THE FINEST ESCAPE, PART 1

Yup, this is a repeat. But it sets the stage for my new story THE FINEST ESCAPE, PART 2 due next week.

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.

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MY DAD INVENTED THE INTERNET

Well, not exactly.  But he did, in the 1950s, come up with the idea under which a majority of equity and debt trades today are effected in current financial markets.  Not that the markets followed his proposal at the time.  Far from it.  But with this idea, my Dad did actually see around the corner.  Let me explain.

Dad was essentially an inventor at heart.  This is what engineers do, conceive of new things. As People’s Exhibit No. 1, consider the following work:

Motor Design Cover

This is the cover of a treatise entitled “Motor Design.” It was his final project for his first year at Cooper Union.  Dated May 18, 1938, it concerns engines for boats.  Of course boats!  What else would a waterman write about?

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.

MING AND DARTH

Aside from World War II and the War of the Worlds broadcast, there were other haps in the 1930s and 1940s that informed my Dad’s interests and personality.  For example, as he told me numerous times, his favorite comic strip of the era was Flash Gordon.  Flash was big at the time.  Dad loved Flash so much, it was even his college nickname!

As I reviewed the original comic strip in preparation for this post, I was struck by how much it resembles Star Wars of my generation.  The action takes place on the planet Mongo, locale of kingdoms like Arboria (forests) and Frigia (ice).  Kings and Queens galore!  And the villain?  A bad guy with interesting headwear!

Ming the Merciless

Meet Ming the Merciless!

When looking at the above image of Ming, I am not sure if Darth Vader was ever so similar a lady killer.  Well, the young Jedi Anakin certainly was, in the prequels.  Unfortunately, he lost his man parts — GOP Presidential candidates please take note — on the lava planet (or moon, whichever) after losing the sword fight to Obi Wan.

On the other hand, what Flash didn’t have was the tiresome drama of Luke and Leia playing “who’s your daddy?”  Who needs parents anyway?  That’s right, you heard it asked here on the Bernard Olcott Story blog!

LEADING TO WAR

Over the past few weeks, I have written a lot about the 1940s, an era well before my time.  It was, by any measure, a very scary decade.

In my travels across Europe, I have gone looking for the remnants of World War II.  (Interestingly, none are visible in Japan, except for the gradual realization that all architecture is post 1950.)  There is the tour of Churchill’s bunker on King Charles Street in London.  Walking around Paris, you can’t help but notice the historical markers here and there memorializing the location where a patriot was shot by the Nazis.  In both cities, I have walked down certain streets and noticed numerous pockmarks on the graceful facades.¹

At times, I have looked up into the sky and tried to imagine the sounds of bombers, the rumble of artillery, or the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire.  From the damage to the buildings around me, I could tell I was standing in the very places where hell reigned.  But, in every case, I failed to feel it.  Just cloudy skies above, and the sounds of traffic around me.  I could sense the highs and graces of Europe, but I just couldn’t visualize or feel the war that was very real.

The drumbeat to the war is best documented, in my opinion, in William L. Shirer’s remarkable tome The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich.  A bigoted politician – whose ancestor had fortuitously changed the family name from something sounding silly ² – built a national campaign scapegoating minorities to win an election in a major European state.  He successfully manipulated the new media of the era – radio and motion pictures – to win the adulation of the masses.³

Sound familiar?  Can’t happen here, right?

THE PROVENANCE OF DILIGENCE

The scenes featuring Gloria in “The Lost Weekend” are said to be shot in PJ Clarke’s bar, still at the corner of Third and 55th, but no longer under the shadow of the El.

It was not “New York’s New Yorkiest” joint, however, as declared by Walter Winchell, the leading radio personality of the 1940s and 1950s. That honor fell squarely on The Stork Club.

Unlike PJ Clarke’s unfortunately, nothing is left today of The Stork. Owner Sherman Billingsley was arguably one of New York’s greatest celebrities from the 1940s and 1950s. Where he once fought union pickets and sabotage, while throwing customers out (who dared to patronize the rival Harwyn club), a peaceful pocket park marks the former location of the famous glitzy eatery and bar.

There aren’t that many relics of old New York left. Probably one of the best “New Yorkiest” venues still in existence is the storied Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. It’s a puzzling institution in that many New Yorkers don’t seem to know about it. When I asked my Dad where he went to college, he told me proudly “Cooper Union” and when he noticed my quizzical look, proceeded to tell me about it.

THE END OF THE LINE

Arnold Eagle (1909-1992), Under the Third Avenue El, North of 27th St., New York, 1939, (480.1987)

Today, it’s just about impossible to find any trace whatsoever of the Third Avenue El.  The whole structure has been removed in its entirety.  The former support columns, formerly grounded in the roadway itself, have been paved over many times over.  The neighborhood surrounding Third Avenue and 55th Street, where PJ Clarke’s still exists today, is not recognizable from the 1940s-era photographs.

Union leader (and former Communist Party member) Michael J. Quill led a losing struggle to save the El, first in public hearings, then finally by picketing.  “In the last war there was an extensive mass transportation system to handle those who needed to use such facility because of the necessary curtailment of private transportation because of fuel shortages.  Will we have such facilities next time?” he argued in vain.  Postponed a few times, the last train ran on May 12, 1955, and the dismantling of the overhead trestles began in earnest.