Shel Aronson

Residents’ Reminiscences
Sheldon Aronson
October 21, 2004
Also attending: Lillian Salazar, Mike Southwell, George and Doris Fatzler, Fran Bragger

This is the story about a party I hosted on the 4th of July in 1976 when we had our summer cottage at 31 South Road, where we lived before Leach Drive.

We bought that cottage in 1973. We lived in West Orange at the time and it was convenient for us to come up on weekends, etc. We fell in love with the lake right away, the first time we saw it.

We bought it from Bill and Maryann Schad, who had purchased it from Frank Albanese when Frank moved to 45 Mickens Lane because as many summer residents do, they had decided to live year round. Bill and Maryann, who were neighbors of the Albanese in Caldwell decided that they also would like to live year round so they bought the house at 37 Mickens Lane, and we bought the cottage from them.

At that time the source of water was a hand dug well on Broadfoot’s property at 32 South Road that served 5 houses in the area. Everybody had a pipe to the pump beside the well which sunctioned the water up and pumped it up to their houses. In our case, the pipe went under the road but when it came up on our side it was above the ground, so obviously it had to be drained in the wintertime. There was no heating in the house except for a little pot belly kerosene burner in the middle of the living room. There was no insulation or anything, but it was a cute little house, and Bonnie and I enjoyed it very much all the time we had it.

Anyway, getting back to my story. In 1976, 4th of July, I hosted a business party for government officials of the Soviet Union and business people. At that time the communist party was still going strong, before Gorbachev, and before the Berlin wall came down. There was a slight thaw in the cold war, and that is part of the story. The reason that the party came about had to do with the fact that our company was an architectural metal manufacturing company that made custom made steel fire proof doors, window frames, etc.

(As a matter of fact the trophy case which is in the main room of the clubhouse, when I first got on the Board I built that from our company. We used to build those for schools, for use in hallways for trophies.)

There was a big project that was to be built in Moscow, called the Moscow World Trade Center (the “MEZH”), funded in part by the U.S. government, believe or not; the reason being that President Nixon had met with the Premier of the Soviet Union, Brezhnev, and they arrived at a detente because the Soviets wanted to enlarge their presence in dealing with the international business community. They wanted to sell and buy more., etc. There were a lot of large projects that were planned as part of a big capital improvement throughout the Soviet Union. They realized they had no facilities to attract western businessmen to come and stay and have acceptable hotel accommodations, and a convention center to conduct business the way industrialized countries do. If you went to any western county and visited cities such as London, Paris, etc. they had world class hotels, etc.

This World Trade Center complex was to have five multi-story buildings one of which would be a Residence Hotel so that American Companies who wanted to establish a presence in the Soviet Union, like MacDonald’s, could have a suite of offices in the office building and the employees would be able to go underground to an apartment in the hotel. They had planned a transient Hotel for people coming for business for a week or two. They planned a convention center, and a big shopping mall with Russian stores, where the officials could go and buy things. This whole complex was part of this detente agreement.

The American government loaned the Soviet Union ninety-five million dollars (which in those days was a lot). The consideration was that this money had to be spent in the U.S. for building materials, quality products which they could not get in the Soviet Union. They had concrete and cement, but couldn’t get western style toilet fixtures, quality plumbing fittings, etc. and they certainly could not get steel fire proof doors and frames and elaborate hinges, locks and commercial hardware. This building complex was designed by American architects. The Soviet’s people would do the construction, under supervision of American companies. Every company who sent materials would send people over to supervise the installation, or maybe even assist if things were too complicated.

The selection of the American companies was a function of the Soviet Union. They had teams of engineers and business people who traveled all over the world buying things that they needed. It could have been building materials; it could have been machinery to build a paper mill. All of these people were qualified, experienced, and well educated experts in their fields.

For this building project, they set up an office in Manhattan near the Plaza Hotel at 59th Street and 5th Avenue. We heard about the job and inquired about bidding on it… They said we would have to be approved by the soviet businessmen as an approved bidder and we had to be competitive because they were taking bids from more than one American company. I won’t elaborate too much on the negotiating process, but all I can tell you is you could not put anything over on them. That was all they did, they were professional buyers and negotiators. They were really, really, sharp. They were a lot of fun to be with and they all spoke English, even though we always had translators there. They always took their time and made it seem like they had to wait for the translators, which gave them time to frame their answers.

After a long “courting dance”, we finally won the contract at about three o’clock in the morning with the final negotiation. This was a multi-million dollar contract and they chose our company primarily because we showed them how we could save them money and still abide by the specifications and not compromise the design. They appreciated that. At the very end, before the final handshake on the price, believe it or not, we were $500 apart. There was much negotiating, we had cut the price and cut the price, and they finally said “No, we have to make it an even number. Take off the last $500.” So, I got out a quarter and said “This is how we sometimes decide in our country. We flip a coin.” They smiled and said they do so also. So they picked heads or tails, and I flipped the coin.

I know they expected me to say “You win” and take the $500 off. He knew I should do that as a diplomatic maneuver, but I said “You lose”…he smiled and I said “Lets go out and celebrate and spend the $500.” So at three o’clock in the morning we went to the Brassiere Restaurant which is open 24 hours a day and I spent about $1500. There were about 15 people.

Before we went out they said we had to celebrate there first. They called on the phone and in came a guy with a big tray of water glasses and bottles of vodka. They don’t mix it with anything. They make a toast and you have to drink. The entire glass straight. I decided these people were so nice that I would like to invite them to the lake to see how we celebrate the 4th of July.

So, I asked them. They asked where it was. I told them Bloomingdale, a little town in New Jersey. They said they would have to consult with their travel advisor. He came back and said they were sorry they could not come because they were restricted on their travel to no more than 25 miles from NYC because a year before in Moscow the Soviets accused the Americans of spying, at the embassy, and they restricted all Americans from traveling any more than 25 miles from Moscow. So, we reciprocated by restricting them in this country. I called the State Department and told them the circumstances, reminding them of the project, etc., etc. If you measure the 25 miles from George Washington Bridge we are okay. They said no they measure from Times Square, but we got special permission. It was only about 1 mile difference. We had two limos pick them up and bring them up here. Some of them had their families here and were living in an apartment house in Riverdale< New York. So I asked them to please bring their wives and children, and so they came. We had about 20 people The ones from Riverdale had cars and drove up.

We decided to “do it up right” for the barbecue and go out and get a bunch of nice steaks and things. I’m not going to give them hamburgers. So they all came up and we got the barbecue going and we had a Russian accordion player, and they were having a grand old time. Because we used the barbecue all summer, in the freezer I had of lot these delicious kosher hot dogs, big juicy ones. I must have had 50 of them. Just for fun, I threw a couple on the grill. They saw them (they called them sausages) and they saw the steaks, but said they would like to try one. The next thing I knew that’s all they wanted to eat, and they ate all the hot dogs.

At our dock across the road I had a rowboat and a flying fish sailboat, which Ray Marshall convinced me to buy. He was going to teach me to sail. So, this one government official said he would like to go out in the sailboat. I asked him if he knew how to swim. He said he could swim a little. So I gave him a life vest. I told him he had to be careful. When I have to turn, I am going to yell “ready to come about”, “come about”, and that means I am getting ready to turn, and I am going to switch the boom and the boat is going to go the other way. He said he understood. I let him handle the tiller to steer. I was then looking ahead and all of a sudden the boat is going “like this” (zig, zag) and I looked back and he wasn’t there. He had fallen out of the boat. I looked over and there he is bobbing up and down, with his life vest and laughing like heck. He, along with everyone else had had lots of vodka.

When we ended up sending materials to the job, we had to spend a technician engineer to supervisor the installation. On our staff there was engineer who was a Czech and had been anti-communist in Czechoslovakia. He was on the Czechoslovakian volley ball team and he was a great tennis player. His name was Larry Kuthan, and worked for our company around 40 years before he retired. He had to leave to leave National Czechoslovakia because when the Soviets came in they started to round up all the anti-communists, and he belonged to some youth organization and had to sneak out at night. He was warned that they were rounding up all the members of this organization. He walked with another guy into Germany. He met his wife at a displaced person’s camp. She was Russian. He had an uncle here and so he ended up coming here, and he spoke perfect Russian.

We kept getting telegraphs from him…”The carpenter has no tools”.  None of the workmen on jobs had any tools, no hammers, screwdrivers, etc. So we told him to go to the hardware store and get some tools. Well, there were no hardware stores. So we called the official and he said “no problem, just send whatever tools you think you need and send us the bill”. So we sent him all kinds of tools. Everything that was not under lock and key was being stolen everyday. We had to start an elaborate security system. If they were working on the 7th floor in this wing they would have to go to this locker room and find the door hardware they needed and only then give them out. If you brought a whole bunch of locks and put them down on the floor and you turned around they were stolen. If was unbelievable. Some of the horror stories about their backward construction methods at that time were unbelievable. Anyway, the project got built.

I didn’t go to Moscow during the actual construction.

When the project was not quite finished, I received a call from the emissary for the Russo/American Trade Association Mission and they wanted me to join, with a $10,000 membership. I stalled until the project was finished and we were paid because another whole story is how you get your money from them. A quick example.

Our arrangements were to be paid with a letter of credit. (The money is set aside and when you submit the correct documentation, they have to pay you. Every time we made a partial shipment, we would bill, itemizing everything line by line. So let’s say we sent a $100,000 in material and it had to be paid in 30 days. On the 29th day, we would get a letter stating “there is an error in your bill and we can’t pay it”…”What is the error?”…”Well, you find it.” It turns out we UNDERBILLED them ten cents.  So we had to resubmit the bill and it took another month before payment.

Anyway, they wanted us to join this trade association and I went to meet them in their office. I went to the building at 59th to a suite of offices, and this big commissar type guy welcomed me. He said how we were going to talk about it, but first he said,” would you like something to drink?” I said, “sure if you are having something.” He got out a brand new bottle of fine Armenian brandy, poured me a glass…then ah, have some more. Have some more. I was trying to nurse my glass, but every time he saw it was getting a little low, he filled it up again. I thought it was impolite to refuse, but by the time I left that office, I have no idea how I ever drove back to West Orange. Never again.

In 1977 there was a wonderful experience in my life. Bonnie and I were invited to the Soviet Embassy in Manhattan to a reception celebrating the 60th anniversary of the revolution.

In 1989 Bonnie and I went to Moscow and traveled all over the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was now in power and the Soviet Union was starting to collapse and it was much more open for foreign visitors. At that time you could buy just about anything for a pack or carton of Marlboros. Anyway, when we were in Moscow I did get to see the completed building.

Transcript by Doris Fatzler

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Kevin Bross

Kevin Bross