing behind my mother’s antique blue wing chair as though it was the podium on Oscar night, I cleared my throat.  “I have made my decision…”  You could practically hear the proverbial drum roll rat-a-tat-tat in the background.  “We will go with the flat, smooth side of the paneling.”

I looked into the crowd, fully expecting rounds of awe and applause at my sage guidance and firm decisiveness.

My son was checking his Blackberry for emails.  My daughter was filing her nails.  My wife had turned her back to me completely and was busy measuring the new windows for drapes.  Only my grandson was paying attention.  “Any questions?” I asked him.  “Yeah,” he replied.  “Can I go watch TV now?”

I retreated to plot my next move, escaping to my sanctuary, the family pool.  Following generations before me, swimming always helps me find my balance.  Plus, when you are underwater, no one can yell at you for having the TV up too loud or having coffee cake crumbs dribbled across your sweater.

Imagine my surprise two days later when I stepped into the den to discover that the entire room had been paneled in the beaded wainscoting look I had firmly rejected.  Once again, I had been ignored and overruled.  Just as I was about to explode, Dorothy pointed out that they had actually done one of the four walls the way I wanted, then she proceeded to say that, by the way, they would probably build in floor-to-ceiling book shelves there, the group was still deciding.

Outraged at having my entreaties once again go unheard let alone be acted on, I dramatically exited the house, slamming the screen door behind me and hopped (ok, at my age, more like wobbled into the pool).  I was speed walking back and forth in the shallow end of the pool when all of a sudden my strapping son appeared by the fence, staring down at me.

“Say, Dad, I know you feel a little left out on this whole home renovation.  But not to worry.  We have another, extremely critical project for you.  One of vital importance not just to you, but to the entire family, the two Labradors and everyone on the block.”

I have to admit, I was intrigued.  Finally, a job to sink my teeth into.  One that reflected my decades of experience and proper place in the pecking order.

“Son,” I said.  “Bring it on.”

“Ok, Dad, Here’s the deal,” he leaned across the fence and solemnly lowered his voice. “It’s very important at this time of year to keep as many leaves as possible from sinking to the bottom of the pool.  No one, not the dogs or the neighbors or anyone else wants to swim in a pool that’s dirty on the bottom.  Your job is stay in the pool for as long as you can every day for the next week and fish the leaves out.  We’ll take care of everything else with the new room and the builders.  Are you up for this mission?”

Hmmm. Not what I had expected.  I had hoped that we would strategize together on all the home improvement tasks at hand.  Instead of which he tossed me an oversized pea green styrofoam noodle and handed me the pool skimmer, a long handled aluminum scooper, much like a crab-net with a taut porous, fine mesh, ideal for skimming floating debris.

As the week unfolded, I sat astride my pea green noodle like an infantryman riding his stallion into battle, brandishing the pool skimmer and patrolling the length and breadth of the pool for leaves on the surface, sinking or fluttering in the air.  Like a lacrosse defenseman with a long handle stick, I quickly, deftly adapted – no leaf was safe.  Mine was a lonely task, but someone had to do it.  If this were to be my mission, isolated, alone, blue-lipped and waterlogged, I would do it with élan and glory.

Sometimes my three younger grandchildren would venture towards the pool fence, curling their adorable little fingers around the chickenwire.  “Poppy,” they’d say, “You missed a couple down by the deep end.”  “Watch this!” I’d reply, zooming to the other end of the pool.”  Swish.  Swish.  Chuck.  I’d skim the surface of the water, retrieve the leaves and shoot them over the side of the pool.

Whether scooping leaves from the surface or cornering them at a depth, I racked up a score!  Occasionally, even plucking them out of the air like the all-star I was fast becoming, I settled into my mission with a quiet confidence.

Meanwhile, the other family members ticked through the various decisions and tasks involved in finishing the renovation.  The builder’s van zoomed in and out of the driveway.  A rental truck pulled up and strange men unloaded furniture that had long ago been placed in storage.  Empty cardboard boxes for a new TV and iPod speakers littered the back porch.  (Did we even own iPod?  What exactly is iPod ?)  Buzz saws grrrrred.  Vacuums groaned.  New track lighting blinked on and off.  All the while, I bobbed up and down on my noodle, hunting down leaves and the occasional infidel frog trying to invade the “homeland” or should I say “homepool.”

“Need any help?” I would offer occasionally – my voice, weakened by the constant exposure, wafted over the fence to my various family members, busily darting in and out, carrying boxes and tools.

“No worries, Dad, we got it,” they’d reply.

Over the course of the entire week, I patrolled the length of our pool countless times.  I pulled muscles I didn’t know I even had anymore.  My hair turned green from chlorine.

On the brighter side, I did get to hone my skills astride my pea green noodle, wielding my lance with the net on the end like a weapon, and I lost three pounds.  Should leaf chasing become an Olympic event, look for me at the trials!!  By the way, somehow, without the benefit of my superior input, the new room is finished and looks great!  Best of all, my favorite chair sits right next to “my wall.”  The King’s throne in the newest corner of his fiefdom.  Who knows, if I get lucky, I might even be allowed to sit in it!

The King in exile...

The King in exile…

...Long live the King!

…Long live the King!



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