Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sunday, Chilly Sunday…

Posted by Rich- Recently, one of my students let me know about an upcoming “Classic Car” show that was taking place in Pennington, NJ. Sponsored by a bagel shop, it was set to run from 10 AM to 3 PM on an April Sunday that turned out to be a chilly, mostly cloudy day. I wasn’t able to get there until 1:30 PM, mostly because of other chores and the fact that I did not especially feel like getting out early into the cold breeze that morning. These “classic” car shows can be a crapshoot anyways, with some people considering a 1986 Chevy Cavalier a “classic” and hanging fuzzy dice off the rear view mirror. My thinking in this case was it is better to arrive later than sooner for a car show, as the organizers of these events usually wait until the last hour of the show to present the awards. Any type of awards presentation earlier ensures a steady parade of classic car owners slamming down hoods and gunning 500 horsepower engines through crowds of spectators as they collect their trophies and beat it hastily out of the parking lot and back to the safety of the garage. This mass exodus from the event also includes the many disgruntled owners who did not collect an award for their ride. Wheeling away, they demonstrate to the judges who had dismissed them in favor of a different car just how throaty the V8 under the hood sounds as they step on it and squeal the tires out of the exhibit area. Sometimes it seems the owners of the cars on display decide all at once that the show is over, and the best place for their muscle car or street rod is any where but the parking spot they had just occupied for the last five hours.

It should have tipped me off of what to expect at this particular show when I noticed a few mid-60’s Corvettes passing me the opposite way on Rt. 579 back towards Pennsylvania. After a few wrong turns, I finally found the location of the car show in a parking lot behind some buildings in an office/shopping complex off Route 31 in Pennington. Judging by the size of the small trees bordering the lot, the whole development could not have been more than a few years old, and the bagels pictured on the signage of the host business appeared to have the same color and texture as the faux cultured stonework adhered to the buildings. By the time I arrived, the show consisted of four late model Corvettes parked in a row with their hoods up, and a copper-colored 1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. A green and white 1973 Ford F-150 pickup truck was maneuvering to leave the parking area in front of the bagel shop just as I arrived. The owners of the Corvettes wore hooded coats and huddled in sling chairs next to their rides, and on the opposite side of the lot a DJ sat hunkered down in a lawn chair next to large speakers hooked to a laptop playing 1950’s rock and roll tunes. He barely moved in his down jacket as the tune “Barbara Ann” by the Regents played over the system. Perhaps lethargy had set in from consuming too many free bagels earlier…

I slowed my own truck down long enough to snap a photo and take a good look at the exiting Ford, and then kept driving. I find car shows where guys park Corvettes they recently purchased to not be very interesting unless you also have a Corvette to park and show off. Corvette owners at events like these are inclined to sit in their sling chairs and ignore us non-Corvette owners while they discuss among themselves how cool it is to own a Corvette. You often see newer model Corvettes parked and displayed at a “classic” car show like this. Some individuals work very long and hard hours to be able to purchase this assembly line ticket into the Corvette fraternity, and the senior fraternity members rarely sell their classic chick magnets on the open market. A clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles once told me classic 1950’s and 60’s Corvettes only change hands because of a death or divorce. He himself had lost 2 to the latter.

Just because I'm leaving doesn't mean I'm ignoring you... 1973 Ford F-150 4x4

So much for the classic car show and MP3s of Fats Domino. I decided to check out a side road leading out of the eastern portion of the office complex towards the Borough of Pennington and came across something that WAS unusual: a large, polished aluminum travel trailer from the 1950’s. It resembled an immense, silver loaf of bread on wheels with a streamlined nose. Ignoring the Corvette owners and generic bagel shop two lots away, I had to park and examine this jet-age oddity more closely.

An insignia affixed to the side of the trailer identified it as a Spartan Manor, this model being a product of the Spartan Aircraft Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a manufacturing date of 1950. Despite a few dents here and there, the impressive pop-rivet construction and polished surface looked remarkable for a 60 year-old travel trailer, especially one that most likely was considered obsolete by 1965. Further research showed that the Spartan Aircraft Company was once owned by J. Paul Getty, and produced airplanes designed and built for wealthy private pilots and sport fliers like Howard Hughes. After World War II, the company utilized it’s airframe technology and switched to manufacturing well appointed, all-metal travel trailers. Like the aircraft Spartan previously produced, these upscale models were intended for the wealthy and quickly became known as the “Cadillac” of travel trailers. The price for a Spartan Travel Trailer was upwards around $4000 dollars, at a time when the average house in the US was $8000. Considering what I recall of the Interstate highway system and road widths being like in the mid 1960’s, I can only imagine what it must have been like to pull an aluminum whale like this down the highway back in 1950. Full of furniture and appliances, this shiny, bulbous monster would have required a large Cadillac or Lincoln at minimum to pull it, and a very good braking system to stop it once it got rolling. I estimated the length to be at least 28 feet long; how in the world could you back this thing up into a driveway using a 1950’s sedan without power steering or power brakes? This was more like having the fuselage of a wingless B-29 attached to your rear bumper than a travel trailer.

Taking a peek inside through the front windows, it looked like the interior had been converted into a pre-school recreational area, with padded floors and walls and a host of brightly colored objects children could safely use to burn off energy with out inflicting head trauma on each other in the process. It appeared the whole operation was meant to stay put on the corner of the parking lot it occupied, and no signage indicated it was used as a rolling pre-school indoor gymnasium. Seems like a good idea; it would be much easier to bring the kids to this location than to pull this small house from neighborhood to neighborhood. I was impressed, however, that sometime between 1950 and 2010 this behemoth at least made it half way across the country from Tulsa, Oklahoma to a parking lot on the edge of Pennington, NJ. I wondered what other parts of North America it may have rolled over and through during it’s lifetime.

The big, shiny blimp on wheels...

Across the parking lot, one more Corvette owner decided to call it a day and started up the engine of his dream machine. I suppose the original owner of this Spartan Manor travel trailer may have felt much the same way in 1950 about his gleaming status symbol as the gentlemen sitting in the sling chairs next to their ‘Vettes felt on this chilly afternoon in 2010. I think I ‘d like to have met the first owner of this big shiny beast, though. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be the type to ignore you.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Counting the Cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

Posted by Rich- Well, I still haven’t been to the Bendix. Up and back to Manhattan two times over a span of 60 days or so, and I didn’t stop in either time at the shiny Bendix Diner in Hasbrouck Heights NJ to take pictures and sample the fare. It is not too far from the George Washington Bridge, but far enough out of the way from the New Jersey Turnpike that a detour from my mission to get up to the Society of Illustrators on E.63rd St with fifty thousand dollars worth of original artwork in the rear seat of my pickup truck did not seem prudent. The artwork in the backseat was original illustrations by other artists who told me just how much they were worth, and consequently I drove in a manner similar to the way I drove my first newborn daughter home from the hospital. The artwork, coupled with driving in Metropolitan NY/NJ and Manhattan, helped me decide that stopping at a shiny diner for a shot of caffeine in the form of a cup of black coffee wouldn’t be a good idea. With my already jangled nerves, caused mostly by driving so carefully in fast moving congested traffic, I drove past the exit to the Bendix and kept on the Turnpike. I made a promise to myself that I will get back up there in nicer weather, and even though the food did not get great reviews ( “The food is awful, and the portions are too small!”) I will also get something to eat. Besides, these classic old diners really aren’t about the food or portion size for me, it’s about the classic old diner itself. Hopefully, the Bendix will remain in business and in one piece long enough for me to get there and get some photo reference. Perhaps my co-exhibitor John can get up there and take some pictures; I’m not a very good photographer, and if I try to do a photorealistic painting based entirely on my own photos, I end up with a lousy photorealistic painting.

My thoughts on the Bendix Diner remain as fuzzy as this image of the eatery borrowed from Google Maps...

So I remained on the New Jersey Turnpike all the way up to the George Washington Bridge. The drive on this expressway, also known as I-95, to Manhattan can be somewhat tedious, especially in late winter; mile after mile of industrial sites broken up by nondescript exits to nearly identical franchises and business clustered around the end of the on/off ramps. There are a few highlights on the northern stretch of the turnpike I travel, though; the highway runs parallel with the runways of Newark International airport, affording a great view of commercial airliners taking off and landing. You also get a great view of modern landing gear as these jets make their final approach over the roof of your car at a height of about 30 feet. When a jet comes in over your car at that height, traveling only about 60 miles an hour faster than you, everything you learned in physics class flashes through your head. As the gigantic metal bird wobbles in the air over my car and the mass of its wings blot out the sun, I find myself trying to remember the formulas that explained how airspeed and wing surface area create lift. Hopefully, enough lift is being created to keep this Fed Ex MD-11 from landing on top of my Toyota truck with fifty thousand dollars worth of original artwork in the back seat. Other sights on the ride include the expansive wetlands near Newark, crisscrossed with service roads, truck routes, and railroad tracks. In addition, there is….hmmm…well, the George Washington Bridge. Highway traffic signs on I-95 begin promising you will arrive to cross over “The George” 20 or so miles before you actually see the structure. Or, begin threatening that you will soon cross over it: the toll is now $8 per car, and sometimes traffic has been so heavy it feels like we start queuing up at about that 20 mile mark, with the non-EZ Pass equipped drivers frantically searching purses, wallets, and in between car seats for the $8 fare.

Maybe it is the highway itself, or the fact that the gray-brown-ochre colored landscape looks even more mundane compared to the shiny tops of Manhattan skyscrapers peeking up over the horizon, that makes this stretch of highway so boring and tedious. At intervals , impressive erector-set style bridges arch their way up over the swampy Passiac river, hopefully leading to a place that is greener and less congested. Being a toll road, however, gives this stretch of New Jersey the opportunity to have rest stops complete with food, fuel and souveniers in addition to the required bathroom facilities and wall-sized map of the highway. These large maps in interstate rest stops almost always have a symbol somewhere on them indicating ”You are HERE”, eliciting sighs from the drivers and travelers standing before them. It’s sometimes even more tiring seeing how many more exits and rest stops you have to pass and endure before you arrive at your destination illustrated in large format before you.

This stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike HAS been livened up, though, with these rest stops and bridges on both the north and south bound sides acquiring interesting memorial names. Traveling South, you come first to the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop, and heading north on the other side of the eight lanes, the first stop I encounter after entering the toll road is the Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop. Unfortunately, aside from the names, the rest stops themselves are the usual collection of typical mall-flavored food court franchises and restrooms where hopefully more than half the automatic flushers on the urinals are correctly functioning. Oddly enough, more than a few people have mentioned to me the reputation that certain named rest stops have earned as places for prostitution and drug dealing, with the Lombardi rest stop in particular gaining a reputation as a place for male homosexual activity. Maybe it’s the name, or the location that has helped this rest stop gain that reputation? I’m pretty sure it is not because of an outstanding souvenir shop. Beside the reputations for different types of illicit behavior, there is not much except for the sign out front to distinguish the Joyce Kilmer from the Vince Lombardi. I had hoped to find staff workers inside who adhere to the philosophy of the rest stops namesakes, with the Roy Rogers grill man at the Kilmer waxing poetically about the burgers he was frying and the custodial help pausing to reflect on the beauty of the saplings planted around the parking lot perimeter while they grabbed a quick smoke, but found nothing like that. Similarly, although I knew a regimented and disciplined foot ball team atmosphere would be too much to expect at the Lombardi, it was disappointing when the Starbucks manager did not blow a whistle and bark my order for a Tall Earl Grey Tea to the barista. I did appreciate that you do not have to run through an automobile tire obstacle course and smack into a tackling dummy on your way in from the parking lot, but it would be fun to see the Sbarro workers diagram a play after taking your order and try to get a Stromboli to you before the clock runs out. I used the bathroom there, but did not notice any thing that could contribute to the reputation of this or any of the other rest stops along the turnpike; of course, I only learned of the various reputations subsequently. I don’t think any of these are going to cause me to ”hold it” , and keep driving for the next hundred miles until I get to a Pennsylvania rest stop with a more sterling reputation. I do think , however, that at least a few food items reflecting the famous individuals who lend their names to these rest stops is in order. Perhaps a Green Bay Burger, served with a Quarterback Sneak Soda and an order of Fourth and Ten Fries would be good for the Lombardi, or Dueling Aaron Burr Burritos would be a nice feature at the Alexander Hamilton Rest Stop.

Outside the Alexander Hamilton are five brass plaques indicating who some of the erector set styled bridges in the vicinity are named for. The Newark Bay Bridge has a more official name, the Vincent R. Casciano Memorial Bridge, and is named for a New Jersey State Assemblyman who evidently made funding this structure a priority. The plaque indicates he only served for 4 years however, so getting a big bridge like this put in place in a 48 month time span seems like quite an accomplishment, especially considering he probably had a lot of other issues to deal with during his time in office. The Chaplain Washington Bridge is named for the Rev. John P. Washington, a New Jersey native who, along with 3 other U.S. Army Chaplains, gave up his life jacket and his place in a life boat of the torpedoed troopship U.S.S. Dorchester in February 1942 and went down with the ship. Another plaque gives the history of the Lewandowski Hackensack River Bridge, named for the three Lewandowski brothers from Lyndhurst, NJ, who also made the ultimate sacrifice and were killed in action during World War II. The fourth plaque announces the Laderman Bridge, named for New Jersey Turnpike collector Harry Laderman of Fair Lawn, NJ. The plaque explains that he was killed in the line of duty in 1967, but does not elaborate on exactly what the line of duty for a toll collector is; further research turned up nothing about the events surrounding his death that year. I was left wondering what circumstances may have occurred on a New Jersey Turnpike Toll Plaza that could equal the actions of soldiers killed in battle or the selfless act of giving up your life jacket so others could survive in a sinking ship the North Atlantic. The bridge itself is relatively impressive, and this plaque has piqued my curiosity; time for some more research. The last plaque details the namesakes of the Wallberg-Lovely Bridge, named for the first two New Jersey natives killed in action in World War I: Martin Wallberg and Luke Lovely. It probably would have been a good idea to just name it for the first soldier killed in action, Private Wallberg, as naming a municipal structure after a person whose name could also be used as an adjective can be problematic as time goes by. The Wallberg- Lovely Bridge is in fact pretty ordinary as bridges go, and you would be hard pressed to refer to it as “Lovely”, although these types of structures often become referred to by shortened names, as I referred to the George Washington Bridge as simply “The George” earlier. It seems likely that this bridge would be referred to as “The Wallberg” by those who use it regularly, or by traffic reporters. Although it is an undeniable tragedy that either soldier lost his life in Europe in 1917, it is fortuitous that Private Wallberg was the first soldier to die and the bridge did not end up with the moniker “Lovely-Wallberg” attached to it, giving people the impression the bridge was named for a good looking Jewish boy. Joyce Kilmer ( Full name: Alfred Joyce Kilmer. In college I was as surprised as anyone to discover Joyce was a man) was also killed in action during World War I, falling victim to a sniper's bullet. However, it is most likely the short poem he wrote about trees earned him the name on the rest stop as opposed to his service to his country. I'm not entirely certain what specific type of illicit behavior is credited to the Kilmer; I rarely stop there, having followed my parents sage advice to use the bathroom before I get in the car for a long trip. Or before a ride to Grandma's, too.

The Joyce Kilmer...named for the Famous Son - not Daughter - of New Brunswick NJ, and at one time also a resident of Mahwah.

As municipal structures go, it is fortunate in this case that the last name applied to these stops and bridges isn’t something that could be misconstrued as a negative or silly description; over the past 45 years or so I have known of and/or worked with people with last names that have ranged from Krapf, Finkboner, Boop, Outhouse, and Rusted. Any engineer would have a tall order to design a bridge that would come to be called “The Lovely”, but what engineer would want to be responsible for a structure known as “The Krapf “, “The Finkboner”, “The Outhouse” or “The Rusted Bridge”?