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Here’s a great idea: Let’s build a theme park based on American history, so the kids aren’t just having fun, they’re learning stuff too!

(‘Cause everyone knows that kids secretly go to theme parks to learn.)

Sounds like a non-starter, doesn’t it? It doesn’t sound like something out of the Walt Disney playbook; it sounds like something your overeager seventh-grade social studies teacher might cook up.

Maybe that explains why neither my dad nor my aunt has any memory tracks related to this week’s calendar entry.

August 18, 1962.

August 18, 1962. The Mets, who are 49 1/2 games out of first, drop both ends of a doubleheader to St. Louis.

Freedomland U.S.A. (I’m mainly cribbing from the insanely thorough Wikipedia entry for my info) was a theme park in the Bronx whose footprint roughly resembled that of the contiguous United States.

Freedomland wasn’t strictly educational, per se: You wouldn’t get a lecture from an animatronic Paul Revere.

But, the park trod a more informational path than that traveled by Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Different parts of the park were designed to mimic different periods and places in America’s past.

So you weren’t just shooting a mock rifle when you sat down in the shooting gallery. You were shooting in the Cavalry Rifles on the Great Plains during the 19th century.

(I’m not sure what you were supposed to be shooting. Not Native Americans, I hope, nor buffalo either. Prairie dogs, maybe?)

And you weren’t just taking a boat ride when you visited the California part of the park; you were following in the footsteps of 19th-century Western fur trappers.

You get the picture. Again, the Wiki entry will give you a thorough idea of what else was on offer. So will this website maintained by Long Islander Rob Friedman, which includes photos, sound recordings and other memories related to Freedomland.

This advertising brochure from 1962 also gives you some idea of the scope of Freedomland: “…Freedomland is the U.S.A. … eight miles of navigable waterways and lakes, 10,000 beautiful trees … Freedomland cost more than $65,000,000 to build. No effort has been spared in creating for you — with amazing attention to detail — the pride of America’s past, the pulse of the present, and glimpses of the fabulous future.”

About that “fabulous future” part: Of course, this being the early ’60s, there was a “Satellite City” area in the park, complete with a simulated rocket ride and a ride in futuristic mini-cars. I bet those rides would be a trip to take now.

Alas, I must report that, here in Pennsylvania, the futuristic mini-car has not yet made much of an inroad into the popularity of the extended-cab pickup truck.

The park that gave us the futuristic mini-cars never caught on, either. Despite getting an opening-night promo from no less than Ed Sullivan, Freedomland was deep in debt by the end of its second season.

This New York Times blog post lists some of the park’s problems, including a fire during construction; graft demanded by city officials; and a roster of rides that didn’t offer young people the carnival-style excitement they expected.

Freedomland offered rides on burros and in antique automobiles … but roller coasters and bumper cars, not so much.

For the 1962 season, the park’s operators downplayed the historic American theme, adding more conventional rides. Which, in turn, led to a lawsuit from at least one original sponsor, the Benjamin Moore paint company, which sought to cancel its lease because the park had deviated from its original concept.

This particular American dream cratered after just five seasons. The park closed in September 1964, citing competition from the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing. (I’ve written about that fair in this space before.)

The land was quickly sold off and the rides torn down; a huge cooperative housing development occupies the property now.

Neither my dad nor my aunt remembers going there, or why it would be written on my grandfather’s calendar.

My dad’s only guess is that he might have gone to see a concert at the Moon Bowl, a venue for performances located in the Satellite City area.

Quite a few well-known musicians played there. Duke Ellington played the Moon Bowl almost exactly a year before my dad went. And a Stan Kenton performance just a few weeks before my dad went has been issued on CD. I haven’t been able to find out who might have been playing there on Aug. 18, 1962, though.

Today, the story of Freedomland offers a different kind of history lesson.

It’s an education in what happens when you offer the public something it doesn’t really want, no matter how lavishly you spend, how extensively you plan and how many parking spaces you create.

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An unrelated note: Yesterday I posted the results of a long-simmering personal project to my other blog, Neck Pickup. It’s sorta cool, in a goofy way, and if anyone has time to check it out, I appreciate it. Thanks.

Now for this week’s regularly scheduled programming …

In past blog posts, both recent and distant, we’ve explored the routes my family took to get between Stamford, Conn., where my grandparents lived, and Rochester, N.Y., where my parents settled.

It’s not a short trip, even in the best of weathers. Nor is it a particularly direct route. There are a number of road changes to navigate, and some small towns to pass through late at night when things aren’t as well-lit as they might be.

It looks like my aunt took a different way to get to Rochester, 45 years ago this month. It wasn’t the cheapest way, but she might have gotten a bag of peanuts and a Coke out of the deal.

June 15, 1968.

June 15, 1968. (Why anybody would skip town in the middle of a strawberry festival is beyond me.)

It just so happens that I have a scanned-in picture of my grandfather’s, dated 1968, that I’m guessing shows this exact flight on the tarmac. (It was scanned in under the title of “Elaine Flight.”)

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe my grandfather was ever on a plane. So when someone in his family was, it was a big deal, and worth taking pictures of:

Check your bags, ma'am?

Check your bags, ma’am?

“Mad Men” fans, history buffs, and readers over 50 will recognize Mohawk Airlines.

Utica, N.Y.’s second-greatest gift to the world and the first American airline to employ a black stewardess, Mohawk was a successful and well-known regional carrier throughout the 1950s and ’60s. If you were going to places like Glens Falls or Keene or Hartford or Worcester, Mohawk was going your way.

Below, a mid-1960s promotional film for Mohawk. Ah, for those golden days when lengthy meetings with middle-aged men in suits were considered guarantees of quality, rather than the very epitome of stodgy, bullheaded business as usual:

Unfortunately, the little airline that could was already starting to stagger by the time Aunt Elaine bought her ticket.

Only about two weeks after her flight, the national air traffic controllers’ union launched a protest job action that significantly slowed flights nationwide, costing airlines money.

A general economic slowdown in 1969, which blossomed into full recession the following year, hurt all airlines. And a pilots’ strike against Mohawk that began in November 1970 cost the company further money it could not afford to lose.

Undone by this series of body blows, Mohawk agreed to a buyout by Allegheny Airlines in 1971.

A Mohawk jet crash in March 1972 near Albany, N.Y., killed 17 people, providing a bitter coda to the history of a once-successful company. The last Mohawk flight took place the following month.

For those keeping score at home, Allegheny later changed its name to USAir, then again to US Airways, and is now getting swallowed up by American Airlines — a final victory for the national mega-carriers Mohawk used to insult in its TV advertising.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

I don’t know anything about my aunt’s particular flight. I didn’t ask her, and I’m not sure she’d remember it. But clearly she got to Rochester and back.

When we look back at companies that aren’t around any more, there’s a tendency to think of them as failures, losers or relics. If they were any good, the thinking goes, they’d still be here.

There’s some truth to that. But at the same time, some of those companies — like Mohawk Airlines — were pretty good at what they did before the challenges and pressures of doing business brought them down. (It doesn’t take many missteps or much adversity to put a company in the doghouse.)

A successful plane flight isn’t long-lasting currency. The experience recedes quickly in the mind, and we forget how much trust it took us to get on the plane and how much skill it took the airline to get us where we wanted to go, intact and on time.

Somewhere there is a reservoir of karma for these sorts of defunct enterprises … a place where Mohawk Airlines still gets credit for the difficult task of  moving a plane full of people from the New York City area to Rochester one long-ago morning in 1968.

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A little thematic music.

It has occurred to me — as it surely has to a million swifter brains than mine — that you could outline the history of a 20th-century American family by writing about its cars.

“That’s the Rambler Pop-Pop bought with his retirement check and drove until the day he died … and that’s the Gremlin that got broken into while we were in line to get our swine flu shots in ’76 … and that’s the Chrysler we drove overnight from Memphis to Indianapolis to see the Grateful Dead … and that’s the Toyota Susie learned to drive stick on, that year she had her horrible first job, cleaning up nights at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Remember that?”

I’ve spilled a fair number of words chronicling the cars that moved the Blumenau family, starting with my second post on this blog. Along the way, I’ve written about the long-serving and faithful; the powerful but poorly built; and the simply comic.

I think I’ll add another set of wheels to the family caravanserai this week:

April 1973.

April 1973. The American League welcomes the designated hitter, and the Blumenaus of Penfield, N.Y., welcome a car as beefy and powerful as Ron Blomberg.

I’m not sure my grandfather ever drove the 1973 Plymouth Satellite that is the subject of today’s post. But it merits mentioning as another example of his anal-retentiveness.

My dad was long since out of my grandpa’s household by April 1973. My dad had been married for almost six years, had one child, and another was on the way. My grandpa wasn’t insuring my dad or his cars, I can’t imagine.

So what reason did my grandfather have to make note of the new plate number on my dad’s car? Did he write it down just to make sure he’d know that the right Plymouth Satellite had pulled into his driveway? Did he commit it to memory as he wrote it down?

God knows. But there it is on the calendar — New York plate number 286-MOR, a plate that would be part of Blumenau family life for a decade to come.

A closeup.

A closeup showing the old-school blue-on-orange New York plate and the bicentennial bumper sticker. I am the slightly touched-looking lad in the RPI T-shirt, if you hadn’t guessed.

The Satellite, all fifty-four feet of it, at Camp Greenbriar, West Virginia, summer 1978.

The ’73 Satellite, all fifty-four feet of it, at Camp Greenbrier, West Virginia, summer 1978. Slightly touched-looking young boy shown for scale.

The new Satellite would have made its first visit to Stamford in late March or early April 1973 — a few months before the young boy above made his first appearance in the world. Perhaps that visit motivated my grandpa to record the license plate on his calendar.

That's one thing digital pictures should have - a processing date.

That’s one thing all digital pictures should have – a visible processing date. Does wonders for family history bloggers. I’m under the blue shirt.

The Satellite was the perfect car for a young and growing family in the ’70s — roomy and reasonably reliable. (My family went on to buy two fairly poor-quality Plymouth products in the 1980s, hoping against evidence to recapture the build quality of the Satellite.)

We made all manner of road trips in that car. I remember leaning over the front bench seat to see the view out the windshield, marking familiar landmarks on the way to Stamford, like the animated neon sign of Monticello Raceway. (The rear seat belts in the Satellite went largely unused.)

I also remember the Satellite’s unique bathroom facilities.

My folks had bought a plastic bottle, with a bell-shaped funnel attached to it by a plastic tube. And on those long trips to Stamford, we did not stop for bathrooms. Instead, little boys would kneel in the black-carpeted roominess of the footwell — with stern instructions of “don’t miss!” ringing in our ears — and do our business into the funnel and bottle.

We would arrive in Stamford in the chill of the early morning. And as part of the weary process of loading in all our gear, one adult or the other (OK, probably my mom nine times out of 10) would take care of emptying and rinsing the funnel and bottle.

For better or for worse, my kids will never know that experience. It is probably for the better: Had our car been sideswiped during a wee-wee moment, I would probably have been mentally traumatized as well as seriously injured.

But my four-wheeled piss-memories are not unpleasant. They symbolize a less complicated time, when we took chances we wouldn’t take now and, through luck, skill or blessing, got away with them.

We owned the Satellite for more than 10 years. I’m fairly sure it was the first car in the history of the Penfield Blumenaus to reach 100,000 miles, which was more of a milestone then than it is now.

When the time came to get rid of the car in 1983 or ’84, I remember wanting to spend a night in it. And I think I might even have done so, sleeping in the back seat on an early-summer evening with a pillow and a blanket.

It seems like a weird idea now. But I identified fairly closely with that car, being roughly the same age. I was not accustomed to saying goodbye to things my own age (I”m still not), so this must have been some idiosyncratic part of that process.

My family did quite well by the Satellite, all in all. A lot of the family memories of those years (birthdays, holiday get-togethers, and the like) had one thing in common — a big brown stallion of a car out in the driveway, which had moved the Blumenau family to its latest adventure and was awaiting orders to bring it safely back.

Every family history needs a couple of those.

Easter 1978 in Stamford. My mom, my cousin, and my older brother pulling off an uncomfortable-looking but truly rockin' photobomb.

Easter 1978 in Stamford. My mom, my cousin — and my older brother in the back of the Satellite, pulling off an uncomfortable-looking but truly stylin’ photobomb.

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Last year at this time, I wrote a pretty freakin’ epic April Fool’s Day post. If you missed it the first time, you might want to check it out. This year for April Fool’s Day I will be 100 percent factual, and a whole lot less entertaining.

It’s funny how little decisions can make a big difference.

# # # # #

In the first week of March 1991, an ice storm of historic ferocity hit my hometown of Rochester, New York.

My family, and many others, went without power for a week as Rochester Gas and Electric pieced its shattered transmission and distribution systems back together. The schools in my suburb stayed closed that whole week.

The storm caused massive damage to trees all over Monroe County; the bright orange Asplundh tree-grinding trucks were as common as cockroaches for a week or two.

My maternal grandfather (not the guy who kept the calendars, but the grandpa from the other side of the family) was living in Rochester at that point, having moved up from Connecticut a few years before.

He’d had heart bypass surgery earlier in that still-young year. (Edit: I’ve been corrected in the comments. It was not bypass surgery, but what my father describes as “one of those roto-rooting of the arteries things.” It was still a heart procedure, anyway.)

But when he saw tree branches strewn all over his yard, his work ethic compelled him to go out and deal with them, as any homeowner would.

My grandmother, trying to watch out for him, would call our house to report with alarm: “He’s out in the yard again!”

And at least once in the weeks after the storm — maybe more than that — my mother and I drove over to his house and forcibly escorted him out of his yard, as he protested the entire time that he didn’t want to be babied.

I don’t know how much yard work he managed to sneak in while no one was looking. I never really got a chance to ask.

On March 28, 1991 — 22 years ago this past week — my maternal grandfather walked into the front room of his house, sat down in his recliner and had an instantaneous thunderclap of a heart attack. He was gone when the EMTs arrived, and they didn’t take long.

He’d smoked plenty of cigars and eaten plenty of red meat in his life. So March 28, 1991, might have been his time even without the ice storm.

Still, I’ve always thought the physical stress of clearing his yard — and, maybe, the mental stress of feeling like he had to tackle the job — contributed to the timing of his death.

I work for a power company now. But even after all these years, I never really think about the potential impact of an approaching ice storm in terms of poles and wires.

The stakes get much higher than that.

One of the last

One of the last pictures ever taken of my grandfather, possibly the last. Yup, that’s me on the left, and a glimpse of stacked-up tree limbs on the right. March 1991. Tough month, that one.

# # # # #

An ice storm of similar legendary status hit southwestern Connecticut not long before Christmas 1973. (I’ve blogged about that one before.)

Like the Rochester ice storm of ’91, the Connecticut ice storm of ’73 knocked out power for days and left countless fallen tree branches in its wake.

And it caught my other grandpa, the keeper of the calendars, in a physically fragile state.

He’d had a heart attack in May 1971. Of course, he’d had some time to recuperate by the time the ice storm hit, two-and-a-half years later.

But he was still committed to a less stressful, lower-key lifestyle, which meant less yard work. (Family pictures from the mid-’70s show a couple of pre-teen girls — neighbors, presumably — raking his leaves for him.)

Once the ice melted, he might have nipped out into his yard here and there to move some branches around. I’m sure he didn’t just sit on his hands and look at them.

But this week’s calendar entry suggests he had the presence of mind to stay patient and let other people do the heavy lifting for him.

December 28, 1973.

December 28, 1973. “Joe” is my Uncle Steve — Aunt Elaine’s husband — who usually goes by his middle name, at least when my branch of the family’s around.

Looking back at it now, the work my dad and uncle put in on that unseasonably warm day might have made the difference between my knowing my grandpa and not knowing him. (I was five months old at the time.)

I try to avoid dramatizing the stuff I write about; I don’t care much for drama, and I try not to pump my narratives full of hot air. But the family record suggests that ice storms and heart problems don’t mix well.

I’m glad my paternal grandpa didn’t take the chance, and that my dad and uncle relieved him of post-storm hard work. If they hadn’t, a lot of things might have been missing from my life — and this blog is the very least of them.

If my dad and uncle are reading, you guys have my permission to have an extra beer tonight, or whatever your chosen treat is. You earned it, a long time ago.

And if you ever find yourselves with a yard full of icy tree limbs, you know how to reach me.

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“Me and my stupidity, sittin’ on a fence
Digging what I thought was New York City.”
Ian Hunter

This is another post in which my grandfather does not figure.

My aunt’s in it, near the end, but it’s not really about her either.

It’s about New York City. Two New York Cities, actually … as different from each other as Mona Lisas and mad hatters, but equally fabled, and equally real.

Climb the grimy stairs from the subway to the sidewalk, turn your shoulder into the wind, and I’ll tell you about them.

# # # # #

From cultural scraps and second-hand narratives, half-hour scripted dramas and faded ads on the sides of brick buildings, I have constructed a mental narrative of two sharply different worlds occupying the same scattered geographic footprint.

We’ll call the first one “Golden New York,” and presume it existed from the end of World War II until sometime in the 1960s.

In my imagination, Golden New York is a place of cool confidence … a city where well-barbered men in crisply pressed business shirts make lots of money during the day and drink bourbon on the rocks in conservatively decorated penthouses at night.

You know this city as Sinatra’s New York, and Don Draper’s as well.

It is Holly Golightly’s playground, and Murray the K’s, and Harriet the Spy’s — a metropolis benevolent enough to protect tomboys who peer into skylights and squeeze into dumbwaiters.

This city of promise and adventure is also home to the Yankees, who roll to championship after championship with the same unruffled confidence shown by the bourbon-drinking business magnates; and the football Giants, who are not quite as dominant but capable of beating any team in the league with points and personality to spare.

Life in Golden New York is burnished and radiant and early-autumnal.

And it will not last.

# # # # #

We’ll call its replacement “Tarnished New York,” though you might know it by its sardonic early-’70s nickname, “Fun City.”

It’s the squalid, bankrupt, grime-tattooed city Sinatra bequeathed to Lou Reed and Johnny Thunders when he pulled up stakes and moved to Palm Springs.

No one knows what happened to Don Draper and Holly Golightly — death? The suburbs? A quiet life somewhere upstate? — but they don’t walk the streets of this New York.

(Most people don’t, if they don’t have to. Even Theo Kojak tends to stay behind the wheel until he gets where he’s going.)

It’s no place for inquisitive schoolgirls with spy-notebooks. Life is cheap in Tarnished New York, and even getting onto a commuter train is a matter of taking your life into your hands. Never mind who you might meet if you step into a cab … or, hell, if you simply try to cross the street.

The Yankees? They’re struggling to win more games than they lose. And the football Giants? They’re in New Haven.

Tarnished New York, like Golden New York, will pass away with time. But it will leave its own counterbalancing impression, a burnt taste shadowing the autumnal crispness of its predecessor.

# # # # #

If you buy the vision of two New Yorks, an inevitable parlor game follows: Where was the tipping point? Is there a single central moment of transition, or does it depend on the beholder?

(Exceptions and outliers can be found on both sides of the divide. The brutal murder of Kitty Genovese belongs to Sinatra’s New York, while the joyous, improbable victory of the ’69 Miracle Mets belongs to Ratso Rizzo’s.)

For my Aunt Elaine — who has been patiently riding the train in from Stamford during this entire rambling exposition, and is about to disembark in Manhattan — Dec. 31, 1966, might well have been a personal tipping point.

New Year's Eve, 1966.

New Year’s Eve, 1966.

What was supposed to be a fun trip to watch the ball drop turned out to be something disillusioning. In my aunt’s words:

 I went  to Times Square on New Years Eve 1966 to watch the ball drop. It was the only time I did that because at that time I thought I was going to be trampled to death!  I traveled into NYC w/a male friend from Stamford, as I was home from college for  Christmas break.

We took the train to avoid drunken drivers. It seemed like a fun idea, but soon became apparent that the people in the larger area surrounding the ball were bombed and stomping around without regard for those under their feet!
I tried to get a drink at a bar, because I was 18, and it was legal in NY to serve liquor to 18 year olds, but they would not serve me. Then I tried to hide in doorways of stores to avoid serious injury and my friend tried to shield me, but that didn’t work very well either. So I watched the ball drop from this vantage point, but it was not nearly as exciting as it looks on TV!  

Perhaps if we had arrived in mid-afternoon to get a front row spot and had brought our own flask, this endeavor would have been more successful!

# # # # #

Which New York will the ball drop on tonight?

A decade after its lowest low, the city appears to be riding high — maybe not as high as it did in Sinatra’s day, but successful and spirited nonetheless. (In fact, the well-being of New York City seems to be outpacing the well-being of the country as a whole, fraught as it is with shootings and fiscal cliffs and government gridlock.)

The city is closely connected to its suburbs, as it has always been. Perhaps tonight will be a night to remember, one way or another, for some 18-year-old taking the train in from Stamford.

That will be someone else’s myth to create.

For now, Golden New York and Tarnished New York are growing hazy and disappearing before my eyes like steam from a manhole … and a salaryman going on 40 in eastern Pennsylvania will take to his bed well before midnight tonight.

Happy New Year.

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