Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mercury - The Insignificant Planet

Mercury is often called the "most elusive" planet. It appears on schedule, of course, but is not always clearly visible, due mostly to the time it rises or sets. Being one of the dimmer planets makes it fade amongst the myriad of other stars when it appears too long after sunset. So it isn't very often we get to see it this clearly.

And that's what you get for the next 10 days or so. Mercury; the elusive, almost insignificant planet, visible to the naked eye. But to see it, you need to find it first. And it's not that hard. Here's how;

The planet Venus,the brightest of all the planets, is clearly visible as it sets just about an hour or so after sunset. I'm at 35 degrees laitude here, so make your adjustments. But basically you neeed only look to the West about an hour or so after sunset and the first, possibly only, thing you will see is a bright star. That's Venus and it's a planet. It glows with the reflection of the sun, which has already dipped below the horizon. The same phenomenon lights our Moon.

Now, to find Mercury, our elusive, insignificant planet, just look 45 degrees down to the right.(Like the hour hand pointing to three-thirty.) Just above the horizon you will see, hopefully, a small, almost reddish, starlike object. That's Mercury, reflecting the reddish glow from the setting sun.

Now, you're asking, why this is important. Here's why. It reveals to the naked eye and all our senses, just how tiny and insignificant we really are. It calls out, clearly, that " we are but a speck of dust." I don't know who said it. I'd need to look it up. And isn't it written that "What is Man that Thou regardest him... He is but a blade of grass to be cut down, to wither and to die." Again, maybe not word for word, but you see where I'm going with this.

Someday, when we all get beyond our petty differences we will realize the basic truth that is so apparent when you look at Mercury, the "insignificant planet." If we would all just realize how small we are in the grand scheme of things, then we could achieve our greatest goals. It's really that simple.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Libby Prison Breakout" by Joseph Wheelan


The Civil War was anything but "civil." It was fought with cruelty on both sides. This book concerns the notorious "Libby" Prison in Richmond. The prison was located in a series of three adjoining warehouses that had been the home to a ship chandler by the name of Luther Libby. He had purchased it prior to the war from the original owner, John Enders, in 1852. When the Confederacy commandeered the buildings for use as a prison, the sign Mr. Libby had hung above the entrance with the name "Libby and Son", would cement his name into history forever, through no fault of his own.

The book tells three intertwined stories, each of great interest and each dependent upon the other.

The first part of the story is an examination of the state of affairs in Richmond, the Capitol of the Confederacy during the days leading up to the war. In this phase we are introduced to Elizabeth Van Lew, a Southern, aristocratic woman, born in the North and with deep Union sympathies. She is also a woman of courage and action. She uses her social position to assist the Union in espionage concerning troop strengths and positions. She also organizes an "underground railway" for Union prisoners who manage to escape the deplorable conditions within the walls of Libby Prison.

The authors' description of Richmond and the food shortages coupled with the lack of clothing and building materials conjure up the scenes of Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind". They are simply that vivid.

At the same time as Ms. Van Lew is working outside the prison, the men inside are anything but idle. They are stealing, buying and otherwise engaged in any way that they can to stay alive. They even manage to buy civilian clothing with money smuggled in to them and some are able to simply walk out in this manner. But these are rare exceptions.

While all this is happening, two Union officers, Colonel Rose and Major Hamilton, have begun their own separate attempts at escaping the worst prison since the British prison ship Jersey, located in Brooklyn, New York. After seperate failures they team up to dig a tunnel beneath the walls and into the sewer system in an attempt to escape. They try three times before they succeed.

The book also examines the principles of war, if there are any. Which allegiance is stronger? The duty to one's country, or to humanity? The author compares some of the atrocities of the British during the Revoutonary War with the actions of both the North and the South against one another in the Civil War. You will be surprised at who was doing what to whom, and how little that war has changed in the intervening years. Only the technology is different. The brutality is not.

Finally it is the story of a mass prison escape in which 109 Union officers made their way to freedom. Once they were out of the prison, Ms. Van Lew and her group of activists (which included some of the slaves) manage to hide, supply and transport these men back to Union lines. Some of the means they employ are ingenious, some are simply daring and required nerves of steel.

One further aspect to this book, that makes it more than just another escape story, is the authors use of the subject to explore the policy of "unrestricted warfare". Is it just to use prisoners as bargaining chips? Must we stand on principle when dealing with enemies that abuse and torture our own captives? These were some of the questions faced by President Lincoln and his Generals in dealing with the Confederacy. While we officially rejected the policies of "unrestricted warfare" we cannot ignore Andersonville, the notorious Union hell hole along the Kansas-Missouri border, where "unrestricted warfare" was the norm. General Shermans "March to the Sea" also comes to mind as an example of Northern abuse.

A vividly written book, you will look forward to each chapter as the author takes you through the paces. And you will be surprised, or maybe not, at the relevance of the issues raised here, to the events of today as they pertain to war.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Happy 1st Birthday Rooftop Reviews!

Well, it has been one year ago today since I started this blog. It was an impulse based on boredom. And when I saw that my freind Suzy at Garden Lust Journal had a blog, well, I just had to have one too!

The name kind of popped into my head - and the best rooftop photo I had was the one you see and I have grown attached to over the 15 years or so that it has hung on the bedroom wall of wherever my wife, Sue, and I have lived. Currently, that is North Carolina.

Originally I was going to compare books with the movies that were made from them, but somehow I got sidetracked into everything from a short autobiography in 31 installments to book and movie reviews as well as music and theater. I actually did get around to doing a couple of comparisons with movies and books here. It was a surprise to me as well!

I have met and corresponded with so many different people through this site. Most comments come as e-mails, my address is posted right at the top. The correspondents range from authors such as Boris Gindin to Tommy Chong. (I'm still smiling from that one!) I have communicated with Mafia hitmen and ex FBI agents. My favorite in that category has been Abraham Bolden, he was the first African-American Secret Service Agent. Appointed by Eisenhower, he was later placed on the Kennedy White House detail. A very spiritual person, with a very interesting story to tell.

I get almost no negative e-mails, well that depends on your point of view. I did have one Aryan fellow e-mail me to tell me how right I was in my assesment of a particular book. I had to re-read the book to make sure that I was not going crazy!

So this is a day off for me- I can't believe I stuck it out for a year already. I don't post every day, more like 4 or 5 times a week. I avoid politics and religion. There are already too many divisive voices out here. I like to think of this site as an oasis. I hope you do as well, and thanks for stopping in. It really means alot to me that you do.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fort Macon, North Carolina

After the War of 1812 and the destruction of Washington, D.C. by the British, the United States Government realized the need for more coastal defenses along the line of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Only the strategic placement of that fort prevented the capture of Baltimore by the British. Foreign invasion was getting to be a problem. The Spanish had invaded Beaufort in 1747 and the British had come the same way in 1782. Public sentiment after the last minute victory in New Orleans in 1814 demanded action.

So between 1817 and 1834 the U.S. government built 40 more forts from Maine to the Gulf Coast and even in California. Fort Macon, located in Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina was one of these forts. The fort is designed as a pentagon, much like Fort McHenry in Baltimore with a series of trenches, redoubts and moats. All of the brickwork is beautifully done. The structure is so pleasing to the eye that it is hard to think of it as a place of battle.

Construction began in 1826 and the work was completed in 1834 at a cost of $463,000. A good look at these arches, which comprise the main structural integrity of the fort, give you an idea of their beauty. They circle the entire fort on the inside and enabled the defenders to move about the fort with relative safety. Imagine the cost of this brickwork now!

Most of the materials for the fort were found locally. Clay and sand for the bricks were readily available, as were large quantities of wood. The fort was manned intermittently from 1834 until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. During most of the intervening years the fort held only an Ordinance Officer to oversee the safety of the guns and powders stored there.

Sgt. William Alexander and his wife were the acting caretakers on April 14, 1861 when the Beaufort Harbor Guards, a local Southern Militia, demanded its' surrender. It was home to the Confederacy until April of 1862 when the fort was retaken by Union forces. The cannon marks are still clearly visible on the outside walls.

At the conclusion of Civil War the fort became a penitentiary from 1867 through 1876. At that time it was returned to "caretaker status", meaning that only an Ordinance Officer and his family remained in the fort. There would be no more troops quartered there until 1898 and the Spanish-American War. At this time the fort was manned by African-American soldiers under African-American Command. This was pretty surprising to me as North Carolina was still legally segregated at the time.

These floors were made locally by cutting down and slicing the trunks of trees and then making the slices into square tiles. They have more than stood the test of time. They also bear testimony to the use of local materials in the forts construction.

In 1903 the guns were removed and sent to Federal Arsenals to be used as scrap metal. In 1924 the fort was sold to North Carolina for $1. It became the states second Public Park. In 1934 the Civilian Conservation Corps refurbished the fort and it became a tourist attraction until the outbreak of World War Two.

Coastal Artillery Units manned the fort for the duration of the war as a deterrent against the Nazi U-boats, which, at the time were exacting a heavy toll on Allied shipping. At the end of the war the fort reverted back to its main role as a State Park and continues to attract over 1 million visitors a year.

Located just down the road from Atlantic Beach, it is a nice addition to the stark beauty of the beach. A nice stroll and a look into the hardships of the past can sometimes put a different spin on the troubles we all face today.

This bird was trying to share a sandwich with me on the balcony of our hotel room. It has no relation to this story and is included here only to lend a little color, and perhaps humor, to an otherwise straightforward historical piece. Kind of like a reward for reading this all the way through.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"This Day In Civil Rights History" by Horace Randall Williams and Ben Beard


This book is a real treasure. Composed of 365 pages, each one chronicles a significant event in the history of African-Americans and the country in which they live. Turn to any page and you learn someting new. Even if you know the story being told on any particular day, this book serves as a reinforcement of the lessons learned through several centuries of racial strife and adjustment.

This is one of those perfect books for the times when you don't have the time, or inclination, to read something longer. Filled with facts and insights, this book will lead you to dig more deeply into some of the events recounted here. This is also an excellent resource book for teachers, as well as anyone who deals with kids. The day by day accounts give the subject a relevance which is sometimes lacking in todays teaching of the Civil Rights Movement. So much is now taken for granted, it's almost as if the door has been closed on the subject. This book is the key to re-open that door.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"A Book" by Desi Arnaz


This is one of the best autobiographies you will ever read. Beginning in Santiago, Cuba in 1917 where Mr. Arnaz was born, this book shows you the life of privlege he led as a young man when he was heir to the Barcardi fortune. When Batista came to power all that changed. In the 1940's he went to Miami where he was spotted by Xavier Cugat. He became a singer in Mr. Cugats' band and carved out a small reputation for himself at the same time.

From Miami he went on to lead the country through the "Conga" craze along with Carmen Miranda and her fruited headpieces. He then went on to Hollywood and some minor roles before being cast with Lucille Ball in some "B" movies. From there it's all, as they say, history.

Mr. Arnaz takes us through the years of "I Love Lucy", giving us a "cooks tour" of not only the show but the thought process which was behind it.This is the show that really set the stage for many of the sitcoms that we have enjoyed over the years. This was also the show that introduced us to the use of 3 camera angles, a process still in use today. He also chronicles the changes in his relationship with Lucy that finally led to their breakup in 1960.

The difference between this book and the two earlier books, "I Love Lucy" and "Desilu" is astounding. This book is so much more than just the story of the TV show. This is Desi Arnaz telling the story and history of his family fortune and its' subsequent loss. It is also the story of Miami and the entertainment scene in the 1940's. It's also a look behind the mind of the man who just about invented "residuals" for TV sitcoms. Not to mention taping the shows to begin with.

Fans of Lucy and fans of TV History will love this insightful and snappy book. It crackles from the opening page to the last. The author spares no one- himself included- in an effort to tell the tale correctly, even though it often casts him in a poor light.

Though they both remarried, they remained freinds for the rest of their lives. There was just too much passion for their own marraige to endure. An honestly written, straight from the heart autobiography, this is one of those that you really don't want to pass up.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Thick As Thieves" by Steve Geng


This is one of those books that was kind of gazing at me from the library shelf, as if asking me to pick it up. I did. The first line got me hooked right away. "Winter in Philadelphia, 1946." That's all it took for me to take this one home. I have a weakness for books about the years I grew up in when told from the perspective of someone a few years older than myself. It helps explain some of the things which I witnessed, but did not understand at 4 or 5 years old.

Steve and his sister Veronica are the children of Colonel Geng, a career Army Officer. His assignments take them to Italy, Paris, New York and then Florida during the late 1950's and 1960's. It was a time of experimentation for the whole world. Mr. Geng and his sister had a front seat to some of it.

But lying beneath the surface is a hidden, dysfunctional family. The Colonel is rigid and unyielding with his children. He is their father but never manages to become their Dad. With his unrelenting sarcasm and lack of faith in his children,he kind of reminds me of my own father.

The two children deal with things in very different ways. Veronica hides in her world of books and freinds. Steve gets high and begins a life of "boosting", which consists of going from town to town and shoplifting large quantities of merchandise from shopping malls. As his drug use increases he takes larger risks to support his habit.

Veronica goes on to become a celebrated author at The New Yorker during the 1980's and Steve eventually goes through a stint in the Army, a term in jail, a couple of re-habs and then down to Florida to help care for his dying father. It is through this relationship, caring for the man he once despised, that he comes to terms with his demons and reconciles his life.

He also becomes involved in local theater groups and goes on to star in several character roles on "Miami Vice." Through his years of drug use he contracts AIDS. Through a twelve step program he learns to deal with both.

When his sister passes away at age 55, without his knowing she'd been ill, he starts to fall apart. The theater helps him deal with her loss. And in the end it all comes together with the realization that we are all simply who we are. Even the ones that hurt us without meaning to. We're all human, and all imperfect. That's the lesson that we all need to learn, that before we can forgive ourselves, we must forgive the others.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"The Mighty" with Sharon Stone,Gena Rowlands and Kieran Culkin


This is the story of two young boys, one is learning diabled and named Max. He moves next door to Kevin, a crippled child, slightly younger than himself, who is confined to crutches. Both are picked upon and bullied by the usual crowd of miscreants who enjoy such things.

When Max is wrongfully accused of rolling a basketball into Kevin, knocking him off his crutches, a freindship forms. When Kevin is assigned to tutor Max in reading, an inseparable bond is formed. Max becomes the body that Kevin cannot have and Kevin becomes the brain that Max is not likely to fully achieve, without the help of his new freind.

Together they set out on a series of adventures all inspired by the book "King Arthur". This leads them on a journey of self discovery that, while baffling and annoying to their respective and over protective families, cements the freindship between the two.

Through their adventures they discover that while on the surface they have nothing in common, they share the burden of being the outcasts. Their freindship changes that. They are now part of something. They are freinds.

Although Sharon Stone and Gena Rowlands are the stars of the movie, the real standout performances are by the two boys themselves. As they discover the power of their combined weaknesses the viewer begins to examine our own shortcomings and the insignificance of our limitations becomes painfully apparent.

Great performances by all, especially Kieran Culkin as Kevin and Eden Henson as Max. Along with focused direction and excellent screenwriting this a movie to be treasured and re-visited from time to time.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Shadowlands" A Reading By The Old Courthouse Theatre


"Shadowlands", the William Nicholson play about the relationship between C.S.Lewis and his marraige to American poet Helen Joy Davidman (later Gresham and then Lewis) is a fabled romance in literary circles. Mr. Nicholsons' treatment of, and reading by, The Old Courthouse Theatre, located in Concord, both do the subject justice.

Briefly, the story is of C.S. Lewis, celebrated author, and the conflict between his intellect and his heart. After a lengthy correspondence he meets Mrs. Gresham in England in the early 1950's. She is a noted poet, having shared the 1938 Russell Loines Memorial Prize with Robert Frost. The two immediatley become quite attached to one another intellectually. He accepts her as an equal, and though they differ on some levels, they seem to recognize in one another a capacity that they have found lacking in others. They are kindred spirits.

She returns to America and divorces her husband, writer David Gresham, and then returns to England with her two sons, David and Douglas. Not wishing to return to America she and C.S.Lewis enter into a civil "marraige of convenience" in order to facilitate her remaining in England. They are still "intellectual" friends at this point. Later, when she is diagnosed with cancer, he marries her again, in the Church of England, despite her previous divorce. The ceremony was performed at her hospital bedside on March 21, 1956 by Mr. Lewis' freind Reverend Peter Bride. By 1960 she would pass away. It is worth noting that today would be their anniversary.

When Mr. Lewis first expounds on Gods pain being a sign of His love for us, he does not know Mrs. Gresham, and so may not have the necessary experience to draw this conclusion. Later on, after her death, he does question his own convictions, but much to his credit endures, and his faith in God ramains intact.

The opening of the play and the portrayal of C.S. Lewis delivering a lecture on the eternal question of "Why Does God Let Man Suffer", is superb. Will Baysinger delivers a terrific performance throughout the entire play- but this opening is his shining moment. In a delivery as potent as anything ever done by Ronald Coleman, he sets the pace for the rest of the play as he explores this still relevant question.

Kim Baysinger plays Joy and is so moved by her role, that near the end she is visibly weeping as she really "feels" the part. This is just a reading - but the audience can actually see and feel her pain. A very moving performance.

Playing the part of C.S. Lewis' brother Warnie was Tommy Warlick. His reading was "spot on" to the character he portrayed. He was, at times, acting with his hands. His interplay with Mr. Baysinger, seated next to him the entire time, gave both roles the intimacy they need and deserve.

Tim Thomas played Riley, a freind and confidante of the group of bachelors who make up Mr. Lewis' all male group of freinds prior to the arrival of Mrs. Gresham. He lends a nuanced and balanced aspect to the group, leaving you wishing he had more lines.

Tyler Warlick played the part of Mrs. Greshams' son Douglas (who wrote the original book, "Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and CS Lewis" in 1988, and upon which this play is based). Young Mr. Warlick, along with his parents, who are also in the play, is remarkable in his timing and inflection, giving real dimension to such a small role. His father, as stated, plays Warnie and his mother, Katie Warlick, plays the role of the Registrar and Nurse at the hospital.

The narration, by Jonathan Ewart, was light and gave the audience just what it needed to let the play take over and serve as the bridge you cross on the journey back to England in the 1950's.

The Direction, also by Mr. Ewart, was equally understated, and enabled the play to do the talking. The characters are finely developed and the whole thing rolled along very smoothly. As in the last "reading" I attended, the stools simply disappeared and I found myself sitting in an English drawing room, fireplace, armchair and all.

This was a wonderful "reading" of a very beautifully written play. It tackles so much more than just the relationship between Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Gresham. It explores the self doubts and pain associated with ones own thoughts. Watch this space for information on Old Courthouse Theatres' next production. You really don't want to miss it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"The Visual Miscellaneum" by David McCandless


A very colorful and thought provoking book. The use of graphs to illustrate our daily lives is fairly common. But what do they really tell us? What are they beyond acturial tables? This book explores that question about graphs in an unusual way - by the use of graphs!

Some are very insightful- such as the ones entitled "World Religions" and "Dangers of Death." These two, particularly, are real insights into the news that you see each day and how disproportinate that news is to real life. Really remarkable statements, made bolder by the use of vivid colors.

The graphs showing Internet Connections are extraordinary, as they illustrate the way in which we are all now connected in this new global order. We are all connected to someone who is connected to someone else and so why are we still fighting? A wonderful concept and one that does make you stop and think.

I have to take note that there are some political graphs here, such as the one showing all the nations of the world ranked by the #1 thing they are known for. It has the United States listed as #1 in Serial Killers. And the rest of the world as #1in, let's say, single parent families. This graph is flawed, as it does not address any issue "apple to apples". If it were to show, by comparison, Iraq, as the #1 Beheaders in contrast to our being #1 in Serial Killers, then I could take that graph more seriously.

Aside from that, this book is a wonderful visual experience which can only serve to enrich the reader.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame

Doing this blog is always fun. I enjoy it. Sometimes, more than others. Today was one of those. At the suggestion of my wife, Sue , I went to see the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis at 109 West A Street. It is located in a small red brick building that at one time was the town jail.

In these days of corporate ownership, it is a real pleasure to see an independent and growing operation like the Music Hall of Fame. North Carolina has been the stomping grounds of many illustrious music legends. And this spunky little museum plans to highlight them all.

Walking in I was greeted by Eddie Ray, the oft described "African American Music Industry Pioneer". It took me a few minutes to realize who he was, such is his humility. He then proceeded to take me around the place as we discussed music in general, as well as the articles on display. Immediately to the right as you enter are some plagues and photos from James Taylor. He wrote "I'm Going to Carolina In My Mind", which is our State Song.

This snappy little outfit was worn by Nina Simone. Her earthy and insistent rendition of "Do I Move You" still sends shivers down my back. It's almost as if she's daring you to say no. And her scathing indictment of segregation in "Backlash Blues" still ranks among the greatest of the 60's social protest songs. It's right up there with "Bitter Fruit" by Billie Holliday, or "I'm Black and I'm Blue" by Louis Armstrong. Powerful stuff.

Most people think of North Carolina in connection with bluegrass and gospel music, and we do have our share of that. Charlie Daniels, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson all immediately spring to mind. But we have such a wide variety of music in our history. From the beach sounds of groups like The Chairmen of the Board to George Clintons' Funkadelics, it's all on display here, with plans for adding more. The second floor is not open yet and will be welcome added space.

This gown belonged to Victoria Livengood, the noted opera star. She is still performing today. The exhibit runs the entire gamut of music. From Andy Griffiths' early comedy records and his later gospel recordings, to the likes of The Shirelles, Ben E. King and Roberta Flack. And there is more on the way. Mr. Ray is hoping to get some of the stuff from "American Idol" to represent Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken and Bo Brice to highlight North Caroilna's connection to the show. This will keep the Museum current and relevant.

No exhibit on North Carolina and music would be complete without an outfit worn by Randy Travis of Monroe. His run of country hits in the late 1980's and his subsequent return to gospel music is a wonderful story all by itself. And the same holds true for all of the artists represented here. Each exhibit has a story to tell. Each of these artists has a sound unique to themselves.

To accommodate the need for some variety there are plans to use part of the first floor for a revolving type exhibit. This will enable the Museum to remain current and involved in the music scene as it relates to North Carolina.

But the real star of the whole show, at least for me, was Mr. Ray himself. I knew that he was half of the partnership that opened this museum. And I had some knowledge of his background in the music industry from my reading. But I had no idea that he would be on hand, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn, as we walked, just who he was.

In 1954, the year I was born, Mr. Ray was already established in the music industry, on the distribution end, and also promoting artists such as The Drifters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, B.B.King, Clyde McPhatter, and Joe Turner, just to name a few!

It was also the year he released his first independent recording of "Hearts of Stone" by The Jewels. It was a crossover hit and also covered by many of the leading R & B groups of the era.

In the mid to late 50's he was handling Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, Slim Whitman and Johnny Rivers while employed at Imperial records. In the 1960's he joined Capitol records as Director of A & R for the Tower label. It was there that he acquired Pink Floyd. It was also around this time that he became the first African American V.P. of a major recording company. So you can see how surprised I was that this man was there and taking me on a one to one tour!

Mr. Ray, along with his old friend, Mike Curb from Tower Records, have put this museum together to honor and showcase the artists that have made North Carolina a great place for music. But I have to say, that although all of the exhibits are wonderful, for me it will always be Mr. Ray that gave this visit it's own "Heart and Soul." Thanks, Mr. Ray!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Captains Courageous" by Rudyard Kipling


I have had this book since June of 1963. It says so inside the front cover. I loved Kipling that far back. He weaves a story so subtly, until you find yourself mesmerized by his words. His use of dialects to capture the social, and physical places in which his stories take place, is unequaled.

This story takes place in the early part of the 20th Century and begins aboard a luxury liner bound for Europe. One of the passengers is a young boy named Harvey. To term him irrascible would be an injustice to the word. More accurately he is the spoiled product of a rich and arrogant family. He terrorizes and abuses all who come his way.

On a foggy night off New England, Harvey falls overboard and is rescued by a fishing dorry out of Glouchester. They expect to be gone for 4 months or more. Harvey is apalled. He offers a reward equal to the value of their lost catch should they return him to the mainland. Thinking him a bit unstable they refuse and continue on their journey. Outraged, Harvey refuses to work and as a result he is shunned by most of the crew, with the exception of Dan, the Captains son, and Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman with a carefree attitude about life. They seem to think that there is good in Harvey somewhere, and they set out to bring it forth. Through them he learns the value, and joy, of doing an honest day's work and the feeling of earned respect.

His attachment to Manuel is deep. His own father has never taken the time to teach him anything. Manuel becomes his world and he is crushed by his death in a storm. Subsequently he finds his first real friend in Dan. They were both in awe of Manuel and his death affects them deeply.

When his father finally arrives to take him home, Harvey is no longer the spoiled boy he was at the start. He has matured and learned to place his faith in things other than money. He discovers, through the death of Manuel, his love of something larger than himself. This is an epithany for him. And the reader as well. Kipling's ability to condense so much emotion, and plot, into less than 200 pages is simply brillant.

Adding to the beauty of this book is the faithful 1937 adaptation of it on film. With Lionel Barrymore as Captain Disko, Mickey Rooney as Dan, John Carradine as Long Jack, Freddie Bartholomew as Harvey, and last, but not least, Spencer Tracy as Manuel, it is a film not to be dismissed. Well paced and directed, and done with all the respect due this remarkable book, it is a film not to be missed.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Mae West - A Personal Biography" by Charlotte Chandler


Often, when I have been watching an old Mae West film, I have wondered how much different the character she plays is compared to the “real” Mae West. Thanks to Charlotte Chandlers’ book I finally have my answer – Not much!

In 1980 Ms. Chandler, armed with an introduction to Ms. West from legendary Director George Cukor, was able to interview the star who had weathered all of show business from Vaudeville and on through the Golden Ages of Movies and Radio. And she did it on her own terms at a time when women were not supposed to be so bold, working as performer, writer and even director of some of her own films.

Born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn before the turn of the 20th century, Ms. West was raised as a privileged child. She was always told by her mother that she was destined to do great things. Her father was a sometimes boxer and later carpenter and horse stable operator. She loved both her parents deeply and credits them with her early independence and success.

The book is, in a sense, an oral autobiography, in that the author has used Ms. West's responses to posed questions in order to create a seamless narrative of her life in her own words. Extraordinarily insightful reading on so many levels, this book gives us a close up look at the life of a real legend and the times in which she reigned.

Beginning with her childhood the author takes us through Ms. West’s early years, World War One and Prohibition. The 1926 “SEX” trial is of extreme interest. She was charged with “Producing an Immoral Performance.” She was found guilty and sentenced to a $500 fine or 10 days on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) in the same wards where Mary Mellon (Typhoid Mary) had been held a few years earlier. Ms. West relished this experience and it left her with a new understanding of those who had not had the love she received when growing up. All in all, she counts the experience as being one of the most influential experiences of her life.

The book never stops giving as Ms. West lays bare her views on life, love, money, sex, marriage (she was married once at 17 but never lived with the man.) She explains why she never married and has only ever slept alone. When asked what she is like when she’s alone her sardonic reply is “When I’m alone I’m the same Mae West- but you’ll have to take my word for it cause when I’m alone there isn’t anyone else here.” True Mae West.

She once banned W.C.Fields from the set of “My Little Chickadee” for a day when he violated his contract and got drunk. Although not entirely a tee totaler, she would not abide a drunk. A non smoker as well, she despised cigarettes and cigars as ruinous to ones health and the skin.

She lived in the same apartment that the studio had provided her with in 1932. It was furnished with stuff from the prop department. She liked it so much- she kept it and in 48 years had made few changes.

There is so much more to this book as the author guides us through Ms. West's later career movie by movie. It is the skillful questioning of the author that unleashes this compelling story of one of the 20th Century's biggest stars.

If you like Mae West, or are a fan of her movies, then you will want to read this book. As a matter of fact, the author, Ms. Chandler, has done the same type of “Personal Biography” with the lives of Joan Crawford, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis and Billy Wilder. You can be sure I will be reading those ones soon.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Three for the Road

I carry three books in my car. You never know when you might have to wait somewhere and need something to occupy your mind. I usually have a book with me that I am currently reading, but these are my "backup" books.

The first one is this "Pelican History of the World". It has given me many informative and enjoyable hours when I was waiting in line somewhere, or even in severe traffic when I have had to pull over on the shoulder to let time pass. It has taken me from a chapter called "Before History" to the last chapter, which is called "The Post European Age" and includes the Cold War and it's aftermath, as well as "The Asian Revolution". It has proven invaluable at times when fact checking the various radio talk show hosts for accuracy. They have fallen short of the mark several times. History is a good thing to know if you want to stay objective.

This book, although 4 years outdated, is still a valuable tool in judging trends and debunking myths. With a complete World Atlas it gives a unique perspective on the news. It helps to see that Iraq was a roadblock to unifying the Islamic World, Saddam Hussein notwithstanding. Somehow, when you view a map, along with the news, you see the strategies involved in some of the political decisions being made by our respective leaders. This may be the most dangerous book of all, as it can make you think.

Actually, this was one of the items originally listed in the Patriot Act as contraband on airplanes. I make it a point to carry one whenever I travel. With a copy of the Declaration of Independence, as well as a copy of the Constitution, it really seems to annoy certain people. It also has information and demographics on every state in the Union as well as all the countries of the world, making it an excellent traveling companion. Kind of like the ultimate guide book. With the sections on culture and art you have a very enjoyable and handy mini laptop at your disposal.

The last book in my threesome is the Bible. I employ this King James version (courtesy of the Gideons)as a means of defense against those who would misquote it in various efforts to force their views upon others. Genesis and Psalms are my favorite parts of the so called "Old Testament", while "Romans" is my favorite part of "The New Testament". This book is especially helpful when confronted by overzealous bigots masquerading as People of Faith. Sometimes you can actually educate them. But not often.

There's alot of history, and the story of our whole civilization, told in these three small books. And the best thing about them is that they invariably lead you to find other books, more detailed, on each subject. It becomes an ever lasting chain
of learning, until you learn enough to know that it is impossible for you to know everything. And I don't. But one thing I do know is that I love these books.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"The Bridge Over the River Kwai" by Pierre Boulle


As a young boy I saw the film version of this book with Alec Guiness playing the part of the British Colonel Nicholson. It was an exciting movie but I was a little bit puzzled at the time as to why a British soldier would so eagerly build a bridge for the Japanese. As I said, I was a young boy and my understanding of some things was not yet well formed.

The book, written by Pierre Boulle, who by the way also wrote "Planet Of the Apes",sets the record straight on the first page. He describes the mentality of the Japanese Colonel Saito as being the same as that of British Colonel Nicholson. They are both obsessed with "saving face". Having "spilled the beans" of the message on the first page does nothing to detract from the book. Rather it compels you to keep reading in order to justify this assertion.

The story is of two men and their clash of wills, even as they begin to realize that the gulf that seperates them only undercores their similarities. They are both the end products of false pride. They are both stubbornly rooted in their own beliefs of superiority over the other.

The main thrust of the plot concerns the building of a bridge over the River Kwai. This bridge will carry trainloads of war materials to the Japenese in the isolated areas of Burma. Colonel Saito is under tremendous pressure to get the job completed. Construction on the bridge has begun with almost no progress being made as the prisoners do everything in their power to sabotage the project. It appears that they are happily succeeding in their efforts.

At this point Colonel Nicholson and his men are taken prisoner and marched into camp. They are then tasked with completion of the bridge. As a Japanese, Colonel Saito is determined to bend the prisoners to his will and get the bridge built. To do less would be a loss of face. Colonel Nicholson, on the other hand, is hell bent on showing Colonel Saito that the Japanese are not capable of building a bridge without the British engineering and supervising the work. And although it is against the Geneva Convention to have prisoners work on military projects, Colonel Nicholsons' pride makes him an unwitting accomplice to the Japanese goal. His men are less than pleased. Some think him outright insane.

Unknown to Colonel Nicholson is that word has reached the British Command of his actions. A Commando team is dispatched to destroy the bridge. By this time construction is going well and the bridge is almost complete. The first train is headed towards the River Kwai and Colonel Nicholson is ready to celebrate his "victory" over the Japanese with the sucessful opening of the bridge. He is flush with pride over this accomplishment.

While all this has been going on, the Commandos have infiltrated the area and have wired the bridge, planning to destroy it even as the first train crosses. As Colonel Nicholson inspects the bridge he notices the wire and races to save his beloved bridge. In a gripping climax the Commandos are forced to kill some of the prisoners as one of the Commandos races to stop Colonel Nicholson from disarming the explosives. When the Commando is killed Colonel Nicholson returns to reality and with the sounds of the locomotive crossing the bridge overhead he sets off the charge himself while exclaiming, "What have I done?"

A pulse pounding story based on fact, both the book and the movie keep you on the edge of your seat. The book underscores one of the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins- Pride.

An interesting afternote to this book is the historical aspect. In real life this story actually happened- with one notable exception. The British never did destroy the bridge and it not only served the Japanese for the duration of the war, but parts of it are still in use today.

The movie was released in 1957 and garnered 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture. With flawless direction by David Lean and a cast including Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito and Alec Guiness as Colonel Nicholson, the movie,as well as the book, are both excellent and have long been favorites of mine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Hollywood In A Suitcase" by Sammy Davis, Jr.


It has been 30 years since this book was written. Mr. Davis was 54 years old when he wrote it. It's fortunate for us that he did as he passed away in 1989 at the pre-mature age of 64. And with his passing we would have missed out on alot of great memories and stories of Hollywood during the 1950's and 60's.

Unlike his first book "Yes I Can", which was released in 1965 (My Mom had it and I read it then as well as in my 20's) this one is not "ghostwritten" and doesn't seem to even have a co-editor. It is a book shot "straight from the hips." There are a few errors here and there concerning dates, but they are forgiveable.

Mainly the book is a collection of Mr. Davis' memories of his friends and the people who really helped him overcome barriers, both racial and later physical, as he struggled to make the transition from Vaudeville to Hollywood. Readers of "Yes I Can" will already be familiar with his early years as part of the Will Mastin Trio, of which he became a member at age 3. This is a man with show business truly in his blood. That first book also covered his service in Alabama during World War Two as well as the tragic car accident which cost him an eye.

This book is not a memoir, it is a collection of stories. Some of the best involve his friendships with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, John Wayne and of course, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He has an uncanny ability to "spill the beans" concerning some of these legends without being offensive or even intrusive about it. Perhaps it is the honesty with which he reviews his own life that makes it work without seeming to be a "kiss and tell" type book.

His freindships with Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Judy Garland and others are equally fascinating as they were all during a time when racial tensions were high. There were times when this caused danger for Mr. Davis as well as his freinds.

The most enjoyable part of this book for me was the insight into Bogart and how his freindship helped open doors for Mr. Davis in Hollywood. And the introduction of Sammy Davis to Frank Sinatra is interesting in and of itself. The whole book is written without pretense and in a very personal way, like a freind telling you stories. It seems as if this man never lost his humility, and yet he was able to dominate an entertainment arena that was, for the most part, "whites only." What a contrast!

For fans of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Hollywood in general, this book is a quick read and an unusual look at some of the legends that Mr. Davis was privleged to have worked alongside. An ideal read for a rainy day.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Inconsistent Reasoning and Patriotism - Keeping America Safe?

I do not do politics here. I do, however, engage in examination of the various things I see and hear, for consistency. Let us examine the current flap over the Defense of the Terrorists in our Civilian Courts. While not wholly against the premise, I am outraged by the misinformation and distortion of history as provided by both sides in the debate.

In 1770 the American colonies were spoiling for war. The Boston Tea Party had already happened. The Boston Massacre had taken place and the trial of the British soldiers responsible, including the Captain who gave the order to fire, was underway. John Adams, one of our noted Founding Fathers would defend them. All but 2 were acquitted, the Captain included. Mr. Adams called it “…one of the most gallant, generous …..and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”

This past week many analogies have surfaced telling us that this was a glorious moment in American history which showcases the need to defend terrorism suspects in our Civilian Courts. While I am not in total disagreement with this, I must point out the inaccuracies of the argument. I can’t help it. I have to set the record straight.

In 1770 there was no America. Just a colony under English law. The court in which Mr. Adams tried his defendants was an English court. America would not have her own independent courts until after 1776, and officially not until after the Revolution had ended in 1781 at Yorktown. During the Revolution, Military Tribunals were the norm in dealing with enemy combatants, when warranted.

As for Mr. Adams having done “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country”, let us examine this phrase.

The country he was serving at the time was England. The result of his defense was that 7 out of the 9 accused in the massacre, including the Captain who ordered it, were set free. In other words, Mr. Adams helped to free, in an English Court, the English soldiers who had massacred his neighbors.

And yet this episode is being held aloft as the reason why we must defend the terrorists in our courts with lawyers from the Justice Department, even while not knowing who they are and who their previous business dealings have involved.

If this sounds harsh, consider this. In 1770 the American colonies were, as I have stated earlier, spoiling for a fight. What better way to bring it to a boil than by defending and helping to free the soldiers who had murdered the civilians in Boston. Mr. Adams may have had an ulterior motive other than that of rendering “one of the best pieces of service” he ever undertaken for his country. Although undoubtedly a Patriot, his country at the time was England, the same as the Defendants. He was also a son of Samuel Adams, a noted smuggler and enemy of the Crown.

The lesson is clear in the outcome. 7 out of the 9 soldiers who committed sanctioned murder by the Crown that day were freed. Now ask yourself if justice was served. Then apply these lessons of history to the current debate and draw your own conclusions.

My own opinion is that the entire argument is specious and without merit. An apple is being compared to an orange in a grand effort to confuse the public. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Witness For The Prosecution" with Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power


This is an adaptation of the Agagtha Christie play written for the screen and directed by Billy Wilder. The story is a murder trial in London at the close of the Second World War.

Charles Laughton stars as the beleagured and aging Barrister Sir Wilfrid, who has just been released from the hospital. He is recovering from a severe heart attack and cannot take on anymore important and exciting cases. A private nurse, played by Elsa Lanchester, follows him about to ensure that he takes his pills and does not smoke his favorite cigars. Much of the film has him outwitting her efforts.(Laughton and Manchester were real life husband and wife.)

Tyrone Power plays an innocent man accused of a capital crime. He meets and befreinds an eldery widow who turns up dead one week after having named him heir to her estate. The only person who can provide him with an alibi is his wife, Marlene Dietrich, who plays her character with an icy coldness. She claims that her marraige to Leonard Vole (Power) was a sham and this allows her testimony to be used against her husband, much to his detriment.

Billy Wilder drew remarkable performances from both Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester are superb in their respective roles and the whole production is flawless.

Ultimately setting her husband free with false testimony and a surprise witness, the ending is explosive as the full realization of what has transpired is laid bare before your eyes. In a climactic scene worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder pulls off an ending in which the schemers become their own victims.

With one of the best courtroom scenes ever filmed, this is a movie not to be missed.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Together We Cannot Fail" by Terry Golway


This is a very timely book. It mirrors much of our present day dilemmas. It also outlines and documents the solutions which were proposed, implemented and then opposed and outright rejected before new ones replaced them.

It reviews and summarizes the speeches that were given by Franklin Roosevelt in the darkest days of the Great Depression. Carefully dissecting the country's mood and culture at the time, Mr. Golway paints an accurate portrait of American culture and values while also capturing the spirit of the Presidents speeches. He then goes on to reflect upon the effect that those "Fireside Chats" had on the average American.

But more than that, it explores the forces, and needs, that united us then. More importantly it underscores that lack of spirit and cooperation that sully todays politics as usual, even in these unusual times.

An added bonus is the CD that accompanies the book and holds 77 minutes of the best of Roosevelts "Fireside Chats." This is the leadership that is so sorely missing in todays world, where polls rule while we experience essentially the same problems that plagued our nation then.

If history teaches us anything, it is that the only thing new is the history we don't know. This book drives that point home. I hope someone in Washington is reading it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Road Tripping

Sue and I went road tripping this weekend. We went to look at the plantations and old houses that make up a large portion of the area around Williamsburg. It's about 5 hours as the crow flies, but since we're not crows it always takes us a bit longer to get places. We tend to stop and look at stuff. And eat.

This restaurant, The Kings Arms, had a troubador to serenade us with guitar and piccolo. Then there were other stops to consider such as John Tylers home. John Tyler was President from 1841 to 1845. He became President by accident, when William Henry Harrison got sick after a long inaugural speech in the rain and died. He had been President for only a month when John Tyler was sworn in. Later on, in 1862, Mr. Tyler wanted to be buried at this home but couldn't be. When he died he had just been elected to the Confederate Congress and his home had become the Union Headquarters in Virginia.

The house has the unique distinction of being the longest frame house in America. It was begun in the 1680's and finished in the late 1850's. The 1600 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds make this place a slice of Heaven. The Tyler family still lives there and tours are available by appointment. But the grounds were open and no one seemed to be bothered by our walking around. A very unique home with an added sense of history to it.

Moving down the road in Sherwood Forest, no kidding, that's the name of the area, was the old Westover Church. The original was built in 1634, but the one we saw was fairly new, having been built in 1730 or so. It is a simple one room bungalow type structure with a balcony and an old pipe organ. You have to wonder if the balcony was for the slaves. The whole structure is so simple and beautiful. It makes a perfect place of worship and Peace seems to abound there. Services are still held each Sunday and the church is open and unlocked at all other times for weary travelers to seek some rest.

And what better way to rest than with some tree sitting in the giant Magnolias of the church yard. It was almost comforting to climb up and be held in the large and welcoming boughs. I felt a bit like Robin Hood,laying in wait for King John's caravan to pass below. The church yard was filled with grave stones, some dating back to the early 1700's. Many of the deceased were immigrants to this country. As I looked upon the headstones I couldn't help but wonder what it must have been like to die so far away from your native land. Were they lonely at the end? Did they long to go home? What was the attraction of packing up and making the journey to this new world? So many questions rose up in me as I gazed upon the final resting place of these people. I was reminded of Eleanor Rigby and wondered, "...where do they all come from?"

We also stopped at some of the other homes in the area. One of the most beautiful was just down the road from the chuch and is known as Berkeley, one of the many plantations that dot the countryside around Williamsburg. With it's sweeping views of the James River and the well appointed grounds it was an exercise in relaxation to simply wander about and listen to the silence. It's almost hard to imagine the place as a working plantation with slaves. The surroundings seem almost too peaceful for that to have ever taken place. The driveway is 3 miles long and the house is located just above the river itself. With no roads to speak of, all the plantations relied on the river as a highway to send and receive goods for trade. A very isolated and lonely existence, but so peaceful in comparison with today's world.

It was great to get away and off the beaten path, but like Dorothy once said after a particularly harrowing journey, "There's no place like home."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Me and My Car

My car is 2 years old today. What I mean by that is that I have had it for 2 years. It's a 1996 Mitsubishi Galant.

They say that people often resemble their pets and I am inclined to agree. As a matter of fact I can even justify extending that viewpoint to include people and their cars. Take me and my car as a case in point.

We are both, as you can see by the picture, primarily gray and a bit battered in places. We both need a little TLC to get us going in the morning. For me it's iced tea, for the car it's radiator fluid and check the oil.

We're both a little tired and I figured out the reason why. I have traveled 3 times around the world with lots of extra miles operating at sea, add to that all of my road trips and commutes and I have logged about 189,000 miles. So has my car.

There are, in both cases, some bows to things modern. I love music and cherish my scan sticks. The car has a USB port. We were made for one another.

When I bought the car I was ill and wondered if I was going to make it. The car was in the same shape. Now here I am 2 years later and both the car and I are stabilized. Don't get me wrong, I'm not ready for the Olympics and the car isn't going to be doing the Daytona 500 anytime soon, but we are comfortable with one another and our individual quirks.

So I guess we're like Roy Rogers and Trigger, sidekicks forever on a sunset trail.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

That "Other" Washington Monument - Rooftop's Cover Story

This is the cover photo for Rooftop Reviews. If you're reading this I assume that you have noticed it before. My only problem with it is the size. It's too big and I have thought of replacing it, but the photo has a special place in my heart. Let me tell you about it...

I was living in Baltimore in 1983 when I met my wife, Sue. I lived 2 blocks from the Washington Monument- no, not the one in Washington, D.C., but the first one, built with public lottery funds. Beginning in 1799, $100,000 was collected, and in 1815 work was begun. In 1829 the 178 foot tall Doric column with Washington standing atop, opened to the public. They thronged to ascend the 228 steps to the top of the city's highest vantage point of the time.

It is still one of the most beautiful of the many monuments in Baltimore. Sue and I used to walk and talk there in the eveneings when we were first seeing one another. After awhile I tricked her into marrying me and we moved out to the County to raise our family.

Fast forward to about 1994. The Monument had been closed for some years due to interior structural problems. A Citizens Committee had resolved these issues and the Monument(located on Monument and Charles Sts.) was now open again. You could, for a $1 contribution, climb to the top. And so, we did. Sue took several photos looking in all directions. My favorite is this one- looking North up Charles St.

In the foreground and to the right is the Methodist Church made with green stone from local quarries. The Church sits across from the unseen Peabody Institute of Music and the Walthers Art Gallery. Looking further to the rear and in the center is the 13 story Belvedere Hotel which was also home to the Engineers Society of Maryland at the time. The whole monument sits in an oasis of a park that bisects Charles Street.

The best part of the memory asociated with this photo is the actual climb up a circular stairway reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty. The brick and mortar interior was eerie and a little damp- ideal in the summertime, cool- like a cave. With several openings at different levels there were some beautiful vistas of the harbor and surrounding areas. But I always liked the view from the top best of all.

I think it's because we made the climb with me carrying our daughter most of the way. And when we were done we were so exhausted, coming out into the heat of a summers day. But it's something that we did together and really enjoyed. The original of this photo hangs in our bedroom. It serves as a reminder to us of all the climbs we have made together through the years.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

"We Seven" by The Mercury Astronauts



If you were over 5 or 6 years old in 1960 you will remember the first Mercury flights that presaged our landing on the Moon in 1969. Theses were 1 man capsules designed solely to test whether man could break through the atmosphere, orbit the earth, perform various mechanical jobs outside the capsule and return safely. These were all the same elements required to land on the Moon.

The Russians had already beat us with the first man in space by some 6 months. We were bound and determined to catch up and pass them in the “Space Race.” The ultimate goal was a manned landing on the surface of the Moon before the end of the decade.

7 men were deemed qualified to undertake the rigorous training that would be required to perform these initial missions. They would work closely with the engineers and scientists who would develop the capsules and the gear required for them.

I remember the first blast off from Cape Canaveral, later Kennedy Space Center, by Alan B. Shepard in April of 1961. I was in 1st grade and on split sessions. So I got to watch the event on TV before heading off to school in the afternoon. That first flight was 15 minutes up and back down, just enough time to punch through the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean. There the capsule and Shepard were both retrieved by an aircraft carrier. It was all so dramatic and scary. It was the unknown. And we got to watch it live.

The charm of this book is the telling of the story by the 7 men who lived it. They worked together to perfect the mission they would be tasked to perform. The stories they relate here are both anecdotal and scientific in nature. One moment you are learning about spacecraft attitude adjustments and the next you are reading about weightlessness and its’ effects on the human nervous system.

Everything had to be designed specifically for the mission. This was new ground being broken and there were no real rules.

The book is written in such a way that each astronaut takes his turn writing about a particular subject. This gives the reader a good overview of the subject from 7 different perspectives. The book traces the story of the 7 men from the selection process and on through to each of their individual flights.

It’s hard to write a book about such a complex subject and still have it remain “readable.” And these guys do a great job of it. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton were 7 men whose extraordinary courage changed history. And now they have given us a superb, inside look at the work behind those achievements.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962 version) with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury


This film works on so many different levels that it's hard to hit them all, but I'll try. First off, it's a "cold war" film, so that grabs me right away. The real life intrique was never very far off from the plots of some of these films. "Manchurian Candidate", like "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," captures that realism.

In another vein, if you think that Frank Sinatra couldn't act, get ready to eat those words. This is one of his finest performances, no singing, no casino robberies, no Rat Pack. This may be his best dramatic screen performance since "The Man With the Golden Arm."

The story centers around a guy named Raymond, the son of a wealthy political family with high ambitions. Raymonds service in Korea is a part of their image. During the war he receives the Medal of Honor for leading his patrol back from behind enemy lines.

Things are not what they seem however, and so the film is filled with twists and turns that eventually lead to the one inescapable ending. Tremendous performances by Laurence Harvey as Raymond and Angela Lansbury as his self serving mother, along with flawless acting by Frank Sinatra, have long made this a favorite of mine. And wait- there is more to this story....

I saw the film at the Century Avalon on Kings Highway in Brooklyn when I was 8 years old. I didn't understand it. By the 1980's, when VCR had emerged, I was looking for old films to watch and couldn't find it anywhere! It was an Oscar Nominated film directed by John Frankenheimer, yet it was nowhere to be found. A mystery. That is, until one particular night in the car listening to AM radio.

Larry King, a freind of Frank Sinatra's, was on the air and asked him about the film, stating that it was one of his best and he couldn't find a copy. Genuinely flustered and without an answer, Mr. Sinatra promised to look into it.

About 2 weeks later he contacted Larry King by phone and explained that the film was yanked from theaters shortly before the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. It was bought by his business people and was in his vault at some studio. He was going to pull it, restore it and re-release it. And, lucky for us, he did.

Now, look at the film from this perspective. The mind control program revealed in this film, along with the military's use of LSD and other drugs to create "agents" is now widely known and accepted to be true. Put this together with Sinatra's "Rat Pack" and their connections to Sam Giancanna, long suspected to be the architect of the shooting in Dallas, and you have one hell of a story. Remember that these 3 guys shared the same women(Judith Campbell in particular) as well as other financial and political pursuits.

Still not convinced? Try this one. Frank Sinatra was an ardent admirer of JFK. When his plans to host the President in Palm Springs in 1962 fell through, the mob was ready to "whack" him for it. That is actually on tape. So, about 6 months before the events in Dallas, the film is locked away. When the assassination happened Sinatra was beside himself, to the point of being a risk. Now remember that within 2 weeks of the assassination, his son, Frank, Jr. was kidnapped by 2 low level guys out of Florida. Coincidence? I'm not so sure.

Watch this film with an open mind and leave any pre-conceived notions at the door.(Except for Angela Lansbury, who looks exactly the same now as she did then.)

A very tightly woven tale of political intrique, this film will not fail to make you think. And that alone makes it a pleasure to watch.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"The Hemingway Patrols" by Terry Mort


To begin with I have never been a fan of Ernest Hemingway. I have found that his books make excellent films, after being re-done as screenplays. "To Have and Have Not" is one example, as is "Farewell to Arms." Be that as it may, I have always been fascinated by the man and his self made legend.

In 1942 German U-boats were taking an awful toll on allied shipping. I grew up on tales of the wolf packs 10 miles off Coney Island and oil slicks from sunken vessels washing ashore. So it's no surprise that this book grabbed my attention.

Hemingway was a Veteran of the First World War, having served as an ambulance driver and later as the operator of a canteen in Italy. He was wounded when an Austrian shell exploded near his ambulance, which was loaded with chocolates and cigarettes for the troops. His right knee was shattered and the war was over for him. But he had tasted the adrenaline of battle and would never forget the rush it gave him.

The 1930's found him in Spain, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. By this time he had become a published author and "Farewell to Arms" was already established as a major motion picture. In 1936 he published what many consider to be his best work "For Whom the Bell Tolls." This book was a direct outcome of his experiences in Spain.

By the time World War Two erupted Hemingway was living in Cuba, just outside Havana, in his beloved home Finca Vigia. He was married to his third wife, Martha, and all seemed to be going well. Fishing daily in his beloved 38 foot boat Pilar seemed to be enough to occupy the mind of the great writer. But not for long.

By the early part of 1942, when the German Wolfpacks were wreaking havoc all around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, Hemingway hatched his plan. He would take the wooden hulled Pilar out on "patrols" to hunt U-boats. This was like Don Quixote thrusting at windmills. Surely he could not be serious. But indeed he was.

Armed with Thompson submachine guns and handgrenades, along with a supply of bourbon, Hemingway made hundreds of these patrols. He was eagerly assisted by anyone who wished to accompany him on these trips. Everyone wanted a piece of this story!

With no sonar and radar still in it's infancy, eyes were the only real means available to detect submarines. As a matter of fact, all up and down the East Coast of the United States there were hundreds of fishing boats daily on the lookout for the submarines. Once sighted, the boats would call in the position of the U-boat and the Navy would send ships and planes to the area.

All this was risky business for these small craft. U-boats had a range of 8,400 miles on the surface at 16 knots. Below the surface they had only 20 hours of cruising time utilizing their batteries before needing to resurface and re-charge. By the time these U-boats had reached North America they were starved for food and vegetables. They were known to seize the cargo of many fishing boats and even freighters. The freighters were always sunk. Sometimes the fishing boats were sunk, other times they were merely relieved of their cargo.

Hemingways plan was to attempt an approach on one of these U-boats. He would then toss hand grenades into the conning tower while using the Thompsons to keep the subs crew from reaching the deck guns. Not a bad plan. The German conning towers were open from the rear, unlike the 360 degree protection on their American counterparts.

Mr. Mort delves deeply into the psychology of Mr. Hemingway and his plan to divine whether or not it was for real or just an act of false bravado.

Nevertheless, he has written an engaging book about one of America's most celebrated authors and his flamboyant, self styled attempt to hunt down, and perhaps capture, a German U-boat. That he never caught one does nothing to diminish the glory of his attempt to do so.