Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lost in History vol. 76: Hindenburg Tour: The Humanity, the History, the Joisey Diner.

34 seconds. That's all it took for the Hindenburg, the greatest airship in the history of Hydrogen-fueled aviation to explode into flame, sink to the ground and change the world. 34 seconds from the first fire on the tail to the epic crash-landing. What's more, it all happened next door - at the Lakehurst, New Jersey Naval Airforce Station, about 90 minutes from NYC. The good volunteers at the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society provides tours free of charge to interested citizens, only on the second Saturday of the month, only at 9:30 in the morning, and only if all attendees provide their home address and social security numbers two weeks in advance. It is an active Naval Airbase after all.
We couldn't possibly pass up such a geek-a-licious historical adventure, even if, two weekends ago, it was pissing rain like Heaven's plumbing had gone haywire. Off to Joisey! Three cars from three different parts of Brooklyn took off for Lakehurst - the Levy boys plus Alisa car; the Eggplant Xpress carrying yours truly, friends Josh & Jenene, and yours' trulys' lovely new girlfriend Emily; and the roommate car with Steve and GF Zan. After swimming our way south on the Garden State Pkway we arrived at the Airbase and on our way into disaster-history!
The Hindenburg was built between 1931 and 1936 in Friedrichshafen, Germany. 803.8 feet long and 135.1 feet wide in diameter - which is roughly the length of an 80 story building. When fully inflated, she carried approx. 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen in 16 separate cells; this allowed for easier inflation. The German government paid for the Hindenburg's construction; therefore, enormous swastikas painted onto her tail and fin. Her cabins included a piano room, a reading room, a dining room and a smoking room (which utilized pressurized gases, neutralizing the hydrogen.) Her trip to the States on May 6th, 1937 was the first of 10 scheduled trips kicking off the '37 airship season.
Our guide, a well informed volunteer and former navy man Donald Adams, led our caravan onto the wide open field where the Hindenburg went down; we approached a somber airship-shaped memorial complete with historical bronze plaque. There was also a rough hand-painted little Hindenburg on a post, flapping in the tough winds. Donald gave us hard facts - the Hindenburg hovered approx 300 feet in the air, mooring lines out and down and waiting for mooring. This was when (most reports claim) the static electricity in the atmosphere (or a lightning strike) coupled with the wet weather made a deadly combo for the airship, which was venting hydrogen in order to land. Oxygen + Hydrogen = extremely combustible; within 34 seconds, it was all over.
We also learned that the legendary Oh the Humanity! newscast with Herbert Morrison was recorded at a slightly slower speed, so in the sped-up real-time version, his naturally sonorous voice seems high-pitched & charged with extra emotion. What's more, the newsreel wasn't broadcast until the next day out of Chicago, and no-one heard it live unless they were present at the crash. Out of 36 passengers and 61 crew, 13 passengers and 22 crew members died, plus one ground crewman. Two survivors are still alive, including then-14-year-old cabin boy Werner Franz.
Following a lot of snapshots, we made our way into the hangar and airship museum. Along with scale models of the Hindenburg there were relics and pieces from the wreckage. We bought some souvenirs (Hindenburg coffee mug! Naval Air force Base jacket patch!) and made our way into the hangar, large enough to fit two Hindenburg airships side-by-side with 12 feet of clearance. This double-airship hangar is the largest in the country and one of only two in the world. Hidden within the hangar was another museum, filled with model airplanes, ships and jets as well as walls upon walls of Navy, Air force and Army patches, all of which were supremely awesome.
All of this disaster and naval history and air force patches and old men flying model airplanes made us pretty hungry, so off to a Joisey diner we went! Although most of us had our hearts set on a classic stainless steel, Formica counter, burgers / grilled cheese / meatloaf style joint, but instead we settled at a quaint, cute little cafe in downtown Lakehurst. Good food, but the attitude and atmosphere was top notch thanks to the owner, a former local Bronx boy (he and Dad Levy both attended the same high school!) After some homemade ice cream from the parlor next door, we piled back into our vehicles and called it a historical disastery day.

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