Cool Runnings, with Lateral Displacement

Groundhog, without shadow. April King photo, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Today is January 21. In twelve days The Groundhog will emerge and see, or not see, his shadow. Either way, we in Madison, Wisconsin, may not reasonably expect warmth until May. 

The question inevitably arises: Where would I rather be? 

That’s easy: The 1950s! Where else? 

Care to join me? 

Those Winters

It was no more than ordinarily cold in those days. Snow did gleam white—except on city streets, where it sank into a purple-pink paste after workers laid down coal cinders for traction. Snow tires being, at that time, hidden somewhere in the future.

The house we lived in sat on high ground. Behind it, a wooded hill tumbled down to the river bottoms. From the corner of our backyard, a narrow trail twisted between scrub maple and willow trees. We called it “The Snake Path.” 

Flopping down on your wood-and-steel sled at the top of The Snake Path, you hurtled downward through a patchy meadow, picking up speed. Then you entered the trees, where dodging left and right became a survival skill. Sleds had wooden bars for steering, but steel runners could warp sideways only so far. Kids with short sleds and pointy-toed engineer boots had an advantage. My sled was long, and I wore round-toed, five-buckle galoshes. 

Boy on sled. Photo by father of JGKlein, used with permission. Public Domain.

If one made it through the trees—and all of us got very good at doing so—then one shot forth from the woods like a bottle rocket and zoomed up a mound of earth near the bottom of the hill. Just short of supersonic, we flew off the top of that mogul and sailed as much as ten feet through the air. If you were still connected to the sled when it slammed down on Mother Earth, you wrenched the steering bar violently and shot off to starboard like those little cash carriers that skimmed the ceiling at J.C. Penney’s, and with full momentum intact, coasted a quarter mile down an old dirt road to the little bridge that spanned the perfectly-named Stink Creek.

This place, I tell you, does exist in the 1950s.

But not now. The coordinates can be plotted. There is still a hill, a road, and a meandering river; but the woods are gone, The Snake Path is no more. The mound of dirt that flung us skyward was leveled long ago. If you knew the place in the Fifties, and if you stood today at the bottom of that hill, you might note the routes traced by all those steel runners, etched invisibly in the air about you. But to see that vision, you must bring the software inside your head. 

Flexible Flyer sled. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Disappointingly, the historical society has not even posted a plaque.

Other events in life have occasionally yielded more excitement—a commodity of dubious worth—but few have ever matched the plain satisfaction of navigating The Snake Path on a Flexible Flyer.

#

“But wait, wait—what’s this about cash carriers at J.C. Penney’s?”  

Oh, did I mention cash carriers? 

Perhaps you have heard—or have you?—that in bygone days, we operated on a cash economy. People paid for things, if not with gold eagles like in the Old West, at least with metal coins, or with paper money that was, in theory, redeemable for precious metals. We carried dollar bills that looked much like those of today. But ours were Silver Certificates. 

A silver certificate, this one specially issued for use in pre-statehood Hawaii. National Numismatic Collection,
National Museum of American History, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Each bill was emblazoned:

“This certifies that there is on deposit in the Treasury of the United States of America One Dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand.”

If I happened to be in Washington, D.C., I could walk into the Treasury Building (which is still there, by the way), present my paper dollar, and get a silver dollar for it. Good deal, eh? 

Still, not many of us actually did that. We simply believed, as we do today, that the piece of paper itself was worth a dollar. We just spent them. Or we put them in a bank and wrote paper checks against them for large purchases or for monthly bills. 

No Credit

Old BankAmericard “welcome sign.” Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

We did not use credit cards. There were a few credit cards or “charge plates,” issued by stores or gasoline companies for favored customers. But the general purpose credit card did not make its way into our lives until the launch of BankAmericard (later called Visa) in 1958. For most purchases, we used cash—crumpled up dollar bills or fives (but seldom a ten or a twenty, because then you would be talking about Real Money); and silver dollars, half dollars, quarters; dimes, nickels, and copper or steel pennies.

This worked well at your Mom and Pop grocery store down the block. You bought a quart of milk for twenty-four cents and handed Pop a dollar. He punched a key on his cash register and the lap drawer flew open with a bang. He placed the dollar in the drawer, fished out a half dollar, a quarter, and a penny, and added them back up as he handed it to you: “… And one is twenty-five, fifty, one dollar. Thank you, call again.”

Flying Gizmos Like Skates

But big stores, like J.C. Penney, preferred not to have cash registers on the sales floors. They needed to record their transactions. So, say you bought a little flimsy scarf at Penney’s—something that cost twenty-four cents—and you gave the saleslady a dollar, then the routine went like this: She wrote down the transaction on a sales slip. She put the sales slip and your dollar inside a little skate-like gizmo; and she stuck the little gizmo to a circulating-cable rail system inside an elongated cage strung across the store’s ceiling; and it zoomed upstairs to the bookkeeping office on the mezzanine. There, Unseen Hands opened the little gizmo—a cash carrier—took your dollar out, and put back in a half-dollar, a quarter, and a penny, along with the sales slip marked “PAID.” The Unseen Hands then sent the cash carrier shooting back through its cage. The sales lady opened it, handed you the receipt, and counted back the change: “… And one is twenty-five, fifty, one dollar. Thank you, call again.”

The best thing about this process, to a small boy, was simply watching the cash carriers ricochet along the ceiling. And the stellar thing about that was how they turned right angles with no loss in velocity, just a tantalizing thunk!

If you’ve never had the pleasure, do yourself a favor and watch this little video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w75jOy-r5rg. Be patient, Gentle Reader; the demonstration starts at 00:54. This demonstration video was shot at Joyner’s, a general store in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1994, when the store closed its doors. They ran the cash carrier system just once more, for old times’ sake. But in the heyday of our all-cash economy, this same system was used, hundreds of times a day, in many stores all over the country. It became obsolete when credit cards and electronic registers were invented. 

The careening little cash pods, with their abrupt changes from one plane to another, defied all normal laws of physics, in precisely the same way extraterrestrial spacecraft are thought to do. 

Or, as in our first example, kids on sleds at the bottom of the snake path. 

. . . and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Book Notes

Three recent posts have explored the early history of Pan American World Airways, a great airline, which employed my uncle as a pilot from the 1930s into the modern era. 

Content for these posts came from old family stories, from photos and reminiscences provided by my cousin Steven Sommers, and from information easily available on the Web. However, two good books also provided a wealth of information. Each of these two books is a little treasure in its own right. One or both may interest you as a reader.

An American Saga

One book is An American Saga: Juan Trippe and his Pan Am Empire, by Robert Daley (Random House 1980, 529 pages). This book is available in hardback from Amazon for $54.30. Fortunately, a Kindle version is also available for $7.99. It is highly readable, though the Kindle edition has a few typos. It tells the story of Pan Am from Juan Trippe’s youth through the founding and early years of Pan Am, the glory days of the China Clipper era, the global success of the postwar years, and the airline’s ultimate demise in 1991. Encapsulated in the overall story are many tales of dogged persistence and even heroism. Looming above all is the enigmatic figure of Trippe—a legendary entrepreneur who was modest, collaborative, visionary, and inspiring; while also being secretive, cold-blooded, manipulative, and ruthless. In the process of building Pan Am, Trippe became midwife to the worldwide aviation industry. Daley has boiled down an enormous mass of information into a readable and compelling narrative. If you’re interested in the details of Pan Am’s fascinating history, this is where you’ll find them.

China Clipper

Of equal interest is Robert L. Gandt’s China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats (Naval Institute Press 1991, 214 pages). This one is available in hardcover for $17.50, or in a Kindle edition for $14.49. While Daley’s book chronicles the swashbuckling upstart company that became the world’s most successful airline, Gandt’s volume tells the story of the airplanes themselves—most specifically the seaplanes designated “flying boats” that dominated international aviation in the 1930s and 1940s. Best known are the Sikorsky S-40 and S-42, the Martin M-130, and Boeing’s B-314—all airframes that Juan Trippe purchased for Pan American, and simply by placing his orders, caused their development. What you may not know is that British, French, and German designers developed other flying boats of varying size, range, and carrying capacity. Gandt, himself a former Pan American captain, lovingly traces the development of all these designs. He includes enough cultural and economic context to give the reader a sense why each plane did or did not succeed in the marketplace. Along with his illuminating text, he provides a large gallery of photos, so the reader can see the obvious differences among these planes, and a full set of line drawings by J. P. Wood at 1:300 scale. Read in tandem with Daley’s book on Trippe and Pan American, this book gives a very full picture of the Golden Age of the great flying boats.

Happy reading!

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

A Most Unusual Day

Uncle Ed was First Officer (ranking copilot) on the Anzac Clipper, a flying boat westbound over the Pacific on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. 

The plane had left San Francisco on December 5 but developed mechanical trouble and had to turn back. She was rescheduled for a 2:00 pm departure on December 6, but the pilot, Captain Harry Lanier Turner, requested and received a half-hour delay so he could attend his daughter’s first piano recital in Oakland.

Anzac Clipper at Clear Lake, California, 1941. From Fandom.com, licensed under CC-BY-SA.

The Boeing 314A was the ultimate flying boat. With four huge 1,600-horsepower engines faired into its 152-foot wingspan, it could cruise at 183 miles per hour, with a service ceiling of 19,200 feet and a range of 5,200 miles without refueling. The plane was so large an engineer could creep through a passage in the wing to observe or service any of its engines in mid-flight. 

A DeLuxe Ride

Even with all that power on the wings, passengers could talk normally in its elegant soundproofed cabin. There was a dining lounge amidships, where two stewards catered four-star meals on white linen using real silver and china. Best of all, you could cross the Pacific in a week, not the three or four weeks that a boat took. But you had to pony up $760 for a one-way passage. That’s equivalent to almost $14,000 in 2020 dollars. 

Cutaway view of Boeing 314 Clipper by Kenneth W. Thompson. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

The seventeen passengers aboard the Anzac Clipper that day were no doubt well-heeled. Movie stars, royals, and high government officials often rode Pan American’s Clippers. With their morning juice and coffee, they got a reminder from the stewards to set their watches to Hawaii Time, which was 8:30 am. 

In the spacious crew compartment over their heads, Radio Officer W.H. Bell left his console and strode forward to the “bridge”—Pan Am used nautical terms for everything—with a message for the captain: The Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor, just an hour’s flight ahead of them. 

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane early in the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Imperial Japanese Navy. Public Domain.

This was serious, for Pearl Harbor was the Clipper’s actual destination. Hostilities did not come as a complete surprise, however. For months, Pan Am captains had carried sealed envelopes to be opened if war broke out. Captain Turner now reached for his envelope and ripped it open. Meanwhile, the radioman began to hear Japanese and American signals from the furious fight being waged.

“Divert to Hilo”

Pan Am’s secret orders instructed Turner, in the event of an attack on Pearl Harbor, to land at Hilo Bay, on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. He put the Boeing into a slow turn toward the south. Passengers were not told of anything amiss until the Anzac Clipper splashed down two hours later.  

Hawaii map showing Pearl Harbor and Hilo. From Visitpearlharbor.org.

The passengers were gathered in the dining lounge and told that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The Clipper would refuel at Hilo and fly back to San Francisco as soon as possible. They were welcome to ride back or to stay in Hawaii and make their own way to their final destinations. 

Special Passengers?

Who were these passengers? According to an April 2016 article by Nam Sang-so in the English-language Korea Times, “There were two VIPs on board; His Imperial Majesty of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was on his way home after visiting President Roosevelt promising that he would cooperate with the United States. The other distinguished guest was U Saw, the Premier of Burma (now Myanmar). He too was on his way home also after visiting that same president and was disappointed by Roosevelt’s refusal to honor his plea for the independence of Burma from Britain. As the western globe route back to Rangoon was blocked by the Japanese fleet, he had to take the eastward route home, stopping at the Japanese Embassy in Lisbon and secretly informing the ambassador that Burma would help Japan in the war against America. The confidential Japanese message sent to Tokyo was decoded by the U.S. Navy. He later played a major role in the assassination of Burma’s national hero Aung San in 1947 and U Saw was later executed by his own people.” 

The presence of these two high-level personages is a remarkable claim, inasmuch as I haven’t found it anywhere else; and Mr. Nam does not state his sources. I have sent him an email asking for more information. 

I also heard rumors within our family, years ago, that the passenger list included Japanese diplomats flying home after unsuccessful negotiations in Washington, D.C. Like Mr. Nam’s assertion about the Shah and U Saw, it seems remarkable. 

However, Pan Am’s Clippers were a remarkable resource in that pre-World War II world—so I can’t completely discount either account.

At any rate, none of the passengers accepted the offer of a free ride back to San Francisco. They all chose to stay in Hawaii and make their way to Honolulu or wherever they were going.

Eastern Exposure

As the Anzac Clipper and its passengers coped with these events, a frenzy had overtaken Pan American headquarters on the 58th floor of New York’s Chrysler Building. Juan Trippe and his lieutenants worked feverishly to save three other Clippers that also stood in harm’s way. 

  • More than 2,500 miles west of Hilo, the Philippine Clipper, a Martin M-130 flying boat captained by John “Hammy” Hamilton, had just left Wake Island en route to Guam. Hamilton received orders to turn around, fly back to Wake, and evacuate all Pan Am personnel from the tiny atoll. While the Clipper was being refueled at Wake, the station came under aerial attack. After climbing out of the ditch where he had taken cover, Hamilton found the aircraft, though stitched by strafing fire, had not been seriously damaged. She was still flyable. After stripping all non-essential items out of the plane to lighten the load, Hamilton took off with 34 passengers, including two seriously wounded. He flew to Midway, an island which had also been attacked, and the next day onward to Hawaii.
Captain Robert Ford, panam.org.
  • At Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Clipper, a Sikorsky S-42 flying boat, was destroyed in an onslaught of Japanese Zero fighters. Captain Fred Ralph and his crew escaped to the Chinese mainland in an emergency airlift of land-based planes operated by CNAC, Pan Am’s Chinese affiliate.
  • Captain Bob Ford and the crew of the Pacific Clipper, another Boeing 314, were stranded in Auckland, New Zealand, with the Imperial Japanese Navy blocking their way home. Eventually, Pan Am headquarters ordered them to fly to New York the long way around—via Asia, Africa, the Atlantic, and South America. Without adequate maps, prepared runways and ground crews, or even reliable supplies of aviation fuel, the intrepid crew worked their way around the globe. Their epic 31,500-mile, month-long trek brought them back to New York in early January—the first circumnavigation of the globe by a commercial airliner.

Whither the Anzac Clipper?

First Officer Edward F. Sommers gets a kiss from his daughter Elaine. Clipped from the San Francisco Chronicleof December 10, 1941, and scanned.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Anzac Clipper had brought their plane home without incident. They left Hilo the evening of December 8, flew in the dark while maintaining radio silence, and arrived in San Francisco the next day, unshaved and missing about three days’ sleep. The San Francisco Chronicle published a photo of Uncle Ed being welcomed home by Elaine, his four-year-old daughter. 

#

Thus ends the glamor era of flying boats—with a bang, not a whimper. The ocean bases Pan Am had painstakingly built at Wake, Midway, and other places, fell to the Japanese. The company’s fleet of nine B-314s were purchased by the U.S. government for a million dollars each. Under the aegis of the U.S. Navy, they flew thousands of hard miles from 1941 until the end of the war. In 1945 the government offered to return them to Pan American at $50,000 apiece, but Trippe declined the offer. Longer-range, land-based aircraft were the future, especially now that most cities fhad built airports.

The B-314s’ war service, however, was noteworthy. They were used for critically important passengers and cargo. They flew badly-needed aircraft tires to China for use by the Flying Tigers. They flew President Franklin D. Roosevelt to and from the 1943 Casablanca Conference with Churchill and other leaders.

Since Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer as well as a Pan American pilot with experience flying B-314s, I can’t help wondering whether he was one of the pilots who flew them for the Navy. Guess I’ll have to ask my cousins. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Flying Down to Rio

Note: Last week I rashly promised that this week’s post would mention my Uncle Ed’s flight to Hawaii in the Anzac Clipper on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. Oops! I was a week ahead of schedule. Please excuse the error, and enjoy Aunt Mary’s trip to South America instead. Next week: PEARL HARBOR. Really. For sure.

Juan Trippe’s upstart venture, Pan American Airways, was twelve years old when Uncle Ed joined the company as a pilot in 1939.

Pan Am’s Clippers were already changing the shape of the world. In those days of high international tension, Pan American’s interests were so closely identified with the official interests of the United States that flying for Pan Am was like flying for the Navy. In fact, Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer, having received his college education and initial flight training through the Naval ROTC program.

Ed and Mary, late 1930s.

Pan Am assigned him to South America, where the young airline’s routes were most fully  developed. So on 20 September 1940, Ed flew with his wife, Mary, and their 3-year-old daughter, Elaine, from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They traveled there via Antilla, Cuba; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and San Pedro de Macario, Dominican Republic. Their entire journey, from Miami to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, would take them a mere three days! 

Sikorsky S-42, aircraft registration NC-822M, “Brazilian Clipper”, Pan American Airways. Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Public Domain.

Mary sent a letter home—in pencil on both sides of four sheets of white typing paper— describing the adventure. In her letter she comments that little Elaine was “good as gold” throughout the trip. She complains of food prices—$3.50 for “very little,” she says, at the hotel in San Juan. However—

The trip was beautiful. At one place we landed on a river, and it was a thrill. I’ll always remember when we came down on that muddy water at about 100 mi. per hr. (Elaine and I had never rode in a seaplane before.)
Steward serves dinner aboard a Martin M-130 flying boat. Pan American World Airways, Inc. Via University of Miami Libraries Special Collections. Public Domain.
The Capt. is a peach & both stewards were nice. Same Capt. goes tomorrow.

Who could resist the thrill of landing on water at a hundred miles per hour? Especially with such peachy flight and cabin crew. Pan Am, from the start, tried to provide the ultimate luxury experience for their passengers.

On the second night, they stayed in Belem, state of Pará, northern Brazil. Mary did not enjoy the town’s peculiar odor, “which they called distilled wood, but smelled like raw sewage to me.” 

We got in late, waited for a long time to get through customs, then rode in a rackety bus for miles into the town.
It was a wild ride. The one who toots first has the right-of-way, so we went tooting madly while native children scampered in all directions. 

On the third day, flying from Belem to Rio in a land-based Boeing 307 Stratoliner, they made a mid-day stop at Barreiras, an inland city in east-central Brazil. 

Barreiras Airport, 1940s. National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 
That was surely interesting. There’s nothing but the landing field on a high plateau in the middle of the jungle. The natives swarmed out of their huts to stare at us, especially at Elaine and I, as we were the only females on the plane. 
The airport manager carried an 8 in. knife, just in case, he said.
A native woman served good coffee in a thatched hut. 
We were at 18,000 ft.  in the strato-liner, it was very comfortable, but I think I enjoyed the first day in the Clipper most, & Elaine liked to watch the water landings too.

The Stratoliner, a sleek, cigar-shaped vessel that entered commercial service in 1938, was the first airliner to offer a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at altitudes to 20,000 feet. It was basically a B-17 bomber with its fuselage expanded to accommodate 33 passengers and a crew of six, instead of bombs. 

A Pan Am-labeled Boeing 307 Stratoliner, on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Originaly uploaded by the photographer, Kaszeta, under terms of the GFDL. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Once the young family arrived in Rio, it did not at first match expectations. For one thing, the weather was cold and clammy and remained so for a week or more after their arrival. “Most of our heavy clothes are in the trunk that is being shipped, & I sure wish we had them,” Mary writes. “I have never been so cold I think.” 

And the local cuisine took some getting used to.

Food is good & plentiful here but different. Tea is served in the afternoon, but we are always so full that we don’t bother with it. 
Coffee is so strong it looks thick, and is combined with hot milk, and is, surprisingly, very good. … Elaine drinks hot boiled milk and likes it too.
A typical lunch consists of hors d’oeuvres (celery, sardines, olives, etc.) chicken or veg. soup, cold veal covered with spiced mayonnaise, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cottage pie (diced meat with mashed potato covering), rolls, molded pudding or ice cream, coffee.
Everything is served in separate courses. Salad is also available, but we skip it, or anything raw on account of dysentery.

After a week’s leave, Ed reported to Pan Am’s office and began preparing for his first flight from Rio, a four-day trip to Belem. Meanwhile, Mary grew concerned about housing. “The Co. pays expenses here for 7 days & after that we are on our own, so must find an apt. as soon as possible.” Yet, after the first week, they were still living in a beachfront hotel, and “[it] looks as if we will be here for some time.” 

After all, it was 1940. There was a war on in Europe. “The place is full of French & Eng. refugees, many of them wealthy who either have, or are looking for Apts. & willing to pay well for them.” 

Still, there were consolations to living the high life oin Rio.

We are on the 7th floor & scenery is very beautiful. Sugar [Loaf] Mountain & its cable car going up the side can be seen when it isn’t foggy. All the mts. are tall & narrow & green. …
There are a troupe of show people here, including two midgets that we saw in Long Beach, Cal. when we first went there.
They amuse Elaine as she is bigger than they.
Elaine before the trip to Rio.
They are friendly & fun to talk to. The woman is knitting herself a dress.
Elaine can count to 5 in Portuguese as well as Eng. & knows a few other words. At dinner she handed her napkin back to the waiter & told him holey & showed him the holes.
Weather has turned warm & we all like it here very well.  Everyone is very nice.
I am tired of eating meat & fish.  I’ve finally learned how to use a fish knife.  The fish fork is held in the left hand, and knife in the right, and then go after it.
The waiters serve each course from a silver tray & manipulate both a fork & serving spoon with one hand. I’m going to practice that when I have time.
Street cars here have an open car as a trailer, marked “Secunda classe (second class)” which is half price.  People hang on the sides, too.

Eventually they did find an apartment, for a longer-term stay. But, as is the fate of junior airline employees in every time and place, they did not stay put for long. Sometime between February and December, 1941, they moved back to the United States, settling in Oakland, California, just uphill from Alameda, where Ed began flying Pan Am’s famous “Clipper” flying boats across the Pacific. 

Next Stop: PEARL HARBOR. Be sure to tune in.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author