Monthly Archives: August 2016

Hot Summer!

Now that summer in Memphis is almost over, hopefully we will get some relief from the heat. While the month of July alone ended up being the 8th hottest ever recorded, it did not necessarily lead to a record-breaking summer. No that was the summer of 1980 when in Memphis, between July 6 and July 20; we had 15 consecutive days of temperatures reaching 100 degrees or more (I seem to recall on one of those days that the temperature never even dropped below 100 for a full 24 hour period).

Honda

That was the summer after I got married and the year I foolishly bought a new car without air conditioning (you could actually buy a car back then without AC). But I was young then and obviously could withstand the heat.

So even though this has not been a record-breaking summer with multiple days over 100, it has still seemed very hot. Maybe it is because I am getting older. After all, I did turn 60 this year. But for whatever the reason, it has been most unpleasant.

I much prefer warm weather over cold weather and I always look forward to doing outdoor activities once the spring time comes. In fact my favorite day of the winter is Ground Hog’s Day since I view it as a signal of the end of winter.

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I am a runner and I also prefer running in warm weather, particularly around the lake in our subdivision. In fact, I have often said that I will take running outdoors on a 100 degree day over a 20 degree day anytime. But this summer has even challenged me to rethink this statement as running at 6 AM on days when it was just barely 80 degrees proved difficult. I can only assume with the humidity level, that the heat index must have made it feel well over 90. It has felt so hot that I have even seriously considered driving to the gym and running indoors, something I normally only do in the winter when it is below 40 and too cold (at least for me) to run outdoors.

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But this summer has not only put a crimp in my running but my top down driving as well.

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Anyone with a convertible knows they are not that much fun to drive in the winter time. So a third reason I look forward to warmer weather is so I can do some fun top-down driving. But even in June of this year, a time usually nice enough to drive into work with the top down every morning, it has felt too hot. Driving with the top up and the AC on just makes you feel like you’re missing 90% of the joy of a little convertible sports car.

As the summer wanes, normally I look forward to fall mainly because of the start of college football, my favorite Saturday afternoon activity during those four autumn months. But this year, it’s not just football; it’s the anticipation of cooler weather that I’ve looked forward to ever since early July.

So finally it seems the end of our hot weather is in sight. But as we explore locations where we may want to retire, I will bear this summer in mind, because I definitely don’t want to live anywhere where it gets (or feels) this hot in the summer. Cool weather, hurry and get here!

Miniature Garage?

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One of the challenges I will have once I retire is finding a new home for my office car collection. I cannot even recall how long I have had these 1/18-scale car models in my office at work. I know I have moved them at least once and maybe even twice from one office to another.

Over the years, I have had to put up with a number of jokes from my coworkers about how I must get them down and play with them during teleconferences. But whenever their kids or grandkids came by my office, the cars were always a huge hit as their small eyes filled with wonder at all the colorful little models.

So how did I end up with so many model cars in my office? And how did I pick which cars would be displayed? But an even more basic question might be how did I end up with a model car collection in my office in the first place? All good questions to be answered in due time.

Staring with the last question first, how did an adult, obviously a car lover who does not work in the automotive industry end up with a collection of model cars in his office? The answer to that question dates back over 20 years ago to when I realized as an adult that it was OK to have toys—not just the big adult toys we men acquire—but actual toys a child or adolescent might have. With that green light, I began to collect them.

I first started buying cars that I could only dream of owning—mostly exotics which the full-scale versions would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I figured this was the only way I was ever going to be able to afford these ultra expensive cars. Whenever I traveled, I sought out toy or hobby stores to find ones that I might not be able to find locally or online.

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As my collection grew, it was obvious that I was not going to be able to display them all at home. Growing up, my mom had allowed me to clear a built-in bookcase in the hall to display all of the car models that I had built. Since I didn’t think my wife would be agreeable to that approach, I came upon the idea of taking them to work.

I figured since I spent so much time at work anyway, this would give me a chance to see them on a daily basis. I cannot recall how many cars I had when I first took them to my office but I know it was so many that I had to get a wheeled cart to transport them all from my car in the parking lot to my office.

Now that they were safely parked in my office, I had enough room to expand my miniature stable of cars.

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And once I acquired two and then three real sports cars, I came upon the idea of getting models of those for special display on my desk.

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Then the tops of my bookcases became the dream car collection, the ones I would never own and my desktop, the ones I actually owned. And over the years, my dream car collection continued to grow.

But in the last four years however, the collection has been fairly static having only added one new car in that time—the Fiat 500 on my desk—a sportier version of the real one sitting in my driveway. Maybe it was the anticipation of knowing I was going to have to haul all of these cars home one day that dampened my desire to add new ones. Or maybe now that I own several sport cars that are fun to drive, there are fewer cars that I would even dream of owning.

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But there is one car however, that I still dream of owning, a Ferrari 360 Modeno (built from 1999 to 2005). One that I probably couldn’t even afford the gas-guzzler tax on.

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Maybe not in yellow (red is actually my favorite sports car color), but having a large “picture-window” like dome over the high performance engine to me sets this particular model above so many others.

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I’ve saved each box my models came in to have a protective manner to move them home one day and also I figured if they were ever going to be worth anything one day, that having the original box would make them even more valuable. I ran across these boxes on a recent excursion into the attic looking for a doll of my daughter’s. While understandably dusty, the boxes seemed to have weathered the temperature extremes in the attic fairly well. Hopefully just a little cleaning will return them to a like-new appearance.

But boxing them up and moving them home one day will only be the first step in relocating them from my office to their new home. I’ll have to find an appropriate place to display these years-old treasures. What if I built a 1/18-scale garage in my back yard?

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I could get help from my oldest son, an architect, who has helped us design other features in our back yard. I know he could come up with a creative design for my cars. Would my wife go along with that idea—a small scale garage over in one corner of the yard? Well I can always dream.

Building Books – Revisited – II

GreatRailroad

The second of these building books was The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America by Christian Wolmar. While I had wanted to read about the history of the Gateway Arch for quite some time, I had also wanted to read about the building of the railroads in the US. This actually wasn’t the first book I read about railroads or the first book I wanted to read. The first book I ordered and read turned out to be a pictorial history of the railroad lines in the US; informational with lots of photos but not the detailed story I was interested in reading about.

What I really wanted to read about was the early tycoon days of how the railroads were built, the competition that ensued, and the rail barons that consolidated the many smaller roads into monopolistic larger lines. My desire in learning more about this story was sparked when I read about the building of the Penn Station in New York by the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad in, Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes.

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The book I had planned to read was the Rival Rails: The Race to Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad by Walter R. Borneman. Unfortunately, before I could order the book, it went out of print and has remained so ever since. Still wanting to read about the early railroads, I found this book by Wolmar.

While this book was true to its title offering a fairly detailed history of railroads in the US, this book did not turn out to be exactly what I was looking for. Wolmar, the author, is British and at the beginning of the book extensively compared the building of the railroad system in England to the US—with a definite bias for the superiority of the British system. But once past that perspective, Wolmar gave a thorough history in the US.

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Although the very beginnings of railroad lines in the US was not necessarily the history I was most interested in, it did help me to understand why some of the early train cars that I had seen at the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) museum in Baltimore looked strikingly like stage coach cars on railroad trucks—because that is exactly what they were.

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This is further reasonable when you learn that early railroads were actually pulled by horses and that it was not until steam engine technology advanced sufficiently that the competition between the two would ultimately favor the iron horse over its equine competitor.

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Another fact I didn’t know was that most early railroad lines were strictly focused on making local connections between two or more points. This certainly explains the naming convention we are so familiar with as the ______ and ______ railroad with the blanks being filled in with the two termination points of the line (e.g., Louisville & Nashville (L&N)). In fact competing lines that eventually served the same city often built their stations in different parts of town to make it more difficult to transfer from one line to another.

A further complicating factor was that the railroads did not settle on a uniform track gauge varying in width from a little over four feet up to six feet. This meant that engines and rolling stock from one line could not be run on a competitor’s lines.

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These two last facts figured heavily when the civil war broke out in 1861 and suddenly the inability to move troops and war materiel longer distances hampered the war effort. The railroads did however make a large contribution to the war effort when they could be used to move reinforcements shorter distances and turned the tide of more than one battle.

Probably the most significant railroading event of the 19th century was the building of the transcontinental rail line connecting the East coast with the West coast. And even more significant was the fact that the construction started during the Civil war.

Prior to the war, efforts were undertaken in Congress to pass legislation authorizing the building of the railroad that would run from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But as with most political debates, agreement on the route could not be achieved with the Southern states favoring a southern route and the Northern states favoring a northern route. But once the Southern states seceded from the Union, the North-South debate all but ended and so the measure was passed.

Because there were no Civil War battles occurring on the West coast, construction could begin even as the war raged on in the East. And it was the “Big Four”—Leland Stanford, C. P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—four very influential men who came together to form the Central Pacific Railroad, the railroad that would ultimately meet up with the Union Pacific Railroad in Promontory Point, Utah. Interestingly, on a visit to San Francisco a couple of years ago, I had the chance to have a drink at the Big 4, so named for these four although I didn’t fully understand their significance until reading this book.

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As I read the story of the early beginnings of the construction, what was most amazing was not the technical challenges that had to be overcome but the fraud and corruption that occurred. Congress had agreed to fund the building but at different rates based on the difficulty of the terrain. Since no government employee was on site to audit the railroad’s interpretations of the topography, the government could be easily overcharged and the difference pocketed by the railroad partners. To make it even more difficult if auditors did arrive, a contracting company was formed that achieved such scandal as to become the nineteenth century’s equivalent of Enron.

But what was no less appalling was the treatment that the Native Americans—the Indians—received as the two railheads both progressed towards each other. Despite treaties to the contrary, native lands were crossed and in their wake, dead natives were often left behind. As the conflict escalated, the violated Natives became less docile and fought back leading to what we know today as the battles between the “cowboys and Indians.”

In spite of the corruption and the fighting with the Indians, the transcontinental railroad was finally completed on May 10, 1869. But it wasn’t a single railroad line as the starting point in the East had been the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, Iowa. It took consolidation of multiple lines after the Civil war to begin to create a truly national long distance rail system. And this is where the story of the Rail Barons takes over.

But this is where I will have to find another book, as the story I wanted to read wasn’t covered in sufficient detail in this book.

Often times it is good to have an “outsider” look at something and give his or her perspective since their view may well be different from our own. In this book, Wolmar does just that but admits that a detailed history of the railroads in the US would be too voluminous to fit into a single book of reasonable length. For a 30,000-foot view of the nearly 100 years that railroads were the predominant form of transportation in our country, this book gives a good overview from their humble beginnings, to their growth and peak, all the way through to their decline, largely the result of automotive and trucking competition, competition that ironically received government subsidies in the form of public built highways (Railroads received no such subsidy and had to pay for and maintain their own tracks).

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So while I certainly learned a lot about the history of railroads in the US, my search for a book about the Rail Barons will continue. And when I do find it, you and I will both know.

Building Books – Revisited – I

I have always enjoyed building things, putting things together, assembling models, and constructing various structures in our yard. It should then not come as a surprise that I have also always been interesting in learning about how different things were built by reading a book about the project. A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about some of the Building Books I had read which included books about the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and our modern highway system. Recently, I read a couple of more books that had been on my Amazon wish list for quite some time about building things.

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The first of these was The Gateway Arch by Tracy Campbell.

As long as I can remember, the St. Louis Gateway Arch has impressed me. A unique structure that was built in my lifetime, it was as a child that I saw it for the first time when my family took a summer vacation to St. Louis. I have been back several times since and each time, it is still awe inspiring to stand at the foot of one of the lofting arches and gaze upward along its shiny surface into the sky.

Credit: NPS.org

Credit: NPS.org

And looking out from the observation deck at the top, can be seen an impressive view of the Mississippi River and downtown St. Louis.

Whether or not I knew it and had just forgotten it, but reading the book made me aware again that the arch, or more officially, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was actually built in honor of Thomas Jefferson and his foresight in expanding the western frontier of our young country through the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, a portion of which included the state of my birth, Louisiana.

One of the issues that I have learned in reading almost every one of my building books is that there is typically political controversy in the early phases of conceiving and designing a large public structure. Often, there are many competing interests that result in significant conflict prior to construction begins. In the case of the Gateway Arch, I was sad to learn that not only was there disagreement but also outright fraud when the residents were voting on the bond issue in 1935 that would authorize the city to incur debt in order to redevelop the “urban blighted” riverfront area. When the fraud was eventually exposed, it could have derailed the whole project had it not advanced as far as it had. But even sadder was the fact that following the positive vote, many historical buildings were bulldozed in clearing the 37 block river front site, including extremely rare and historical cast-iron buildings that had risen on the very spots where earlier wooden structures had been devastated by fire almost a century earlier.

But following the clearing of the land, it was a number of events that delayed the eventual start of the project. First the advent of World War II in 1941 distracted the country for almost five years. Then following armistice, an additional delay occurred awaiting approval from the National Park Service who would ultimately administer the park. Finally an agreement was reached in 1946 so that the architectural competition could be announced. Once made public, there were 172 submissions in the first round that were ultimately narrowed down through a jury process to just five for the second round.

While the entries varied quite widely in their design, it was interesting to learn that an arch was always considered a fitting monument going back to the early 1930s even before the first bond issue. Whether or not it was this prescient fact that gave him an edge in the competition, it was Eero Saarinen’ s resplendent entry that won.

But even before construction could begin, the outbreak of the Korean conflict and the launching of the national interstate system continued to distract the federal government and prevent the start of the construction.

During the delays, there were many distractors that felt a better use of the cleared land was simply for a car parking lot—maybe a progressive idea in 1947 but by today’s standards, an absolute waste of valuable water-front property. Others thought that the building of the arch would make St. Louis the laughing stock of the country and forever be known as the “Wicket City” (as in croquet wicket). But once contractor bids were solicited, the MacDonald Company, a name almost identical to the one that had erected golden arches all over the country, had submitted the winning low bid.

Credit: NPR.org

Credit: NPR.org

When construction finally began in 1961, there were numerous technical challenges that had to be repeatedly overcome. First, the foundations for the triangular bases could not be off by more than 1/64 of an inch to ensure the two legs of the arch would meet together at the top in the final stages of construction 630 feet above the ground. In addition, as the two legs grew higher, they could not be off by more than 1/16 inch. Amazingly, this level of precision had to be achieved in an era before computer aided design with all calculations and design work having to be done using slide rules and basic survey equipment. As the two legs rose higher, there began a natural competition between the northern “Yankee” leg and the southern “Rebel” leg as to which would reach the top first.

Incorporating an elevator was another vexing problem that wasn’t solved until very late in the construction process when the idea of the Ferris wheel saved the day with similarly small, ratcheting elevator cars. The Gateway Arch was finally joined as one in October 1965 but the park itself was not fully completed until May 1968, over 30 years after the original bond issue that began to advance this project.

Credit: Gatewayarch.com

Credit: Gatewayarch.com

While truly remarkable in its final form, one aspect deleted from the overall plan early on was the idea to tie the memorial park to downtown via a pedestrian bridge across the busy 3rd street. I literally let out a loud whoop when I read the name of the Brooklyn, New York landscape architectural firm—the firm my oldest son worked at—that had won the competition to design the fix to the park that was now separated from the city by an even busier interstate highway that had replaced 3rd street. A number of years ago, my son had secretly revealed to me that they were beginning design work on this project, a fact that could not be revealed at the time. Sadly 50 years after the completion of the Gateway Arch, it was again a lack of funds that prevented this long over due fix from going forward. Hopefully in my lifetime, it can still be remedied and reflect more closely Saarinen’s original vision for the park.

To be continued…