BUSINESS PARTNERS

The events in my last post, “TWO RABBITS, ONE DEAD,” recount the events of one bleak day in January 1995.

Everyone is entitled to a bad day once in a while.  If those events of 21 years ago had represented just one isolated blip in the story of a triumphal family saga, it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.

Sadly, it wasn’t just a one-off but was part of a frequently distressing pattern.

It didn’t start off that way, of course, when I began my career at Olcott International a different January a dozen years before that, in 1983.

As I have written in various posts like “SOMETHING ABOUT DAD, PARTS 1 AND 2” and “HEARTBREAKER,” Dad wanted me to join the family business even though various warning signs made me ambivalent toward the idea.  After all, you should always know who your business partners are.  If they’re your parents, you don’t need to do a background check to find out.

As an example, I can perform due diligence in my case by asking a few questions:

TWO RABBITS, ONE DEAD

So after glory on trips away, say in London as described last week in my post “ODD THINGS ABOUT TRIPS,” what was life like back in the office in Weehawken?

The following story sums it up.

One day in January¹ 1995, my Dad and Olcott International CEO Bernard Olcott came down to the second floor, where I was working at the time and insisted to Steve², the lead computer programmer that a granted European Patent be placed in a list (actually, a test database) of payable items as an “EPO item.”  Now, please bear with me on the details that follow; they are important.

The problem was, once a European patent is granted and “goes national,” it is no longer payable as an “EPO item” – it becomes payable at each national patent office, like UK, France, or Germany as a British, French, German item or patent.  Only as a pending application in the European Patent Office is it payable as an “EPO item.”

Just the kind of distinction Dad loved to make.  He prided himself immensely on his profound, perhaps photographic, recall of such details for patent renewals among countries.  After all, he wrote the book on patent renewals!

In this case, though, he was oddly off.  It was unusual, bordering on the weird.

PAYING THE COST

A reader commented last week “James, you had a very difficult childhood/teenage. Your father obviously had some issues.”

I disagree with the first statement.  Leaving aside the fact that my Dad had divorced and remarried twice by the time I reached my 18th birthday, I think my childhood was often charmed, even privileged.  As you can see from my picture in last week’s post “WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 2,” Dad and I had a lot of fun together.

The Father who took that picture is the man I miss terribly today.

It was only in my later adolescence that ominous signs about Dad became known to me from the new vibrant presence in our lives, Gloria.  Like any child, I refused to believe at first that my Dad could have had issues.

WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 2

Oddly, though, within a year or two of marriage to Gloria, Dad took on this disconcerting habit of assigning all kinds of imposing chores to me, typically without any advance notice.  Almost always when I was just about out the door to explore the world and to create my own life as a teenager.

Case in point.  Dad and Gloria built a summer house in Shinnecock Hills in 1973.  It was a prefab Lindal homemade of cedar planks looking more like a Hunter Mountain ski chalet than a tumbledown wood-shingled cottage with white shutters.  No Hamptons-style lawn either; the grounds were entangled with bittersweet vines, nasty and thorny.

On one of our very first weekends there, the lot was still somewhat of a construction site.  I had invited one of my friends over, Dee Dee, to celebrate the move-in by spending the night.  After breakfast the next morning, as we were both getting ready to go to the beach, Dad came over to ask — I mean, insist — that we take two shovels “as strong men” and plough down a huge pile of sand left behind by the excavation of the foundation from the past Spring, when the house was built.

“Huh, what?” I said, looking at the 15 foot high pile.  It was the first weekend of summer and Dee Dee and I were both anxious to go see our seasonal friends after a long school year of drudgery.

“Gloria wants you to do it!” he snapped.  Of course, Gloria and Rosemary never had anything to do with such spontaneous insanity.

Did I mention that Dee Dee and I thought we were on our way to the beach?

WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 1

After a few months at 974 Boulevard East in 1970, Dad found a new location for both his residence and the offices of Olcott International.  It was in a triple decker, similar to the millions that form the housing stock of Boston and environs.  But unlike the wooden ones in Massachusetts, this was constructed out of gold brick.  According to Dad, there were three layers of outer walls.  No wolf was ever gonna blow that house down!

It was on Weehawken’s eponymous Hamilton Avenue, the road atop the cliffs.  Across the street from the house, the cracked sidewalk and the rusting iron wrought fence gave way to an expansive view of the Hudson River and the west side of Manhattan.

Dad rented the first floor for the office and staked out the top floor, the third, as the residence.  The landlord lived in the apartment on the second, sandwiched, as it were, by Olcott rentals.

For years, Dad had rented bachelor style accommodations in New York and then in New Jersey when he moved to 974 Boulevard East.  No more.  The third floor was like the Taj Mahal in terms of spaciousness compared to the cramped quarters of times past.  There were multiple bedrooms, a central hall as well as separate living and dining rooms.  As this was the top floor, the ceiling everywhere was gabled into sharp points.

And yes, there was a kitchen!  A real one!

DEATH IN HONOLULU

There is a good reason why the Bernard Olcott Story, every so once in a while, makes a reference to the Aloha State.

On a late July 1977 morning, a slight man woke up in his modest efficiency apartment near Waikiki, the tourist district of Honolulu.  He was 61 years old, somewhat gaunt, barely five foot seven.  Wrinkles of a hard life lined his face as he switched on the radio after leaving his bed.  The weather forecast came on, as if it were the news.  For Honolulu it isn’t, since the weather is always the same, day in, day out.  Highs will be in the low 80s, lows in the middle 70s.  Winds are “trade.”  Winds are always trade in Hawai’i (unless a cyclone comes to visit, of course.)

The weathered man had lived some thirty years previous at 3169 Alika Avenue in the Nu’uana – Punchbowl neighborhood, an up country residential district.  The previous week, he had decided to travel from his current home in Exeter, New Hampshire to come back here to retrace his steps as a young naval officer and maybe plumb his soul.  It’s about the longest trip you can make in the USA and still remain in the land of the free.

He found himself later that morning on Ala Moana Boulevard wandering alone in the sunshine on Wednesday, the 26th of July in 1977.  As Honolulu is the southern-most metropolis in the nation, at these latitudes, the sun can cause a bad sunburn in as little as 15 minutes.  The fair skin of a new arrival from Northern New England is at particular risk.

The man stopped in his tracks, his pace suddenly unsteady.  As he wiped the sweat off his forehead, the traffic swirled around him and he became disoriented.  It wasn’t the bright sun that had gotten to him, but a sharp pain in his upper chest.  He gripped himself, but could only stagger forward and reach out vainly with his free arm.  When he dropped to the pavement, he cut his face on the sidewalk.  His last sight on this planet was the passing traffic – buses, trucks, cars – from ant level.

As the dying man went down, passersby unknown took advantage of his incapacity, rapidly relieving him of his wallet, cash, and watch.  By the time help arrived, the corpse on the sidewalk could no longer identify himself.

The Honolulu County Medical Examiner later that day fingerprinted “John Doe.”  A match came back the next day – from military records.

The man’s name was

THE FINEST ESCAPE!

The Bernard Olcott Story started off 2016 with a rewrite of my post “THE LOST WEEKEND” focusing on the Academy Award (and Cannes!) winning movie of the same name from 1946.  That post promised the following stories to come:

• the biggest movie of 1946 (THE LOST WEEKEND),
• the 3rd Avenue El (including an art house film),
• old style New Yorkers interacting in flavorful accents,
• a valuable lesson at Cooper Union
• a mysterious death in 1943 with what little facts are available, and
• a color-filled present with a shared activity across time.

All have been delivered, except for the last topic.  I did leave the 1940s to take you, the dear reader, on a color-filled ride 40 years later to Lithuania in 1985.  I framed my trip in terms of a Boomerang where I realized that my journey, as an effort to strengthen family ties, may have inadvertently reminded my Dad of his disadvantaged youth.  Both in terms of society – his immigrant household subject to prejudice – and family – where his brother was favored in the household.

But wait!  There’s more to that technicolor present!  Today’s post will wrap up both the Boomerang and 1940s themes with the following conclusion: my Dad escaped his unhappy situation 4 ways:

1. Becoming a sailor on the Merchant Marines and shipping off to Europe
2. Flying the coop to Cooper Union
3. Becoming a Technology Consultant
4. By engaging in a mystery activity (identified below), one that he and I both share.

BOOMERANG RETURNS!

Today the Bernard Olcott story returns to Vilnius, May 1985.  From my post “BOOMERANG THROWN,” you learned that I was in Lithuania for 5 days that year, hunting down my family roots.  The first day was remarkable.

My second day in Lithuania featured an old fashioned get-on-the-bus touristic outing with my Intourist group.  The destination was the town and castle at Trakai, about 30 km to the west of Vilnius.  Built in the 15th century as the home to the Lithuanian Grand Duke, it was considered as the unofficial capital of Lithuania, which, as part of the united Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, stretched from the Baltic to the Black Seas in its prime.  Today the ancient castle is in good condition – for a structure that is 600+ years old – and is scenically located on an island in a pristine clear water lake.

BOOMERANG THROWN

The past 5 posts describe the first of the 5 days staying at the Hotel Lithuania (not to be confused with the Hotel California).  In Vilnius, Soviet occupied Lithuania during May 1985.  Intermingled in the details were other anecdotes about my stay in Moscow the prior week.

View from my window at the Lietuva

My view out the window of the Hotel Lietuva.  The Neris River is in the foreground and the Old Town behind.

For the sake of repetition, my primary purpose in going to Lithuania was to meet my Father’s family, his uncle and cousins.  Our roots in this small, little-known country in Eastern Europe was something we shared.  Plain and simple.

Curly Hair

The author with Eugenija’s son (and my cousin) Vytas.  At least I figured out where my curly hair came from!

When I got there, I discovered insights into what exactly constitutes oppression.  Some of it boomeranged to hit me in strange ways.

(SOUR) LESSON OF HISTORY

Ponary Death Pit (photo courtesy of Juliux from Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Courtesy of my driver Boris and his lead foot, fueled by my Al Green cassette tape, our Russian Volga sedan resumed its cruise down the A4 highway towards my lunch appointment with my father’s family in Varena, Lithuania.  We had just survived a traffic stop a few moments earlier where Boris effectively told the zit-faced highway patroller to go fuck himself.  The USSR seemed to have a great surfeit of immature officers populating the police, immigration, customs, animal control, and doubtlessly numerous other constabularies.

My very first experience of the Soviet Union the previous week was instructive of this very point.  It was upon my arrival into the USSR on an Air France nonstop flight from Charles de Gaulle to Sheremetyevo airports.

It was May 1985, and, as a student of history and world politics, I was excited to be flying into a very different kind of country.  I had had some extensive experiences in Europe already, but this, the USSR was to be verily alien.  As a kicker, I would be meeting my Father’s family in Lithuania after a week in Moscow.

In preparation for my trip, I read everything I could about Russians (inhabitants of the world’s largest country), Lithuanians (great basketball players), and the Baltics (I would also be passing through Riga, Latvia).  Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” had earned a prized place in my personal library, with dog-ears on the dog-ears.