Tag Archives: Memoir

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


Vermont Transit Bus like the one we took to Montreal

Vermont Transit Bus like the one we took to Montreal

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.

Notre Dame de Bon Secours

Notre Dame de Bon Secours

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

WRMC Revived

The WRMC staff in 1960.  Back row: Gary Hoover, Dave Martindale, Ron Wysocki, Pat Parsons & Chris Baker. Middle row: Dave Hulihan, Dave Crowley, Leelaine Rowe, Fred Busk, Frank Sutherland, Conrad Wettergreen, Phil Clickner, Pete Leone. Front row: Joel Pokorny, Lorrie Kittredge, Ed Rothchild, Mike Marcus, Marty Chamberlin, Greg Nagy, Dave Rubenstein, Jeff Entin, Mark Skolnik

The WRMC staff in 1960. Back row: Gary Hoover, Dave Martindale, Ron Wysocki, Pat Parsons & Chris Baker.
Middle row: Dave Hulihan, Dave Crowley, Leelaine Rowe, Fred Busk, Frank Sutherland, Conrad Wettergreen, Phil Clickner & Pete Leone.
Front row: Joel Pokorny, Lorrie Kittredge, Ed Rothchild, Mike Marcus, Marty Chamberlin, Greg Nagy, Dave Rubenstein, Jeff Entin & Mark Skolnik

Over the summer of 1958, the College tore down the Student Union for replacement with a new structure. They built a temporary studio for us in a small building on campus, Recitation Hall, where we continued to produce some programming. Our hearts weren’t in it, though, because we knew that few dorms could receive our signal. Nonetheless we continued to cover out-of-town sports events. Middlebury College was a major power in collegiate hockey and one our strongest competitors was St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.  I was on duty with another staffer at the studio the night of the St. Lawrence game in the fall of 1958. We were anchoring the play-by-play which came over a leased phone line from Canton, New York.   Suddenly the feed from the hockey game went dead. We couldn’t communicate with our reporter at the game; we just had to fumble with every control we could find in the studio and attempt to reach the phone company to check on the integrity of our line.  At this point, the president of Middlebury College, Samuel  S. Stratton walked in.  Just like the others who gathered in the studio to hear the game when they couldn’t receive it at home, he wanted to follow the excitement of one of our most important contests.  I was terrified because I would have to explain the technical problem to him.  Instead of the explosion and summary expulsion that I feared, he said that he understood and might try back later.

After flunking out of college in mid-sophomore year, I spent the spring and summer semesters of 1959 at Boston University as a night student, working during the day.  When I returned to Middlebury in the fall of 1959 as a junior, construction of the new student union building to be called Redfield Proctor Hall was well under way.  Dave Hulihan, a classmate headed for a career in architecture, took me on several tours of the new building after the workmen had gone home for the day.  He pointed out every detail, from the steel studs that had just come into use, to the flexible “Modernfold” doors that separated sections of the dining hall. When we could get into the basement, we visited the new WRMC studios. They occupied the same relative position—the northwest corner—that they had in the old building.   The last time we saw them before completion, the studios were just at the stud stage.

By this time the station had been off the air for over a year.  I don’t remember how we kept this student organization going during this tough period. There was a lot of conflict among staff members, but some strong personalities emerged.  Chief among them was my junior year roommate Ed Rothchild and two women in my class, Lorrie Kittredge and Leelaine Rowe. I had been burned in the infighting and decided to remain on the sidelines for a while until things calmed down. Our spirits lifted when the college showed its commitment to WRMC by building the new studios that Hulihan and I had toured. But new quarters wouldn’t fix the transmitter problem.

Our FCC license restricted the range of our broadcasts to the college campus; any external antenna that could reach all the college buildings would also project our signal into the town of Middlebury, as our predecessors had learned in 1950 when the license was suspended.  Someone in the college administration, or in WRMC’s student leadership, had the good sense to contact John Bowker, Jr., the station’s founder at RCA’s David Sarnoff Labs, in Princeton, New Jersey, where he worked.

Bowker and one of his technicians designed and built a number of small transmitters, one for each college dorm, that would attach to the electrical wiring and carry the radio signal throughout the building but not beyond.  The college covered Bowker’s expenses and provided dedicated telephone lines from the new studios to the electrical panels in the basement of each building.  One weekend in 1960, before the opening  of our new studios,  Bowker and his technician came up to Middlebury to install the new transmitters, comprising what they called a carrier current system.  I watched the installation in Starr Hall, one of Middlebury’s oldest buildings, where we had to stoop to move about in the cellar.

Back row: Bill Custard, Lorrie Kittredge, Jim Dreves, Mary Hart & Dave Gannett. Front Row: John Wallach, Mike Black, Ed Rothchild, Pete Frame & Pete Leone

Back row: Bill Custard, Lorrie Kittredge, Jim Dreves, Mary Hart & Dave Gannett. Front Row: John Wallach, Mike Black, Ed Rothchild, Pete Frame & Pete Leone

It went quickly. They removed the cover of one of the electrical panels, attached a couple of wires, screwed a bracket for the transmitter onto a wooden board, ran another wire to the telephone jack, and took a reading on a device known as a field strength meter.  They replaced the panel cover and moved on to the next building.

With new studios and a signal that could be received fairly well in each dorm, WRMC prospered. Many talented students joined the staff, while I withdrew to focus on my studies, and on a new set of friends among the psychology students who, like me, were headed for graduate school.  Three days a week   I did a morning newscast and then went upstairs for breakfast in the new Proctor Hall dining room, where, if I was lucky, I would find one of my friends.

Next week: Insomnia



A student at the control board

Mark Skolnik student at the control board

When I arrived at Middlebury College in Vermont in the fall of 1957 at age 18, I was planning to become an engineer, transferring — with good physics, chemistry and math grades — to MIT after my junior year. I had done well in these topics in high school, and I had always enjoyed fiddling with radios and simple electronics.  After a few weeks at Middlebury I went into the basement of the Student Union building to check out the college radio station, WRMC. I could learn more about electronics, I thought, if they would take me on as a volunteer to do technical work.  An upperclassman showed me around. In the control room were two large turntables built into a bench on either side of a sloping panel with a lighted meter and six black knobs with a bunch of lever switches. Large windows on either side of the control room allowed the engineer to see into the studios on the left and right.  “Marty” (a pseudonym) is our chief engineer,” the upperclassman said, “He’ll be back later this afternoon and can answer your questions about the electronics.”

Marty was from Maine and worked with large mainframe computers for the local gas company during the summer, he told me when we met.  He led me out of the studio, past storage cages with provisions for the Student Union coffee shop upstairs to a small back room which contained a teletype machine fed by United Press International.  “American Tobacco pays for the UP teletype at many college stations like WRMC” he said. “All we have to do is air so many Lucky Strike commercials a day. They’re on those transcription disks.” He pointed to a stack of sixteen-inch records in sturdy manila sleeves leaning against the wall near the teletype.  These records, I could see, would fit on the Gates turntables I had seen in the control room, but were too big for home phonographs.

In an alcove behind the teletype was a large home-built electronic chassis with glowing tubes and wires sitting on a shelf.  It hadn’t been dusted in a long time. “That’s the transmitter,” Marty said. “It feeds into the old class-bell wiring underground that goes to all the buildings and dorms. They don’t use the bells anymore so we use the wires as an antenna.”

The next day I came back to learn how use the equipment in the control room. Jim Tracy, a sophomore, showed me how to cue records and operate the switches and knobs while always watching the VU meter to keep the needle out of the red “distortion” zone. Later that day I met another sophomore who had a country and western show and who was willing to let me do the engineering for him.  After a few weeks I was comfortable in the control room and asked if I might do some announcing too; I thought that it might help with my stuttering.

They let me start with the news, reading selected items from the UP wire. I did fine without stammering. You had to edit your copy beforehand, they said, because sometimes there were typos and other errors in the teletype feed.   When Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, the first UP bulletin read “POOP DEAD.” I went on to read other material and served as News Director for awhile. My main responsibility was to keep the teletype supplied with fresh ribbons and a full paper roll. God forbid the paper should run out in the middle of an important story overnight. It happened once and I got into big trouble.

Eventually I hosted my own classical music show.  It was very easy to run the entire station from the control room, announcing, cueing up records and manipulating the knobs and switches on the control board. You didn’t need a separate engineer and announcer if the show wasn’t too complicated to produce.

Rothchild & Frame

Ed Rothchild and Pete Frame cover a ball game with the successor to the BBB

WRMC covered Middlebury College sports by sending one or two reporters to the home and away games. We leased a special line from the telephone company for each game we covered, and carried a homemade portable console to connect the microphone to the phone line in the press box.  This black box was called “Baker’s Battery Bastard,” or the BBB after the former student who constructed it.

Peter Talbot was one of the juniors who were most active at the station when I was a freshmen. We envied him, because he had a summer job working on a real radio station in Connecticut. He also had a great bass voice that projected well on the air. One day he showed us a trick with which an announcer could recreate the play-by-play for a baseball game from a properly kept score card and a recording of crowd noises. One person could create the illusion alone in the studio and the listener would believe that the man on the radio was actually at the ball game:

It’s a bouncing grounder. And, OOOOOh, it’s by the shortstop on one hop. Johnson charges for third…[crowd noise up]… The throw from center. Not in time!  Heeee’s safe!!!…[more crowd noise]…

The deception depended on the listeners not knowing exactly when the game was played, and, of course, on a ready willingness to suspend skepticism every time they turned the radio on.

Next week: The transmitter