On Liberty Ships, U.S. currency and other fading icons

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“Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are already heading.” — Bradley Rotter

We had finally reached the engine room floor of the Jeremiah O’Brien, after descending three steep metal companionways, and inching our way along spidery catwalks surrounded by steam lines, ventilators and machinery. The boilers were making steam, and the syncopated dance of the ship’s engine was powerful and mesmerizing.

I asked a uniformed oiler, a man well over 80, why the spectacle seemed so familiar.

“You’ve seen it before, that’s why,” he said. “The O’Brien’s engine room was the Titanic’s engine room in the movie.”

The Jeremiah O’Brien, now berthed near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, is one of two remaining Liberty Ships, steel freighters built during World War II to transport combat supplies, food and fuel. Altogether, 2,710 Liberty Ships were built in 18 American shipyards, using parts and equipment made by 700 companies.

More than 100,000 workers on 24-hour shifts, one-third women, built the ships with swift efficiency.

The ship is manned and maintained by an aging cadre of volunteers who understand her intricacies and idiosyncrasies.

“Most of us are in our 80s and 90s,” said one, “so we’re getting up there. But we have some bright young guys who help out, and we’re passing on what we know.”

That evening, we gathered at a friend’s San Francisco townhouse to honor him on his 70th birthday. He’s a tech entrepreneur, and many of the guests were venture capitalists, private equity investors and fellow entrepreneurs.

None of them seemed concerned about the disappearance of the manufacturing capacity which once enabled “Fortress America” to build a merchant marine fleet from scratch in less than 18 months.

It was a fact, that’s all — a fact to reckon with when making investment decisions.

“Do you know what the country’s biggest export is?” asked Brad Rotter, an entrepreneur/investor who describes himself as a “speculator.”

“Treasury bills,” said Rotter, once a blackjack card-counter.

Rotter has achieved substantial success by viewing the world as it is, not as he thinks it should be. A few years ago, he gave a now-prophetic speech at an investor’s conference titled “Investing at the Peak of U. S. Civilization.”

He thinks it’s a good idea to own some gold, if only for self-defense.

“We’re the only country in the world whose currency hasn’t collapsed,” noted Tim Collins, the evening’s honoree. “England, France, Germany — they’ve all seen their currencies collapse. You need to hedge against that.”

“(Fiat currencies) have always failed at some point,” said Rotter, “and here’s another statistic for you. During 19 of the last 20 centuries, the same country has had the largest GDP — China. So we’re just now correcting a statistical anomaly. It may be that, in our times, managed capitalism is superior to entrepreneurial capitalism. Can you imagine an American government relocating one and a half million of its citizens to build a dam?”

Rotter was once active in San Francisco Republican politics. Of that endeavor he notes wryly that “San Francisco is the only city in the nation where Nancy Pelosi is considered a conservative.”

So what’s Rotter doing nowadays, other than owning some gold? He’s investing in companies that secure computer networks against cyber-terrorism. Web War I may be next on the threat horizon, he thinks, and he invests accordingly.

Walking through the city the next morning, we came across the San Francisco Mint, an imposing granite and sandstone structure which opened on Nov. 5, 1874. The building survived the earthquake and fires of 1906, and its vaults held one-third of the nation’s gold supply during the Depression.

The gold is long gone, and the building has been vacant since 1995. The façade is crumbling, and many of the flame-shaped finials on the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the magnificent structure have been wrenched off by vandals. The building is home to swarms of pigeons.

There were plans to transform the “Old Mint” into a cultural and historic center, but they’ve stalled. Just as Colorado Springs can neither maintain nor renovate its historic city auditorium, the combined efforts of the city of San Francisco and the federal government to restore a national icon have so far come to naught.

Across the street from the Mint stands yet another iconic structure, one whose owners may have something in common with the 2,708 Liberty Ships that have been scrapped. We can only hope that they’ll be around to record the rebirth of the mint and, despite all the trends, will survive and prevail.

It’s the San Francisco Chronicle.

Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861. Watch him at 7:20 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.