Friday, October 30, 2015

The Haitian Railroad Story

                                                         The Haitian Railroad Story
                                                                          1967 
                                          This is What Happened to the Railroad in Haiti?
                                          Written 2010 and rewritten 05/18/2016 unedited
                                                                 Howard Yasgar

 
     I can tell you what happened to the Railroad in Haiti, it’s quite a story that all started with my friend Lou “Red” Gladstein.
     I knew Lou very well, we had been good friends and business associates in Stamford Connecticut. He was my best man at my wedding, and Lou and his wife were the reason that my wife and I left Connecticut and moved to Florida, in the first place, that was in November of 1963. They wanted me to help them run a business Lou had invested in, they said my going to Florida would be like a honeymoon, Lou even said he would give me a nice 1959 Plymouth to make the trip in and use, so I did it. But, after about a year we ended up closing the business down. Then my wife and I opted to stay in Florida and I got involved with buying and selling automotive parts, I was still using the 1959 Plymouth Lou had given me to use.
    Then, one day Lou brought a 40 foot work boat to Florida, he said he wanted to build a freezer in it to enable him to buy lobster tails a place called Haiti, wherever that was. So I came to the boat slip every evening and helped Lou install the special freezer. While we were doing that Lou was flying back and forth to Connecticut, to keep his used car business running there. While all that was going on, the Miami police stopped me because I still had a Connecticut Junk Dealer license plate on the car. They confiscated the 1959 Plymouth saying Lou had given me a stolen car to drive. I called Lou, and he instructed me to go and remove the Connecticut junk dealer license plate from the Plymouth, which I did, and he gave me a 1958 Ford station wagon to use, he had the Ford parked at the boat slip. I did what he said, but I suspected it was another stolen car.
     Then one day Lou came to Miami and just left with the boat. He did it, without saying a word to me. So I assumed he was in some kind of big trouble up in Stamford. When that happened I quickly got rid of the Ford wagon, I traded it in for a legitimate 1961 Falcon station wagon, and for the next 4 years I didn’t hear a single word from Lou.  
     It was in the fall of 1967, and I was working in my automotive parts company in Miami, when my secretary received an overseas call. She said it was from someone named Lou, and he said he was calling me from Haiti.
    Now I had not spoken to Lou for over 4 years, so when she told me who was calling, I was pretty excited. But all Lou said to me was, “I need your help, and I need you to catch the next plane to Port Au Prince Haiti”. Lou gave me his phone number, and told me to call him when I had the flight number, he said he would meet me at the airport in Port Au Prince.  
    I think that was possibly the most exciting phone call that I ever received in my life, Port Au Prince Haiti, wow.  I had heard the name Port Au Prince from several customers that came to Miami to buy parts from me, but I had never looked to see where the place actually was.  I sat there for a few minutes, and after my excitement died down, I got to thinking about it, and I started having mixed feelings regarding Lou’s telephone call.
     First of all there was the excitement of my going to some really exotic place. But then, knowing my friend Lou, I felt that there had to be some kind of monkey business going on. I knew that Lou was what everyone called a wheeler dealer, and that meant that you never knew exactly what he was into, that’s what always made knowing Lou so exciting. But I put all of that aside and that afternoon, I announced to my partner Don, and later to my wife, that I was off to help my friend Lou in Haiti. They were not happy about it, but it was too late, as I had already driven to Miami International Airport and bought my round trip ticket to Haiti with an open return flight.
     Once I was on the plane, it was about a 2 hour flight and I looked out my window, as we were approaching what looked like a large island. The second thing I noticed was that it had a big brown mud stain that was flowing out from it into a beautiful dark blue ocean, the mud looked like it was coming right from the city where we were landing, and it was.                                                                                                   
     I arrived in Port Au Prince on a hot and steamy Sunday afternoon. It was so hot that I could see the heat waves rising from the tarmac, the sign on the airport building said Francois Duvalier International Airport.
     Now I have to admit, my landing there was quite an experience for me, as we landed, I had seen Lou and Gladys both standing on the observation deck, that was on top of the airport terminal building, so I knew they were there to get me. As I stood in line, everyone around me looked pretty strange, they were all black, and all sweating, and I didn’t understand even one word of what they were saying. I knew Lou and Gladys couldn’t miss finding me, as I was the only white guy on the flight.
     Just as I reached the Haiti Customs desk, I saw Lou, and he had Gladys following right behind him, and they were pushing their way through the airport crowd towards me.  When the Haitian Customs official saw them waving to me, he quickly stamped my papers and let me go, with no questions asked, I didn’t quite know what to make of it all.
    There was Lou, good old jovial Lou, with his once upon a time red hair, and his worn out freckles, Lou, hadn’t changed even a little bit. He was about sixty years old, and around five foot eight, and he was still overweight. As usual, his shirt button on his belly was popped open and there was that ear to ear grin he always had. We shook hands and he hugged me. After that there was Gladys, she was probably about five foot six and  overweight just like Lou, Gladys had a round happy face framed in dark black hair, she hugged me too, I could feel her dress was soaked with sweat.
    “Well, Lou said, “What do you think of Haiti”, I didn’t answer him.  We picked up my suitcase that was piled on a wooden pallet and then pushed our way through the crowd.  Lou was fending off the multitude of vendors, and cab drivers, who were all yelling and trying to get my attention.
     I noticed there were several nasty looking guys standing around the airport. They were all very husky looking, and they were similarly dressed with Levi jeans, loud polyester shirts, and they all had sunglasses on, I saw the glint of what appeared to be a chrome plated pistol tucked in his belt.
     Lou said, don’t stare at them, they are the Tonton Macoute, the president’s private army, its best to try to avoid them.  We then walked out of the airport terminal building and across the road, the heat from the sun beating down on us was horrible, Lou pointed to a Toyota station wagon that was parked crookedly across the street, and when we got there, the door handles were so hot I could barely touch them. But we got in the car and Lou and Gladys both started talking to me at the same time, they both wanted to tell me how wonderful the country of Haiti was. But as they talked, I peered out my window, to see what appeared to be a hoard of impoverished people. The streets were crowded, there were lots
of women walking with large bundles or pots balanced on their heads, and there were raggedy dressed men pushing wooden carts with wobbly car tires, there were car horns blowing, and people yelling, so I hardly heard a thing Lou and Gladys were saying, I was just too busy looking and listening to all the er poverty that was surrounding us. To me, what I was seeing, was just like a page right out of a National
Geographic Magazine.  
     Gladys said, we are heading up into the mountains to an area called Fermathe, “It’s much cooler up there she said, that’s where Lou and I are renting a house from Doctor Fritz Cineas. She said that Doctor Cineas was a Haitian Ambassador. As I listened, to them, I couldn’t help but think what a great adventure this was going to be, I had no idea that Haiti looked like what I had thought Africa was like.
     As we arrived at their rented  house in the mountains of Fermathe, a young boy ran out of the woods and opened a wrought iron metal gate, and we drove up a long concrete driveway, “That’s our gate boy, we call him Cappy,” Lou said, “He came with the house and cost us $2.00 a week.” Then Lou pointed behind us and across the road, he was pointing towards a beautiful villa with two armed soldiers standing in front of it, “That’s the home of Papa Doc’s daughters,” Lou said.
     Who is Papa Doc I asked. “He’s our president”, Lou replied, he hesitated and then said, “He’s the president for life, sort of like a dictator”.
     We drove up the driveway, and Lou parked next to a roll up door, with two smaller doors next to it, “This is the garage Lou said, and those two smaller doors next to it are the servant’s quarters”.
     Right in front of us was an enclosed concrete staircase, Lou pointed towards it and said, “We live on the second floor, upstairs. Lou walked to the stairs with my suitcase, but I stopped and took a moment to take in the beauty of all the mountains, it was nothing less than a spectacular. Lou, pointed to a distant mountain and said, “That’s Port Au Prince where we just came from”. Then he pointed to a small dot in the sky, he said that it was a plane coming in for a landing at the airport we had just come from.
    To me, the house they were renting was enormous, it was a modern split level, dug right into the mountain side, and the builder had used all beautiful natural stone from the area to construct it.
    Once we were upstairs Gladys showed me the guest rooms, they were down a hallway that must have been over a 100 feet long.  Gladys said, “Just unpack your bag and wash up, then just lay out any laundry and the maid will pick it up and wash it for you.”
     I finished my unpacking in a few minutes, and made my way back to their living room by walking down that long concrete hallway. As I walked, I looked out the open windows, I could see the concrete drive way below, and I could also see the house across the road with the two military guards standing in front.
    When I walked to the living room, I saw that there was a television set there and three big over-stuffed chairs, and that’s where Lou and Gladys were sitting waiting for me. The floor of the house was all done in white ceramic tile and the walls tastefully decorated in colorful local native Haitian art, it was much more elegant that anything I was used to.
   When they saw me coming, both Lou and Gladys got up and motioned for me to follow them to the end of the house where there was a split level sitting room. In the room there was a built in sofa, several chairs, a coffee table and all the walls were all just huge windows with a beautiful view of the mountains. I walked up to one of the windows and looked down, there was a beautiful stone patio with outdoor furniture below. As we all sat down, one of the maids brought iced tea, and Lou said, “I suppose you want to know why we asked you to come here.” I didn’t say anything, of course I wanted to know.
     Lou started out by telling me a story, he said that before he met me in 1963, he had been sentenced to two years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury Connecticut. I didn’t know anything about that, then Lou went on and said that in 1960, he was running his used car lot in Bridgeport Connecticut, His t wife was very ill and he had hired around the clock nurses for her, nurses that he paid in cash. Then one of the nurses had an IRS audit. One thing led to another and Lou was found guilty of income tax evasion.
    Lou told me that it was in the Danbury prison where he met the Haitian that told him about all the cheap lobsters available in Haiti. So Lou said, when he was released from prison after serving about a year, he was so mad at the United States government, that  he decided to go to Israel and start a new life. It was while he was there in Israel that he met Gladys whose husband died several years before.
    Lou said that while in Israel he tried doing several kinds of business, but he soon fell in with the wrong crowd of people. He said that he found out that they were “Shmeck” dealers, and Lou was pointing to his nose, so I guess shmeck meant Cocaine. That’s when he and Gladys decided to return to Bridgeport Connecticut where Lou still owned a two family home. Lou said that he also had a son living there who was going to school.
     Lou said that when he arrived in Bridgeport, he met up with an old friend and he had the opportunity of leasing a used car lot on West Main Street in Stamford Connecticut, and he did it, that was in 1963. He said that the rest of the story I knew, because it was 1963 when he met me.
     Lou said, that it always was in the back of his mind that he was planning on finding some way to do that lobster business in Haiti. So when we closed up the auto wrecking yard in Miami, he had some free time to think more about it, and that’s when he found the forty foot boat, it was at an auction, on the Connecticut River, and he bought it.
     Never having piloted a boat before Lou bought a marine chart and studied the inland waterway, He said it looked like an easy way for him to bring the boat to Florida. So next he hired a marine mechanic and had him install a VHF radio and a new compass. Lou said that studied the charts and one day he just loaded up the boat with supplies and headed down the inland waterway to Florida, he thought it would be an easy trip, and that’s when Gladys spoke up, “That’s when I almost lost Lou she said, wait until he tells you the story of what happened. Lou said “Somewhere in the Carolinas I ran into a bad storm and the boat ran aground on a sandbar and it almost tipped over”, Lou, said he thought for sure that he would drown, it was the end. But fortunately some people living on the barrier islands were watching him and they came out on a rope and rescued him, taking him to their house. Two days later, when he felt better, Lou went out to salvage his boat and he found that all his new stuff had already been stolen, so he borrowed another marine chart, got the boat running again, and made the rest of the trip to Miami using only the chart and the boats compass. Once he was in Miami he asked around and found a boat slip on the Miami River, and he said that I knew the rest of the story as that’s when I first saw the boat.
    Then, Lou said that something bad happened at the Stamford used car lot, he didn’t say what happened. But he said that he flew into Miami, hired a cab, and loaded the boat up with supplies and took off for Haiti. Lou apologized for not contacting me but he said he thought my phone might have been tapped. I didn’t want to ask Lou what happened in Stamford.
     So it was in late 1963 when Lou got to Haiti. He said he contacted a real estate agent, who advised them of the house, and he sent for Gladys. Lou said that he had already set up a deal with seafood brokers in New York, who agreed to buy all the frozen lobster tails he could supply for $3.00 a lb. So he started buying lobsters. Lou said he was paying $1.00 for every 13 lobsters the Haitians brought him. His men then wrung off the tails and packed 12 to a box and quick froze them right on the boat. Every two weeks, Lou would meet with the cruise ship Queen Mary and they would take and deliver the lobster to New York for him, and the money for the lobster tails was wired to Lou’s account in Haiti. So I asked Lou, what happened to the lobster business, if it was so good, Lou said he sold it.  He said it was just too much for him. He had to work and sleep on the boat with three Haitian helpers for 24 hours a day, and he said the guys ate some of the worst food in the world, they just ate boiled fish and some coconuts, plantains and cassava,” Lou said, that after a few weeks he was just dying for the taste of a hamburger, so he tried to find some person to do the job for him, but he couldn’t trust anyone with money, so after six months, he was done with the lobster business, and he sold it to an American professor who was in the hydroponic vegetable business in Haiti, he sold it for $35,000.00.
     While Lou was living in Haiti, he had noticed that there was old railroad tracks buried all along the side of the Haitian National Highway. So he followed the track for more than ninety kilometers to a town called Saint-Marc. He said that some of the rail was still in perfect condition, but a lot of it was buried under landslides, so he did a little research, and he was told that the railroad was built in 1905 and it ran from the city of Port Au Prince to Saint-Marc, they said that originally the railroad had steam engines but later on it was run with modern diesel locomotives. Everyone told him, that the railroad, like everything else that the Haitian government gets their hands on, went bankrupt in 1920.  Lou already knew that the Haitians were just not capable of running or maintaining anything.
     Lou said that he knew that the steel railroad track was worth over $20.00 a ton in Miami for scrap, and he thought that if he could buy all the old railroad track from the government cheap enough, he could probably sell it. So that’s when Lou contacted a local lawyer with his idea. He wanted to try and buy all the rail as scrap from the Haitian Government.
     With the money he had gotten from the lobster business, Lou and Gladys had enough cash to live on in Haiti while they were waiting to buy the rail. Their lawyer told Lou that the railroad fell under the jurisdiction of the Minister of the Interior in Haiti, and Lou needed the Ministers permission to buy the rail.  So Lou’s lawyer said that he would send a letter to the Minister but Lou was advised that all official business in Haiti had to be done in French, a language that Lou did not speak.
     Weeks went by without a word from the Minister of the interior, so Lou quickly started to suspect that the attorney he had hired was now taking advantage of him. Lou was a business man and he felt he knew how to quickly resolve the problem. Lou instructed the attorney to offer the Minister a $2.00 a ton under the table bribe for all the railroad track. They waited for weeks, and the weeks turned into months and still nothing happened. Then Lou was informed that a hearing would be held. So Lou and Gladys attended the hearing, but it was all in French and they had to have their attorney translate what was said. That’s when it became obvious to Lou that the attorney and the Minister of the Interior were dragging everything out to get Lou to offer a bigger bribe. Lou was running out of patience as well as money, and he decided to call on the Minister of the interior himself, without using his attorney. When he went to the palace the Minister’s secretary said he was always too busy to see Lou, so for a week Lou relegated himself to a chair in the hallway of the palace, always hoping the Minister of the interior would eventually see him.
     Every day, Lou and Gladys became more disgusted with the situation. They were disgusted with the whole corrupt system in Haiti, so when they were down to their last $5,000.00, they decided to make one last attempt. Both Lou and Gladys sat outside the Ministers office for three hours. As they sat there, the scary TonTon Macoute, who were the Presidents private army, kept walking by and staring at them, they felt they were now being intimidated. Finally, Lou felt enough was enough, and he called his attorney and told him to tell the Minister of the Interior to go screw himself. Then he and Gladys packed up, they bought one way tickets to Miami, and boarded the plane, they were both determined to leave Haiti forever.
     The Air Haiti plane taxied down the runway to take off, but suddenly it came to a halt. Thinking the plane was broken, Lou, Gladys and the rest of the passengers just sat there in the sweltering heat waiting to hear some word from the pilot. Then the people looking out the planes side windows, saw a boarding ladder being pushed to the plane by a group of airport workers, even though  the plane was now more than a half mile from the terminal.
     As the boarding ladder was rolled up, a stewardess opened the planes door just as a big black Cadillac limousine pulled up. Two official looking black guys wearing sunglasses boarded the plane, and walked right up to Lou and Gladys, who were sitting there sweating. They politely said, “Mr. Gladstein, the Minister of the Interior wishes to see you.”
     Within a few hours, that same day a proclamation was made, that Lou Gladstein officially owned the Haitian Railroad, and the very next day official posters were printed in French, and plastered all over town, the poster declared that the railroad was to be transferred by Presidential Decree to Mr. Louis Gladstein. As we sat there, Lou showed me a copy of it.
      Lou said, it ended up the Minister of the Interior was taking the two dollars per ton bribe. Now Lou and Gladys, with only five thousand dollars left in savings left, desperately needed to find a customer to buy the rail, and they needed to do it in a hurry, and that was when Lou called me in Miami.
     So, now with a verbal promise of two dollars per ton, I was to assist Lou. First by finding a buyer for the rail, and second, to help him remove and ship it.  Thus began my adventure of traveling back and forth from Miami to Haiti, and staying with Lou and Gladys at their house in Fermath whenever I was there.
      Lou, told me that he had calculated the costs of setting up to dig out the track, He also calculated how many laborers we would need to dig it out and disconnect the track, but he said that was just the beginning, because the track had to be lifted up, transported, and stored somewhere prior to shipment, and all of these things cost a lot of money to do, and would take a lot of time and energy.
    Once Lou had calculated all the costs, he determined that selling the rail for scrap in Miami at twenty two dollars a ton was a lost cause. Lou told me, that to cover all the expenses, and make a profit, we needed a better type of customer than a scrap yard, we needed someone that would pay more, and we also needed someone that would open up a letter of credit. The opening up of a letter of credit was important because the Minister of the Interior would not let the rail leave Haiti until he was assured he had his payment in hand.   
    So here I was, I was 28 years old and now I needed to learn all about selling railroad track. So I returned to Miami, and went to the library, making a list of companies that reused railroad track, and then I sat home every night typing out letter after letter to all of them. What I learned was, that bed frames were made from re-rolled railroad track, so once I knew that, I again went to the library and found companies that made bed frames. I was working as fast as I could and Lou was calling me regularly to remind me of the urgency.  
     Soon I started receiving replies, some were by phone, but as soon as they heard that the rail was in Haiti, they all quickly lost interest, and I was getting depressed. Then one day, Lou called and jokingly said, “What we need is someone who is building a railroad,” that was a very novel idea that I had never thought of, but I didn’t know anyone that needed a railroad.
     On my next trip to Haiti, Lou brought up an interesting point. He had solicited the Haitian government for the railroad track to scrap it. But it appeared that he was awarded the entire railroad, and he really had no idea of what that consisted of.  Lou said that there was a rumor that there was an old abandoned railroad maintenance facility somewhere near the city of Saint-Marc. Lou said that some old timers he spoke to had remembered hearing stories about a facility years ago. Lou thought we should drive to Saint-Marc and look around. He thought we could follow the rail road tracks into the jungle, after all, they have to lead somewhere. So the following day we went to Saint-Marc, and we followed the railroad tracks all the way to the old abandoned Saint-Marc train station. At the station, there was a roundabout behind it. It was a place where the railroad cars were switched around. By the time we got there it was middle of the afternoon and it was hot as hell, but we found a railroad spur that led into the jungle, it hadn’t been used for so long that trees and bushes were growing up in the middle of it. So at a small roadside store where we stopped for cold drinks, Lou hired two young Haitian boys with machetes to follow the train track spur and cut through the jungle brush, the kids were about 12 or 14 years old and they wanted 10 cents each to do it. So here we were, 2 white guys dressed like Indiana Jones characters, having two kids with machete’s cut a path for us into the jungle, I felt like we were on a treasure hunt.
     It was hot and sweaty work for the kids, but they worked hard, I could hear them hacking away in the jungle. It took a few hours, but then we heard them yelling for us, they had found the maintenance facility building. We followed the tracks into the jungle, doing it on the path the kids had cut, and it was the most incredible sight before us, there was the monstrous maintenance building completely covered in jungle vines. We couldn’t believe our eyes, there it was a building that had been hidden for over 50 years. The boys continually hacked away at the vines until a pair of huge corrugated metal doors appeared. They were about twelve feet high and ten or fifteen feet wide, and chained shut with an ancient padlock. I had my SX70 camera and I took a picture of Lou standing in front of the doors, with the two kids. It really was an exciting discovery for us, it was just like finding an Egyptian tomb. Lou broke the padlock using a piece of iron he picked up off the ground. We pushed open a door just enough for us to squeeze in. The 2 kids were scared to death, so Lou gave each one of them a dime and they both ran back to town happy as can be, it probably was the most money they had ever seen.
    We squeezed into the building and as our eyes became accustomed to the dim lighting I realized it was really huge, it was about 200 feet long, and 75 feet wide and about 40 feet high. There was some sun light coming in from the vine covered windows located near the roof. The building appeared to be so long that we couldn’t see the far end. There were two rows of railroad track that ran down the length of the building, and there were huge rail road iron working machines that were lined up one after the other all the way down the length of the building, some of them were huge punch presses, bigger than any I had ever seen before, and there were track shearing machines and hole punching machines, this maintenance facility had every kind of machine you needed to keep a railroad running. I could see that on the far side of the building was a row of giant lathes, all lined up the full length of the building, each lathe had big leather belts hanging from their steam driven drive shafting overhead. I looked at the hard dirt floor of the building, it was spotlessly clean. It was as if workers had just swept it a few minutes ago and went home for the evening. As my eyes adjusted I looked to my left, there were two enormous diesel engines that were all apart being rebuilt, tools, were neatly laid out like the mechanic would be right back. I was sure we were the first people to see the inside of this enormous building in fifty years. Then Lou and I walked up to the first giant metal turning lathe, we studied it carefully, it looked like it was brand new, it was completely covered in a black protective grease, it was just as if time stood still.
     There were also two diesel locomotives in the building, both were in the process of being taken apart, we walked to the far end of the building and out a small door into what was the storage yard, and under the dense vegetation we saw neatly piled up were bridges and trestles, there were even giant railroad car pullers, axle shafts, new railroad car wheels and everything else, they were all neatly placed here over fifty years ago, just waiting to be used. We were in awe, I took more pictures, and then we walked back to our car parked at Saint-Marc and drove home. It appears Lou owned a lot more of the Haitian railroad than he had anticipated.  
    In the morning, we drove down the mountain to a company Lou knew called Cement Haiti. Cement Haiti was a French owned company that made cement, and they had their own long concrete pier, and it was big enough to have a self-loading cargo ship dock there. Lou spoke with the managers and they said they would let him store and load the railroad track there. After the meeting, I was ready to return to Miami, when Lou received a telegram. It was from someone in Atlanta Georgia, and they wanted to know who the agent was regarding the sale of the railroad in Haiti. Lou and I went to the Western Union office and he sent an immediate reply, then Lou gave me the telegram so I could follow up when I got back to Miami.
     The next evening I was back in Miami when my home phone rang, at 2 in the morning. I quickly got out of bed and tried to answer it before it woke everyone up in my house. The call was from the fellow who had sent the telegram. He said he was a former purchasing agent for United Fruit Co, and he was now retired, but he still helped them out. He said that United Fruit intended to buy all our used Haitian railroad track to place in their banana plantations located in Puerto Lemon, Costa Rica. I couldn’t believe this guy had called me at 2 in the morning, and I told him so. He said “Yes I know, my problem is I can’t sleep at night, so I work in my home office from 1 AM to 4 AM in the morning”. I think that under any other circumstances, I would have hung up the phone on this crazy guy, but as he was my only customer, I listened to him. Then I told him that if he would fly into Miami, we could both fly to Haiti together, and when he was In Haiti, he could discuss the price of the rail with Lou. He said that was fine, but he didn’t fly anymore, and he would only travel to Haiti by boat. I tried very hard to remain calm while listening to him. So I told him that if he took a bus to Miami, I would make arrangements to have him get to Haiti on one of the local Haitian cargo ships always docked on the Miami River.  
     Every day, I called Haiti to keep Lou informed of what was going on, and within two weeks I had made arrangements for the fellow to get back and forth to Haiti. Lou said that he would pick him up when he arrived and he could stay at his house, so everything went like clockwork.  After they had a meeting, Lou advised me that United Fruit would only pay Lou $22.50 per ton for the rail, if the price was accepted by Lou, they would send him a letter of intent, and then they would open up a letter of credit that Lou could cash only after the rail was loaded on United Fruits ship. The price they paid was just above scrap price, and Lou didn’t like it, but this was our only customer.  Lou kept calculating, and recalculating all the costs. He was now afraid that our costs would exceed what we were getting paid for the rail, he was worried that there might not be any profit left. I assumed that whatever happened my $2.00 a ton commission was still safe.
    The Bank notified Lou in about a week that the letter of credit was in place, The Minister of the Interior approved it, and then the circus of preparing the track started.
    Lou flew to Connecticut to liquidate some assets to get some cash, He then hired fifty laborers at .75 cents a day to start digging out and disconnecting the track. This was no easy matter as the laborers were doing it the hard way using big hammers and chisels.
    In the beginning my job included being sure each laborer got 10 cents a  day to buy lunch, but I never saw anyone ever eating lunch so by afternoon all work slowed down to a crawl, the men were just too weak to work. I discussed the problem with Lou, and he immediately resolved the problem, he had a big fat Haitian women cook up a big pot of fish, millet and plantains to feed the men. Lou said it cost less that way than giving the men the 10 cents.  
    The next problem was the faster the men worked digging out and disconnecting the track, the farther away we were getting from Port Au Prince and the staging area at Cement Haiti.
     Lou had located and bought a very old Mack truck and flatbed trailer. When I saw it, it was sunk in the mud in someone’s back yard. The truck had been buried there so long the tires were rotten and nothing on the truck worked, so Lou hired two mechanics, and with all their broken rusty and mismatched tools they actually got the truck running.  I tried to help them fix up the old Mack truck, by repairing the starter and generator, I got them to work but everything was really junk, and hard as the mechanics tried, they could never get the air brakes to work properly.
     I had suggested to Lou weld on metal brackets on the flatbed trailer to keep the railroad tracks from sliding off, but Lou wouldn’t listen, he was in a hurry to get rolling, so he just used pieces of wood.
     Every day, Lou overloaded the flatbed with rail. That’s when his Haitian truck driver got scared and refused to drive the truck down any bumpy hills because the air brakes didn’t work, So, I would follow behind the trailer with Lou in the passenger seat of the Toyota, and whenever the truck driver got scared, Lou would then get in the truck and drive it down the hill. The Haitian driver would sit next to me in Lou’s Toyota, covering his eyes with his hands as Lou drove the terribly overloaded truck down the hills. Eventually the overloaded truck did hit a pothole and all the track fell off, breaking the wooden stakes Lou had used on the flatbed trailer. That was a real bad day for us, the truck and trailer was stuck in the middle of the National Highway with tons of the steel rail half on and half off, they looked just like pick up sticks. I knew for sure that someone was going to get killed, because each rail was 35 feet long and weighed about 1000 pounds. Lou was desperate to get rail to Cement Haiti, so he started yelling at everyone to hurry up and remove rail from the pile. I tried to calm him down and eventually we got 20 men came from a local village who helped reload the truck, they only asked for $4.00 for their services.
     The entire project was insane, and I didn’t like being involved with it one bit. Lou was getting desperate, and I knew someone would eventually get hurt, I was right.  The following week I was in Miami and received a call from Lou, he said, “One of the workers had fallen off the truck and had been killed”. Lou said, “The fellow was riding on top of the rail, when his shoe fell off, and he tried to catch it, but he fell off the back of the truck and onto the roadway. I asked Lou if he would be charged with negligence, and he said yes, he would have to give $300.00 to the dead man’s family.
     Despite everything, the rail was piling up sufficiently at the Cement Haiti Dock. And Lou was getting ready to load the ship. I felt that my commission would soon be in hand. So I offered to take Lou and Gladys to one of Haiti’s best French restaurants up in the mountains.  As luck would have it I recognized the owner of a wood carving factory in Port Au Prince, it was called “Ralph of Miami”. He was sitting at the table next to us, so I introduced myself. Ralph was there with a very pretty Haitian girl of about 25, who he introduced to me as his factory foreman. Ralph said with a smile that they were going to be working on the production schedule that evening.
    I asked Ralph if he had any thoughts about carving something out of our wooden railroad ties, we would be interested in selling them to him reasonably. I didn’t tell him that the local Haitian natives were stealing them from us to burn and make cooking charcoal. Ralph said he had already taken one from us to inspect it, but the wood was too dry and cracked to use for carving.
     I remember that French restaurant very well as the waiter served the peas with a butter knife scraping them of the serving dish one at a time, then when the meat was served I couldn’t even cut it with a hacksaw. Lou said it was local Haitian beef, and was from cows that had nothing to eat but weeds on the side of the roads.       
     The day before the ship was to arrive to pick up the rail, Lou was standing on the concrete pier at
Cement Haiti, and that’s when I saw two big black TonTon Macoute guys walking out towards him, both of them had their chrome plated forty five caliber pistols tucked in their waist. I was standing next to the Cement Haiti building, they didn’t see me, but I saw them talking heatedly to Lou, and Lou became very animated, waving his arms around. I felt for sure they were going to shoot him at any moment, and possibly me as well, so I discretely disappeared around the side of the Cement Haiti building. I waited a several minutes, and when I didn't hear any shots fired, I looked down the pier and I saw Lou walking towards me, he was white as a ghost.
     What happened I asked? Lou said, “Those bastards want another $2.00 a ton each, or nothing moves tomorrow. They want me to go to the bank with them now and write up a new contract, which includes them. They said the Minister of the Interior also wants to renegotiate with me for more money. So what are you going to do? I asked, “What can I do?” Lou said. I should have known better than to think I could deal with these crooked bastards here.
    I took a taxi to Lou’s house, packed my bag, and I went to the airport for an evening flight to Miami, and I left Haiti. Lou called me the next day, he said he had more bad news. The letter of credit from United Fruit called for metric tons. A U.S. ton is 2000 pounds a metric ton is 2250 pounds, so Lou lost 250 pounds on every ton he loaded, and Lou said, there was nothing left for my commission.
    Well I already knew that, and to say I was disappointed would be an understatement, I had put a lot of time, money and energy into the project of helping Lou, so because of that, I never spoke to Lou again. However, since Lou and I both shared the same lawyer in Miami, the attorney, one day the attorney mentioned to me that Lou and Gladys came back from Haiti and bought an apartment building in Miami for $80,000.00 all cash, and that was a lot of money in 1966. It appears Lou had sold all the scrap iron at the maintenance facility to the Japanese and made a killing on it, he just forgot to mention it to me. In retrospect, the education I received was priceless, and the good news was now I knew exactly where Haiti was.
     In 2010, I checked the internet regarding the Railroad in Haiti, and found someone blogging about searching for it and not knowing what happened to it. They said that it seems to have just disappeared, sometimes between 1960 and 1970.  Well I know exactly where it is. It's in a banana plantation in Costa Rica. And I helped put it there, and all the machinery and bridges, well they are now in Toyota's
      


 

The Japanese Ambassador Story

                                                        The Japanese Ambassador Story
                                                                                1967
                  A true story about my embarrassing encounter with the Japanese Ambassador in Haiti
                                                  Written 2010 and rewritten 02/2016 unedited
                                                                         Howard Yasgar


     In 1967, I was working with my friend Lou Gladstein who had just been awarded the entire Haitian railroad. It was a railroad that had been built in 1908 and bankrupted by 1920.
     My friend Lou had tried negotiating with the Haitian Minister of the Interior for more than five months, until he and his wife Gladys were totally disgusted with the corrupt politics in Haiti and they decided to depart the country.
    Lou and Gladys were actually on the Air Haiti airplane leaving the country when the plane was stopped and they were summoned to the palace and awarded ownership of the railroad, and that was when they contacted me to come to Haiti and help them to find a customer to sell all the railroad track.
      The railroad track that had originally gotten Lou’s attention, because there was more than ninety kilometers of it all along the Haitian highway from the city of Port Au Prince to the city of Saint-Marc. Quite a bit of the original track was buried or covered over by landslides. But Lou had known that each piece of track weighed around a thousand pounds and could be sold somewhere to reuse, reroll or scrap.
       When I first got involved, Lou had told me that he heard rumors that years ago the railroad had a maintenance facility somewhere near the city of Saint-Marc, but its exact location had been buried in over fifty years of jungle growth, and everyone had forgotten about it.
      So out of curiosity, we took a drive to the city of Saint-Marc, our intention was to try following the railroad tracks into the jungle until we found the facility.
       In Saint-Marc we found remnants of the original railroad terminal building in town and from there we followed railroad tracks leading into the jungle.  We used two Haitian boys with machetes as all the exposed tracks were covered with bushes and small trees. After about two hours of following the tracks, we heard the boys screaming for us, and we followed their pathway they had cut for us. There it was, it was a giant building all covered in vines, it was a very spooky looking thing.
       There were two large 12 foot high corrugated metal doors that were locked by a chain and a very antique pad lock.
      The railroad tracks we were following ran under the doors and right into the building, so Lou picked up a metal bar and wacked the padlock until it broke, then, he took one of the kid’s machetes and hacked away at all the remaining vines.
      When we were able to pry the doors open, the two kids got real spooked and wouldn’t enter the building, so Lou gave each one of them the 10 cents he had promised and they both ran back to the city of Saint-Marc with their new found wealth.
       Lou and I squeezed into the building and just stood there in awe as our eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was like entering into an Egyptian tomb. The huge building was like a football field and it was full of railroad repair equipment from one end to the other, including two diesel locomotives that were apart and being overhauled. Wherever I looked, everything had been neatly set down in its correct place. It was as if time had stopped 50 years ago and the people would all be back to work tomorrow.
      We walked the length of the building and out the back into what was once their storage yard. The yard, now all overgrown, had  piled up, steel bridges, steel trestles, giant car pulling winches, box car axles and steel train wheels, they were there by the hundreds.
       As we drove home to Fermath Lou was thinking out loud, he said you know there are thousands of tons of iron and steel scrap back there, I wonder how I can turn it into real money.
       The next morning, Lou said, “I have an idea, I always read in the papers that the Japanese are buying scrap steel everywhere, I wonder if they would be interested in buying all this stuff here in Haiti? Why don’t we go down to Port Au Prince and see the Japanese Ambassador. I bet he knows who the companies are in Japan are that would be interested in coming here to buy it.”
       We went downstairs and got into Lou’s Toyota wagon and headed down the mountain to the capitol city of Port Au Prince.
      Lou, who was now on a mission, scared me the way he was driving down the mountain, I wanted to tell him to slow down, but we got to Port Au Prince and Lou drove directly to the Japanese Embassy.
      At the embassy the gate to the back yard was open and Lou drove right in, he was driving like a stock car driver, with the wheels screeching and all.
      As he pulled in, the gardener who was trimming the flowers in a flower bed almost fell over, Lou had missed hitting him but he sure scared the hell out of him.
      We parked and walked out the embassies yard gate and into the front door of the embassy. The Ambassadors secretary was there and Lou asked her for an appointment, and Lou explained what he wanted to ask the ambassador about. The girl got up and went into an office behind her. After a few minutes a young Japanese fellow came out. He had slicked back black hair and was wearing those little round glasses you always see the Japanese wearing in the movies. He said please come this way, and we followed him. He sat us down in a hallway which I assumed was the hallway right outside the Ambassadors office, and he said, “The Ambassador will be with you in a moment.”
       As we quietly sat there, there was a doorway next to me and I heard a commotion going on, so I got up and looked around the open doorway. It was into another hallway that was leading to the rear door of the embassy. There both the Ambassador’s secretary and the young man were helping the gardener out of his jumpsuit and into the formal attire of the ambassador. The Ambassador was the guy Lou nearly knocked over in the flower bed in the embassy yard.  
      

                  

 

The Stamford Telephone Bill Story


                                                The Stamford Telephone Bill Story
                                                                       1962
                                                 A true story and how it happened
                                           Written 2013 and rewritten 10/2015 unedited
                                                               Howard Yasgar
  

      Back in 1961 I was attending New Haven College in Connecticut. The college had what they called a cooperative program which allowed students to attend classes in the morning and work in the afternoon, the object was to allow students to get work experience in whatever profession they were planning on going into.

      I got a part time job, working in the afternoons at Milford Auto Wrecking Company in Milford Connecticut. I did it because my chosen profession was to go into some phase of the automotive parts business. Of course all my professors thought I was crazy for working in a junk yard, because someone that wanted to be a junkman wasn’t exactly what they were expecting of their students.

      The reason I went to work for the Milford Auto Wrecking Yard in particular was because I had bought some used motors from them in the past and I really admired their operation. Not only did they take a car apart for scrap metal, but they salvaged and rebuilt lots of the parts that came off of the cars.  

      So I started out at Milford Auto Wrecking working in the afternoons cutting up automobile chassis in their steel pile. I loved it, I got to use a cutting torch, and I chopped up those car chassis as fast as I could. Every so often the guys that actually cut the chassis out of the cars would forget to remove a gas tank, and it would blow up on me while I was cutting it, sending me flying into the air, it was all great fun. Anyway, I cut up those chassis so fast that they soon promoted me to yard foreman, and I loved that too. I would remove parts from the engines by using cutting torch without damaging anything. At the time it was unheard of and my productivity was way up. Eventually one of the partners, a fellow named Lenny, promoted me to run their starter generator rebuilding shop. I liked that too as I was learning all the ins and outs of the auto wrecking business just like I wanted to.

      Lenny, after observing how fast I worked, saw that I had some free time so he asked me to help him by hauling cars from the Milford junk yard to a small holding yard he had in Stamford Connecticut. I loved that job too until I realized that all the cars I was towing were probably stolen.

      By the time I found out I was hauling stolen cars, I was ready to graduate college anyway so I resigned from my job at Milford.

       It was several months later that a former Milford employee told me that they had stopped using the holding yard in Stamford. So I thought it was my golden opportunity to go into business, and I went to Lenny and asked him to lease me the Stamford yard.

       He did lease it to me, so at the age of twenty three, and no real business experience, I set up to do business there in the Stamford yard. There were a million things to do that I never realized that I had to do. For example there was business and health insurance, and workman’s compensation. There were licenses, and deposits for the water, and for the electricity and then there was a hefty deposit for the telephone. I never realized what a headache having a telephone was.

      The junk yard had a pay phone on the wall but the phone company said they had a lot of problems in the past at that location and they wanted a one hundred dollar deposit or else no phone. Well in 1962 one hundred dollars was a lot of money, and I could hardly afford it, but I needed a phone to run a business. 

       Well, I ran the business there for over a year, and I couldn’t understand why I never made any money. Then one Sunday I brought my fiancĂ©e there to show her the business, as I rattled the gate to unlock it, people started to run and climb over the fences all around the yard, they were just like cockroaches running away. I think there must have been twenty five people all stealing parts from my yard on that Sunday. Now I knew why I wasn’t making any money there on Monday through Saturday.

     Well, that was it for me, I realized I had better get out of that business and look for something else to do, so I closed down the yard and left Stamford.

      Fortunately a friend named Lou Gladstein needed someone to temporally manage a business for him down in Miami Florida and that’s what I ended up doing for the next six months until Lou decided to close the place down.

      So by the end of 1963 I was now newly married, unemployed, and living in Hialeah Florida, and I was trying to start up a used auto parts business, and at the time. At the time, I didn’t know where my next dollar was coming from, my wife and I were living in a trailer park, renting a house trailer for twenty dollars a week.

       One day I was thinking about how I could make some money, and I had a brilliant idea, I remembered the one hundred dollar deposit I had placed with the Stamford telephone company a year or so back, so I called them up and they said I would have to send them a letter requesting the return of the deposit.

        I was very happy as one hundred dollars was still a considerable amount of money. So I sat down and formulated a very business like letter and sent it to the Stamford Phone

Company. About two weeks later I went to my post office box and there was what I thought was the refund letter.

        I carefully opened the envelope not wanting to tear the check inside, but there was no check, only a very official looking letter.

       The letter said that they wanted three hundred and eighty five dollars from me. They claimed that the money was fraudulently stolen from their telephone after I left, and they said, if I didn’t pay within thirty days they would take legal action.

       I took the letter home and very carefully resealed it with glue. I took a magic marker and wrote the following on the front of the envelope. 

        “Undeliverable, moved to Port Au Prince Haiti. Please forward this letter to general delivery Port Au Prince Haiti.”  I never heard from the Stamford Phone Company again.

 

 

       

The Georgia Motel Story


    

                                                            The Georgia Motel Story
                                        Written in 2010 and rewritten 2/12/2016 unedited
                                        A true story and a good lesson for every married man
                                                                    Howard Yasgar                               


     It was December of 1963, my new wife and I were headed down to Miami Florida from Westville Connecticut. I had been asked to help a friend of mine to manage an auto wrecking business he owned in Florida, located on North West 46 Street near 37 avenue in Miami in Florida.
     We had just gotten married in November, so going to Florida was to be like a honeymoon for us.
     My friend Lou Gladstein had lent me a nice 1959 Plymouth to make the trip in, and the first day driving went well.  By evening we had reached Georgia, and as it was getting dark, we thought it was time to look for a place to stay for the evening.
     My wife suggested we find a name brand hotel, however I was determined to show my wife that I knew how to save money, so I carefully watched all the roadside signs for a good motel deal.
All along the road, the signs advertised that the bigger hotels wanted $35.00 an evening, but I saw a sign advertising a family motel for only $11.00 a night and the sign said the motel was only twenty miles up the road. According to the picture on the billboard it looked like a pretty good motel, pool and all.
       It was about 10 in the evening when we finally reached the place, and I pulled in.  It appeared we were the only car there, and it was a nice motel with about 20 individual. So I just pulled up to what appeared to be the manager’s house that was in the rear and not attached to the motel rooms.
       It was December and a pretty cold evening so I grabbed my overcoat, didn’t put it on and ran up the stairs to ring the doorbell. The door opened, and an elderly gentleman stood there, a blast of heat from the fireplace lit in the house hit me in the face. I told him we wanted a room, and he waved his wife over, I could see she got out of an old worn out armchair in the living room. I filled out the form she brought, and while I was standing there outside freezing. Juggled my wallet around and I gave him the $11.00 plus tax. I saw him carefully put my money in a little metal box, ours was the only money in the box. Seeing that, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, but he gave me room number six and said all I had to do was turn on the gas heater.
       I put my coat on and we backed up and I parked in front of room number six.  My wife was already bundled up as we knew the room would be cold and it would take a while for the room to heat up.
      I looked at the gas heater in the room, and I have to admit I had never ever have seen a contraption like that before. I tried everything I knew but the gas heater wouldn’t light up.        
      I went back to the owner’s house and he dressed up with his wife’s assistance and he came down and started the gas heater working, and he said it would take about thirty minutes to warm the room.
Hearing that, my wife said she was hungry, so I suggested we drive up the road a ways, and find something to eat, it was now about twelve in the evening.
      We must have drove for miles, but finally I found an all-night hamburger joint, it was the kind of place that sliced each hamburger off a roll of meat like it was liverwurst. We got our order, but as we looked around at the off the wall characters sitting there, we decided to take the food back to our cozy room, and eat there.
      When we got to the room, the heater was off and it was still freezing cold and my wife just stared at me.
      But I had an idea, why don’t we just sleep in our clothes, I said, after all we will be hitting the road an only a few hours. By now I really knew the whole thing was a bad idea but I had to save face somehow.
      Without saying anything my wife went to use the bathroom, and she called for me to come and look, there was a towel hanging on the wall with a big hole in it.    
        About a minute later, I heard the toilet flush and then my wife screamed, the toilet had overflowed onto the floor. As a man of action, I took the towel, the one with the hole and put it on the floor but it didn’t help, but that’s when I saw a carpet on the floor, it was partially under the bed. I quickly grabbed it and pulled it out intending to use it to sop up the water.  When the carpet came out there was some ones pair of polished men’s lace up dress shoes sitting on it.  
        By now my wife was crying uncontrollably. I ran up to the owners house and demanded my eleven dollars back or I was calling the police.
        I really had no phone to call with, and for all I knew this guy was the sheriff, but he opened up the metal box and gave me my money back.
       It was now about 3 or 4 in the morning, and by the time I found a Holiday Inn hotel for thirty five dollars an evening, it was later, but my wife finally stopped crying, the room was warm, and there was even a coffee maker there.
       I know there was a lesson to be learned here somewhere.