Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Year of Years:1968


If you are of my vintage you remember with crystalline clarity the place and circumstance of a handful of events outside your personal sphere. For me they were the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of RFK, the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and 911 which happened on my 60th birthday. Of the three that happened in 1968, MLK, RFK and the Chicago riots, I had a peripheral connection to two.

I had become friends with a David Gaon, a young lawyer at Baskin Robbins. And, while I don’t remember having strong political feelings, I must have tilted left. On the night of June 4 David and his wife and Peggy and I took drove to the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park to hear Bobby Kennedy speak. Early in 1968 Kennedy decided that he had to speak out against the Viet Nam War, racial injustice and income inequality and that was the substance of his towering speech. We were was transfixed. The next day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. He was 42.


By August I was in Chicago for my first Baskin Robbins annual convention which coincided with the DNC. We spent the day writing slogans for the new flavors of ice cream that we were introducing. We would perform a skit later that day to reveal the flavors. How I got lumped with the marketing types I do not recall. One of new tastes was Orange Marmalade Ice for which I wrote the catchy and oh so flavorful line, “Spread it on your muffin.”

Later that steaming August 28 about 10,000 protesters assembled at Grant park for a demonstration against the Viet Nam War. In mid-after noon a young demonstrator began lowering the flag that was flying. The police broke through the crowd and began beating the young man. The crowd responded by pelting them with food, beverage bottles, rocks and chunks of concrete.

For the remainder of the day and especially during the night the police attacked the protestors without restraint. Violence was inflicted on people who had broken no law, had disobeyed no order and presented no threat. Peaceful demonstrators, onlookers and residents who lived in the neighborhoods where the protests were being held were beaten and tear gassed.


From my room at the Sheraton Blackstone Hotel I watched the tear gas envelope Grant Park and watched Mayor Daley’s goons bludgeon peaceful protestors. As I watched from the fifth floor, CBS News was capturing the mayhem on the streets and at the convention center. On the CBS Nightly News Walter Cronkite, America’s most trusted person, decried the violence as “police brutality. He removed his glasses and wiped a tear from his left cheek.

At the convention itself, CBS reporter Dan Rather was manhandled by security guards when he attempted to interview a Georgia delegate who was being removed from the hall. The cameras turned their attention to Rather as he was approaching the delegate, “What is your name, sir? he asked. At that moment he was grabbed by the guards. He could be heard telling the guards “don’t push me” and “take your hand off me unless you plan to arrest me.” All of this on national television.

When he was released, the breathless Rather told Cronkite:

“Walter…we tried to talk to the man and we got violently pushed out of the way. This is the kind of thing that had been happening outside the hall, this is the first time we’ve had it happen inside the hall. We…I’m sorry I’m out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that. What happened is a Georgia delegate, at least he had a Georgia delegate sign on, was being hauled out of the hall. We tried to talk to him to see why, who he was, what the situation was, and at that instant, well as you can see, they put me on the deck. I didn’t do very well.”

An angry Cronkite tersely replied, “I think way we have a bunch of thugs here, Dan. If I may say so.”

A 20-year-old intern, Chris Wallace, was working in the CBS newsroom that summer. He remembers smelling the tear gas floating above Michigan Avenue. He watched police beat the anti-war protesters with Billy clubs. On the street his father Mike Wallace was assaulted by a policeman and arrested.

We lost our innocence in 1968. The pointless tragedy of Vietnam and the craven Nixon White House abetted by the Republican Party arose from the mistakes of the sixties: errors and miscalculations built on a foundation of hubris and lies dating back to post-war Indo China and which were perpetuated through the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. Kennedy had known the war couldn’t be won since he took office in 1960. So, too, did Johnson and Nixon but each allowed young Americans to continue to die. In fact, the bulk of those 57,000 deaths occurred after 1968 when it was already clear we could not win. Cynical isn't the half of it. General Westmoreland lifted his granite jaw and lied about the numbers. Robert McNamara knew but hid the truth. The war lasted seven more years. And for nothing.

John Laurence, a CBS reporter in the ground in Viet Nam recently looked back. “As a citizen [in 1968] I was worried that the country was being polarized as never before and that no good would come of it. I had to wait 50 years before having the same worries again.” Past is prologue.

Laurence’s reporting had led Cronkite, a former World War Two correspondent, travel to Viet Nam early in 1968.

“He had been hearing all of those lies from the Pentagon about how well it was going for three years,” said Cronkite’s senior producer, Ronald Bonn. “All of a sudden it exploded in every city in Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s trip led to a prime-time special on the war which aired on February 28, 1968. The broadcast was a watershed moment for television news in that Walter Cronkite declared that there was no victory in sight for the United States.

“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” said the wise man. It was worse than a stalemate. It’s not a tie when you turn tail and your enemy gets the whole country. Walter. We lost that war.

To this day, conservative wags will say that Cronkite’s testimonial dampened support for the war effort. John Laurence dismisses that talk.

“All the optimists who argued that we were winning did a terrible disservice to our country. They really didn’t know what they were talking about. So, too, do the revisionists of today who would have people believe that Walter was undermining the war by being truthful about what he had learned.” Truth to power.

Cronkite’s even-handed reporting had become the television industry standard. His willingness to offer his interpretation based on the facts as he understood them gave birth to the blend of fact and opinion that prevails today for good and sometimes ill.

On June 6, the day after Bobby Kennedy’s murder, and perhaps prompted by Cronkite’s February voyage into truth telling, NBC’s David Brinkley warned that political assassination was putting the country in the danger of becoming a police state. “And in a police state, people don’t shoot politicians, politicians shoot the people.”

In an autocracy those in power will do anything to maintain control. Read Russia, Turkey, Nicaragua and Venezuela and the heart of despotism, Africa. Which countries will join the descent? Hungary, Poland, the United States? What could possibly go wrong when only 25% of the population believes that democracy is essential to its wellbeing (that number was 80% a generation ago)? And the legislative branch is unwilling to exercise its constitutional obligation to check the executive and appears to believe its first duty is to “protect” the president and the party before the nation.

Assault on the free press is always part of the path to dictatorship or military rule. Any coverage not entirely supportive of the Dear Leader is suppressed. To Nixon the press was the enemy. Echoes of that sentiment reverberate in the White House today. Attacking the press is page out of the Hitler and Mussolini songbook along with every tinpot dictator in history. Control the press, better yet be the press, and you’ll control minds. Hear one song and one song only and soon you’ll soon know all the words and believe every one of them. There’s nothing particularly inventive at play. There’s no need to reinvent the formula. The formula works.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

A year among years: Part One


If BC and AD demark the history of the world as we know it, 1968 demarks the post-war United States that was and what it is today. For anyone born before 1950 that tumultuous year divided our callow youth from our wary adulthood. When I think back to the late sixties and early seventies I tend to think that every historic event happened in the tsunami of 1968. Nationally we were overwhelmed by psyche shattering events and as young adults we were stumbling through the early milestones of adult life; marriage, births, and first real jobs.


Christmas 1968

On the very first workday of 1968 I reported for work at Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream’s headquarters on Burbank Boulevard in beautiful downtown Burbank, California. It was January 2. My road to becoming an exempt clerk (code for no overtime pay) in the Store Planning department at Baskin Robbins was paved by losing my position as Manager of Food Operations for a chain of drug stores in Tucson and the pressing need to support a wife and four-month old son. California beckoned. The Golden State was and will always be the land of possible dreams.

In late November of 1967 I traveled to Los Angeles to look for work and wound up walking into the Ame’s Employment agency at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. I was a 26-year-old married father of one and a recent graduate from Arizona State University on its eight-year work release program. My resumé boasted a list of food service jobs; pizza cook, singing waiter, bartender, assistant restaurant manager and former Manager of Food Operations at Ryan Evans. Not on the resumé was a lot of living, none of it easy.

The position as a store planner at Baskin Robbins Ice Cream is the only one I remember pursuing and, certainly, the only one that led to an interview. There was, however, a small catch. I had to be a draftsman to fill the slot. I was told that I had to draw the floor plan of a typical Baskin Robbins store and bring it to my first interview. “When?” I asked.  “Tomorrow” they replied. I had helped design and remodel seven Ryan Evans stores during my truncated employment there and may have had some inkling about laying out a retail business. In less than a year at Ryan Evans I had performed three roles starting with the remodeling of the stores, handling advertising for a few months and, finally, operating our lunch counters. I upgraded the menu and renamed them Sunburst Cafes. Sales doubled but they were still little more than lunch counters new name or not.

Being a veteran of jobs that I wasn’t equipped to do, I figured I’d become a draftsman overnight. How hard could it be? Fortunately, Peggy had majored in architecture and owned the basic tools; a drafting board, a straight edge, various triangles, mechanical pencils and, importantly, erasers. Under her watchful eye I finished my floor plan at dawn. To award my effort with a D would be over-grading.

In the morning I was interviewed by four people; Larry Tate, the general counsel (don’t ask me why I had an interview with a lawyer); Ross Roeder, the VP of Human Resources; Kurt Kornreich (who pronounced it Cornrich to head off assaults on his moniker) and Frank Merlino, a construction guy and the long-time Store Planning Manager at BR. I’ll start with Merlino who did not guffaw at my amateur drafting attempt. At best, he saw that I was no pretender to the throne. Or so he thought. Both Tate and Roeder had told me that Merlino had threatened to quit on two occasions and that, if I could learn how to draft and get a handle on the department, they’d accept his resignation the next time made the threat.

In three months they accepted his resignation, I became store planning manager and my career trajectory tilted upward. Three months after that Merlino put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His son Frankie found him.




Sunday, August 05, 2018

Out of the Dark


Far beyond the sales growth, profit and awards I’m most proud of what didn’t happen during the Black Out of 1977. I was home in New Canaan at 8:27pm on Wednesday, July 13 when the first call came from Bruce Raba, our District Manager in Brooklyn, telling me the borough had lost power and things were going to get ugly fast. Restive crowds were gathering on the corner of Bedford and Lafayette and at Nostrand and Atlantic. I turned on the television as a lighting strike tripped circuit breakers at Buchanan South on the Hudson River. A second strike caused the loss of two 345kV transmission lines and the loss of power at the 900MW nuclear plant at Indian Point. At 8:55pm there was another strike at the Sprain Brook station in Yonkers and things went downhill from there. By 9:36pm the entire Con Edison system had shut down, almost exactly an hour after the first strike. A surreal light glowed across the Hudson from New Jersey but the sky over Manhattan was dark enough to see the Milky Way.
My first concern was that we would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of product. I called our Area Managers and asked them to call our major suppliers and to lean on them for refrigerated trucks so we could keep the chicken and produce cold until power was restored. KFC chicken was shipped fresh and packed in ice but not frozen making it especially vulnerable. Before morning a million dollars of product had been saved in the trucks thanks to our quick thinking and the unflinching support of our suppliers. We lost absolutely nothing. We had conceived and executed a rapid response on the fly. Most of our inner-city managers, often middle aged black women, stayed in “their stores” throughout the night and through the next day. The ownership they took for their stores was extraordinary. I couldn't respect them more.
New York was dark for 25 hours. The steaming streets became war zones where, according to the NY Post, “Even the looters were being mugged.” By the time the lights came back on arsonists had set more than 1,000 fires and more than 1,600 stores had been looted. None were KFCs.
I believe that because we had rejected the carpetbagger mentality that had prevailed before 1976, that we had demonstrated respect for neighborhoods of color and that our locations were managed by people who were pillars of the community and who took ownership of the situation we were spared.

The Blackout of 1977 was “a metaphor for the gloom that had already settled over the city. An economic decline, rising crime rates and the panic-provoking (and paranoia inducing) Son of Sam murders had combined to make the late 1970s New York’s Dark Ages.” according to Time Magazine. Some saw unrelenting poverty and institutional neglect as the fuel that ignited the explosion. The head of the National Urban League said, "The underclass in a crisis feels no compulsion to abide by the rules of the game because they find that the normal rules don't apply to them." 
This is one of two stories from my forty years operating restaurants of which I most proud, and both come from places of mutual respect and a measure of caring and humanity.
KFC stores in the inner city were often the only national brand businesses in their neighborhoods. One store in the Bronx comes to mind. It was literally the only operating business within six square blocks. Each time I visited the store it felt like it was the last living thing amid the burned-out hulks of apartment blocks and tenements. It looked Hamburg after the bombs. Its manager was a proud Egyptian PhD in Chemistry who had tried teaching high school in the South Bronx and had been unable to stomach the utter disinterest and lack of respect he was shown. To hear him tell it, a teacher in Egypt wielded absolute authority in his classroom. In the Bronx it was worse than babysitting. He was better off, he decided, to manage an ordinary KFC store where he could expect and demand performance from his employees. He did just that and was named one of the ten best managers in the country at the convention in New Orleans in 1977. One of ten from 1,000. I wish I could remember his name. I’m embarrassed that I can’t.
Of 68 store managers in NYC, maybe half a dozen were Anglo males. KFC in New York was a true United Nations, operated by immigrants from around the globe. Another top ten manager whose name I can remember was Deepak Patel in Manhattan. Deepak, a slight, soft-spoken gentleman with a college degree and a commitment to excellence was a first generation American from Pakistan. When I Googled Deepak Patel four names popped up, three were medical doctors in the United States and the other was a retired New Zealand cricketeer of Pakistani descent.
Without immigrants we couldn’t have operated those New York stores in 1977.