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Original Issue


To a passionate angler like Sol Lamport, the only sensible use for a boat is to catch fish. But so long as there are fools who prefer to go sailing, Sol will sell them sailcloth

Sol Lamport, ex-marine, fisherman and refugee from the Russian Revolution, is not a man who cares much for sailing or sailboats. Or even sailors, for the matter of that. "Big-boat sailors are snobs," says Sol bluntly, in the rich, velour accents of New York's garment district. "They got lotsa money, and they got no time for me. One day this guy will call me in my office and say, 'Hey, Sol, how's this?' or, 'How's that?' or, 'How's the other thing?' and ask my advice. The next day this same guy will pass me and my Lydia in his yacht club without even a hello or something." Small-boat sailors, Sol concedes, are different. "They don't give a damn so long as you make for them good fabric."

Yet Sol Lamport and all sailors, big and small, exist happily together in a seagoing symbiosis. Without Sol's sailcloth many a sailor would be adrift under bare poles with nothing to drive his boat forward. Without sailors to buy his cloth, Sol would probably still be pushing yard goods for the big textile firm of Alexander Lamport & Bro. in the eight to 10 bracket. Eight to 10 thousand dollars, that is.

"There's two kinds people," Sol will explain to anyone who will listen, always insisting he doesn't care a fig for money. "There's those who make eight to 10 and those who make 10 to 80." There was never any question in Sol's mind which group he wanted to belong to, and sailors and sailboats provided the means. "For a man who knows so little about sailing, Sol sure made plenty of money out of it," was the way one sailmaker put it.

Sol Lamport discovered sails and sailing during the early 1950s, with some of the same overwhelming sense of arrival that the Hebrews felt on reaching the Promised Land. He and the company he worked for were both seeking new fields to conquer. "I was looking around for something people couldn't do without," says Sol, "and I discovered leisure. Leisure is like potatoes and flour. People can't do without potatoes. They can't do without flour. Leisure they can't do without either." Now, Sol asked himself, how does one combine the textile business with leisure to their mutual advantage? Camping? He investigated tents and sleeping bags. No. Golf bags? Fishing tackle? Nothing. Skiing parkas? Still nothing. So Sol took a weekend off and went up to Buzzard's Bay on a fishing trip.

"I've always been a fisherman," he says. "When my father was alive and I was a boy 8, 9 years old back in Russia he used to take me fishing. I can still remember the first fish I caught. It was some kind of Russian sunfish nearly as big as my hand. When I got older and had enough money for a bike I bought a rod instead. So now, whenever I have time, I go fishing. Well, this day I was fishing Buzzard's Bay in Massachusetts when these boats came by and, boy, it must have been one of the big regattas, and I was impressed by the amount of canvas hanging on the boats. This is about 12, 13 years ago, going back to '52 or '53. Here, all of a sudden, I see what looked to me like a million yards canvas staring in my face. There must have been only 50, 60 boats instead of the 2,000 I saw, but to me it looked like 4,000. Right then there was like a light going pop in my head. 'Lamport can make that stuff,' I said to myself. It was simple as that." Well, almost as simple. But first Sol the salesman had to convince his bosses there was a market.

It was not too difficult. At that time yacht sails, for the most part, were still made of canvas or, more specifically, heavy cotton imported from Europe or North Africa. This material was cursed with a multitude of drawbacks. It turned black with mildew if stuffed away wet in a sailbag. It was heavy and cumbersome and about as tractable as corrugated iron when soaked with spray. Worst of all, it changed its shape if not handled as carefully as a medieval tapestry.

The chemical marvels developed in World War II offered yachtsmen a bright hope of release from these miseries, and sailmakers were beginning to look longingly at the new wonder fabrics, nylon, Dacron and Orion. Du Pont and others were making the thread, but the companies that wove it into cloth showed little interest in the sailmakers' needs. "They made cloth in only a few weights," Sol explains, "and if you were a sail-maker you bought those weights or you didn't buy at all." The thought that struck Sol on Buzzard's Bay that day was that his firm could fill the gap by weaving cloth expressly for sailmakers. Armed with statistics and inventories, Sol persuaded the other Lamports to start a separate sailcloth business with him as its head.

"I figured it would cost Lamport a quarter of a million to set up. For them it would be a gamble," he says as he tells about it today, "and for me, too. But it would mean getting out of the eight to 10 and into the 10 to 80 crowd. I told my wife Lydia, 'If it don't work, we're broke. Nobody's gonna hire me. Nobody loses a quarter-million dollars easy, you know."

As it turned out, nobody got to lose anything. Sol's hard sell hit the nation's sail lofts like a September hurricane and, rather than attempt to stand up against this unwonted gale from the garment district, the sailmen simply ordered and reordered Sol's goods and found them good.

Sol himself is convinced that his methods are the epitome of the soft sell. "I can't talk too good," he was saying to a prospective customer over the phone in his office recently, "but I tell you this much. I don't never knock my competition. Never. Never, never. But you take this guy's goods. You can pull it apart with your hands. Yes, pull it apart." Sol cradled the phone for a moment so that he could grasp the obscene material made by one of the dozen other sailcloth weavers and pull it apart in pantomime. "This goods of mine," he went on when the phone was picked up again, "you gotta cut it with scissors."

The dramatic point made, Sol, breathing heavily in a laryngitic gasp, settled back to quieter persuasion. "All in all," he said, "we got something very nice here in this material. If you like the cloth, give me a break. If you don't like it, tell me. Please believe me, there's no strings attached—nothing." Sol paused, sucked in a thread of air and waited for the inevitable order.

Sales resistance, if he even knows the meaning of the word, is not a hardship Sol Lamport has suffered much from. Anyone who survived World War I, the Russian Revolution and the famine that followed has to learn to cope with the world as it is, and Sol has been an apt pupil. His mother died right after the war, his father a year later. What was left of the Lamport family—Sol and two brothers—had to scramble to stay alive. "We did the best we could for a while," says Sol, like a man who has almost forgotten how crushing the horror was, "then the Hoover Commission began to send us food parcels." The commission did more than send food. It provided a direct link to cousins in America, who traced him through the package labels. Sol and his brothers were brought to the U.S. and deposited on a farm in the Connecticut tobacco country, where Sol split his time between the tobacco fields and learning English at school. Two years later, at 16, Sol decided to quit school and go to work in his relatives' textile business, first in New York, later in Chicago.

It worked out all right, but after a few years Sol got bored with textiles. He quit and went to work, in his words, "as an amateur photographer for a professional newspaper. I picked absolutely the wrong time. It was right in the middle of the Depression and, because I was the youngest, I was the first to go." Bad times were followed by good, which were followed by bad, until another war came along. By then, plump, 30ish and married to Lydia, Sol decided to join up. "I picked the Marine Corps," he says, "because I was sure they'd reject me. But you know what? They took me. Seriously, I was glad to go. When I was an orphan in Russia I saw people starving on the streets. This country was good to me, and any time things got rough at Parris Island I'd tell myself, 'Nothing can be tougher than my childhood.' " Most of Sol's fellow boots were kids 17 or 18 years old. "But," he says, "I made up my mind the secret was to use your head with your muscle. And you know? It worked. Anything anybody could do I could do it better—in spades. I could run better, drill better, fight better, do everything better. But only once. I had to do it right the first time. I couldn't make it the second."

Even in the Marine Corps Sol's persuasive gift of selling came in handy. "I had one drill instructor who was a real snot," he remembers. "He used to ride me morning, noon and night. So four days before I left Parris Island I went to another DI and told him I wanted permission to take this other guy out in the sandpile. He said it was O.K. by him. The only thing was, I knew this DI I wanted to fight could beat the hell out of me, he was so much younger and stronger. Anyhow, I went up to him and I told him this, I told him I was going to break his nose and split his mouth. I told him I was going to bust his arms and legs. I told him I was going to make him so his mother wouldn't recognize him. And you know what?" says Sol with mock surprise. "He backed off." (Not surprisingly, the Marine Corps claims no knowledge of this surrender.)

Amazingly enough, Sol left boot camp in one piece and with, according to him, the highest IQ of any enlisted man on the island. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, the Marines shipped him to photography school. There was one minor hitch, though. Algebra was a prerequisite for the school, and since Sol could hardly write let alone solve an equation, there was nothing for it but to teach himself the fundamentals of x and y. Taking the photo course with him were a clutch of college men, who were themselves badly in need of a refresher course in math. "They'd forgotten what they'd learned, and I was learning from the beginning," says Sol. "So you know what? You know what? I taught them. How do you like that? A Russian orphan with a fourth-grade education teaching college men."

During the war Midway was a rock covered with a few thousand servicemen and 10 gooney birds for every man. It was there that Photographer Sol was sent to make an occasional flight in a TBF or TBD. Mostly though, he practiced as a rockbound Sergeant Bilko. "I was nearly the lowest-rated marine on Midway, but I was an operator," Sol says. "Somebody once said I ran Midway. That's not true, but I did have a general threaten me once. He said, 'Don't you pull your stripe on me, private. I've got a star.' "

When the war ended, Operator Sol became a textile man again. The family firm was seeking ways to diversify its industrial line, and Sol was put to work thinking about it. A few years later, when his notion about sailcloth turned into the biggest single moneymaker at Lamport, Sol moved his family from their Bronx walk-up to a vaguely pink house in Massapequa, Long Island that boasted a two-car garage, nine extension phones and a gravel lawn. "You don't have to mow gravel," Sol explains.

Far more important to Sol than the gravel lawn and the two-car garage, however, were the racks of fishing rods that lined the basement. Sol, who has been known to fish for cod in the middle of winter in an open boat with a mile-long handline, owns rods, reels and plugs of every kind, including a 14-karat-gold job that is more joke than jig. "I think like a fish, I feel like a fish, I would rather fish than do anything," he says.

Away from the water Sol never stops tinkering with his tackle, occasionally with profit. Says Sol: "I had this Mitchell reel once that had parts inside that used to bind. But I had an idea how to fix it." He stripped the reel, drilled a hole in the binding spindle and, presto, it worked. Reel in hand, deal in mind, Sol trotted off to the manufacturer. "They were so pleased that they said they wanted to do something for me. 'O.K.,' I said. 'Give me a thousand bucks.' It ended up with them giving me $500 cash and $500 in merchandise."

Lydia Lamport was happy back there in The Bronx. "I can remember the hot nights when the soot came in the window," she says with a sigh. "Those were happy days."

For 14 years Sol was even happier in Massapequa with his wife, his fishing and his talented daughter playing the flute for callers. "You see that flute," he would say proudly. "Looks just like a piece pipe, eh? Well, it ain't. Nearly $500 it cost me, that piece pipe." Then, as dark-haired Janet trilled through a scale, "You hear that value? Such value she's got. Thirteen teachers and they all gave up on her. 'She's better than me,' they would say. Now she's got a teacher, you should see her. She stares at the throat and screams, 'No, you're not doing it right, do it again.' Embroushard, my daughter's got. Such a natural embroushard!"

But, like Lydia's Bronx, Sol's Massapequa is gone now, spoiled by too much success. Last year Sol moved his sailcloth enterprise right out of the family firm, sold his pink house, watched his son marry and his daughter go off to college and set up in business on his own. In Putnam, Conn., of all places.

Before the transfer, Sol worked in a dusty, musty, high-ceilinged clutch of rooms jammed with bits and pieces of machinery for testing, weighing and cutting his cloth. An air of improvisation hung everywhere, but it mixed happily with a sense of vitality. The new factory is different. Built so that it abuts Putnam-Herzl, the plant that does most of Sol's finishing, Sol's new place has the clean, antiseptic smell of a modern factory. His own huge, paneled office even features a plush bathroom with a polished-brick door.

Sol sells two basic cloths: filmy nylon for spinnakers, available in seven different colors, and heavier Dacron, in white only for jibs, mains and staysails. The cloth does not always turn out the way Sol or his sailmaker customers think it should, and then Sol has several choices. He can reprocess it, sell it at a reduced rate as sailbag material, turn it into tapes for edging sails, salvaging, say, 18 inch panels out of a 36-inch panel or eat it.

To keep his diet nylon-free, Sol is constantly experimenting to make a better cloth than such competitors as, for instance, Ted Hood, who doesn't make much sailcloth but what he makes is the best there is. "We do a lot of experimental work," Sol says. "We are constantly running trial lots, doing the same thing only a little bit better. We're also trying different things from scratch with different types of finishes, different machines and chemicals. We've even made experiments on something we knew wouldn't work—just to get it out of our systems."

Sol's new home is a modern facsimile of an old New England saltbox, set among a grove of trees and surrounded by a neat stone wall. His front window now overlooks an everyday grass slope instead of a gravel lawn. Beyond lies the spiritless town of Woodstock, Conn. ("You got to be a closet drinker here"), which supports a pair of gas stations, a red-and-white general store and a lonely barbershop.

Sol, an authentic country squire now, is vaguely puzzled by all this rural bliss. "Of course," he says, "we love the house very much. It is a very easy, comfortable house, but—" and his voice trails off. "Just after a week when we came here," Sol adds a minute later, "we began to meet people, and we began seriously asking, 'What about social life here?' Well, they told me, there isn't very much. Later on in the season, they say, Winsted opens up its stores. There's a concert once in a while. There's some shows that are not professional but quite good. There's a football game on Saturday afternoon. It goes mostly like that. You work, you get home, have a cocktail before dinner, don't eat too early, wash up, clean up, come down, have a light dinner, watch TV with your wife and go to bed. That's what they told me. Well, that just about covers one night a month for me," growls Sol, who, ironically, now lives not far from the tobacco fields he worked in 42 years ago. "I still have a problem with the other 29, 30 nights."

But that's not the worst thing success has done to the man who makes upward of 100,000 yards of sailcloth a month. The worst thing is "I haven't done any fishing at all since I'm up here in this northern area."