Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Happy Veteran's Day - My Family Gallery

This is my paternal grandfather William Shone Williams, Private US Army in World War One. He arrived here in the US from Wales in 1906 when he was about 3 years old. Here he is during basic training at Spartanburg in 1918. He was just in time for the last push and was wounded sometime after the action  at the tunnels of St. Quentin just parallel to the Hindenburg Line. He was a "stringer" which is the guy who runs the lines fro the communications they were using back then. He was wounded shortly after that, suffering a head wound requiring a metal plate which plagued him until his premature death at age 43. He was a New York City Police Officer at the time of his passing.

This is my maternal grandfather Pincus Max Marcus who arrived in America in 1911 and left to fight in the Allenby Brigade in Palestine on the Ottoman front in 1916, even before the Americans  officially joined the war in 1917. He served with Distinction in the Kings Fusiliers, 38th through 42nd Regiments and, along with his brother Jack, was awarded the French Medal of Legion with Palms. When the war was over he had to re-enter the United States through Canada via Scotland. He went on to make and lose several fortunes before his death in the 1970's. 

World War Two came and my father's brother,Uncle Roy, served in the Navy as a Machinist Mate. He was awarded a Navy Cross for action in the  North Atlantic. After the war he went on to become a Captain and commanded his own ship.

On my mother's side her brother Walter Marcus was training for the infantry in Alabama when the war came to an end. He was always very candid about being glad he didn't have to go. But he was ready. He went on to a career as a professional gambler and lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Here's my Dad who had already done time in the Naval Reserve, diving on the submarine USS Torsk out of Connecticut in the late 1940's. He felt very put upon when the Korean War broke out and he was called back up for active service in the Army! This explains the unhappy expression he wears in the photograph.

And here I am in the late 1970's, doing my bit taking bearings on the USS Milwaukee in Panama. You can tell that I was facing danger at every turn just by the expression on my face. 

The point is that, in war or peace, the veteran has always been there. Even when they may not have agreed with the policies with which they were tasked; they were there. And that willingness to serve, in itself, is a testament to our system.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Library Cards - Passports

When I was younger I had 3 different Driver's Licenses which I used like credit cards. When one had too many points on it I would simply switch to another. That system worked well for me.

Well, now I'm a bit older and a lot more worn out. I don't travel too far these days. (My effective range is about an hour in any direction.) But with these 3 Library Cards from the 3 counties around me I have access to the whole world. They are my Passports and I am still traveling...

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"The End of the Tour" with Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel (2015)

Writing dialogue is hard enough, but how do you write a conversation? Screen writer Donald Margules shows us how in this wonderful adaptation of David Lipsky’s book “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.” (They must have shortened the title to get it on the cover of the DVD.)

David Lipsky is played wonderfully by Jesse Eisenberg. He is a writer for Rolling Stone magazine and has become enamored of David Foster Wallace’s bestselling, one thousand page page plus book. He sees a story there and convinces his bosses at Rolling Stone to let him accompany Wallace on the last leg of his book tour.

David Foster Wallace, excellently portrayed by Jason Segel, is a man who has authored a smash book about life while realizing he may not really have all the answers. This raises all kinds of questions within him about himself; as well as his sudden fame.

Initially Wallace is skeptical of Lipsky’s motives, but soon the two begin to realize that they are both very much alike. As the tour winds down they each begin to understand things about themselves which only becomes possible by observing one another. The trick is in liking what you see. A mirror can be a friend, or an enemy.

This is one of the most well written and thought provoking films I have seen this year. It explores; through the personalities of these two authors; who we really are versus who/what we would like to be. The cadence and pacing of the dialogue let the viewer feel as if they are sitting in the car; or at the table; with these two men who are both looking for themselves. And, in many ways their journey is also ours.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Humans of New York - Stories" by Brandon Stanton (2015)

Here’s a book about New Yorkers told through photographs. Each photo is accompanied by a story about the subject. These snapshots of life go beyond the visual. Beyond every picture telling a story; or even that each photo is worth a thousand words; there is a truth which only words can communicate.

Sometimes the words serve to bolster the story; but at other times they are seemingly at odds with what you see. That’s what makes this book so compelling; each page is a new adventure into the life of someone.

Look around you on the subway; we know these people. Actually, we are these people.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Fowl Owl on the Prowl" - Travis and Boomer (1967)

This is one of my favorite Halloween songs. The film “In the Heat of the Night” actually takes place just before Halloween- look at the calendars on the wall of the diner and at the Police Station. That’s why the chief wears a jacket in some of the scenes; it’s late autumn.

This song still has lots of fans- I just received this comment the other day, showing that the song is still very much appreciated.

MandocrucianOctober 27, 2015 at 11:27 AM

“The scene was filmed to the music of "Little Red Riding Hood" by Sam The Sham & The Pharoahs. Somehow the movie couldn't get synchronization rights for the song (for some stupid reason, the song publisher would only OK using the melody, not the lyrics), so Quincy Jones whipped up a substitute with the same groove and lyric idea. Sounds like Sam The Sham meets Buck Owens & Don Rich.”

Here is the original post which I have re-posted several times over the past few years.

This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie “In the Heat of the Night” which was released in 1968 and starred Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger and Lee Grant along with a host of other character actors. The film won an Academy Award and has been a favorite of mine since its release. But this scene, and the accompanying song, “Foul Owl on the Prowl” has stuck with me since. It’s a satirical country song, with the music written by none other than Quincy Jones, and the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, a husband and wife team who went on to pen some of the best theme songs on TV sitcoms.

In this scene, Ralph, the night cook at the diner in Sparta, Mississippi where the story takes place, pries open the jukebox to avoid paying a nickel to hear his favorite song. His almost comical role in this scene belies the true nature of the man, as the film bears out.

The song is almost inaudible in certain portions of the scene, and it would be about 20 years before I would hear the entire lyrics to the song, but it’s worth a listen. The lyrics concern a man, described as an owl, who is on the prowl for his next victim in the dark of night. Using various birds and rhymes, Mr. and Mrs. Bergman crafted a very clever lyric to go along with Mr. Jones’ music.

But the real surprise to me has always been that Quincy Jones, the contemporary genius of jazz, was able to write this melody, which is so far afield from his usual genre. It serves to underscore the sheer musical talent inherent in the man. You either have it, or you don’t. Clearly, Mr. Jones has it.

If you have never heard the full recorded version by Boomer and Travis, then here is your chance. Just hit the link below and listen to Boomer and Travis perform this quirky little number which has quite a cult following; including me. The lyrics are printed below the link.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"The Genius Child" by Langston Hughes

This poem by Langston Hughes was part of a collection of his poetry published in 1958. I am unsure of which of his many published works it first appeared in. No matter; it made a great impression upon me when I was about 13 and first read it. I was reminded of it just this week while reading "One Righteous Man" by Arthur Browne. It is the story of Langston Hughes unpublished book about the life of Samuel Battle, New York City's first African-American Police Officer.

What makes this poem so unusual for Mr. Hughes is that it is a poem of personal despair. He wrote about his personal struggle between art and making a living in a letter to Maxim Lieber dated December 30, 1935. In that letter he said, “I’ll just let Art be a sidekick like it used to be in the days I was a busboy and was at least sure of my meals.” 

This poem is at least partially about the author and his longing to have a “normal” job, rather than being a sometimes broke author/poet/activist. Having a vision and trying to fulfill that dream is never an easy task; it is often a burden. It’s lucky for us Langston Hughes could carry that weight…

The Genius Child

This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can -
Lest the song get out of hand.

Nobody loves a genius child.

Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him - and let his soul run wild.

Friday, October 23, 2015

"Our Man in Charleston" by Christopher Dickey (2015)

This book tells the story of the diplomatic efforts which kept Great Britain from recognizing the government of the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Moreover, it tells the story of how and why that eventuality was avoided.

As the North and South grew ever closer to war in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency, there was another war; unseen by most at the time; taking place between Washington and Downing Street, the outcome of which could turn the tide of the Civil War.

To understand this book you need to have some rudimentary background about both the United States and Great Britain as relating to the cotton crop. And that is not as simple as you may have been led to believe.

The North desperately needed to keep Southern cotton from reaching England. Had it done so it would have financed the war for the South; while plunging the North further into debt.  Moreover, the United States would have had to take a stand against Britain and risk a war which would have us fighting the British to the North,  as they came down from Canada, at the same time we would have to fight a full scale insurrection to the South and West.

As it turned out, morality; rather than just a quest for victory; came to play in this drama. And that morality surprisingly came from London. Well, maybe it’s not such a surprise after all, as the British had abolished slavery throughout the United Kingdom even as we were fighting the American Revolution here in America. So the British had a vested interest in seeing the Union win the moral contest. At least that is how Her Majesty’s government saw it.

But the other side of the British coin was that the lack of cotton from America; with not enough cotton from Egypt or Africa; had the mills of Lancashire silent as there was no cotton to weave. BY 1862 there were hundreds of thousands out of work and literally starving. So the working class of England wanted to recognize the Confederacy, if only to put food back on their tables. But Prince Albert; consort to Queen Victoria; had worked his entire life to end the African Slave Trade, and he was not about to let the progress he had made toward that goal fall victim to what he considered to be a short term economic problem.

But, even as we were on the brink of war with Britain on one point, we were closer to her on another. The problem was how to exploit the latter, while downplaying the former. There were several people involved in this seemingly impossible task, and all played crucial roles in keeping the situation from spinning out of control.

To begin with there was the English Consul in Charleston, Robert Bunch, who came to America in 1853 and therefore had a bird’s eye view of the developing friction between the North and South. This background was invaluable in shaping his opinions and actions in the opening days of the Civil War, while he was still allowed to dwell in Charleston even though the British Government had not recognized the South diplomatically. And while he was there he used his time to send intelligence reports back to Downing Street informing them of every development and how they would affect the Crown should she decide to recognize the new nation.

The other chief player in this drama was American Secretary of State Seward, who vacillated between belligerence and diplomacy in his efforts to keep us out of war with the English. A mercurial man at best, he used the threat of war with England to avoid actually going to war with them, and much to everyone’s surprise; including his own; we never did have to fight that war.

1862 was a pivotal year for this whole diplomatic contretemps. While this dance was taking place the United States seized British packet steamer Trent as she left Cuba bound for London with former US Senator James Mason and Louisiana Senator John Slidell aboard. American Navy Captain Charles Wilkes; commanding the American steamer USS San Jacinto; intercepted the Trent and boarded her, removing the 2 Southerners and returning them to the United States. The British were furious. This is the point at which Prince Albert shines the most brightly. This episode became known as the Trent Affair.

Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell drafted an ultimatum to the United States, directed at the much despised Secretary of State Seward, giving the United States one week form receipt of the ultimatum to release the two diplomats. It lacked only the approval of Queen Victoria to become a reality.

And this is where history gives us a fine example of the randomness of all things. The Queen was busy getting dressed for a dinner party and was not to be bothered. Albert, on the other hand, was ill with the early stages of the typhoid which would end his life in only a few more days, and so he decided to remain behind. That is how he came to see the draft of the ultimatum before the Queen did. He simply changed it to read “Her Majesty’s government is unwilling to believe that the United States intended wantonly to put an insult upon this country.”

Now Seward had a way to wiggle out of; and also explain; why the United Sates had taken the action it had. You must remember that Albert was faced with the prospect of recognizing the Confederacy and that would entail allowing the African Slave Trade to continue; thus destroying his legacy. This was made very plain to the Confederate Secretary of State via the released Senator Mason.

At about the same time the Lincoln administration was seeking to assure the Crown that there would be no reconciliation with the South if slavery were not abolished outright.  Lincoln crafted the Emancipation Proclamation to deny the South the necessary labor to carry on the cotton trade and also satisfy the Crown that slavery, where it already existed in the United States; and which Lincoln was willing to live with as per his 1861 Inaugural address; was gone forever. 

This bond between the 2 nations was the actual linchpin which kept England from trying to influence the war. It was a highly noble stance, especially considering the economic implications which would result from the decision not to recognize the Confederacy.

This is a highly charged piece of history which has been skillfully crafted by the author. The quotes from Robert Bunch are extraordinary, and I will include one which lends much insight into the mind of this diplomat cum intelligence agent;

“Other nations; especially those enlightened and more old fashioned in their notions; rebel and fight for Liberty. South Carolina; and the Confederacy; are prepared to do the same for Slavery.”

Reading this book is essential to a full understanding of the diplomatic war which was raging even as the canons were firing and the grape flying. It underscores the old adage that the “Pen is mightier than the sword.” But for the agreement between the United States and Great Britain, the Civil War just might have taken a different turn.