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Dream Team Posted - Mar 17, 2019
Book Review: "Edsel Ford and E. T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team and Their Classic Fords of the 1930s and 1940s"

Edsel Ford was not the shy and retiring type, easily pushed around by his inflexible and strong-willed father, as we have been led to believe. This is among the many revelations of this informative and very-readable book by Henry Dominguez. The book a labor of love, by a guy who adores the classic prewar Fords. Dominguez interviewed designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie over a period of eight years, as well as others who worked for Ford during the 1930s and ‘40s. The result is a fascinating story of how Edsel Ford managed to pry the Model T Ford from his father’s vice-grip, and to transition the Ford Motor Company into the modern era. Henry Ford was not an easy man to work for, as this book and many others about the Ford dynasty demonstrate with stark clarity. His son learned how to pick his spots and therefore was able to make a number of key decisions that kept the company from failing, and to meet the challenge presented by General Motors. That the Ford Motor Company succeeded is a testament to Edsel’s vision and fortitude. Yes, he was cowed by his father, but not enough to keep him from pursuing his vision of engineering and design excellence.

The role played by E.T. Gregorie was crucial. Gregory could not fight Edsel’s battles for him, but he was the rock Edsel needed, a friend in a world of management bullies, paranoia, and archaic thinking. As important, Gregorie shared Edsel’s artistic vision of cleaned-lined, low-slung automobiles. Gregorie loved good proportions and clean lines, whether it was a yacht, an airplane, or a car (his favorite designs while at Ford are the 1933 Ford and the 1949 Mercury; the cars considered to be his greatest design achievements are the 1936 and '38 Lincoln Zephyrs and the 1939 Continental.

Gregorie’s role, which he freely admits, was to put Edsel’s (not his) ideas down on paper, and see them through to full-scale clay mock-ups, and then into finished body design ready for the tool-and-die makers. Gregorie did his share of original design, certainly—the famed and elegant 1939 Continental was all his—but he couldn’t have done it without his close working relationship with Edsel Ford.

Without Edsel’s influence, it seems likely the Ford Motor Company would have gone on making crude black-painted Model Ts into the 1930s, and been snuffed out by the Great Depression, as so many auto makers were. As company president, Edsel oversaw the purchase of the Lincoln Automobile Company, introduced color into the product line, spear-headed the transition from the Model T to the Model A, created Ford’s styling department (and put Gregorie in charge), encouraged development of the revolutionary Ford flat-head V8 engine, and moved body production in-house (up to 1937, car bodies were designed and built by suppliers; the exceptions are the classic 1932 Ford "Deuce," which Edsel designed, and the 1933/34 Ford which was the first car Gregorie designed). About the 1933/34 Ford, Gregorie says, "the general proportion was excellent . . . the axel was ahead of the grill, and that is the basis for a good design."

When Edsel was appointed president, the company produced but one car. Under his management, the product line expanded to five cars, and to graduated pricing: Ford, Ford De Lux, Mercury, Lincoln, and Continental (to match GM’s five-car line of Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac).

Sadly, Edsel Ford succumbed to the same ailment as a number of Ford executives, stomach ulcers, known as “Forditis." In Edsel’s case, it proved fatal. He died May 26, 1943, age 49. His death surprised everyone. Many knew Edsel was ill, but they did not know the seriousness of the condition. Says Gregorie: “The old man (Henry) was always an anchor around Edsel’s neck, as far as the product was concerned. The old man didn’t know a thing about design, but he was an obstruction in the way of design, and he had to be reckoned with. And that was an unfortunate situation. I think that is what ultimately killed Edsel—worrying about how to handle the old man.”

There is much, much more to this wonderful book: about the auto industry, car design, and how a design proceeds from simple sketches to finished cars, which is fascinating in itself. Mostly, the book is about the incredibly-successful working relationship between Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie and the classic Fords that resulted.

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Simple Justice, book review
Posted - Mar 09, 2019
There was so much to be overcome–a mountain of prejudice in the form of state-required segregation (a.k.a. Jim Crow), of seats at the back of public transportation, of separate seating in restaurants and in movie theaters, even separate drinking fountains and restrooms. Add to this separate-but-equal schools as enforced by a Supreme Court decision (Plessy v. Ferguson), and a lack of good jobs, unequal pay, no right to vote or to obtain a fair trial, and, if you didn't like it and protested too much, a possible midnight lynching (where the local police would be certain to look the other way). To say the playing field was unequal for African Americans in the Old South was putting it mildly. And before anything could be done to change it, much would need to happen including (1) the rise of a new generation of bright African Americans equipped with law degrees and possessed by a burning desire to challenge in court the fiction of separate-but-equal, and (2) the rise of the social sciences that would prove beyond doubt that separate-but-equal schools had a devastating effect on African American children. And the time it would take to come about was 50 years. That, in a nutshell, is the story of "Simple Justice" by Richard Kruger, a long and difficult book that should be studied in schools, as it presents a side of American history that is vitally important to understand, especially if we are to live up to the promise of our Declaration of Independence, with its five stirring words–"All Men Are Created Equal."

The biggest hurdle was racial prejudice, both in the North and in the South–the widespread belief that Negroes were inferior. Writes the author: "In 1896, when the Supreme Court handed down Plessy, most of the nation shared the South's estimate of the black man. When the Justices said in their opinion that segregation 'did not stamp the colored race with a badge of inferiority,' America saw no cynicism in that judgement. The Court, to be sure, had been disingenuous in its suggestion that the inferiority was solely in the minds of the segregated blacks. Had the Plessy Court chosen candidly to declare the prevailing view of the day among white Americans of every station, it would have said that no badge was necessary to proclaim what was self-evident. Keeping blacks separate, everyone understood, would prevent contamination of white blood by the defective genes of colored people, whose unfortunate traits stemmed from their tribal origins in densest Africa and were incurably fixed upon the race from generation to generation. . . . All literature, folklore, and custom of the English-speaking people reinforced the notion that the African's tawny hide was a primal stain. Black was bad. Black was evil. . . . The devil was black; Satan was the Prince of Darkness. Witches practiced black magic. The plague was the black death. Melancholy was black humor. An unprincipled scoundrel was called a blackguard. When things were at their worst, they were said to look blackest. And white was all the things that black was not: it was God, it was good, it was virtue, honor, health. The Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville–the masters of the King's English all promoted the easy imagery of black as vile and white as purity and thereby fed a deep and potent racism that well served all who would enslave the black men of Africa."

Offering another point of view, George Bernard Shaw, writing in "Man and Superman" seven years after the Plessy decision institutionalized segregation, said "the haughty American nation . . . makes the negro clean his boots and then proves the moral and physical inferiority of the negro by the fact that he is a bootblack."

It was also believed that African Americans, being inferior, were not as intelligent as white Americans. In the first 20 years of the 20th century this idea was buttressed by a host of "experts" who based their claims on various studies of human anatomy and the results of various IQ tests, based on data that has since proven suspect or outright false. Nonetheless, an impression was created that as a group Black Americans were not as smart of Whites, yet another obstacle on the road to equality.

There followed the rise of the new social sciences with new data that refuted much of this bogus information. Helping in this regard was an anthropologist named Franz Boas, who proclaimed that most students of race relied on casual, if not fanciful, observation of scientific evidence. "Boas brought a Prussian discipline and a physicist's precision to the gathering and weighing of data," writes the author. By 1899, Boas was professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York. In 1911, he published "The Mind of Primitive Man," based on a study of race that disproved virtually all the claims regarding the intellectual inferiority of African Americans.

Further evidence came in the form of a new generation of African American scholars who were being admitted into the nation's best colleges. One of the most notable was Thurgood Marshall, who graduated with honors from Howard University School of Law in 1933. It should be noted that Howard University (a fully accredited law school) was created to meet a need, and catered mostly to black scholars like Marshall who had the grades but not the skin color to gain admittance into law schools in their state.

Marshall graduated cum laude and established a private legal practice in his hometown of Baltimore before founding the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he served as executive director. In that capacity, he argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, and notably Brown v. Board of Education, which is the subject of this book.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (to give its full name) was one tough nut to crack because to win Marshall had to disprove the validity of "separate-but-equal," a legal term that with time had gained the sanctity of law. "Separate-but-Equal" was the cornerstone of Plessy v. Ferguson. To be in compliance meant schools had to provide separate facilities for African Americans, whether it was a grammar school, high school, or college. It was not only costly, but very nearly impossible to do. It meant that whatever the white kids enjoyed in their all-white schools–gymnasiums, tennis courts, cafeteria, fully-equipped chemistry labs, music departments, well-stocked libraries, clean drinking water, modern restrooms, and clean safe buses for students to ride back and forth to school–had to be provided for black students, too. States such as South Carolina claimed they met the criteria, but as Marshall and his team got around to the various school districts in the Palmetto State, they found it not to be so. In fact, in most cases the white schools and the black schools weren't even close to being separate but equal. Worse, perhaps, was the stigma that branded black kids once they realized their school facilities were inferior. What it amounted to was a caste system wherein one group enjoyed all the privileges and benefits that society could offer, while the other group was excluded from these very privileges and benefits. What to do? Challenge the school districts in court with proof that separate-but-equal was harmful to black students.

Enter the latest generation of social scientists with their black and white dolls. When asked to identify which doll was best, black kids (even as young as kindergartners) invariably would pick the white doll. In fact, they tended to identify with the white doll over the black doll. It was this way in Kansas, Virginia, Delaware, and South Carolina, the four states where the district courts ruled separate-but-equal was the law, period. These decisions were appealed to the Supreme Court.

Ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: "In each of these cases other than the Delaware case, a three judge federal district court denied relief to the plaintiffs on the so-called 'separate but equal' doctrine announced by this court in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537. Under that doctrine, equality of treatment is accorded when the races are provided substantially equal facilities, even though these facilities be separate. In the Delaware case, the Supreme Court of Delaware adhere to that doctrine, but ordered that the plaintiff be admitted to the white schools because of their superiority to the Negro schools.

"The plaintiffs contend that segregated public schools are not 'equal' and cannot be made 'equal' and that hence they are deprived of equal protection under the laws (i.e. the Fourteenth Amendment)." Having been convinced of the social evidence supplied by Marshall's team, he also quoted from Marshall's brief that summed up the case against the schools in question: "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law. . . ."

Kruger's book takes time to read and absorb and, at a whopping 778 pages of text, is a long but worthwhile read. What I have presented here is the crux of the story.

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The Pulaski Skyway
Posted - Feb 10, 2019
It was designated as the highway of the future. And yet when the future arrived, the Pulaski Skyway as it was known, was obsolete. Author Steven Hart, in his page-turner of a book THE LAST THREE MILES, writes, "The Skyway will easily stand for another eighty years–a highway of the future that instantly transformed into an antique . . . A failure rooted not in recklessness, but in a lack of background knowledge."

The designers and planners did not lack for engineering knowhow nor did they lack the necessary public funds. They faced a monumental task in moving traffic from the Holland Tunnel and George Washington Bridge, to the New Jersey interior, traffic that was congesting the streets of Jersey City and various cities and towns along the Jersey Shore. It was a problem they did not fully understand how to solve and acted hastily in building a bridge that spanned two rivers and the vast Meadowlands, a bridge better suited to the railroad than to cars and trucks. The erratic traffic patterns entering the bridge resulted in a number of fatalities, earning the sobriquet, "Death Alley."

A police officer described the Skyway thusly: "It's probably the most dangerous highway ever built, because you enter and exit on the fast lane. It's a great straightaway. There's no place for police to hide, so everyone's just taking off."

The Pulaski Skyway was built in the heroic age of large public works–works that included the Golden Gate Bridge in California, and in New York the Holland Tunnel and George Washington Bridge.

The crucial link was a 13-mile extension of Route 1 from Elizabeth, New Jersey that would funnel traffic from points south and west of Manhattan right to the mouth of the Holland Tunnel, and help disperse the flood tide of west-bound cars and trucks that daily exited the tunnel and clogged the narrow, crowded streets of Jersey City.

Most of the work on the highway extension had already been completed by the time the Depression set in. The final and most crucial portion was a roughly three-mile stretch ("The Last Three Miles" of the book's title) of elevated highway that would connect the outskirts of Newark with the edge of Jersey City. Writes the author: "This would become the visual keynote of a new kind of road that required a new word to describe it: superhighway. Building it would take two years, fifteen lives, $21 million, a labor war, and a murder trial that marked the turning point in the long reign of America's most powerful and ruthless political bosses."

America's first superhighway was at first known by several names: Meadowlands Viaduct, Diagonal Highway, High-Level Viaduct, until they settled on Pulaski Skyway, in 1933, after a Polish folk hero and general, Casimir Pulaski.

To quote the author the bottom line is this: "the Pulaski Skyway is a milestone in the early history of America's effort to cope with the rise of automobile . . . It is also a monumental failure."

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Abraham Lincoln on his Birthday
Posted - Feb 02, 2019
February 12 is Abraham Lincoln's birthday: below are two reviews I wrote, one of a movie, the second of a book; the subject is, of course, Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln, (2013 movie):

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is as much about passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which ended slavery) as it is about the man himself. This is a good thing, as there’s nothing quite like conflict to reveal character, and Abraham Lincoln was a man of granite-like character. He was not a flatterer, neither was he moved by flattery. He was compassionate, honest, plain-spoke,, and while every inch a politician, he never stooped to pettiness, to jealousy, to name-calling, or to vindictiveness. As Alistair Cooke once said of him (and the movie illustrates beautifully), “Lincoln had an extraordinary feel for the humanity of quite inhumane people and tolerated them long enough to get what he wanted from them—contractors, war profiteers, wheeler-dealers, the scum of the republic. He dignified the trade of politician like few men before or since.” Actor Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Abraham Lincoln so perfectly that one can't help but feel this is how Lincoln must have been. Tommy Lee Jones is likewise brilliant as the crotchety abolitionist Thadeus Stephens. Get this DVD for its "marrow-deep" humanity. It will restore your faith in people.

Abraham Lincoln (2009 book), by George McGovern

That's right, the author is George McGovern, the liberal Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for president against Richard Nixon, in1972. He is, in fact, a terrific writer. In this relatively short (155 pages) book, McGovern offers his insights, which are considerable, into our 16th president–as a politician and as a speech writer. The over-riding issue in Lincoln's day was slavery; the over-riding issue of the book is Lincoln's sterling character, particularly in dealing with slavery, the principle cause of the Civil War. Also addressed near the end of the book is Lincoln's masterful use of language and his gift for writing compelling speeches.

On the surface, Lincoln was born into a life that was not promising. He hated the hard-scrabble life of his father–which was farming–but otherwise had little hope of bettering his lot in life. Being a sensitive and unusually bright child, the fact that he suffered from depression throughout much of his life should not be surprising. His father, Thomas, was a particularly hard man who neither appreciated nor understood his son.

When Abraham was nine, his mother died of milk sickness which was going around at the time. Thomas quickly remarried a widow named Sarah Bush Johnson, who had three children of her own. Right away, she recognized Abraham as unusually bright, and encouraged him to develop his intellect. She gave him several of her books, books that would broaden his mind and influence his writing skills, particularly later in life, as a lawyer and a politician (more about that later). Among them: "Aesop's Fables," "The Pilgrim's Progress," "Robinson Crusoe," and "Webster's Speller." She came to love him as much or more than her own children. Many years later she said of him: "Abe was the best boy I ever saw. He never gave me a cross word . . ." He said of her that she had been "his best friend in the world" and that "no Son could love a Mother more than he loved her."

Meanwhile, the distance between Abraham and his father broadened ever wider. Thomas accepted that his son wanted to expand his mind rather than be a farmer, but he didn't like it. Abe said of his father, "he never learned me to love him." From Kentucky where Abraham was born, his father moved the family first to Indiana (where he met and married Sarah); and then to New Salem, Illinois, where Lincoln grew into manhood, and discovered he had a knack for amusing people with his stories and self-deprecating humor. At the same time he found himself at the center of attention wherever people gathered, such was his charisma.

People saw a special quality in this rough-hewn young man with the pronounced Southern drawl: he was quick witted, honest and funny, and eager to learn. New Salem had a debating society which Abraham joined. He made friends, polished his elocution, borrowed books, and spent much of his time reading. What did he read? He favored the plays of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Burns. A local justice of the peace lent him books on the law, in particular "Revised Laws of Illinois." Lincoln also purchase a tattered volume of Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England," then the most popular legal text in the English speaking world. At some point he traveled back to Indiana to hear an acclaimed attorney named John Brackinbridge argue a case. Of the experience, Lincoln said, "I felt that if I could ever make speeches as good as that my soul would be satisfied."

Of this period in Lincoln's life the author writes: "(Lincoln) somehow recognized significant capabilities within himself and nurtured a determination to succeed."

He moved to Springfield, the state capital, and took up law as a profession. He rode the court circuit throughout the state, where he learned to speak to juries and win a number of cases. It was in Springfield where he met and wooed Mary Todd, whom, after a stormy courtship, he married.

She encouraged him to run for a seat in the U. S. Congress, which he won. By now, Lincoln was decidedly against slavery which "sickened" him. In his second year in office, he sought to put an end to slavery in the District of Columbia, believing that slavery was a monstrous embarrassment to the nation's capital. He failed. He also publicly opposed the Mexican War, which he believed was being fought to create new territory for the expansion of slavery. He returned to Springfield disillusioned and depressed. To a friend he wrote: "I neither expect, seek, or deserve" to return to Washington. Once home he dedicated himself to rebuilding his law practice. Taking cases in admiralty, commerce, criminal, and patent law, made Lincoln one of the most sought-after attorneys in the Midwest, and returned him to Washington, this time to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The slavery issue was making headlines across the nation, particularly with passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One of its biggest supporters was Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Lincoln feared slavery would spread, but he could not stand by and watch it happen. He had to speak out. In Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln gave his first great speech; it revived his political career and paved the way for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The debates made him a national political figure. He lost the 1858 Senate race to Douglas, but two years later, he was nominated by the Republican party to be their candidate for president of the United States.

On election day, Lincoln carried the Northeast and West, but failed to carry a single state below the Mason-Dixon line. In the end he tallied 180 electoral votes to 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and only 12 for Douglas. But while those closet to him celebrated, Lincoln brooded. Though he held out hope that reason would prevail in the Deep South, he suspected the national divide over slavery was too great and that his years as president would be difficult ones. Fate had brought him to the White House, to lead the North in the most calamitous crisis of our nation's history.

Lincoln knew nothing of the art of war, but as with everything else in his life he proved to be a fast learner. After a few missteps, in Ulysses S. Grant, he found a general who would fight. Grant fought some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and in doing so defeated the one general no other Union general could whip–Robert E. Lee. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, in April of 1865, which ended the Civil War. Within a month, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington. "Now he belongs to the ages," said William Seward, his friend and one-time political rival, and Lincoln's Secretary of State.

"No one can understand the greatness of Lincoln in his own time and his place in history without reading some of his great speeches," writes McGovern. "Most of the addresses were carefully constructed by Lincoln–sometimes over periods of days or weeks, even months. He drew on extensive reading of the works of men he admired–Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. He kept on his writing desk copies of his own speeches that provided lines and ideas he might work into a speech at hand.

"Lincoln frequently pulled passages from out of the King James Bible, from the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament and from Christ and his disciples in the New Testament. He borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Robert Burns, 'Aesop's Fables,' and John Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress.' He also drew from his experience growing up in Kentucky and Indiana and from his legislative and lawyer years in Illinois. His mind and his command of diction were sharpened in his debates with his able, experienced opponent Senator Stephen Douglas. . . .

"Prior to the speech at Gettysburg, Lincoln had delivered four speeches that could be described as great: his speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854; his acceptance of the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate race against Stephen Douglas at Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858 (the 'house divided' speech); his speech at New York's Cooper Union on February 27, 1860 (which brought him to the attention of the Northeast); and his first inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1861. His second inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1865, was also deserving of the description 'great'–some would say it was his greatest speech.

"But it is the Gettysburg Address, although brief, that has lived in history as an enduring political and literary treasure. Its fame places it alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights . . . For it is in its 272 words that Lincoln redefined the meaning of the Union and of the sacrifice that had sanctified its preservation."

McGovern sums up: "Lincoln was the most masterful speechwriter of any president in our national history. Much of his success in the American political arena derived from his superior ability to draft compelling public addresses. Likewise, his high place in history rests heavily on his beautiful prose. He was a literary giant."

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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