Category Archives: History

Spacing Out

I Googled “Italian astronaut jokes” early this morning after hearing how NASA cancelled the EVA of Luca Parmitano after an EMU malfunction. Space geeks know that an EVA is a spacewalk and an EMU a spacesuit.

It seems that Parmitano, the first Italian astronaut to walk in space, was having a little trouble with his helmet: it was filling with water. Yes, that’s a little trouble.

Speaking of space, I just read two terrific books about space travel, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach and Riding Rockets  by former Space Shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane.

Roach’s book, which examines the science behind putting humans in space, is laugh out loud funny as it closely examines things like zero gravity pooping and the hazards of vomitting in your helmet. The most minute detail of everything astronauts do has been studied to death — often in bizarre ways.

Mullane writes about life as one of the original Space Shuttle astronauts. It’s a frank and hilarious (and mildly profane) glimpse of what it’s like to prepare for and fly in space. It’s also pretty heavy, too. Mullane worked closely with the crew aboard the Challenger — and early in his book he discusses the worries over the disasterously ill fated o-rings on the solid rocket boosters.

Anyway, the only Italian astronaut joke I could find goes like this:

Q: What do you call an Italian astronaut?

A: A specimen.

Please accept my apologies.

Here’s the Church and Here’s the Steeple

stpatsThe death watch at St. Patrick’s church in Watervliet seems to go on forever.

Unwanted by the Albany Diocese, the St. Patrick’s property was sold off to a developer, and where people once prayed, they now will shop. Yes, I suppose it’s a little sad; the building holds many memories — and in terms of the environment, a nice old church has more eye appeal than a supermarket. By the time you read this, it will most likely just be a pile of rubble.

When it comes to buildings like this, everything’s relative. In our young country a church built in 1891 seems ancient. In Europe, something constructed in 1891 would not be thought of as terribly old. When I visited Transylvania, there were truly historic churches everywhere, like the Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral, which was completed in 1520. Now that’s old!

Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral

Naturally, the St. Patrick’s demolition has turned into a media orgy, with some stories bordering on the ridiculous, like the apparation of a “face” on the wall. Could it be St. Patrick? We’ll never know.

One funny thing about all this, though: throughout the week, local news outlets have had to station photographers at the church, because nobody wants to be the guy who missed the bell tower coming down. Are we sentimental or do we just like watching buildings demolished. I’m voting on the latter.

God Save the Queen

The theory of six degrees of separation is alive and well.

Take this for example: yesterday I read in All Over Albany about a documentary project that will look at the neighborhood obliterated by the construction of the Empire State Plaza.

They ripped down a thriving section of town and carted it away; now it’s entombed in the area east of Frisbie Avenue. Me and my son, like amateur archaeologists, used to find bits and pieces of the demolition debris as we prowled the site of the former landfill near our house in Albany. We once discovered a half-buried doll’s head. Creepy!

Then, I read of the abdication of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands who, as legend has it, inspired Governor Nelson Rockefeller to spruce up Albany by gutting a huge swath of the city and building the South Mall. She was visiting while still just Princess Beatrix, and Rocky was embarrassed by shabby old Albany, or so the story goes.

Queen Beatrix, directly linked to one of America’s most notorious urban renewal projects — and a new film!

I hope you’ll join me and throw a few bucks into the pot for the documentary, titled The Neighborhood That Disappeared. Among the filmmakers is the talented local actor John Romeo, who worked for years at the NYS Theatre Institute. John was also the voice behind the TV work I’m most proud of, things that would have been quite mediocre if not for his great talent.

If you ask me, the former queen should also pony up some money, wouldn’t you say?

A Brief History of Newspapering

James Franklin, Ben’s older brother, was a printer in Boston and in 1721 he had the big idea to start a newspaper, The New-England Courant.

The Courant, which sold for four pence, was a good way to keep the press busy and bring in some extra income. It didn’t take long for James to get into trouble with the authorities, and they threw him in jail the following year for writing “scandalous libel.”

Thus modern journalism was born.

At some point, people figured out that newspapers could be a stand-alone enterprise, rather than just a sideline for commercial printers, and this gave way to the business model of newspapers owning a printing press — not the other way around.

Fast forward to 2013.

Our local paper, the Times Union, just installed a new printing press, which might seem like a bad idea as newspapers are biting the dust all over America. What next, are they going to go back to using kids to distribute their product? But amid the much ballyhooed coverage about serving the customers better and spitting in the face of the print’s downward spiral is this single line from an AP story:

The new press also will allow the newspaper to perform commercial print jobs.

Well, there you go. I’m not suggesting that the newspaper will be just a sideline for a printing operation (even though I joked about it on Twitter), but it will sure help to have some extra money coming in. And if that means keeping journalists and photographers on the job, then it’s a good thing.

The Right Stuff

Those of a certain age remember when they would roll a TV into in your classroom to watch NASA launches. By the time my kids were in school, that was unheard of.

I’ve written before about my childhood obsession with the space program; it all came rolling back this week with the death of Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong may deny his status as a hero, but he was unquestionably — how shall we say — one cool mofo. Case in point: the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) that Buzz Aldrin piloted to the surface of the moon was not quite exactly tested all that thoroughly. Meaning what? Meaning NASA had never tried landing an unmanned version of the vehicle on the moon’s surface — nor checked to see if it could take off from the moon. Failure on either count would have lead to one of history’s greatest “Oh, sh*t” moments.

That was a real enough possibility that the space agency had developed secret procedures on what to do if Armstrong and Aldrin were stranded on the moon. There was even a speech already written — by William Safire — that President Richard Nixon would have delivered in case the mission ended in disaster.

If that doesn’t convince you of Armstrong’s moxie, watch this video of Armstrong ejecting from a LEM training vehicle in 1968, moments before its spectacular crash.


Life’s too short to waste time with crappy books, so let me help you out. Here are a few things I’ve read lately that you might enjoy.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead  Ever since first seeing Night of the Living Dead (at wayyyyy too young an age) I’ve been obsessed with zombies. While Zone One doesn’t really bring anything new to the brain table — these zombies are a lot like those you’ve seen before — it’s much smarter than most horror fiction. It’s not just a thinking person’s zombie thriller, but the story is funny and heartbreaking in equal turn, and really communicates a deep sense of loss.

 Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides The is the terrific true story of 200 men sent on an impossible mission during WWII: rescue hundreds of starving POWs from a Japanese prison camp behind enemy lines in the Philippines. It’s rife with larger than life characters and heroic acts. You’ll love the Filipino guerrillas who helped pull off the raid. The Japanese? Not so much.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous, but this is a great book. Kurlansky has written several volumes on seemingly mundane things that have had profound geopolitical and economic influence. Cod is no different — and it’s sure to fuel your inner Cliff Clavin with some fascinating anecdotes.


Stealing People’s Cable

It was a pretty big deal when cable TV arrived at 28 City Hall Place in Plattsburgh. For those who know the town, this is the building right next to the eagle monument in City Hall Park.

The building has long since been gentrified, but back in September 1981 it was a squalid slum, a dirty firetrap on what was known as the city’s skid row. The occupants were mostly college students except for the building’s “managers,” an apartment full of sketchy local dudes who lived down in the basement. It was a far cry from the safety and comfort of on-campus life.

Our apartment was a complete dump and cable TV was our one luxury.

So there we were, watching Saturday Night Live, when the TV began sliding across the floor on its wheeled cart. It made it all the way over to the window and began jerking violently back and forth. The TV tumbled to the floor and the screen went to snow.

This was an amazing spectacle — and even though we were probably drunk or something, it didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. Someone had pulled the cable leading up to our third floor apartment right off the side of the building — and yanked on it until it came loose from the TV.

You didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to find the culprits. Following the wire, we discovered it was already snaked into the basement apartment. We knocked on the door, the sketchy local dudes  apologized, and we used kite sting to hoist the wire back upstairs.

I don’t know what was more amazing: seeing the TV start moving across the floor or that these guys thought they could get away with swiping our cable wire? Either way, it was a fine introduction to off-campus life — and nothing that interesting had ever happened in my dorm.

Oh, Streetcar

Hamilton Street, Albany NYWe all gawked when Hollywood came to town to film scenes for Salt and The Other Guys. Yes it was impressive, but nothing compared to some of the crazy things they did to get shots for Ironweed in 1987 — like transforming upper Lark Street into 1901 Albany, complete with a working streetcar.

Today they’d probably use CGI for such an expensive and complicated scene (you can see it at 6:30 in this YouTube clip from Ironweed), but to do it in the 80s they cut grooves in the road and installed tracks. For years you could still see where they patched things up after going back to Hollywood.

When I was a kid we’d go visit my grandmother in the Bronx and it was nothing to see cobblestone streets and old streetcar tracks — but I was surprised to find them on Hamilton Street in Albany, right around the corner from Cafe Capriccio. They’re in such good shape that it looks like you could still use them.

Cobblestones and Trolley Tracks

It’s curious that Albany left this section of street untouched. You’ve got to wonder if it was a planned bit of historical preservation, or if the city just doesn’t care about this godforsaken block in the South End.

I hope they leave it exactly the way it is. Chances of that are good; if Mayor Jennings can’t manage to fill potholes, repaving a whole street is probably out of the question.

The Irish in America

Today the Irish are celebrated in America — but that wasn’t alway the case. Just look here in the New York Times, where on St. Patrick’s Day in 1907 they saw fit to publish this amusing anecdote involving not one, but two silly Irishmen:

But what the hell, If we didn’t embrace our stereotypes, what good would we be?