JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Directions

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I don’t think I’ve written it up on this blog.

In November of 1994 when I moved into a condo in the Old City section of Philadelphia, my parents came to help me with the move, as was their wont. Toward the end of the afternoon, when they were ready to leave, they needed directions to get back to the Schuylkill Expressway. Since I didn’t normally drive a car, and this was a new section of the city for me, we asked the condo sales agent for help.

The Benjamin Franklin Bridge

I tried to listen as he described the way to them, as I knew I’d be going that way myself in a few weeks. The next time I spoke to them, they said they had no problem finding their way onto the expressway.

So when the time came to rent a car to visit my parents, I thought I remembered the directions well enough so that I didn’t need a refresher, even though they sounded a bit complicated. After all, I did know my way around the city a bit better than my parents did.

I set out and made a left turn onto 3rd Street, then another left onto Vine, then I was sure he said, now wait, what did he say? Go five blocks to 8th Street? Or eight block to 5th Street? Make another left? Right? And suddenly I found myself on the Ben Franklin Bridge heading across the river towards Camden!

And once you’re on the bridge, there’s no turning back. I went to Camden. Which is located in the mysterious land of New Jersey.

I turned off the main road as quickly as I could and then searched for a way to get back to the bridge. All told the little unwanted detour had cost me perhaps 20 to 30 minutes, which would definitely make me later than the time I had told them to expect me.

When I finally did get to their house, I explained the delay, and there was a rather sheepish expression on my mother’s face. She turned to my father and asked, “Should I tell him?”

He nodded and laughed.

“We weren’t going to say anything,” she continued, “but we ended up in Camden too. We drove around for awhile until we found a policewoman to ask directions.”

Needless to say, when I got back to Philadelphia, I returned to the scene and made sure I knew exactly how to get to the expressway from my new home. It turned out to be quite simple. The sales agent’s mistake had been to mention way too many landmarks along the way, thus over-complicating the directions.

Those Other Classmates

While I was searching yearbooks for Nancy Oberly, it occurred to me that I had another set of classmates of whose fates I had no idea. That is, I went to kindergarten in 1954-55 in Wernersville, PA, and to first and second grades the following years in Womelsdorf, PA, both part of the Conrad Weiser alliance of western Berks County. So could I at least track those classmates’ progress through the rest of their school years?

Yes and no.

There’s no picture of the kindergarten class in the 1955 Weicon yearbook, and the only two classmates I recall from there are Beth Erwin (who was also in the first and second grade classes, and if I recall correctly, her mother had a baby clothing shop on High Street) and Allen Nagle (our family doctor’s son). But the 1956 Weicon does have a photo of our first grade class. I used to have that yearbook, but it’s long since been lost. Happily, the classmates site has an acceptable facsimile of it.

My first grade class. Notice James Eagelman, the tallest kid in the class, in the back row. James Garrett is in the second row next to our teacher, Mrs. Ray, and I’m a couple kids to the right with an expression on my face that seems to say “What am I doing here?” Notice Tommy Rhine at the far right in the first row. He was the shortest guy in the class, and thanks to kids like him, I grew up not realizing I was rather short myself.

Unhappily, that was the last year that the Weicon yearbook included photos of grades one through six, so that somewhat limited my tracking abilities.

I can recall about half the kids in that class, although only two of them, James Eagelman and James Garrett, really stand out in my memories, possibly because we shared the same first name. I might write up a couple little anecdotes about them sometime.

Anyway once I got to the 1962 yearbook, when those kids were in seventh grade, I discovered several things. First, I could still recognize most of the kids that I remembered, and nearly half the kids were no longer there, including James Eagelman. I wonder what happened to him. His father was a veterinarian; did the family just pick up and move? By the way, Eagelman hated the name “James” and insisted that once he got old enough, he was going to change it legally to “Jimmy”. I wonder if he ever followed through on that?

When I got to the Conrad Weiser Class of 1967 graduation pictures, I was instantly able to pick out Richard Behney, Barry Boyer, and Susan Schaeffer without checking their names. And whaddaya know? Susan Schaeffer went to Penn State? If I had known, I would have tried to contact her. Maybe we were in some of the same classes. Although if she went to study Home Economics, maybe not.

Then there are the kids that I no longer recognized, like Beth Erwin, Aldeena Firestone, James Garrett, Candace Hoover, Allen Nagle, and Suzanne Wells.

I recall running into Aldeena Firestone at a Richland Carnival a couple years after second grade, and we had a nice long talk. Also, when I was in maybe fifth grade, I saw Candy Hoover again at a roller rink. Other than that, I don’t think I ever saw any of those classmates again. Several years later in the early 70s, I worked briefly with Doug Hoover, Candy’s younger brother, at the yarn factory on 422.

There were some delightful surprises, such as discovering that Beth Erwin was selected the Class Clown and Barry Boyer was the Best Dancer. Who knew?

Should anyone from the Conrad Weiser Class of 1967 come across this blog post, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

Oh, and one more thing. Seeing that yearbook answered another question: “Whatever happened to David Stites?”

My First Baby Sitter

During my first three years on this planet we lived on Front Street in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania. Next door (or maybe a few doors up) was a restaurant, and that’s where Nancy Oberly lived with her parents, who owned the restaurant. I know this because every time we’d talk about those days, my mother would mention that Nancy Oberly used to babysit for me.

The combined first, second, and third grade photo from the Womelsdorf 1943 yearbook. Nancy Oberly is listed as being in third grade, but her position in the photo isn’t.

We moved to the farm about the time I turned three (my arm was still in a sling from my unfortunate encounter with the washing machine wringer), and as far as I can recall we never visited that restaurant again. I suspect that it went out of business because there was a shoe repair shop across the street and we did visit that from time to time, and I don’t recall there being a restaurant across the street from it by that time.

In any case, I have what I think is a very vague memory of that restaurant, but it may very well be my imagination or a different one altogether.

But as I said, every time that period was mentioned, my mother always used to interject that Nancy Oberly used to babysit for me.

I only recall ever meeting Nancy one time. That was in the mid-70s when she came into the hardware store in Richland that my parents had recently bought. My parents seemed to recognize her right away, so I presume they had maintained some contact with her, but she was just a middle-aged woman to me.

So who was Nancy Oberly? Information on her is hard to find.

Satellite photo of Womelsdorf and the approximate house where we lived from 1949 to 1952

Nancy Lee Oberly was born in 1934 to William and Margaret Oberly, and census records show her living with her parents in Womelsdorf in 1940. She had two older sisters, Shirley and Marian, both deceased. Marian married a William Snyder and they had four children.

Then I got the idea to look for old yearbooks. At first I thought it looked promising, as in the Womelsdorf school yearbooks of 1941-43 when Nancy was in first through third grades, she is listed as being in the combined first, second, and third grade photos.

But after that there is no trace of her. Now some yearbooks are missing from the site that I was using, so possibly she did attend classes in Womelsdorf for somewhat longer, but she definitely doesn’t show up during what should have been her high school years, and she didn’t graduate from the school. What happened? Did she drop out to work in her parents’ restaurant? Did they send her to another school? I have no idea.

And that’s about all I can find. So Nancy would have been about 15 years old when I was born and 18 when we moved to the farm, prime babysitting years. I don’t know if she ever married or had children, nor do I even know if she’s still living or where she might be if she is. She’d be about 85 now, and I’d love to find her if she’s still with us. I’ll bet she might have a story or two to tell.


The Birds Is Gone

I received several queries as to why The Birds (1963) didn’t make my Hitch favorites list. While there are lots of things I like about The Birds, it suffers from a very anemic script by Evan Hunter.

So much to explain there. I’ll start with the movie and its strengths.

The Birds contains some of Hitch’s greatest special effects, and while they could be easily surpassed by today’s CGI effects, they hold up well for their time. They never take you (or at least me) out of the movie. And some of the scenes are absolute classics, such as the gasoline fire at the filling station with that aerial view (or birds’ eye view, if you will) of the scene.

The birds’ eye view of the gasoline fire in The Birds

It has one of my all time favorite Hitchcock scenes where Tippi Hedren’s character is waiting outside the schoolhouse while the children are inside singing. On the soundtrack we hear the children’s subdued voices as the teacher takes them through seemingly endless verses of the song, while Hitch’s camera develops a rhythm of cutting back and forth between closeups of Tippi and the monkey bars that are gradually attracting some crows. First one crow, then a couple more in the next shot, and still a few more in the next. Then the camera remains on Tippi for a longer time period as the audience is wondering what’s going on behind her. Finally, she notices a lone bird up in the sky as it flies lower and lower, and she turns just in time to see it land on the monkey bars which are now filled with thousands of crows, as are the neighboring rooftops and every surface in sight.

I also like Hitch’s decision to not use a regular musical score but instead to fill the soundtrack with electronic sounds and bird sounds. Very effective.

So, yes, there’s a lot I like about the movie, and I probably should have at least given it an honorable mention.

Tippi Hedren waits at the school, oblivious to the birds slowly amassing behind her in The Birds

Oh, but that script!

Evan Hunter, in his slim volume, Me and Hitch, has said that after many conferences with Hitch, they decided to start the movie as a screwball comedy and then have it transform into horror. That might have worked, but Hunter had no experience writing screwball comedies, and what he came up with just isn’t very amusing. But what’s worse, all the exposition that occurs in the first 45 minutes of the film (and there is a lot of it) essentially has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. There’s no payoff.

Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren share martinis in the worst scene in The Birds

Also, there’s a scene that might be one of the worst scenes that Hitch ever filmed. Hunter claims he didn’t write it and that he tried to stop Hitch from filming it but failed. It’s the scene between Tippi and Rod Taylor that takes place during the children’s party. Rod and Tippi climb onto a mound with their martinis (martinis at an afternoon children’s party!) and toss a bunch of non sequitur lines at each other. What makes it especially bad is it looks like it was shot inside a studio set because the actors cast multiple shadows.

That said, there is at least one scene that is extremely well written. I’m referring, of course, to the scene in the diner when the ornithologist played by Ethel Griffies comes in. That scene is another classic.

Ethel Griffies as an ornithologist who knows her birds

Now lest the reader gets the impression that I’m dumping unfairly on Evan Hunter, I want to add that I’m a big fan of his writing under both of his nom de plumes. His birth name was Salvatore Albert Lombino but he legally adopted the name Evan Hunter in 1952 because of prejudice (real or imagined) against people with foreign sounding names. He wrote under both that name and Ed McBain, and I’ve read and enjoyed most of the novels he wrote under both names.

And one more thing. Evan Hunter apparently wrote a lot of the book Me and Hitch from memory without reference to contemporaneous notes or dairies, or without checking on easily checked facts. And he describes a script that he wrote for Hitchcock’s television show, Appointment at 11. Almost everything he says about that script and the way Hitch introduced it on the show are wrong, as a recent viewing of the episode revealed.

My Favorite Hitches

I’ve gotten into a bit of a Hitchcock mood and for some reason I wondered if I could name my top five favorite Hitchcock films. Somewhat surprisingly they came to me in a flash without having to think about it. Here they are in the order in which they were made:

Notorious (1946)

Rear Window (1954)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) the remake with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day

North by Northwest (1959)

Psycho (1960)

But when I tried to round out the list to a Top Ten, I was stymied, as no other five films of his stand out for me the way these do. But if pressed, I guess the following five might make it, although in a different mood on another day I could very well pick out five different ones.


The 39 Steps (1935)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Frenzy (1972)

Family Plot (1976)

With honorable mentions going to

Young and Innocent (1938)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Dial M for Murder (1954)

It will be noted that To Catch a Thief (1955) and Vertigo (1958) don’t make my list at all. Those are usually highly regarded, especially Vertigo, which many directors tend to fawn over as his best work. In the case of Thief, I’m pretty much bored by the plot and the characters, and Vertigo, although it certainly has its moments, doesn’t really grip me the way it does most famous movie directors. Perhaps because I’ve never become obsessed the way the central character does.

The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister

The vast majority of the episodes of the first season of the Perry Mason show were based directly on novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. As I was watching the show I recognized several of the titles as books that I had read as a teenager, not that I recalled the plots anymore.

Then when The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister came on, not only did I recognize the title, but there was a scene that I clearly recalled reading. I didn’t recall the plot details, but I did remember that Mason had come to an apartment where a note was tacked to the door. He read the note and wanted to put it back exactly the way he found it, so he could pretend he hadn’t read it, but there were already two thumb tack holes in the door, so he thought he had been lured into a trap. There were other things that I recognized. For example, as soon as I saw the big freezer, I realized that was used to confuse the time of death.

Out of curiosity, I decided to re-read the novel to see how it diverged from the TV adaptation. As it happened, it diverged a lot. Several characters were cut, including the murderer, necessitating the selection of a new killer with a different motivation. Lots of things were changed, some unnecessarily, in my opinion.

I’ve gotten through the first two seasons of the show, which were produced in the late 1950s, so there’s gratuitous cigarette smoking in nearly every scene except the courtroom scenes. Even Perry Mason smokes from time to time. And this was the period when the pronunciation of Los Angeles was finally settling on the soft “g” sound, although there are still the occasional hard g’s to be heard.

It’s also fun to keep my eye on Barbara Hale, who is so under-used as Mason’s confidential secretary. She’s occasionally given an episode to shine where she’s subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution, and sometimes the writers let her explain the solution at the end of the show, but for the most part she has very little to do.

I recall reading a TV Guide article back in the day where she said she could draw attention to what Mason was saying by clearing her throat, but I don’t recall seeing her clear her throat, and I’ve been watching her carefully. Maybe she doesn’t clear her throat until later seasons.

As a matter of fact, I’ve found that old article online. It was called The Case of the Silent Secretary. Click the link to read it.

The PACE Test

By early 1980 I had become seriously dissatisfied with working at Channel.

We had a new manager, and he and I did not see eye to eye, although it was probably more my fault than his. He admitted to me that when he learned he was being given the Harrisburg store, he was looking forward to working with me because he and I had previously worked together to set up the Fairless Hills store. But given my current mood, I was no longer performing the way I used to. I was probably just an average employee at this point. But I kinda think he overreacted.

So did Ron Massal, who by then was well into the managerial track and working in the front office. He interceded a few times to try to defuse a tense situation between the new manager and me.

But I knew Ron wouldn’t be there much longer, so I started seriously looking for another job.

There was only one problem: I really wasn’t qualified for much of anything except working in retail, which was something I definitely did not want to do.

I wanted to stay in Harrisburg as I was basically happy there, as I had a radio program on the local classical music station, and I didn’t want to give that up. But give it up I did—because I was afraid it might hold me back if by some fluke I found a job opportunity outside of the Harrisburg area.

When I went to an employment agency, the guy I spoke to took one look at my experience and just shook his head. I don’t think he even pretended he’d be calling me.

My job prospects looked bleak indeed. And then someone, I no longer recall who, suggested I try taking the PACE test.

The Professional and Administrative Career Examination was a multiple choice test administered by the federal government back in the late 1970s and early 80s. And if there was one thing I was good at, it was taking multiple choice tests. At least I used to be good at it. It had been awhile since the last time I had taken one.

So I signed up for it and took the test on a Saturday in April (I think), which required me to take a day off work, which just added to the friction between me and the manager. I no longer recall any details about taking the test, but I think it was a fairly long one, three or four hours perhaps, but I’m not sure.

Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC) as it was known in 1980

The results came relatively quickly, and out of a possible 100, I received a score of 96. Which put me at the 98th percentile, I think.

Anyway, it was more than enough to get me an interview in June at a place called the Defense Personnel Support Center, whatever that was, in Philadelphia. Well, actually in addition to scoring high on the PACE test, I needed to have four years of college under my belt, but I only had completed three years of college. Happily there was an alternative. One could also qualify if one had three completed years of college and at least four years of job experience in a related field. I was going to be interviewing for an Inventory Management Specialist position, whatever that was, and I had had about six years of working in retail, so that had to count for something, right?

I had interviews in three different directorates at DPSC: Medical, Subsistence, and Clothing & Textiles. I no longer recall the Medical interview, but the one with Dave Snyder of Subsistence was a joke. Happily, I must have impressed Maggie Rees and Frank Kenny of the Clothing & Textiles Directorate because they offered me a job.

I began on August 4, 1980.

Shortly after that, the government discontinued the PACE test because it wasn’t fair to all demographic groups. Had I waited, I couldn’t have gotten that job. And now the government is requiring a four year college degree for new hirees, so someone like me couldn’t possibly be hired today. I guess that’s what they call progress.

The Shopping Mall Looker

Amy was clearly agitated.

I had known her for several months and she was always cheerful and upbeat, but now something was wrong.

As the story emerged, it turned out that this had been a long time brewing situation. The shopping mall that she and her friends frequented had a looker.

They had only gradually become aware of him, and at first they thought he was just loitering and not doing anyone any harm. But he was always loitering around the same places—the bottom of a staircase.

And now two things had clicked for Amy. She realized that he was there specifically to try to get a glimpse up women’s dresses as they came down the staircases. And she was pretty sure she had seen the guy someplace else.

In fact, she was sure she had seen him at Channel Home Center, the store where I was working.

As she described him, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, because the person she was describing was our manager Cort.

I was certain that there had to be some mistake. The behavior that she was describing just didn’t seem like something that Cort would do. But then—how well do we really know the people around us?

She described the times that the looker usually showed up, and I had to admit that it was at least possible.

So we formed a plan.

She would get together with her friends who had seen the looker, and they would all come to the Channel store at a time when both Cort and I would be there. If they all agreed that he was the looker, then we’d all confront him and see what he had to say.

Probably not the best plan but there it was.

But it took several days for Amy to arrange for her friends to get together and converge on the store, and in the meantime one of them confronted the looker directly at the staircase in the mall. By confronted I mean she screamed at him that if she ever saw him again, she’d call the cops.

That solved the problem, as he was never seen at that mall again.

But to this day I have no idea whether Cort was the looker or a victim of mistaken identity. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.


The Sun'll Come Out

Working at Channel Home Center in Harrisburg was not my idea of fun. And I never thought of it as a career. At the time in 1977 it was the only job outside of Richland that I could find, as I had experience working at my parents’ hardware store.

Guess who is playing Annie?
That’s Sandy playing himself, as the Playbill put it

But I did work hard, and I must have impressed the management team during my first week on the job, because they then held my position for me for three weeks when I was laid up due to an auto collision.

I probably have Ron Massal to thank for that. Thanks, Ron. Wherever you are.

I fairly quickly became a group manager, and whenever a new Channel store was being set up somewhere in the area, I was usually dispatched to help whip it into shape. In fact, when the Hagerstown, Maryland, store was being organized, Channel paid for me to go down there for several days to help with the setup.

It wasn’t long before the regional manager approached me about getting into the management program. This was the real management program, not the bogus fast track one. I resisted, because I was pretty sure I didn’t want to spend my life working at Channel.

But I liked a lot of my co-workers. In fact, Sue (I forget her last name) and I got along well, so I had her and her husband Mike over for dinner one time.

For some reason that I’ve long since forgotten, Sue got on the bad side of manager Cort. In fact, they were barely on speaking terms except when absolutely necessary.

And then sometime in 1979 our store won some sort of contest. Or perhaps it was Cort who won the contest, something to do with the top four managers in the Channel enterprise, or the top four performing stores. The prize that Channel was giving to each of these top four managers was an evening for two in New York City with dinner at an expensive restaurant followed by tickets to Annie, which then was a big hit on Broadway.

Now Cort didn’t particularly like musicals, so he asked if I’d like to go in his place. Of course I said yes. And I asked Sue if she wanted to join me. Of course we didn’t tell Cort that Sue would be accompanying me.

So on a warm summer night in July 1979 I drove us to NYC (as one of the songs in Annie calls it), and we joined the other couples at the Spindletop Restaurant on 48th Street. They knew that I was subbing for Cort, of course, but they just assumed that Sue was my wife, and neither Sue nor I did anything to disabuse them of that.

It was a great meal, and we asked the head waiter if we could postpone dessert until after the show. Since Channel was paying for it, the waiter had no objection.

We all enjoyed the show, although Andrea McArdle was no longer in the cast (the title role was now being played by some unknown named Sarah Jessica Parker), and then we returned to the restaurant for dessert.

Afterwards, I drove us back home to Harrisburg. It was a very long night. We got home well after 3:00 AM.

I always wondered if Cort ever spoke to any of those other managers about that evening. What was his reaction when they mentioned my lovely wife?

I found the Playbill for Annie which had the handwritten instructions for that evening, as well as the names of the other stores which had won: Ramsey, Pompton, and Lodi. Alas, it doesn’t have the date, and I didn’t save the ticket stub, so the best I can date this is July 1979 from the Playbill.

A Badly Managed Business

Once I became a Channel group manager I frequently had to deal by phone with the head buyers at the Whippany, NJ headquarters. They were all idiots.

When we passed on the customer complaints to them that Channel’s prices were too high, they always shot back that Channel was not a discount store. That might be so, but what were we? We didn’t offer any extra value. Our sales clerks weren’t highly trained to offer expert advice; they were minimum wage workers with no expertise other than what they picked up while on the job.

A good example of the buyers’ idiocy was their reluctance to let us stock up on highly desirable sale items. When a very popular brand of motor oil was slated to go on sale for a real bargain price, our assistant manager Bob Hughes ordered a gross of cases. The buyer slashed that down to a dozen. When the sale date arrived we ended up turning away dozens of disappointed potential customers. Yes, we offered them rain checks, but few of them returned.

Conversely, when a less popular brand of motor oil went on sale, the buyer shipped us dozens of cases of it that we hadn’t ordered and didn’t want, presumably because he had gotten a really good deal on it. Those didn’t sell and sat in our warehouse for months, just taking up space.

Another example: one summer Channel offered a high priced riding lawn mower, but we weren’t allowed to keep any in stock—not even for a demo model. How were we supposed to sell that? How were we any different from a catalog company? That’s where Bob Hughes just ignored the directive of the buyers; he ordered one that we set up as a demo. We sold more of those mowers than any other store in the chain. At the end of the season, we sold the demo for a discount. (Since the buyers weren’t aware that Bob had set up a demo, and at that time I was the group manager of that department, Seasonal, I received the credit for selling all those mowers. When a couple of the buyers paid a visit to our store, the Seasonal buyer introduced me to one of the others as “the guy who sold all those mowers without having an in-store demo.”)

So I learned just how stupid a lot of people in positions of authority in private industry really are. And Bob Hughes taught me how to work around some of their stupidity.

At some point Hechingers opened a store across the river, and we started hearing from customers how much better it was than Channel. I drove over to take a look and saw that they were correct.

Channel somehow lasted until the early 1990s, though I don’t know how they managed to hang on that long. Hechingers outlasted them, not succumbing to the Home Depot/Lowe’s juggernauts until the first decade of this century.