I knew the 1967 OHC-6 Tempest wasn’t long for my world when she could barely make it up the east bound ramp of the Verrazano Bridge heading home from a week of consulting and programming at Bell Labs. The engine was making hollow popping sounds and even on the flat Belt Parkway it wouldn’t go over 25 mph.
After nine hard years, no rust at all, a few dents, over 100,000 miles, no major repairs, original OHC timing belt, and nothing more in it than tune ups and wear items like tire and batteries and one accelerator pump, I determined even before I got home that it would not be prudent to put any money into the car.
Sorry old pal, time to put you down.
The Tempest and I had a history together, indeed longer than my first marriage, but this was business. Its replacement would be anything I could get quickly and at a reasonable cost. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, big, small, fast, slow, any color, any make, any model, domestic or foreign.
Well, maybe something with A/C. That would be nice.
At that time I was working with Steve (who had been with me at Grumman), Jim, and Jack to build a Mark IV consulting business for Informatics Inc. Jack was our manager and Steve, Jim, and I were the three senior technical consultants charged with finding new business, delivering it, keeping it with follow-on contracts, and expanding our ranks with additional qualified personnel.
It was an exciting and busy time for me. Business was good and we had a backlog of new work at hourly rates approaching three times what Cobol consultants were charging.
Even if I found a car that Saturday, I couldn’t get it registered and insured that quickly, so I made arrangements for a rental car for Sunday night and drove the ailing and wheezing Tempest slowly into Hempstead Long Island where a bunch of new and used car dealers were located. I hoped it would not take too long; I wanted to see my son Chris that weekend.
It wasn’t love at first sight, but it met all the mature business-like check boxes I thought I would need.
A 1972 Chevrolet Impala four door pillared sedan. With A/C.
My manager Jack had a 1974 Impala with a padded roof that he thought was neat, but the 1972 was probably a better car because it was just before American cars became saddled with emission controlling “stuff” that took away performance and added engine complications and maintenance misery.
And the 1974 models (above) did not look as good as the 1972s. The 1974’s bumpers were too big; the whole thing looked like a 1972 with the mumps. And, being two years older, the 1972 was less expensive.
I never fully understood the appeal of a padded roof. But I never mentioned this prejudice to my mother who LOVED her brougham-ized suicide door, padded landau roof T-Bird, and who tolerated no dissent about her opinions.
I liked the clean lines of the 1972, especially the squared off nose and big grill divided by the simple bumper. The front of the hood had a vague coffin nose look to it, nicer to my eyes than later model years.
This Impala had the 350 cu. in. 2 barrel V8 and generated 165 HP at 4,000 rpm and 280 lbs. ft. at 2,400 rpm. The transmission was a three speed Hydra-Matic. The whole combination felt big, heavy, comfortable, and fast, not necessarily in that order.
Jack’s 1974 model generated only 145 HP. I believe that was the beginning of the malaise era of automobiles.
During the test drive the big brown Impala had a minor motor miss of some sort; it seemed electrical in nature. I told the salesman I’ll buy it next Saturday if he gets rid of the miss. A deal was struck and that repair requirement was put into writing on the order. “I have a trade in” I said. “I know” he replied “we all heard you drive in; I’ll give you 100 dollars.”
Next Saturday I test drove the Impala and it ran beautifully. I paid the dealer, looked back one last time at the Tempest, thought a bit about what it and I had been through, the dreams I had at the time that car was new, and where we all were now.
As John Lennon wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
I drove off in my new-to-me car.
It was a brown car with brown vinyl seats, brown carpet, and a [mostly] brown dashboard.
At that time I was living during the week at a Howard Johnson’s motel near Bell Labs in Piscataway. Bell Labs was the kind of company that would never hire me; they took only the best of the best college grads and then put them through a Masters program at nearby Rutgers while on the payroll. These highly qualified people were called MTS (Members of the Technical Staff).
While I worked hard at college and did OK, being a “best of the best” was never in the cards for me.
These MTS’ could also use Bell Lab’s mainframes for their Rutgers class work. That was quite a benefit; mainframe time was expensive if you had to pay for it.
I loved the work environment at the Labs, my co-workers were very smart, management was young and technically savvy, and the fact they were paying Informatics an outrageous hourly rate for my efforts helped me rebuild my self esteem after the disaster of my failed marriage and subsequent, and hopefully temporary, impoverishment.
The above photo is my actual COAL taken at Johnson Park near Rutgers one summer evening as I had an alfresco dinner (takeout deli sandwich) and watched horses doing trotting practice on the nearby track.
I bought a bike rack that fit on the trunk of the Impala and a bike for Chris and one for me and we would ride together on weekends. In the above photo Chris is riding his new, almost too big bike, past the Impala that is parked in the same spot as the Duster in a photo from an earlier COAL.
My parents still had the old post-war 27 foot wooden Elco cabin cruiser and Chris and I helped my father work on it in the spring in preparation for the Memorial Day blessing of the fleet. Replacing sections of soft wood and keeping that old boat seaworthy was becoming harder as my father became older and less able to keep up with it.
We had long ago given up keeping the varnished topsides and bright work intact and had resorted to the old boating trick of using paint instead. With the topsides white, we determined the hull looked better in a darker color. First we painted the hull gray. My mother didn’t like it, so we repainted it black and brought the white down to the hull trim rail. She liked that.
Painting the hull twice within just a few days was a lot of work, but Doc knew it was worth doing. Making his wife happy was a top priority. They did have disagreements, but those disagreements were picked with care.
My parents were married for 58 years until my mother died in the early 1990s. Both of them knew a lot more about managing and maintaining a marriage than their kids ever did.
It was still my job to do the water line (among other duties). In the above photo Doc proudly stands next to the twice-painted Elco ready for a mid-May launch and another season of cruising the southern coast of Long Island. Clearly, I had cheated a bit on the front of the waterline using the spray rail to expand it a bit and help keep the line straight. Fortunately, it passed the first mate’s muster.
I still like the smooth curving lines of that boat. The old six cylinder Chris Craft engine rusted to destruction dumping its oil into the bilge and Doc found a used 273 cu. in. Chrysler V8 converted to marine duty. With half the weight and almost twice the horsepower of the old L head six, it was too fast for Doc’s comfort. He only opened it up a few times, like when some “young jerk in a fiberglass whatis” tried to pass us too close to starboard.
It was just an old wooden boat, but it was a whole lot quicker than it looked.
Back at work Jack, Steve, Jim, and I were feeling like we had the technical world in the palm of our hands. Our Mark IV consulting group had grown to about 24 people and we had another manager reporting to Jack on the West Coast using our business blueprint to open a home based California office. We were bringing in 2 million dollars of high margin business a year for Informatics and were still growing.
I moved from Long Island to a rental apartment on East 29th Street in Manhattan NYC. At first I kept the Impala at either my parent’s or my sister’s home, whoever would benefit from having an extra car on-site. I’d take the train out to Long Island, pick up Chris and then drive back into the city for the weekend.
Chris loved NYC. I’d walk to Central Park, with Chris on a skate board holding my arm, and we’d go through all the sections of the park. We especially liked the model yacht basin at 72nd street with the radio-controlled sailboats, and Chris was fond of the many hot dog, hamburger, and ice cream vendors nearby. Me too!
Life was starting to take on a rosier glow. I paid off the last of the debts related to the divorce and did two things to establish my new life. I applied for an American Express Card (my card reads member since 75) and I took a subscription to the New Yorker Magazine. Both continue to this day.
AMEX gave me a charge card when no one else would, and I appreciated that to no end.
The New Yorker magazine continues to be a message of joy and fascination, and great cartoons that appears weekly in my mailbox. It is the best bedtime reading material I know of, because when I drop off to sleep, it doesn’t hit me in the nose and wake me up like a hard cover book would.
But (and you are expecting this, no?) dark clouds started to gather around early 1976 when Informatics acquired a relatively large coding consulting company called PMI (Programming Methods Inc.). PMI was a Cobol body shop, what we snooty high priced Mark IV consultants would call quick, fast, dirty, and cheap Cobol programming services by the hour.
We saw these PMI people and their management as what the Waco Kid would call “… the common clay of the new west”.
You know, morons.
It was déjà vu all over again (thank you Yogi Berra) when Jack, Steve. Jim and I were called into a fancy PMI conference room on a very high floor of the Time Life building in Rockefeller Center with great views, and addressed rather crudely by two PMI “managers” who seemed to be trying very hard to look mean, important, and dismissive, all at the same time.
Not exactly verbatim, (nor close to what Steve, Chuck, and I heard from Grumman Management a few years earlier) the PMI manager said to us: “ I know you guys think you’re hot shot, high priced computer wizards, but we’re in charge of all Informatics consulting services now and as soon as your current Mark IV contracts finish up, all of you, and I mean all of you, will go out on the first job you are qualified to do, Cobol, Mark IV, Fortran, Autocoder, we don’t care. Any time, any place; get ready to travel. Here are copies of our expense regulations.”
These guys were clearly of the “Let-them-know-who’s-boss” school of management. But Jack, Steve, Jim, and I all thought these guys also seemed a bit nervous.
What happened next may not be famous history, but one of the founders of Informatics got it pretty much right when, many years later, he was interviewed by Luanne Johnson of the Computer History Museum for an oral history project. Francis Wagner knew Informatics should not have put our Mark IV team under PMI, but they did it anyway over his objections. For those interested, here is the link. It’s pretty dry stuff; the relevant part starts on page 11. The late Francis Wagner was right.
Back in the PMI conference room we were in shock; I don’t think we said anything. We left the Time Life building and went to a nearby Japanese restaurant, and over some good dead fish we started a new software services company.
Within a year we had more business than we could handle and a strong backlog, and all of the Mark IV consultants that were on our Informatics team were now on our own team, including the west coast manager and his growing staff.
We opened offices in Ridgewood NJ, California, Plano Texas, and Nashua New Hampshire.
It was hard work and we loved almost every hard working second of it.
Many of our biggest customers came to us through recommendations by Informatics. After all, we were helping them sell their flagship software product.
I wanted the Impala closer to me so I could get to non-Manhattan customers, so I rented a monthly parking spot two short blocks north of my apartment at the Red Ball Garage on 31st street.
Sound familiar? The Red Ball Garage was the starting point of the first Cannonball Run in 1971, which ran from New York City to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, CA. These gratuitous photos, paragraph, and the web link below are the only ways I will ever get a Lamborghini into one of my CC COALs. And that smiling blond in the red jump suit as well.
I’ll wait here for four minutes while you watch the movie’s great opening scenes and listen to the sweet sound of that black Lamborghini Countach (link updated).
You have just seen the best part of that movie.
On some projects, I reverse commuted from Manhattan to NJ. One would think that was easy considering the traffic was all going in the opposite direction. But the Lincoln Tunnel often only had one of the six tubes going west in the morning and east in the evening, so it wasn’t as quick as I had expected.
On some frigid winter mornings I’d walk to the Red Ball Garage, give the attendant my ID number, and I’d hear the cold shuddering car shaking on the carburetor choke stepup on the elevator as it came down to street level. I’d get in, turn the heater on full, and hope it would warm up quickly. Sometimes at the first red light at Lexington Ave, I’d be crunched down in the seat waiting for warmth to come and I’d hear a tap tap tap on the passenger window. It was street walkers looking for business. And I thought I had it hard, waiting for the Impala’s heat to come up. They were wearing miniskirts and high heels!
Equally bad, just before I got to the entrance road to the Lincoln Tunnel, I would pass a church on the right where many homeless souls were waiting in a long cold line for breakfast at a local church.
It was and still is a tough, hard world, and these cold early morning sights just outside the right passenger window of the Impala made that point very effectively.
One issue with the Impala was that water got into the rear window seals and leaked into the trunk. Based on the number of similar GM four doors from that era that had visible sealant around the rear window trim, this issue was not unique to my car. After hearing water sloshing in the lower trunk behind the rear wheels, I removed the rubber plugs on both sides to let it drain out. It wasn’t a great solution, but at least the trunk dried out a bit. Until the next rain storm of course.
I do recall one weekend with this big brown car. A friend of a friend had gotten us a [near-the beach] house in Amagansett Long Island, near East Hampton for the weekend and just a short walk to Asparagus Beach. My date for this trip was Irina, also a friend of a friend. That’s how things worked in New York City in 1977; no Match.com, and certainly no Tinder. Friends of friends.
Irina had long straight silver-ash hair and looked like a Greenwich Village hippy who made earrings out of feathers and sea shells, but as soon as she spoke you knew she wasn’t from anywhere around here. Irina was from Czechoslovakia and had come to the United States by way of Canada. She was pretty, tall, athletic looking, and an expert skier. She had a wonderful accent with those endearing conversational pauses as she wrinkled her brow to determine the right English word.
One Friday evening Irina, her friend Martina (who worked for our consulting company), and three others met at my apartment, got the Impala out of the Red Ball Garage, and headed east on the Long Island Expressway. This was a big deal for me; I was not accustomed to planning a weekend in the Hamptons. That was upper crust country, a whole lot beyond my comfort level.
Because I was the one with the car, Irina and I went to the local supermarket early the next morning with a long shopping list. I was studying the list, filling the cart, checking things off, when Irina started yelling and jumping up and down and running with her arms in the air towards a woman doing the same thing at the other end of the aisle.
The other woman was also speaking Czech, but she looked much more like a New Yorker than most New Yorkers. Her male companion, a tall, thin, brown haired pleasant looking man followed her to where she and Irina were hugging, talking, and laughing; I came up with the shopping cart. Irina introduced me to her friend Ivana, and Ivana’s husband Donald. They were newly married.
I knew who Donald was; his recent wedding to Ivana had been big high society news in NYC. It didn’t seem that Donald and I had much in common to talk about, so we both stood politely and silently nearby and watched with some pleasure the excitement and happiness of the two dear re-united friends. After a while, Irina and Ivana exchanged phone numbers, addresses, and hugs and we went our separate ways.
Donald has gained some weight since then, and gone through two more marriages. But he has done quite well for himself in the mean time. I don’t think he has been in many supermarkets recently.
Back at work Steve (remember Steve, one of my partners at the software company) told me his wife’s car had died and asked if I was interested in selling him the big brown Impala. He thought it would be a safer car than the smaller Valiant he was still driving and that he could get it cheap. He was right on both counts.
I sold the Impala to Steve and started using rentals from the Red Ball Garage.
I was fond of the new Ford Fairmont that was popular in rental fleets those days, especially the ones with the 302 V8. It was almost like driving a sports car, or a Mustang.
Chris loved it when I would pick him up at his home in a 302 Fairmont and leave a black strip of rubber as we left.
Ok, I could be an a$$hole sometimes. Nobody’s perfect.
Speaking of sports car, my next COAL is a real beauty.
It took a while to climb out of the psychological, social, parental, and financial hole of the divorce, but it now seemed like things were steadily getting better. And better.
Maybe I could even try to relax a little.
Why the Duke?
Mom and Doc loved the Duke, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, the Dorseys, … and on and on. They would put on old records, have their martinis, and dance before dinner.
It’s 2016 and they have been gone a long time. This was their music. Sometimes I feel that I can turn back time, just for 4 minutes and nine seconds, by listening to something like this and remember them dancing.