Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Rebel Rabbit" with Bugs Bunny (1949)


In this 1947 Bugs Bunny cartoon, our hero finds that the bounty offered for other animals far exceeds the price paid for rabbits. Outraged, he sets off for Washington, D.C., where he encounters government bureaucracy for the first time. When he lodges his complaint about the low bounty paid for rabbits, he is told that the reason is due to the fact that other animals are peskier than rabbits. Infuriated, he sets out to prove the government wrong.  Sparks fly, as Bugs discovers that being undervalued can sometimes be a blessing! As usual, Mel Blanc provides all the voice overs.

Friday, June 29, 2012

"The Mark Inside" by Amy Reading (2012)

I used to keep an FBI Wanted Poster tacked to the wall of whatever office I worked in. Eventually, someone would always ask me who it was. I would always answer, “That’s so and so, and he owes me $10 bucks! Have you seen him?” As the man on the poster was usually a cold blooded killer, the reaction was usually predictable; something along the lines of, “Are you kidding?” In this fascinating book, Amy Reading gives the account of a man who wasn’t.

J. Frank Norfleet was a self-made man. He made his fortune as a rancher in the late 19th, and early 20th, centuries. In 1919 he went to Dallas on business. There he met Big Joe Furey, the most notorious “confidence man” in the country at the time. He traveled across the nation, coast to coast, with his cohorts, as they swindled every mark they encountered. That is, until they made the mistake of running their scam on Frank Norfleet.
From Benjamin Franklin, to P.T. Barnum, America has always had an odd relationship with those who bedazzle us. The promise of great reward for little, or no effort, is hard for any man to resist. We are, at times, simply put, a nation of “suckers.”
When Norfleet realizes that he has been swindled he goes home to his ranch, confessing his losses to his wife. Shortly before Christmas 1919, Norfleet, sitting with his wife in their kitchen, makes the decision to track down, and bring to justice, the men who robbed him of both his money, and dignity. This was no small undertaking in 1919. Even with cross country railroads, and telegraphs; as well as phones; things were not as fast paced as they are today. And that’s what makes Norfleet’s story so remarkable.
With a deft hand, the author takes you on a journey across America; not only in the Norfleet case and its subsequent trials; but also into the history of the Con Artist in America. Crisply written, and filled with a history apart from the main event, serve to make this book the perfect read for these hot summer days. The richness with which Ms. Reading has captured the personalities of the players in this story is truly rewarding.
When  the Literary World commented, in its review of the play "The Confidence Man" in 1849 that, “It is a good thing, and speaks well for human nature that, at this late day, in spite of all the hardening of civilization, and all the warnings of newspapers, men can be swindled,” Ms. Reading believes, as I do, that this shows we still retain a capacity for trust. And ill-advised as that may seem at times, it is, no doubt, a good thing. This is a very well written book, which gives the reader a closer insight into the history of the “con” in America, as well as the amazing story of J. Frank Norfleet, the man who, unlike myself, wasn’t kidding.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"A Bronx Tale" with Robert DeNiro and Chazz Palminteri (1993)

This is one of my favorite Robert DeNiro films. It was his first effort at directing a film, and is a poignant look at growing up in New York City during the 1960’s. Each neighborhood had its own fiefdom, usually composed of someone who was “connected” to the “mob” in some way. That person functioned as a sort of “peacekeeper” in his neighborhood, settling disputes and also collecting a fee from any illegal activities that might be going on in the area.  For the most part this system worked to everyone’s advantage, but every now and again, paths were crossed, and drama ensued. That is the story told in this remarkable film written originally as a play by Chazz Palminteri, who also wrote the screenplay for this movie, in which he plays the lead character of Sonny, the neighborhood “boss”.

Sonny runs things from the Chez Bippi, a bar located on the corner of 187th Street in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx. This bar is the local hangout for the mob, a place where they can gather and feel comfortable. It is a separate world within a world, where working class people live and hold real jobs.  When Calogero , the 9 year old son of a local bus driver named Lorenzo Anello, played by Robert DeNiro, witnesses a gangland related shooting outside the bar; these two worlds collide in a very unexpected way.
After the shooting, Lorenzo quickly hauls his kid off the street to avoid being questioned by the police. When the child is forced to look over the suspects, he does the “right thing” by not telling the truth; or, as his father puts it, “You did a good thing for a bad man.” This confuses his son, who has grown to idolize Sonny, which in turn forms a division between father and son. When Sonny offers Lorenzo a job running numbers as a reward, Lorenzo turns him down, eschewing the easy money for his honest job.
As Calogero grows older he begins to work at the bar, without his father’s knowledge. Lorenzo is disapproving of the men who hang out at the bar, and the world they represent. He asserts that the real hero is the guy who gets up in the morning and goes to work to make an honest living. But this lesson is lost on his son, who sees the big, easy money being earned by the men at the bar. He soon becomes a part of their world, running errands, serving drinks, even rolling the dice for Sonny in a crap game.  When Lorenzo finds out that his son has been working at the bar, he confronts Sonny, reminding him that the boy is his son, and that as such, Sonny is way out of line with his interference in the raising of his family. This sets off an emotional conflict between the two men which never fully resolves itself.
The film is a multi-layered story of the years between 1960 and 1969, when things were changing so quickly it wasn’t always easy to keep pace with what was right, and what was wrong. It is also the story of a father and son in the grips of those changes. And it is also the story of a city rent by these changes.
As Calogero gets older he finds himself attracted to an African-American girl who goes to his school. With racial tensions between the Italians and Blacks at an all-time high, this is just another log on the fire for “C”, the name which Sonny has bestowed upon him, much to the chagrin of his father.
While  Calogero becomes more involved with his girlfriend, Jane, racial tensions arise in the neighborhood, and C’s friends become involved in the violence.  He is torn between his loyalty to his friends, and the conflicting advice  he receives from his father, and Sonny, on just about everything.
When tensions explode on a fateful night, it is Sonny who saves the boy from death. And when Sonny is later murdered in retaliation for another killing, it is Lorenzo who comes to his son’s aid, helping him to realize that all things are not as cut and dried and as they might seem at first. Life is complicated. And though both men had conflicting outlooks on life, they both wanted what each perceived to be the best for Calogero. It is only after Sonny’s death that Loenzo realizes the good within the dead man, who had tried to keep his son from following in his footsteps.
When Lorenzo shows up at Sonny’s funeral to pay his respects; more to his son’s friendship than to Sonny himself; Calogero realizes that Sonny was wrong when he said that “nobody cared.”
This is a flawlessly written, and directed, film by two of the best actors of the last 40 years. As usual, Robert De Niro has peppered the film with some of the greatest music of the 1960’s, ranging from Doo-Wop music to the sounds of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Rhythm and Blues, and even some Eric Clapton thrown in. The whole movie is seamlessly drawn, and lingers on with the viewer long after the last credits have rolled. If you have never seen this film before, then you are missing one of the best.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Shrinking World

This used to be my stomping ground. I sailed, flew, bicycled and walked most of the world 3 times. But that was a long time ago; at least it seems that way now. My world has shrunk in size due to some physical problems. I am plagued by bad bones. They inhibit my ability to travel too far from home. I miss the traveling in so many ways. I took my last trip to New York City; where I was born and raised; last year. I’m glad I did it then. This year is my 40th High School Reunion, which will be held in New York, of course, and I will not be able to make it. But, in so many ways I will be able to partake of the festivities. There’s Facebook and all of the other social media sites which help keep us connected, even when we can’t make the trip.

This is the extent of my world on most days now. I’m not complaining. I lived my life backwards, traveling when I was young, and it has worked out well.  I have seen most of the things I wanted to see; and experienced all that really interested me. So, on that score I feel comfortable. I suppose that it is the reality of my limitations which bothers me the most.
Pain does not trump desire; when I see a tree worth climbing, I still want to climb it. I really do want to walk around the park, and go to the zoo. I’m just not ready for one of those electric go-cart things. Hell, I don’t even use my cane when I can avoid it. So, my world is shrinking, shriveling up like the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy splashed the water on her in the Wizard of Oz. “I’m melting!”
Blogging helps. The e-mails I get from people who enjoy what I write make the effort well worthwhile. The time I spend posting whatever it is I post is well spent. It keeps me connected to the world in ways that I never imagined possible beyond my own mere memories. I have recovered so much of my past in making connections with old friends; sharing photos, along with those little slices of life which make the past so attractive to re-visit.
So, I live in a shrinking world, and it will get even smaller in the years to come. But through these pages, and my own imagination, I am traveling yet. And I am glad to have you come along for company.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"All You Need Is Love" - 45 Years Later


It was 45 years ago  yesterday that the Beatles broadcast “All You Need Is Love” for the first time on a show called “Our World.” This was the very first worldwide live satellite television broadcast. There were no politicians allowed on the show, which was broadcast from 19 different countries on 5 continents. It took 10,000 technicians to produce the show using a myriad of satellites, including Intelsat II and an array of ATS-1’s. The only country to pull out of the project, at the last minute, was the Soviet Union, which did so as a protest against the recent Israeli victory during the 6 Day War with Egypt.

At approximately 9:30 PM London time, the Beatles; with a live orchestra and some very prominent guests; began their now iconic anthem. The show was live, and that meant that although it was 9:30 PM in London, it was 4:30 PM in Brooklyn. The show was to be broadcast; in black and white; on Channel 13, part of the National Educational Television group, which eventually became todays Public Broadcasting Service.

400 million people watched this 2 hour event, starring such luminaries as the Beatles in England; Maria Callas broadcasting from Greece; Pablo Picasso coming from Spain; and others. In London, seated on the floor as the Beatles performed were Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash and Keith Moon.

There was a portion of the backing track which was pre-recorded, but the band was live, as was the 13 piece orchestra and the Beatle’s vocals. I had to hurry home from whatever I was doing that afternoon after school in order to catch the broadcast.  Since I did see it, I can only assume that I beat the clock. I remember watching it on the television, possibly with my Mom. (Originally, I remembered watching this in the middle of the night, but that is geographically impossible. In addition, further examination has shown me that June 25th, 1967 was a Sunday; so  my recollection of coming home from school is also incorrect!)

The record would not be released until July 7th, some 2 weeks away, after some slight alterations of the original master recording. So, along with the rest of the world, I had never heard this recording before, but even the limited scope of a 13" black and white screen  TV set which only received in mono could not mask the majesty of the song, or the message.  That message still rings today.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cold Blooded Encounters - Monroe, N.C.

Sue and I went to the Reptile Zoo yesterday; it’s located in Monroe, North Carolina, which is about 45 minutes from our home in Concord. Admission is $6 dollars, and you really do get your money’s worth out of the visit. These two friendly lizards are a good example of the activity displayed by many of the reptiles. Of course, some were docile and immobile; as is their nature; while others were quite excited to have visitors.

This corn snake was very active; I even took some video of him as he slithered quickly about his cage. Sue and I had a couple of these fine reptiles in a house we lived in a few years back. We buried them by the footers to root out a nest of mites that were driving us mad. They are harmless to humans, but deadly to rodents and small insects.

An abundance of turtles rounded out the visit, along with a variety of spiders, frogs and toads. All of the reptiles were kept in natural settings, with appropriate lighting and well cared for. The exhibit is small, housed in a unit of a strip mall. With time, this museum will grow larger and become a major attraction. The love and care of the owner for his hobby definitely makes this museum a delightful experience. The contact info is located on the business card below.Be sure to visit the web site at coldbloodedencounters.com for more information on this unusual and educational exhibit.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Grandma Moses" by Herself (1948)

I must confess to having been entirely ignorant on the subject of Grandma Moses until I found this old treasure in the “stacks” at the Mooresville Town Library. I had heard the name , but for some reason I have always associated it with being a slave narrative, of which I have read several. So, I just never got around to it until last week.

Imagine my surprise to find out that Grandma Moses was an elderly white woman who began to paint landscapes at the age of 80! Born in New York State in 1860, she recalls the Civil War, and her family’s move to Virginia after the war had ended. Her father worked at several different trades, including farming, and the author recalls all the hardships, and rewards, of that bygone era.

Candid in every respect, the manuscript was actually pieced together from several different interviews and magazine articles written by the author over the course of several decades. There is nothing written here which was not proof read by Grandma Moses, and her family, before its release.

What you get is an unpretentious look at a woman who worked hard for many years, raising 5 of the 10 children born to her. The other 5 died. The book serves as a window into a time when you didn’t name your kid right away; you first waited to see if it lived. With her nimble mind, and capable husband, the two forged out a living in Chicago, Upstate New York and even Virginia, which was her first love. Most of her paintings are evocations of life in her beloved Shenandoah Valley.

A very quick read, with full color illustrations of some her best known paintings, this book will introduce you to a unique American woman. That she was unafraid to completely change the course of her life at such a late age, and have such great impact upon the art scene; so far removed from the life she had lived; should serve as an inspiration to us all that it is possible to live your dream. You have only to discover what that dream is…

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Mickey's Trailer" - with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy (1938)

When Mickey Mouse sets off for vacation with his two buddies, Goofy and Donald Duck, they make one big mistake; they let Goofy do the driving. You can expect the unexpected as Goofy takes the trio on a hair raising adventure to their destination. But, as usual, in the end everything seems to come together. Hey, like they say, half the adventure is in getting there….

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Columbus Circle" with Beau Bridges and Selma Blair (2012)

Abigail Clayton, played by Selma Blair, is a recluse. The daughter of a millionaire industrialist, she has not left the apartment in almost 20 years. She suffers from agoraphobia, a fear of going out. She lives alone, insulated against the world. Her only communication with the outside world comes via notes slipped under her door to the building’s concierge, who keeps her supplied with groceries and other necessities. When her elderly neighbor is killed, Ms. Clayton immediately decides to buy the apartment in order to heighten her sense of security, or isolation.

Her plans are foiled when the building’s owner decides to rent the apartment to a young couple. When the new tenants move in, she listens to every sound which emanates from their apartment. Her new neighbors seem to be locked in a dysfunctional relationship, fueled by the man’s alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Her only other source of communication is with Dr. Raymond Fontaine, played by Beau Bridges. His intentions are never clear, lending a further layer of mystery to this very well paced and directed film.
A series of circumstances ensue, which bring the reclusive Ms. Clayton to a face to face meeting with the couple, rocking her world of solitude in a major way. Coupled with the police investigation into the old ladies death; which appears to be accidental; there are some secrets from Ms. Clayton’s past which keep the viewer a bit mystified, and in the dark.

Reminiscent, in many ways, of Roman Polanski’s 1965 film “Repulsion”, this is a film which explores the human psyche.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Live From Mountain River Stage" - John Hartford (2000 release)

I became a fan of John Hartford in about 2 seconds while watching the opening segment of the old “Glen Campbell Show” on CBS. If you’re old enough to remember, Glen Campbell used to sit in the audience and stand up as the show began, singing his landmark recording “Gentle On My Mind”. Standing with him was the song’s author, John Hartford, playing the banjo.
For years afterwards I always looked for John Hartford, either as a solo act, or playing backup on other artist’s recordings. Ask anyone in the music business and they will tell you with all honesty that John Hartford was the man who helped keep the genre of “Americana” alive through all of the changes in music which occurred during the 1970’s and 1980’s. He was the curator of part of our cultural history.
With his trademark bowler hat and sleeve garters, Mr. Hartford tap danced and fiddled his way across America during his almost 5 decades in show business, appearing on TV Shows, College Campuses and County Fairs. He was like a vision; a glimpse into the past of America; a time when steamboats roamed up and down the Mighty Mississippi, transporting cotton, and gamblers to their respective destinations. He was like a part of that scenery, although 100 years removed.
American music is composed of so many different styles, and comes from so many different roots. In it, you hear jazz, blues, slave chants, folk tunes from scores of countries, and even oriental influences combined into something unique. John Hartford fell hard for the Scots/Irish blend of fiddle music and banjo playing. And along the way he learned to write. From his earliest hits, like “Gentle On My Mind”, to his most obscure of later work, his music always evoked something of the American past. You can hear it in “Gentle On My Mind.” That banjo part just cuts through the whole song.
Curiously, he was born in New York City, before moving at an early age to Missouri, where he first saw his beloved river. In addition to all of his musical accomplishments; he played several instruments, and wrote many songs; he was a licensed riverboat Captain.
This album is a compilation of three concerts recorded by Mr. Hartford for West Virginia’s NPR “Mountain Stage” shows at the West Virginia Cultural center Auditorium in Charleston; between March of 1994 and May of 1996. This album was released in 2000, a year prior to Mr. Hartford’s death in 2001.  A quick look at the song list above will give you an idea of what he played. From classics such as Johnny Bond’s “I Wonder Where You are Tonight” and Carl Butler’s poignant “My Tears Don’t Show”, and then his own classics, such as “Lorena”, “Gentle On My Mind” and the humorous “Bring Your Clothes Back Home…”, it is easy to feel the connection that he had with his audience. They loved the man. It was that simple, and palpable. He frequently tapped danced as he played, and you can hear his feet accompanying him on many of the tracks.

His death in 2001 left a vacuum in American music which has never quite been filled. But, whenever you see a juggler, a street musician, or anyone engaged in “street” art, you are looking at part of Mr. Hartford’s soul. He was our troubadour, our wandering minstrel. And, we will likely never see his like again.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Enemies" by Tim Weiner (2012)

From the author of “Legacy of Ashes”, a book which crashed onto the scene in 2007; an extensive history of the Central Intelligence Organization which won the National Book Award; comes this fairly written, and highly researched book about the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The book begins, as any such book must, with an examination of its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover. From there the authors goes on to chronicle the Palmer Raids and the beginnings of the violent era of labor unrest that swept the nation, beginning with the Black Tom explosion on New York’s busy wartime waterfront during the early years of the First World War, then moving on through the 1920’s and the explosion on Wall Street of a dynamite laden cart at the height of rush hour.
With the 1930’s, and end of Prohibition, came new challenges, particularly on the left, where the Communist infiltration was both feared, and yet, to some extent overrated. As the Depression drew to a close, the agencies attentions, still under the watchful eyes of J. Edgar, were called upon to aid in the war against America’s so-called “fifth columnists”, people who would subvert the cause of freedom from within. Wiretaps, without authorization, were the “norm”, as was opening personal mail in a way which went beyond ordinary censorship, in which your envelope has obviously been opened, and then stamped by the individual who read it. Instead, the agency learned the art of opening select messages on the sly, an art which would later be employed during both the McCarthy Era, as well as the Anti-War days of Vietnam.

The end of World War Two brought even more to the Bureau’s table, as the nation began its painful growth period coming to terms with the Civil Rights movement. The author successfully records the tension between the Bureau and the President over the Freedom Rides, as well as their subsequent failure in the Kennedy Assassination; becoming, to a certain extent; a tool of the CIA for the first time. This would prove telling both during, and after Watergate, as the CIA helped to bring down the President, with the FBI standing helplessly by.

The author takes the reader on a step by step journey through the internal power struggles which ensued upon the death of J. Edgar Hoover, who had been granted Federal Authority to reign for life.

Through the Union busting days of the 1980’s and even on into the 21st Century and the attacks in New York and Washington, the author traces the role of the Bureau in America today. Fully researched, with a complete section of notes and sources, listed chapter by chapter, this is a good book. Though it offers no great new insights, it does serve as an excellent chronicle of what we do know.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ticket to Ride - A Story (1965)

This song was the backdrop to a summer adventure I had at the age of 10 and a half years old. I was on the roof of 1310 Avenue R., in Brooklyn, New York, where my family lived in an apartment on the 2nd floor. It was not unusual to go up and sit on the roof; or “tar beach”, as it was known back then; to get some sun without going actually going to the beach, which was less than 1 mile from our apartment. But there was something about the roof that drew me. Maybe it was the privacy, or the smell of the roof itself, with its tar seams emanating that special odor familiar to all who have lived in large apartment buildings.

The radio reception, 7 stories above ground, was excellent; as was the view. You could look North and see the skyline of Manhattan, or Southwest to see Coney Island. It was a fantastic place to be young on a hot summer day; and with the music from my 6 transistor radio; life was complete. And, that’s when I noticed the planes.
We lived a bit less than 20 miles from JFK airport in Queens. As I lay there I noticed; seemingly for the first time; that all the planes were headed towards one place to the Southeast of us. And that place was JFK. This caused my 10 and a half year old brain light up like one of those idea bulbs in the cartoons! So, with the Beatles singing "Ticket To Ride" playing on my radio, I knew what my mission was. I would ride my bicycle to the airport.
My bicycle, at that time, was an old single speed, foot braked Huffy with balloon tires. Not the best conveyance for the journey I was about to undertake;  but as the sailor said, “Any port in a storm.” And so, with that bit of reasoning in my head I gathered up my things, radio included, and headed down to the first floor where my bicycle was stored in what was called the “carriage room.” The carriage room was a place where the building’s residents stored their baby buggies, bicycles, and just about anything else that you didn’t want to lug up and down to your apartment.
Unchaining my bicycle I wheeled it out into the bright sunlit day, hopped aboard, and pedaled South down East 14th Street towards Sheepshead Bay. From there I knew that could access the Belt Parkway and head towards the airport. When I got to the Parkway I realized, seemingly for the first time, that I would have to ride on the thin shoulder of the Parkway to accomplish my goal. It seemed a bit risky, with cars flying past me at 60 miles an hour; several even honked; but I was determined. More than that; I was committed; as only a10 and a half year old can be, to ride that bike to the airport. It would be a major component of my summer vacation. This would be the subject for the ubiquitous “What I Did with My Summer” composition required of all students each year when school resumed in September. In short;  I was on a mission.
Getting to the Parkway was easy enough; I knew the streets of my neighborhood like the back of my hand. It was only when I had ridden a few miles on the Parkway that I began to realize the journey which lay ahead  of me was not going to be as easy as I thought. There were actually parts of the road which had no shoulder at all;  and I found myself dangerously squeezed between the high speed traffic and a chain link fence! At other points I was forced to ride my bike in the grassy, and aloso sandy, strips which ran alongside of the highway. This was hard going on a bicycle with balloon tires and no gears. But I pushed on.
By the time I got to Plum Beach; where my family used to go for cookouts in the summer; I knew I was going to make it. And, within about 45 more minutes I was there! The planes were coming in low and loud as I arrived. The noise was deafening, but my pulse was pounding with excitement at what I had accomplished. In my mind, not even Marco Polo had ever faced the challenges which I had overcome on my journey, and I wanted to share that joy. So, I called home, using the  dime which my parents always insisted my brother and I carry in case of emergency. It was taped to the back of one of my Dad’s business cards and only to be removed for that one important phone call; presumably to be made only if I had been kidnapped or killed.
But this was big; and I mean big! I had traveled almost 20 miles on a balloon tired, one speed Huffy, with only a transistor radio for company, and no money, except for that dime. I could have bought a soda, or a candy bar. But I didn’t. I called home to share my accomplishment with my folks. As they were both home, I assume this was on a weekend.
I dialed our home number with the greatest of expectations. Surely my journey would be lauded as the greatest achievement since Columbus had discovered America. My Mom answered the phone, and unable to contain myself I blurted out, “Guess where I am?” Mom didn’t want to play this game, instead insisting that I tell her where I was,  and what all that noise was. I told her, with great pride, that I was at the airport, and moreover, that I had made the journey by bicycle on the Belt Parkway. I think she shrieked. At any rate, the next voice I heard was that of my father. He was furious with me, taking me to task for going further than I was allowed to go on my bicycle. He then proceeded to dress me down as being the most stupid human being alive for taking such a dangerous journey, fraught, as it was with peril. It was "a miracle that I had not been killed" making the journey.
I was then instructed to "get back on my bicycle and come home immediately." And to make matters worse, I now owed my parents the dime, which I had misused by calling them for a non-emergency. That dime would be taken out of my next week's allowance and replaced. It was years before I realized the idiocy of their reaction.  But, I’m still real proud of that bike ride.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Happy Birthday Paul McCartney

Happy 70th Birthday to Paul McCartney. He has given us quite a few songs to remember in his 6 decade career as one of the most prolific songwriters of our time. This little gem, originally released on the album “Revolver” in 1966, is performed here solo by Mr. McCartney for his 1984 film “Give My Regards to Broad Street.” That movie is based on the premise that he is about to finish the final touches on his latest album, only to find that the master tapes are missing, or have been stolen. On the original album version from 1966, the song is done with piano and a French horn. In this take there is only Mr. McCartney and his guitar. The French horns are recreated vocally in a really beautiful way.

In many ways Mr. McCartney was the creative force behind the Beatles. Although John Lennon was the founder of the group, it was McCartney who came up with so many of the ideas which defined the band. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was his idea. That was a great success.  “Magical Mystery Tour” was also his idea; maybe not a good one; undertaken just after the death of their manager Brian Epstein, when the group was temporarily without a rudder.

This song is easily played on the guitar using basic chords, beginning with a C and Em. The rest is all centered about Am and a variation of Cm. You just have to play with it a bit. If I remember correctly, this was the 2nd song on the first side of the album, which was released in the United States in the fall of 1966, just after the Beatles had finished their last live tour.

Still touring today, at age 70, Mr. McCartney continues to thrill audiences everywhere he performs. He can rock and roll with the best of them; and when he feels like it; he can still move the audience with a beautiful ballad. Many Happy returns to him, and thanks for the music!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day

This beautiful cactus was given to me by my daughter Sarah for Father’s day. It bloomed just in time. And it will keep on doing that for years to come. She was moving this weekend; the first time that she has lived in a different city than Sue and I; and so I will not see her until next weekend. Our other two sons, Keith and Shane, live in New York and Texas; respectively; and though we have gotten used to that, we miss seeing more of our grandkids.

The cactus is an important link between Sarah and I. She was vacationing with friends, years ago, as a kid, on the Outer Banks, where she dug some sand cactus up to bring home to me. Nobody, not even I, thought that it would survive the winter weather inland. Well, it did, and has split into a couple of groups, traveling from house to house with Sue and I over the years. Each year, around this time, they too, give me beautiful blooms. It makes me think about the doubters out there, myself included, who didn’t think the plant would survive.
Another, very special gift is the Red Robin Beanie Babie pictured below, nestled with the other 2 gifts. That was a present I gave Sarah when she was sick about 14 years ago. She had scores of them, most of which are housed in my garage. She only took a few when she married and moved out. But, she took the Robin, which always made me feel extra special.  Now that she will be living so far away (a bit more than 2 hours – or, the other end of the earth) she has returned it to me, and I will keep it close at hand as a way of feeling close to her.

Being a father is tough, but being my kid was probably tougher in many ways. It’s hard to grow up, and it’s hard to grow old. There’s no winning the war against time. It merely marches on past us, leaving us in its wake. No matter; I will always have this Robin to remind me of the daughter who learned to fly. And that  trumps any sense of loss I will ever feel.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Little Nobody" with Betty Boop (1935)



This 1935 Betty Boop cartoon says it all. When a little mixed breed dog finds its way into a rich woman's garden, to play with her pedigreed dog, the woman is horrified and  snatches her dog away from the little mutt. But don't worry, Betty Boop is quickly on the scene, scooping up the little outcast and making him realize that we all count for something.

Some of these old cartoons really have an effect on the way kids think about themselves, as well as others. Betty is right; we are all special; we all have some unique value to offer the world. Sometimes it just takes a bit of extra love to know it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Woman's Home Companion" - May 1911

I ran across 3 copies of this delightful old magazine when my daughter, Sarah, and her husband Michael, were getting ready to move from their apartment on Lake Norman to their new home in Chapel Hill. They were at the bottom of an old cedar chest that belonged to her great-grandmother. Sarah didn’t want the old magazines, but I did, quickly scooping them up before she changed her mind. Oversized, at 16 by 11 inches, I had to photograph the cover rather than scan it.

What an ever-changing, yet somehow, static world we live in. By that I mean “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” I have found this true of old newspapers as well as these old magazines. The technology may be different, but the concerns, and adventures, of the average person have not changed much for centuries when you come right down to it. And this magazine is proof of that assertion.

I was curious as to what I would find between the covers of this issue and, after thumbing through it this morning, my curiosity is now sated.

Some of the best items in here are the old ads for products we still have around today. There is a sense of comfort in the old Campbell’s Soup ad, extolling the virtues of a hearty bowl of soup. The same goes for the Ivory Soap ad, and the Heinz Baked Beans. I don’t use any of those products, but the fact that they are still with us gives me a strange sense of security. I should state that, as a kid, all three of these products were always “in stock” at our house, even though I wasn’t born until 1954. So, I have never known a world without these things, and it would seem strange if they were to disappear tomorrow.

Homes were just being electrified for many Americans in 1911, and so the magazine has many ads for the “new” household appliances which we take for granted today. Vacuum Cleaners were new, and apparently a very hot item, with more than 6 different brands being advertised in this one issue alone. Each one was a bit different than the other, with some looking so complicated, and heavy, that I have decided to stick with my Oreck upright, which weighs less than 8 pounds.

Indoor plumbing was becoming all the rage, and so there are quite a few ads for enameled bathtubs, sinks, and toilets. Standard was a major plumbing supply company, as it still is today. Thermos Bottle Company was in full swing, offering sturdy metal containers which became the staple of life for many working Americans. They offered pint and quart sized versions for $2 and $3 for a complete “lunch kit”.

The Coca-Cola ad is a delight, offering to send the reader an informative booklet about Coca-Cola, bearing the curious title of “The Truth About Coca-Cola.”  I would love to read that! This was just about the time when they stopped using cocaine in their soda, so I imagine it was their way of re-assuring people that their product was safe.

I was surprised at the amount of items offered on credit via the mail. You could get a bed; brass or wooden four poster; a refrigerator, all kinds of furniture, rugs, bicycles and clothes; you name it, they had it. You want it, it’s yours, all on credit, with the freight prepaid.

The magazine itself dealt mainly with women’s issues, like how to achieve a 16 inch waist, which still seems to be of concern to many women. It’s actually painful to see some of the contraptions offered up to give women a “slender” look. Sadly, nothing in that department has changed. Instead of internal injuries caused by these “corsets”; which were made of metal and whalebone; the modern woman of today starves herself into anorexia.

Also of interest were the fictional “romance” articles about falling in love, or how to keep a man’s attention. I didn’t read that one, since I know how women can keep a man’s attention. There were book reviews, poetry, stories for children, and advice on how to do everything from throwing a child’s birthday party, to the “do’s and don’ts” of throwing an adult dinner party.

One of the other issues is in poor shape, with both the front and rear covers falling off. But many of the pages, including the Coca-Cola ad, are in fine shape and suitable for framing. But this pristine issue is going into a plastic sleeve, where it will be protected from any further wear. Hopefully, someday, long after I am gone, my grandkids will find these old magazines, along with some of my old newspapers. And, as they turn the pages, I hope that they too will see how little life has changed over the years. Only the whistles and bells evolve. The core of who we are; and what we need; or sometimes just want, remains the same.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Benny

It’s summer time again, and of course that means the ice cream man is coming. Usually, in subdivisions such as the one I live in, there is an ice cream truck that makes the round on weekends, and during the evenings after dinner. You know the type of truck I’m talking about; obnoxious musical chimes heralding the arrival of an old beat up truck which bears absolutely no resemblance to the ice cream trucks of my youth. Those were sturdy, insulated, thick walled vehicles with freezer doors on the sides. And within those doors were delights which I haven’t seen in years.  I'm thinking about the Toasted Almond Crunch bar. And the bench mark of all ice cream trucks was Good Humor. If it wasn’t Good Humor, we threw clods of earth at the truck, signaling to the driver that this was marked territory.

That truck was magical to me when I was 3 and 4; but by the time I was 7 years old, I was allowed to walk all the way up to Kings Highway by myself, and that’s when I first met Benny, as well as saw my first ice cream pushcart. It looked just like the one in the photo above, except there was no bicycle part to it. You pushed it with the handlebar part. It was hard to get it rolling, but once it was in motion it was equally hard to stop! It wasn’t refrigerated like the big trucks. It was cooled with “dry” ice, which was a whole other level of fascination, and mischief, for a 7 year old. But let me tell you a bit about Benny.
Benny was the ice cream man in my neighborhood. His route extended from the corner of Kings Highway and East 14th Street, to Ocean Avenue and then down to Avenue T, where he rented a small garage in back of a single family home. Actually, he just rented a part of the garage; a small corner large enough to store the magical “dry” ice; and a freezer which was replenished as necessary by a big truck. When I was 8 years old I became Benny’s “helper”.

Benny was Jewish, from the Lower East Side; and as such, he really had a lot in common with my Uncle Irving, who had also been raised there. They were about the same age. But that’s where the similarities ended. While Benny used to “hook” school, Uncle Irving actually finished high school. So, while Benny went on to become the neighborhood “Good Humor Man”, my Uncle Irving went on to a career in the Garment District as a furrier. Both men fascinated me, if only for their different lifestyles. Both were bachelors, but economically they were worlds apart. Benny lived in a rented room somewhere, while Uncle Irving lived in the larger hotels in Manhattan.

But, anyway, the story I am trying to tell is about Benny. It was, after all, his pushcart that I’m writing about, and the closest it ever came to fur was the time I hung some raccoon tales from the handlebars. The tails came from Uncle Irving, who used to keep us well supplied with them each year.

Benny had two habits in which he liked to indulge. Both interfered with his selling enough ice cream to afford spending his winters in Miami; which is where he always went for the cold season. He liked to bet at the Off Track Betting parlor on East 16th Street, just up from Dubrow’s cafeteria. He also liked to have his hair cut once a week. That’s how I got the job.

I had been buying ice cream from Benny for about 2 years when he first asked me to “cover” for him while he went for a haircut. Being left; as an 8 year old boy; with an unlimited supply of ice cream, plus a pocketful of coins and bills was one of the thrills of my summer days. Benny’s haircuts were legendary for the length of time they took. He could be gone for hours; or merely minutes; depending on how the ponies were running, or ruining, his day. He combined the two errands into one, to “save time”, he used to say. That was fine with me. I would hold forth on Kings Highway and East 14th Street, across the street from Miles Shoes, and only 2 doors down from Byhoff’s Sporting Goods, which also sold records.  They had a speaker outside, so, I even had music while I worked.

The winters in Miami were a source of irritation to my Uncle Irving, who worked ALL year, but could not afford to take the winters off. They were both Jews from the Lower East Side, and my Uncle had gone to the trouble of getting an education and carving out a career for himself, while Benny hung around pool rooms and gambled on horses. The fact that Benny could afford to winter in Miami really rankled him. And that’s why I never told my Uncle the whole story.

You see, while Benny actually did spend his winters in Miami, he was working. Somewhere today, down in Miami, there is someone my age with the same memories as I have of working for the Good Humor Man; because that’s was he did when he went there, he sold ice cream; just like he did during the summer in Brooklyn. I hope, after all these years, that this makes my Uncle feel better about the whole thing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"Music, Music, Music" by Teresa Brewer (1950)


I suppose I could call this a recovered memory; I was waking from a nap this morning and a phrase was running through my head; it was only three words, but they struck a chord somewhere; and as I lay there, thinking, the word nickelodeon came to mind. Something was stirring  that went waaay back to my earliest memories. Then I had it! It was one of my parent's old records, which gave me so much pleasure as a kid. This one was a music hall number extolling the joy of dancing to a jukebox, which were sometimes still called nickelodeons by the older folks. It was also the preferred word for a jukebox in England at the time.

Before I even sat down to write this, I had remembered all of the lyrics, and the melody. This is one of those early records from when I was just shy of being 3 years old, in 1957. The recording had come out in early 1950, which is something I just found out by googling You Tube, my favorite friend. The record charted at Number 1, even though it was the "B" side of the recording "Copenhagen", which did not chart at all! So, it was a pure twist of fate that scored Ms. Brewer her first #1 hit record, as well as finding a permanent place deep down in my 3 year old mind. I wonder which is the greater achievement?

This was the original review of the record by Billboard;

"A gay, corny feed-the-nickolodean (sp) novelty is sung with infectious vitality, backed with an old-fashioned, thumping orking. Should be a good one in the boxes."

"Music, Music, Music" by Stephan Weiss and Bernie Baum

Put another nickel in
In the nickelodeon
All I want is having you
And music, music, music

I'd do anything for you
Anything you'd want me to
All I want is kissin' you
And music, music, music

Closer, my dear, come closer
The nicest part of any melody
Is when you're dancing close to me

So, put another nickel in
In the nickelodeon
All I want is lovin' you
And music, music, music

[Instrumental Interlude]

Put another nickel in
In the nickelodeon
All I want is having you
And music, music, music

I'd do anything for you
Anything you'd want me to
All I want is kissin' you
And music, music, music

Closer, my dear, come closer
The nicest part of any melody
Is when you're dancing close to me

So, put another nickel in
In the nickelodeon
All I want is lovin' you
And music, music, music

"C'mon, everybody
Put some nickels in
And keep that old Nickelodeon playing"

Music, Music, Music
Dum-dee, dum-dee, dah-dee-dum
Dum-dee, dum-dee, dah-dee-dum
Dum-dee, dum-dee, dah-dee-dum
And music, music, music

Dum-dee, dum-dee, dah-dee-dum
Dum-dee, dum-dee, dah-dee-dum
Dum-dee, dum-dee, dah-dee-dum
And music, music, music

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Rascal" by Sterling North (1964 Newberry Honor Book)

I have reviewed this book here before. I read it for the first time in 5th grade, and many times since. Mrs. Denslow, the most saintly woman who ever taught a class, was my teacher at the time. She wore her hair in a halo braid around her head, with white blouses that buttoned up to her neck. I only mention it because she reminded me so much of the era in which this book takes place. Mrs. Denslow was born about 1904, and would have been the same age as the author, and so I must have felt like I was getting a peek into her world.

“Rascal” is the story of author Sterling North’s 18 months caring for a raccoon whom he named “Rascal” for all of the mischief he got into. He was abandoned by his mother and adopted by the author, who lived with his father in a Victorian house on the edge of a lake in Wisconsin. His father having been widowed when the author was a boy, made for an adventurous childhood, one which included building a canoe in the parlor, much to the chagrin of Mr. North’s older sister Theo. Although she did not live at home any longer, she felt the need to come and visit, criticizing all that she could.
Mr. North bonds with his new friend and they spend the next year and a half getting to know one another. Eventually, as Rascal matures, he hears the call of another, female raccoon and the author is confronted with a dilemma – should he keep the pet that he loves, or love the pet that needs to be set free?

The story takes place in the closing days of the First World War, which is probably another reason this book has endeared itself to me. Along with classics such as “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, “Penrod-His Complete Story”, and many others, this book really takes the reader back to a much simpler time, one which you will want to re-visit again and again.

Monday, June 11, 2012

"The Perfect High" by Shel Silverstein


There once was a boy named Gimmesome Roy. He was nothing like me or you.
’Cause laying back and getting high was all he cared to do.
As a kid, he sat in the cellar, sniffing airplane glue.
And then he smoked bananas –– which was then the thing to do.

He tried aspirin in Coca–Cola, breathed helium on the sly,
And his life was just one endless search to find that perfect high.
But grass just made him want to lay back and eat chocolate–chip pizza all night,
And the great things he wrote while he was stoned looked like shit in the morning light.

And speed just made him rap all day, reds just laid him back,
And Cocaine Rose was sweet to his nose, but the price nearly broke his back.
He tried PCP and THC, but they didn’t quite do the trick,
And poppers nearly blew his heart and mushrooms made him sick.

Acid made him see the light, but he couldn’t remember it long.
And hashish was just a little too weak, and smack was a lot too strong,
And Quaaludes made him stumble, and booze just made him cry,
Till he heard of a cat named Baba Fats who knew of the perfect high.

Now, Baba Fats was a hermit cat who lived up in Nepal,
High on a craggy mountaintop, up a sheer and icy wall.
"But hell," says Roy, "I’m a healthy boy, and I’ll crawl or climb or fly,
And I’ll find that guru who’ll give me the clue as to what’s the perfect high."

So out and off goes Gimmesome Roy to the land that knows no time,
Up a trail no man could conquer to a cliff no man could climb.
For fourteen years he tries that cliff, then back down again he slides
Then sits –– and cries –– and climbs again, pursuing the perfect high.

He’s grinding his teeth, he’s coughing blood, he’s aching and shaking and weak,
As starving and sore and bleeding and tore, he reaches the mountain peak.
And his eyes blink red like a snow–blind wolf, and he snarls the snarl of a rat,
As there in perfect repose and wearing no clothes –– sits the godlike Baba Fats.

"What’s happening, Fats?" says Roy with joy, "I’ve come to state my biz.
I hear you’re hip to the perfect trip. Please tell me what it is.
For you can see," says Roy to he, "that I’m about to die,
So for my last ride, Fats, how can I achieve the perfect high?"

"Well, dog my cats!" says Baba Fats. "Here’s one more burnt–out soul,
Who’s looking for some alchemist to turn his trip to gold.
But you won’t find it in no dealer’s stash, or on no druggist’s shelf.
Son, if you would seek the perfect high –– find it in yourself."

"Why, you jive motherfucker!" screamed Gimmesome Roy, "I’ve climbed through rain and sleet,
I’ve lost three fingers off my hands and four toes off my feet!
I’ve braved the lair of the polar bear and tasted the maggot’s kiss.
Now, you tell me the high is in myself. What kind of shit is this?

My ears ’fore they froze off," says Roy, "had heard all kind of crap,
But I didn’t climb for fourteen years to listen to that sophomore rap.
And I didn’t crawl up here to hear that the high is on the natch,
So you tell me where the real stuff is or I’ll kill your guru ass!"

"Ok, OK," says Baba Fats, "you’re forcing it out of me.
There is a land beyond the sun that’s known as Zaboli.
A wretched land of stone and sand where snakes and buzzards scream,
And in this devil’s garden blooms the mystic Tzu–Tzu tree.

And every ten years it blooms one flower as white as the Key West sky,
And he who eats of the Tzu–Tzu flower will know the perfect high.
For the rush comes on like a tidal wave and it hits like the blazing sun,
And the high, it lasts a lifetime and the down don’t ever come.

But the Zaboli land is ruled by a giant who stands twelve cubits high.
With eyes of red in his hundred heads, he waits for the passers–by.
And you must slay the red–eyed giant, and swim the River of Slime,
Where the mucous beasts, they wait to feast on those who journey by.

And if you survive the giant and the beasts and swim that slimy sea,
There’s a blood–drinking witch who sharpens her teeth as she guards that Tzu–Tzu tree."
"To hell with your witches and giants," laughs Roy. "To hell with the beasts of the sea.
As long as the Tzu–Tzu flower blooms, some hope still blooms for me."

And with tears of joy in his snow–blind eye, Roy hands the guru a five,
Then back down the icy mountain he crawls, pursuing that perfect high.

"Well, that is that," says Baba Fats, sitting back down on his stone,
facing another thousand years of talking to God alone.
"It seems, Lord", says Fats, "it’s always the same, old men or bright–eyed youth,
It’s always easier to sell them some shit than it is to give them the truth."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Beneath Hill 60" with Brandon Cowell and Anthony Hayes (2010)


A gripping, true story highlights this World War One adventure tale set beneath the battlefields of the Western front. The Allies, as well as the Axis powers,  had fought themselves to a stalemate. With over 1 million lives lost by 1916; and no end to the slaughter in sight; it was clearly time to think outside of the box in order to break the deadlock. That’s when they thought of the tunnel.

The Allied Commanders, minus the United States, who would not join them in the war for another year and a half, decided to try and listen in by use of underground tunnels which went far behind enemy lines. This story concerns the tunnel beneath Hill 60 in Belgium. For this mission they enlisted a battalion of experienced, and not so experienced, former mining personnel, who set forth against all odds, to penetrate deep beneath Hill 60.

The movie takes some turns towards being a “docu-drama” when it explores the life of the battalion commander before the ar. That part of the story is wonderfully costumed, with all of the period furnishings; as well as the clothes; expertly duplicated to great effect. But I could’ve lived without it, and at times I wanted to be back in the tunnel with the guys. In real life it’s like that. You don’t necessarily care about what was back home, either for you, or the other guy. That’s a whole different world, one which you can’t afford to think about in order to concentrate on the problem at hand.

Great acting, and realistic background, makes this a good movie for anyone looking to examine more closely what everyday life was for the average soldier in the First World War. I’m one of those. Having never met my Grandfather; who fought in the war; I have always been interested in what he went through. It started when I first read “All Quiet on the Western Front” in Junior High School. That was one of the first pieces of the puzzle for me. This movie helps to fill in another piece of what the war was like for him, and how it changed who he was forever.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Ha Ha Ha!" with Betty Boop and Koko (1934)


It’s hard to believe that this cartoon was once banned for drug use, but it was. In this hysterical classic, Max Fleischer is shown drawing Betty on the board, finishing just in time to quit, and leaving her alone on a blank canvas. Just as you begin to feel sad for her, out pops Koko from the ink bottle, where he is due to arrive at any time, but he just can’t wait to get out!

He quickly learns that life is sometimes not as sweet as it first tastes, but, Betty is there to rescue him. Jumping from the canvas out into the real world of Max Fleischer’s desk, she quickly uses the cartoonist’s own tools in a very clever bid to help her friend Koko. When the whole scheme falls apart it has some unintended consequences for the whole world!

I watched this with Aliyah and Trinity the other night. They thought it was great! Aliyah especially liked the way Max Fleischer shifted the action from “cartoon” to “real life”, and then back again. I loved watching her watching it, and actually “getting” it. It was a discovery for her, and a delight for me. Some things, just like clever cartoons, never lose their appeal.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Janis Joplin and Daytime TV


This is a really great clip from You Tube of Janis Joplin on the Dick Cavett Show from July, 18, 1969. She is singing her own arrangement of the Bee Gees “To Love Somebody.” It was probably several years before I realized that she was singing a Bee Gees song. She really made this song her own, much as Joe Cocker did with “With A Little Help From My Friends.” It’s not an easy thing to do; taking an established hit song and turning it into something more. As a matter of fact, it’s an art. Hendrix did well with other people’s songs, most notably Bob Dylan’s stuff, like “All Along the Watchtower”, and “Like a Rolling Stone.” The better the song is, the harder it is to “re-invent” it. Innovation is something that I have always held in high regard.

Daytime TV used to be a varied place. When I was home from school, for whatever reason, there were always old movies to watch, and if you could avoid the “soaps”, there was actually some very interesting stuff happening on the tube. And at 4 PM there was a “sea change” in the programming, with shows like Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas highlighting some of the best music of the era. You can still watch them all on You Tube and they have not lost any of their charm, or edge.

After the performance there was always the obligatory interview between the host and the performer, in this case Janis Joplin. And it was always kind of amazing to see and hear these icons of rock talking and joking in such a “normal” manner. It was so at odds with the image we had in our heads of the typical stoned out, unintelligible rock star, whom we expected to see. And it was always a source of pride if your Mom, or Dad, said something along the lines of, “Well, she’s not so crazy.” It was like a personal compliment, or stamp of approval, both of the artist as a person, as well as the music in general. These shows broke down a lot of walls between generations.

Here is the interview portion of the show immediately following the performance above;


For the rest of this interview, including the portion with Michael Thomas, hit this link;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyBkNAfD0Dg

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The National Whitewater Rafting Center


Aliyah and Trinity went to the National Whitewater Rafting Center which is located here in Charlotte. It’s a man-made spur off the Catawba River that diverts the flow of the river through a series of man-made concrete formations. This recreates the effects of a natural “whitewater rapids”. It also brings a lot of people to town to train for the Olympics. 

In addition they also have rock climbing facilities, and as you can see, our two little warriors, under the watchful eyes of their Aunt Sarah and Uncle Michael, are all suited up and ready to tackle the wall. The Whitewater center is a major attraction here in Charlotte, and Aliyah and Trinity are proof that there is something there for all ages.

For more about the center hit their site at the following link;

http://usnwc.org/

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Girls are Back in Town.


As you can see, our two eldest granddaughters; Aliyah, 7 and Trinity, 5; have arrived from Texas with our son Shane, for a visit. They’ll be here for a few days and then they'll be off to Maryland for the Pensinger Family Reunion. Then it's back here for a few days before heading home.

Our daughter Sarah will be taking them to the National Whitewater Center here in Charlotte tomorrow. I think they’re going rock climbing…. And, of course, Sue and I have a few things planned with them as well. They're staying with us, so we get first dibs. It's really great to see them again.  Grandkids; if you haven't got any yet;  you should get some. They'll make you feel young again.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"Guest of Honor" by Deborah Davis (2012)


Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington both struggled mightily to attain their respective statures in life. Roosevelt struggled against childhood illness and asthma, while Washington struggled against the whole of society, to attain access to the fruits of which most of his race were denied. That they were to meet someday should come as no surprise.

The story told in this book really begins with the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. TR was just a boy when the slain President’s funeral procession passed by his home in NYC, and he considered Lincoln to have been one of our nation’s finest leaders. Ms. Davis’ use of that friendship as a backdrop for the story of Roosevelt’s dinner with Booker T. Washington gives the reader a more clear understanding of the evolving times in which that dinner occurred.
During that dinner, which was held behind closed doors on a Sunday night in the White House, TR spoke with Washington about the problems attendant with making any real progress for the African-American masses. Booker T. had already established his famed Tuskegee Institute with great success, and the President had unbridled respect for any man who could overcome the many barriers which life often erects to thwart progress. He had overcome his own, and deeply admired men of like mind.
TR had a plan to impart to his friend; why not make African–American appointments in the North where there was less opposition to the idea? During reconstruction there had been prominent black political leaders in the South, but with the end of Reconstruction, in the 1870’s, Jim Crow became the “norm” and the election of blacks to various local offices; and their election to more prominent ones; became a fool’s dream. TR’s plan, enthusiastically supported by Booker T., would enable the African-American’s appointed in the North to showcase their talents and abilities. Hopefully, these examples would serve to ease the path to equality for blacks in the South.
The author paints a complete picture of both men, and their accomplishments. The chapter on the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War was of special interest to me. Many Americans are not aware that Roosevelt was an Assistant Secretary to Secretary of the Navy John Long at the time hostilities broke out.  When Secretary Long was at home, presumably ill for the day, Roosevelt usurped his authority and virtually “jump started” the war with Spain just one week after the USS Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor.

By April, TR was in command of a Volunteer Regiment which he had organized himself. This regiment was comprised of the most diverse volunteers imaginable, including a Harvard football player, 4 New York City Policemen, various cowboys and Indian fighters with whom TR was acquainted, and even some Indians from our Southwest. There was also at least one confessed murderer in the regiment. Roosevelt had his uniform custom made at Brooks Brothers in New York before sailing off to war, and a solid place in history.
This is a highly entertaining, and informative book, which brings history to life for the reader. The author has seamlessly turned the story of one dinner into a highly charged, and multi-faceted, narrative of America in the last decades of the 19th Century, and successfully taken us into the early years of the 20th Century. With its section of notes, and a complete bibliography of sources, Ms. Davis has penned a real winner with this one.