March 1992

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Practical Jokers

At 10 o'clock on a sunny June morning in 1946, I brought my Shepard Niles crane to a stop on its 1500 feet of rail over the shop floor. With work caught up for a few minutes, I stepped out on the catwalk to gaze idly through a broken window and watch a bulldozer working in a distant apple orchard pushing over trees to prepare a site for some new construction. The war over, private construction was beginning to flourish after its four-year hiatus.

Memories of past jobs floated across my mind, and almost at once I knew I was going back to my beloved construction work.

Following the impulse, I parked the crane at a stair landing to hurry down to the floor to inform my superintendent that I was leaving—permanently, and if possible, immediately. Charley McCafferey who had hired me three and a half years ago, convinced me to finish out the day—a day filled with dreams of a new future with sunny days under open skies, perhaps directing power cranes, earth-movers, heavy trucks, and other ground-shaking equipment—con-struction work with ever-changing scenes requiring constant adaptation of one's skills—work that, like farming, depends on favorable weather and luck.

Excavating the earth to depths where we imagine no man has been, we can bring up surprises—good and bad: A mastodon's tusk, a human skeleton, valuable minerals such aggregates for concrete, or unwanted water and unstable ground.

I like the people in construction work, who, for the most part, are generous, ingenious, and durable enough to bear danger and bad weather with good nature.

Later that afternoon, I phoned two contractors I knew from the Hines days: Leonard B. Finewood and Henry J. Kearse, and appointments were made for the next day. Both offered me administrative jobs, but Len Finewood's easy charm, and the fact that he had the larger operation, challenged my still healthy ego. Ego assured me that I was a natural leader of men, and Len had the most men. Equally important, I found two former fellow workers, Ted Jacobsen, and Carl Oestreich, both expert heavy equipment operators who had worked with Fred Hines.

"L. B." (his preferred calling name) was forty-six, short, portly, with cropped black hair and a swarthy complexion. His long-lashed brown eyes we playfully called "bedroom eyes." which rarely failed to bring up his ever-ready smile, displaying pearly white teeth that most of the time held a "Cuesta Rey" pure Havana cigar. A custom-tailored suit, white shirt, tie, and a felt hat worn above rimless eyeglasses made up his normal attire.

He came from the muckland region of Newark, New York, where he was born in 1900 of Holland Dutch parents, and like most good Dutchmen, he liked to eat, drink, and have a good time. He owned a few horses, of which one named "Tony" was his favorite. Tony was an intelligent "trick" horse whose antics sometimes attracted news reporters and photographers. For them L. B. would drop his hat on the ground for Tony to pick up and try to put it back on L. B.'s head, and at L. B.'s order Tony would bunt the reporter around the yard until he left. The horse barn was back of the truck garage and repair shop at 2490 Mt. Read Boulevard until 1949.

A Roman Catholic, he feared Protestant conspiracies. L. B. was an avowed racist, though the word was not yet commonly used, the inclination was common enough to men born in his era. His prejudice included all in the world with roots stemming from any place other than Northern Europe, and even then they must be gentile. He firmly disliked being called "Mr. Fineberg," or "Finestone" by an erring and soon to be unfortunate salesman or other caller. His practical-joke-loving friends would get someone with a voice unknown to L. B. to pretend to be a Zionist making a phone call to solicit funds for some Jewish cause, pleading, "You wouldn't turn down one of your brethren, would you?" L. B. would spend hours plotting retaliation for his tormentor.

He had come to Rochester in the early 1920s to seek work. He met and worked for "Cy" Martin who operated a few dump trucks. They became friends, and when Martin died at age thirty-two (probably from dissipation) he left the struggling, debt-ridden business to Len who explained to me that he stayed with the business through the depressed thirties mostly because the creditors did not want the equipment, and, there was little else for him to do (This was true for many large, as well as small, businesses of that time.)

Like Fred Hines, my former employer, he boasted of his sixth-grade education, and was proud enough of his accomplishments to have his name lettered in bright orange over green background on every piece of equipment and building he owned.

His speech, which I define as "near Stengelese," often included all the words he could muster to form a sentence. Typically: "Ed, why don't we take and go to work and put the men and the other guys on more longer hours until we can take and get caught up a little bit more." Still, he was convinced he was God's gift to women…and some ladies seemed to agree. For a growing and successful business he found himself in the right place at the right time.

L. B. had his share of attributes. As with most of us, they did not shine at all times, yet surfaced enough to make him a likable person. For the most part he was good-natured, kind and generous. Truck drivers of that time were often broke before payday. They knew L. B. to be a soft touch, for many times he loaned money to a new driver to buy a car "to get to work with" only to see him quit his job before repaying his debt, leaving L. B. stuck. Such rudeness always set him brooding with heartbreak, and the loan window closed for a week or two.

When he heard that I was buying a house he did not surprise me when he asked if he could be of any financial help. He was generous to charities, and the Sacred Heart Cathedral, his church. When work dried up in the fall of the year he would soft-heartedly postpone layoffs long beyond a time when keeping idle men became a loss to the business.

The gout that L. B. suffered with would at times keep him bed ridden for days, or even weeks, a condition that he said "came with the Cadillacs." During the attacks I visited him almost daily to bring mail, checks and other papers to sign, and to discuss business activities, if he was not racked and perspiring from pain. In 1947 the cause and treatment of the gout was not yet generally known. "A rich man's burden," it was called. When he returned to his office, we had our clashes over policy that I had installed, though I seldom had to remove them. I have to admit, I found it difficult to stay angry with him very long.

L. B. was a compulsive practical joker and two of his best friends, Don Blanchard, a florist, and Henry Eschberger, a tire merchant, were like minded, and they concocted elaborate schemes for tormenting their victims. At first they tried enlisting my talent for mimicry to set up their prey with phone calls, but I never liked practical jokes and soon refused. I was privately amused when one backfired, even though it cost my boss thousands of dollars.

L. B. and Don Blanchard had neighboring summer homes on old Edgemere Drive along Lake Ontario, and they were irked when a Jewish man and wife bought a home next to L. B.'s.

A plan for harassment was born one hot summer Sunday morning over a pitcher or two of screwdrivers. L. B. had recently undertaken construction of an elaborate concrete combination dock, patio, and breakwater on the shoreline to combat the current high-lake-level erosion. It included a four-foot-high concrete containment wall that ran back from the shoreline, along the property line between L. B.'s and Mr. Silverstein's to Edgemere Drive.

The jokers' plan was to drive a line of spurious engineer's stakes in a line they were sure would be two or three feet over on Silverstein's property, indicating the location of a new wall. The pay-off would be to listen from inside L. B.'s place to the excited wailing of Morry Silverstein and his wife as they contemplated their impending loss. On these hot days all windows would be open for easy listening (This was before air conditioning was common, as is still true along Lake Ontario.)

To give this weird plan credibility they needed official looking props. I received L. B.'s plaintive phone call at home.

"Ed, where's the transient (sic) level—Don and I need it for a little survey project here at the lake."

I explained that the tripod-mounted level with a scope was in our project trailer at Hamlin Beach Park where we were doing beach development for the Genesee Park Commission, and that it was not a transit that turned angles for survey work.

"That's all right, Ed. Would you take and go out and get it for us quick's you can." I glanced at Esther who was eyeing me suspiciously (the Sunday meal was about to be served) and I knew I was in trouble in any event. When I returned to the perpetrators with the instrument I asked if they needed any help, knowing they knew nothing of its use.

"No Ed, I know you don't like to work on our jokes…Don and I will get along OK." He did not reveal what they were up to but I knew it would not be nice, and was happy to leave for home.

Of course their scheme worked. In an hour or so Don and L. B. sat sipping drinks with their ears close to the open dining room window, listening with evil glee to the chatter and clamor of Morry Silverstein and his wife as they vented their outrage. Elated by their success and fortified with more screwdrivers, they drove to L. B.'s farm on Long Pond Road to gather tomatoes for the dinner salad. They got in a tomato fight, throwing at each other until both were well covered with smashed tomatoes that their clothes carried into the Cadillac. Come Monday, it took one of my men a half day to clean up the Caddy.

A few days later a real survey party hired by Silverstein determined that L. B.'s recently constructed breakwall indeed sat about three feet into Silverstein's property. Soon a court order would call for removal of said incursion.

It took about two weeks of work for a crew of men and machines to remove the two-feet-thick reinforced concrete and the steel piling that had been driven into the lake bottom to support the wall. I was not directly involved in the work but suffered nonetheless, as I had to send much needed men and equipment that should have been engaged in useful and profitable efforts. Of course the whole sordid affair was never again mentioned by L. B.

Business was booming and I fretted over the lack of equipment needed to meet the demand of our most valued account, The Ridge Construction Company, the construction arm of Eastman Kodak Company.

© 1992, Edwin N. Harris
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