Tag Archives: Reading

Car Books – Fourth Gear

Continued from Car Books – Third Gear

After reading what a scandal Volkswagen perpetrated on the unsuspecting public throughout the world, I was ready for a more upbeat car book to read.

I thought this might be a good read as I recalled from previous car books how divisive the relationship had been between car guys and financial people within Ford. Bob Lutz is unique in that he held executive positions in all three of the Detroit car companies, Chrysler, Ford and GM (twice) and this book covered his second stint at GM. But it turned out not to be the book that I thought it was and having been written by Lutz himself, only portrayed the story from his perspective, which to me, based on his opinions of the job he could have done had he been CEO, seemed a bit haughty (although I did appreciate Lutz’s disdain for GM’s PMP process, a Performance Management Program I too despise).

So I next tried this book, Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Automakers – GM, Ford, and Chrysler by Bill Vlasic. Vlasic, being a business reporter, gave a much more balanced accounting among the Big Three as well as the UAW and turned out to be a really good book.

This book covered the fall and rise of the Big Three as a result of the Financial Meltdown of 2008. But the book actually picked up the history starting in 2005, which provided helpful background information about the financial health of each company prior to the sub-prime mortgage collapse that took place in 2008. Prior to the events of 2008, I was not aware of the huge issues the car companies were facing. These details made for a very interesting read.

The storyline in the book alternated between each of the Big Three, which gave a complete perspective of what was happening in each. At the time, all three of the Detroit car companies were heavily dependent upon gas-guzzling trucks and large SUVs, vehicles that each company made enormous profits from. And with these three US manufacturers holding over 90% of the US truck market and with trucks outselling cars by a factor of nearly 2 to 1, their sales made for tidy profits. In this period, cars were just not that profitable and were viewed by most as boring offerings.

But then Hurricane Katrina hit in the summer of 2005 and suddenly gas prices shot up a dollar a gallon and sales of gas guzzling vehicles plummeted. With no attractive fuel-efficient cars to offer, sales shifted dramatically from large US makes to small economical cars from Japanese manufacturers.

The Big Three quickly found themselves with parking lots full of unsold vehicles and excess manufacturing capacity. Each of them, in their own way, made plans to shutter plants to reduce their excessive manufacturing capacity. But the prior contract agreements with the UAW and the legacy “Job Banks”, a union guarantee that even laid off workers would still get paid by the manufacturer, minimized the potential savings of simply closing plants. Therefore, costly worker buyouts, in some cases exceeding $100,000 per worker had to be offered as well. Added to this the high cost of healthcare coverage for both active workers and retirees limited the savings the car manufacturers could realize. These “legacy costs” added thousands of dollars to the cost of a US car that foreign competitors, with their national healthcare systems, just did not have thus giving foreign car companies a financial competitive advantage.

Negotiations with the UAW began to occur and with the losses mounting, progress over reducing these legacy costs began to be made as the Union realized bankrupt car companies would be bad for all parties concerned. At one point during this period, GM was losing a billion dollars a month and Ford and Chrysler were each having record losses.

Chrysler, the one company in better financial shape, thanks to their relationship with Daimler (Daimler-Chrysler at the time), struggled with making progress with the union. That is until Daimler decided to unload Chrysler selling them to Cerberus Investments.

Meanwhile, Kirk Kerkorian was trying to wrestle control of GM from its management team by purchasing up to 10% of its stock and placing his right hand man on the GM board. His efforts ultimately failed which left GM in a precarious position having had the added distraction of fending off Kerkorian. To try to sell its backlog of vehicles, GM launched the idea to offer, “employee pricing” to everyone. While it helped them unload many more unsold vehicles, the pricing meant little to no profit and in some cases even a loss on the transaction.

At Ford, a different approach was being taken. Their plan was named the “Way Forward” which included plant closings, improvements in quality and new car offerings to spur sales. To finance this effort, Ford planned to borrow 20 billion dollars by mortgaging everything, even the Ford name. But Bill Ford didn’t think all this would be enough and so was trying to bring in a new executive to replace himself. After several highly qualified candidates declined, Bill brought in Alan Mulally from Boeing (a story that is told very well in American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce G. Hoffman). Ford’s borrowing in 2006 when credit was available was quite fortuitous given the collapse of the credit market in 2008.

In 2008 when GM and a Cerberus owned Chrysler went in search of credit to help fund their cost reduction plans, none was available. Knowing that the only way forward for GM and Chrysler was to continue to reduce their size and work force, these buyout and closure costs along with a plummeting of the US auto market from a high of 16 million vehicles to around 10 million units, resulted in their largest losses ever. The catastrophic decline in the auto market even left Ford with their largest loss in their 100-year existence.

Secretly GM approached Ford about merging (a fact I did not know) but Ford flatly declined. Jilted, GM next approached Chrysler about combining their two companies but was again turned down once it became apparent to Chrysler that it was just an attempt to save GM.

That Fall, just as Obama was about to be elected president, GM approached President Bush about the possibility of garnering government loans—a request for 10 billion of the TARP money that had been allocated to rescue the banking industry. The answer was no.

After Obama won the election and promised he would not let the US auto industry die, GM, Ford, and Chrysler went together to Congress to ask for help. Congress’s initial rebuff following a grueling two days of questioning was made only worse by the highly publicized debacle of the CEOs winging it from Detroit to Washington on their corporate jets to beg for billions in relief. Their only hope was a more successful second trip to Washington, this time each CEO having been driven in a hybrid vehicle made by their own company.

By this time Ford, given their previous borrowing, decided to forgo any loans from the US government. So it was just GM and Chrysler that requested loans. These loans came with very strict requirements which GM and Chrysler were ultimately not able to meet. This failure led to them both declaring bankruptcy with even the CEO of GM becoming a casualty, one of the few private company executives ever to be “fired” by the federal government.

With active US government participation, a new, but much smaller GM emerged from bankruptcy with the government becoming a 60% owner (this prompted the phrase “Government Motors”, technically a true moniker at least until the new GM issued stock and the US government sold off their shares to recoup their investment cost). For Chrysler, the government forced them to merge with Fiat, the Italian maker of these cute little cars.

Within two years, all three companies returned to profitable operations and today, are much stronger and much more able to compete in the US market. Looking back to these disastrous events that took place almost 10 years ago, it’s frightening to think how close the US auto industry came to becoming extinct. Since hindsight always provides a 20-20 perspective, it is easy now to say that had not the hard decisions been made and the hard work expended, our only choices today when purchasing a car would be a foreign-made or foreign-owned model!

And thanks to this book, I now had the story behind how it all came to fruition.

Car Books – Third Gear

Continued from Car Books – Second Gear

This is a car book I wanted to read even before I knew it was a car book. Ever since the story began to unfold of the Volkswagen Diesel Emission Scandal in 2015, I knew this would be an intriguing story to read. As I learned new details almost daily from my online Autoweek news magazine at the time, the fraud became even more incredible and I hoped someone would write a book. Thanks to Jack Ewing writing Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal, that book is now published and thanks to my wife’s unprompted gift of it to me for Father’s Day, I now know so much more.

I was already familiar with how Volkswagen got its start, essentially as a propaganda car company by Hitler prior to World War II so I was a little puzzled when the book traced the beginning that far back. But through an abbreviated history of the company, along with its founding of Audi in 1969 and its close relationship with Porsche, important details were provided about the automotive environment at Volkswagen. And learning about the senior management of the company and their business philosophies—their attitude of make it work or you’re fired—helped me understand how such a scandal could actually transpire.

As I read, there were several learning’s that surprised me.

Turns out, this was not the first time a car company or engine manufacturer had implemented a “defeat device” to disengage emission equipment to improve performance. In the 1990s, there were three separate cases, Cadillac, Ford, and Cummins Diesel that had programmed Engine Control Units (ECUs, the onboard computers) to disengage in certain situations. In each case, the ECU was programmed to recognize when it was undergoing testing—when the engine was driving the wheels but the steering wheel was not being turned—and employ all emission equipment to function properly during the testing. Once deceit was proven, the Cummins case alone resulted in a 1 billion dollar fine by EPA.

The introduction of the Turbo Direct Injection (TDI) Diesel by Volkswagen in 2009 supported Volkswagen’s professed goal of becoming the world dominant automaker outpacing all other car companies in numbers of sales. Diesel-power, while less common among passenger cars in the US, offered advantages of reduced carbon dioxide emissions and better fuel efficiency (relative to gasoline) and afforded Volkswagen an opportunity to compete against Toyota’s highly fuel-efficient Prius. But due to the higher operating temperature inside the cylinder, diesel engines produce much more nitrogen oxides, the gases that cause smog and have a direct link to asthma and other deleterious health issues. The challenge presented to the Volkswagen engineers in 2006 was to create a clean diesel engine for this planned 2009 launch.

Since Audi had marketed a diesel engine since 1999, the engineers looked there first to see how they had addressed emissions difficulties. When they began to examine the ECU programming, they found an unusual section of code that had been included to reduce the loud clacking noise diesel engines make when they are first started. They realized, this was a defeat device as it turned off emission equipment to reduce the noise.

When the engineers kept encountering issues achieving the clean diesel goal, it was suggested that Volkswagen use a similar defeat device to address the poor car performance that resulted when the emission equipment was fully operational. It was reluctantly pursued and since Volkswagen did not write their own ECU code, they had to instruct Bosch, the ECU manufacturer to include it, which broadened the scandal even further. As with the previous devices, these were programmed to recognize when they were being emission tested in the laboratory so that emissions would be within acceptable levels.

By mid-2015, thanks in no small part to their TDI diesel cars, Volkswagen overtook Toyota as the largest global carmaker in terms of sale volume. But interestingly, it was events in Europe that began to unravel the fraud.

Diesel cars are much more common in Europe because of diesel’s price advantage over gasoline and diesel’s superior fuel efficiency. But in spite of still meeting less stringent European emission standards, actual pollution within cites was found not to be decreasing as it should (based on calculations) but rather was increasing. The European organization similar to EPA contracted with West Virginia University (WVU) to test several diesel cars both in laboratory settings and on the road. The WVU staff just happened to test two Volkswagens and a BMW in California where the California Air Resources Board (CARB) had even more stringent requirements than EPA. The results were eye opening. While all three cars easily passed the laboratory test, only the BMW met emission requirements under actual road conditions. On the road, the two Volkswagens exceeded the nitrogen oxide limit by as much as 20 to 30 times.

Still not understanding that fraud was at play, future testing was conducted by CARB. Conflicting data continued to pile up between laboratory and on road testing. Then CARB decided to extend the standardized lab test sequence and discovered a remarkable result. One minute after the test was scheduled to end, emissions jumped dramatically on the car still rolling on the tester.

CARB first asked Volkswagen kindly for explanations but since none were forth coming, began to demand answers. No reasonable answers were provided and so in July 2015, CARB chose to use their nuclear option threatening not to certify the 2016 diesel cars that were already sitting in US ports, an act that would actually preclude their sale not just in California, but anywhere in the US.

From the time of the original WVU study in 2014 through all of the testing by CARB in 2015, Volkswagen continued to obfuscate the truth about the scandal by providing misleading and confusing answers to CARB. Volkswagen eventually admitted to a technical issue with the emission systems in early 2015 and agreed to recall and fix affected diesel cars. But following CARB’s retesting of the repaired diesel cars which still gave failing results, Volkswagen finally admitted that a defeat device had in fact been included in all 11 million diesel cars sold worldwide, a fraud on par with Enron.

The legal process that ensued was complex since it involved government regulators, states, VW dealers, and car owners. Partly due to Volkswagen’s covering up of the fraud, the legal settlement between Volkswagen, US authorities and car owners amounted to 15 billion dollars, well above the previous 1 billion defeat device fine, only to be increased by another 5 billion the following year related to another type of Volkswagen diesel sold.

While this was not the type of car story that would typically pique a car lover’s interest of cars, it was nonetheless, a very interesting tale of just how bad and how potentially unscrupulous a car company could be.

Car Books – Second Gear

Continued from Car Books – First Gear

But it is this most recent book that I read by David Halberstam that has given me the most comprehensive look into the modern automobile industry. I have to admit that I had an almost love-hate relationship with this book while reading it as some of the details it went into in its massive 760 page length I was just not that interested in. On more than one occasion I considered not finishing the book. But I kept on plugging and I am glad I did. In fact, after finishing the book and reflecting on the different interwoven stories, I now see that they were all critical parts leading to ultimately what happened to the US auto industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

This book mainly focuses on Nissan, Ford, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, the Japanese auto unions and several influential individuals inside and outside the auto industry, going back and forth between all of them on the same chronological timeline as they each enjoyed different successes over their history. The story traces its beginning all the way back to just after World War II when Douglass McArthur was in Japan helping the Japanese to resurrect their manufacturing industries. It was interesting to get more details of the story I was only aware of at a high level of how it was Americans, in particular Edwards Deming that taught the Japanese how to develop quality driven manufacturing processes that led to high quality vehicles (think of products made in Japan in the 1960s vs. the 1980s).

I enjoyed learning of the history of Nissan (Datsun in the US), which was thoroughly covered in the book, all new knowledge to me. But once the book began to describe the development of the Ford Mustang, my interest was particularly piqued. I can still recall as an adolescent in 1964 when the Mustang was launched. The details included helped clarify the controversy over who was ultimately responsible for bringing the Mustang out. While Lee Iacocca has been credited with its development, it was actually others who came up with the design. But it was no doubt Iacocca who shepherded the car through the Ford political morass and into production and his prescient foresight that ensured adequate manufacturing capability to keep up with the unprecedented demand.

It was also incredible to read how close the Mustang came to not being produced at all, for at the time, Ford was controlled by very conservative finance people who had Henry Ford II’s ear and who constantly impeded the product people, the “car guys” whose passion it was to design and build exciting cars. In fact over much of its history, Ford has been controlled not by car guys but rather finance guys who were always looking out for maintaining the wealth of the Ford descendants instead of bringing innovative automobiles to the market.

By 1970, all three US automakers were producing really big, highly profitable cars because they claimed they couldn’t make a decent profit on small cars. And US consumers kept buying these big cars in spite of their poor quality. But all of that was soon to change.

Superimposed on these automotive stories were the events surrounding the oil producing nations and how for so many years, oil was cheap (I can still remember from my childhood seeing gas selling for 29.9 cents per gallon). This storyline reached a climax in 1973 when the Yom Kippur War (Six Day War) led to the Oil Embargo against countries supporting Israel and resulted in the escalation of the price of gasoline and the end of cheap energy. It was at this time when the Big Three (Ford, GM, Chrysler) had no small fuel efficient cars but only large poor quality cars that on average got a mere 13 miles to the gallon. It was the turning point for the Japanese to gain a real foothold in the US auto industry with small fuel-efficient cars that had better quality. Interestingly it was at this time that I bought my first car, a 1973 American Motors (AMC) Gremlin.

As Ford, GM, and Chrysler scrambled to come out with small cars, it was this portion of the book that was of most interest to me as these were events I could readily recall from my teenage and early 20s, the times when GM came out with the ill-fated Chevy Vega and Ford, the maligned Pinto. Having previously read Iacocca’s book, I was quite familiar with his ouster from Ford and his very successfully saving of Chrysler. I can even vividly picture the commercials he starred in for Chrysler and the return of the convertible and the launch of the now ubiquitous mini-van.

The book also covered the development of the highly successful Ford Taurus, the riskiest product launch ever undertaken by Ford and the development of the Nissan plant in Smyrna, TN.

But the underlying theme of the book came to a climax in the chapter with the same name as the title of the book, The Reckoning. For while it was with great interest in the US automotive industry with which I read this book, the fact was that for the forty-year period from 1945 to 1985, that it was the Japanese that became the major producers of automobiles sold in the US. What started, as a very diminutive importing of Japanese cars became the major manufacturers that we know them as today. With the huge market share garnered by the Japanese, the “Big Three” became simply the “Detroit Three” since no longer were they the manufacturing behemoths they had once been. And I guess this reality is reflected in my own selection of cars as with the four cars I currently own, none of them are domestic but rather all are Japanese.

Reading this book has reignited a desire in me to read more books about the automotive industry. Until I read this book, I had not run across one in over four years. But now searching I will go on Amazon for more good car books to test drive.

Car Books – First Gear

I have posted numerous times of one type of book I enjoy reading which I refer to as my Building Books—books about building things. But until recently, I realized I had never written about another genre I especially enjoy reading, books about cars. The more I thought about it, the more I recognized it was long over due.

If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you know that I have been a lifelong car lover, a Miata owner for over 20 years, and now that I have more time to do so, an avid reader.

I can still remember from when I was a toddler that my favorite picture book with all of its colorful cars and dog drivers was Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman. And when I was in grade school, I can recall with delight when I discovered my first book about cars at the Scholastic Book Fair, a book about buying and taking care of your first car. In high school, my mother suggested I read Wheels by Arthur Hailey, a fictional novel that explored the auto industry from the perspective of the dealer, the manufacturer, the line worker, and the consumer. This was my first exposure to the complexity and politics of manufacturing cars and probably dampened my naïve desire up to that point to work in the automobile manufacturing industry.

As an adult, I read with fascination a number of different books about the development of specific cars, in particular Corvettes, Mustangs, Muscle Cars and Miatas.

I absolutely fell in love with the Mazda Miata when first seeing this car ad in 1989 since convertibles had all but disappeared from our US roads, especially small sports cars. After purchasing a Miata, I bought this book by Jay Lamm. It was with fascination that I read how three different development teams within Mazda vied for creating the car and then once the winner was declared, how the final car was brought to market and all the changes that occurred over its first seven years of production. This could have been a thick 1,000-page book rather than the slim 140 pages it was and I still would have read and poured over every page. The entire development story was an enjoyable read with a most happy outcome.

However, not until I read The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century by Steven Watts did I got an inside look into how unpleasant it could be to live in that world. This book covered the history of Ford as it spanned over its founder’s lifetime. I found absolutely shocking some of the things that occurred within the Ford Motor Company that confirmed my wise choice to enter the field of science rather than automobiles as my career.

Knowing that Lee Iacocca was a part of that troubled history under Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, I wanted to get Iacocca’s side of the Ford story so I purchased his autobiography and gained further insight into those difficult years at Ford. In addition, this book covered Iacocca’s successful turnaround of Chrysler after he was fired from Ford.

A much more upbeat story about Ford that I read was American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce G. Hoffman. I was already familiar with Alan Mulally having seen the PBS documentary many years ago on the building of the Boeing 777 jet airplane, a development program spear-headed by then Boeing executive Mulally. And I recalled from 2008/2009 when the other big automakers were getting bailout loans from the federal government as they were entering bankruptcy; Ford had gone it alone and survived without government loans and without enduring bankruptcy. While he seemed to be quite a likeable person in the PBS series, it was only through reading this book that I gained tremendous respect for his executive office prowess.

This book covers the period from when Alan became CEO of Ford when the great grandson to Henry Ford, CEO Bill Ford stepped aside. It tells the story of the struggle between the changes Alan wanted to make and the wishes of the Ford family, which to this day as a block, owns a controlling interest in Ford. To Bill Ford’s credit, he recognized that dramatic change was necessary to save Ford and so mediated with the family to help Alan make the changes. This story is so intriguing and came so close to failing that it might well become a case study for others to learn from in business school. Particularly since Ford still enjoys today the successes that Mulally forged under his leadership.

But it is this most recent book that I read by David Halberstam that has given me the most comprehensive look into the modern automobile industry.

To be continued…

Unquenchable Thirst for Reading

I can’t get enough of reading. For someone who read very little for pleasure up until about the age of 25, I’ve sadly missed a lot of years that I could have been reading. But a reader I have turned in to! These are some of the bookcases filled with books I’ve read over the years.

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Once I started this blog several years ago, I began to keep a digital list of all the books I read in a calendar year. And for several years, I’ve been keeping an Amazon “wish list” of all the books I wanted to read. I’ve written before about all of the books I have in waiting on that list, but unfortunately that list is growing faster than I can read.

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Not long ago, my sister-in-law introduced me to BookBub, a service you can sign up for in which you pre-select the types of books you would be interested in reading (I signed up for both fiction novels and non-fiction history books.). Once activated, you then get a daily e-mail message that lists digital books that are on sale—just for that one day—priced from “Free” to $3.99. Who can pass up these kinds of prices? So far this year, I’ve purchased eight BookBub books, each for $2.99 or less. Even with the current price of gas, I can’t drive to the public library and check out a book for much less than that.

My problem is, as always, I am a slow reader. I marvel at my wife for how fast she can read.

My Wife's Bookcase

My Wife’s Bookcase

Often when our evening is almost over, we will each get up on our bed and read a digital book on our iPad. It is amazing how quickly she is touching her iPad to move to the next page. Sadly for me, I often end up falling asleep while reading being so worn out by the end of the day.

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One of the best times for me to get to read is when I am traveling by air. I honestly don’t mind sitting in the airport waiting to board when I have a good book to read. And once on the plane, I often put ear buds in to discourage any conversation from fellow travellers so I can have hours of uninterrupted reading pleasure. Thank goodness we can now use our e-readers below 10,000 feet and while waiting to depart.

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My favorite flight is on my return trip from Amsterdam each year when I typically have a seven to eight hour flight during day light hours when, despite the 7-hour time difference, is still when I would normally be awake (The flight to Amsterdam is overnight so I usually try to sleep as much as I can rather than read to better acclimate to the 7-hour time loss).

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Another favorite time of mine is on vacation when I can also spend many hours reading non-stop.

Having turned 60, an age I’ve always thought of as “old” (although less so now that I am actually 60), I’ve had the sad thought of wondering just how many more years of reading I have left.

One of the items on my “to do” list once I retire is to read more. So even though knowing each of us has a limited number of years to live, I plan to accelerate my reading. Not that I will necessarily become a speed-reader to rival my wife. But with more hours available to read, I’ll be able to read even more books. But I suspect that even with that change, I’ll still have trouble keeping up with all the books I want to read. Because there are just so many great books out there, and the universe of books continues to expand ever larger.

Building Books – A Surprise!

On multiple occasions, I have written of my interest in learning about how different things were built by reading a book about the project. Loving all forms of transportation, in particular, cars, trains, and airplanes, I wrote last year of my long-standing desire to read about the building of the railroads in the US during the 19th century but how my efforts had been thwarted. I had purchased and read several books about railroads but had not gotten the story I wanted. As I said in that post:

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.

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This is the book I put on my Amazon Wish List in November 2012. Reading the book description gave me the impression this was the story I really wanted to read.   But unfortunately, before I could purchase this book, it went out of print and has remained so ever since.

Then early last September, a package arrived at our house that by the look of the packaging and the feel of its contents, it was a book. Knowing that our youngest son had recently started graduate school and was purchasing his schoolbooks online, I ripped open the package thinking it was just another textbook he needed for his graduate studies.

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But when I pulled it from the package, I got a big surprise—it was the book I had been wanting for almost four years.

My first thought was I had accidently spoiled a Christmas surprise for me (not the first time I had done that either). I next asked my wife if she had bought it for me to which she replied no. I then discreetly asked all three of our children if they had started their Christmas shopping early. Again the answer was no.

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Then a few days later, I got a text from my brother asking if a package had arrived at the house. I replied that one had but that I had opened it potentially spoiling the surprise. He said it was a surprise but that he intended for me to open it as soon as it arrived. He explained it was not an early Christmas or birthday present but just a gift. After reading the disappointment in my voice evident from my blog post about not being able to purchase it, he had sought the book out and bought it for me. What a brother!   And what a gift for what he found turned out to be a very gently used copy in excellent condition!

With book in hand, it quickly moved up my list of books to read. And read I did.

Although this booked started similarly to the one I read last year in covering the fact that many of the railroads were originally laid out along old Indian trails or stagecoach routes, I could tell this one would be different as it included a multi-page preface of the cast of characters—the railroads and the railroaders key to this telling of the history of railroads in the US.

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And skipping over a few pages, I could see that it included maps that would help visualize the proposed routes of the eventual railroads.

I was not long into the book, having been introduced to some of the early tycoons that I learned of their consistent strategy. Obtain a lucrative land grant from Congress, incorporate a railroad company, name a president and other key players, vote to sell bonds or stock, and then begin construction with said funds. Since all of the land grants came with a stipulation of a certain amount of mileage completed between destinations within a certain time frame, there developed fierce competition between rival rails. And the frantic building pace frequently left the railroads in a precarious financial position with insolvency ever looming.

In fact some times “paper railroads” would be incorporated just for the sole purpose of bluffing a competitor into taking certain actions along a route or to motivate a consolidation of lines.

While a prominent milestone in the book I read last year was the famous driving of the golden spike by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, that event occurred in this book before I was even 1/3 of the way through. And what was even more interesting was the little known and often-ignored fact (disclosed in this book) that while claiming to be the first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific had not yet bridged the 1,500-foot span across the Missouri River (Until their bridge was completed almost three years later, traffic was conveyed across the water by ferry). Rather it was the final spike of the Kansas Pacific railroad at Comanche Crossing Colorado in 1870 that marked the true completion of the first uninterrupted transcontinental railroad between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Featured prominently in this book was the contentious battle between the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad and the Denver and Rio Grande railroad as well as others. Two separate struggles through narrow passes in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona highlighted the stealth and aggressive tactics executives from each company would pursue, even to the point of gunfire to claim the pass for themselves. Ultimately it was multiple court decisions all the way to the Supreme Court that settled the dispute. But not before I got a real taste of the rail baron shenanigans I was looking for.

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But these conflicts were just a prelude for bigger competition. Not long afterwards, the Santa Fe and Frisco joined forces to attempt to build the third transcontinental railroad. Thwarting their efforts were none other than the Big Four out of California (Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford). And once Jay Gould began to work with the Big Four rather than against them, they proved a formidable opponent. It was exactly the battle royal among barons that I had wanted to read about. Ultimately it was the shrewd maneuvers and financial muscle of the Big Four that won the day preventing the Santa Fe from laying track into California. Left with the only option of cooperating with the Big Four, the Santa Fe and Frisco became part of a combined route with Gould and the Big Four.

But it wasn’t just the rail barons that fought aggressively with each other; towns along the proposed routes “politicked” hard to become the next rail boomtown. Recognizing the benefits to their local economy and their escalating land value, town fathers (who frequently had vast land holdings that would appreciate in value) offered enticing incentives for the railroads to choose their town. This heightened the struggle even further when competing railroads would “court” the same towns.

It was with sadness when I neared the end of this book for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, I knew how the story was going to end. While the race across the continent began in earnest during the Civil War and the expansion of the railroad network grew dramatically for the next 50 years, it was their extreme useful during World War I and II that marked the rare high-water marks that stood out among their years of decline. After World War II, it was the swiftness of the jet airplane and the individualized mobility of the automobile that doomed passenger rail service, a service I would have loved to enjoy had I been born just 15 years earlier.

Beginning in the 1950s, no longer were railroads consolidating to form mega-monopoly empires but rather merging as the only means of survival in a redefined era of freight transport sans passenger service.

Secondly, sadness that the story itself had come to an end for this book well told the tale I had wanted to read. The exciting times of railroad growth in the 19th century, the challenges the railroaders encountered in building through the mountainous west, and the machinations of the rail barons, the shrewd tactics they pursued, and the political moves they employed to build their empires all made for an extremely interesting saga. Closing the cover of the book, I felt I had learned a tremendous amount of this history, I had been entertained, and I had most certainly satisfied my quest for knowing more of this story.

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So thanks Bro, for a most satisfying surprise gift!

A Small Taste of Retirement?

In February of this year, I had major surgery that resulted in me being off of work for 18 consecutive days (12 work days and 3 weekends). In my 35+ years of working full time, this was the longest time I had ever been off work. So part of the way through my convalescence, I started thinking: “Was this what retirement would be like?”

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Admittedly, the first part of my recuperation was no picnic. The first two days off (Thursday and Friday) were the actual day of the surgery and the first 24 hours following it. In fact for the next five days, I spent most of my time lying on this chaise in our sunroom—a room my wife had recently redecorated—because it was just too painful to do much else. But every morning after I awoke, took my medicine and had my breakfast, I got to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do. And after almost a week post surgery, I felt well enough to do more than just lie around. That began to seem more like retirement to me.

So what did I do?

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Well for one, I did a lot of reading. At that time, I was on a binge reading James Bond novels and watching the companion movies. Over the time I was off, I read six Bond novels and watched eight Bond movies. This was a fun way to spend my time recuperating.

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When it was less painful to sit for an extended period of time, I started working on some of my miniature chairs I’ve written about before.   I had time to complete one and get a pretty good start on a second one.

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And I wrote four different blog posts (this being one of them).

Once I felt well enough to drive, I went to the mall to walk and get some exercise and also did a little shopping while there.

I even worked on income taxes although that certainly wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do, just needed to do.

Two weeks after my suregery, I decided to get started working back into an exercise routine even though the doctor had told me it would be at least four weeks before I was fully recovered and able to run again. So the morning I went to the gym, I left the house at a leisurely 7:30 AM rather than my usual 5:30 AM. I certainly encountered a lot more traffic at that time which took me longer to get there but I didn’t have to be anywhere at a certain time so it didn’t really matter.

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And over those 18 days off from work, I never once set an alarm; I just got up at whatever time I felt like. That certainly seemed like retirement!

Into my second full week off from work, I did start to go through some work e-mail once my unread messages got to be over 350. And I had to read a book for some management training I was going through at work bringing my total number of books read to seven. But even this small amount of work didn’t dampen my sense of feeling retired.

In talking with friends and work colleagues who have retired, I know part of the adjustment to retirement is just getting use to not driving to work and following a set routine. For me, this wasn’t a problem as I had an automatic disrupter, the surgery that broke my routine.

While being off from work almost three weeks is a far cry short of being off work permanently, it still gave me a taste of what it would feel like. Never did I wonder what I would do with all my extra time, puzzlement many early retirees probably ponder. Rather I only wondered of all the options I had what I wanted to do next. So I liked this small taste of retirement I was given under the circumstances. And I know when that actual day comes, I ‘ll think of many other things I want to do, things I never had time to do while working full time.