The Morgan Connection
In January 2013, my father, Lindsay Lafford, then 100 years old, was 15 months into his Health Center residency at Friendship Village (Tempe, AZ), following a catastrophic fall in Dayton, Ohio. My sister, Julia, was visiting from back east, and as she and I drove up Loop 101 to the gift shop at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Scottsdale, we noticed that Jay Leno's February appearance was advertised on the Talking Stick Resort/Casino marquee. She commented that she had always thought my father, a fellow auto-enthusiast with a lifetime of interesting stories, would have been an interesting guest on his show; I shared that I had been thinking it would be cool to try to get Jay Leno down to say hello to my father, since they both had had Morgan 3-wheelers, just about 80 years apart. And Jay had just featured his Morgan on his YouTube channel earlier that month: https://youtu.be/2xcITHevPrc
Jay's 1932 Morgan, screen capture from the website video https://youtu.be/2xcITHevPrc
As a car collector, Jay (or his people) would be expected to be at the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction that was coming up that January weekend in Scottsdale, and I thought I might be able to get word to him that a centenarian whose first car was a Morgan 3-wheeler would be just ten minutes down the road from the Casino and his show in February, and would he like to come say hello? So I created a flyer to spread around to the TV crew I might encounter at the auction:
The flyer with the pitch.
The back of the flyer, with some of my father's website, featuring his cars. (http://lord-of-ridley.com/transport/)
Well, it worked...sort of. One of the SpeedTV reporters, Justin Bell, knew some of the Leno folks, and got the flyer to them! The email exchange with Jay's assistant, Helga, the week before the show, went something like this:
Helga: Sorry, Jay is flying in and out just for the show, and won't have any time to get away. Would you be able to come up to the show? I'll get you some tickets.
Me: Yes, I guess we could make it.
Helga: Oh, sorry, I just learned that it's a sell-out, so there aren't any tickets. Maybe next time.
Me: Could we maybe come see him in the green room before the show?
Helga: No, that won't work...there's no real time for that.
Me: Oh, well. Could you at least put a copy of the flyer on Jay's desk, so he knows about it?
Helga: OK, I've put the whole email thread on Jay's iPad.
Me: OK, thanks.
So, I thought that was probably the end of it, until... that Sunday evening, the night of the show, my cell phone rang about 7:00 PM with an "UNKNOWN CALLER." Expecting a solicitation phone call, I answered brusquely:
The caller: Hello, PETER?
Me: Yeah, this is Peter. Who's this?
The caller: Hey, Peter, this is Jay Leno. I just got into town for the show. I'm sorry I won't be able to see your father this trip. Does he ever get over to LA? He could come see the garage, and come to a taping of The Tonight Show.
Me: Well, he doesn't really travel much, but maybe we can work it out.
The caller: OK, well see if you can... We'll set him up with Betty White! You've got the number at the studio, right. Give us a call, and they'll put it through, OK? Well, I have to go, now. Bye!
So, better than a green room handshake, we had an invitation to tour Jay Leno's garage, and to attend a taping of The Tonight Show! All we had to do was fly to Burbank and back, but it would be my father's first trip out of the Valley in a year and a half!
The following Tuesday, February 19, I called Jay's office and spoke with Helga, explaining that Jay had invited us over for a private tour of the Big Dog Garage, and to attend a taping of The Tonight Show. She had me call over to the garage to schedule that visit, and gave me another contact at NBC to arrange the studio visit. Picking a Wednesday in March, that gave us a month for reasonable Southwest tickets, and time for my brother, Llewellyn, and my sister, Julia, to arrange to come out from the east to complete the nuclear family expedition.
I planned the day with minute-by-minute precision, back-tracking from the 5:00 PM taping of The Tonight Show down at the Burbank Studios, and the 11:00 AM tour at the Big Dog Garage, just off the north runway of Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. Factor in an hour to deplane, get the rental car and drive to the other side of the airport, and that meant a 9:00 AM one-hour flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor (no time change with Arizona skipping Daylight Savings), 7:00 AM check-in, allowing for extra wheelchair time, 6:30 AM departure from Friendship Village, 6:00 AM special breakfast, 5:30 AM wake-up call. Then on the return end, the 9:00 return flight, 10:00 back in Phoenix, 11:00 back to Friendship Village: a long day for anyone, let alone a centenarian, but surely the adrenaline would help.
The Big Day for the trip to the Big Dog Garage arrives! Airport Expedition, Phase I
To deal with occasional breathing issues under exertion, we sometimes had my father on oxygen when out and about, and we always had oxygen on hand. We even bought a portable oxygen concentrator, with state-of-the-art Lithium Ion batteries good for hours of support. I noted that it was airline-certified for on-board use, and had the documentation to that effect. Even though my father's breathing was good, we wanted the peace-of-mind of having the POC with us for the flight, and made sure the batteries were fully charged.
Despite all the planning, however, you can always count on a curve ball or two to come your way. The first curve ball was when the TSA wouldn't let us take the special assist handle along, to insert in the car door latch providing better leverage to get in and out of the car. Though only about seven inches long, it was too much like a weapon to be allowed in the cabin, and since we were not checking any luggage (to speed up the arrival), I opted to run it back to the car in the garage upstairs, while Julia and Llewellyn carried on to the gate with Dad, where I would catch up to them in a few minutes. Crisis #1 (minor) handled.
The second curve ball was being asked for the Doctor's statement that my father needed to have the oxygen concentrator to fly. I hadn't anticipated that, and chances of getting one before boarding the plane at 8:30 were slim to none, but at 7:30 AM, I went ahead a left an urgent message on the Doctor's answering machine asking them to fax the required statement to Southwest and to my eFax number, which I could receive on my iPhone. In the mean time, I started to explore options:
Me: OK, could we check the POC underneath?
Southwest gate agent (sympathetic but rule-bound): No, the Lithium Ion batteries could not go in the cargo area.
Me: Could we take out the batteries to keep in the cabin, and put the POC underneath... no, the batteries were not removable by mortal man.
Southwest: Do you really need it? You could leave it here.
Me: With such a long, exhausting day, we really thought my father might need it somewhere along the line. Could we take it along in the cabin, but promise not to use it?
Southwest: Well, if you promise that you won't use it, and acknowledge that if your father needs oxygen, you'll have to declare a medical emergency and be diverted to the nearest airport for landing, we'll let you take it along.
Taking a deep breath (easy for ME), and checking with Dad, we agreed. I figured if we could get at least half-way, and there WERE any issues, the nearest airport might still be Burbank, anyway. And away we went. (I held my breath for the first half of the flight, but Dad did fine the whole flight!) Crisis #2 (major) handled. (Soon after we landed, I received the eFax on my iPhone of the statement from the Doctor that would allow us to have the POC on-board, available for use, for the flight back.)
As we landed in Burbank, we split up for Airport Expedition, Phase II. Julia and I set off to get the rental car, leaving Llewellyn to negotiate Dad off the plane on the truck-based elevator out the right-side galley door, since Bob Hope Airport doesn't have jetways! All that went smoothly, and by 10:30, we were in the car starting to find our way to the north-west side of the airport and the Big Dog Garage!
Buzzed in at the sliding security gate, we were met by Bob Sales, one of Jay's long-time mechanics at the garage, who knows loads about all the cars, and was prepared to drive us around the two buildings in his golf cart for an hour-long tour. With Dad in a wheelchair, however, it was a good excuse for us to walk around, letting Bob give us the spiel from the cart. It was still "look but don't touch", and absolutely no photography (the picture below is between the two buildings), but Dad was so engaged and adding plenty of first-person history to the automotive discussion, by the time we finished, Bob had given us a two-hour private tour of one of the most amazing collections of automobiles from around the world, each one road-ready and pristine. We did see Jay's Morgan (pictured above), and Dad pointed out how his was similar in "this" way, and different in "that" way. As for the rest of the garage, I simply refer you to Jay's website, with plenty of pictures and videos (http://JayLenosGarage.com).
The Lafford Clan with Big Dog Garage mechanic Bob Sales, between the two main buildings, following our two-hour private tour. The only place photography IS allowed!
Done with the tour about 1:00, we had about two hours to make it down to the Burbank Studios. That gave us time to find lunch at a Denny's on the way, and then get in touch with our contact at the studio to have the Security folks let us in and park. Then we were ushered up past the long lines of regular audience hopefuls and soon into the studio to get settled in the front row, about 4:00. The warm-up comedian came and started to entertain the studio audience about 4:15, and used a Tonight Show golf towel to make an effort to help Dad stay warm in the chilly studio (kept cold against the stage lighting), and Jay came out himself in his denims about 4:45 for a little pre-show back and forth. Then the band came out, and the tape started rolling at 5:00. The monologue, shtik, guests, band, and musical guest band to wrap up flew by, and it was 6:00! By virtue of our special orange Tonight Show stickers, we were brought back stage to the Green Room, where, in a few minutes, we were ushered in for a nice ten-minute chat with Jay. "Grandpa," Jay shouted..."So you had a Morgan 3-wheeler!" And they compared notes. Llewellyn mentioned that he and Jay had talked after a show back in the '70's on Long Island or somewhere, and Jay said, "Oh, that must have been in so-and-so..." Julia and I had our say, the official photographer popped in for the mandatory photograph (below), and our visit was complete.
The Lafford Clan with Jay Leno in the Green Room.
As we started to stage our own selfie in front of the studio before getting back in the car and heading back to the airport, a friendly NBC page in the lot offered to take the parting picture, below:
The Lafford Clan outside the Burbank Studios.
Then we had an easy drive back to the airport by about 7:00, grabbing some drive-thru sustenance on the way. Without a real time-crunch, we turned in the rental car together, and checked in for the return flight with plenty of time. We even had a moment to relax and catch our breath out at the gate, and time to start to process the wonderful day we had had. Dad's stamina was great, and there were no breathing issues the whole day, though this time, we didn't have to fight to bring the Portable Oxygen Concentrator along. It was an easy one-hour flight back to Phoenix, and we were back to Friendship Village by 11:00, with Dad ready for bed by midnight. We were all past ready for a good night's sleep. But the memory of the momentous day is one my father cherished until he died in April 2014, about a year later. It is certainly a family experience that we cherish to this day.
The Tonight Show golf towel and photo, in Lindsay's room at Friendship Village, Tempe, AZ.
As a footnote, the reader interested in learning more about my father's automotive history is referred to the three-part posting on the http://ClassicCars.com website, accessed with this short link: http://links.asu.edu/LLcars1, which was extracted from my father's website (http://lord-of-ridley.com/transport/) by Larry Edsall, shown in this picture taken at the first annual Arizona Concours d'Elegance at The Arizona Biltmore in January 2014.