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How an auto product brought joy and happiness to young men

7 Sep

hust-about-us-image-01

There used to be a company called Hurst-Campbell. It manufactured a magical product that made you cool, earned you respect and got you girls.

 

There are few products like that today.

 

Today, I never hear anyone talk about this product – the Hurst Shifter. In the days when most drivers manually shifted gears – three of them – with a clunky arm mounted on the steering column, Hurst produced a sexually charged device that stuck up out of the floor and linked to a four-speed transmission.

 

The shift pattern was an “H,” very much like the Hurst-Campbell logo. The setup was known as “four on the floor.”

 

“If you didn’t have a Hurst shifter in your supercar, you were a mild-mannered loser.”

 

That’s a quote from a 1997 book by Mike Mueller called, “Motor City Muscle: High-Powered History of the American Muscle Car.”  But you didn’t need a supercar to have a Hurst shifter, although cars that had them were usually fast and pretty hot.

 

I never had a hot car or a Hurst shifter. Still, in my high school and in my hometown the Hurst mystic was always present.

 

Two things, and only two things, made my hometown noteworthy. One was a naval base where the original Mercury astronauts trained. The other was the headquarters of Hurst-Campbell.

 

george-hurst

George Hurst

Hurst-Campbell was founded in 1958 by George Hurst, a drag racing auto mechanic with an eighth-grade education. The shifter developed by him and his partners resulted in an alliance with General Motors and arguably became the largest selling after-market product in automotive history. After the success of the shifter and other products, and with an unparalleled reputation in racing circles, Hurst-Campbell wa

s acquired in 1970 by a company that made toasters.  That company, Sunbeam Products, promised George Hurst an executive position and a seat on the board of directors. He never got them.

 

Hurst died despondent in 1986 at the age of 59.

 

Last month I was in my hometown and drove by the old Hurst building. What once seemed majestic now looked shockingly ordinary.

 

But it brought back memories.

 

The memory of Joyce came first; then Danny, then John.

 

200px-hurst_shifterJoyce was an attractive young girl who became more attractive when everyone learned her father was an executive at Hurst-Campbell. For guys at least, it gave her a special aura. It almost made her off limits. Danny, however, was cocky enough to ask her out and they actually started dating.

 

Friends of Danny could not believe this had happened. It was like those Mafia movies where you feel empowered because your friend becomes a made man.

 

There was wild talk that Danny could get free shifters, or at least get them at a discount. My vague recollection is that he and Joyce broke up before any of that happened.

 

Then there was John. I was much more envious of John than Danny, and here is why:

John had saved his money from an after-school job and bought a customized Chevy from his brother’s friend. I think it was a ’59. Those old cars didn’t have bucketseats in the front. They had bench seats, which could fit three – four if you really pushed
it.

 

The car had a Hurst shifter with a knob on top that resembled a cue ball. It popped up and, when in fourth gear, arched over the seat.

 

hurst-benchseat John’s girlfriend at the time always sat close to him on the bench, consciously and deliberately straddling the shifter knob. What this meant was that as John went from first, to second, to third, to fourth, he would be moving his hands between his girlfriend’s legs. He would have to go through all the gears after every stop light and stop sign and during every slowdown and speed up.

 

From the backseat, where I often sat, this was an unbearable frustration to watch.

 

There is a cruelty to being young; a harsh chemistry that preoccupied the mind while – too often – going unserved. So all this shifting was like a sublime punishment.

 

I would have given almost anything to have had a car and a girl like John’s.

 

In time, John moved on to an even better car and – some might say — an even better girl.

 

As I looked at the old Hurst building in my old hometown, I thought of these things and more. I thought about desire and fulfillment and the things that add pleasure and prestige to life. I thought about how most of these things pass and how we struggle to replace them with other things, and how as we get older it is harder and harder to find adequate replacements.

 

At Hurst-Campbell, there was more than the shifter. George Hurst, in fact, oversaw the invention and development of the “Jaws of Life” – the device that today allows rescue workers to remove people from crumpled cars. Realizing its enormous potential, he gave away the patent and the fortune that would have gone with it.

 

So here’s to George Hurst, who became great and good and helped very young men walk tall and proud and ride with grace and dignity. I would call that a life in full; an achievement rare and wonderful. Because of George Hurst, when I drive by a once-special, now forgotten industrial building, I get a smile, a chill and an opiate-like thrill.

 

Thanks, George, even if I never did buy one of your shifters. Who would have thought I could make it through life without one?

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

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Thoughts about the “First People”

19 Aug
First People-hurdlers

This blog has been inactive for quite some time. I’m going to try and bring it back.

 

Here goes:

 

With high sensitivity all around us, I worry about something I hope to do soon – or rather say.

 

I plan to use the term “First People” in conversation. As far as I know, almost no one makes reference to the “First People.” They generally don’t get acknowledged as such, and in the rare case they do, there is almost no acclaim, credit, respect, distinction or awe given to them for being first.

 

The “First People,” of course, are those of African descent.  Human beings, according to a widely held theory, originated in African, migrated out and gradually but surely populated the entire globe. They are said to have gone east first, through what is now the Middle East, then into Asia, then they turned back west and went into Europe, displacing and eliminating the Neanderthals, who were human-like but were not homo sapiens.

 

This is the Out of Africa theory, and the average person doesn’t hear much of it or talk much about it. Worse, perhaps, I’ve never heard an African-American boast about it.

 

I got the idea for using the term “First People” from watching the TV show “Game of Thrones.” In that show the original inhabitants of the north are called the “First Men.” They are spoken of with great reverence. While the ancestors of the First Men seem to be gone from the “Game of Thrones,” the ancestors of our First People remain with us, but they are un-honored.

 

I thought about them during the Olympics, where they dominated over later-coming peoples in nearly all the running events. Could having the blood of the “First People” provide some advantage over other races, or do they just try harder? If it’s the latter, why is that? Is it a holdover quality from the “First People,” who had to try damn hard to do what they ended up doing?

 

In America, with race being such an inflammatory issue and with the ancestors of the “First People” historically being treated as if they were not even people, it would seem impossible for the majority to outwardly recognize a superior strain of any kind in them. That’s sad.

 

Would the majority even be willing to call them the “First People?” Probably not. But I hope the “First People” somehow start calling themselves that. It’s a distinction much worthy of note.

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

A $1.5 million mistake! Do you just let it go?

15 Feb

Golden-nugget-dealer

I once made a painful mistake and was absolved. Recently, a much larger mistake was made by an Atlantic City casino. It, too, was absolved.

I considered my absolution reasonably fair. I’m not sure about the Golden Nugget’s.

It would be nice to know what others think, so please keep reading.

I was in college when I committed my blunder (neither my first nor my last). My classmates were finishing their final exam in political science when I realized I was supposed to be there. Upset and perplexed, I ran to the class and arrived as everyone was leaving. With exceptional humbleness I told the professor what happened and apologized, repeatedly.

His reaction stunned me: He laughed.

“You’ve had an ‘A’ all semester. Forget it.”

And so I wondered if the folk at the Golden Nugget were equally stunned – or more so — this week when their mistake was wiped clean by the State Superior Court of New Jersey.

golden-nugget-buildingAccording to the Associated Press, the case dates to 2012 and a game of mini-baccarat. Fourteen players who had been betting $10 a hand suddenly up their bets to $5,000 and won 41 straight hands. Their total winnings were $1.5 million.

The court, ruling in favor of the Golden Nugget, ordered them to give it back.

They didn’t cheat. They broke no rules.

What they did was notice that the cards being dealt had not been shuffled. As the cards came off the deck, they showed a consistent, predictable pattern. The players took advantage of this pattern to win.

The dealer was not shuffling the cards because the decks were supposed to have been pre-shuffled by the manufacturer. The cards came from a Kansas City company that admitted its error in court.

The judge’s ruling said New Jersey’s Casino Control Act requires that cards be shuffled. Since they were not, the mini-baccarat play was illegal, unauthorized and therefore void.

The court ordered the 14 players to return their winnings, minus their original bankrolls.

Years ago when I learned I had screwed up, I was willing to accept the consequences. Naturally, I felt that the Golden Nugget should accept its loss, or at least go get the $1.5 million from the company – Gemaco — that didn’t shuffle the cards. (They reached an undisclosed settlement.)

I changed my mind when I learned more about the case. Now I don’t know what to think.

The additional details and background came from the website Cardplayer.com.

It seems that back in 2012 a lower court actually ruled in favor of the gamblers. It was willing to award them their winnings – which they had not fully collected. The Golden Nugget suspected it was being scammed and paid out only $500,000. The 14 gamblers were forced to hold the rest in chips.

The gamblers, all of Asian descent, were not happy with this first ruling. They wanted more than their winnings. They wanted damages and made allegations of illegal detention and racial discrimination.

The owner of the casino, Texas billionaire Tillman Fertitta, said he would gladly pay the $1.5 million if all other charges were dropped. The 14 gamblers refused.

Now they have lost, and most likely will appeal.

Even for a guy who got As in political science, I’m not sure who is right or wrong; who is being fair or unfair. I’d like to hear from others on how they would rule.

The one resounding thought I’m left with is this: If I had been playing mini-baccarat and the cards started showing a pattern, would I have been smart enough to take advantage of this, or would I have been kicking myself for the rest of my life for missing the opportunity?

A final footnote: Gemaco, the company that didn’t shuffle the cards for the Golden Nugget, once manufactured cards for the Borgata that had flaws on the side. Ten-time World Series of Poker champion Phil Ivey was dealt those cards. He noticed the flaws and used them to win $9.6 million.

Lanny Morgnanesi

Get me out of this prison!!!!

27 Jan

Another Day, Another Time the Music of "Inside Llewyn Davis" Another Day-Another Time

Mull over, if you will, these few lines from a Woody Guthrie song:

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long

You’ll hear a bit of that tune in a documentary called, “Another Day, Another Time.” The film, embedded below, features mostly folk and old tyme American music. Producer T. Bone Burnett got a bunch of very fine musicians together to celebrate the traditional approach to music, and the movie gives us both on stage and off stage performances.

As I watched it, enjoying every note, I realized a preponderance of the songs were about imprisonment and the destruction of individuals by authority. There were songs like:

  • Hang me, Oh Hang me
  • The Midnight Special
  • The Auld Triangle
  • House of the Rising Sun
  • Worried Man Blues

Spanning decades, these songs continue to touch people, which is why they prevail. They reach something inside us. You don’t have to be a criminal or a con to appreciate them. As I listened to all these prison songs, it came to me that so many of us, whether we have been in a cell or not, must fell imprisoned.

I believe it’s these feelings that keep such songs with us and inspire new ones.

Johnny Cash is famous for his “Folsom Prison Blues,” where a man convicted of killing someone “just to watch him die” longs for freedom and is incensed every time a train filled with free people passes near his cell. The song is so convincing many believe Cash served time in Folsom. Not so. He wrote the song while in the Air Force, stuck at a base in Germany and longing to once again be his own man.

So the song was a metaphor for him, and for us.

Why do we feel this way? Where do our shackles come from? More important, how can we get rid of them?

Although Woody Guthrie wrote about the imprisoned Worried Man, he also wrote “This Land is Your Land” – which joyfully describes a vast, beautiful country and the unfettered right we have to travel it. In the documentary, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson do a number called “I Hear Them All,” and combine it with “This Land.”

They received the loudest applause when they sung this Guthrie verse:

There was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said “Private Property”

But on the backside it didn’t say nothin’


This land was made for you and me.

Maybe we’d all be happier if we, too, focused on the back of the sign. Our minds have put us in prison. It is up to our minds to get us out. The freedom and expression of music will help, as will the film, “Another Day, Another Time.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

She’s the first this, he’s the first that. But why?

18 Jan

Bess-Myerson

Bess Myerson died recently. The new stories about her said she was the first Jewish Miss America. They didn’t explain why.

If a Man From Mars visited Earth, he might come up with these possible reasons:

  • Jews aren’t pretty enough.
  • Jewish culture prohibits women from entering pageants.
  • Jews hadn’t heard of Miss America.

If he possessed special powers of insight, he might get closer to the truth and say: Jews don’t become Miss America because some people don’t like them.

While the Man from Mars might say this, the many obituaries on Miss Myers did not.

Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson

This defies the journalistic tenet to never leave questions unanswered. Reporters sometimes even explain things most people know, like who O.J. was, or that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. But when reporting on “firsts,” they avoid the truth. Maybe they just don’t know how to say it.

The stories almost always include a sort of wink and nod or a code that we all are supposed to understand — mainly that certain groups of people receive unfair, unjust, discriminatory treatment, which makes awards and honors difficult.

I did see one article that tried going deeper into the “why” of Bess Myerson. Writing in the Daily Beast, Emily Shire said:

Kat Dennings

Kat Dennings

“What perhaps affected people more on a day-to-day basis were the pervasive anti-Semitic stereotypes that Jews were cheap, weak, big-nosed, swarthy, and ugly little creatures.”

But she considers other reasons as well, saying that Jews make up only about 2 percent of the adult U.S. population and statistically are long shots. She also suggests that the Jewish-American emphasis on education and intellectualism could be keeping Jewish women off the runway.

Still, she points out that there are scores of Jewish beauties in Hollywood, which ain’t Harvard. She mentions Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones. She could also have included Alison

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

Brie, Kat Dennings and Scarlett Johansson. There are so many web pages devoted to “hot and sexy” Jews that it’s hard to believe they comprise only 2 percent of the population. At the bottom of this post is a video on Playboy magazine’s top picks.

It could be argued that the strong Jewish influence in the movie industry permits bombshell Jewesses to become stars, while the Miss America pageant is without a similar tradition of semi-inclusiveness.

Alison Brie

Alison Brie

It’s a shame we can’t talk about such things and get to the heart of them.

Shortly after Bess Myerson died, Edward W. Brooke III passed away. His obituary said that in 1966 he became the first African-American popularly elected to the United States Senate. It didn’t say why.

But I think we all know the reason. Cheers to us.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

On Christmas letters and the many lives we live

26 Dec

Christmas Letter

The age-old question asked again: What is a life?

  • Is it working and dying?
  • Is it working, loving and dying?
  • Is it creating?
  • Is it destroying?
  • Is it accumulating great wealth, then giving that wealth away?
  • Is it joy?
  • Is it sorrow?
  • Is it discovery?
  • Is it about spiritualism and seeking?
  • Is it daily, incremental, almost immeasurable contributions to society that in the aggregate serve an unknown purpose and take civilization toward its unknown destination?

If you read Christmas letters, it almost seems as if life is an uneventful routine interrupted by vacations. In these letters, trips to Cancun and Jackson Hole are the highlights. Without them existence seems to be a neutral purgatory.

The Christmas letters I receive are well written, well intended and appreciated. Their authors give more time to holiday correspondence than I do. I look forward to them and recognize that they are general updates, not soul-revealing confessionals or philosophic tracts.

Then why do I see these vacant holes? What I’m probably seeing in the lives of others are my own disappointments.

There are studies showing that as people approach the end of their careers, they have this regret: I worked too hard and didn’t spend enough time enjoying life.

My regret is the opposite: I enjoyed life too much and didn’t work hard enough.

SontagOn the couch, enjoying life and not working, I recently saw a documentary on the late Susan Sontag, a writer of considerable note who was one of those strong, powerful voices of the 60s and 70s. She would use her intellect to arouse and shock; to awaken people from their slumber and begin a dialogue.

In the Nancy Kates documentary “Regarding Susan Sontag,” we see a person who from a young age was obsessed with knowing everything, filtering it with her perspective, then sharing it.

She wrote fiction, took photos and made movies, but was best known for her essays – her true voice. Ms. Sontag had many serious lovers and nearly all these relationships involved not just romance but art and creativity. In every way, at every turn, Susan Sontag was about learning and expressing herself.

That’s a life, but a hard one lesser beings to live.

We all can’t be like Susan Sontag, but to bring purpose and meaning to live – if not to our Christmas letters — we can find one thing that we enjoy and do it over and over again until it approaches perfection.

That’s a life, one that turns routine into bliss.

Jiro OnoA master’s of this approach is an 89-year-old man named Jiro Ono. He owns a tiny, 10-seat restaurant at an underground subway stop in Tokyo. By almost all accounts, he is the greatest sushi chef in the world. His remarkable life and work are explained in the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” directed by David Gelb.

The film starts slow and then builds. At first, it let’s you think that making sushi amounts to little more than grabbing fish and rice and melding them together with four or five motions of the hands. Deeper into the film, you see the intense, complex process that leads up to this final step. And it becomes clear that Jiro, as he approaches retirement, views each day as a gift that affords him yet another chance to better himself. When he says his apprentices must work 10 years before learning anything, you believe him.

“I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top,” he says. “But no one knows where the top is.”

As I viewed the marvelous film, I considered it one big metaphor on finding life’s calling regardless of class or stature.

There is a third approach to life and purpose that I’d like to discuss, and in a direct contradiction to my earlier statements on Christmas letters, it was in a Christmas letter that I found it.

The letter writer was a research scientist who had been a friend since high school. At the time, I was living abroad and out of touch with everyone. The letter updated me on a jarring ordeal through which my friend went. It led me to tears. I don’t have the letter in hand and cannot duplicate the emotional impact that was carried by the straight-ahead prose. So I will just state the basic facts.

My friend detailed the journey of her young daughter, who after becoming violently ill was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She covered the many surgeries, the ups and downs, the fear and scares and the small hopes. And then at the end, she expressed the incredible joy and elation of her ultimate Christmas present – that all traces of the tumor had finally been removed and that her daughter would grow up to live a normal life.

Could it be that the most meaningful life is one where you battle against the things set on destroying you?

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  KOREAN WAR/AID & COMFORTI once heard a former soldier discuss how sharp his senses became when he was placed in a combat zone. He said he was aware of everything around him, from a breeze shifting the leaves of a tree to the sun easing through a cloud. These heightened sensations were necessary to stay alive, but they also acted as an addictive drug and brought on a great high. He said that only while facing death could he fully experience life. When he returned home, safe and unthreatened, the sensations faded. He felt as if he had lost some godly power and slipped into depression.

The true life then may be one of basic survival.

When I posed my question about life at the outset, I didn’t intend to answer it, or even come close. Rather, I wanted to review a few possibilities. If you found something you can use, all the better. Writing this helped me sort a few things out on an intellectual level. On a practical level, I’m not so sure.

But as a result, I guess I have written a Christmas letter. And I didn’t even have to go to Cancun.

Merry Christmas to all. The best of the New Year, and the best of life.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I am an Etruscan!

14 Dec

Etruscans_couch

In the year 800 BC, you could earn a king’s fortune by making something good, perhaps with new materials or a new technique, putting it on a ship, sailing it around the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Black Sea, and either trading it or selling it.

Most of us don’t think of inter-cultural commerce when we think of 800 BC. It’s more likely we think of benighted barbarians. Of course, we’d be wrong.

In the 4.5 billion year history of the world, 800 BC is like yesterday. Much of what was done then is still being done today. (Look at the button on your shirt. It’s 5,000 years old.) What is sad is that we don’t know as much about that time as we should.

Etruscan_Map01_fullThere was an early civilization back then that excelled at trading, culture, technology and wealth accumulation. Comparatively little is know of them. They were the Etruscans, and I’m one of them.

If your ancestors are from the Tuscany region of Italy, where the Etruscans lived, you might call yourself Italian. But I’m finding that more and more people in this category are starting to classify themselves as Etruscans – the civilization that pre-dated Rome and for a time coexisted with Rome; the civilization from which Rome borrowed and then moved ahead, absorbing and eliminating its once great rival.

Much of what we do know of the Etruscans comes from the ancient writings of Greeks and Romans, who had nothing good to say about them — a sure sign of envy and jealousy. The Greeks and Romans criticized the extravagant Etruscan lifestyle, the culture’s public display of affection between men and women, and a then unprecedented equality between the two sexes.

That’s quite a culture.

At a recent party I spoke to an Etruscan friend of mine, Franca. She was born in Florence, in the Tuscany region. In a heavy Italian accent, she started talking about her ancestors and how everything that made Rome great was taken or learned from the Etruscans.

She scoffed at the Roman warriors who battled in chariots.

“Chariots were designed by the Etruscans for women,” she said.

Franca is a rare human being who by chance became my friend. She’s a marvelous storyteller. She knew Pavarotti before he became famous. He used to cook for her in his tiny New York apartment. But that’s another story.

Etruscan sculptureWhile I had been aware that Franca was a fan of the ancients – she has a ring made from a coin that predates Christ — I didn’t know until this party that her son, a college president in Switzerland, spends every summer digging at an Etruscan excavation site. He is an expert on these people. I’m unsure if he taught Franca or if Franca taught him.

The discoveries at Etruscan sites come mainly from the findings within elaborate burial tombs of the rich. The Etruscan elite had the habit of building tombs that were detailed copies of their aboveground homes. The tombs were filled with domestic items of all kinds as well as great art objects and jewelry.

This provides a window into the culture, but it is heavily curtained.

The problem with unlocking all the mysteries of the Etruscans is that their writing did not survive. They had their own language and their own script, but they wrote on linen, which was easily ravaged by time. Some Etruscan writing had been found on metal and stone, but it just wasn’t enough.

Then came the mummy.

There often are quirks, mistakes and random or unusual acts that end up having a profound effect on history. This mummy is one of them.

I learned of it not from Franca but from a Time-Life book called, “Etruscans: Italy’s Lovers of Life.” The story, with many twists, begins in the late 1840s when a Croatian noble named Mihael de Barc visited Alexandria, Egypt. It was there that he bought himself a genuine mummy.

de Barc took his treasure to a home he had in Vienna, and put it on display. For some unknown reason, he found it necessary to slowly, over time, unwrap the mummy. By his death in 1859, he had completely unwrapped it.

Stay with me, please. I’m getting to the Etruscan part.

An executor put the exposed corpse and the bandages – which contained indecipherable writing — in separate cases and shipped them to the National Museum in Zagreb. In 1891, someone figured out that the unraveled linen actually was an Etruscan book.

The only way to explain this is to assume that an exiled Etruscan had once settled in Egypt and a mummy-maker grabbed one of his books to use on a client.

As mummification preserved the body, it also preserved the linen.

This chain of events, so far-fetched it could never pass for fiction, has given the world the only surviving Etruscan book. And still we don’t know enough.

Whenever I read more about these ancient yet modern people, my fasciation grows. The Etruscans called themselves by a name not used by others. To them, they were the Rasna or Rasemma. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenoi (from which we get the Tyrrhenian Sea). It was the Romans who called them Etrusci or Tusci (from which we get Tuscany).

They were great engineers, known for their roads and ambitious irrigation projects. Skeletal remains show they were exceptional dentists. (The design of the bridgework found in the mouths of tomb cadavers is still used today.) Their great wealth was the result of their talent at metalworking and the fact that they controlled vast deposits of copper, iron ore and tin, the largest in that area of the world. This was the stuff that went on their ships and gave them the foundation for one of the Western world’s greatest early civilization.

If only they had written on something more substantial than linen.

Anyway, I’m optimistic more information will be forthcoming. Franca’s son is sure to keep digging, so I may know more by the next party. But I doubt they will ever find another mummy that’s a book.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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