Thursday, November 3, 2016

Hershey ― Chocolate, Bears and the Arena

How old were you when you remember the first time you experienced something or ate a particular food? As a high school freshman, I remember eating cheesecake for the first time on an Easter break vacation in Fort Lauderdale. My grandfather told me I’d like it and I’ve been eating cheesecakes ever since, but like that first time, plain, not smothered in strawberries or cherries. I think my preference for a cheesecake without toppings, but creamy, heavy as a brick, sink-to-your-toes cheesecake dates to that first dessert eaten in the land of palm trees.

Hot chocolate always reminds me of hockey games in the Hershey Arena and the Hershey Bears. Their uniforms, you see, were chocolate brown. Five minutes outside town, the smell of chocolate permeates the car windows. The street lights are made to look like giant Hershey Kisses. As a child, I always wished I could have a Hershey Kiss that big. How appropriate the local hockey team is chocolate brown, the exact same shade as a Hershey bar?

My earliest memories of Hershey Arena was a hockey game and my Dad getting me hot chocolate between periods. The Hershey Arena had its own version of hot chocolate―not so milky and a bit watery―to this day that is how I like to make my hot chocolate―not the Swiss Miss, saturated, sweet version. I drank hot chocolate at the source. Anything else is just not hot chocolate. How appropriate to drink my first hot chocolate in the Hershey area―during a hockey game? Chocolate, for me, doesn’t get any better than that.

Of course, Hershey has its competition and detractors. The English will moon over Cadbury and the Swiss and Europeans think Nestle is the best. I prefer American chocolate. It was brought back over the pond from the Americas, so isn’t everyone else an imitator, or certainly a Johnny-come-lately?

My parents bought those bags of chocolate bean shells that Hershey sold and used them in our flowerbeds as mulch. As a kid, how great was that when it rained and your whole house and yard smelled like chocolate?

Playing those games at the arena was special. For starters, the boards had Plexiglas. We were used to the smaller rinks with chain link fences above the boards. In our tiny rink in Reading, there was nothing but a pipe just above the boards. The rink was in a cinder block building that had once been a garage. The smallish windows in black iron frames were protected by Venetian blinds. In the heat of battle, during those Sunday night league wars, errant pucks found their way through the Venetian blinds. Considering that glass was cheap at the time, and those windows could not be larger than eight inches by ten inches, we must have destroyed a lot of glass because I remember reading the budget and we paid $144.00 for the season in glass pane replacement.

(above) The rink today on Essex Street in Reading. The side windows have been cinder blocked in.

There was one game during the year set aside for fathers versus sons. The fathers were telling us the week leading up to the game that they had uniforms. I suppose it got into our heads that they must be good and we were a bit worried. At game time, the fathers came out in their “uniforms.” Our coach was wearing his red striped pajamas. The owner of the rink, short “Tuffy” McKellen, all 5’ of him, (he just made the 5’ minimum height requirement of the army and was assigned to the Military Policeyou’d think that’s where his name came from but the real reason was that he fought for his corner to sell newspapers and earned the name “Tuffy.”) was dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit complete with ridiculous hat. 

One friend’s dad wore diapers. Just diapers. I remember thinking what would happen when he got checked into the Venitian blinds.

The Hershey Arena games were also special because they were played before games of the AHL (American Hockey League) which was one level below the NHL and had the Buffalo Bisons, the Springfield (MA) Rifles, and the Quebec Aces. People were filing in for the game and for once we had a crowd watching us play. The arena held more than 7,200 hockey fans although when our game ended there were probably only a few thousand in the stands. But it was a thrill to play in an arena with Plexiglas, real official NHL nets, and doors to the players’ benches.

Yankee fans remember the steepness of the seats in the upper deck of the old Yankee Stadium. I’d bet the seats in Hershey Arena were steeper. After our game we got to stay and watch the Bears play. I remember one of our team members spilling a Coke and it showered out about 10 rows. I never remember spilling any of that precious hot chocolate.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Where Did I Leave Those Guys II

   Some time ago when I was between writing projects, in a blog article, I wondered out loud where I left several characters. The two I used then were from a magazine short story that was published about two years ago. I submitted a draft from some exploratory writing for a possible future novel and the magazine ran it. The scene was from the Revolutionary War.

   Living in Ringwood, I am aware of the strange historical connection among three places, four if you count West Point. They are Ringwood, Ho-ho-kus, and Tappan, New York. Ringwood was the home of Robert Erskine, Scot immigrant who took over management of the then world-famous ironworks. Soon after the war broke out, Erskine double-crossed his British investors and supplied the Revolutionary army with cannons, munitions, and was one of a few local ironworks to cast the giant iron chain that was stretched across the Hudson River to prevent the British traveling north. Running through town is the “Cannonball Trail” the Ho Chi Minh trail from Ringwood to West Point, the secret munitions highway supplying the army.

   Robert Erskine was not only a close friend of George and Martha Washington, he was one of the general’s secret agents who also worked on the logistics of moving the army and most likely his reports passed from Washington to General Henry Knox, Revolutionary army quartermaster.

   Benedict Arnold fled from the Hermitage in Ho-ho-kus where he was staying when Major John André was captured carrying plans of Arnold’s to hand over West Point. He was tried and hanged in Tappan, New York. Washington wanted to make an example of him because, earlier, the British insisted on hanging Nathan Hale instead of exchanging him. André was higher ranking, more popular, accomplished and the British master spy for New York. The very day André was hanged, 
Washington was at Robert Erskine’s deathbed. Erskine was dying of pneumonia he caught, riding on a rainy day.

   I’m willing to guess short stories lend themselves to leaving characters out there walking around and doing what they do. Even in a finished novel, the story ends but presumably the lives of the characters go on doing something other than getting themselves into the predicament that your novel resolved. And since I write fiction and nonfiction, a supposedly career no-no, I have an almost unlimited amount of wanderers out there.

   The thing is, they might be done in your short story or expository writing but, in the back of your brain, they are still doing all sorts of stuff. Your brain’s subconscious occasionally breaks into the conscious with a request to find them or wonder where are they?

    A quick and incomplete roll call of my guys is hilarious. They are spread out everywhere. I have guys on horseback returning from Ho-ho-kus, I have two young newlyweds waiting for their home to be built, an entertainer in a bar watching his guitar career slip away, five guys in a rock and roll band traveling across China on their way to the Chinese version of Woodstock, two Princeton researchers trying to figure out the handwriting, possibly Erskine’s, written on some letters they found in a trunk lid, and several grad students looking for the missing moon rocks brought back from the Apollo missions 11 and 17. What a collection.

   I know at least what Bruce is doing right now—relaxing now that his world tour is finished. That also reminds me—I wonder what Ciu Jian is doing and where exactly he is right now, Beijing, Lijiang, a guest at NYU, who knows? 

Thursday, August 11, 2016


There is currently a popular TV show called Pawn Stars where the hook line in the introduction is Rick explaining why working at a pawn shop is interesting. The line is “…the best part―you never know what’s going to come through that door.” I usually feel that way walking down any street in Manhattan.

I’ve already written about coming out of the subway and having El Exigente, himself, hand me a free cup of coffee. That was weird, funny and memorable.
On the street in Manhattan I almost never bump into celebrities. People tell me all the time, “Yeah, Robert Redford walks his dog over on Park; I see him all the time.” I could probably trip over the dog leash before I’d recognize The Natural.

I did accidentally run into Simon and Garfunkel but it wasn’t too much of an “accident.” The night the duo reunited for a concert to benefit a deteriorating Central Park in New York City, I was making my way towards the grassy area where the audience would sit. The area was north of the stage and we entered the park from the south. After cutting across an open field we came to the road system which brought vehicles to the back of the stage. As we crossed the narrow macadam stretch, a limo pulled up, almost running us over. The door opened and out popped Simon and Garfunkel. They looked in our direction and smiled at us; we were the only humans in evidence.

On the other side of the structure they were entering 250,000 fans waited for that night’s concert. It had rained much of the day but stopped in time for the concert that September 19, 1981. The Mutt and Jeff duo immediately proceeded up a steep embankment towards the stage. We walked in parallel to them about 20 feet away. They went into a stage opening, while we followed the fenced off area around to the front for the concert.

A few years before that, Harry Chapin nearly collided with me on a Central Park path but he was walking towards the Wolman Rink for a concert and I was alone on a path to the back of the stage area. I said “High Harry” in surprise and he smiled back and said “Hi.”

For whatever reason, I missed the performance of Jackson Browne, James Taylor Joan Baez and Bruce when they attended the disarmament rally in the Park on June 12, 1982. This wasn’t too far removed from the No Nukes performances so I guess I assumed it would be the same cast of characters and I must have had something important that day. My memory escapes me.

But New York streets remind me of the Pawn Star’s adage. Except I’d change it to New York City is exciting because you never know what might be coming down the street.

When I worked at 90 Fifth Avenue, the nearest cross street was 14th. It was one block north of the old Lone Star Café. I worked there in the Chelsea section from 1994 to 2000 and the Lone Star closed in 1989. I did make some excellent salads at the bar that replaced it. From the vaulted ceilings, I could imagine how good performances must have been there. The bar was immediately at the entrance on the right as you entered the cavernous hall. At the end of the 40-foot bar, the vaulted opening divided into an upstairs level that wrapped around the open space, providing spectacular views of the band which was set up across from the bar.

That particular day, I was walking south on Fifth Avenue looking for lunch, noticing a stiff breeze blowing north from Greenwich Village. The sidewalks are wide there, maybe 30 feet, and tumbling over and over, as I got almost to the door of the former Lone Star, and rolling towards me was a piece of paper. I remember crouching like a sort of shortstop and fielded the piece of paper like a baseball as it tumbled into my grasp. It was a twenty dollar bill. That was an “only in New York” moment for sure. Lunch money coming to me, a pure definition of “found money.”

But, back to bumping into celebrities―the one time I could not have cared less about a celebrity was when Fabio did a commercial shoot in the Vidal Sassoon salon on the first floor of my office building. I remember several women saying how they didn’t care at all for Fabio, his flowing hair, his amazing physique, whose various poses adorned the covers of all the romance, bodice-ripper paperbacks, but that still didn’t stop them from crushing themselves at the large windows trying to get a glimpse. I suppose if Giselle Bündchen walked down the street in a silver dress I’d probably be there.

In one of those other-world street incidents, I was walking down a street in Miraflores, a suburb of Lima, Peru, on a clear April day in 1988. My wife was pushing one of those twin canvas baby strollers. We had just adopted triplet infant baby girls. They were so small that two took one side of the twin stroller and another along with those mounds of baby necessities took up the remaining space on the other side. They were tiny, even at three months old. The street was pretty much empty when we saw four young men, most likely in their young twenties, walking side-by-side up the walkway. They greeted us and were passing when we all realized we spoke English and immediately they stopped.

I asked them where they were from and they answered “New Zealand.” They knew immediately from our American accent where we were from but politely asked anyway. So I said “New Jersey.” A very happy, excited surprise crossed their faces. “Do you know Bruce?” Note, not “Springsteen” but “Bruce.” My wife rolled her eyes again. No matter where we went, there was some sort of Bruce magnet. Sometimes I did the magnetizing myself when conversations turned to music. This time, I was completely innocent. We were an 8-hour flight, more than 3,500 miles from New Jersey and serendipity brought fans of the Boss together in an unlikely place. I told them some of my concert experiences and how my roommates in college knew him at his early stage. I could have spent the entire afternoon there but the squeaking wheels of the baby carriage announced that the fun was over.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

It All Starts On A Pond

I believe in one commonality in ice hockey and it is this: It all starts on a pond. There are marvelous ice hockey indoor palaces and you’ll find them in places like Marlboro and Boston, Massachusetts, Blane and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Hackensack, New Jersey. On a good day the ice is very skate-able, at least for the first 15 minutes. There are no winds, perfect lighting, and sometimes you needn’t wear gloves.
                                The perfect black-ice freeze on Erskine Lake
Nearly every hockey player worth their salt, began skating outdoors. I can’t quite put my finger on that feeling you get outdoors that never happens on indoor rink ice.

Maybe, it conjures memories of growing up. The finest skating seemed to come in the gloaming. You sensed you would be called for supper any moment. By now your toes were numb, you nose frozen from breathing single-digit-temperature air. And while you are playing, hunger and a growling stomach do not even enter your mind. That will come as you unlace your skates and wonder when your toes will feel normal again.

There are many differences between the outdoor experience and the indoor rink. Don’t get me wrong, I think indoor rinks are marvelous and having more of them growing up would have been fantastic as well as wildly convenient. Just don’t tell me that skating and playing hockey indoors comes anywhere near the basic experience of natural ice.

Think of the most annoying time wasters of your life: Standing in the checkout line at the super market when only two of eight cashiers are open; waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles just to turn in your old license plates, when the nine people in front of you have various time-consuming issues; and lastly, the longest five minute you’d spend anywhere—waiting for the Zamboni to complete its rounds, wondering how he just missed that last thin strip.
                                Skating my Olympic circles

At night, nature’s breezes, resurfaces your marks. The endless air stream wears down the creases and the surface becomes perfectly smooth again. If you get lucky, the water finally tightened into that first ice on a windless evening, making the surface incredibly smooth and the color, a darker shade of black than the puck.

The NHL schedules an outdoor game for every New Year’s Day. Some venues make attendance in person a less than optimum experience. A friend of mine was at the game played in Fenway Park a few years ago. The snow during the game and his low seat at a strange angle to the rink, made watching the game a miserable experience. His experience was limited to “being there.” But, listen to every player in that game and they cannot believe how much fun playing outdoors can be and how it returned them to their roots. Many of these players hail from Saskatchewan and Manitoba where they started skating on a pond as a child.

So that is why to come full circle in a history of Bergen Catholic Ice Hockey, I start with a pond. It always starts on a pond.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Memories Can Be Harsh

Casually reading about the presidential candidates stumping Iowa, readying themselves for the coming election, I was struck by two things. Candidates, eager to mix with the hoi polloi of voters, attend summer state fairs where the most vile and calorie-laced comfort food is de rigueur and various games of chance and skill lure the un-skilled, previously skilled and never-had-any-skilled participants.

Naturally, I was sent tumbling back in my personal memory because of something one of the candidates did. He spied one of those radar guns that record how fast a baseball can be pitched.  I think in a person’s mind how fast he or she can throw a baseball is nearly always much faster than the speed that person is physically capable of achieving, usually light-years difference.

I remember an incident when, as a newspaper reporter, I was covering the campaign of a local candidate for county freeholder. Montvale had a summer fair and surprisingly one booth had a radar gun. Today, radar guns are incredibly common, if not apps on smart phones. Back in 1978, (I know, I know, when dinosaurs like me roamed the earth) a radar gun was not so common. This was probably one of those horribly inaccurate police versions which routinely clocked brick walls at five miles over the speed limit. (My editing self cringes at the expression “over” the speed limit because, technically, it should be “more” than but what person has ever had the experience of that state trooper ambling up to your rolled-down window and saying “Sir, I think you’ve driving more than the speed limit allows?”)

In those days, we did not have Pete Sampras rocketing tennis balls at 120 mph but we did have Arthur Ashe. Non-players, need to know something about his style of play. He had a cannon of a serve. Instead of volleying back and forth to gain position, he game was mostly rocket serve that produced an ace and failing that, a couple of quick, hard volleys and the point was either gained by a hard return or lost when he hit it out. All or nothing.

       The serve only needs to catch part of the line

My mother dragged me out on the court when I was 12 years old and wearing all whites and tennis shoes was a requirement of walking on a court. It’s something known as etiquette. (Isn’t that a word foreign to millennials – please scratch that if it sounds too snarky.) Tennis seemed polite in those days. In mixed doubles, you were supposed to lighten your serve when serving to the female, etc.

        My first racquet was a Bancroft

My serves even through high school were somewhat patty-cake compared to what I became. A second serve, following a failed hard serve, was usually a spin serve, made harder by slipping an “Eastern Forehand grip.” I was at the top of the second tier of players on my high school team. The top was Brien Duffy who had all the serves and speed. I simply tried hard to perfect the service taught to me by Brother McPadden who’s main objective was to avoid double faults by making sure the serve got in the box—hang the speed.

           Wilson T-2000 steel racquet

The summer after I graduated, I changed all that. I traded my wooden racquet in for steel and completely revamped my serve. My new serve had the racquet striking the ball at the absolute highest point, directly overhead like a Juan Marichal or Mel Stottlemyre baseball pitch. When I was making contact at that highest point, the tips of my sneakers were either barely touching the court or they were one to two inches off the surface, depending how high my toss had been. I worked to perfected that serve all that summer. When we vacationed for a week in Maine, I found the local college, wrangled my way on to the court, and served ball after ball, even launching a few balls into the ocean, which came to within a dozen feet of one corner of the court.

Note Ashe's toes at the top of his serve

The combination of steel, trampoline effect, and height produced a laser of a serve. When I was on, I could serve three to four in a row into the service box. When I was off, my success rate was more like one in three. Instead of following a failed first serve with a less fast, or spin serve, I would simple try another rocket. If I double faulted on one point, the following point was usually an ace. Most tennis players couldn’t handle two lasers in a row, one whizzing by their ear and the next one taking a divot out of the court.

One advantage of attending a small college, I reasoned, would be the ease of making the tennis team. So hanging up my ice skates and going south to Baltimore I could cushion the disappointment of no hockey with at least the solace of playing college tennis. The first day I was passing the gym’s trophy case and noticed that Loyola had won the Mason-Dixon tennis championships about 18 of the past 20 years and my heart sank at the very real prospect that I was not making that team. Through luck, hard work, good fortune and help from a good friend, John Davis,  I was finally able to make the varsity by my junior year but that’s an even further digression.

The 1963 undefeated Loyola tennis team

Back to that summer fair in 1978 and the radar gun. In my mind, I was capable of 120 mph Arthur Ashe serves. By 1978, I was five years post college tennis and not a regular player anymore. As with all former athletes, you think that after a few tries to “knock off the rust” you are capable of duplicating any feat you routinely performed when you were at your peak.

I went through the motions normally used to loosen up my shoulder. Think of those cutaway shots during a baseball game when they announce a pitcher warming up in the bull pen. He stands up and immediately you see him  stretching out his shoulder. I served two or three balls with a hard overhead—not my lunging, all-out, earth-scorching motion (please, there were young children watching) and signaled I was ready for the radar gun.

BOOM, the familiar sound of the ball exploding off the racquet strings. I turned expectantly to the gun expecting to make Arthur Ashe jealous and was crushed to read “70 mph.” That had to be a silly mistake. BOOM, second try: “76 mph.” BOOM, third try: 79 mph. That radar gun must be defective. Young children’s eyes be damned, I followed with the scorched-earth laser launched with my tippy toes inches off the ground. BOOM, “83 mph.”

My mind conjured up a stream of alibis. I didn’t have my steel racquet. I hadn’t picked up a racquet in months. I didn’t have the proper time to warm up (The truth was that by my forth hard serve, I was already fatigued.) It was over: my foray into old man’s tennis at the ripe old age of 26 was beginning.

Today, reading that article about candidates throwing baseballs and eating comfort food at the summer fair was enough to trigger those memories. I had a wry smile on my face when I read the candidate saying (after his throws) “my shoulder is ready to fall off.” I’ve been there and, yes, I was shocked to learn I wasn’t immortal.

There was one thing about those politicos rubbing elbows with the proles, the riffraff, and the great unwashed. I would still be competitive after all these years in one category: consuming vast quantities of outrageous (think pork chops on a stick, deep fried Snickers bars, corn dogs) comfort food. That’s one ability that, after all these years, has not eroded.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Lost Moon Rocks, Dr. Gast and His Wonderful Wayback Machine

For many people, 1967 was the “Summer of Love.” For me, a high school sophomore, it was the summer of the Moon. Even though most people who considered flying in space at that time were living in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, a small number were actually doing it from Cape Canaveral. When the US screamed Telstar into orbit to compete with Russia’s Sputnik, my imagination was captured and I became infatuated with Space.

Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Walter Schirra, all daring astronauts of the Mercury team, were still my heroes when I moved from a small town in Pennsylvania to Hillsdale, New Jersey, a bedroom suburb of New York City. That move introduced me to the urban-planning invention of the 1950s, the cul-du-sac. Mine had nine homes on it and housed an eclectic collection of personalities and exotic backgrounds: a former New York Yankee first baseman, Moose Skowron, a Norwegian ski jumper, a man working on NASA’s satellite tracking systems in Spain, an international importer, a professional jazz guitarist who had played with the big bands of the 1940s, his wife, a professional commercial jingles singer most known for her rendition of the “Winston Tastes Good” [like a cigarette should] song, and the late Dr. Paul Gast, a professor of geology at Columbia University. Dr. Gast would turn out to have the most influence on my future. As we moved in, Moose moved out and, within a couple of weeks, the good doctor moved in.

My older brother, Phil, and I babysat for Dr. Gast’s three small children. When bottle-washing jobs turned up at the laboratory that he supervised, we were both offered summer jobs.  Surrounded by international scientists, I was in heaven working at the Lamont Geological Observatory on the Palisades in New York, a key research facility of the Earth Institute of Columbia University. That summer, one of their quests was to prepare a contamination-free lab to handle the moon samples, assuming that men actually walked on the moon’s surface. By 1967, the space race gap had narrowed between Russia (then the USSR) and the United States.  NASA was preparing for moon rocks even though the astronauts had not yet attempted their first space walk or a rendezvous either in earth orbit or lunar orbit, very necessary techniques they would have to master before attempting to land on the moon.

Although the scientists at Lamont were preparing for the unknown, basically, the objects would be just rocks. The technique Dr. Gast developed for dating rocks, particularly extraterrestrial ones, was to use a gigantic, Peabody-Sherman “wayback” type of machine. Technically it was a rubidium-strontium uranium-lead radiometer but to me, it was “the wayback.”

The machine filled a sizable room. A beam of electrons was shot at a metal filament to measure the isotope ratio of these elements extracted from the samples. Since radioactive isotopes have known rates of decay, this data could determine the age of the rocks. Back then, the common form of dating anything was Carbon-14. For moon rocks, the rubidium-strontium uranium-lead method was the “gold” standard. * My job was to make the tiny metal band filaments. I had to keep up with all the filaments that Dr. Gast burned through, melting samples with a light beam way before Darth Vader and Luke dueled with light sabers.

Dr. Gast's lab room minus the wayback, 48 years later.
The wayback stood where the cartons line the wall. 

Dr. Gast was a cranial, soft-spoken man but he was absent-minded like a professor. Most days he ate the sandwiches his wife packed as soon as he got to the lab because he frequently forgot about lunch. When it rained, it was a nightmare for me because Lamont Observatory was actually a campus with outlying buildings of seismology, oceanography, a library, a cafeteria, a machine shop and a core samples storage warehouse spread out over 170 acres of treed, hilly terrain. On a busy day, Dr. Gast might visit all of the buildings and leave umbrellas, raincoats and probably a sample or two along the way. It became a scavenger hunt for me to retrieve them, usually in the pouring rain.
One morning I was shocked to find him standing in the midst of hundreds of metal and glass parts with the wayback machine nowhere to be seen. That pile of parts was the wayback. He explained how he took it apart once a year to clean and since he designed and built it there was no manual. Not to worry, the plans were all in his head. A week later I was leaving for the lab in the morning and my brother and I spotted Dr. Gast in his driveway with his head under his car’s hood. We asked him what was wrong and he said that he had no idea why his car wouldn’t start. But the man was brilliant; his brilliance just didn’t apply to internal combustion machines.

At that time, Americans had as much of an idea of what we would find on the moon as Dr. Gast had about what was under his car’s hood. NASA was worried about a lot of unknowns. The moon’s surface could be 50 feet of accumulated rock dust and the lunar excursion module might sink out of sight on landing. There was also one side of the moon that always faced away from earth. In 1967, the lunar orbital flights would confirm that the dark side is made up of the same material as the side that we see all the time. No secret Russian space stations, no little alien men, and no green cheese. When you’re a high school teenager you have no idea if adults are kidding or just plain stupid. They were not all kidding about expecting green cheese to be there. The lunar orbiter passed around the dark side of the moon and destroyed a lot of myths. The reality was just more rocks.

What if those rocks were some weird form of radioactive matter, like a kryptonite for Earthlings? Or maybe those rocks were able to carry some disease that had wiped out a lunar population and atmosphere billions of years ago. When the first astronauts who walked on the moon surface returned to earth they were quarantined for several days. Just in case, Dr. Gast was setting up a white room in the geochemistry building for studying the rocks. It had an airlock with positive pressure (air blows out when you open the door instead of being sucked in, along with dust particles). The room also had a sticky doormat that took any residue off the special white slippers they wore, and everything in the room was white. I got in there a few times that summer and if I had put down a blank piece of white paper anywhere, I swore it would have become invisible. 
The entrance to the Geophysics building as it appears today.

Several times during that summer I was asked to collect the dusty filter from the white room’s air vent system and the dust was melted down onto a filament for the wayback machine. A light beam blast later, it would be analyzed to see how clean they could make the room. Special preparations were made for these once-in-a-lifetime rocks. For scientists, and especially geologists, this was their Super Bowl. With mortars and pestles, they were poised and could not wait to get their hands on these rocks so they could weigh, crush, examine them under a microscope or blast them with light beams from the wayback machine. Dr. Gast even had a say in developing the bags and tools the astronauts would carry to collect these nuggets.

Watching these scientists working happily each day at the lab, I realized that I might never have this much fun in my lifetime again. I wanted to be a scientist so much that I ignored all my low trig scores and hung in for three semesters in college as a physics engineering major until I read the handwriting written on the blackboard wall, mostly in undecipherable Greek letters and equations, and switched my major.

The door to the Moon sample room, today.

One day, Dr. Gast called me into his Spartan office and gave me a special errand. I was to go to the Oceanography building and make high quality copies of several 8” x 10” black and white glossy photographs. I was to keep them in the manila envelope until I got there, copy them, and put them immediately back in the envelope and show no one. He handed me an envelope and I was off. When I got to the copy machine nobody was around. Good, no questions. I had been sent to make copies several times before so my presence in the building was not unusual. I took the photos out and one look and I was stunned. The first shot was the earth rise taken from the moon, depicted in dazzling brilliance, clearly captured as the lunar orbiter emerged from the dark side of the moon.  The rest of the photos were crater close-ups. I was to learn years later that Dr. Gast was determining where the oldest rocks were likely to be and that would determine where to try the first landing.

Being a teenager, I made a separate copy for myself, folded them and stuffed them in my jeans pocket. The next day those two pictures were on the front page of the New York Times.

Forty-three years later, I still love space and astronomy. The moon still has a special fascination for me. Buzz Aldrin will look up at the moon and wistfully remind himself that the peak of his personal career was forty-one years ago when he walked on that distant surface. I will look at that same moon and remember when I pilfered those pictures, worked in the moon sample room and welded filaments for Dr. Gast’s wayback machine.

A more recent reminder was a newspaper report that many of the moon rocks presented as good will gifts to each US state and 135 foreign countries have been misplaced. These samples, so rare and important at the time, have now been lost. Apparently, they have become almost like forgotten items in a governmental garage sale. The last count tallied 94 countries and nearly 18 states missing theirs. Some are suspected of having been sold on the black market for up to half a million dollars.

A determined effort is being made by some University of Phoenix grad students to locate the missing rocks and from time to time there will be reports of a shard found here and there. I am saddened when I consider that such an effort was made back in 1967 to make sure these rocks were collected, quarantined and studied and now these rocks are missing. I wonder how something of such rare value can be tossed aside like those cheap rock collections sold at tourist traps or in museum gift shops.

The astronauts of Apollo 17 who personally carried those gift samples to us governors and the heads of foreign governments don’t remember presenting every one of them. Understandably, their mission became a blur in the redundant presentations spread out over a three-month goodwill tour but I would like to think if an astronaut had pressed one of those samples into my hand that I’d remember it for the rest of my life.

People generally assume that certain historical objects must be owned by the US government but over the years many objects have found their way into private collections. Malcolm Forbes displayed many historical objects from his private collection in a small museum in his magazine’s headquarters on 5th Avenue near 12th Street in Manhattan. For instance, Forbes has one of the four signed copies of the Japanese surrender, signed on the deck of the USS Missouri at the end of World War II. Forbes also has Abraham Lincoln’s stove pipe hat and opera glasses from the night of his assassination. Thrown in for dramatic effect was the sleeve that the doctors cut off Lincoln’s coat when they were trying to find the source of his wounds. In the basement of Ford’s theatre in Washington, other objects are displayed from that historic night, among them, the frock coat Lincoln wore, minus the left arm coat sleeve. Strange objects find their way into private collections.

Forbes had another room in his museum dedicated to objects, which once had importance at the time of their presentation that now, had been rendered so meaningless that many could not even be identified with their presenter or receiver. Bronzed paddles, Tiffany silver replicas of buildings, mounted antler hooves with ambiguous inscriptions, all have since lost their meaning having probably resided in the darkness of a closet, forgotten for decades. Apparently, many of these moon rocks have met the same fate or found their way into private collections. Illegally, too, since they were presented to official government representatives.

At the time, these rocks must have been extraordinarily cherished. That astronaut who walked on the moon just gave me a piece of a rock he found there. I am amazed and blown away with the opportunity that I have to be in this place and time to personally receive this piece of history. I will remember this moment forever. As an impressionable teenager, the “space race” enthralled me, impressing on me that I was living in an extraordinary time. Somehow we lost that sense of awe from the 60s, swept away in the high tide of information, technology and myth busting.

Admittedly, these “Goodwill Rocks” are tiny, the size of a pinhead, but unlike Forbes’ trinkets, these grams from another world are mounted on a plaque that carries a narrative of the presentation and a small replica of the recipients’ flag.  The rock is in a plastic bubble next to the date of the presentation. I admit that all these years later, as a people we have become blasé about technology because it’s an integral part of our daily lives. Today, the work of all those vacuum tubes in Dr. Gast’s wayback could be easily done by a hand-held calculator. I’ve learned that the typical graphing calculator used today in most high schools could duplicate all of the electronic functions in the Apollo command module.

Things were so different then. I clearly remember riding across the Lamont campus on a brilliant morning that summer in an open jeep from World War II driven by Jack Diamond, another rock-studying scientist, when the Doors’ “Light My Fire” came on the radio. He grinned, and said, “Those are very suggestive lyrics.” It was a very different time. A time and rocks forever lost.

Landmark events indelibly mark our memories and we recall years later where we were when the impression was made. I was in seventh grade when our principal, tears streaming down her face, burst into our classroom and stunned us with the news that President Kennedy had been shot. Six years later, by the time Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had been strapped into their Apollo command module that Friday in July, 1969, I had probably finished tossing the last items in the family station wagon for the trip to a Maine beach house for the week. There were a number of parallels.

My brother met his future wife in college as a sophomore and his fiancé's parents had a charming but Spartan cottage on a small peninsula on the southern coast of Maine near Kennebunkport, called Biddeford Pool. The oceanfront structure was separated from the surf by about 100 yards of tall, waving dune grass and walking that deserted, pristine shore line was both therapeutic and cathartic. I was either too young or had too few issues to take full advantage of the cathartic properties but a walk for a mile or two in either direction while only meeting a handful of people allowed plenty of time for thinking.

I remember working at my summer job in the golf course club house and seeing the Apollo rocket lift off and then the boss barking at us to get back to work. While the astronauts were starting their 60 orbits and 240,000-mile journey to the moon, I was working my last day before going home, sleeping, and putting the finishing touches on the vacation packing.

To get to Maine was a process of deciding what to take without overloading the family Chevy; all five of us and our stuff had to fit, allowing for our comfort over an 8-hour drive. We were traveling into the unknown; we had never before stayed in a tiny Maine beach house.

The journey was smooth but cramped and we were delighted by the sight of the cute red cottage and the chance to stretch our legs, the drive made longer by the excitement of anticipation. The entrance door opened into the tiniest of foyers and immediately into the galley kitchen with a counter open to a small dining room that transitioned into a Lilliputian living room, a fireplace anchoring the far end. On one side of the knotty pine-paneled room was a large window that displayed the ocean and dunes as a neatly detailed picture. On the small table, just to the side of the window, a tiny black and white television set with rabbit ear antennae stared back at us. I didn't recall ever seeing TV sets that small but we were on vacation in Maine so network programming wasn't the foremost thing on our minds.

Sparse technology in either the kitchen or the bathroom would be more of a problem. I recall being relieved because I knew that this rustic retreat at least had something to view the lunar landing, not sure what exactly that viewing would be.

At some point, that Maine television was finally turned on and after seeing the reassuring TV spokesman, Walter Cronkite, at his table explaining things with a collection of plastic models, we settled back for what we thought would be an exciting evening of watching men finally walk on the moon.

Nobody had told us until Walter confided that we would not "see" the landing and that once the craft touched down, the astronauts would sleep for six hours before actually getting out and walking around. We thought that this would be just like Flash Gordon. The rocket touches down, they turn off the engine, open the door, scramble down the ladder, and with space guns pointing in several directions, they take a look around.

What we really got was different by huge measures. On the screen was this gray drawing of nothing, really, sometimes a vague shot of the Lunar Excursion Module (LM) with its spidery legs and other times dotted flight lines showing where they came from. These shadowy drawings were presented with a soundtrack of the radio transmissions from Houston to the LM, now descending to the lunar surface from 60 nautical miles above. For all we knew, these crude clever artworks were probably gray on color TV sets and why in the world do you use nautical miles in space?

               The transmission went exactly like this:

CC:       That's affirmative.

LMP:     Like - AGS to PGNS align.  Over.

CC:       Say again?

LMP:     Like an AGS to PGNS align.  Over
CC:       Roger. We're standing by for it.

LMP:   ...quantity...

CC:     Eagle, Houston. You are STAY for T2.  Over.

CC:     Correction, you're  -  -

LMP:   Roger.  STAY for T2. We thank you.

CC:     Roger, Sir.

CC:     Tranquility Base, Houston. We recommend you exit P12.  Over.

CDR:  Hey, Houston, that may have seemed like a very long final phase. The AUTO targeting was taking us right into a football-field size - football-field sized crater, with a large number of big boulders and rocks for about... one or two crater diameters around it, and it required a ... in P66 and flying manually over the rock field to find a reasonably good area.

CC:     Roger. We copy. It was beautiful from here, Tranquility. Over.

LMP:   We'll get to the details of what's around here, but it looks like a collection of just about every variety of shape, angularity, granularity, about every variety of rock you could find. The colors  -  Well, it varies pretty much depending on how you're looking relative to the zero-phase point. There doesn't appear to be too much of a general color at all. However, it looks as though some of the rocks and boulders, of which there are quite a few in the near area, it looks as though they're going to have some interesting colors to them.  Over.

CC:     Roger.  Copy.  Sounds good to us, Tranquility. We'll let you press on through the simulated countdown, and we'll talk to you later.  Over.

CDR:  Roger.

           The techno-geek speech was exciting. We were listening to conversations that we had no idea what was being said and, in that moment, wrapped up in probably the most dramatic exploration experience since Columbus clanked ashore wearing equipment as heavy as these astronauts. This was about as exhilarating as it could get. In comparison, none of the networks were there on San Salvador Island in the Caribbean to interview Columbus and he had no ability to twitter anyone so we'll be left guessing as to what really happened.

That touchdown was stunning and exciting, a lot like few other moments that just we supposed couldn't be happening, similar to beating the Russian hockey team in 1980 with Al Michaels screaming into the microphone.

Back on the moon, our guys assured us that there were no little green men and no evidence of any green cheese anywhere; we were staring out at what was called "magnificent desolation" and the endless expanses of gray, with dots of distant craters and boulders was fascinating, especially to all those viewers who thought a trip to a Maine beach was a big deal. This was heady stuff. The next day 60 percent of the world news coverage concerned the landing.

The first day, we were treated to cartoon pictures and plastic models juggled by Cronkite, a bit like Andy playing with Woody and Buzz Lightyear and we were entranced. The promise of more than that type of viewing brought us back the next day when the astronauts would actually leave the vehicle on the first ever, Extra Vehicular Activity- EVA. They took hours to get dressed, longer than your high school prom date, but Armstrong eventually made it down the ladder to plant his paw print and we were riveted, watching all this unfold.

The first descriptions satisfied years of pent-up curiosity and at about the 28th gray rock being described probably 30 percent of that world audience went back to the killing and famines and whatever the particular horror the day was and rest of us continued be frozen in front of the tube.
I imagined that people were sitting in front of their sets like it was fourth down and inches, yelling at the coach to go for it; just pick up the damn rocks. What if something weird like a solar flare up or that monster-in-the-sand's fin could be seen? They would have had to scramble back up the ladder, get back in the LM, blast off and get out of there with having anything to bring back.

That weekend, I walked the extremely wide expanses of the beach, trying to wrap my mind around what had just happened, looking for different shades of sea glass and shells, occasionally popping them into a pocket, eventually discarding the first pretty ones for even more pretty ones. I had some ideas in back of my head what I would do with  them when I got back to New Jersey but they were rather vague plans, easily discarded a day after returning from vacation, when my attention was recaptured by the daily routine of working and living day to day.  Eventually those highly- regarded-at-the-time objects would be located in a forgotten part of the rock garden. Where those shells were forty years later, I couldn't tell you. That was another parallel I had with Neil and Buzz. 

*Strontium determination made by the mass spectrometric isotope dilution method” – a more technical reference to the special method developed by Dr. Gast describing the technique of identifying isotopes.

Note: Dr. Gast later ascended into NASA heaven in Houston as he assumed leadership of the geo-science management of the Manned Spacecraft Center in preparation for the Apollo Mission as chief scientist of the Apollo Lunar Science Staff.

The Forbes Museum on 5th and 13th Street has been downsized since 2010. It was full of amazing items. For some reason, they chose to take some of the most fascinating items out of the museum, as of this post in May, 2015.