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An Autobiography: Chapter 37, Operation Sail 1976

Ten days after Ten Little Indians closed, the Roosevelt Island Tramway began operation and the first passengers were taken to Manhattan. That was an important day for the Island residents. Now they didn’t have to take the long trip across two bridges, but could be in Bloomingdale’s Department Store in just a few minutes.

Before the tram, when there was only a drugstore and small grocery on the Island, residents had to do their main shopping in Queens. Every Saturday morning, the little red Island buses took residents to Queens, and Georgianna enjoyed that experience. She loved the specialized shops. There was one for meats and poultry; another for fruits and vegetables; another for main goods. And there were other interesting shops where you could buy just about anything you desired.

We received a letter from a dear friend, Midge Ball, a blind woman who lived in Nashville, telling us her seeing-eye dog, Dolly, had died, and that she was coming to New York to get a new dog. A well-known school for seeing-eye dogs was not far from New York City, and we invited her to stay with us.

Midge, a Kentuckian like us, was a folk singer and played the autoharp. She came to Nashville in the hopes of finding a career in country music. I remember the first time we met, back in the 1960s when I attended the annual Grand Ole Opry birthday celebrations in Nashville. Hundreds of disc jockeys and would-be artists descended on Nashville for three days every October, and one lunch everyone enjoyed was on the Plaza downtown near the Capitol Park Inn.

I always looked forward each year to spending time with my friend, Norman Hall, who owned two radio stations in Boonville, Indiana. Everyone sat at long tables for the luncheon, and Norman and I were talking about the new artists and someone mentioned my “Country Music Scrapbooks.” An excited female voice from across the table piped up, questioning, “Is Thurston Moore, the publisher of the Scrapbooks here?” Although she couldn’t see the pictures, Midge bought my books anyway and had friends read the biographies of the stars to her. That is how we met, and when we lived in Nashville, she often attended get-togethers at our house where she played the autoharp and sang to everyone’s delight.

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Norman Hall and Thurston Moore. 

After Midge arrived in New York, we walked her through the apartment so she could get familiar with it, and it wasn’t long before she was able to be on her own. My experience with my blind Uncle Cecil when I was a kid had taught me that blind people have a sixth sense that sighted people can’t understand. I thought about this whenever I watched the wonderful 1967 film “Wait Until Dark,” starring Audrey Hepburn.

Midge said she needed a little more money to buy the new dog, and we offered to help. She said no, she would not take anything from us and asked if there was a place she could sing and play to raise some money. I thought this was a splendid idea since New York was known for its street musicians, magicians and such, and I knew the perfect place for Midge to perform: Columbus Circle.

The monument at Columbus Circle, near Lincoln Center, is a major landmark and attraction, located at the intersection of 8th Avenue, Broadway and Central Park. It is the point from which all distances from New York City are measured.

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I made an attractive sign that read: “I am blind. My seeing-eye dog died, and I need money for a new guide dog. Thank you.”

I described the area to Midge, and she was excited about performing for New Yorkers. She sat on a wall that surrounded the monument, took out her autoharp and soon her audience was taking notice. I don’t think they had heard this kind of music on the streets before, and most had probably never seen an autoharp. Here was a professional Kentucky folk singer with the perfect instrument to accompany folk and bluegrass songs. The foremost players of the autoharp were the Carter Family and Cecil Null. Midge was very successful, and two “concerts” provided the money she needed.

Georgianna was a Sci-Fi fan, and when a major Sci-Fi convention came to Manhattan, she spent most of two days there. In Montrose, she had a group of Sci-Fi fans, mostly young boys, who were in her Sci-Fi circle. One of her great experiences was when she took a group to a drive-in theatre to see “Star Wars.” They all sat (or laid) on the ground near the screen in front of the parked cars.

I seldom called on dealers for my “Personality® Dollar Bills,” but one dealer I got in New York was the gift shop in the Waldorf Astoria. No dealer could show all of the hundreds of personalities we had available, but some, like the Astoria, took orders. Their clientele were important people, and they ordered Personality Dollars that weren’t big sellers and therefore not on display, like William Shakespeare, Pavarotti, Whistler’s Mother, Greta Garbo, John Wilkes Booth and Henry Ford. One customer ordered a complete set of all of the U.S. Presidents.

Heather was attending her ballet classes every day, and like us, and all New Yorkers, she was looking forward to the celebration of the United States Bicentennial, a series of celebrations and observances during the mid-1970s that paid tribute to the historical events leading up to the creation of the United States. The Bicentennial culminated on Sunday, July 4, 1976, with the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

And more important in New York Harbor, on the 4th of July was “Operation Sail 1976” and the 4th International Naval Review. The first review was held in April 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. A U.S. Navy Carrier reviewed the assembled ships.

The U. S. Navy hosted the Second International Review in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the spring of 1907, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the founding of the first permanent settlement in America – Jamestown, Virginia. From the Presidential yacht, USS Mayflower, President Theodore Roosevelt reviewed the more than one hundred naval ships on hand representing six nations.

Fifty years later, in 1957, to mark the 350th anniversary of Jamestown, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson reviewed ships of 18 countries gathered in Hampton Roads, Virginia, for the Third International Naval Review. 

Operation Sail 1976 was the centerpiece for the U.S. Bicentennial celebration. It was a gathering of more tall ships (traditionally rigged sailing vessels) in naval history, including the Soviet Union’s czarina of the sea, the Kruzenshtern, as more than 225 sailing ships paraded up the Hudson River. The Naval Review brought together a peacetime armada of 50 warships under as many flags.

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From the deck of the USS Forrestal, President Gerald Ford reviewed the parade of sail, complete with a 21-gun salute. The hospitality of New Yorkers in 1976 has never been matched, and we were there! We took a special cruise on the tourist boat that circles Manhattan and sailed by the armada assembled in the Hudson River.

As night fell on July 4th, hundreds of thousands of people jammed onto the shore of lower Manhattan – some dangling from trees like Christmas decorations – to watch the dazzling fireworks explode over the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. The police estimated that there were more than six million people who watched Operation Sail from the New York shores.

During the celebration, our Island neighbor, Ray Frier, went with Georgianna, Heather and I to lower Manhattan, where some of the ships were docked. Just to be close to the great ships was awesome, and we were greatly impressed with the Norwegian full rigged 241-foot ship, the Christian Radich. This ship came from Norway with a crew of all teenage “sailors,” and the story got a lot of press and television coverage. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could go aboard.” Ray grinned and said, “Follow me.” He was another New Yorker who was always willing to try anything.

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Christian Radich 

He spoke to the crew member at the gangplank as we stood back nonchalantly, and a little while later, he said, “Come on!” I don’t know what he said to the crew member, but the four of us paraded right on board and inspected the ship. A little embarrassment for Heather happened when Ray led us down some steps right into an area where the crew boys were half-naked. That caused some excitement and probably was the highlight of the boys’ New York adventure!

”Windjammer,” the film, the first presentation in Cinemiracle, is the record of a training cruise of the S/S Christian Radich from Oslo across the Atlantic, through the Carribean, to New York and back home again. The towering beauty of the Norwegian school-ship, one of the last windjammers still in active service at that time, was the focal point of an uncommonly engrossing journey, one that encompasses hurricanes, New Year’s Eve at Madeira, spectacular underwater scenes, festivals in the Caribbean, New York at night, and visits to such distinguished artists as Pablo Casals. The world premiere was at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on April 8, 1958, and the movie ran for 36 weeks.

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But the most exciting event to us – and to all Roosevelt Island residents – was viewing the reproductions of Columbus’ ships sailing down the East River by our door. I don’t remember if all three – the Santa Maria, Pinto, and Nina – were there or not, but it was a breathtaking sight.

Don’t miss the next chapter: Covered Bridge