Welcome to Potomac Place, a serene environment where I have lived for many years. Countless birds, mischievous squirrels, ever-present deer, and other critters abound here just twelve miles from the White House. It’s where I constantly read and occasionally write, when life doesn’t intervene.

I hope to provide you with a new story every few weeks. Read, enjoy, and comment if you chose.

As they say on the radio, “Stay Tuned.”


Acropolis, Athens, Greece.

POTOMAC PLACE

The Cajun

October 1, 2017

Picking up a menu recently one of the featured dishes, Cajun Style Catfish, brought a smile to my face. Cajun was the nickname of the late Gary J. Lemoine, a well-known character in the cotton industry, who died earlier this year. The Cajun had his ups and downs in life. The ups were great, while they lasted, but the downs, over time were ruinous.

Gary had an insecure childhood in Louisiana. He told me that he was an orphan, but was vague on how he was raised. He was smart, wily, outspoken, and quick to admit his mistakes. He was generous to a fault when he was flush, and when he was broke, somehow he usually managed to pay his debts. In many ways he was a paradox. He started out with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a cotton classer for the Agricultural Marketing Service. He was an excellent judge of cotton, its value, and knew the Mid-South market where he had worked as a government classer for five years before becoming a successful cotton buyer at various gins under the name Cajun Cotton.

I first met the Cajun in the 1970’s. He was a handsome man with a full head of salt and pepper hair, always with a bright smile, and dressed in flashy clothes. His shiny suits, bold silk shirts, and alligator shoes were a sharp contrast to the buttoned-down look favored by most people in the cotton industry.

The occasion of our initial meeting in Memphis was an effort to resolve a problem with bale weights that had cropped up at a few west Tennessee gin points. The ginners had cooked up a scheme to short the bale weights. Instead of running the industry-standard weight bales through the gin, the process was manipulated to deliver bales lighter by some 50 to 80 pounds. Through this scheme, the ginners, acting as agents of the farmers, were defrauding the buyers. With cotton selling at 75 cents a pound at the time, the weight losses incurred were running from $38 to $60 a bale or $3,800 to $6,000 on a 100 bale sale. In the case of the Cajun, he had purchased a thousand bales and was in the hole for about $50,000. Sales of cotton in the mid-South territory were also subject to weight penalties in addition to the actual monetary loss.

George Martin, the Executive Vice President of the Southern Cotton Association (SCA), requested my assistance in my role as General Counsel of the American Cotton Shippers Association (the SCA being an affiliated member) to accompany him and the Cajun to a meeting with a gin manager and the farmers to help resolve the matter in the Cajun’s favor. When George and the Cajun picked me up at Memphis’ iconic Peabody Hotel in the Cajun’s new Cadillac, I asked George where his old Chevy was parked. “I’m sorry, Cajun, but your chances of resolving this problem tonight are going to be a lot better if you would make a more modest appearance.”

The Cajun smiled. “I get it,” he said. “That’s a sign of a good lawyer.”

I shook my head. “No sense making the problem any worse than it is already,” I said, and looking at the thick gold chains hanging out of his shirt, the large gold rings on each hand, and a diamond studded gold Rolex watch hanging from his left wrist, I continued, “That also goes for the jewelry.” I took a handkerchief from my pocket, unfolded it on my lap, and said, “Let’s have it.” I tied up the jewelry, which was quite heavy, and put it into my briefcase.

“Good idea,” he said with a big smile, and turning to George Martin, he said, “So far, this guy’s full of good ideas. Let’s hope he gets my money back tonight.” We did. The farmers were contrite as was the ginner. A compromise was reached. We waived the bale penalties, a new contract was signed, and warehouse receipts for cotton valued at $50,000 were given to the Cajun. He was made whole and he was happy.

From that moment on, each year, I could always count on the Cajun to give the $5,000 maximum contribution to the association’s political action committee in addition to him making individual contributions to various candidates.

His business prospered and within a few years, he owned a radio station in Louisiana, a few farms, a luxury suite at the Super Dome, and a bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The Cajun had truly arrived. He also had re-married to a beautiful, physically attractive, sweet, and well-mannered woman, who was always exquisitely dressed, albeit in provocative clothes. When questioned why he encouraged his wife to dress that way he would smile and say, “Because it turns me on.”

Over the years, the Cajun would make huge amounts of money and feeling confident about his market prowess would often take contrarian market positions and end up losing his capital. Trouble seemed to plague the Cajun often in the form of fast women, liquor, and in choosing his business associates. Since he always managed to make good on his debts, a few large merchants were willing to provide him with financing. He usually ended up on his feet until his hubris, resulting in flawed judgment, involved him with the wrong guy that would lead to his undoing.

In that case, he hooked up with a partner who claimed to have purchased a large quantity of cotton, but for some unexplained reason needed the Cajun’s involvement to legitimize the transaction. The partner produced warehouse receipts to evidence the ownership of the cotton allegedly stored in a Missouri warehouse. Though he had doubts about the reputation of his partner, the Cajun decided that in this particular transaction he was worth the risk. The only problem being that the warehouse receipts turned out to be bogus. The product stored in the warehouse was actually baled gin motes (short immature fibers with limited use and of lesser value) and not the premium cotton represented by the fake receipts. To get around this problem, the Cajun’s partner retained a young man with limited mental acuity to torch the warehouse containing the gin motes. Following the destruction of the gin motes an insurance claim would be made for the loss of premium cotton, and the Cajun and his partner would cash in.

The torch job went off without a hitch, the fire destroying all of the cotton in the warehouse. There was a problem; however, the young man had torched the wrong warehouse. He had actually destroyed another party’s premium cotton. Following a serious geography lesson, the nascent arsonist upped his game and managed to torch the correct warehouse. Unfortunately for the Cajun, the young man shared his experience with others and soon all involved were arrested.

Even though a few cotton men on Memphis’ fabled Front Street referred to the Cajun’s partner as “Sparky,” the Cajun claimed in his discussions with me that he never knew what was up until after the fires. Knowing the Cajun’s guile, I had my doubts that he lacked knowledge of the plot going in.

The Cajun was convicted as a passive conspirator, non-the-less a conspirator, and served time at a minimum security federal “country club.” Having Rush Limbaugh’s brother, a former U.S. Attorney, as his lawyer helped limit the length of his sentence. Following his release from captivity, the Cajun returned to Louisiana and took up a new venture, selling used cars. Always the optimist and prone to put a positive spin on his circumstances, he considered his new occupation as akin to a public service, telling me in our last telephone conversation that he was dealing in previously owned vehicles for people with limited financial resources.

A Sad Labor Day Memory – Grandpa Jim

September 4, 2017

Tags: Loss.

When I awoke, Grandpa Jim had left – left this world and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I had fallen asleep in a chair beside his bed with my great aunt, Lilly, standing beside me. It must’ve been around 3 a.m. when I nodded off. Prior to that, when Lilly was out in the kitchen, he’d asked for a drink of water and then told me to open his drawer. “Look in the plaid shirt. There should be four envelopes.” I pulled open the drawer and near the bottom was a new plaid shirt, a gift from last Christmas, unopened and covered with cellophane. I pulled back the scotch tape binding the cellophane and reached inside the tissue paper and pulled out four white envelopes of various thicknesses. They were marked Rose, Anne, Gracie, and Lilly. The thickest of the four were for his daughters Rose and Anne. I brought them over to his bed. He beckoned me towards him and in a faltering voice said, “Give them separately to each of them after the funeral. Don’t tell Rose and Anne about the envelopes for Gracie (niece) and Lilly, it’ll only cause hard feelings. They were good to me, too – they need something for their troubles. And you, young man – I think you’re going to do all right without any cash to burn holes in your pockets.”

Aunt Lily came into the room after I put the envelopes inside my shirt. “Can I get you anything Jim?” He looked up at his sister-in-law, shook his head and smiled. He was always in love with her. They both lost their spouses at an early age in the influenza epidemic of 1918. “I knew him too well to marry him. He was full of mischief,” she said.

She had called me that afternoon as I was relishing the enjoyment of that 1962 Labor Day weekend at the house a group of us had rented in the Hamptons. At the time, my mother Rose was on a cruise to South American, and their being separated, Dad was living at the Elks Club in Elmhurst. I rushed back on the first train from West Hampton. When I arrived home she explained, “I’ve buried two husbands. You can tell by their eyes. When they begin to roll up – you know the time is near.” She rested her hand on my shoulder as we watched him struggle with the heat and humidity in our apartment that was not air conditioned.

The next thing I knew, she was griping my shoulder when I awakened. “He died a few minutes ago,” she said. “You better call Quinn’s (funeral home). Oh, my God. He’s gone. He’s gone. I looked at the clock through my tears. It was 6 a.m. I had missed the chance to say goodbye – say goodbye to the person who, up until then, mattered the most in my life.

Concussions

September 1, 2017

Tags: Concussions

A few weeks ago, I received a post card from the “NCAA Student-Athlete Concussion Injury Litigation.” The class action plaintiffs’ committee notified me (some 58 years after my brief time as a student athlete) that a proposed settlement had been reached, and that my rights “may be affected” by this action.

A few things immediately came to mind: New York University and the NCAA keep excellent records; I have no recollection of a concussion; and every day my right knee reminds me of a torn meniscus incurred in countless practice drills diving for loose balls. I’m wondering when someone will file suit for the more prevalent knee injuries, a given for young men and women who gave their all even in practice?

Knee injuries are gnawing over time, but concussions affect your cognitive ability and can eventually kill you. I saw it in a number of my late father’s (Pat Gillen) associates. He was a successful amateur and professional boxer with over 100 fights in the lightweight division. It cost him the loss of an eye, but his quickness saved him from taking too many head blows. He took me to the fights as a young boy, fights at the old Madison Square Garden, St. Nicholas Arena, Sunnyside Gardens, and Eastern Parkway Arena. He also forced me into boxing lessons at the downtown CYO gym with his friend Pete Mello, who coached the successful U.S. boxing team at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. I had quick hands and could hit. I landed many punches, but they had no effect on my opponents other than to anger them. The resulting punishment impelled me to focus on other sports. (more…)

Ischia and Two Lovers I Knew

August 2, 2017

In the heat of August one often dreams of beautiful islands like Capri where the warm sun is tempered by a constant cool breeze off the Bay of Naples. The same can be said of the nearby island of Ischia, long considered the poor man’s Capri or the anti-Capri. Today, Ischia is still a place mainly for Italians from nearby Naples. Unlike Capri, Italian not English is the language you will hear on Ischia. And like Capri, Ischia I’m told can be a captivating place.

It was a recent article by Nathan Lump in Departures Magazine that rekindled memories of Ischia and my only trip there early in 1958.

My invitation for the trip was from Leslie “Les” Smallwood from Rockland, Maine, a fellow Second Class Petty Officer in the Naples office of the Naval Security Group. Les was infatuated with Maria Varella, a beautiful young Neapolitan, who worked in the Hotel Tricarico, where we resided. Les desperately wanted to date Maria, but in those days the Italian customs were far more stringent than they are today. A single woman could only date a man, whether or not he was Italian, in the presence of a chaperone, most of whom were close relatives dedicated to keeping the couple at arms-length. Holding hands was permissible at times depending on the chaperone, but kissing was out of the question. Courting was a long, tedious, draconian, and frustrating process for the couple.

Les and I had recently returned from temporary duty with the Royal Navy in Scarborough, England, monitoring the communications of some 200 NATO nation warships in Operation Strike Back, an exercise simulating a mock Soviet invasion of Norway. Les was a quiet and introspective person. While he had a light side, he was extremely dedicated, serious, and considerate in how he went about his job and things in general. When he approached me and asked me to do him a personal favor that weekend, I knew it had to be something important. Much to my surprise the favor was to act as one of the chaperones on his first officially sanctioned date with Maria. The flip side of being a chaperone is that my accompanying chaperone would be a female who I would meet when Les and I arrived at the ferry pier at Molo Beverello in the port area. (more…)

Swimming Success at the National Senior Games

July 14, 2017

My apologies nor not having posted any stories in recent months, but I’ve been busy completing a play and a novella, along with intensive early morning swim training for the National Senior Games. Now that I've completed those tasks, I share with you a story about my swimming success. I’ll let you know about the play and the novella in the months to come.

Swimming Success at the National Senior Games

On an early June Sunday morning at National Airport I was thrown together with about 20 seniors ranging from their mid-50s to late 80s. These volley ball, swimming, tennis, pickle ball, track & field, and basketball competitors were easy to identify since we were all decked out in hats, shirts and in some cases pins indicating we were old jocks bound for Birmingham, Alabama, and the 30th Annual National Senior Games. I had previously participated in the 1999 games in Orlando, Florida, representing Maryland on its basketball team. This time, I was going as a swimmer having medaled and qualified in the Maryland Senior Olympic Games in the 50, 100, and 200 yard freestyle and backstroke events. (more…)

Jimmy Breslin

March 21, 2017

Last week, I ventured back to the old country, New York City, to join my sister, Carol Gillen Costello, a Knight of Saint Patrick, the venerable organization responsible for the annual parade in the saint’s honor, at its annual and lavish all-day luncheon at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue.

I was surrounded by the elite of New York Irish strivers who made their way to success. It was a proud group, some again back in diapers, regaling in everything Ireland with a few lavishing praise about everything Trump and lamenting only that gays and those confused about their sexual identity were now allowed to march in their parade.

A few of us were there for the food and drink. Well, everyone was there for the food and the drink. Among the privileged few were some friends of old from the law and labor. One being a lawyer of many dimensions, including his ability to win what were thought to be hopeless cases. He recalled one such case that took an interesting turn from the outset. As he was unloading the document bags from a van outside the federal courthouse on the first day of the trial, a woman stopped and pointed to the red stone on his college ring. “Is that a St. John’s University ring?” she asked. He smiled, “Yes, mam, it is.” She smiled back, “That’s where I went to school.” As it turned out, she was juror number three in his case. The jury rendered a unanimous verdict in his favor.

It was the kind of story that a Queens’ notable, Jimmy Breslin, would tell in one his widely-read columns. Breslin died this week, but his words and that gritty Jamaica Avenue elevated train-like voice will live on in posterity. (more…)

What China?

December 5, 2016

The current alarm expressed by foreign policy experts with President Elect Donald Trump’s recent telephone discussion with Republic of China President Tsai Ing-wen, stirred old memories about the U.S.’s sensitive “One China” policy.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, I was tasked with the assignment to convey to Governor Ronald Reagan, then the presumptive Republican nominee, the U.S. cotton industry’s concerns about his criticism of the Peoples Republic of China, which was and remains a significant market for U.S. raw cotton.

The attached story, "That’s Something I Wasn’t Aware Of," (which appears here in part) was published in "Moments of Truth," my 2014 memoir of short stories, details my discussion with soon-to-be President Ronald Reagan about U.S. commercial activity with each nation.

My principals in the U.S. cotton industry were concerned Governor Ronald Reagan’s statements pertaining to The Peoples Republic of China. At this juncture in the campaign, Reagan was the presumptive nominee when the Reagan bandwagon rolled into Washington for meetings and receptions. Through Nancy Chotiner, a Republican National Committee official, a meeting was scheduled on April 9th, following a reception for Governor Reagan at the Madison Hotel.

Soon after Reagan spoke, Nancy Chotiner took me up to Reagan’s suite, where Reagan and his Campaign Chair, William Casey, were waiting. I had met the governor briefly in 1976 when he was on Capitol Hill and again in Washington at a 1977 reception.

I went over my talking points in silence as I rode up on the elevator with Nancy. Knowing that Reagan was always relaxed and cordial, I, too, was relaxed, and that’s how it played out.

Nancy introduced me to Governor Reagan and Bill Casey. I had talked briefly to Reagan as he made the rounds at the reception downstairs. “Neal is a wonderful name. Did you know that’s my brother’s name?”

“No, sir, I didn’t.”

“Now tell me, how can I be of help?”

I smiled, “Governor, I represent the U.S. cotton merchants. We export U.S. cotton to many countries around the world. A good portion of what has been exported in the last few years is grown in California.”

“Cotton in California – I knew we grew some. Do we grow that much?

“It’s the highest-valued crop produced in California, Governor.”

Reagan turned and looked at Casey. “You know that’s something I wasn’t aware of. I thought our biggest crops were grapes and vegetables.”

“They might be larger in volume produced, but the aggregate value of the California cotton crop exceeds that of the other crops.”

He paused. “That’s interesting. I guess it’s something I should have been aware of, but I left those details to my agriculture commissioner.” (more…)

The People Have Spoken

November 14, 2016

In writing this Blog, in my infrequent Facebook postings, and in my rare Twitter missives, I have focused on stories that hopefully my readers would enjoy. While I have not delved into partisan politics I have related personal political experiences. I will continue to avoid partisan statements or personal views in future postings. But given the concerns of many people expressing their views in emails to me and to others and from what I see in the media, I believe that each of us should accept the results of the process and hope for the best, trusting that our elected officials will act in our best interest.

In my last posting in late September, I related the story, “1972 Voting Standoff,” how my father and I resolved the conundrum of voting for either Nixon or McGovern. By agreement, reluctantly on his part, we choose neither.

This year, I did not view my choice as a difficult one, but as a registered Independent, I felt that I had no choice but to vote for Hillary Clinton, a highly qualified, but albeit flawed candidate. Donald Trump’s overall record as a person, his business shortcomings, and his demeanor, despite my long-time suffering from Clinton fatigue, left me no choice.

We are now learning that many chose to do what my father and I did in 1972. In addition to the 97.6 million registered voters, 43 percent of the eligible voters, who did not vote on November 8th, hundreds of thousands of voters, who, in casting their ballots, either did not choose a candidate for president, wrote in another candidate not on the ballot, or voted for a the Green Party or Libertarian Party candidate. Since Donald Trump won the key Rust-Belt states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by a combined total of 112,000 votes, the indifference of many mattered.

While Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2,864,978 votes -- 2.1 percent, Donald Trump was elected president with 306 electoral votes, 36 electoral votes more than the required 270, compared to Hillary Clinton's 232 electoral votes.

Doubt and division have clouded American’s skies this past week. Many Clinton voters cannot accept the outcome, and many more are surprised by the outcome, including Trump supporters, who did not expect to prevail.

In years gone by, when Consolidated Edison, the New York electrical power supplier, was tearing up the streets, as they seemingly always do, the wooden barricades around the chewed-up streets, bore the message, “Dig we must, we’ll clean up and move on.” That has always been the tradition in U.S. presidential elections. Yes, it’s a messy situation right now, but how soon we’ll clean up and move on is another question, the sooner, the better for all of us.

The leaders of both parties are obligated to call for unity. Those who are disappointed have to learn from their loss and move on with their lives as best they can; and, those who are elated have to stop gloating, get down to business, and most importantly, understand that they must govern with the best interest of all in mind.

The Voters Choice

September 23, 2016

The polling data tells us that Americans are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to choosing who they will vote for in the coming presidential election. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have record high negatives in the view of potential voters, some saying it’s a choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t. Those who are yet to make a choice will no doubt do so in the hours before they vote. My father and I dealt with a similar situation in the 1972 presidential election when the choice was between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. I explain how we resolved that conundrum in "1972 Voting Standoff," a story from my 2014 book, "Moments of Truth."


1972 Voting Standoff

In November 1972, though a Maryland resident for almost a year, I still considered New York my official domicile and continued to vote there, and would until the fall of 1976.

Mary-Margaret and I spent a good deal of time in France in the summer of 1972, as we did each summer before children entered the picture. Though we were far from U.S. politics, the Nixon-McGovern race was the talk of Europe. Europeans constantly asked why the Democrats had nominated a Socialist like Senator George McGovern (D-SD). Mind you, these questions were coming from European Socialists.

We considered ourselves liberal Democrats at the time. While we felt a little uneasy about McGovern, our uneasy feelings about Nixon were off the charts. The guy had obvious character flaws that were clearly visible in my view. There came a point in the 1960 campaign rhetoric when the question was raised, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” I wasn’t sure what was missing, but, as the Watergate tapes would soon reveal, there was a lot missing.

Nixon had Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later to serve with distinction as a Democratic senator from New York, in charge of domestic policy in the White House. As a result, Nixon’s record on domestic issues was credible. His visit to China, however, was a significant foreign policy achievement that had eclipsed everything, including the United States being mired in Vietnam. Simply put, Nixon’s political standing at the time was better than McGovern’s. But he was still Nixon, so we were plenty wary.

A few weeks after the Watergate break-in, and just before we left for France, Don Zeifang, a former housemate from Georgetown Law School, hosted a Fourth of July party at his stellar Arlington duplex apartment overlooking the Iwo Jima Memorial. Pat Buchanan, a Nixon staffer, was holding court during the party and responding to questions about the Watergate break-in. Pat, like many other White House staffers, had no prior knowledge of the break-in, but was sharing speculation he had heard from reporters covering the White House that it was possibly a Howard Hughes or Drew Pearson operation. Hughes was an eccentric billionaire holed up in a Las Vegas penthouse who wanted to stop the atom bomb testing in the Nevada desert, and Pearson was a feared Washington columnist with an uncanny ability to break sensational stories. What either of them could be looking for at the offices of the Democratic National Committee was beyond my imagination.

Mary-Margaret and I left for France unaware, like everyone else, of who was behind the break-in that would undo Nixon’s presidency within two years.

Upon our return from Europe, bit by bit, news items appeared suggesting the break-in was politically motivated. McGovern began pointing his finger at the White House, but nothing had surfaced implicating either the Republican campaign operation or the White House. That’s the way things stood on Election Day, when I found myself getting ready to vote with my father.

Dad was very proud of his son the lawyer and his daughter-in-law the lawyer. He was happy about my presence that day and anxious to show me off to his friends. Voting in New York was always a fun day for me. I got to see old friends along with the older people in the
neighborhood who had watched me grow up and who were pleasantly surprised that I was practicing the law and not being pursued by it.

The bars being closed while the polls were open, the neighborhood men set out for the Jackson Social & Field Club on Northern Boulevard, where Mulligan stew simmered all day, a roast pig sat on the bar to pick at, and the beer, rye whiskey, and scotch flowed freely. Everyone had a great time, and surprisingly little politics was discussed. The men were more interested in what the Giants and Jets were doing in November, discussing the recently concluded baseball World Series, their jobs and families. Since it was a Democratic neighborhood with heavy union membership, the people usually voted a straight ticket.

Late that morning, as we walked down the hill on 31st Avenue toward our polling place at P.S. 151, Dad was uncharacteristically quiet. In fact he was mute. I sensed that something was wrong. That he was fighting inwardly about going against his long-held union beliefs. At the bottom of the hill I stopped.

“What’s wrong, son?”

“I can see it in your body language, Dad. You’re going to vote for Nixon.”

He looked skyward as he pursed his lips. He chuckled. “God will forgive me.”

“But I won’t.”

“Are you going to vote for that commie, McGovern?” I should note that Dad and many from my Woodside neighborhood were still ardent supporters of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). In their view, anyone who disagreed with them was a commie.

“Well, I haven’t made up my mind. I really came up to vote for Jim Delaney (our Congressman).”

We stood there in silence both shaking our heads back and forth until I broke the ice. “I’ll agree not to vote for McGovern if you’ll agree not to vote for Nixon.”

“How do I know that you’ll keep your word?” he asked.

“We’ll go into the voting booth together.”

“Can we do that?”

“We can try.” I held out my hand to shake on it. “Deal?”

He smiled. “Deal.” We shook hands and walked to P.S. 151. (more…)

Helen Delich Bentley

August 10, 2016

Helen Delich Bentley died last week at the age of 92. She was a unique individual, tough, kind, profane, funny, and highly intelligent. She was a quick study on every subject she covered as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She became an expert on the operations of the Port of Baltimore, its dock and warehouse workers, the trucking operations, the shipping lines, and the powerful labor unions representing those servicing the port, which she covered for almost 25 years before her appointment by President Richard Nixon as Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). She served in that capacity for six years and later in the U.S. Congress for ten years, resigning to run for governor of Maryland only to lose in the Republican primary. (more…)

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