It was bound to happen sometime—I would use an image in one of my blog posts (Inside Seashell City ) that was copyrighted artwork created by someone else. In this case what I mistook for a simple photo of an old road sign in Vermont that I found on the internet was really an illustration produced by Ryan Fowler of Native Vermont Studio, as he graciously reminded me in an email last night. I should, of course, have sought his first permission first. Please visit his website to check out his delightful creations.
One morning in late November 1962, when I was a graduate student at the University of Vermont in Burlington, we awoke to a power failure. On my battery radio I heard that a chemical tank truck had overturned and caught fire, taking out a Vermont Electric substation on Route 15 in Essex Junction. With no electricity there would be no classes for me to take or teach. As a lifelong fire chaser I had no choice but to head north to check out the accident scene. I parked some distance from the wreck and approached cautiously. The tractor and trailer had separated in the crash, with the tractor across the road halfway up a grassy hill. The tanker was resting on its side against the chain link fence surrounding the substation and Essex Junction volunteer firemen were cooling it with water on the outside and pumping a small amount of foam through its open hatch.
A crash truck from the Burlington Municipal Airport stood by. I joined a small group of spectators who were surveying the scene from the hill where the tractor had stopped. Standing with us were some Vermont Electric linemen whose access to the substation was blocked. Suddenly and without warning, the tanker ignited with a loud “whomp” and sent a large blast of flame directly at us. I threw myself to the ground just as it passed over me, but one of the linemen was less fortunate and received flash burns to his face and arms.
We stood. The lineman was in shock walking around and calling for an ambulance. We got him to sit down and I checked my back. I was lucky that only my neck hairs were singed, but the fur lining in the hood of my parka was burned right off. I looked at the tanker and saw the firemen attending to a fallen comrade right by the hatch. I heard the airport crash truck revving it’s engine to propel foam onto the wreck from the nozzle on its roof.
This incident played out in the pages of the Burlington Free Press for a couple of weeks. The tanker had contained a volatile and toxic industrial chemical known as vinyl acetate. The truck driver, Marcel Duteau, was heading north to Montreal from Leominster, Mass. when his brakes failed on a sharp downhill curve in the road, as he told police at the scene. He then walked into Essex Junction and boarded a bus for Montreal without telling anyone what was in the tank or what it could do.
The burned Essex Junction fireman spent several months in the hospital, but did recover. I didn’t know until I discovered an AP report on the internet that a second person, a Burlington Free Press photographer, had been burned just as badly as the firefighter and that his camera had melted. My small group of spectators who were tending to the burned lineman had our backs to the tanker, and didn’t notice the more serious burn victims.
My mother had given me the burned parka during my undergraduate days, and I didn’t dare wear it again in her presence. She would have given me hell for placing myself in such danger.
The tanker explosion happened on Friday, November 30, 1962. Only two days later, on Sunday, December 2, my mother called from Marblehead to tell me that my cousin Joan’s husband had been killed that same Friday evening in plane crash at Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport in New York. Joan was my father’s neice, who had grown up in Danvers, Mass. and had married her high school sweetheart, “Butch” Voorhees. After serving in the Air Force, Butch had joined Eastern Airlines, and was working as flight engineer on a propeller-driven Douglas DC-7B which crashed in fog while attempting a go-around after a flight from Charlotte, North Carolina.
There had been some confusion in the schedule and Butch did not appear on the crew manifest until Eastern Airlines rechecked and found that he had substituted at the last minute for the other engineer. The news came through to my cousin Joan late Saturday afternoon at her home in Long Island. Joan’s father (my uncle Paul) who by then had separated from my aunt Millie, jumped into his car and made the trip from Marblehead to Long Island in three and a half hours, at least an hour and a half short of the usual time. Everyone in the cockpit had been killed, but twenty-five of forty-six passengers survived.
Joan had three small children playing inside the house, but she was outside raking leaves in her bluejeans when the two senior Eastern Airlines captains drove up to deliver the news. Joan is short and very thin, and the two officials mistook her for a child and asked if her mother was home, as she told me years later.
During the last week of November 1962, there were five other fatal airline crashes worldwide. Today, thanks to much improved safety provisions airline crashes like the one that killed Butch are rare. In 1962, the Essex Junction firefighters had no idea of what they were dealing with in the crashed tanker, but now trucks and trains carrying hazardous material carry numbered warning placards that are keyed to specific instructions for emergency responders.
Next week: Some comments.
Between 1961 and 1963 I was a graduate student at the University of Vermont in Burlington, 36 miles north of Middlebury College where I had just received my BA. Once in a while I drove down in the evening to Middlebury to see friends and to catch one of their psychology seminars. My 1954 Ford station wagon usually made the trip, but one cold winter night in early 1963 when I headed back to Burlington around 12:30 AM, I couldn’t get the car to warm up. The temperature gauge kept rising but only cold air came from the heater vents. I was traveling on US Route 7 in open farmland with nowhere to stop for help when the needle moved into red territory. I thought that I might have to set the car on fire to keep from freezing to death if I couldn’t make it to Vergennes, about 12 miles north of Middlebury. But make it to Vergennes I did and just as I pulled up at a closed service garage, the temperature guage pegged at the top. I set out on foot and banged on the door of the volunteer fire station, where the thermometer on the door read -13F.
No answer there, so I walked up the street and rounded a corner where I found a middle-aged policeman wrestling in the snow with a drunk man and woman, just outside a tavern whose late closing hour was appreciated by many in that part of Vermont. By now It was after 1 a.m.
The policemen turned out to be the chief who had been called out to deal with the unruly couple. Like him, they seemed to be middle aged. I told him my predicament and he agreed to help me with the car if I would help him with the drunks. He managed to get the man into the front seat of his police car and then eased the woman into the back seat with me. Thank God the car was warm. I got a closer look at the couple.. The man seemed be a businessman in his late forties and the dark haired woman might have been a decade younger. For me at age 24 anyone over 35 was middle-aged. I got the impression that the woman wasn’t the wife of the drunk man in the front seat.
The chief drove to a boarding house in Vergennes where the couple might sleep it off, but the proprietor didn’t want to deal with drunks. During this stop the man became abusive, first threatening the officer’s job via influential friends in Montpelier, the state capital, and then cursing him. The policemen had had enough and told them both that they were under arrest. He turned to me in the back seat and said that the nearest jail wasin Middlebury and that we had to drive back there before we could see to my car.
We started back down Route 7 to Middlebury. The officer had to drive with one hand, because the man kept trying to bail out of the car now traveling at over 50 mph. I held on to the woman’s wrist but she didn’t seem as interested in stepping out of the speeding car as her companion did.
At the courthouse in Middlebury we woke up Al Chandler, the sheriff, and his wife. I recognized Chandler because he also served as the College’s police officer. Al and the Vergennes chief tucked the drunk man away for the night in one of the men’s cells and then Al’s wife and the two officers turned to the drunk woman. The women’s cells were upstairs from the kitchen and to reach them you had to negotiate a narrow enclosed staircase. The woman had been docile up to now but put up a huge struggle when they approached the stairway, spreading her arms like a lobster going into the pot when they tried to ease her into the passageway. Eventually they got her into the cell and headed back down to enjoy a cup of hot coffee and to inspect the contents of the couples’ wallet and purse. As it turned out, the businessman came from Montpelier and the woman was from Las Vegas.
Our perusal of their licenses was interrupted by loud banging noises from the women’s cells upstairs; Al’s wife and the chief went back up. The women’s cells were constructed, they told me, of little more than chicken wire, and the woman had just about broken out when they reached her. She went into a more secure cell, we finished our coffee, and the chief and I headed back north to deal with my car.
Back in Vergennes (It was now 3:00 a.m.) the officer woke up the owner of the garage where I had left my car and he came out and filled my radiator with water. These were the days before year-round antifreeze; the sub-zero temperatures were unexpected and he had run out. Incredibly he charged me only $15 for getting up from a dead sleep to send me on my way. He told about an all-night service station in South Burlington where I might get some antifreeze. I stopped there, but they had run out too. The attendant topped off my radiator with water and assured me that the engine block wouldn’t freeze, if I just left it for two or three hours. Back in my apartment in Burlington I slept a little and dealt with the car after sunrise. It was just a leaky radiator hose, this time, but it was the beginning of the end for the 1954 Ford. In March 1963 it spent two weeks in the shop waiting for a special transmission part, and in April, it sprang a major motor oil leak. A three-mile drive from a service station near my apartment to the repair garage consumed four quarts of oil. It was time for the junkyard.
Next week: The Tanker
What brought us together as roommates at Middlebury College was our shared love of classical music and our progressive political beliefs. In a few weeks in the fall of 1959, he drew from his large record collection to introduce me to music of the baroque and classical periods, and in the process changed my tastes forever. For a non-musician, Ed Rothchild, at age twenty, held an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music and opera, the kind you might find among professional symphony players and conductors.
In late February 1960, he and I took a bus to Montreal, about two hours north of Middlebury, to see the sights. Some students went up there to drink or maybe to find loose women, but we went to Montreal to visit cultural sites and listen to classical music. We stayed a couple of nights in the YMCA and visited churches, including the magnificent Notre Dame Basilica with its incredible wood-carved interior and the sprawling St Joseph’s Oratory which featured a large collection of crutches and braces abandoned by people who believed they were cured there. We also took in Notre Dame de Bon Secours, a chapel in old Montreal dedicated to prayers for those at sea. In Bon Secours, lamps suspended from the ceiling were shaped like ships of various eras.
At the Forum, we watched a hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers. I still recall the French penalty announcements, “La Punission des Canadiens….” On our last day we attended a chamber music concert at L’Ermitage, a small concert hall.
Afterwards we discovered that we didn’t have enough money for the bus back to Middlebury, one hundred and thirty miles away. We took a city bus to the outskirts of Montreal and began hitchhiking. We both wore olive-drab hooded parkas, which our second ride told us were hurting our chances; in the previous month a man in a military-style parka had murdered a priest. “My protection,” he said, pointing to the glove compartment, “is in here.” I guessed he wanted us to think that he had a pistol, on the off chance that we were the killers of the priest. Finally, after a long cold wait in Phillipsburg, Quebec, a group of drunken teenagers took us across the border to Burlington, Vt., where we picked up a ride to Middlebury. It may have been 2:00 AM when we trudged back to our dorm after our frightening trip back from Montreal. He and I made a couple of visits to New York City, and one to Marblehead but that’s another story.
Next week: Stranded
The program was Ed Rothchild’s inspiration, to be called “Insomnia”— A solid three hours of home-grown comedy to be broadcast live from the studios of WRMC at Middlebury College in Vermont. It was the early spring of 1958 when Ed and I were freshmen. By then I was heavily involved in the radio station; everything there was so much more exciting than anything my professors had to offer in the seven classes (including Phys Ed and ROTC) that I was signed up for. Of course, I went to my classes, took illegible notes, attended chemistry lab, did some of my math homework and passed some of my exams. And whenever I could escape these dreary and overwhelming duties, I headed for the WRMC studios. After all, I was the News Director had to check that the UP teletype machine hadn’t run out of paper or worn out its ribbon.
I have forgotten most of the actual content of the Insomnia marathon, but I remember what I had to do to prepare for it. It was my job to produced tape-recorded sound effects for the show, including background music. And how did this assignment come about? Well, I owned a tape recorder, and could borrow a second one, no less. The editing job required recording sound snippets from various records onto one of the tape machines, and cutting the recorded tape segments to exactly the right length. Then I spliced white leader tape between all the sound effects segments and wrote what the segment was on the leader. For the section requiring lots of chickens clucking, I wrote “chickens” on the leader preceding it.
The chickens were needed for one of the commercials to be used in the show—for a bogus product called “Furdsot,” a sheep dip. Furdsot was a product of Ed Rothchild’s fertile imagination. To Ed, who grew up in the New York area, anything suggesting farming was funny, including the early morning agricultural forecasts that we heard on the radio. After all, Middlebury College was located in an area dominated by dairy farms, but to Ed it might as well have been Dogpatch. Ed didn’t read the Furdsot commercial himself; instead the job fell to a student who could muster a better hillbilly accent than Ed could. In the control room I cued my tape machine and brought up the barnyard sounds as the commercial began.
This preparation consumed a huge amount of time, far more than I devoted to my studies. In the rush to get ready for the Insomnia broadcast I worked late one cold winter night with Ed and other students. We took a break in the larger of the two studios, a room with a couple of old arm chairs and a worn rug. On the wall was a faded reproduction of a romantic era painting: a partially draped woman reclining on a couch. “Look at that sly nipple,” Ed had commented when he first spotted the partly revealed breast in the painting. I relaxed in one of the arm chairs right under this picture and decided not to go back to my dorm, but to sleep right there in the studio. I didn’t get much rest and by dawn, I was exhausted. I dragged myself back to my dorm and flopped on my bed, missing two of my morning classes. It’s no wonder that I flunked out the following year.
If Rothchild wasn’t up to a convincing farmer’s accent, he was a natural for the heavy Russian enunciation required in the next bogus commercial—for a Soviet product called “Sverdgorsky’s Preboiled Instant Borscht.”
Comrades, don’t spend hours shredding beets and other vegetables when you can save all that precious socialist labor for something more worthy. Instead, use Sverdgorsky’s Preboiled Instant Borscht. It’s flavor buds leap from the pot and belch at you. On your next rip to Siberia, pack a can or two. You’ll be glad that you did.
Epilogue: Even the new transmission system installed by John Bowker in 1960 couldn’t reach all the college’s dorms with a good AM signal and by the mid sixties it became clear that a conversion to FM was needed. In 1967, the FCC granted the college a license for a ten-watt FM transmitter, with a broadcast antenna to be located on top of the tallest campus building, Mead Chapel. In the years following the switch to FM, WRMC experienced just as many technical crises as we and our predecessors had. There were periods when the station was off the air, just as there had been when I was a student, according to the 1981 history written by Don Kreis. Today, WRMC thrives with a 2900-watt stereo FM signal that covers the Champlain Valley in Vermont and can be heard worldwide over the internet.
Many of us who volunteered for WRMC believed that we might find careers in broadcasting after college. I visited an AM station in Boston and even auditioned for the WESX, the local station in Marblehead where I grew up, but nothing came of it. Instead, I went on to graduate school in psychology. Ed Rothchild, sold office machines after college, worked in the music industry, and became a pioneer in the promotion of compact disc recordings. He married his longtime girlfriend Gail but died in 1992 after a long illness. Lorrie Kittredge Rogers lives in Connecticut, has grown children, and retired after a distinguished career as a pension actuary. Leelaine Rowe Picker also lives in Connecticut where she directed a nursery school. Peter Talbot, who had the best radio voice of any of us, became a director of the NYNEX telephone company and retired to Florida. So did John Bowker, Jr., WRMC’s founder, after his retirement from RCA.
Next week: Montreal