Can You Imagine?

A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME CLASSIC

Grampa2

Just as in baseball, some occasions take a little time to come around again.

On September 9, 1918 – a fine Monday morning – my grandfather began a multi-day train journey from Georges Mills, New Hampshire, to Carlstrom Airfield in Florida, where he was to report for duty as a mechanic at the U. S. Army Aviation Training School. Just a few hours from home, Boston was his first stop, and with time to kill between his arrival at North Station and his departure from South Station he decided to catch a ballgame at Fenway Park.

Then 20 years old, it was the only major league game he would ever see in person, and despite Fenway’s 35,000 capacity, only 22,183 were in attendance that day.  Good tickets were easy to come by. At the time it must have been a delightful diversion, but from the distant perspective of 2015 that ballgame stands as a once-in-a-lifetime classic: Game Four of the World Series, with Boston southpaw Babe Ruth taking the mound against a powerful Chicago Cubs lineup in the last postseason game he would ever pitch.

This was the only World Series to be played entirely in September, after the National War Labor Board forced a premature end to the regular season with its “Work or Fight” order, which demanded that all able-bodied men must either serve in the military or work in a “necessary” civilian occupation. As for the scanty attendance (only 15,238 would watch Game Six!) that was mainly a result of an on-again-off-again players’ strike to protest a drastic reduction in shared gate receipts, the lowest in Series history. It was a legitimate grievance against the club owners of both leagues (and would lead to the Black Sox scandal the following year), but with America at war many fans viewed such remonstration as unpatriotic.

While the 1918 Series featured the lowest number of runs scored, ten by the Cubs, nine for Boston, and was last World Series in which no home runs were hit, it was also the first World Series in which all four umpires worked in the infield on a rotating basis, and its Game 1 (in which Ruth went the distance with a shutout) is noted as the first time The Star Spangled Banner was performed at a major league game. Played by the band as a patriotic gesture during the seventh inning stretch (as was done throughout the Series, including Game 4), this was long before the song was recognized as our National Anthem (1931) or became a pregame feature at sporting events (Second World War).

The first three games had been played at Chicago’s Comiskey Park (home of the White Sox!) and the Red Sox returned to their home field with a 2 – 1 series lead. But Boston manager Ed Barrow had reason for concern when the train pulled into South Station that morning after a 27-hour trip from the Windy City.

During the journey Ruth (being Ruth) thought it would be hilarious to walk through the carriage and punch out any straw hats that were in view. In doing so he’d also managed to punch his fist into the wall of the train and now the middle finger of his pitching hand was swollen to twice its normal size. But Ruth (being Ruth) then managed to convince Barrow that after having his finger drained of fluid he was good to go.

So with an iodine-stained finger and less than perfect control Babe Ruth threw the first pitch at 1:50 p.m. Fortunately Boston’s defense had an exceptional day and the game remained scoreless until Ruth’s second time at bat, with two on and two out in the bottom of the 4th inning. Batting sixth in the lineup (the only starting pitcher in World Series history ever to bat other than ninth in the order), he’d built up a full 3 -2 count before finding the pitch he was looking for.

In the pilfered words of Boston Post writer Paul Shannon, “A report like a rifle shot rang through the park.  Twenty-five thousand rose as one man, and while the bleachers shrieked in ecstasy, the Cubs right fielder taken unawares dashed madly for the center field stands while two red-legged runners scampered around the bases.” Ruth slid in for a two-run triple and the Sox maintained the lead for the better part of the game.

With one out and two on in the top of the 8th Chicago finally snapped what had been a 29 2/3 inning scoreless pitching streak for Ruth (stretching back to 1916, it was a record that lasted 40 years) and tied up the game. Happily for Boston (and my grandfather) the home team regained the lead in the bottom of the 8th and Ruth came away as winning pitcher with a final score of 3-2. It may not have been one of the greatest games in history, but as an impromptu way to bide one’s time it’s right up there with taking one of the earlier Trans-Atlantic journeys on the Hindenburg.

When the Boston Red Sox won the Series two days later it was their third World Championship in four years, and the fifth in five Series appearances since 1903. Although my grandfather lived to be 95, they would never win another World Series in his lifetime. Neither would the Chicago Cubs who, having lost to the cross-town rival White Sox in 1906, won back-to-back Championships in 1907 and 1908 but haven’t won one since.

The Red Sox and the Cubs wouldn’t face each other again for 87 years, when the then-World Champion Red Sox came to Chicago for their first-ever interleague matchup at Wrigley Field in 2005. And since their final at bat in 1918, it would be 94 years before the Cubs returned to Fenway, for an interleague matchup in 2011.

As for my grandfather, he was discharged from the Army Air Corps as a Private 1st Class in 1919. In an interview for a local paper in Sunapee, New Hampshire he later reminisced about that year:

This was when planes were made of wood and canvas, with wings held together by wires. The only plane rides I’ve ever had were in those open cockpit biplanes. The pilot sat up front and they usually had to have at least 150 pounds in the rear to have the plane balanced right. Sometimes they’d use sandbags, but lots of times they made the mechanics go up. They figured it would make us more careful if we knew we had to fly in them. I’ve never had an occasion to fly in an airplane since.”

That all changed in 1988 when my cousin bought him an hour-long airplane excursion for his 90th birthday, 67 years after his last flight in the open cockpit of a biplane – as pictured above. Just as in baseball, some occasions take a little time to come around again.

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TRANS-ATLANTIC ZEPPELINS

Zeppelin travel was celebrated for its views. Those windows could open.

Barring that last one in 1937 (with its disastrous ending), can you imagine what a trip on the Hindenburg must have been like?  It was the largest airship ever built and if it hadn’t been Nazi-operated it would have been inflated with American produced helium instead of flammable hydrogen.

After its remarkable predecessor, the elegant Graf Zeppelin voyaged around the world in 21 days and then to the Artic, not to mention voyages to the Middle East and 64 round trips to Brazil (it was retired after nine years of uninterrupted service), the newer, bigger Hindenburg made 17 round trips across the Atlantic.

Designed along the lines of an ocean liner it crossed the ocean in a couple of days (traveling up to 80 mph) and offered an incredibly smooth, relaxed, luxurious voyage with crisp service, expertly made cocktails and real linens.  Peak capacity allowed for 50 slipper-wearing passengers and 40 crewmen.

While the command cabin was a small gondola that hung below the ship, the passenger compartments (all within the hull) included two decks, staterooms, a dining room, an upstairs lounge with grand piano, a library, a smoking lounge (pressurized to avoid any flames), a downstairs bar, crew quarters and mess, washrooms and a promenade.  Long slanted windows ran the length of both decks.

Zeppelin travel was celebrated for its views (those windows could open) from an altitude of around 800 feet. …If only they’d managed to get a hold of that helium. “Oh the humanity,” indeed.

Here, let’s pretend that you’re on one of the earlier flights, and since it’s pretend, let’s say the Third Reich has yielded to the (current) Berlin Republic (still with the great service) and that the giant swastika on the tail is actually the Navajo symbol used in sacred healing rituals.  How can you beat that view?

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….BUT BY THOSE WE HAVE DESTROYED

           This 53-Year-Old was a Beaux-Arts Masterpiece

“One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”  That’s what Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully had to say in comparing New York’s original Penn Station with the Penn Station of today.

In the late 1950s, it must have seemed like an irresistible deal.  Looking to downsize from a costly old structure in mid-town Manhattan, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) exchanged its air rights for a brand-new, air-conditioned station to be relocated below street level at the same address, and at no cost incurred.  It would be smaller, more efficient and PRR would also receive a 25 percent stake in the new Madison Square Garden complex that would rise high above.

Just one problem; the deal required the destruction of an irreplaceable Beaux-Arts masterpiece. Completed in 1910, and named for that now-defunct company, the spectacular McKim, Mead and White-designed Pennsylvania Station was then, as now, considered to be one of North America’s great architectural jewels.

Accommodating passengers from hundreds of intercity trains every day, it was especially renowned for its magnificent concourse, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla (which themselves had been ransacked by the Ostrogoths), its caryatides and sculptures and an astonishing main entrance that was modeled on the Brandenburg Gate.

Constructed in glass, steel and especially pink granite, it occupied two city blocks, from 31st to 33rd Streets, and covered eight acres.  It was the largest indoor space in New York and one of the largest anywhere on the planet. Demolition began in the fall of 1963 and a New York Times editorial famously bemoaned, “Civilization gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves.”

The new Madison Square Garden (in its fourth incarnation) and two office towers, all built in the insipid modernist style of that era were completed in 1968.  Below street level, the low-ceilinged, warren-like place that goes by the old name is the busiest passenger facility of any kind in the United States. Way down deep, the original platforms from the “real” Penn Station are still in use to this day. Next time you’re about to board a train there, close your eyes… and try to imagine what once was.

“We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”  -Farewell to Penn Station, New York Times, 30 October 1963-

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TELEGRAMS

Long before the Internet and even the fax machine, but well within my memory as an adult, people sent telegrams if they wanted to send a quick message without having to make an expensive long-distance telephone call.

You simply dropped by a telex office (in the States that meant Western Union) and filled out a form, paying by the word.  Your message would soon be sent and, here’s what made it special, delivered to the recipient in an enclosed envelope.

I remember sending telegrams from Barcelona to inform my Aunt and Uncle in Athens that there was a general strike and I would be late in arriving for our planned holiday.  I also recall sending a telegram from Bangkok to impress a girl in Tel Aviv and receiving a telegram announcing that my father was on his way to London, where I was a student.

It was common in those days to attend a wedding and have a number of witty telegrams read out during the toasts, sent by those who couldn’t make it.  It all sounds so inefficient now, I know, but it really was kind of special, even if the messages were often misspelled and highly syncopated.  OMG, imagine such a thing nowadays…LOL.

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MENS HATS, SUCH A PITY

I Miss Those Hat-Wearing Days.

Their demise is completely understandable.  They’re no longer practical on a daily basis, especially in a restaurant where you’re hard pressed to find a place to put them, or any other public space that doesn’t have a cloakroom for that matter.  Certainly your car isn’t designed for them.

And with today’s casual clothing trends they kind of look silly.  It’s really hard to look good wearing a fedora or a homburg or a trilby not to mention a top hat or a bowler.  Even a summer straw hat, like a Panama or a boater, looks kind of ridiculous nowadays. I know some who can pull off a porkpie and others who wear cowboy hats, but these were designed to go with casual attire.

People still wear ball caps of course and they’re highly functional, but real hat style, like hat-wearing etiquette (e.g. no hats at the table) has gone the way of the buggy whip.  That’s a shame because there was a time when a man wouldn’t leave his house without his hat.

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SLEIGH RIDES

 Were They Really So Wonderful?  I Think So.

If you’ve ever read War and Peace (a bit expansive but a magnificent read and not nearly as challenging as one might suppose) you’re sure to recall Tolstoy’s description of the starlit troika ride, bells jingling, through the wintry streets of St. Petersburg.

Now combine that image with Leroy Anderson’s splendidly animated song, Sleigh Ride (lyrics by J. Mitchell Parish…Mitch Miller’s version is still the best) and even if it meant turning back to winter for a single afternoon, wouldn’t you want to give it a go?  Consider this: Anderson first thought of the song in the middle of a summer heat wave.

So the next time you’re feeling glum be sure to get out into the fresh air, conjure up that rollicking tune (not to be confused with the lesser Jingle Bells) and immerse yourself in the imagery of the following few lines, sleigh bells and all.   It’ll work wonders.

“Our cheeks are nice and rosy and comfy cozy are we.

We’re snuggled up together like two birds of a feather would be…

…There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy,

When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie.

 It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier & Ives.

These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives.”

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ANYONE ELSE REMEMBER S. S. PIERCE?

It was greatly diminished by the early ‘60s, but I well remember how our food cupboard was well stocked with various foodstuffs from this one-time provisioner to Yankee Clippers and purveyor of exotic groceries, wines, cigars and perfumes.

In its late 19th Century prime it was easily as splendid as London’s Fortnum & Mason or the Food Halls at Harrods. Headquartered in a Romanesque palace on the corner of Copley Square opposite the Boston Public Library, there were a number of other locations, including that still extent Tudor building rising above Coolidge Corner. And they delivered, even if it meant by horse drawn sleighs after a snowstorm, to ensure that an entertaining hostess would receive her order of ostrich eggs or turtle soup or smoked whale steaks with time to spare for proper preparation.

I guess the company’s ultimate demise (the brand was sold in the ‘70s) was predestined from the very start as evidenced by Samuel Stillman Pierce’s boast, “I may not make money, but I shall make a reputation.”

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FRANCE – AUGUST 26, 1918

UntitledSgt. Henry Roberts

My Dear Agnes,

My second letter to you without having one answer.  But I will probably get two this week.  I can hope so at least. This letter is from dugout #1.  This dugout.  Our Henry Ford helmet and our gas mask are our best friends.

My mother asked me in a letter last week if I have learned to wear my gas mask.  Everyone here knows how to wear a gas mask, a very important little item.  I saw one fellow with this sign printed on his mask, “I need thee every hour.”

We are getting quite settled in our dugout.  I said settled.  I have made myself a bed in one corner.  I sleep on said bed when the Boche lets me.  It’s not the Boche guns that bother us so much as the racket from ours.  But we get so sleepy one can sleep on any thing at any time.

Believe me Agnes I will never forget the welcome we got the first night we came in. A very good friend of mine got killed that night.  It certainly was no place for a rookie.

Think I have a horseshoe hung for me or else it’s the four-leaved clover I carry in my pocket.  As the other day I was walking up the road and a shell dropped right in front of me and killed a soldier and his horse.  You had ought to see me drop and I had left my helmet in the dugout.  But I am not the only one that drops when one comes over.

I don’t do any worrying.  If one comes over with my name on it I get it, so why worry?  What Sherman said about war is my opinion, but in a very mild form.

Started this letter yesterday, will finish it now I hope.  Had a very quiet night last night, except for one gas alarm.  But the Boche did not try to drop bombs on us this time.  Those I dislike very much.

The Boche do like very much to drop over shells in our mess lines even though they may be well hidden.  A fellow doesn’t like to be bothered while eating.

A weird sight the other night was the burial of three by moonlight and right opposite our dugout.

The smell of dead horses and the listening for a shell makes life not very happy here, that with the way we eat and sleep.

We had an interesting sight yesterday when a German plane came down out of the clouds to attack one of our observation balloons.  He did not get it but made the observer drop in a parachute.

There are not many around here but some think the war will be over by spring and lots think it will be over before then.  Let’s hope so, you and I and lots of others.

This kind of life makes us appreciate our good homes.  Will close here as I expect a letter from you in a few days and will write again. Write often s.v.p.

With love from the dugout, Henry

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