Pit Stops on The Road Of Life
(click on images to enlarge)
I don’t recall Christmas, 1973, in Sweet Valley being much worse, weather-wise, than the 26 prior winters I’d lived or visited there. At my Dad’s house, we never lost power and the snow wasn’t particularly heavy. Connecticut was another story. As told at a web site for the town of Ridgefield at Acorn-Online , “In mid-December, the worst ice storm of the century hits town. Temperatures dip to below zero and some neighborhoods are without power for nearly a week.” From what I later learned, it seemed like the entire state had been affected similarly for the better part of a month.
Per Connecticut Local Politics, “Thomas Meskill Gets Snowed: In 1970, Thomas Meskill was elected as Connecticut's first Republican governor since John Davis Lodge (1951-55). His tenure was an unsteady and forgettable one, but it seemed in 1973 that he would probably be re-elected. However, when a severe ice and snow storm struck Connecticut during the winter of 1973-74, Gov. Meskill was nowhere to be found. He was on a skiing vacation in Vermont, and apparently had decided not to return to the state. The image of the governor skiing while many in Connecticut huddled miserable without heat or electricity dropped Meskill's political fortunes like a rock. Not long after, he saw the writing on the wall and announced he wouldn't run for a second term.”
I would guess that his reluctance to come home caused him to be slow in declaring a statewide emergency. A Presidential disaster declaration was, therefore, also slow in coming and I didn’t get the call until just after New Year’s Day. I got sworn in at the Wilkes-Barre SBA office and, and in few hours, I was in the Hartford District Office.
As disasters go, the Connecticut ice storm turned out to be not a very big deal for us disaster bums. Our entire crew consisted of just three people: a Loss Verifier named Alex, his wife Kathy, who was our clerk\typist and myself as the only Loan Officer. Upon our arrival, there were no “one-stop centers” set up anywhere in the state although the permanent employees may have staffed a few such centers before we got there. The chief reason for our inactivity, I’d guess, was the fact that we lent money only for uninsured losses. The bulk of damage from an ice storm, be it roofs crushed by falling trees, rotting food caused by power outages, etc., was covered by homeowners’ insurance. A second important fact was that the “Agnes forgiveness” legislation had expired on 12/31/73. Absent a $5,000 freebie and with few losses to claim, homeowners and renters stayed away in droves. Businesses, too, had little in the way of physical uninsured losses to claim, but they were eligible to get loans for “economic injury.” These funds would provide them working capital to handle payables that had fallen behind when the ice caused the businesses to close down. I had, up to that time, worked almost exclusively on physical-loss loans and was, therefore, quite fortunate to be working right in the Hartford District Office. The Loan Officers on the full-time permanent staff were most helpful in teaching me the ins and outs of corporate cash flow.
Alex and Kathy and I worked just a normal 40-hour week. I’m not sure where they found housing but I found a reasonably-priced motel in Glastonbury, across the Connecticut River from Hartford. Our work on this disaster coincided with an Arab oil embargo and gasoline was in short supply, so I left my car at the motel and rode the bus to work. With both Saturdays and Sundays off, I did drive a few miles around the metropolitan area, taking pictures much like the average tourist would.
1) The only two-sided building in the world.
Officially the Phoenix Building (for the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance
Company), the locals call it “The Green Boat.” Completed in 1963, the
building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designed
by Max Abramovitz, who also designed the United Nations and Lincoln Center, two
New York City landmarks.
2) “The Safe Arrival.” Sculpted by Frances Wadsworth and located on Tower Square, it commemorates the first "travelers" to Hartford in 1636.
3) The Wadsworth Atheneum. Since 1842, America's oldest public art museum founded by Hartford art patron Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848). See Wadsworth Atheneum. Photos by Ron Hontz with additional info provided by Brenda Miller, Manager, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.
4) Alexander Calder's
“Stegosaurus.” One of a series
of Calder's stabiles, the Stegosaurus stands 50 feet high and is made of steel
plate. Installed on Burr Mall adjacent to City Hall and the Wadsworth Atheneum,
the soaring structure has dominated the plaza since its installation in 1973.
5) Soldiers and Sailors Arch. The Gothic and Romanesque revival monument is made of brownstone from Portland, Connecticut. It was designed by Hartford architect George Keller. The arch was dedicated on September 17, 1886 – the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam – to honor the 4,000 Hartford citizens who served in the Civil War, and the 400 who died for the Union. It is the first permanent triumphal arch, as well as the first permanent war memorial, constructed in the U.S. The memorial features terra cotta friezes – on the north side, New York sculptor Samuel Kitson showed the story of the Civil War; on the south side, the City of Hartford, represented by a female figure, welcomes the soldier's home in a scene sculpted by Casper Buberl. Albert W. Entress sculpted the life-size figures at the base of each tower. The arch marks the entrance to what was once the bridge that crossed the Park River.
6) Connecticut State Capitol. The Connecticut State Capitol building dominates a high point of ground overlooking Bushnell Park – property on which once stood Washington College (now Trinity College). Designed by Richard Michell Upjohn in 1874, it serves as both monument and seat of state government. Photos by Ron Hontz with additional info provided by Brenda Miller, Manager, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.
7) The Gold Building (background), First Church of Christ.
The Gold Building, 755 Main Street. The Main Street landmark houses the
corporate headquarters for United Technologies Corp., as well as other tenants
such as IBM, Conning & Co, Reid and Riege, Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers,
Accenture, Henderson Global Investors, General Reinsurance, People’s Bank, and
KPMG. The First Church of Christ in
Hartford (60 Gold Street), known as Center Church, was founded in 1632 in
Cambridge, Massachusetts. It called Thomas Hooker to be its first pastor. The
Indian trails from Cambridge to the Connecticut River valley and settled
Hartford in 1636. Four meeting houses have served its ministry in
Hartford. The first two were located where the Old State House stands today. The
first, built in 1636, was a small log structure and was given to Mr. Hooker to
be his barn when the second was built in 1641. In 1740, the third meeting house
was built on the present site of the current meeting house. The fourth and
present Meeting House was completed in 1807 at a cost of $32,000. The pulpit
recess and barrel-vault ceiling were added in 1853. Originally filled with
clear glass windows, stained glass windows were given as memorials between 1881
and 1903. The first organ, purchased in 1822, was replaced with new instruments
in 1835 (case and facade pipes remain), 1883, and 1907. The present organ, built
in 1954 by Hartford's own Austin Organs, Inc., was renovated in 2004. The
tower bell, first cast in England in 1633, continues to ring today.
8) Distant side view of the Connecticut State Capitol.
9) Tombstone in Glastonbury, CT. Note that Pheneeas Burnham died in 1776 and the inscription is still legible!! Photos by Ron Hontz with additional info provided by Brenda Miller, Manager, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.
The work was finished by the end of March and I drove home to Sweet Valley on Saturday, March 30, 1974. It was a memorable trip because it had snowed the night before. I-84 at that time had not been completed all the way westward to hook up with I-81 near Scranton and it would be necessary to get off and travel through Hamlin Corners. The highway crews had taken good care of I-84 and, for the most part, the surface was just wet but not frozen. That all changed abruptly as I neared the exit for Hamlin Corners. Rounding a curve, I suddenly encountered the point where the plows has crossed the median and headed back eastward. No longer was the roadway merely wet. I found myself, at about 60 MPH, skiing in 6 inches of slush. As a Pennsylvania native, I was quite aware of how to drive in such conditions: lay off the gas, touch the brake only lightly, and steer in the direction of the skid. The last part got away from me, for my ’70 Chevelle Malibu’s power steering, when combined with slush, caused me to forget in WHICH DIRECTION I had last steered. LOL! I crossed both westbound lanes at least three times, hoping all the while that the fellow 100 yards behind me wouldn’t try to pass. Slowing to about 15 MPH, I intentionally bumped into the snow bank thrown up by plows and stopped. The other fellow then felt safe in passing me. He did so and then stopped to inquire if I was all right. “Yep”, said I, “as soon as I scrape my leg, I’ll be on my way!” I had no further driving adventures and I arrived safely in Sweet Valley.
My stay at home lasted just over a week. See Wikipedia. April 3, 1974 was a Wednesday and I got the call from SBA on Friday, the 5th. The call came too late in the day for me to get sworn in at the Wilkes-Barre office so I spent the weekend doing laundry and packing. I took the oath on Monday, April 8, and headed to the Columbus, OH, District Office. The trip took all day. Night was falling as I approached the outskirts of Columbus, so I checked into a motel, intending to report to work on Tuesday. At this point, I experienced a once-in-a-lifetime moment akin to “Where were you when JFK was shot?” I switched on the motel room’s TV and tuned into Monday Night Baseball. I returned from my car with my last load of belongings just in time to see, LIVE, Hank Aaron hit home run number 715, surpassing Babe Ruth !! This was truly historical for a devoted Dodger fan such as I, for, wearing number 44 on his back, Hank hit it off number 44 of the Dodgers—Al Downing. Even now, some 33 years later, I can still picture the ball sailing over the left field fence of Fulton County Stadium. It was caught in the Braves’ bullpen by relief pitcher Tom House.
I reported into the Columbus District Office on Tuesday, the 9th and spent the entire day working with the permanent employees stapling together loan application kits. I then made three daily trips delivering the packages down to Xenia for the rest of the week. Each time, I encountered a half-mile long traffic backup as the gendarmes checked ID’s to keep out thrill seekers. I then spent about 3 days in Xenia actually screening in and processing applications before I got orders to report even further south—to Cincinnati. Only years later did I learn the full scope of the “Super Outbreak” of tornadoes that had occurred. Again, see Wikipedia
In the short time I spent in Xenia, I did manage to snap a few pictures.
1) Xenia High School which was fairly empty at 4:40 PM
when the tornado hit.
2) Damaged frame dwelling.
3) Damaged brick home.
4) Kroehler Furniture Company van in Xenia.
5) My buddy, Jess Peiffer, who drove out from Sweet Valley to see me in Cincinnati. Joe Petitta, Loss Verifier.
6) Chester Phillips, Loss Verifier.
Disaster Office for the Cincinnati area was set up in space provided by Cheviot
Township on the west side of the city. In
addition to the two Loss Verifiers shown above, our crew also contained two
ladies, one a Loan Officer like me, and another Loss Verifier.
The Loan Officer was an older lady about whom I don’t recall much.
The female Loss Verifier was an unusual case in that she was accompanied
by her 3-year-old son. Wherever she
was assigned for duty, she found child care and left him there while she worked.
Joe Petitta was one of the nicest guys I ever met.
A true gentleman, he was a WW2 Air Force vet who had served in the Rio
Grande Valley of Texas. He chose to
stay there after the war and he married a Mexican lady.
Joe’s motel room was a welcome place for an after-work BS session but
ONLY up till 7 PM on Sunday. That’s
the time he would call his wife, weekly, regular as clockwork.
Chester Phillips, on the other hand, was a real piece of work.
A good ole boy from Arkansas, he was, in one way,
the direct opposite of Joe. Chester had marital difficulties to the
extent that he carried in his wallet a neatly-folded $10,000 US Treasury T-bill
so that his wife couldn’t lay hands on it !
lies on the Ohio River and we found advantageous housing across the river in
Florence, Kentucky. A small
residential motel, on a weekly basis it worked out to only about $6 a night
which fit neatly into our $25 per diem rate.
We worked only six days a week, so our Sundays were free.
We once chose to go bet on the horses at River Downs near the Cincinnati
Reds ballpark. Chester Phillips had never been to a racetrack and Joe and I had
to show him how to place bets. Chester
seemed to take to it and he studied the program avidly.
Along about the 4th race, he returned to his seat, ticket in
hand, and proudly proclaimed, “I’m gonna hit it big with that number 4,
Black Beauty !” Joe and I had been
studying the 4th race as well and we asked him “But, Chester, you
know, don’t you, that Black Beauty is in the FIFTH race?” Sure ‘nuff, poor
Chester had studied the wrong page ! Joe and I felt sorry for him and offered to
buy his ticket from him but, embarrassed, he demurred.
Would you believe that the lucky sonovagun won $20 anyway when Black
Beauty did run in the 5th?
Florence is the town of Covington, Kentucky. A
noted cesspool of vice, it had been “cleaned up” by Senator Estes Kefauver
back in the 1950’s but this was the ‘70’s and good times once again
flourished. I fully admit that, as a
healthy 28-year-old, I found it necessary more than once to travel there to view
the naked dancing girls. My buddy,
Jess Peiffer, recalls me dragging him along with me when he drove out to visit
me. However, he got married in 1976
and we make sure not to discuss this adventure in front of his wife.
Sundays off, I also spent some time venturing into the tornado-ravaged
neighborhoods on the west side of Cincinnati.
I didn’t take any pictures but the memories are fresh in my mind.
Homes built on concrete slabs had been totally wiped off the slabs,
leaving only a trace of human
habitation that looked totally silly---a toilet. Attached to its plumbing, it
had withstood even the 200 MPH-plus winds of an F5 twister.
The Loss Verifiers also told me of a house with a basement in which a
Cadillac rested. The basement
wasn’t long enough to allow building a ramp on which to drive it out, so a
crane came to lift it out. As was
the case in Xenia, the twister had spared some houses with minimal shingle
damage while neighboring structures were totally demolished.
also got to visit the King’s Island amusement park just north of Cincinnati.
Owned by Taft Broadcasting, it is a sibling of their King’s Dominion
park near Richmond in the “Old Dominion” state of Virginia.
think I was the first of our crew to leave Cincinnati, in about June of 1974,
reporting back up to Dayton where all the loan processing had been going on.
I spent about two weeks there, moving in with some other disaster bums
who had rented a furnished (down to the silverware and dishes) apartment.
Among them was one Phil Smith who, despite such an Anglo surname, was
about 110% Mexican. He was Joe
Petitta’s traveling pal from the Rio Grande Valley and Phil did his best to
replicate for us the cuisine of that area. We
were impressed with his culinary skills although he complained that the local
Kroger’s didn’t carry “real” Mexican ingredients.
After I left, the gang must have been reassigned elsewhere to the extent
that Joe was left to take a motel room. That
was the scene of the tragic event that befell him months later and of which I
learned after I’d moved on to Chicago.
Dayton, I got orders to head for Port Clinton, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie,
west of Cleveland. Due to heavy
rains that summer, the lake was full to overflowing and winds would send waves
crashing over the seawalls (OK—technically “lake walls”) into lakeside
structures. The Army Corps of
Engineers caught all sorts of hell for not lowering the lake level but theirs
was a thankless task. Had they
lowered the lake, people downstream would have been flooded out. I had never
before laid eyes on Lake Erie and
wasn’t aware of how steep its beaches might be.
I got firsthand (and “first foot”) experience when I tried to swim in
it. Talk about shallow, level
beaches being made eminently MORE so by an overflowing lake level !
I must have waded out a good 200 feet and STILL the water was no higher
than my knee! No way could I
comfortably belly-flop down into it to swim.
I gave up and went back to my motel room.
Aerial view of the
wind and wave action near my motel; my car in the motel parking lot.
Note the lakewall behind the yellow bench.
job turned out to be the most boring of my disaster bum career.
With the “Agnes forgiveness” having expired, the biggest attraction
of SBA loans had been lost and the agency realized that fact.
They assigned only me and one Loss Verifier. Our “office” was one
small room in some municipal building. The
Loss Verifier was Bill Fisher, who, like me, had joined the disaster bum ranks
back in Agnes days. He was from
Elmira, New York and had somehow finagled being assigned a GSA car.
His personal car was back home, for he had flown his private plane to
Ohio. Bill spent many of his days
just touring around the area while I sat alone in our office waiting for the
phone to ring or for someone to walk in to ask about a loan.
Eventually, he took pity on me and we went for a spin in his plane.
He was careful to avoid the restricted airspace above Camp Perry (named
for the War of 1812 hero, Oliver Hazard Perry, who won the battle Of Lake Erie.)
Our flight coincided with the NRA National Outdoor Rifle & Pistol
Championships being held there and it simply wouldn’t do to get shot down over
water. At one point, I was attracted
by the sight of some greenish water below and Bill swung over it for me to snap
a picture. It was obviously a quarry
but what exactly was being extracted there escaped my knowledge for 33 years.
Thanks to a very kind lady at the Ida Rupp Public Library in Port
Clinton, I can now tell you that it was limestone causing the greenish tint in
the water. The site belonged
to either the Celotex Company or the Standard Slag Company, as both were active
in mining limestone in the area at that time.
Absent a wider-angle picture showing roads (which I didn’t snap), we
cannot be more specific.
Bill Fisher returning to the motel with his morning newspaper; me in
front of Bill’s plane; aerial view of the limestone quarry.
late July or early August, the work (such as it had been) was finished and I got
orders to head to the Chicago District Office.
There was no break in service in between these assignments, so I just
drove my Malibu northwestward. The
Chicago District Office was located on S. Dearborn Street in the “Loop”
area. I found lodging at the Midland Hotel on W. Adams Street, just two blocks
from work. The car ended up parked
in a garage not far away where the monthly fee was fairly steep. I was entitled
to recompense for that in addition to my per diem so I had no worry. I walked
the two blocks to work. I would take
the Malibu out for exercise about every other Saturday during what turned out to
be a lengthy stay. On the opposite alternate Saturday, I’d throw my laundry
into a trash bag and catch a bus headed up Clark Street, past Wrigley Field, to
a neighborhood laundromat. That
route took me past 2122 N. Clark Street, site of the St. Valentine’s Day
Massacre in 1929. I fully expected
to see at least a small historical marker but none was visible.
There seemed to be just an apartment building on that site.
Walking to work also took me within sight of the Chicago Board Of Trade
at 141 West Jackson Boulevard. I
promised myself that, one day, I’d take a couple of hours off from work to go
watch pork bellies and such be traded but I never did.
Noteworthy during my stay in Chicago was an event that occurred not long
after I’d arrived. I recall
sitting in my Midland Hotel room on August 8, 1974 and cheering as Nixon
resigned ! A bit later, probably in
September, I and Dick Chopp, a permanent employee, went to Soldier Field and
watched the Bears play an exhibition game against my favorite team, the Miami
Dolphins. Our seats were way up high
and the “Windy City” zephyrs were awfully cold.
I should have gone to Wrigley Field to watch my beloved Dodgers when they
came in, but that was back before they’d installed lights and all games were
day games. I guess I chose to not
take the time off. For the most
part, I ate in the hotel restaurant during the week but, on weekends, I explored
steak houses, Chinese restaurants, and other delights all readily available in
the Loop area.
work itself in Chicago has already been outlined in my previous story about The
Wallet Man (The
Wallet Man. What I didn’t say therein was the fact that the Chicago District
Director was a pain in the butt. More
than once I’d spot borrowers who had considerably misused their disaster loan
proceeds. I’d send them a letter
demanding that they pay back the funds. They’d
complain to their congressman, who in turn, would contact the District Director,
and then I’d be forestalled from any further action.
The regular troops in the trenches, including Howard Von Druska, chief of
the section that approved regular SBA business loans, had a higher opinion of my
abilities. Howard offered me a
permanent slot on his staff but I turned him down, saying “I don’t want to
work for that District Director !” He
assured me “You’d hardly ever see him” but I demurred.
In truth, I wasn’t keen on moving that far away from home.
Chicago was a fine place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.
some point that Fall, I heard some tragic news through the SBA grapevine.
My buddy, Joe Petitta, who’d I’d left behind in Dayton that summer,
had been MURDERED !! Word had it
that he’d answered a knock on his motel room door and was shot dead.
Joe, it was said, had been involved somewhat, maybe as a building
inspector, back in the Rio Grande Valley.
Possibly an enemy back home had dispatched a hit man all the way to Ohio to settle an
old score. The case, apparently, was
never solved. About ten years later
I dug up an address for Joe’s widow and I wrote her, telling her how highly we
had all thought of him. I never got
a response. Had the killer been
found, I expect she would have told me.
assignment in Chicago was open-ended and, like in the fall of 1973 down in
Springfield, I grew anxious as the days grew shorter.
I really didn’t want to be stuck driving back to Sweet Valley in snow
so I worked out a deal with the agency. I
took a few days off, headed the Malibu back to Sweet Valley, and then flew back
to O’Hare. In so doing, the agency
saved the cost of parking the car in the Loop.
The agency would have paid, eventually, my mileage back to PA at whatever
point I was finished, so that factor was a wash. I estimated the cost of parking
the Malibu in the garage in the Loop for another month or two and it was only a
little less than the cost of a round-trip flight to PA and back. I bore the
extra cost. As it turned out, the
flight would have been cheaper because I stayed in Chicago until the following
May (1975) !!
tuned for my final disaster chapter, “Disaster Bum 1975.”
Ronald E. Hontz
33 Whitcraft Lane
cell phone (717) 309-1402