Pit Stops on The Road Of Life

DISASTER BUM 1974  

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I don’t recall Christmas, 1973,  in Sweet Valley being much worse, weather-wise, than the 26 prior winters I’d lived or visited there.  At my Dad’s house, we never lost power and the snow wasn’t particularly heavy.  Connecticut was another story.  As told at a web site for the town of Ridgefield at Acorn-Online , “In mid-December, the worst ice storm of the century hits town. Temperatures dip to below zero and some neighborhoods are without power for nearly a week.”  From what I later learned, it seemed like the entire state had been affected similarly for the better part of a month.

Per Connecticut Local Politics, “Thomas Meskill Gets Snowed: In 1970, Thomas Meskill was elected as Connecticut's first Republican governor since John Davis Lodge (1951-55). His tenure was an unsteady and forgettable one, but it seemed in 1973 that he would probably be re-elected.  However, when a severe ice and snow storm struck Connecticut during the winter of 1973-74, Gov. Meskill was nowhere to be found. He was on a skiing vacation in Vermont, and apparently had decided not to return to the state. The image of the governor skiing while many in Connecticut huddled miserable without heat or electricity dropped Meskill's political fortunes like a rock. Not long after, he saw the writing on the wall and announced he wouldn't run for a second term.”

I would guess that his reluctance to come home caused him to be slow in declaring a statewide emergency.  A Presidential disaster declaration was, therefore, also slow in coming and I didn’t get the call until just after New Year’s Day.  I got sworn in at the Wilkes-Barre SBA office and, and in few hours, I was in the Hartford District Office.

As disasters go, the Connecticut ice storm turned out to be not a very big deal for us disaster bums.  Our entire crew consisted of just three people: a Loss Verifier named Alex, his wife Kathy, who was our clerk\typist and myself as the only Loan Officer.  Upon our arrival, there were no “one-stop centers” set up anywhere in the state although the permanent employees may have staffed a few such centers before we got there.  The chief reason for our inactivity, I’d guess, was the fact that we lent money only for uninsured losses.  The bulk of damage from an ice storm, be it roofs crushed by falling trees, rotting food caused by power outages, etc., was covered by homeowners’ insurance.  A second important fact was that the “Agnes forgiveness” legislation had expired on 12/31/73.  Absent a $5,000 freebie and with few losses to claim, homeowners and renters stayed away in droves.  Businesses, too, had little in the way of physical uninsured losses to claim, but they were eligible to get loans for “economic injury.”  These funds would provide them working capital to handle payables that had fallen behind when the ice caused the businesses to close down.  I had, up to that time, worked almost exclusively on physical-loss loans and was, therefore, quite fortunate to be working right in the Hartford District Office.  The Loan Officers on the full-time permanent staff were most helpful in teaching me the ins and outs of corporate cash flow. 

Alex and Kathy and I worked just a normal 40-hour week.  I’m not sure where they found housing but I found a reasonably-priced motel in Glastonbury, across the Connecticut River from Hartford.  Our work on this disaster coincided with an Arab oil embargo and gasoline was in short supply, so I left my car at the motel and rode the bus to work.  With both Saturdays and Sundays off, I did drive a few miles around the metropolitan area, taking pictures much like the average tourist would.

1) The only two-sided building in the world.  Officially the Phoenix Building (for the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company), the locals call it “The Green Boat.” Completed in 1963, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designed by Max Abramovitz, who also designed the United Nations and Lincoln Center, two New York City landmarks.  
2) “The Safe Arrival.” Sculpted by Frances Wadsworth and located on Tower Square, it commemorates the first "travelers" to Hartford in 1636.  
3) The Wadsworth Atheneum.  Since 1842, America's oldest public art museum founded by Hartford art patron Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848).  See
Wadsworth Atheneum.  Photos by Ron Hontz with additional info provided by Brenda Miller, Manager, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.

4) Alexander Calder's “Stegosaurus.”  One of a series of Calder's stabiles, the Stegosaurus stands 50 feet high and is made of steel plate. Installed on Burr Mall adjacent to City Hall and the Wadsworth Atheneum, the soaring structure has dominated the plaza since its installation in 1973. 
5) Soldiers and Sailors Arch. The Gothic and Romanesque revival monument is made of brownstone from Portland, Connecticut. It was designed by Hartford architect George Keller. The arch was dedicated on September 17, 1886 – the anniversary of the
Battle of Antietam – to honor the 4,000 Hartford citizens who served in the Civil War, and the 400 who died for the Union. It is the first permanent triumphal arch, as well as the first permanent war memorial, constructed in the U.S. The memorial features terra cotta friezes – on the north side, New York sculptor Samuel Kitson showed the story of the Civil War; on the south side, the City of Hartford, represented by a female figure, welcomes the soldier's home in a scene sculpted by Casper Buberl. Albert W. Entress sculpted the life-size figures at the base of each tower. The arch marks the entrance to what was once the bridge that crossed the Park River.  
6) Connecticut State Capitol.  The Connecticut State Capitol building dominates a high point of ground overlooking
Bushnell Park – property on which once stood Washington College (now Trinity College). Designed by Richard Michell Upjohn in 1874, it serves as both monument and seat of state government. Photos by Ron Hontz with additional info provided by Brenda Miller, Manager, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.

7) The Gold Building (background), First Church of Christ.  The Gold Building, 755 Main Street. The Main Street landmark houses the corporate headquarters for United Technologies Corp., as well as other tenants such as IBM, Conning & Co, Reid and Riege, Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers, Accenture, Henderson Global Investors, General Reinsurance, People’s Bank, and KPMG.  The First Church of Christ in Hartford (60 Gold Street), known as Center Church, was founded in 1632 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It called Thomas Hooker to be its first pastor. The Hooker party traveled on Indian trails from Cambridge to the Connecticut River valley and settled Hartford in 1636.  Four meeting houses have served its ministry in Hartford. The first two were located where the Old State House stands today. The first, built in 1636, was a small log structure and was given to Mr. Hooker to be his barn when the second was built in 1641. In 1740, the third meeting house was built on the present site of the current meeting house. The fourth and present Meeting House was completed in 1807 at a cost of $32,000. The pulpit recess and barrel-vault ceiling were added in 1853.  Originally filled with clear glass windows, stained glass windows were given as memorials between 1881 and 1903. The first organ, purchased in 1822, was replaced with new instruments in 1835 (case and facade pipes remain), 1883, and 1907. The present organ, built in 1954 by Hartford's own Austin Organs, Inc., was renovated in 2004.  The tower bell, first cast in England in 1633, continues to ring today.  
8) Distant side view of the Connecticut State Capitol.  
9)  Tombstone in Glastonbury, CT.  Note that Pheneeas Burnham died in 1776 and the inscription is still legible!! Photos by Ron Hontz with additional info provided by Brenda Miller, Manager, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.

The work was finished by the end of March and I drove home to Sweet Valley on Saturday, March 30, 1974.  It was a memorable trip because it had snowed the night before.  I-84 at that time had not been completed all the way westward to hook up with I-81 near Scranton and it would be necessary to get off and travel through Hamlin Corners.  The highway crews had taken good care of I-84 and, for the most part, the surface was just wet but not frozen.  That all changed abruptly as I neared the exit for Hamlin Corners.  Rounding a curve, I suddenly encountered the point where the plows has crossed the median and headed back eastward.  No longer was the roadway merely wet.  I found myself, at about 60 MPH, skiing in 6 inches of slush.  As a Pennsylvania native, I was quite aware of how to drive in such conditions:  lay off the gas, touch the brake only lightly, and steer in the direction of the skid.  The last part got away from me, for my ’70 Chevelle Malibu’s power steering, when combined with slush, caused me to forget in WHICH DIRECTION I had last steered.  LOL!  I crossed both westbound lanes at least three times, hoping all the while that the fellow 100 yards behind me wouldn’t try to pass.  Slowing to about 15 MPH, I intentionally bumped into the snow bank thrown up by plows and stopped.  The other fellow then felt safe in passing me. He did so and then stopped to inquire if I was all right.  “Yep”, said I, “as soon as I scrape my leg, I’ll be on my way!”   I had no further driving adventures and I arrived safely in Sweet Valley.  

My stay at home lasted just over a week.  See Wikipedia.  April 3, 1974 was a Wednesday and I got the call from SBA on Friday, the 5th.  The call came too late in the day for me to get sworn in at the Wilkes-Barre office so I spent the weekend doing laundry and packing.  I took the oath on Monday, April 8, and headed to the Columbus, OH, District Office.  The trip took all day. Night was falling as I approached the outskirts of Columbus, so I checked into a motel, intending to report to work on Tuesday.  At this point, I experienced a once-in-a-lifetime moment akin to “Where were you when JFK was shot?”  I switched on the motel room’s TV and tuned into Monday Night Baseball.  I returned from my car with my last load of belongings just in time to see, LIVE, Hank Aaron hit home run number 715, surpassing Babe Ruth !!  This was truly historical for a devoted Dodger fan such as I, for, wearing number 44 on his back, Hank hit it off number 44 of the Dodgers—Al Downing.  Even now, some 33 years later, I can still picture the ball sailing over the left field fence of Fulton County Stadium.  It was caught in the Braves’ bullpen by relief pitcher Tom House.

I reported into the Columbus District Office on Tuesday, the 9th and spent the entire day working with the permanent employees stapling together loan application kits.  I then made three daily trips delivering the packages down to Xenia for the rest of the week.  Each time, I encountered a half-mile long traffic backup as the gendarmes checked ID’s to keep out thrill seekers.  I then spent about 3 days in Xenia actually screening in and processing applications before I got orders to report even further south—to Cincinnati.  Only years later did I learn the full scope of the “Super Outbreak” of tornadoes that had occurred.  Again, see Wikipedia

In the short time I spent in Xenia, I did manage to snap a few pictures.

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1) Xenia High School which was fairly empty at 4:40 PM when the tornado hit.  
2) Damaged frame dwelling.  
3) Damaged brick home.  
4) Kroehler Furniture Company van in Xenia.  
5) My buddy, Jess Peiffer, who drove out from Sweet Valley to see me in Cincinnati.  Joe Petitta, Loss Verifier.  
6)  Chester Phillips, Loss Verifier.

Our Disaster Office for the Cincinnati area was set up in space provided by Cheviot Township on the west side of the city.  In addition to the two Loss Verifiers shown above, our crew also contained two ladies, one a Loan Officer like me, and another Loss Verifier.  The Loan Officer was an older lady about whom I don’t recall much.  The female Loss Verifier was an unusual case in that she was accompanied by her 3-year-old son.  Wherever she was assigned for duty, she found child care and left him there while she worked.  Joe Petitta was one of the nicest guys I ever met.  A true gentleman, he was a WW2 Air Force vet who had served in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  He chose to stay there after the war and he married a Mexican lady.  Joe’s motel room was a welcome place for an after-work BS session but ONLY up till 7 PM on Sunday.  That’s the time he would call his wife, weekly, regular as clockwork.  Chester Phillips, on the other hand, was a real piece of work.  A good ole boy from Arkansas, he was, in one way,  the direct opposite of Joe. Chester had marital difficulties to the extent that he carried in his wallet a neatly-folded $10,000 US Treasury T-bill so that his wife couldn’t lay hands on it !

Cincinnati lies on the Ohio River and we found advantageous housing across the river in Florence, Kentucky.  A small residential motel, on a weekly basis it worked out to only about $6 a night which fit neatly into our $25 per diem rate.  We worked only six days a week, so our Sundays were free.  We once chose to go bet on the horses at River Downs near the Cincinnati Reds ballpark. Chester Phillips had never been to a racetrack and Joe and I had to show him how to place bets.  Chester seemed to take to it and he studied the program avidly.  Along about the 4th race, he returned to his seat, ticket in hand, and proudly proclaimed, “I’m gonna hit it big with that number 4, Black Beauty !”  Joe and I had been studying the 4th race as well and we asked him “But, Chester, you know, don’t you, that Black Beauty is in the FIFTH race?” Sure ‘nuff, poor Chester had studied the wrong page ! Joe and I felt sorry for him and offered to buy his ticket from him but, embarrassed, he demurred.    Would you believe that the lucky sonovagun won $20 anyway when Black Beauty did run in the 5th?

Neighboring Florence is the town of Covington, Kentucky.  A noted cesspool of vice, it had been “cleaned up” by Senator Estes Kefauver back in the 1950’s but this was the ‘70’s and good times once again flourished.  I fully admit that, as a healthy 28-year-old, I found it necessary more than once to travel there to view the naked dancing girls.  My buddy, Jess Peiffer, recalls me dragging him along with me when he drove out to visit me.  However, he got married in 1976 and we make sure not to discuss this adventure in front of his wife.

With Sundays off, I also spent some time venturing into the tornado-ravaged neighborhoods on the west side of Cincinnati.  I didn’t take any pictures but the memories are fresh in my mind.  Homes built on concrete slabs had been totally wiped off the slabs, leaving only a  trace of human habitation that looked totally silly---a toilet. Attached to its plumbing, it had withstood even the 200 MPH-plus winds of an F5 twister.  The Loss Verifiers also told me of a house with a basement in which a Cadillac rested.  The basement wasn’t long enough to allow building a ramp on which to drive it out, so a crane came to lift it out.  As was the case in Xenia, the twister had spared some houses with minimal shingle damage while neighboring structures were totally demolished.

I also got to visit the King’s Island amusement park just north of Cincinnati.  Owned by Taft Broadcasting, it is a sibling of their King’s Dominion park near Richmond in the “Old Dominion” state of Virginia.

I think I was the first of our crew to leave Cincinnati, in about June of 1974, reporting back up to Dayton where all the loan processing had been going on.  I spent about two weeks there, moving in with some other disaster bums who had rented a furnished (down to the silverware and dishes) apartment.  Among them was one Phil Smith who, despite such an Anglo surname, was about 110% Mexican.  He was Joe Petitta’s traveling pal from the Rio Grande Valley and Phil did his best to replicate for us the cuisine of that area.  We were impressed with his culinary skills although he complained that the local Kroger’s didn’t carry “real” Mexican ingredients.  After I left, the gang must have been reassigned elsewhere to the extent that Joe was left to take a motel room.  That was the scene of the tragic event that befell him months later and of which I learned after I’d moved on to Chicago.

From Dayton, I got orders to head for Port Clinton, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, west of Cleveland.  Due to heavy rains that summer, the lake was full to overflowing and winds would send waves crashing over the seawalls (OK—technically “lake walls”) into lakeside structures.  The Army Corps of Engineers caught all sorts of hell for not lowering the lake level but theirs was a thankless task.  Had they lowered the lake, people downstream would have been flooded out. I had never before laid eyes on Lake Erie  and wasn’t aware of how steep its beaches might be.  I got firsthand (and “first foot”) experience when I tried to swim in it.  Talk about shallow, level beaches being made eminently MORE so by an overflowing lake level !  I must have waded out a good 200 feet and STILL the water was no higher than my knee!  No way could I comfortably belly-flop down into it to swim.  I gave up and went back to my motel room.

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Aerial view of the wind and wave action near my motel; my car in the motel parking lot.  Note the lakewall behind the yellow bench. 

This job turned out to be the most boring of my disaster bum career.  With the “Agnes forgiveness” having expired, the biggest attraction of SBA loans had been lost and the agency realized that fact.  They assigned only me and one Loss Verifier. Our “office” was one small room in some municipal building.  The Loss Verifier was Bill Fisher, who, like me, had joined the disaster bum ranks back in Agnes days.  He was from Elmira, New York and had somehow finagled being assigned a GSA car.  His personal car was back home, for he had flown his private plane to Ohio.  Bill spent many of his days just touring around the area while I sat alone in our office waiting for the phone to ring or for someone to walk in to ask about a loan.  Eventually, he took pity on me and we went for a spin in his plane.  He was careful to avoid the restricted airspace above Camp Perry (named for the War of 1812 hero, Oliver Hazard Perry, who won the battle Of Lake Erie.)  Our flight coincided with the NRA National Outdoor Rifle & Pistol Championships being held there and it simply wouldn’t do to get shot down over water.  At one point, I was attracted by the sight of some greenish water below and Bill swung over it for me to snap a picture.  It was obviously a quarry but what exactly was being extracted there escaped my knowledge for 33 years.  Thanks to a very kind lady at the Ida Rupp Public Library in Port Clinton, I can now tell you that it was limestone causing the greenish tint in the water.   The site belonged to either the Celotex Company or the Standard Slag Company, as both were active in mining limestone in the area at that time.  Absent a wider-angle picture showing roads (which I didn’t snap), we cannot be more specific.

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Bill Fisher returning to the motel with his morning newspaper; me in front of Bill’s plane; aerial view of the limestone quarry.

By late July or early August, the work (such as it had been) was finished and I got orders to head to the Chicago District Office.  There was no break in service in between these assignments, so I just drove my Malibu northwestward.  The Chicago District Office was located on S. Dearborn Street in the “Loop” area. I found lodging at the Midland Hotel on W. Adams Street, just two blocks from work.  The car ended up parked in a garage not far away where the monthly fee was fairly steep. I was entitled to recompense for that in addition to my per diem so I had no worry. I walked the two blocks to work.  I would take the Malibu out for exercise about every other Saturday during what turned out to be a lengthy stay. On the opposite alternate Saturday, I’d throw my laundry into a trash bag and catch a bus headed up Clark Street, past Wrigley Field, to a neighborhood laundromat.  That route took me past 2122 N. Clark Street, site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.  I fully expected to see at least a small historical marker but none was visible.  There seemed to be just an apartment building on that site.  Walking to work also took me within sight of the Chicago Board Of Trade at 141 West Jackson Boulevard.  I promised myself that, one day, I’d take a couple of hours off from work to go watch pork bellies and such be traded but I never did.  Noteworthy during my stay in Chicago was an event that occurred not long after I’d arrived.  I recall sitting in my Midland Hotel room on August 8, 1974 and cheering as Nixon resigned !  A bit later, probably in September, I and Dick Chopp, a permanent employee, went to Soldier Field and watched the Bears play an exhibition game against my favorite team, the Miami Dolphins.  Our seats were way up high and the “Windy City” zephyrs were awfully cold.  I should have gone to Wrigley Field to watch my beloved Dodgers when they came in, but that was back before they’d installed lights and all games were day games.  I guess I chose to not take the time off.  For the most part, I ate in the hotel restaurant during the week but, on weekends, I explored steak houses, Chinese restaurants, and other delights all readily available in the Loop area.

The work itself in Chicago has already been outlined in my previous story about The Wallet Man (The Wallet Man.  What I didn’t say therein was the fact that the Chicago District Director was a pain in the butt.  More than once I’d spot borrowers who had considerably misused their disaster loan proceeds.  I’d send them a letter demanding that they pay back the funds.  They’d complain to their congressman, who in turn, would contact the District Director, and then I’d be forestalled from any further action.  The regular troops in the trenches, including Howard Von Druska, chief of the section that approved regular SBA business loans, had a higher opinion of my abilities.  Howard offered me a permanent slot on his staff but I turned him down, saying “I don’t want to work for that District Director !”  He assured me “You’d hardly ever see him” but I demurred.  In truth, I wasn’t keen on moving that far away from home.  Chicago was a fine place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.  LOL

At some point that Fall, I heard some tragic news through the SBA grapevine.  My buddy, Joe Petitta, who’d I’d left behind in Dayton that summer, had been MURDERED !!  Word had it that he’d answered a knock on his motel room door and was shot dead.  Joe, it was said, had been involved somewhat, maybe as a building inspector, back in the Rio Grande Valley.  Possibly an enemy back home had dispatched a hit man all the way to Ohio to settle an old score.  The case, apparently, was never solved.  About ten years later I dug up an address for Joe’s widow and I wrote her, telling her how highly we had all thought of him.  I never got a response.  Had the killer been found, I expect she would have told me.

My assignment in Chicago was open-ended and, like in the fall of 1973 down in Springfield, I grew anxious as the days grew shorter.  I really didn’t want to be stuck driving back to Sweet Valley in snow so I worked out a deal with the agency.  I took a few days off, headed the Malibu back to Sweet Valley, and then flew back to O’Hare.  In so doing, the agency saved the cost of parking the car in the Loop.  The agency would have paid, eventually, my mileage back to PA at whatever point I was finished, so that factor was a wash. I estimated the cost of parking the Malibu in the garage in the Loop for another month or two and it was only a little less than the cost of a round-trip flight to PA and back. I bore the extra cost.  As it turned out, the flight would have been cheaper because I stayed in Chicago until the following May (1975) !! 

Stay tuned for my final disaster chapter, “Disaster Bum 1975.”

 

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com