Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Shanghai Diary" by Ursula Bacon


This is, quite simply, the most unusual account of the Holocaust ever penned by one of it's survivors. Though never a victim of the concentration camps, the author's story is yet another chapter in the long list of lives uprooted and forever changed by the war. Only, this story is a bit different. Beginning with the authors luck at having been born into a solidly middle class, secular, German Jewish family, and being able leave Germany just in time, let alone being able to stay together and make a life for themselves in the least expected of places, this story is nothing short of a miracle.

The most striking thing about this memoir is that Ms. Bacon was about the same age as Anne Frank during the war. But that is where any similarities in their lives end. Ms. Bacon, as I have said, was born into a solidly middle class German Jewish family. They were secular in their approach to religion, and like many Jews here in America, they even celebrated Christmas. As Hitler's noose began to tighten, the family made plans to leave. But they waited too long, not believeing that any of Hitler's threats would come to pass. And so, in 1939, after having waited a little too long, they were finally allowed to leave, taking with them only the clothes on their backs. And from this point on, the book takes a remarkable turn.

It has not been widely written about, but there was a thriving Jewish refugee community in China, notably in Shanghai, during the Second World War. They numbered about 20,000 or so, and the story of how they came to be there is as remarkable as the lives they built for themselves while in Shanghai.

The author was an only child. Her father was a printer before all the madness began. Their lives were upper middle class, with the author having a nanny and a tutor. But all that changed when Hitler came to power in 1933, and with the increasingly hostile environment towards even secular Jews rising out of control, the family was forced into exile. They initially left home by rail for Breslau, where they boarded a train for Genoa. From there they caught a German ship to Shanghai, China. This would be their home throughout the war.

Speaking no Chinese, and even less English, her parents were somehow able to tap into the refugee community, where they receive their first "housing." In a disease ridden slum dwelling the family resolves, within days of landing there, that they can, and must, do better if they are to survive.

With the help of a Chinese acquaintance, Vati, the author's father, is able to go into the painting business, where he does quite well, employing several men and always keeping busy. He puts all his money in the bank, where it will be safe. Meantime, his wife, Mutti, begins to sew and hem garments, even taking in work from women who can't finish a sweater after they have begun. Before long she has quite a pile of American money, which she keeps in an old stocking of the author's. She makes enough money that she eventually needs two stockings. Though the family teases her about her mistrust of banks, her decision proves to be a wise one when all the banks in Shanghai fail after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

While all of this adult drama is going on, the author, who is 10 when the book begins, is growing up; and writing it all down in the 4 diaries which were given to her as gifts when the family left Germany. The diaries cover the years 1939- 1947, when the author was between the ages of about 9 and 17. Ms. Bacon, who was already studying English and French while in Europe, speaks English well enough to give lessons to the 3 "sisters" of General Yi, a local warlord who was fighting to retain control of his fiefdom, while at the same time attempting to repel the Japanese. The "sisters" were really concubines, and they taught the author many things that she probably shouldn't have known. And to keep up her education, her parents sent her to the best school available, a Catholic School. I told you this was an unusual book!

The family did have problems though, particularly in the last years of the war, when provisions became increasingly hard to come by. The Japanese were also a constant threat as they waged war in China. For some obscure reason, perhaps dating back to the Sino-Russian War of 1900, the Japanese never really went out of their way to signal out Jews for extermination. Perhaps they were just too busy killing everyone, to signal out any one group. But somehow the family escaped most of the ravages of the war, finally emigrating to the United States in 1947.

This book is a delightful surprise, concerning a usually dismal subject, but it carries a lesson. We make our own circumstances, at least to some extent. We are victims only to the depths to which we allow ourselves to be driven. This family was lucky in many regards, but still, they had to find a way to avoid falling into that despair which often accompanies the loss of home, friends and family, never to return to the place in which you were born. A very unusual book about a very unusual time and place, no picture of the Holocaust can be complete without this unique history.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"The Land of Counterpane" by Robert Louis Stevenson


Whenever I have a nasty cold, or flu, like now, and I am forced to take to bed, I think of this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is no coincidence that he is also one of my favorite childhood authors, having given me such memorable playmates as Long John Silver in "Treasure Island", and David Balfour in "Kidnapped." So, as I've said, it is not unusual for me to pick up that old poetry book my Mom gave me in 1962, "The Golden Book of Poetry", and flip to page 59 to read "The Land of Counterpane." It doesn't have any medicinal value at all, it's more like "Chicken Soup for The Soul."

The gift of a book to a child can be a wonderful thing. Think of it - this book, which was given to me so many years ago, has provided me with solace and comfort so often, that it would be impossible to put a price upon it.

"The Land of Counterpane"

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, November 28, 2010

William Zantzinger - Rural Aristocrat

This is a photo of William Zantzinger, in handcuffs, being led from The Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, after having bludgeoned Hattie Carroll into a coma, and subsequently her death, for not moving fast enough when serving him. The date was February 8th, 1963.

I was listening to some old Bob Dylan today when I was reminded of his song, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", which became a rallying cry in the cause of Civil Rights. This is a link to Bob Dylan performing the song sometime in 1964.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTRUe33hC1U&feature=related

The story behind the song is interesting in 2 ways. Let's start on the bus coming back from Washington DC after the "I Have A Dream Speech" on August 28th, 1963. The assault of Ms. Carroll had taken place in February of that year, but was confined mostly to the local papers. Mr. Dylan, riding the bus back to NY, read about the trial and wrote the song in NY at his apartment, later finishing it at Joan Baez' home in Nyack. He recorded it in October and and began to sing it around the country at protest marches. Although never a monster hit, the song is an important one, in that is is based entirely on fact, although Dylan cleverly omits the "t" in Zantzinger, which was helpful when Mr. Zantzinger tried to sue him for slander.

I was totally unfamilar with this story until I moved to Baltimore in 1981.When I first lived there the Emerson Hotel was in it's last days. The place was enormous and had a fine restaurant on the ground floor. A friend of mine worked there as a waitress until she was fired for being underage. But she was the one who first introduced me to the story behind the song. At the time of the actual event, I was only 10 years old and living in Brooklyn. I have no recollection of the story at the time, and never would have dreamt that I would one day not only be a regular visitor to the hotel, but that I would meet one of the kitchen staff who had been on duty the night Hattie Carroll was beaten by William Zantzinger. These are the agreed upon events and the order in which they unfolded;

Mr. Zantzinger, along with his wife, began to drink early on the afternoon of Friday February 8th, 1963, and continued on into the night. He was a nasty drunk, at times verbally and physically abusive, even to his wife. During his druken spree he struck one of the bellhops with his cane and shouted at a waitress, "Hey, niger, bring me a drink." He was so drunk that at one point he collapsed on top of his wife while they were dancing. He then returned to the bar, demanding another drink from Hattie Carroll, the 51 year old black barmaid. She had a family of 11 children and also had heart problems. Addressing him politely she said, "Just a minute, sir." This enraged the drunken Zantzinger. Blacks did not act that way in his native Charles County, and he was not used to waiting for anything.

He began to verbally abuse Ms. Carroll, while at the same time striking her about the head with his cane. She immediately served him the bourbon that he had demanded and then stepped away from the bar, remarking to her co-workers that "that man has done got me ill."

An ambulance was called but it was already too late. Hattie Carroll would die the next day as the result of a stroke brought on by the indignity of being struck by Mr. Zantzinger.

Zantzinger was a "rural aristocrat", meaning that he was the son of an influential local planter, and as such, was treated with kid gloves during both his trial and sentencing. He was even freed after the sentencing so that he could finish harvesting his crops, which were substantial in value when compared to the life of a mother of 11. He subsequently did six months in jail, where he was treated as a celebrity, and additionally was fined $625.

After his sentence he returned to his home, had 3 kids, divorced, married again and moved to another county where he sold real estate until his death sometime in the 1990's. He died never having expressed remorse for his crime.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"The Apostle" with Robert Duvall, Miranda Richardson, Billy Bob Thornton and Farah Fawcett


A very unusual film, this is the second time I have watched it. It took me twice to get the message. Robert Duvall plays the Apostle, a self proclaimed, and somewhat flawed man, married to the long suffering Farah Fawcett. When she leaves him, his rage boils over and he kills her boyfriend. He then sets out on his journey as The Apostle, set on spreading the word of Jesus and settling wherever his journey may take him

He arrives in a a small town somewhere in Texas, quickly befriending a legendary local pastor who has left the calling. Rallying the local people isn't too hard, as there is nothing else for them in this small back water place but God and faith, both of whom have been absent for a while. They quickly cling to Robert Duvall and through their assistance he manages to set up a local church that serves to revitlize the spirits of the congregants. He is happy with his accomplishments,, while still dreaming of a reconciliation with his wife. But there is a warrant out on him for murder, which does catch up, posing the question as to whether or not the good we do ever really vindicates the evil we have left behind.

With excellent performances by all, I was especially surprised by the apperance of June Carter Cash, and the depth and authenticity of her performance. The movie was filled with beautiful string, and even zydeco music. Billy Bob Thorton is wonderful in his brief appearance as a man who wants to do right, but it does take a moment of truth before he finally makes the right decision.

Another surprise performance was by Walton Goggins, of "The Shield", since which he has has become somewhat typecast as a thug, in a role that really lets you see the depth of his acting abilities. Lets' hope he can get back to roles such as this one, where he really shines as a simple man of faith, lost, and looking for answers wherever he can find them. He represents the truly faithful. And while the law does finally catch up with The Apostle, the changes he has brought to the community remain. Perhaps that is the point. But the question still remains, do we ever escape our own judgements? The ending of the film addresses that, and you will see how if you watch the film. I'm no spoiler...

At a little over 2 hours, this 2003 film is a bit long, and perhaps that is what put me off the first time I watched. But stick with it, if only for the outstanding performances of the entire cast, as well as the lush scenery of Southern Texas and Louisiana. This is a very nuanced and slowly paced film, with a lot to offer, if you take the time to really watch it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"The Lion of Liberty" by Harlow Giles Unger


Patrick Henry was a complex man. We all remember him as the patriot who thundered the immortal words, "Give me Liberty, or give me Death." In school that's about all they tell you about him. But he was so much more. And Mr. Unger does his level best to make sure that we see this extraordinary man from all angles.

One of the most overlooked of our "Founding Fathers", Patrick Henry came from a family of lawyers. Several generations, in fact. His faher was the presiding judge in the Virginia County in which they lived.

At that time in Virginia, farmers of tobacco were obligated to cede a portion of their crop to the Anglican Church. The Church then sold this crop for a profit as a means to survive. But what happened when a bad season ruined the crops through drought, or even flood? When the weather didn't co-operate and the farmers bought in no crop, the Parsons wanted their money anyway, even at the cost of bankrupting the farmers. The Colonial Governor authorized the "Two Penny Act", which guaranteed the Parsons 2 cents per pound of tobacco, even in bad years.

The Parsons complained to the King, after all, with tobacco scarce the price had gone up and they wanted more than their usual share of the profits. The King agreed and nullified the act of his own Governor. The Parsons then filed suit for the monies owed them, but at the higher rate, which would bankrupt most of the planters. The planters, in turn, called upon Patrick Henry, who had never tried a case in court before, for their Defense. The fate of nearly every farmer in Virginia was resting on this young and untested attorney. This case became known as "The Parson's Cause."

With the keen eye of a surgeon he took the position that there was a contract between the Crown and the People. The people worked and a portion of that work went to the Crown for protection in times of war, stable governance and economic well being. When the King nullified the Two Penny Act, which had been drafted by his own Governor, in Mr. Henry's opinion, the Crown broke that contract, freeing the people to do as they would.

When Mr. Henry won the case the King came up with the Stamp Act. The British hoped that by requiring the affixing of tax stamps to all legal documents, and newspapers, enough money would be generated to pay for the British soldiers who provided protection against Indians in the Western Colonies. The King's aim may have been legitimate, but his timing couldn't have been worse. The whole episode caused the colonists to convene the "Stamp Act Congress." The Revolution was underway.

This is a very well written, and somewhat complex look, at a man who was well ahead of his time in almost every facet of his life. He was a proponent of Abolition, yet, like most of the Founding Fathers, held slaves. He was a devout family man, and as gregarious a character as his compatriot Thomas Jefferson. An avid fiddler, he often frequented the local pub to play his fiddle after a victory in court. Shortly after his brilliant victory in the Parson's Cause case, he became the most sought after attorney in the colony of Virginia.

The book follows Mr. Henry through the years of the Revolution, showing the part he played in making it happen. Thomas Jefferson once said of him, that "Mr. Henry gave the first impulse to the ball of the Revolution." High praise, coming as it did from Mr. Jefferson!

Mr. Unger has done a wonderful job of pulling together the many pieces of history that comprise the story of the American Revolution. He follows the path of Patrick Henry throughout the War, as the colonists struggle to attain their Independence from the Crown. The author follows the Colonial Army as it barely survives the winter at valley Forge, and Mr. Henry rides throughout the colonies, in an effort to keep the troops supplied with clothing, food and ammunition.

This is an insightful read into the causes, and eventual triumph, of the American Revolution, as well as an exciting chronicle of the life of one it's principal players. Set, as it is, against the backdrop of a changing Europe and the War between France and England, the book also explores some of the petty, and not so petty, differences that were dividing our own leaders at the time. The debate on whether to revolt or not, during which Patrick Henry unleashed his famous quote, is but a small part of a large and grandiose story that would come to affect the whole world.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving


Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I mean it. This has been a rough year for so many people as the economy continues to shrink, wars rage and the conflicts of the world continue to divide us all. And that's not counting all the victims of the earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods and famines.

I hope that whoever you are, and wherever you may be today, that you will truly take a moment to reflect on the things in our lives that really count. Being thankful for your family, friends and the blessings of a safe and warm place to sleep, with something to eat when you wake up, would be a good place to begin...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Before the Deluge" by Jackson Browne


This is the closing song to Jackson Browne's 1974 album "Late For the Sky." It seems so applicable to current events, then, as well as now. This video link is from a 1976 TV appearance;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH4nyQqmqU4&feature=related

"Before the Deluge"

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature
While the sand slipped through the opening
And their hands reached for the golden ring
With their hearts they turned to each other's heart for refuge
In the troubled years that came before the deluge

Some of them knew pleasure
And some of them knew pain
And for some of them it was only the moment that mattered
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain
And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love's bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in the moment they were swept before the deluge

Now let the music keep our spirits high
And let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal it's secrets by and by
By and by...
When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky

Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour
And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge

Now let the music keep our spirits high
And let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal it's secrets by and by
By and by...
When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky

"Paper Heart" with Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera


Charlyne Yi and her friend, director Nicholas Jasenovec, set off across America to find the true meaning of love. Charlyne maintains that it does not exist. They start by asking people at malls and in parking lots just what is love? They then go on to Universities and consult with Professors of Chemistry and Psychology in order to find the answer.

This is a documentary. With a twist. It becomes a love story. Why? Because, as we all know, love often finds you when you least expect it, and not always when it is convenient.

Nicholas and Charlyne interview married couples of 50 years to find the secret of their success. They interview young children in a playground in order to obtain a more innocent impression of just what makes up this thing we call love.

But when Charlyne meets a young man named Michael at a party, while being filmed, you can see it happening. And it keeps on happening as the filming progresses. This film will make you laugh out loud, and when it's done, you'll be grinning from ear to ear like an idiot. Just like being in love. A wonderful, offbeat and unusual film.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Our Vanishing Americana" A Documentary by Mike Lassiter and Scott Galloway


I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Mike Lassiter and Scott Galloway, both local residents, were having a screening of their film, "Our Vanishing Americana", at the local Public School in Davidson this past Sunday. Originally published as a book by Mr. Lassiter in 2006, this beautiful collection of photographs, and their accompanying stories, were, with the aid of Scott Galloway, made into a wonderful film documentary in 2009. I originally ran across this book at the Library in Mooresville and saw the film last winter on TV1, a local municipal station. The whole idea of making a film from the book sprang from the simple act of Mr. Lassiter's having met Mr. Galloway. Sharing the same passion for these old stores propelled them to collaborate on the film. So they set off to revisit several of the places shown in the original book.

Utilizing the photographs of local "Mom and Pop" stores, Mr. Lassiter had drawn an impression of North Carolina that seems to disappear more quickly with each passing day. (Witness the old Fire Station on South Boulevard as a recent example.) It's what we do here, tear down the old buildings and landmarks, replacing them with corporate arenas that no one wants, or attends. Shopping malls, large and small, along with housing developments, dot the countryside where once there were beautiful, intimate towns and country stores. Some of these stores had been owned and operated for generations by the same families. There aren't that many left.

I am lucky enough to live in an area of the state that is home to a few of the stores highlighted in the book, as well as the film. The personalities of the people in the original photos seem to spring to life on the screen. And Mr. Galloway does a superb job in making that happen. He captures on film, that quality of light, and even the ambience of the places he films. With the added combination of Mr. Lassiter's narrative, the whole experience takes on a life of it's own.

The music that punctuates portions of the film is, for the most part, all homegrown. From "Country Roads" by native son James Taylor, to the rollicking sound of "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show, the music is pure North Carolina, and speaks to the beauty of the area.

One of the best, and most poignant portraits in the film is the segment that deals with Hinckle's Market in Lexington. The store is in it's third generation, and while the current owner and his brother have often contemplated closing it, whenever a customer comes in and tells him that the town couldn't live without him, they simply keep on.

D.E. Turner's Hardware store, located about 15 minutes from my home, is featured in the film. I have purchased odds and ends there for over 10 years. I have bought as few as 4 screws there when necessary to complete a job. His Radio Flyer collection of toys is unequaled the area.

The whole point of this effort by Mr. Lassiter and Mr. Galloway, is not simply to sell nostalgia, but more importantly, to ask what we can do to preserve these stores for our children and grandchildren. And while we all understand the necessity of shopping for the best price, maybe we can step back a bit and buy some things from our local Main Street stores. Only by keeping the stores economically viable can we hope to keep them going for yet another generation. And the most important thing of all is that with each of these "mom and pop" shops that gets lost - we lose a little bit more of ourselves.

Here is the link to the site for "Our Vanishing Americana." Hurry up and take a look, it's going fast. And thanks to Mr. Lassiter and Mr. Galloway for a delightful treat on a Sunday afternoon.

http://ncamericana.com/

Monday, November 22, 2010

Amerika - 2010


Rooftop Reviews (me) makes all attempts to stay out of the political arena whenever possible. But the events of these last few weeks have compelled me to break my silence in this regard.

It is said that a picture speaks a thousand words, and so I will let this photograph do the talking for me. I will, however, add that I never thought I would live to see the day that old men, women and children would be systematically lined up and striped, not merely of their clothing, but of their dignity as well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Rosewood" with Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Jon Voight and Esther Rolle


This is a savage and raw movie that will leave you disgraced at the things, that we, as human beings, are capable of doing to one another. This is a true story, albeit slightly fictionalized, which takes place on New Years Day 1923 and turns into a 5 day orgy of violence that becomes the systematic destruction of an entire town of African-Americans, many of whom were Veterans of the First World War.

Rosewood, Florida in 1922 was an idyllic place for the African-Americans who lived there. Settled in 1845 by both blacks and whites, the town took it's name from the rosewood coloring of the cedar trees in the area. Over the ensuing decades, and after the Civil War, Rosewood became a mostly "colored" town, located outside of Gainesville. Florida had Jim Crow laws in force, to be sure, but the town of Rosewood consisted almost entirely of African-Americans, who owned stores, had homes, sent their children to church and school, in short they were people very much like their white neighbors in the next town.

The whole story unfolds as a married white woman, Fannie Taylor, is beaten by her lover, John Bradley, within earshot of her "colored" maid. To cover up her infidelity, Mrs. Taylor ran from her home, screaming that she had been attacked by a "negro." The word spread quickly, and the white citizens of the County began to organize into vigilante groups, all intent on revenge.

At this point Sheriff Walker of Levy County is informed that a black "chain gang" prisoner named Jesse Hunter had escaped the day before. He quickly organized a posse to look for him. He also urged all of the local "coloreds" to stay at home, or at work in the turpentine mills for their own safety.

Sam Carter, the local blacksmith was seized after it was said that he had helped the escapee find shelter in the woods outside of town. When he was asked to reveal the location to the mob he was unable to do so. They shot him in the face before hanging his mutilated body to a tree, presumably as a warning to others not to impede the vigilantes.

At the same time that all of this was happening, a white man named John Bradley fled to the home of Aaron Carrier, a black man who was a Veteran and a fellow Mason. Carrier and Carter, who was also a Mason, covered Bradley in the back of a wagon, intent on taking him to the river for safety. After Carter left Bradley at the river, he attempted to return home, only to be met by a band of vigilantes, who lynched him.

On the way back from the river the mob ran into Sylvester Carrier, the son of Aaron and a Veteran of the Great War. He was told to leave town, but refused. He was considered arrogant and "uppity", yet allowed to pass. He then returned to the Carrier home where he gathered as many men as possible to defend the town's women and children, most of whom were, by now, hiding in the woods.

Sylvester was known about town as "Man", and was a crack shot with a rifle. As the mob gathered for the inevitable showdown, numerous incidents of courage and heroism took place. The white sheriff had his hands full as he tried, unsucessfully, to keep some sense of order in the search for justice. By this time, most, if not all of the people involved, knew that Mrs. Taylor's had been beaten by her lover, and moreover, that no rape had taken place. But the truth is no impediment to the orgy of violence that takes place, and the mob continued to grow and their deeds became even more obscene.

Sylvester Carrier was able to get two local white train engineers to bring their train to a point outside of Rosewood, where the women and children were rescued. They were then pursued by the vigilantes as they made their way to Gainesville, and hopefully, justice. But it would be almost 70 years before this story would surface again, resulting in a Commission being formed to ascertain the truth and award damages to the remaining survivors.

Outstanding performances by Don Cheadle and Ving Rhames will keep you riveted to the screen as you watch the insanity unfold. And Esther Rolle, of TV's "Good Times", delivers one of the best performances of her career as Aunt Sarah. Jon Voight has never been in better form than in this movie, where he plays the conflicted John Wright, owner of the local General Store. Throw in perfect direction by John Singleton and this is a movie, and an historical event, which you will never, ever forget.

For more on the history of The Rosewood Massacre, see the link below;


http://www.displaysforschools.com/history.html

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kicking It Off In Concord


Last night Concord kicked off the holiday season with a Christmas Tree lighting followed by a great fireworks display from the top of the Municipal Garage. The tree was across the street in front of the Concord Police Dept. Building. I was hoping to get a good shot of the Christmas Tree with the fireworks in the background, but it didn't quite work out as planned. That's the moon to the right of the tree below.


There was a dearth of fireworks in the area this July 4th, mostly due to budget cuts around the region, so it was really kind of nice to see so many people turn out for the event. Now, let's all go shopping.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Gettysburg Address

This is the only authenticated photo of President Lincoln at Gettysburg. It was taken about noon on November 19th, 1863, some 3 hours before the President spoke.

When the event was over, the newspapers here in America pronounced the President's remarks as "lackluster" and "barren." Instead they concentrated on the more than 2 hour speech which preceeded the President's remarks, and was given by Edward Everett, who was considered to be the greatest orator of his time. Nobody remembers what he said.

The crowd measured from fifteen to twenty thousand that day. The President had arrived the night before and was accompanied by a crowd on his way to the Cemetery. Mr. Everett spoke first, after an opening prayer. After he was through, Lincoln rose and spoke for 2 minutes. The crowd seemed almost suprised at the short speech which Mr. Lincoln made. Coming, as it did, upon the heels of Mr. Everett's speech they were almost in a trance, and Lincoln remarked to his aide, John Hay, "It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed."

This is the photo of the crowd at the time that Lincoln was making his speech. The photo at the top of the page was enlarged and taken from this photo. It is the only known photo of the proceedings that day in which the President's presence has been authenticated.

The following day, on November 20th, Everett wrote the President to praise the speech, and gradually, as it was printed across the country, it came to be seen for the perfect piece of oration that it was, and still remains today. Place all of the politics of that war aside and really listen to what Mr. Lincoln was saying that day. I don't think these words have ever been surpassed, in either beauty or brevity.

Here is the speech;

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here, dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"New York" a Documentary by Ric Burns / Discs 5-8


Everything about this documentary is a delight. From the cover photo of "Steel Workers at Lunch" by Charles C. Ebbets, right down to the closing credits on Disc 8, this film really moves at a brisk pace, imparting a whole lot of information in the process.

Disc 5 begins with the return of the troops at the close of first World War. The footage of the ticker tape parade is particularly interesting, and I found myself looking for my Grandfather. The film simply involves the viewer to that extent. Of course, being a native New Yorker doesn't hurt my love for this film. This is the New York my older relatives spoke of. These are the streets and the people with whom they would have associated. This is as close as I can ever come to experiencing their world, as they saw it.

Disc 6 deals with the end of the Post War Boom and the subsequent collapse of the Stock Market in 1929. It follows the city through the Depression years, which were the ones my parents always spoke of. Again, this is as close as I can get to being there, my parent's stories aside. As the Depression deepens the city struggles to survive and with the help of the NRA and WPA, it does. Some of the greatest buildings in New York went up at this time. My Great Grandfather worked as a brickmason on the Empire State Building, so watching these "skyscrapers" rise on film is a real treat. Again, I found myself looking for a relative in the films.

Disc 7 was a bit of a disappointment as I really expected it to pick up with the year 1941 and the entrance of the United States into World War Two. I thought there would be at least some study of the city during the war years, with the blackouts, and the U-boats lurking off Coney Island. These were the stories upon which I was raised and I had very much hoped to see here.

Instead, Disc 7 explores the city between the years 1945 and 2000, casting it in relation to the rest of the world. The films were very well placed and the dialougue and interview portions lent light to some of the late 1940's and 1950's, particularly in relation to the arts, as well as commerce.

Disc 8 was kind of like a booster for the city, covering the years 1946-2003, which seemed a bit redundant, and entitled "The Center of the World." This disc really explored the commercial redevelopment of the city from a crime infested metropolis, which by the 1970's had become almost too complex to police correctly, to the re-emergence of New York, especially Times Square, as a once again vibrant and safe place in which to live and work. It also explores the recent demographic changes in Immigrant population and it's effect on our own culture.

If you love New York, then this film will not fail to deliver. And as a documentary it bears all the hallmarks of what we have come to expect from Ric Burns. Best part is that he can't help it. Along with his acclaimed brother Ken Burns, I'd say it's in their genes.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Running the Books" by Avi Steinberg


This isn't the book Avi Steinberg intended to write. This isn't the job he was supposed to have. This is not the life he was prepared to live. So, who is the real Avi Steinberg? Come along on Mr. Steinberg's journey as he finds out just who he is and how the hell he got there.

Raised as an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Steinberg fully expected to become a Rabbi. Or at least a Cantor. At age 14 he immersed himself in Talmudic study. He even carried a copy of the Mishna wherever he went, opening it for study at every available opportunity, much to the amusement of even his Orthodox friends. His graduation book predicts his destination in life as "...a shepherd in the Negev desert."

After graduating from college he finds himself without work and very little desire to make a career at anything in particular. For awhile he takes a job as the obituary writer for the Boston Globe. This is when he sees the want ad for a job as a Prison Librarian in Boston's South Bay. He takes the test, gets the job and is plunged into a whole new world, for which he is mostly unprepared. As he prepares for his new job, he wryly notes that most of the Prophets had been criminals of one sort or another. Some had even served time. Two were wanted for murder. One was an exhibitionist.

Different criminals make for different kinds of librarians, and Mr. Steinberg contends that while pimps make the best, psycho killers are the worst. And while his approach to running the prison library is not quite in line with the rules, he does manage to make a difference. Along the way he gets to shepherd a colorful ensemble of individuals with names like Solitary, Brutish, Nasty, Poor and Short. And those are just the girls!

The prison library is a place of refuge for the prisoners, but a source of high anxiety for the staff. There are so many places, and ways, to hide notes, weapons and contraband in a library. It needs to be searched after each library "session." What do you do when you find the notes? A good prison librarian throws them away. What happens when one of the woman prisoners wants to sit near the window to look out onto the prison yard? Will he be savvy enough to figure out that she is only trying to get a glimpse of her son, who is a prisoner in the same facility as his mother? In short, what happens to a man who is suddenly confronted with people and decisions for which he may be unprepared?

In the case of Mr. Steinberg, he lets the books do the talking, while he uses his imagination to get the inmates truly interested in something beyond the walls which surround them. He initiates a "Photo Response Essay" program, in which he passes out pictures and has the inmates write about them. This is officially the "Creative Writing Class", but through this program the inmates learn to confront, and possibly even understand, themselves a bit more.

He introduces them to the photo journalism of Arthur "Weegee" Fellig, one of my all time favorite photograhers, and his collection of crime photos from 1930's New York City. These are raw photos of real life to which the inmates can relate and open up to. Here is a link to some of his extraordinary work;

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/06/19/arts/0620-EXPL_index.html

In turn, he is introduced to things that he has never heard of. Take "skywriting", which is one of the more elaborate ways that prisoners use to communicate with one another. This involves looking skyward and tracing the letters of the message backwards so that the person on the ground can "read" the message. This type of communication was mostly done between the male convicts and the women prisoners who are housed in "The Tower." At any time during the night there were at least 5 such "conversations" taking place. One of Nasty's poems from the Creative Writing Class is a Haiku that deals with "skywriting."

cell in late winter
skywriting to skinny dude
darkness in the yard

With a deft hand, and keen imagination, Mr. Steinberg manages to make a difference in the lives of all those he comes into contact with. This surprises him as much as it does the inmates. Interwoven with his own story is that of his Orthodox friend Yoni, as he struggles to find his own place in the world.

After leaving the job at the prison, Mr. Steinberg bumps into one of his old
"students" from the prison at, you guessed it, the Public Library! Mr. Steinberg is going through some personal changes in his life's direction when he meets the former inmate, who wears an Arab Kufi on his head. The author hadn't known that he was a Muslim. They walk together, each one speaking of their current direction, or lack of one. During this conversation, the former inmate reminds Avi of one of the stories from the Mishna which he told the class in prison. It's the one about the fruit peddlers.

"A merchant bought a sack of prunes from his competitor. Opening the sack, he saw that the prunes had begun to rot. He went back to the seller and demanded his money back. The seller refused, and the two men went to the Rabbi to settle the dispute.

The Rabbi sat down at a table between the two men and emptied the sack in front of them. Then he put on his glasses, and without saying anything, he went to work, slowly and carefully tasting one prune after another, each time shaking his head.

After some time had passed, the Plaintiff spoke up, "So,Rabbi, what do you think?"

The Rabbi, who was about to consume the last of the prunes, looked up sharply and said, "Why are you fellows wasting my time? What do you think I am - A prune expert?"

Avi is amazed that the former inmate has remembered the story, which he always thought of as a story about a Rabbi who managed to eat some prunes for free. Not so, says the former inmate. "It's about a smart guy, okay, but he ain't smart in the right way, see? Just 'cause you think about something a lot don't mean you know anything about it. Maybe you went to Rabbi school, or you're an Iman, or whatnot, but that don't mean you know shit about no damn prunes."

This is an engaging and rewarding read. It will leave you a little bit humbled. And that's a good thing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Old Courthouse Theatre - "Over the River and Through the Woods"

The Old Courthouse Theatre has done it again with yesterday's superb reading of Joe DiPietro's play "Over the River and Through the Woods." What's the difference between leaving and moving? It all depends on which side of the fence you are on. Nick, played by Jacob Brayton, is a 29 year old marketing analyst who is planning on moving from Hoboken to Seattle for a job promotion. His parents have already retired to Miami with his sister Melissa, leaving him the only grandchild in Hoboken, where both sets of grandparents reside, and want him to stay. This family has a tradition of "Tango Familia", which, in Italian, means that you have roots, you belong. In short, they are dead set against his going away.

The entire first act is spent with Nick trying to break the news to his grandparents, who are all gathered for a Sunday dinner, that he has decided to leave Hoboken. He can't get a word in edgewise as the family all jockey with one another over the most trivial and seemingly insane matters.

Gene Saine and Margaret Lackey were perfect as Frank and Aida Gianelli, and Ben and Ardyee DeBurle were equally wonderful as Nunzio and Emma Cristanio. Mr. DeBurle's limited use of an Italian dialect was so effective that, even when not emphasizing the dialect, the accent is still in the listener's mind.

Together, the two sets of grandparents hatch a plot to keep their grandson in Hoboken. When Nick is invited to dinner at the Gianelli's home with both sets of grandparents attending, he is a bit suspicous. So when Grandma Emma turns up with Caitlin, played by Alex Eifner with so much charm that you want to marry her on the spot, Nick is understandably mortified. Unknown to him is that his grandparents are a delight to Caitlin, who was raised with only one grandmother, and even she passed away when Caitlin was just 13. She cannot understand the embarrassment and rejection of their love that Nick shows. Subsequently, when he asks her for a date, she turns him down.

Nick has a heart attack immediately after Caitlin turns him down and he comes back to his grandparents to recuperate. It is at this time that he makes his decision to go for the job in Seattle. It is also at this time that Caitlin stops by to see how he is recovering, and to explain why she wouldn't go out with him. She explains that what he has with his grandparents is like a dream to her. She cannot understand, nor tolerate, his rejection and impatience with them. They wish one another well and part ways.

The play is far from serious, though. There are so many lighhearted moments and characters to focus on. The Italian grandmother that thnks the whole world revolves around food, and her awkwardness with Caitlin, who is a vegetarian, over eating the veal will have you laughing out loud. The stories told by Nunzio, especailly the one concerning his getting his union card by pretending to be Irish, all the while telling it in an Italian dailect, is truly a winner. All of the characters have their fair share of the spotlight in this funny and ever so true story about life, and the choices that we make.

Eventually, Nick does take the job in Seattle and meets someone there, establishing his own family and a new set of traditions, giving himself a different sense of "Tango Familia." And that is the point of the play, that all traditions start somewhere, and go on for generations. Sometimes there are subtle changes to those rituals. And sometimes there are major upheavals as we all establish our own, new sets of rules and family traditions. But when you listen to the old folks talking about how they met, and danced the night away, you can't help but feel that with every move we make away from the family, we lose a bit more of that "Tango Familia."

Another triumph for The Old Courthouse Theatre and their series of "readings." And of course, nothing at The Old Courthouse happens without the wonderful efforts of it's host and director, Jonathan Ewart. These readings are a wonderful treat and probably one of the best kept secrets in the Charlotte area.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fred D. Haynes - USS Milwaukee CL-5


Fred D. Haynes, a crewmember on the old USS Milwaukee, CL-5, passed away last week, reminding me of how little I know concerning the earlier incarnation of the vessel I served aboard in the 1970's. This article is dedicated to Fred D. Haynes, as well as all of those who sailed that Milwaukee, long before I was even dreaming of going to sea. Fred, this is for you.

Before there was a USS Milwaukee AOR-2, aboard which I served in the 1970's, there was an earlier USS Milwaukee, a light cruiser desiginated as CL-5. A trim and highly maneuverable class of vessels, she was designed for early escort work of the type that would become instrumental in winning the 2nd World War.

The USS Milwaukee has taken on several different incarnations over the years. Milwaukee CL-5 was the 4th ship to bear the name. The CL-5 was laid in Seattle in 1918, launched in 1921 and commissioned in 1923.

The ship then did shakedown cruises and was eventually fitted with the newest sonar gear. She then traversed the Pacific for several years while gathering data about the seafloor, The Milwaukee Seamounts in the Northern Pacific are named for her.

During the 1930's the USS Milwaukee was on duty mainly in the Pacific and would go on a "show of force" voyage to the far east. She was back by January of 1939 and transferred to the Caribbean where, on February 14th, 1939 she located the "Milwaukee Deep", the deepest area of the Atlantic Ocean, 85 miles North of Puerto Rico and having a depth of about 29,000 feet. This "deep" is part of the larger Puerto Rico Trench.

When World War Two broke out the USS Milwaukee transited the Panama Canal and escorted 8 troop transports to the Society Islands in December 1941. By March,1942 she was back in the Atlantic, steaming up and down the coast of South America. For the next 2 years she would ply the waters between Brazil and Africa.

On May 19, 1942 Milwaukee received an SOS from the SS Commandante Lyra, and went to the aid of the Brazilian ship, which had been torpedoed. When she Milwaukee arrived on scene, the ship had been abandoned. The Milwaukee rescued 25 survivors that day.

Late in the war she was briefly transferred to the Russian Navy and renamed the Murmansk. She did escort duty with the Russians and after the war served as a training ship until 1949, when she was returned to the United States Navy. She entered the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in March of 1949, and sold for scrap in December 1949 to American Shipbreakers, Inc. of Wilmington, DE.

There would be another USS Milwaukee, a fleet oiler, used for replenishment of other ships at sea. I am proud to have served aboard her. And equally proud of the heritage borne by the ship's name.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Long Time Coming


The Government of Myanmar has released Aung San Suu Kyi from house detention, where she has spent the better part of the last 20 years. Welcome back Aung San, and remember Myanmar, The Whole World Is Watching.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon"


It looks so incongruous, the UNITED STATES versus john lennon. And it was. The largest Government in the world pitting all of it's legal forces against a musician, artist, and poet. John Lennon was a dreamer. He gave us two world anthems for Peace. When the Moratorium against the War was held in New York in November of 1969, the crowd was singing it. The record had only been out for a month, yet the message was clear, and embraced, far and wide.

In 1968 John and Yoko had been arrested in Britain for Possession of Cannabis. This was now the reason that the United States Government, all the way up to President Nixon, would use to bar John and Yoko from America. The real reason, of course, were the anti-war activities in which they participated. And then the bar was raised with John Sinclair.

John Sinclair was the manager of MC-5, the Detroit based rock band that played the free concert at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He was also an anti war activist and avid pot smoker. In addition to this, he was a supporter of the White Panther Party, a radical group that supported the Black Panthers with rhetoric and cash. In spite of having been arrested on numerous occassions for his drug related activities, he continued to flout his drug use. He even staged rallies to legalize it. He was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in State Prison for possession of 2 joints, which he gave to a female undercover officer. His arrest and conviction prompted Abbie Hoffman to jump up on the stage at Woodstock to tell the crowd about it. Did Mr. Sinclair prod the system? Did he poke it with a stick, expecting not to be bitten? Probably, but 10 years for 2 joints of marijuana was really over the top,clearly an excuse to imprison him for his political views. It provoked an immediate public response. Enter, John and Yoko.

By December of 1971 John Sinclair had been in prison for 2 years. His parole hearing came up and he was, not surprisingly, denied release. A concert was hastily organized at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena. The performers included John Lennon (who recorded the song, "John Sinclair" on his "Some Time in New York City" album), Yoko Ono, David Peel, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs and Bob Seger. The speakers were Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale. The concert was later moved from the Arena to outside the prison walls. Three days after the rally, Sinclair was released when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the state's marijuana statutes were unconstitutional.

Earlier, in March of 1971, Congress, finally realized the power of the 18-21 year old age group, and had acted quickly to push through the 26th Amendment, which had given the right to Vote to 18 year olds. This presented an immediate problem; How to get those votes in the 1972 election.

Enter, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. They reasoned, that by deporting John and Yoko, they were sending a message to American youth. Drug use would not be tolerated and Immigration Laws would be enforced, regardless of who the person was. Remember, this was at a time when the Rat Pack roamed freely everywhere, as did Elizabeth Taylor and all the other "jet setters", along with with their pills and cocaine. Even the Rolling Stones were freely permitted to come and go as they pleased, in spite of the arrest of Mick Jagger in 1967. President Nixon had given Elvis presley a DEA badge in 1969, which allowed him to cross state and International lines without search. Clearly there was a double standard being applied to the case of John Lennon.

The real reason behind all of this were the purported plans that John and Yoko had to appear outside of the Republican Convention in 1972. The Prsident and J. Edgar Hoover were not going to let this happen. At this point they began Deportation Proceedings against the Lennons, a battle that would last 5 years.

Armed with an Immigration Attorney, who initially informs the Lennons that their case is hopeless, John and Yoko embark on a tactic of procedural delays that will keep their visas extended for 6 months at a time. This arrangement could well go on forever. John and Yoko, at some point, realized that if they simply agreed to not appear at the Convention, the whole problem would be resolved. The funny part is that they had never actually agreed to appear there at all. It was just the speculation that he might do it that drove the Government crazy. The Convention was held, Lennon did not appear, and the extensions kept coming.

Finally, on October 9, 1975, John and Yoko Lennon were granted permanent residency in America. And to top it off, this was John's 35th bithday, as well as the day his son Sean was born.

A very insightful film that speaks to the forces of Government and how they can be aligned against an individual. This film makes you want to sing "Give Peace A Chance."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

This Little Pin - Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day to all who have served, in times of War, as well as in times of Peace. There are no "good" wars. But there are "just" wars, in which man is pitted against his fellows for a good cause, usually by those who will never have to serve.

So, this little pin represents, not only the 4 years that it took me to earn it, but it represents all of the sacrifices made by the many, over the years, in defense of something greater than themselves. Today is their day.

Thank you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Captain Bligh - Misunderstood

One of my favorite tales of the sea, whether told in a book, or on the screen, has always been "Mutiny On The Bounty." I have read everything available concerning both the voyage and the mutiny, and I have come to some startling conclusions, all supported by fact.

Captain Bligh has been portrayed over the years as a cruel and heartless man. This is not accurate. The depictions of daily floggings, and the famous keel hauling episode, which never happened, have all served to miscolor the reputation of the Captain. Moreover, it has often overshadowed one of the greatest nautical feats ever accomplished; the 3,000 mile voyage in an overladen launch with scant provisions and no charts.

A careful review of the facts, and the testimonies of the crew, some of whom were mutineers, sheds bright light upon the undeserved and darker image of Captain William Bligh. The fact is that he was one of the most humane Captains of his time. The rate of floggings aboard HMS Bounty was well below that of any other ship of the era. He was also one of the best Navigators of his time, as we shall see.

Consider this, in the outward voyage to Tahiti there were NO floggings, this despite the fact that the ship's Carpenter, Purcell, had refused, on two occassions, direct orders from the Captain. This was a hanging offense, yet Bligh took no action at all. At the time, aboard other vessels, 7 floggings per month was not unusual, but in the first sixteen months there were only 7 floggings aboard the Bounty.

Moreover, Captain Bligh knew that the voyage would take two years. The practice at the time was for there to be two watches per day, which allows only sporadic sleep. This would be hard on the crew. Captain Bligh broke the watches into 3 shifts, the advantage being that the men got 8 hours off to rest instead of only 4 hours, which is very tiring. Again, this is the real Captain Bligh and not the portrayal of the man we have come to know through books and film.

The Captain had sailed with no Marines aboard to control the men, and discipline aboard was fairly relaxed. When they arrived at Tahiti he decided to let his men go ashore on a rotating basis. Having no Marine Guard aboard to prevent it, he knew he could not keep the men from the island. This was a huge mistake, as the men began to fratinize with the natives. Relationships were formed and the crew began to dread the return trip home.

In all of the logs and testimony given at the Admirality Hearing, there is no testimony pertaining to excessive cruelty on the part of Captain Bligh. Even in the journals of both Boatswain's Mate Morrison and Peter Haywood there is not a word of excessive punishment or floggings. The troubles all began within the first 3 weeks of the return voyage to England.

Half of the crew had wed while in Tahiti and were not too pleased with returning to a damp and dreary England after having lived in a veritable paradise for the past year. Chief amongst these crewmembers was Flecther Christian, who had wed the native Chief's daughter.

In the third week of the voyage home, and on Christian's watch, some coconuts had been pilfered during the night. This prompted the famed confrontation between Bligh and Christian, during which Bligh called Christian a "damned hound." To Christian this was a slur not taken lightly and he spent the remainder of the evening drinking heavily.

At dawn the next morning, Christian awoke Bligh with a cutlass at his throat. He then cast the Captain, and his loyal crew members, adrift to die. This left Captain Bligh 2 choices, either make for the nearest island, a mere thirty miles distant, and perish there, or sail with the current, three thousand miles, with no provisions, to the Dutch Island of Timor. From there he would reach England, return to Tahiti, capture several of the mutineers, bringing them back to England in chains to face justice. Some were hanged, others pardoned.

The Admirality rebuked Captain Bligh for losing the Bounty, but never acknowledged their own mistake of sending the ship on a 2 years voyage, with conscripted sailors, and no Marines. The record is fairly clear here. Captain Bligh was a man way ahead of his time concerning the treatment of men at sea. And yet, through the vagaries of history, and Hollywood, we have come to know him as a tyrant.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Birthday Favorite Aunt Gloria

Today is my favorite Aunt Gloria's birthday. If age is defined in years, then youth must be defined in the joy of living. And that makes Aunt Gloria one of the youngest people I know! She has always been around, providing the laughter when everyone else is crying. Smiling, while everyone else is busy being blue. She helped me put the first worm on my fishing hook when I was 3 years old. That's her in the photo, standing tall, leading the pack of excited kids on their way to catch Moby Dick. I'm the little guy in front, with my hands in my pockets. Happy Birthday Aunt Gloria, and many more to come. With love from one of your favorite nephews.

Kristallnacht

Today marks the occurrence of "Kristallnacht", the German "Night of Broken Glass" in 1938 that marked the beginning of the Holocaust. 14 million people were systematically killed in the Nazi Death Camps, 6 million of whom were Jewish. There is not much that I can say that would even come close to describing the horrors of those times. So, instead I will let the 1980 Nobel Prize Winner, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz speak for me.

This poem was written in Warsaw in 1943, after the ghetto had been destroyed and replaced with "Concentration Camp Warsaw." It describes the feelings of Mr. Milosz, a Polish Christian, who witnessed all of the events in Warsaw; from the formation of the Ghetto, to the subsequent uprising by the Jews, and the final inclusion of Polish Christians as victims of the Nazi horrors, within the grounds of the former Ghetto. In looking to distinguish the "ashes of each man", he alludes to an unearthly power that can distinguish those of the victims from the ashes of the rubble. But he concludes that no power can mark the difference of the Jewish ashes from the Polish ones. It is a remarkable poem, one which could only have been written by someone who was a witness to such inhumanity. May they all Rest in Peace.

"A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto" by Czeslaw Milosz

Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair.

Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
Ants build around white bone. Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,
Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.
The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.
Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
With one leafless tree.

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.

I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
The uncircumcised.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"The Grace of Silence" by Michele Norris


I don't watch TV and I almost never listen to NPR, so I had no idea who Michele Norris is, or what she does for a living, when I picked up this book. The time period of the 1940's holds a special allure for me, after all, it was the decade in which my parents met. I have always been fascinated by the clothes, the politics, and the music of this era. The South, fueled by my Mother's stories of driving down to Florida and seeing the "Whites Only" signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains, has also always held me captive, with stories of racial injustices and the Ku Klux Klan. I grew up with Bull Connors always there on the sidelines in Birmingham, causing me to ask my 4th grade teacher what was so different about South Africa and Apartheid, when compared to what was happening in Alabama?

So this book seemed to have all the elements of what interests me in a memoir. I got more than I bargained for. Ms. Norris has penned a book that is, at first glance, the story of her father and his service in the Navy during the Second World War, and at the same time chronicles the history of the Civil Rights Movement, from it's real beginnings at the end of that war. Building upon this story, the author has created a vivid portrait of America from the 1940's through the present.

Beginning the book with some family history, the author quickly moves into the early 1960's when her father, Belvin Norris, Jr. bought a house in an all white neighborhood in Minnesota. The family has to work twice as hard to show that they are responsible homeowners. They are the first family to shovel the snow, and their garden is the most well tended. Gradually though, white flight does takes place, as was common all over America at the time.

Her parents were both Postal Workers, and they worked hard instilling pride in their children. The story of Ms. Norris' grandmother is a perfect example of pride. Ione Hopson was one of the many "Aunt Jemima's" who would travel from city to city making pancakes to advertise the product. As humiliating as this job might seem by today's standards, the author's grandmother showed some real backbone when she took this job, which only emblazoned the image of a happy black "Mammy" in the public eye. In deep contrast to this, she was the woman who began the U-Meet-Us Senior Citizen Center in Minneapolis, when there was no place relevant for black seniors to go.

After her father is discharged from the Navy, he heads home to Birmingham. At that time, and on through the turbulent 1960's, Birmingham would be the center of the Civil Rights Struggle. Within 2 weeks of being discharged from the Navy, Ms. Norris' father is involved in a scuffle with the police, during which he is shot in the leg. Ms. Norris grows up never hearing anything about this. When her father passes away, a family member lets this fact slip out, leading the author to chase down the story, as well as some of the surviving players. What she uncovers is the story of a nation, just returned from a war to promote Freedom, while denying that same right to it's African-American Citizens. This is the real beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Angry Veterans, returning home after fighting for their country, decided that they had endured enough. They wanted to be full citizens of the country for which they had just fought.

At this point the book turns from a memoir into a history of the Desegregation of the Armed Forces under President Truman. This came about in part due to the blinding of a recently discharged African-American named Isaac Woodward, who was a passenger aboard a bus traveling from Georgia to South Carolina. He was beaten and blinded by 2 police officers during a "rest stop" in Batesburg, South Carolina. Although his name has largely been lost to history, his ordeal sparked a national outcry, which included Orson Welles beginning a running commentary on his ABC radio show, entitled "What Does It Cost To Be A Negro?" For several months he shone a light on the officer involved, during which he said, "We have an appointment, you and I, and only death can cancel it." He was warned to back off and eventually fired.

This is a very unusual book, in that it is part memoir,and part history. It would be hard to seperate the history of the author's family from the history of the racial strife which has rocked our nation from it's birth.

For me, the most enduring character in the book is the author's father. He lived through those turbulent times. He paid, in sacrifices we can only imagine, for all of the freedoms he came to enjoy. He earned the legacy that his daughter stands on today.

At the beginning of the book, Ms. Norris talks about having a dialoque on race. The title of the book makes more sense to me. There is a special grace, and even dignity in silence. There is an old admonition that one should know when to say nothing. You cannot force someone to listen to that which they do not want to hear. The story of Ms. Norris' father, and all that he silently endured, proves it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Brooklyn Steel - Blood Tenacity" by Frank Trezza


It's unusual for me to review the same book twice. As a matter of fact, this is probably the first time that I have done it. But Mr. Trezza was raised on East 17th Street between Avenue S and T in Brooklyn. I was raised on Avenue R between East 13th and 14th Streets. We both used to eat the Italian bread on the way home from the bakery, while it was still warm and soft. We played in the same streets.

So, you see, I've got to give this book another shout out! It is seemingly short, being less than 200 pages, but packs a wallop that will stay with you even after you have finished reading. It is the story of a young man searching for a vocation and finding it in the shipyards, and later working aboard foreign ships. Mr. Trezza and I have both walked the same streets and made some of the same journeys in our lives. That we should come to meet through this blog fascinates me no end.

The book is at once the story of the early 1970's and making career choices, as well as the story of the implosion of the American shipbuilding trade through the abuses of both the politicians and the Unions themselves. It is also the story of a working man, striving in changing times, to keep pace with it all.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Don't Forget To Fall Back......

Don't forget to set your clocks back an hour tonite before you go to bed. Wouldn't want to cheat yourself out of an extra hour of whatever you might be doing at 2 AM! I actually waited up one year to see how the TV stations handled it. I fell asleep in front of the TV at about 1:30 AM, so that falls under the "Failed Research - To Be Retried at a Later Date" category. That list gets longer every year. I'm going to try and enjoy staying up a little bit later, and then also waking up a little bit later, which will still really be a little bit earlier, so the whole thing will even out in the end.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Guy Fawkes Day - 1605

Today is the Anniversary of Guy Fawkes Day, that occassion in 1605 when Mr. Fawkes, an English Catholic, was captured while attempting to blow up Parliment with casks of gunpowder stored below the Parliment chambers. While the plot failed, he was instantly immortalized in song and poem. You might call him one of the earliest "ant-hero" characters in history.

The "Gunpowder Plot" happened after King James the First fell through on his promises to end persecution of Catholics. Guido Fawkes was an English Catholic. The law in England then, as now, states that no Catholic can ever be Monarch. And just to make sure that this never happens, the Queen is still the head of the Church of England.

So there will be bonfires and celebrations in Britain tonite as the English celebrate the day that Guy Fawkes didn't blow up Parliment. Or maybe they are celebrating because he tried....

Old English Poem - Fifth of November

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match

Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip Hoorah !
Hip hip Hoorah !

A penny loaf to feed ol'Pope,
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar,'
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say: ol'Pope is dead.

"The Man Behind The Nose" by Larry "Bozo" Harmon


I never knew that there was a real "Bozo" the clown. By that, I mean I thought that each city had it's own version of "Bozo", and I was probably of the opinion that these guys were like department store "Santas" at Christmas, mostly guys that couldn't hold a real job. Drunks. Was I ever wrong!

The "real" Bozo the Clown was a man named Larry Harmon, born Lawrence Weiss on January 2, 1925 in Toledo, Ohio. As a child he "discovered" Al Jolson and the course of his life was changed forever. He became hooked on the limelight that comes with entertainment.

After a few stints in school marching bands, he had a thing for the drums, the future Bozo went to war. He served in the Army as a Private in World War Two. Working in the Entertainment Corps gave him the opportunity to meet Al Jolson, his boyhood idol. Mr. Jolson takes an interest in him, encouraging his ambitions to become an entertainer. When they meet a second time, Mr. Jolson tells him that he has improved greatly and should really consider show businesss in lieu of Mr. Harmon's desire to be a doctor. He tells him, "Being a doctor of Medicine is honorable, but you'll touch so many more lives as a doctor of laughter."

With this encouragement, Mr. Harmon goes to USC on the GI Bill, majoring in Theater.Upon graduating he auditioned at NBC studios in Los Angeles. He is chosen to play "Captain Comet", one of the first space characters to appear on TV. His character was a space pilot from Venus who comes to earth as a guide for the Universe. Ironically, Mr. Harmon was a tremendous fan of the race to break the sound barrier, and later, a strong enthusiast of NASA's Space Program, an interest which he managed to incorporate into his show. He actually flew in the Zero Gravity plane with the Mercury Astronauts, reporting about it on his show.

In 1956 he bought the rights to the "Bozo" character. He then set out to license other "Bozo's" to take the show to other cities across the country. From there it was a non-stop journey, with trips around the world. His adventures with the Cannibals in New Guinea, after his plane crashed, are extraordinary. After meeting the tribesmen, who are fascinated by the size of his feet, he is wined and dined. He then entertains them as Bozo, and leaves alive, proving that laughter is the Universal Cure for all that divides us.

This is a very unusual book about a very unusual guy. At first I found it hard to take "Bozo" seriously, since my memories of him are all tied up with the image of his size 83XXX shoes and the red hair and nose. But beneath this facade was a very deep man, with vision and dreams.

When all is said and done, Al Jolson was right. Larry Harmon did become that "Doctor of Laughter", and he did touch many more lives in his journey as Bozo the Clown.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Mao's Great Famine" by Frank Dikotter


China has always been a fascinating subject for me. Their recorded history spans over 6,000 years. But the time period that has always interested me the most are the years between the Boxer Rebellion in 1903 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966. These years are filled with the story of a nation struggling to right itself after thousands of years spent living under fuedal warlords in a land too large to be Governed Centrally, given both the large distances and the limitations of communications technology at the time.

Before World War Two,China was engaged in an internal struggle to rid herself of the foreign powers that had literally carved her up into commercial zones. Politically, the country was constantly in upheaval, as the Nationalist forces struggled against the Communists forces for control of China's political destiny. Would the Nationalists prevail, or would the country go Communist? That question had to be put on hold as the Chinese people cast aside their internal differences to battle a common enemy; the Japanese agression of the 1930's and 1940's.

When the war ended, the Chinese, under Mao Tse Tung, forced Chiang Kai-Chek into exile on the island of Formosa, and established the Communist government we came to regard as "Red China" on the mainland. Growing up we were told in school all about the advances in literacy and agriculture, as well as industry, that were being made there under Communism. This was all done in an effort to teach us tolerance of other forms of government. The implication was that to be a Communist doesn't automatically make you the enemy. And China has evolved into a major player in every aspect of the world, both economically and industrially. But the path to get there was long and hard.

The abuses heaped deliberately upon the Soviet people pale in comparison to the arbitrary decisions that were made by Chairman Mao, affecting one quarter of the worlds population. The abuses and insanity of the Cultural Revolution are well documented, as in Ji Li Jiang's wonderful memoir "Red Scarf Girl." Having lived through that time here in America, I had some knowledge of something happening in China, through TV and news reports. But until recently I had never known that China suffered a massive famine between the years 1958 and 1962. "Mao's Great Famine" is the story of that period, officially called The Great Leap Forward.

It is unimaginable, to the average American, to live in a country which is so underdeveloped, that the Government would send operatives door to door to collect any metal, or tinware, that was in your home. This metal would then be taken to a collective, or community, furnace for smelting into steel. The result was often inferior "pig iron." Still though, you had to turn it all in to meet the quota. It didn't matter that it was no good. So you just passed it on. Multiply this by millions.

Now imagine having lived in an agricultural community of the same country, where there were quotas set on your production. It doesn't matter if it rained, or not, you still had to meet your quota. So, many farmers hid some of the food for their own families. Multiply this by millions.

This is the way the "Great Leap Forward" played itself out. Before it was over, millions of people had died of starvation. Millions of others had died from disease and overwork in inferior steel mills and other failed industrial efforts.

The economic system was utterly destroyed, replaced by a black market system trading in various state issued coupons. Many of these coupons were restricted to the area in which one lived, which in turn restricted an individuals ability to move about freely. In cases like that, black markets offered, for sale or exchange, other coupons. Cash actually lost it's purchasing power.

One of the major effects of all of this was the mass migration of farmers from the countryside into the cities. Forced to give their crops to the state, and then subsisting only on what the state allowed them to keep, was so dispiriting that many simply left the farms. The wages, and coupons, that could be earned in factories seemed like a much better idea. But upon arriving in the cities the average worker found himself underpaid, and often underfed, as the cities began to feel the pinch of the overcrowding, as well as the dwindling amount of food being produced. At that point, every one is forced to go home.

This is one of the best books you will find concerning the failed policies of the "Great leap Forward." Mr.Dikotter has done an excellent job in making the subject both informative and readable. Given the complexity of the material, this was not an easy thing to accomplish.

The book is comprehensive and well written. It is not designed to look down upon, nor to ridicule, the policies of the past in China. More than that, it serves as a spotlight on a very dark and often misunderstood period in modern Chinese history. The more that is written about China under Mao, the more one has to wonder, how did so many, allow so much, to go wrong for so long a time.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rooftop Votes

I voted today in the "Mid Term" elections. I don't expect much change to come of it, but I vote for just the opposite reason that I am told not to bother. By this I mean that, if my vote is just a meaningless ritual that the Government has me go through every few years, just to make it all seem legitimate, then they, in effect, need me just as much as I do them. Interesting thought... and I welcome differing opinions.

A sign of hope at the polls today was the daughter of Blake Kiger,one of the School Board candidates. I don't really follow the School Board stuff anymore, being an "empty nester", with grandkids whom all live out of state, but Sue and I figured it this way - if this guy could get his obviously intelligent and well poised 12 year old out to pull for her old man, he must know something about kids. And so,he got our votes.

Long and short of it is this, get out and vote! They make it real easy, even for the Handicapped. You drive to the polling place,or someone drives you, and then wait in the car while someone goes in to get a Waiver and Ballot form. A Poll Watcher comes out, checks your ID, which is something they do not do inside and should, and then lets you vote in your car. I'm not there yet, but it's nice to have the option should the need arise.

Another moment worth remembering was the Referendum for the County to "Not Appoint as Sheriff any person who has been Convicted of a Felony." My knee jerk reaction was to say, "Duh", and I voted for it. While talking with another guy on the way out though, we both agreed that there was much merit to the question, "Which types of Felony's", and what about stuff in the future that may become a Felony. So, we both left with reservations concerning that issue, though my gut instinct still tells me it's a good idea to keep Convicted Felons from becoming Sheriff.

So, go and Vote! If not for you, do it for me. Oh, and it's free. And, more importantly, if you don't vote, then you forfeit your right to complain.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Winter's Bone" with Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes


There are no friends in the drug game. Sometimes there isn't even family that can be counted on, let alone trusted. When everybody is out to protect their own interests, survival becomes a primary instinct, eclipsing both the good and the evil lurking within each of us.

Seventeen year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence)lives with her brother, sister and a mother who has never recovered from a breakdown. Ree is the adult in the house. The family lives in a dilapidated house in a rural town in the Midwest. Her father, a methamphetamine addict and "cooker", has been absent for several weeks, and misses a court appearance, which will cause the family to lose their home. Ree sets out to find him.

Set against the backdrop of a cold and harsh winter, the people who populate Ree's town are starkly portrayed. Their hopelessness is palpable. The men are all involved in either using, or "cooking" crank, while their wives sit by in inexplicable silence. "This is just the way it is", seems to be the attitude. Ree will not accept this.

Embarking on a journey to find her Dad pits her against everyone. Her relatives don't seem to want to help, and the town Sheriff is not to be trusted. Ree has just one week to find her father and turn him in. If she doesn't she loses the house and her family will be split up. There is one alternative - if her Dad is dead, and she can prove it, then the bail jumping charges will disappear and the family can survive.

This movie will keep you interested and engaged as Ree struggles, against her father's family, and the law, in order to survive. Along the way, she learns just how hard she can be to protect what's hers. And with that realization comes the knowledge that she is just like everyone else. With it's sparse and tightly controlled Direction, this movie is a winner.