Tag Archives: education

The Tanker

November 30, 1962--A plane crash and a tanker explosion that affected me and my family.

Headline in the Lewiston, Maine, Sun, announcing two crashes that affected me and my family on Friday, November 30, 1962.

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.


Daves 1954 Ford Station Wagon

A 1954 Ford Station Wagon like the one that stranded Dave in -13F temperatures

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.

Addison County Courthouse and Jail

Old Middlebury, Vt. courthouse with the jail in back.

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

Patience in the Computer Age

Dave's first computer book, 1963

Dave’s first computer book, 1963, $3.95

Why should a person like me, with a long-exhausted reserve of patience, spend twenty-two years working full-time with computers? After all, these devices fail miserably to deliver exactly what you want even after weeks of frustrating effort. I must have been attracted by the tantalizing promise of these machines to complete, in mere fractions of a second, laborious tasks that once took human hours or days.

My early wisdom about computers evaporated when necessity forced me to work with them full time. I said, “Why program a computer to do something you will do once, when writing the program will take longer than the work itself?” Real programmers didn’t understand my point of view. What they didn’t know was that I found comfort and even relaxation in small clerical jobs.

The biggest failure of computers, as everyone knows, is their steadfast persistence in doing exactly what you tell them to do, instead of what you want them to do. A casual comment by a co-worker at a defense plant offered some hope. Speaking of an unclassified project, the Pilot’s Associate, he said, “We’ll use artificial intelligence techniques to lighten the workload of the jet fighter pilot, by predicting his intentions at just the right moment, and commanding the aircraft automatically to do just what he would have intended it to do. Then he’ll be free to cope with more pressing tasks, such as deflecting approaching missiles, for instance.” I had to laugh.“Mike,” I said, “May I borrow this program when you perfect it? It’s just what we computer programmers need to get the computer to do what we intend without our having to tell it exactly what we want it to do.”

Now I’m glad to be retired from computer work. Like the spurious notion that each person is granted a fixed number of two-billion heartbeats to expend at any rate they chose, I think that I was granted a fixed supply of patience at birth. Foolishly, I used it all up when I was a teenager, trying to get my first car, a true junker, to run reliably. I’ve been running on empty ever since.

Next week: Sea Shell City

Dave Flunks Out

Old Stone Row, Middlebury College

Middlebury College

When I was a kid, I dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer and an officer in the Navy serving on aircraft carriers. My high school grades in math and science, a mixture of B’s and C’s, should have been a tip-off that engineering wasn’t a good plan, but I ignored them. I also minimized my rejection for a Naval ROTC program that would have paid for my college, and given me a commission at graduation. Mere obstacles to be overcome.

When MIT and other top colleges rejected me I began to worry. “You might consider a three-two program,” the MIT admissions officer said, “Do well for three years at certain schools and MIT might take you as a transfer student.” That’s how I turned up in the fall of 1957, at age eighteen, at Middlebury College in Vermont

Rules for freshmen men at Middlebury in 1957

Rules for freshmen men at Middlebury in 1957

College was a shock. Compared to most other freshmen, my social skills were right in line with my athletic abilities: close to zero. Fraternity rush was a nightmare — no one wanted to talk with me, and I ended up by default in a non-affiliated men’s group, called the Atwater Club. The B’s and C’s of my high school years sank to C’s and D’s in college.

“Lots of people have a rough time in their first year of college and turn out fine,” one of my parent’s friends assured me. My parents themselves were all encouragement, too, without a word of criticism, bless them.

I hung on to my engineering dream and returned in the fall of 1959 for another go. I moved into the Atwater Club off campus. The other guys were misfits like me, some very intelligent, a couple of proto-beatniks with beards and berets, and several with hobbies too fascinating to resist. My roommate was an expert on streetcars, and we spent Thanksgiving break riding every subway line in New York City and every trolley line in Newark and Hoboken. Ditto in Philadelphia. And the streetcar hobby was on top of the 23-plus hours a day I was spending as a volunteer at the college radio station, WRMC.

I had buried studies and class work somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind and had passed from blind, unrealistic optimism into deep denial. Sure, I was afraid, but I believed that the grades would take care of themselves—somehow. The approach of first-semester finals in January 1959 unleashed the panic that I had long suppressed with extra-curricular pursuits. There was no way I could pass physics and calculus.No amount of cramming could save me, and I knew that Middlebury tossed you out when you failed two courses. We had joked about students flunking out and having to go to junior college, or worse, to inferior urban diploma mills like BU in Boston. Now the humor was gone.

Out of desperation, I sought refuge in a collection of science fiction paperbacks that had accumulated in the Atwater residence. Maybe my predecessors in academic crisis had used these books as the sand in which they buried their heads, just as I was doing.

Dave's flunkout grades

Dave’s flunk out grades

The notice of failing grades appeared in my mailbox, followed a day or two later by a short letter from the dean. The college was dropping me. I had flunked both physics and math. When I called my mother to deliver the news, she took a deep breath and said, “Well, I guess Joe and I will have to come up and get you. We’ll call you back tonight after Joe gets home.” She didn’t react with the hysteria that I feared, but I felt terrible anyway. They put a huge effort into my education, and I had failed them.

The next day I went to see the dean who offered his sympathy, but said that it was unlikely that I would ever return to Middlebury. The more I thought about what he told me about never returning, the angrier I became.

When my father arrived a few days later to collect me and my things, he seemed panic stricken. I hadn’t seen him so upset before. “What’s going to happen now?” he demanded. I don’t know if anything I said reassured him during our five-hour ride, but when we got to Marblehead I learned that my mother had been on the phone researching alternatives for me. It felt good to be home, with the impossible situation at Middlebury behind me. What the dean had said stuck in my mind and I began, at last, to think.

The first step was to get a job, which was easy. My father’s brother Paul, a vice-president of Sylvania, had arranged summer jobs for me before at one of their factories in Salem, and was willing to do so again. With an income I felt independent enough to plan without worrying about burdening my parents. My anger at the Middlebury dean drove me forward.

With the failure in physics and calculus, I had no problem realizing that I wasn’t suited for engineering. Psychology seemed interesting, and I thought it would be nice to help people. I went into Boston University and signed up for two night school courses in psychology and one in public speaking. Now I had to suppress BU’s reputation as a haven for flunkouts from better schools, and forget the jokes about diploma mills.

A course in social psychology opened my eyes to the possibilities of research, and taught me an important lesson about the relative quality of students. Many of the men at Middlebury seemed to focus on fraternities, drinking, cars, sports and sex. For these guys, Middlebury was a convenient place to learn to ski, pick up girls, and to pursue some serious drinking. My BU classmates could not have been different; they were motivated to learn. All worked full time in the day and none had much use for nonsense like getting drunk.

The professor took us through his lab where he studied group communication and I was fascinated by his clever experimental designs. Another student on the tour invited me to a party in an apartment near the campus where we discussed psychology and other academic subjects. It’s possible that I had one beer. In class, a woman in her mid-thirties sat beside me, and we talked. She was a nurse earning her college degree at night and had served in World War II. I was twenty and said nothing to her about the warm surge of affection that I felt.

One night, a student asked a question about the previous week’s lecture. The professor paused to think, and another student whipped out her steno pad and read back the instructor’s exact words. Wow! I hadn’t seen anything like that at Middlebury.

Determined to succeed, I typed all of my class notes on my evenings off and kept them in binders. I wasn’t going to depend on the slovenly note-taking that had contributed to my failure at Middlebury. I know that my parents were relieved to see me taking charge of my education. My father helped by commuting to Boston by train, so that I could have the car to get to my job in Salem and to class in Boston at night. My mother did light shopping on foot in downtown Marblehead and waited for the weekends for bigger errands. Many years later, she said that the time in 1959, when I lived at home and went to school in Boston, was one of the happiest for her.

At the end of the spring semester at BU I had two A’s and one B. I knew then that I was on the right track with psychology and that I might exact my revenge on the dean at Middlebury by gaining readmission and proving him wrong. I knew the procedure: write a letter to the Administration Committee at the college demonstrating that you had mended your wayward habits, and that you could succeed now. I began to compose it in my mind.

My mother suggested that I really didn’t have to work, and could go to summer school at BU full time. I took additional psych courses and elementary German which I knew that I’d need for graduate school. One of the professors announced a term paper, sending me into a panic. I didn’t know where to start. When I told my mother, she offered to help me with the research and even to type the paper. I was embarrassed by her generosity. After all, she and my father had sacrificed so much for me, and as an adult, I should be proceeding on my own. I typed out eleven pages on the development of vision in infants and got a B.

By the middle of August 1959 I had my summer school grades: four B’s. With the letter to Middlebury College mostly written in my head, I headed upstairs to my attic room in our Marblehead house to type it out. I had a good supply of erasable bond paper and my favorite blue carbon sheets. I worked slowly, trying to avoid mistakes. I requesting readmission to Middlebury, chronicled my academic downfall,  my change from physics to psychology and my redemption at BU. I dropped my transcript into the envelope with the letter, mailed it on August 21, 1959 and waited.

Less than two weeks later I had a response from the college re-admitting me. The following weekend my parents drove me back to Middlebury for the beginning of my junior year. I couldn’t wait to confront the dean.

He was all smiles this time, and I was polite as I expressed my gratitude for his good wishes. I said nothing about my anger at him which, for some reason didn’t subside with my readmission, but instead grew stronger, fueling revenge fantasies that lasted for seven years.

A Middlebury prof in his lab. 1968 photo by Walter Beagley

Dave as a Middlebury professor, in his lab. 1968 photo by Walter Beagley

Still determined to show him how badly he had misjudged me, I looked for an opening. An opportunity came when I returned to Middlebury again in the spring of 1966 with a Princeton doctorate under my belt, this time to interview for a faculty post.

The dean and I found ourselves standing, side-by-side in the men’s room near the end of my interview. I savored the irony of our relative positions then and now. “We’re equal now,” I thought, and I realized with a smile to myself that I had forgiven him.

Nest week: Dave’s first car: the 4CV .