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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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The Fastest Man on Wheels
Posted - Jan 19, 2019
If you were a hot rodder, Southern California was the place to be in the 1950s. Gasoline was cheap, the junkyards were flush with all the basics (pre-war Fords were a particular favorite), and the roads that connected the scattered towns were flat, open and straight—perfect for drag racing. Kids with pluck and imagination were turning scrap metal into hot rods, sports cars, and lakebed roadsters that competed on the Bonneville salt flats. And Detroit auto makers were paying attention.

Enter Marian Lee “Mickey” Thompson. While Thompson was very much a part of the scene, he was not just another hot rodder. He was a natural born promoter and entrepreneur. While he lacked a degree in engineering, he had a knack for innovation that enabled him to see the possibilities that others missed.

About the time drag racing moved from public roads to purpose-built quarter-mile drag strips, Thompson was putting the finishing touches on the world’s first slingshot dragster. It was the first of many innovations he would bring to the world of motorsports. Soon, he was hitting speeds of 150 m.p.h. in the standing quarter mile—unheard of at the time. No one could beat him. Promoters labeled him, “The Fastest Man on Wheels.”

Having conquered drag racing, Thompson turned his attention to the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, and built a variety of lakebed machines that all told set 295 international speed records. The most ambitious was a super-charged four-engine streamliner he called “Challenger I”. It was built with one idea in mind—to break the world land speed record, at the time a tick under 400 mph.


Enter Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, president of the Pontiac Division of General Motors. Like Thompson, Knudsen had been a hot rodder–before he earned an engineering degree from MIT. After college, he joined General Motors and, like his contemporary at Ford—another engineer, named Lee Iacocca—switched to sales, because that’s where the opportunities were. He moved up the ranks rapidly and in 1956 was appointed head of the ailing Pontiac Division, which was making stodgy “old-man” cars and losing money. Knudsen sized up the problem. “I can get old men to buy a young man’s car, but I can’t get young men to buy an old-man’s car.” How to reach the youth market? With a face-lift that included clean lines, and high-performance options to stir the imaginations of hot rodders everywhere. In two years, he turned the Pontiac Division around. Sales skyrocketed and Pontiac joined Chevrolet as GM’s sexiest and fastest-selling cars.

When Knudsen got wind of Thompson’s plan to break the world land speed record, he saw an opportunity to further bolster Pontiac’s high-performance image. He supplied Thompson with four Pontiac V8 engines to power Challenger I, plus funding. Thompson also struck a deal with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to build special tires to withstand speeds of 400-plus mph, and with the Mobil Oil Company. With Pontiac, Goodyear, and Mobil as sponsors, Thompson built his innovative machine. Compared with the competition, Thompson’s car was relatively small and low, and therefore less resistant to the wind, a decided aerodynamic advantage.

In 1960, Thompson delivered with a record run across the Bonneville salt flats of 406 m.p.h. To make the record official, he had to make a return run at similar speed. The run was never completed, due to a broken drive-shaft. Or so it was reported at the time. In fact, one of the Pontiac engines had thrown a rod. But Thompson wasn’t about to tell reporters that one of the engines of his biggest sponsor had failed. Thompson replaced the engine and made another attempt but could not match his earlier speed. No matter. The big news from Bonneville was Thompson’s one-way record run, which further enhanced his reputation as “The Fastest Man On Wheels.” Pontiac shared in the glory, with the newly-minted Pontiac Bonneville.


Having conquered Bonneville, Thompson set his eyes on America’s biggest race—the Indianapolis 500. Surely, with his gift for innovation, he would triumph there too. Unlike European Formula I cars, which were high-tech, agile, and rear-engined, the average Indy car at the time hadn’t changed much since the Great Depression. It was refined, of course, but comparatively low tech, front-engined and, at 1600 pounds, heavy. Thompson reasoned that a car built along the lines of Formula I, and powered by the same highly-tweaked American V8 he used in his dragsters and land speed machine, coupled with a 400-pound weight reduction, would make him a serious contender at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What he didn’t consider was that at heart he was a hot-rodder, with a great deal of experience with racing machines that accelerated in a straight line. That he was attempting something at which he lacked experience did not faze him in the slightest.


Thompson was in trouble from the start. He started late and was without his two biggest sponsors. Bunkie Knudsen had been reassigned to the Chevrolet Division, and was not yet in a position to help him, and Goodyear opted out because it wasn’t ready to challenge Firestone’s dominance at the Speedway. Thompson turned to the Harvey Aluminum Company for sponsorship, a Southern California manufacturing firm that produced Thompson’s line-up of speed equipment: intake manifolds, forged pistons and connecting rods, mag wheels, and the like. Thompson’s car would be dubbed, “The Harvey Aluminum Special.”

A mere 120 days was all the time Thompson and his team of loyal mechanics had to fabricate a completely new racing machine that resembled a rear-engine Formula 1. The car looked intriguing, but it wasn’t completely finished when it arrived at the Speedway on May 1. When the car took to the track at last, it suffered a myriad of small problems as all new race cars do, all easily remedied. One problem persisted, however, and it stumped everyone. The car simply wouldn’t handle.


Had Mickey Thompson been praying for an angel to intervene, it arrived in the form of Dan Gurney. Gurney was tall, blonde, and gifted as a driver and mechanic. Being a Formula I driver, he saw the logic of Thompson’s car immediately. When Thompson asked him to give the car a try, Gurney jumped at the chance. After a few laps, he knew exactly what was wrong. He made a number of adjustments to the suspension, and posted lap times that caught everyone’s attention. In the right hands, the Harvey Aluminum Special was impressively fast. Gurney qualified ninth fastest (in a field of 33 cars). On race day, he stayed within sight of the leaders until sidelined by a failed transmission seal. Thompson was ecstatic. In four months he’d created an Indy car from scratch that had shaken up the Indy establishment and, with a little luck, might have won the race. Imagine what he could do given an entire year?

Thompson let his imagination run wild, and dreamed up a low squat car on four 12-inch wide-treaded tires that reminded everyone of a roller skate. Now president of the Chevrolet Division, Bunkie Knudsen was back on board, supplying Thompson with special aluminum Chevrolet V8 engines. While Goodyear still had cold feet, Firestone warmed up to Thompson’s latest creation and agreed to custom-make the small, wide-tread tires his design called for.

The only fly in the ointment was Dan Gurney. He would be back, but not driving for Mickey Thompson. He liked Thompson’s idea so much that he arranged a big-buck deal with Formula I builder Colin Chapman of Lotus to build a rear-engine Indy car, and with the Ford Motor Company to supply an engine.


The race had all the earmarks of a showdown, not just between rear-engine cars and front-engine cars, but between Chevrolet and Ford, with Thompson in the thick of it.

Thompson arrived at the Speedway loaded for bear, with five cars: two 1962 machines, and three of the new low-profile “roller skates” with the super-wide 12-inch tires. Heading up his stable of five cars was 1962 world champion Graham Hill. The handling of the roller-skate cars was diabolical, however, and after one near crash Hill booked passage on the next flight back to his home in London. The handling improved as the month progressed, but by the first weekend of qualifying, not one of the original drivers was still around.

The Lotus-Fords of Gurney and teammate Jim Clark, meanwhile, were lapping at near-record speed. On Pole Day, the Lotus Fords qualified easily, in a position to win, while only two of Thompson’s five cars qualified, well back in the field. On race day, Jim Clark finished second after leading at one point, while Gurney finished seventh, slowed by a botched pit stop. Only one of Thompson’s car finished the race, two laps down.

The 1963 Indy 500 had indeed been a showdown, but without Thompson figuring in the outcome. His radical car missed the mark completely. Going forward, Colin Chapman of Lotus—not Mickey Thompson—would be the trendsetter, and Lotus-Ford the car to beat.


Indy 1963 was a disaster for Thompson, in more ways than one. He had failed to deliver at the Speedway and his reputation as a visionary had taken a severe hit, so much so that Chevrolet, Firestone, and Harvey Aluminum would not be back as sponsors. On top of that, the rules committee outlawed Thompson’s radical 12-inch tires as unsafe. In the future, all cars would race on 15-inch tires, or not at all. Thompson would return to the Speedway in the coming years, but never again be a factor.

What went wrong? For one, Thompson badly underestimated the Indy establishment. Thompson had triumphed on drag strips and on salt flats competing against enthusiastic amateurs. The Indy regulars, on the other hand, were hardened pros, with their livelihood at stake. Thompson was a hot-rodder at heart. While General Motors had supplied special aluminum Chevrolet V8s, Thompson had the task of race-developing the engines himself. Ford, on the other hand, developed their engines in-house, spending a great deal of time and money. Both Ford and Chevy Indy engines produced about the same horsepower, but the difference was in reliability. The Ford Indy engine never missed a beat, while Thompson’s Chevies suffered repeated blow-ups in practice, and one in the race.

The Indy establishment was resentful of Thompson and Lotus for upsetting the status quo, but in the end had no choice but to accept the new technology imposed on them. The car they copied would not be Mickey Thompson’s roller skate, but Colin Chapman’s Lotus. The engine of choice would be Ford.

Thompson’s Indy effort did make one lasting contribution, however. The low and wide 12-inch tires he employed had performance advantages that Firestone carried forward to their next-generation 15-inch Indy tires—tires with a lower profile and wider tread that resulted in longer wear and significantly better grip. The design even carried over to Firestone passenger car tires, in the form of their trademark Wide Ovals. Today, virtually all passenger tires feature a low profile and wide tread.

In the seventies, Thompson began promoting indoor motocross and off-road vehicle racing events. In 1988, while leaving for work, he and his wife were gunned down on their driveway. It wasn’t until 2001 that a former business associate was charged with their murders. He was found guilty in a court of law and sentenced to life in prison.

Two companies Thompson started, Mickey Thompson Enterprises (an aftermarket parts supplier) and Mickey Thompson Performance Tires, are still in business.

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Alexander Hamilton on his birthday
Posted - Jan 11, 2019
Alexander Hamilton’s birthday is January 11.

His contributions to our nation’s founding are considerable. So much so, that Thomas Jefferson referred to him as “a host unto himself.” Not only did Hamilton serve as aid-de-camp to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War, he helped frame the U.S. Constitution, and wrote 51 of the 85 essays that comprise the Federalist Papers. As Treasury Secretary, his imaginative and far-reaching Funding and Assumption Bills made provision for the massive war debt and, combined with another of his creations, the United States Bank, jumpstarted American capitalism.

His Federalist essays—particularly No. 78—laid the groundwork for judicial review, which Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court case, created by setting a legal precedent. If that weren’t enough there’s more, according to historian Kate Elizabeth Brown, which is the subject of her book, “Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law.”

Historians generally portray Hamilton as the "archnationalist" of the early American republic—to wit, as a large-F Federalist. Brown makes a very compelling case that Hamilton was, in fact, a small-f federalist, dedicated to balancing robust federal and state sovereignty. She writes: “Hamilton’s most profound influence on American law—and his greatest debt to British constitutionalism—is concurrence.” As Hamilton applied it, concurrence sought to harmonize the combined executive and judicial authority concurrently exercised by the national and state governments. "It was Hamilton’s broadest, most far-reaching influence over American law," writes Brown, "and it is evidenced by the judges and lawyers who continually cited Hamilton as the authority on the matter. By enacting functional and federal concurrence, Hamilton quite literally wrote the rules and set the precedents that configured the American legal system. Concurrence rendered Hamilton . . . as a true, small-f federalist.”

That, in effect, is the book’s thesis, and the author supplies a mountain of evidence—all amply foot-noted—that supports her argument. Indeed, Hamilton first sketched out a model for concurrence in Federalist Nos. 32 and 82, where he described how the national and state governments could simultaneously exercise their overlapping powers yet still coexist with minimal interference.

In the closing chapter—“Litigation, Liberty, and the Law: Hamilton’s Common Law Rights Strategies”—she makes an equally compelling case that Hamilton was at heart an advocate of individual liberties and a free press. “What scholars and biographers have missed,” she writes, “is that Hamilton was always a common lawyer at heart; therefore, he held a deep reverence for the rights and liberties provided and protected by the Anglo-American common law. . . . (T)hroughout his career, Hamilton fiercely and consistently fought to preserve common law rights for all Americans.”

“Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law” is Professor Brown’s first book. At times, it is not an easy read. While the writing is reasonably clear, she presents a great deal of case law and legalese that at times is repetitive and sometimes a bit overwhelming. In the intro, the author admits as much: “. . . if you are willing to endure the occasional technical parts of the narrative, I will make clear the significance to be threaded from those legal details and complexities.” I underlined significant passages and took notes (as if back in college preparing for an exam). In the end, I came away deeply impressed with Hamilton as the supreme administrator of the Washington Administration, while learning exactly why for 16 years he was one of the best—if not the best—attorney in the nation. Throughout the nineteenth century, he was the legal authority of American law, cited again and again, even by his rival and fellow attorney, Thomas Jefferson.

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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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