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Lab 54 Where Are You?

Forty three years ago, Hal Krieger (2nd from the right) hosted the “Lab 54 Where Are You?” party at the house he shared with Maria and their German Shepherds in Germantown. Hal invited everyone who’d ever been involved with the lab. To my surprise, many who had not been involved for years, showed up. Hal threw the party to celebrate the dissolution of the laboratory, and for that matter the whole of Fibers Research. The party’s title was inspired by a then popular TV show about fumbling policemen titled “Car 54 Where Are You?”
The party, as expected, was extraordinary. And weird. When Ruth and I walked in we met Vic, a Peruvian technician who’d left the company before I joined. I’d met him briefly when I interviewed. Someone pointed out that Vic—who was manning one of the ill-fated Anim/8 lines—spoke Spanish and suggested we converse. That’s always awkward. What do you say in Spanish in those circumstances? I said hi and he said “don’t come work here.”
Minutes later Hunter arrived with his wife Judy. He came in and without hesitation, grabbed Vic by an arm and said “you are under arrest, fellow.” Hunter, a PhD chemical engineer who’d been hired after me and had never met or heard of Vic, was tall, Waspish and looked the part. Vic dropped to his knees, dissolved into pleas, swore he hadn’t done it and begged for a break.
There are so many stories about lab 54 and its characters that I could write a book, except no one would believe any of it, except those in Rohm & Haas, who’d accuse me of white washing the truth.
One such story involves a tech whose name escapes me. The day after being warned about his chronic lateness’ he arrived at the lab two hours late. Called on the carpet—we did invent an excellent soil hiding carpet yarn [which is yet another story] so the cliché should be allowed—he claimed he’d been on time but, when he got to the gate remembered he’d left a chicken cooking in the oven. And so, he explained, he had to return home to turn the oven off but, since the chicken was done, he sat at the table and ate it. Hence his late arrival. He wasn’t fired.
On my second day at work, sitting at Bernie Robbins old desk (yet another story, one that made national news) I received my first piece of official mail. I must confess that I was excited. Here I was, a real engineer, fresh out of school, at a real job. (That’s what I thought at the time, Peruvian Vic’s warnings notwithstanding.) The envelop contained literature for a ‘penis extender.’ Being the new kid I suspected I was being watched, and tested, I turned to Paul Cox, my office-mate, a middle-aged, short, rolly polly Southern gentleman with tremendous experience in the fibers business (he was out of place and quit a few months later) and suggested I’d gotten his mail by mistake.
Paul had a loud, high pitched hehehehehe laugh. This attracted others into our office—we had about five cubicles across the hallway from the main laboratory—and Paul, when he stopped laughing, told us about ‘bank walkers.’ When he was a kid and the boys went skinny dipping, they shed their clothing and ran into the river. Except those who were particularly well endowed, the ‘bank walkers.’ They took their time sauntering along the river bank before going into the water.
That first piece of mail had no doubt been sent by Mel, our janitor and porn purveyor. A large young man in army fatigues and a few days blond beard, Mel was an opera aficionado who had season tickets to the Met, where he surreptitiously taped the performances before copying them for sale in one of his high end reel-to-reel tape recorders. Mel knew operas by heart and sang arias all day. I suppose he also took time to study because years later, when I met him, he was a respected PhD psychologist hired to counsel some of our troubled employees. The stories about Mel would fill a book by themselves. In lab 54 he did most everything, except clean.
The four years I spent at the lab where the times Ruth thought I was most interesting. In close contact with managers, fellow engineers and technicians (plus one janitor) I knew everything that was going on. A few months after the lab’s dissolution I got promoted and, according to her, no longer knew anything.
In the picture are Pete Grant (far right), Hal and to my right, Courtland Gee. Courtland started in the lab at bit before I did, in 1968. He was seventeen and doesn’t look much different now. He must have a rotting portrait in some closet somewhere. The four of us got together for lunch yesterday. We may have exchanged a story or two because lunch stretched for four hours. Maybe one of us will put together another list of names and have another go at a “Lab 54 where are you?” party although, alas, many former lab 54ers are no longer with us.

Lab54 150901

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