Monday, March 7, 2011

The Night Riders

One night in my sophomore year, GeorgeB (best college friend)) and I were playing poker at a boarding house down on Erie Street. One of the other players went downstairs to stretch his legs and reported back that there was a train stopped outside in the middle of town - two blocks away.

Someone suggested we jump the train. In the scramble to get our shoes on, George and I got separated from the other two. We jumped into an open boxcar just as the train began to move and before long were in the countryside with the train picking up speed. It was winter and the moon was out. The countryside looked just the way you expect from "over the river and thru the woods....".

Our first thoughts were how beautiful. Great adventure this riding the rails stuff. Then, "I wonder if the other guys made it on board? I wonder where we are going? How are we going to get off this thing? etc." After awhile we felt the train slowing down. As the train entered the rail yard, we jumped off. The snow was friendly; we landed outside the yard in Jackson. Then the question we should have asked long ago occurred - "How are we going to get back to Albion?" I was due to work Baldwin Hall breakfast crew at 6 am and it was now two. Walking twenty miles in four hours wasn't going to work.

We decided to find the state highway and hitch it back to Albion. After a half hour walk we were at the highway. Cars went by and time went by. I began to wonder if we had made the right choice. Then a car pulled over - a patrol car! A state trooper stepped out while his partner was busy on the radio. "What are you guys doing out here?" Gulp! Forunately George was a quick study. I explained we were frat pledges from Albion and had been dumped in the country and were trying to make our way back to college. After the ID checks and a series of questions, the officer said - "You guys know you'r standing a quarter of a mile outside the walls of the State Prison - don't you?" No wonder cars weren't stopping.

The police packed us into the back seat of the patrol car and off we went, George and me ad-libbing all the way to Albion. As I looked around, I noticed there were no inside door handles; we were definetly caged! The story we were spinning better work or I would be more than late for morning breakfast crew.

When we entered Albion, they asked us where we wanted to be dropped. Certainly not on campus. George said we were Delt pledges and they could drop us at the Delta Tau Delta house - the most remote house from campus. They did; we thanked them and they watched as we ran up the steps. Fortunately, the door was unlocked. We ducked into the parlor and watched to see if the police would leave. Whew - they did and we were free at last.

I walked over to Baldwin and crashed on one of the sofas with an hour to rest before it was time to make breakfast for the Seaton Hall crowd.

One Too Many or One-to-Many

After my freshman year, I moved to the Quate's (Ms. Quate was a manager in the college food service) up at 5 Points. They had a hugh old house with a big barn and 10 acres they still farmed. In my senior year, my friend GeorgeB showed up one fall everning with a pint of vodka and some 7-up. "Want a drink?" I was raised in the Methodist tradition and did not imbibe. But I was now 21, so why not try. We got a couple of milk shake size paper cups, climbed up to the hay loft, opened the loft door, and sat down to mix our brew. My first reaction was: vodka sure did screw up the taste of good 7-up.

We sat with our legs dangling out the open door, drinking this stuff, and talking about our future after college. George was the best piano player I had ever heard and music was in his blood. I was applying to grad schools in Chicago and Pittsbugh. After a little while, we were talking pure non-sense. "Want another?" asks George. "Sure, why not." About half way through the second cup, I began feel not so good. Maybe this is not such a good idea. We dragged outselves over to the ladder and stumbled down.

The first few steps out of the barn didn't go in the direction I was looking. After a few more steps in all directions, I took hold of George and he took hold of me. We began our journey along (or around) the sidewalks north of town, headed toward the McGraw-Edison plant. At the plant we turned around - and around - and around until we were headed back toward the barn. Time passed; I have no idea how much. As we got closer to the barn, I began to feel that where I pointed my foot was, more or less, where it landed. Finally we arrived and hit the sack, sleeping it off in the bottom of the barn. I decided I did not need that experience again in college or forever.

Several years later in grad school, a professor asked a friend and me to attend bar at a welcome dinner for a group of professors attending a summer conference at CMU. Neither of us knew anything about mixing drinks. "No problem", says the professor; he would mix martinis and manhattans in advance. We just had to pour upon request. He also planned to offer guests his "Moscow Mule" and would show us how to make the mule. This is one of the southern comfort mixes you drink on hot, sticky Pittsburgh days - like lemonade. The mule was vodka and lime juice with ginger beer. Sure enough, the professor greeted his guests and "sold" at least half of them on trying the mule. They were tasty and the first one goes down smoothly. Many of the guests choose a second round. That's when the mule begins to kick. We didn't have to worry about  attendees leaving the after dinner speech early! I decided that whenever I drink, my limit is one. If it's a new drink, it's a small one. No more one too manys for me.

When I moved to California to teach, I met a long time member of the finance faculty who taught investing. We were takling at a dinner party and he mentioned he invested in the preferred stock of Napa county wineries. I asked how they were performing? He said, just as he expected. The dividends were steady and tasted good. Each year after grape harvest and crushing, these wineries paid their dividends in that season's vintage. Most of these were boutique wines, found only by dinning at expensive, out of the way restaurants in San Franciso. Now that's my kind of investment. I adopted wine as my beverage of choice and left the hard stuff forever.

Today I enjoy California wines, usually with meals, several times a week. If I could speak French or Italian, I'd say I'm living in Alsace or Tuscony - without the travel cost. There are even vineyards planted on hills in some parts of Danville where I live. Ocassionally, when playing bridge at one friend's house, he opens one or two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag's Leap Winery where he is part owner. You ask me why I live in California? Sometimes I wonder, but not for long.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Albion Ski Adventure of Incredible Fun

My letters to my parents and my phone calls to them from the one phone booth in the first floor of Seton Hall were filled with details of how hard I had to work on my academic studies.  Usually happy conversations followed, and occasionally my mom would say “Don’t forget to have fun!”  The following adventure was expected to be a routine chance to go skiing with a group of my friends and to ‘obey’ my mom.  I must say that when I look back at this weekend, I see that I had more fun than I would ever have again, even including when I skied the fabulous Mammoth ski slopes in California.

A group of five of us would join a group of ten in Cadillac, MI, but our group had generously offered to pick up RonB who had gone to Ann Arbor to pick up his skis and boots.  As we approached the outskirts of Ann Arbor, someone suggested we stop at a phone booth and call Ron and tell him how sorry we were that we had forgotten to pick him up and unfortunately we were already reaching the Cadillac area.  We all heartily agreed to this plan, and we arrived at his home about 10 minutes after the call.  His mom answered the doorbell, and we saw her face fall, then heard her say that Ron was so disappointed that he promptly left to go to a movie. 

Our search for Ron began immediately.  Two groups of us argued our way into a couple movie houses, walking to the front and turning around and looking at the audience all the way to the back.  No luck.  We then went to a house with an apartment that belonged to a former Albion grad and a friend of Ron.  Once inside, the entire downstairs was pitch black, and, unable to see that the stairwell turned, we had to boost one of us up over the banister.  No luck finding Ron, so we wrote a message on a mirror with a can of shaving cream when a deep voiced command asked us what we were up to.  We had to explain everything to the home owner.

We gave up our search, and drove on toward Cadillac.  At we passed a gas station then decided we needed to turn around and get some gas.  As we swung right to get a good turning radius, our rear wheel sank into a snow-covered ditch.  All of us began to pull snow out from the car bottom.  One person went for help at the gas station and soon his pickup and a chain pulled us out.  By we reached our motel room, which was a modified chicken coop.  We easily snuck into the room where everyone else was sprawled all over the place.  At we headed for a restaurant.  Before I could finish my pancakes, one table yelled out “To the slopes”, copied by another table and another.  A couple hours later Ron would join us from Ann Arbor.

The skiing was great sport.  Some of us were experts, I was a relative novice, but GlenK was new to the sport.  He was grabbed by an expert and before he knew what hit him, he was being taken up a rope tow and dumped out onto the slope without instructions!  At the end of the day, he was sort of able to ski straight down a tall slope.  But he was quite tired and at the bottom he began doing unplanned cartwheels, which ripped his ski pants from stem to stern.  This was most entertaining to other skiers because he had sewed a large red heart onto the seat of his long johns!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

How I Washed Out of Chemistry

When I entered Albion, I expected to become a chemist or a chemical engineer. At the bookstore I discovered a mechanical "pencil" set for the drafting class cost $70 at a time when books ran $10 -15 per course. I quickly decided I would become a chemist. The road less traveled began.

I signed up with the Chemistry department head, Dr Carnell, to be a lab assistant and was given the job of preparing 10 - 12 chemistry experiments he used to demonstrate the wonders of chemistry to his freshman class. I worked diligently following a teacher's experiment manual and lined the experiments up ready for a class I was taking. I can still recall the look of amazement - turned to wonder - on Dr. Carnell's face as he presented "my" experiments which failed as often as they succeeded! Where is that hole to crawl into when you need one?

I was reassigned to running viscosity tests in Dr. Carnell's lab. There were 6 to 8 viscosity tubes immersed in a hot water bath (fish tank) whose temperature I was expected to hold constant during the tests. You timed the flow of a fluid from top to bottom of each tube, using a stopwatch, to measure the viscosity of the liquid. If the bath temperature remained constant, all eight trials would produce the same result. The temperature rarely stated constant, so I had to rerun these tests literally hundreds of times. Was this what I had to look forward to as a chemist? Or was it payback for all those failed chemistry experiments?

To make things worst, the water bath was set in front of a window looking out over the campus, directly across from the library. What I saw while "doing my time" was guys and gals coming and going on their library dates while I was keeping company with smelly test tubes. When I saw a "woman of interest" with some other guy, I asked myself - "what in sam hill am I doing here?"

As a chem major I was required to take German as my foreign language. I am not a linguist. One day I asked Dr. Carnell how many times he had translated a German chemical tract for his work? Once! So why did we have to take German? "It shows you are an educated man." In my junior year I went to New York as best man at my cousin's marriage into a second generation German family. At the dinner celebration, I was told there were two German cousins straight off the boat. So, as best man, I proceed to one of the young ladies and in my best German said - "Wollen Sie mit meir gedanzen?" Her response was a very puzzled look! Fortunately an older lady sitting nearby reached over and said "My dear - he just asked you if you would like to dance." Why can't I find those holes when I need one?

Second frosh semester and I was blasting my way thought chemistry - full speed ahead. My chem grades were borderline B+/A- and I figured if I aced the final an A was in the bag. I studied hard and was ready. The day after the final I stopped in to see Dr. Carnell and casually asked how I had done on the final. C+ which guaranteed a B in the course. That summer at Y camp I thought long and hard, and in the fall, I said good by to Dr. Carnell and went looking for a new major. I found political history / economics and never looked back.

Fast forward 30 years. My daughter came home from her first year at Whitman College. She found a summer job as a receptionist with a management recruiter. A week later she came home and told me she had been fired! I phoned the recruiter and asked - "What's up?" He replied his business depended heavily on phone calls and my daughter was writing down incorrect phone numbers which he could not return. That's when I discovered she transposes numbers and letters sometimes. My former wife asked where that came from?

I reflected long and hard. I was never a good speller, but was unaware of a problem transposing numbers. I then looked closely at how I deal with large numbers. Sure enough - I was transposing numbers now and then. Aha - answer to why a C+ on chemistry test.

In retrospect, it's probably a good thing I washed out of chemistry. I knew the tables and valences backward and forward - maybe too backward! My career change probably saved me and other people a lot of frustration and possibly some big bangs!          BruceF

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Out of Tune and Out of Luck

At the end of my first semester, I joined the choir and was a member until I graduated - but just barely. Choir members were expected (required?) to stay on campus though graduation to sing at commencement. At the end of my sophomore year, I had a summer job offer at a northern Michigan Y camp that required my presence as soon as finals were over. I left without seeking "permission" from Mr. Dave (Prof David Strickler - one of the finest men I ever met). Returning that fall, I asked to rejoin the choir and got the famous Mr. Dave stern look. After pleading my case, he relented with the understanding I was on probation for the rest of my college life.

During the JFK presidential campaign, some of the choir members arrived at practice singing JFK booster songs. Mr. Dave had the choir stand and sing one of them. Being a staunch Republican (ah - days of youth), GaryM and I remained seated and did not join in. Mr. Dave noticed our "independence" . When the song was over, he asked Gary and me to stand and sing all three verses of the Albion Alma Mater. Gary was a fraternity member and had learned the words to all three verses. I only knew one verse. Boy, did I feel stupid humming the final two verses in support of my fellow political criminal.

Each spring the choir went on tour for two weeks to promote the college.  We sang at high schools in the morning and churches in the evening.   On the tour, Mrs. Dave would often join us for a week or so. She was a most attractive woman, always dressed well, and was interesting to talk to.

Sometime in my junior year, the Choir was allowed to use one of the sorority houses for a social event. It was the first and only time I saw the interior of a sorority house. There was nothing exciting going on, so I decided to look around. I went upstairs and, to my amazement I discovered a stunningly beautiful young woman in the powder room putting on her makeup. She probably saw my jaw drop. Where had this lovely creature been all my life?

 She was not a choir member. As we chatted, I noticed there was something familiar about her.  As our conversation continued, I was thinking - I could not be so blind to have never noticed this young woman on campus. What was she doing here? She was preparing for a date - off campus, on her way up to Michigan State. Then the bell clapper dropped. She was Mr. Dave's daughter, blessed with her mother's good looks, Mr. Dave's wit, and that certain something you see in a woman who knows she's got IT - the look I call "Catch me if you can, but it will cost you your heart to do so".

Some types of fish I catch almost without trying; but I have never been able to catch my favorite, the elusive rainbow trout

On Guard - Off Duty

During my junior year, JohnW (my roommate) and his friend StanW signed up to "protect" the campus during football season. The thought was that students from other schools might show up and do some "unsavory" stuff on campus. There were four student guards; two stationed in front of the library and two down at the athletic field. One of the guys was assigned to ride a bicycle around campus each hour. If a problem occurred, guards had a whistle to summon help (from where or how was a bit of a mystery).

John asked me to stand in for him one night while he caught up on his studies. I visited the guard post that evening and found the guards huddled on loungers in sleeping bags under the library lights and decided this was a piece of cake. The next night I was on duty. I was assigned to the "A" field with one other guard. He went up to the top of the broadcast booth where he had a light while I stood watch at the entrance to the field. John had told me that whoever went to the broadcast booth usually went there to sleep, so I had drawn the short straw so to speak.

It's dark at the 'A' field. Around midnight, I noticed a car coming over the railroad tracks and slowly drive by. It went beyond the river and turned around at Victory park. It slowly returned and stopped in front of me. From the car one of the guys called out - "What are you doing?" "I'm guarding the campus." With that three guys get out of the car and head for me. One says - "How'd you like to go for a ride?" "Don't think so" - says I. What to do? I expect backup guard is fast asleep on the roof of the booth and it's a ways to campus. Dutifully, I blow my trusty whistle. Meanwhile these guys produce a rope, surround me and start to tie me up. Just then the guard on the bicycle comes over the railroad tracks - toward us. "What's going on?" I call out, "these guys want to take me for a ride." "What?", as bicycle comes closer. With that one of the guys from the car lights out for the guard on the bike. Guard and bike head off in the nick of time - but headed for Victory Park. Big help that was.

I get in the car with these guys who turn out to be students from Olivet - our football opponent for this coming weekend. After a few minutes, the rope is loose; I take it off and hand it to my captors. They offer me a beer since there seems to be plenty. "No thanks - where are we going?" "Just for a ride." So we drive around the north side of town for several hours; my only concern is that these guys are pretty well wacked and are driving a pretty crooked line. Meanwhile, back at campus, guard on the bicycle loops around Victory Park and finally arrives back on campus. They call the campus maintenance chief who organizes a search party.

A couple of hours pass. I'm the only sober one in the car, so I volunteer to drive. The Olivet guys almost accept my offer but then figure maybe not such a good idea. "Well then, how about dropping me off so you guys can get some rest someplace?" That idea sounds better. They took me to the Delt house, dropped me off and then rambled our of town, never to be seen again. I walked back to the library around sun-up and learn that the campus maintenance crews are out looking for me ( 2 or 3 trucks were driving around for three or four hours looking for the car that took me).

Looking on the bright side, you can learn something from almost any experience. I learned I couldn't count on my fellow guard asleep on top of the booth; I learned (to my surprise) my whistle worked; and I learned that if you keep a sober head when everyone else is getting drunk, you stand a pretty good chance of getting things done your way.