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A tale recalled, a general’s obituary, a disaster in a desert, the New York Air Brake Co. and a congressman’s mechanical ticker

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Cary R. Brick, a native of Watertown, retired in 2000 from the House of Representatives after a 30-plus-year career as senior aide to Republican congressmen Robert C. McEwen, David O’B.Martin and John M. McHugh. He resides in Clayton, where he serves as vice president of the Thousand Islands Foundation, director of the Clayton Local Development Corp. and as a town of Clayton fire district commissioner. He was a Clayton village justice for several years and continues to perform marriages throughout the north country. He is a member of the Postmaster General’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, which selects subjects and designs for U.S. postage stamps. He chairs its subject subcommittee.

By CARY R. BRICK

Special to the Times

As a retiree who has learned to savor the pure joys of Mother Nature like never before, I was enjoying my morning sťance with the St. Lawrence while sitting on my riverfront deck a few days ago, enjoying the splendor of Sawmill Bay.

I was catching up on a few newspapers that had escaped my scrutiny in the days before. Living on tranquil Sawmill, I don’t rush into reading the New York Times or Washington Post every morning to find out what is going on in Congress, my longtime workplace. I find the national newspapers are better when they age a day or so — that way I can put the news in a better perspective.

I don’t know why, but an obituary captured my immediate attention.

There it was in black and white — the life story of Lt. Gen. James Vaught.

“General Vaught,” I said to myself. “James Vaught … James Vaught ... Vaught … familiar ... why do I know that name?”

I read on. The New York Times reported:

“Lt. Gen. James B. Vaught, the commander of the Carter administration’s disastrous mission aimed at freeing more than 50 American hostages held in Iran, died Sept. 20 in Conway, S.C. He was 86. General Vaught, a combat veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars and a graduate of the Army’s commando-style Ranger school, was chosen to oversee an unconventional, risky and complex operation to rescue hostages taken by Islamic militants who overran the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Some 90 commandos from the Army’s Delta Force, who were transported in Air Force planes, and Marines flying eight Navy helicopters from an aircraft carrier, were to rendezvous at night in the Iranian desert.

“The helicopters were to fly the Delta Force troops to a site near Tehran, where they were to be transferred to trucks the following night, sneak into the Iranian capital, extract the hostages from the Embassy and bring them out of Iran aboard the choppers.

“General Vaught, who had overseen the training for the mission, was at a base in Egypt to monitor the raid. Commanders from the Army, Air Force and Marines were at the rendezvous site. The mission, designated Operation Eagle Claw, was months in the planning and had been approved by President Jimmy Carter and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the raiders never got close to Tehran. Mechanical and communications failures and an unforeseen sandstorm put three of the eight helicopters out of action, leaving one fewer than the minimum of six needed to fly the Army commandos from the desert to the Tehran area. That caused Mr. Carter to call off the operation.

“Then one of the helicopters preparing to depart crashed into a parked Air Force transport plane, causing an explosion and fireball that killed eight servicemen.

“Mr. Carter took responsibility for the mission’s failure. A report by a Pentagon commission listed numerous problems in the planning and execution of the mission and cited a lack of sufficient coordination among the service branches, though it did not assign blame to General Vaught or the commanders under him.”

To put the disaster in some perspective, the Washington Post in its story reminded readers that President Carter’s inability to gain the release of the hostages became a major issue in Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Carter’s re-election. While one hostage was released because of illness in July 1980, the remaining 52 hostages were held captive until Jan. 20, 1981, as Reagan took office.

Jefferson County Connection

“Yes,” I recalled. I remember talking as a congressional staffer with Gen. Vaught about the Iran mission and the growing fears of the New York Air Brake Co. in Watertown that it might well share in some blame in the mission’s failure. Any such blame, the company insisted, would be unwarranted.

It’s a long way from Iran to Watertown, isn’t it? Well, not as far as the company would have liked.

Here’s the story, heretofore known only in a few circles:

David O’B. Martin of Canton, the second of the three successive north country congressmen I was privileged to serve, had been in office only a short time and was still learning his way around the Capitol when Richard Griffin, a Washington insider, showed up at the office early one morning and asked for some face time.

Congressman Dave, as we called him, was out of the office, so Griffin settled for me. He introduced himself as from the New York Air Brake Co. of Watertown, actually a Washington “representative” (polite for “lobbyist”) for the company’s corporate parent, the General Railway Signal Corp.

During small talk and mutual introductions, I told him no one from New York Air Brake had ever stopped by the congressional office during my 12 years with Congressman Dave’s predecessor, Representative Robert C. McEwen of Ogdensburg. We agreed his visit was a first. We spent some time sizing each other up and agreed that we would be totally up-front with each other in a sensitive matter he was about to outline.

He went on to tell a story that if true would have done irreparable damage to the international reputation of the Watertown company — a mainstay of the Jefferson County economy for decades. Not only was the company designing and building systems for the domestic transportation industry, but it was expanding its presence worldwide. Any negative publicity could be devastating to its status in the industry. That translated to jobs, a magic word that catches immediate congressional attention.

Their Worst Fears

He said the company feared that a forthcoming investigation into the desert crash would show it was caused by a failure of a pump in the helicopters’ gear system — and that the pump would have on it a plate identifying it as a product “Manufactured by the New York Air Brake Company, Watertown, N.Y., USA.”

“The problem is,” he said, “the pump is a cheap knockoff product. It’s counterfeit. It’s inferior in every way and it could well be on other aircraft, civilian or military, here or anywhere. We can identify an FAA-certified West Coast company that is manufacturing bogus pumps of inferior quality and selling them to the government at prices we cannot match. And,” he said “they are selling them on the secondary market as genuine New York Air Brake products.”

“We know that because one of our customers told us they can buy our product cheaper on the West Coast than they can get it directly from us in Watertown,” he told me. “We know they’re cheap knockoffs because we purchased some through a third party and dissected them. They failed every one of our quality control tests — engineering through production. They are bogus.

“Our protests to every government agency with even the most remote authority over such things have fallen on deaf ears. Our threats to the counterfeiters are ignored. We need someone to shake up the bureaucrats, to get them to listen, to investigate and to take whatever action is necessary to ensure public safety.”

A Martin congressional office strategy was developed. First, we would reach out to Gen. Vaught with the question, “Could a faulty pump have caused a failure?” He spoke to us unofficially and said while it was still too early to be certain, anything was possible. That started the ball rolling.

Pleas to the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington were forwarded to its West Coast offices. After all, we were told, it was the responsibility of the FAA inspectors on the West Coast to certify the company for government contracts. Calls to them were ignored, then pooh-poohed and in early 1981 finally given cursory attention. Nonstop hounding of the FAA and the Pentagon finally caught the attention of the right people.

Action was taken, and the West Coast company shut its doors after the New York Air Brake allegations and fears were confirmed to be on target. And, hopefully, everybody lived happily forever afterward.

Postscript

After the file was closed and our success was toasted, Congressman Dave asked our new friend, Dick Griffin, to show him what one of those genuine pumps looked like. Dick brought one by a few days later. It was about the size of a grapefruit, weighed a few pounds and had some tentacle-like extensions — it looked much like textbook pictures of a human heart.

So where is this going?

Congressman Dave had a strange — some would say wacky — sense of humor, usually predictable to those close to him. That Air Brake pump became a fixture on his desk, and when he wanted to add some grins to the conversation with someone who was visiting his office he’d stare at the pump, point to it, pick it up, toss and twist it around in the palm of his hand, and ask his visitor, “Wanna know what this is?”

The visitor would usually respond, politely, “Well … I guess so. What is it?”

(I’d always bury my face in my hands, knowing what was coming.)

“It’s a mechanical heart made in Watertown” he’d say. “I like to keep one close by in case my ticker ever needs some extra horsepower. There are some counterfeits out there. I know the Iranians have one, but this is the real thing.”

Groan.

(Like the general, both Congressman Dave and Dick Griffin are now deceased. I don’t know what happened to the mechanical heart, but I’d like to have it on my desk today. I’d ask my grandkids, “Wanna know what this is?” They’d groan too, I’m pretty sure.)



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