Thursday, January 31, 2019

Marcal Blaze Reminiscent of Famous Sponge Rubber Products Fire 44 Years Ago in Shelton

The spectacular eight-alarm fire at the 45,000 sq. ft, Marcal paper plant in Elmwood Park, NJ, Wednesday night illuminated not just the sky but also memories of a similar conflagration 44 years ago. 

Gilda and I had just gone to bed about half an hour before midnight on Saturday, March 1, 1975, when the phone rang in our Seymour, Conn., apartment. We were living in the small town about 13 miles northwest of New Haven because I was a reporter for The New Haven Register. My initial beat had been the towns of Seymour and Derby. After a year, I was reassigned to cover another town in the economically depressed Lower Naugatuck Valley: Shelton (side note: in my new beat I succeeded Dan Collins, husband of Gail Collins—yes, that Gail Collins). 

My bureau chief, Don Anderson, called asking what I was doing in bed while downtown Shelton was in danger of being wiped off the map, consumed by fire. From nearby Ansonia Don had been rocked out of bed by an explosion several miles away in Shelton. 

I hastily dressed and sped south in my Chevy Vega. The sky became redder the nearer I approached Shelton. The largest structure dominating the downtown, the 475,000-square-foot Sponge Rubber Products Plant 4 perched along the Housatonic River was ablaze. Hundreds of volunteer and paid firemen from dozens of fire departments in southern Connecticut were attempting not so much to extinguish the inferno in freezing weather but rather to keep it from spreading to Main Street. 

Stretched out along 2-1/2 blocks, the plant had once been owned by the B.F. Goodrich company. Foam mattresses were it main product. Declining sales promoted Goodrich to sell the plant to Charles Moeller, an Ohio businessman who renamed it the Sponge Rubber Products Company. 

The fire had broken out shortly after 11:30 pm. As I talked with the police chief the reason it had spread so quickly and devastatingly became known. It was deliberately set. Arson. 

More astounding, the suspects were said to be members of the Weather Underground. They had tied up the night watchmen, strategically distributed 500 pounds of dynamite and 24 55-gallon drums of gasoline throughout the plant, and told the watchmen who they left unharmed in a nearby woods they were Weathermen. 

It didn’t make sense. Of all places, why would a radical group target the Sponge Rubber plant in Shelton in what turned out to be the most costly case of arson in the nation’s history?

Well, it turned out the Weathermen were not responsible. Moeller had a spiritual guru, the Rev. David N. Bubar of Memphis, Tenn., a Baptist minister and self-proclaimed psychic, who sought to relieve him of the financial mistake he made in buying the factory in 1974. Bubar recruited men from Ohio. They rented a Ryder truck to convey their explosive materiel. It was through the Ryder rental that they were nabbed. 

Moeller, as well, was charged but found not guilty. The others were convicted. 

Watching a fire can be exhilarating. But for a reporter, more emotional may well be the followup interviews with workers who no longer had jobs and whose prospects in Shelton and the other river towns of the Lower Naugatuck Valley were dim at best. Some 4,000 workers lost their jobs.

Several months after the fire I was promoted to bureau chief of West Haven, Bethany, Orange and Woodbridge. We moved to New Haven. Within two years I had taken a job in New York City. We moved to White Plains. 

Shelton slowly, ever so slowly, recovered. It converted the plant site “into open, public space with a veterans memorial, a pavilion, an annual farmers market and a riverwalk” ( With the completion of a multi-lane Route 8 Shelton became a hub of clean, light manufacturing and an affordable bedroom community to Fairfield County Fortune 500 company executives. 

A little more than a year after moving to New York and writing for Chain Store Age I was assigned an article on a new trend in supermarkets—generic products. To understand the economics of these non branded alternatives I talked with a marketing executive from a then-family owned paper goods company: Marcal. 

Marcal was sold to an investment firm several years ago. The workers who saw their livelihood flame out Wednesday night face the same tough future as those who witnessed arson most foul 44 years ago. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Trump's Next Constitutional Crisis?

Buried amid all the sordid revelations of backbiting, incompetency and corruption in “Team of Vipers,” Cliff Sims’ first person account of life within the Trump campaign and White House, is the nation’s next and potentially most catastrophic constitutional crisis. 

According to Sims, former director of White House message strategy and a special assistant to the president, as returns were coming in election night 2016 Trump was ready to declare via Twitter the results a fraud if he did not win. 

We were saved from this crisis, Sims relates, by Steve Bannon, of all people, and the failure of Hillary Clinton to win sufficient votes in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. Had he lost, Trump would have gone on a Twitter tear, but no amount of tweeting or fulminating in public or in the courts would have ensconced him in the Oval Office.

But with 2020 looming and his polling numbers down, Trump is now in a position to do real damage to the republic should he lose reelection. He would continue, after all, to be president for more than two months until January 20, 2021, a lame duck in name but not in power to respond to emergencies. 

It is not a far reach to think Trump would invoke executive powers to declare a rigged election created a national emergency. Consider the border wall contretemps a potential test case before the Supreme Court of his authority to enact executive rule. 

The orderly transition of authority has been a hallmark of the United States since George Washington voluntarily stepped down after two terms of office. The Trump presidency, however, has been anything but an affirmation of political norms. 

To be fair, almost all administrations are populated by competing personalities and interests. Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals,” as portrayed by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, united in their combat to defeat the South. Trump’s cadre of conspirators, on the other hand, seem particularly vile, ineffectual, dumb, vengeful and venal. 

Sims is but the latest to reveal the innerds of a dysfunctional organism. With each expose the question of how long Republicans can abide a Trump presidency becomes more focused.

If I am right about Trump’s post-election-emergency-powers-executive-action it would be up to Vice President Pence and the Cabinet to remove him from office, that is, if they are not first removed from their positions by Trump. Then it would be up to the military to enforce the Constitution. Maybe Putin would send private Russian military contractors to protect Trump as has been rumored he has done recently in Venezuela to bolster security for embattled President Nicolas Maduro.

Sounds like a geopolitical thriller novel, doesn’t it?

Monday, January 28, 2019

My My Fair Lady for 46 Years

To celebrate our 46th wedding anniversary Monday, I took my fair lady Gilda to Lincoln Center Sunday to see the revival production of My Fair Lady. I am in no way implying that under my tutelage Gilda transformed into the accomplished women she is today. But I will say that I have been there all along as she grew from a young woman who barely knew her way around the kitchen to as close to a gourmet cook you can be without certification. 

But cooking is in many ways a minor accomplishment compared to her professional development. I’m a fairly accomplished person in my own right. Despite my parents’ trepidation at my career choice as a journalist, I achieved some success as a newspaper reporter and then a business magazine editor and publisher. In terms of intellectual development and immeasurable contributions to public welfare and health, however, my story pales compared to Gilda’s.

When we first married in 1973 Gilda had a degree in political science from Brooklyn College, our joint alma mater. After moving to Seymour, Conn., part of my beat as a reporter for The New Haven Register, her degree qualified her for a job with a budding new industry: selling cable television hookups. It was a no-brainer. Cable offered some 20 station options versus the one to three most people in Seymour and the other towns of the Lower Naugatuck Valley could receive in their homes.

Not surprisingly, after a few months Gilda sought a higher calling. She fulfilled a decade old ambition to become a nurse. After two years she graduated at the top of her class at the University of Bridgeport and immediately was hired by Yale-New Haven Hospital. 

Offered a position on any patient floor, Gilda chose the newborn intensive care unit, a pioneering discipline that treated distressed babies born in a region roughly 100 to 150 miles around New Haven. She and a doctor would travel by ambulance to stabilize and then transport a newborn, often the size of an adult male’s hand, back to the NICU in New Haven. She worked there for two years.

What I didn’t mention was taking that job in the NICU was the start of a pattern of healthcare employment that has been central to her career. Prior to working in the NICU, Gilda had no experience with newborns, let alone those with complications so debilitating that she would come home semi-traumatized and in need of withdrawal through discussion over dinner. Of course, hearing about babies with unformed intestines, heart related issues or some other defect usually related to their premature birth was not the kind of dinner conversation I wanted to hear, so I stifled her release outlet. 

After we moved to Westchester Gilda again took a position without prior experience, this time as a step-down nurse in the Intensive Care-Cardio Care Unit at Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville. She left that job for the most important one any person can have, as a mother to her (our) children. 

During those next seven years she supplemented her mothering with part-time work as a pre-natal and post-partum instructor and as a nursery school teacher. In one area, she helped expectant and successful mothers understand and adapt to the changes their bodies were undergoing. In the other she helped shape their progeny.

Seeking a full-time position after Ellie started school, in early 1987 Gilda went for an interview for a post she admitted she was not qualified for. She went, she would tell you, because I suggested it would provide experience sitting through an interview. She got the job, serving for the next nine years as the research coordinator for the infectious disease department of New York Medical College and Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla. 

The ID department studied three of the most volatile illnesses of the time—hepatitis, Lyme Disease and HIV. From knowing virtually nothing about any of those diseases Gilda became expert in each of them. For example, she was part of the team that discovered HIV could not be transmitted through body sweat. She coordinated the Lyme clinic at the medical center. And, during those professionally challenging years she found time to serve two years as co-president of our children’s school PTA and also earned her Family Nurse Practitioner’s license.

Her next major job placement came in another area for which she lacked experience. Three spine surgeons at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan hired her in June 1998 to do pre- and post-operative patient assessments. In time, Gilda learned how to read MRIs, X-Rays and other diagnostic tests better than most doctors. Her skills were so appreciated by the surgeons that the transfer of their practice to Mount Sinai Medical Center was contingent upon their ability to bring Gilda with them.

Nearly 21 years after beginning as a neophyte in spine-related medicine Gilda retired as an expert earlier this month. For almost five decades she counseled the infirm and those who needed assistance. On numerous occasions she saved lives, mostly for friends and their families unrelated to her expertise in spine or infectious diseases. She became a “go-to” healthcare resource. She is now free to carve out new challenges, for I am sure she will not idly let her energies go unstructured. 

Forty-six years ago there was no way either of us could foresee how Gilda would spend her life. I have been blessed to have accompanied her ride. I am so proud of My Fair Lady.  

Friday, January 11, 2019

Walled In: What Emergency Powers Could Bring

In my living room and on a plaque on the wall next to my home office desk are two large chunks from the Berlin Wall. I would like to say I chiseled them out from the notorious reinforced concrete edifice, but that would be a lie. My meager efforts February 16, 1990, produced paltry chips the size, perhaps, of dominoes pieces. I came by those two impressive rocks courtesy of a much more adept chiseler who shared his excavation work with me that fateful afternoon just three months after East Germany opened the floodgates on its repressive regime. 

The fearmonger-in-chief prophesied what would happen absent a similar concrete wall spanning our southern border with Mexico. “You’ll have crime in Iowa, you’ll have crime in New Hampshire, you’ll have crime in New York” without a wall, Trump warned during a trip to McAllen, Texas, Thursday. 

ABC News asked the mayor of McAllen what the murder rate in his city with no wall was. Zero, he said, asserting McAllen was among the safest in America. Statistics corroborate his belief. 

Why are Democrats so stridently against funding a wall? After all, friends have asked, $5.7 billion is sooooo small compared to the trillion dollar-plus federal budget fattened by the billions wasted on military and social aid programs every year. 

My response is that the debate over the wall far transcends the dollar amount. The wall, the barrier, the what-have-you, represents a good old-fashioned horse trading negotiation. 

Regardless of its efficacy, Trump wants to show his base he can fulfill a campaign pledge to build a wall, though he has admitted the second part of his pledge to have Mexico pay for it is not going to happen as promised. His dissembling on how the wall will be funded and by whom just adds to Trump’s portrait as a grifter and con artist. 

What Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer want is a commitment from Trump to extend safety to DACA children brought to America by their parents. Every time Trump seems ready to commit to shielding the so-called Dreamers, he turns into the reneger-in-chief when he hears howls from Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and their compatriots on the right. 

Behind the scenes efforts to parlay DACA safety for wall funding have been rejected by Trump. It would take a revolt by Senate Republicans to force Trump’s hand to accept a quid pro quo.

Instead, before the weekend is out our would-be king might invoke national emergency powers to funnel funds into wall construction. Should such a move survive a court challenge, Republicans might rue the precedent. 

Imagine the next time a Democrat is president and a mass shooting occurs. Considering that firearms are used in tens of thousands of homicides every year, far greater than the number of deaths perpetrated by undocumented immigrants, a president could declare a national emergency to ban gun sales and confiscate all assault rifles. 

Now that is an extreme hypothetical (and I doubt any president would do it) but for years the National Rifle Association has fearmongered such a possibility every time a Democrat won the presidency. 

If Trump opens the Pandora’s Box of emergency powers, there is no telling what a president could try to implement.

To stem a measles or flu epidemic turning into a pandemic, a president could declare a national emergency and order the vaccination of all residents. If anyone refuses, he could isolate them in internment camps so they would not spread any infection. To reduce damage and deaths from coastal flooding, a president could order the permanent evacuation of the shoreline. 

Too far-fetched? Perhaps. But it all hinges on how the Supreme Court views presidential power. Given that the Republican majority on the court is believed to endorse almost unlimited presidential power, Trump could win a challenge to the emergency powers question. But such a win could plunge the country into uncharted waters for all subsequent presidents, not to mention Trump’ own crazed view of what a president may do with unchecked power.

Trump said Friday afternoon he wasn’t ready to pull the emergency powers lever. Which to me signals he is about to this weekend, as he constantly contradicts himself.

As I’m writing this a friend related an irony—his community in Palm Beach County, Florida, has many wealthy retired New York City teachers who “want immigration laws enforced.” 

To which I replied, “Maybe the sun fried their brains and they forgot the immigrant history of their families. Sure, they would tell you they came legally but how many of them thought the quota system from 1920 on was a good thing, how many of them thought restricting access to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution was acceptable, how many of them see any comparability to those Hondurans seeking safety from violence in their homeland, how many of them think a wall is a better symbol of America than the Statue of Liberty?”

Walls can and do serve a purpose. The Berlin Wall kept East Germans inside their living hell. Many who tried to seek freedom lost their lives trying to pierce their enclosure. But some succeeded. No wall is impenetrable. 

All objective evidence affirms that most illegal drugs enter the United States at ports of entry, not by human “mules” infiltrating illegally across the border. Most undocumented aliens enter legally, arriving here by plane and overstaying their visas. Though Trump trumpets their egregious murders, rapes and other violent deeds in his bid to instill fear, statistics show the undocumented commit far fewer crimes than the American population at large. 

Bottom line: Some type of restraint along the border will be built. Dreamers will have their dreams fulfilled. Some federal workers will lose their homes, have their credit ratings marred, have their trust in government employment shattered by the partial government shutdown now entering its fourth week because of the inability of the artless-negotiator-in-chief to reach an agreement with the newly emboldened Democrats who control the House and who still maintain sufficient numbers in the Senate to withstand cloture calls on most legislation.

It won’t be pretty, but it will happen. As Trump says, trust me.