Thursday, April 30, 2015

Baltimore Police Van - 1986

This is an excerpt from “It’s Only Me”, a memoir I wrote back in 2009. It concerns my time in ta Police Van in Baltimore. With that subject being so much in the news this past week I thought I would share my own experience with the subject.

To begin with I had no idea what "minimum wage" was. It had been awhile since I made $2.50 an hour in the paint factory, and being a Merchant Marine had spoiled me in that regard. It was now 11 years later and the minimum wage was only $3.35 per hour! So I started at a Royal Farms Convenience Store as a clerk, working nights and waiting for a better job to rear its head. It took 5 days.

The donut delivery guy came every evening at 7PM and the donuts were fresh. They were made at Donut Delite on the site of the present day Camden Yard Stadium in Baltimore. We were horizontal to Babe Ruth's birthplace. Nearby was where the circus train unloaded the elephants each year and I would re-arrange my whole day to go and see them walk to the Arena.

Anyway, back to the donut guy. He was paying $5 an hour for a 6 hour day which beat what I was making in 8 hours. So I got hired on and assigned to a route that took me through 3 counties. It was at this job that I learned all the back roads of the adjacent counties. I had a lot of freedom and all the donuts I could eat. It was 7 days a week with no holidays off.

Donnie Laws was the boss. He owned several routes and had vans for each one. They were specially fitted with racks for the donut trays to slide in and out easily. My job was to deliver the fresh donuts and remove the "day olds." Everything was done by Invoice, so we carried no cash.

Each day at 2 PM I would load up at Donut Delite and head out for my deliveries. Donnie was the type of guy who would think nothing of sending you out in a truck with no gas and a broken gas gauge. This was a constant source of irritation. Well; that and the fact that he constantly referred to me as "that New York Jew boy" behind my back.

At the end of each day I would return the "day old" donuts to a trash bin located outside Donut Delite and across Martin Luther King Blvd. from the "projects." The kids who lived there had drug addicted parents and didn't get much in the way of treats. So each evening when I returned there was a crowd of kids waiting to ask for some of the "day olds." I would always give some away and throw the damaged ones in the trash bin. This bin would get picked up every two days and transported to the rail yard where it was shipped out to somewhere as "hog feed." When Donnie would catch me giving donuts away he would climb up on the dumpster and piss all over everything so that the kids would not get any treats. This was yet another sore point between us.

I was paid each Friday with a personal check- I was collecting Unemployment out of New York at the time. One Friday I was forewarned by another driver that Donnie was going to lay me off the following week on Wednesday. His brother in law needed the job. Then he was going to stiff me for the 3 days pay, knowing that I couldn't file a complaint due to the Unemployment issue. He was right about that, but there are other ways to skin a cat.

Taking his check over to his bank I cashed it. Getting back in the van I thought to myself, "How can I hurt this guy?" Inspiration came in a flash as I realized that I had about $1,500 worth of fresh donuts. And I was now also one day AHEAD in pay. Driving around in the city a bit I noticed that there were a lot of people sitting out on porches after the long winter had finally broken. It was now late April.

I pulled the truck up on a street that ran adjacent to North Avenue, in one of the poorer areas of the city. Stepping out into the early spring sun I shouted out, "Donuts, free donuts, fresh and warm!"

It was like a scene out of one of those jungle movies where the natives swamp the plane with arms outstretched for food. The trays were flying out faster than I could count and people were shoving bills in my hand, although I had not asked for any money!

Within minutes the van was stripped bare of donuts and I had to jump back in and race off. The rear doors were swinging wildly to shouts of, "Jack it up- get the wheels!"

I now had about $60 and 2 trays of donuts that I had stashed up front. I took these to Keiths Cub Scout Troop which was meeting nearby at the Harborplace that day. I was a hero to the kids as I handed out the donuts. I then parked the truck outside Donnie’s as usual, placing the keys in his mailbox and got in my car and drove home.

The next morning the phone rang and it was Donnie. He wanted to know where the donuts were. I feigned ignorance and then he let fly with what a donut stealing Jew boy I was and how he was gonna get me. I told him that I had no idea what he was talking about and not to call me anymore. I hung up, thinking that was the end of it. Sometimes you can be so wrong...

2 weeks later, on Mother’s day, I was out front washing the car when a police car passed up and then down the street in front of our house. This was very unusual and should have clued me in, but it didn't.

Stepping out of the patrol car I was approached by an officer who asked me if I was "Bob" Williams. This should also have clued me in as everyone ashore called me Robert. But I answered yes and then was asked to step away from my vehicle. This guy was going to cuff me for something but I had no idea what! He explained that Donnie had filed a complaint and though the warrant was not in the officer’s possession he had the right to detain me while the warrant was delivered. I was able to talk him out of doing the handcuffs in front of the neighbors and kids and then got in the back of the car and was taken away. Around the corner he stopped and handcuffed me.

We arrived at the local county station house to await the warrant. I was placed in a common holding area which had 6 bunks and 7 inmates- my addition bought the total to 8. There was a phone, which I was not allowed to use, on the wall just outside of the cell. It was very strange being locked up but I knew that things would work out. It was really a question of how long I was going to be here. To make it worse, I was scheduled to start working on a horse farm in Elkridge the next morning at 8 AM. So I was a little worried about making it there on time. It was now 7 PM on Sunday.

I was the only white prisoner and thinking of the movie "Hard Times" with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor; particularly the "I'm bad" scene. Just then the biggest black guy in there comes up to me and asks, "What'd you do?" I replied that I had stolen some donuts. This produced some laughter and a scornful "We got us a creampuff motherfucker!" There were now some suggestions being tossed about concerning what could be done with a creampuff when the oldest guy in there, who had been snoozing on heroin, came to life. He explained that "The white boy ain't no fool- them donuts be worth duckies!" Then he went back to sleep.

The dynamics immediately changed with everyone wanting to know how the donut thing worked and could they get in on it? I explained that Donnie went to the Royal Farms store on Security Blvd and Forest Park Drive every night at 7 PM. I also added that he carried a lot of cash. You can imagine my joy when 3 weeks later Donnie was beaten and robbed at that location by a "big black guy."

Now that we were all friends they showed me how to use the phone. I had been calling out "Guard, Guard" and alternating that with "Officer, Officer" to no avail. The big black guy started to laugh and said, "Man, you new to this- you gotta do this to get the phone." He took his shoe of and started beating it against the wall while shouting "MOTHERFUCKER!!!" loudly over and over. This bought several guards. My new friend told the guard that "White bread needs to use the phone." The receiver was passed through the bars to me and the guard dialed O for Operator, instructing me to leave the receiver dangling when I was through. Prison Etiquette 101.

I called Sue, who was very upset, and explained that I would undoubtedly be late that night so don't wait up. I would call her when I knew something.

Shortly after this call the Warrant arrived and I was transported, again in handcuffs, to a Paddy Wagon and driven down to Baltimore City and the Southwest Precinct. This was a very old jail on Ostend Street which has since been razed. I was placed in a private cell next door to the only other prisoner that day- a drunk who had been urinating in public- at Harborplace on Mother’s Day- in full view of everyone there. He had been arrested by a female officer and was highly intoxicated and pissed off. So it was going to be a lonely night.

Around 1 AM on Monday morning I heard the cell block gate open and someone was at the cell next to mine asking the drunk some questions. He began by introducing himself as the "Pretrial Release Officer." I could tell by his voice that he was black and educated. He began asking the other prisoner questions, like his name and contact info. For every question asked he received a scathing racist reply. For instance, to the question "What is your address?" he replied, "I ain't telling nothing to no nigger so he can go up my house and rob it." The Pretrial Release Officer went from question to question without pause and never reacted to the abuse being heaped upon him.

When he came to my cell I was on my feet, and  at attention. I answered everything with "Yes, sir." This really surprised him and he started to leaf through my charging documents. He looked at me and asked for some contact info. I gave him Sue's number and address and told him he could also call Military Sealift Command in Bayonne, New Jersey to verify my identity. Although I was no longer an employee my security clearance was valid for 2 more years and I figured it couldn't hurt. He was impressed with my bearing as well as my response. He told me that the warrant should never have been issued as it didn't satisfy the “who, what, when, where and why” required by the law. He could not dismiss the Warrant but could get me out without bail if my responses were all correct and could be verified at this hour. He left promising to return shortly.

About an hour later he came back with a guard and my cell was unlocked. I was taken to the Magistrates Office where I was told that I had been unjustly confined but that I still needed to go to trial. Advising me to seek counsel I was then released at 3 AM.

For the full chapter hit this link;


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

James Wayne and Eddie Ray - Borenstein's Law (A True Story)


If James “Wee Willie” Wayne is unfamiliar to you, you’re not alone. I was not acquainted with this artist until he was bought to my attention by my friend Eddie Ray just last week. He had recounted the tale to Veronica, his right hand at the NC Music Hall of Fame, and she went home to look up the details of the story. What she found shed a light on this artist which gives truth to the lyrics in the song above.

At about 1 minute and 20 seconds he sings about doing “time in California, for a crime I did not do.” And it’s true; he did serve time for an attempted burglary there in 1950. But that’s nothing compared to what happened to him later.

Born in 1920 in either Houston, Texas or New Orleans; there is no clear evidence for either; James Wayne’s early years are simply not available. At a time when African-Americans in the south were regarded as less than people, records were often not kept. And if the family had no Bible, or book learning, then there was simply no way to record the history of your own family.

His later youth can only be recalled from the stories he told about it. He claims to have been in the Army, at least through boot camp, and received training as a commando. This would be at the same time he was serving time for that burglary, which means he may not have served in Korea. But in the lyrics to the song he sings about wanting to go to Korea and let the Koreans “take a hand to me.” He follows that up with the puzzling line stating that being in Korea would be preferable to “living here in misery.” Coming on the heels of that burglary conviction I have to wonder if he meant that he would rather be a casualty of war than go on living with the Jim Crow injustice so prevalent at the time.

He seems to have no musical past before the time he served in prison, but he was fluent on guitar and even played the drums on some of his recordings. His first record is reportedly “Tend to Your Business” in 1951 on the Sittin’ In With label out of Houston. It was on the charts for 14 weeks. His biggest hit was in 1952 with the somewhat iconic "Junco Partner” also titled “Worthless Man”. That was on the Shad label out of Georgia. It was an old song which he reworked for the recording. It was considered to be "the anthem of the dopers, the whores, the pimps, the cons. It was a song they sang in Angola, the state prison farm, and the rhythm was even known as the 'jailbird beat'.”

He went on to record 4 more singles for Sitting In with, 3 credited to James Waynes, rather than Wayne. It is not known why this was down, unless it was to keep royalties from accruing to his account. At the time the labels and managers were less than honest with most o their artists; particularly in the South, where many of the artists could hardly read or write.

In the mid 1950’s he appears to have skipped from Aladdin Records to Imperial and then Old Town, befor retirning to Imperial in 1955 when he began recording as Wee Willie Wayne. “Travelin’ Mood” and “I Remember” was a double sided single of note for him. This was around the time when Eddie Ray worked with him as A and R man for Imperial. By 1961 he sort of disappeared until 1967 when he surfaced at a motel in Los Angeles. The events of that night would have a profound effect on the next 7 years of his life.

In February of 1967 he showed up at a motel in an agitated manner. He claimed to have witnessed a contract killing and needed a place to hide. The manager of the motel chased him out and fired shots at him. Wayne returned a short time later with a h soda pop bottle filled with gasoline. He tossed that on the roof of the motel and was arrested. He was convicted of arson, declared insane and sentenced to a psychiatric prison. The details of this story will shock you. But it’s not my story to tell.

At this point I am going to link you with a man named Mortimer Borenstein and his blog, “Borenstein’s Law.” Mr. Borenstein was the Public Defender who received the assignment which led to Mr. Wayne’s eventual release. But it is best to let him tell it his way.


If you have read the whole story you will have to admit that is troubling. Imagine being declared insane for telling the truth about your own life. And then imagine the shock you would feel as the Thorazine kicked in and you found yourself agreeing with the lies in order to be set free! The saner he was, the more they doped him up. And, when he was truly delusional as a result of the drugs, the experts all declared that he was getting well.

They say that the truth is stranger than fiction, and the story of James Duncan Wayne proves this to be true. 

Note: There is nothing available that I could find about what happened to Mr. Wayne after the 1980's. If anyone does find out the ending to this story, please let me know. And many thanks to Mr. Borenstein who just couldn't let it rest until he got it right.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

No Post Today

Due to conditions beyond my immediate control, there will be no post today. It's not always that easy to think of something to write about that will be of interest to myself, let alone anyone else. It usually means that I just need a day off to finish a book, watch a movie, take a drive. Something usually comes along to inspire a post. It could be that I'm just a bit lazy today. No matter, I'll be back tomorrow, with no idea about what I am going to post. I'll just have to check in and see...

Monday, April 27, 2015

"Taking on Teddy Roosevelt" by Harry Lembeck (2015)

There is a widespread belief which holds that the 1948 defection of the so called “Dixiecrats” who left the Democratic Party over Harry Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces sparked the defection of African-Americans from the Republican Party of Lincoln to the Democratic Party of today.  And there is some truth to that. But the real migration began about 50 years before that and involves Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and a riot in Texas which may not have been what it appeared to be.

In August 1906 the 25th Colored Infantry Division was stationed at Fort Browning in Brownsville, Texas. They had replace the all-white 24th which had served it’s time and was rotating back east. The townsfolk were more than a bit leery of having armed colored troops stationed just outside of town.

After several racially motivated incidents, several men; supposedly from the fort; went on a shooting spree, wounding some of the townsfolk and damaging most of the buildings which had refused to serve them. The events that followed underscored the deep racial divisions which split America in the days after the Civil War and still divide us in many ways.
   
President Theodore Roosevelt, who had served as William McKinley’s Vice President, was seen as a “gradualist” in the matter of race relations. He talked a great game about equality as he set the Great White Fleet off to show the flag, but here at home the President allied himself with Booker T. Washington; the African-American educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute to train Negroes in the Industrial Arts. 

In some ways Tuskegee was a trade school; rather than a true college of higher learning. He believed; and the President agreed with him; that Negroes were better suited for factory work and menial labor rather than any of the professions. They believed that it would take time to achieve the educational levels for Negroes to rise in society. One has to wonder whether or not anyone ever bothered to ask Booker T. how he had made the transition so quickly, and why he felt that his contemporaries could not.

The author explores the attitudes of the times in relation to the expectations of the African-American concerning armed blacks in the military. Although the “colored” troops had performed well in the Civil War; and the legendary Buffalo Soldiers; to whom the soldiers of the beleaguered 25th Colored Regiment were related by history; the people in Brownsville Texas were clearly not comfortable in having these troops present. It was only a matter of time until something happened.

The author explores the writings of some of the most illustrious African-American writers of the day; pitting the writings of W.E. DuBois against the politics; and policies; of Booker T. Washington and President Roosevelt. While DuBois was initially in agreement with the “gradualism” approach to equality, he ultimately saw the flaws in this arrangement. Who would decide when African-Americans were ready for advancement? Shouldn’t that question be decided by the African-Americans themselves; rather than be left with the very government which had allowed them to be enslaved for over 80 years after Independence had been declared?

This is a sweeping book encompassing both the incident at Fort Browning itself; as well as the political implications for the entire nation at the time. It would be well to remember that the history in these pages informs the debate on race relations in America today every bit as much as the news in today’s paper.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Eddie Ray at Kannapolis Library Book Fair

Yesterday the Kannapolis Library held a book fair with local authors on hand to talk about their writing and answer questions from readers; many of whom have read some of these books and showed up to meet the authors. I’m one of those. I showed up for Eddie Ray, a local celebrity and somewhat of an icon in the world of music. His achievements are too long to list here, so I will simply direct you to two sites; the first the Wikipedia link to his life; and second to the home of the NC Music Hall of Fame, of which Mr. Ray is Vice Chairman. (The title doesn’t mean a thing – so let’s just say that he is the heart and soul of the place.)

Eddie’s book, “Against All Odds”, is an aptly titled and personal story of his life. I first became acquainted with Mr. Ray just after he had begun working on it about 5 years ago and was privileged to watch it grow from a few pages to the wonderful book which it became. Here are the two links;



And here’s one more about the book itself. I like this one a lot because it has a rather prominent quote from my review and a link back to this site. (Ouch! I just hurt my back while patting it!)


This was not the usual type of meet the author book signing; rather it was comprised of a number of separate tables for each author to meet with readers and discuss their books with the readers in a different fashion. Instead of a long program of several hours, each author on the program above got their own space and new readers could pick and choose which ones they wanted to meet. In this way the library was able to accommodate the many local authors who wanted to attend.

Check your local libraries for these types of events. They offer a chance to meet with authors in a more relaxed setting than a book store signing. Somehow; even in this day and age; the library seems to lend them an extra level of legitimacy that cannot be found in a normal commercial environment.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Kings Row" with Ronald Reagan, Bob Cummings and Ann Sheridan

Put aside your political leanings for an hour or so and watch one of the greatest films ever made. No kidding. Anyone who claims that Ronald Reagan couldn't act has never seen this film. In it, he portrays the scion of a well to do family who falls in love with a girl from the other side of the tracks. All throughout the film he is accompanied, and later comforted, by his best friend, played with great emotion by Robert Cummings.

The story centers around five different children a small railroad town, which, as in most railroad towns, is composed of two sides of the track. One is well to do, while the other side is composed of the very people that make the town work. The blue collar side. The story is set around the turn of the century in 1900.

Parris Mitchell (Bob Cummings) and Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan) are the best of friends, both have lost a parent and their bond with one another is unbreakable. Parris dreams of studying medicine under the guidance of Dr.Tower (Claude Rains)who is also the father of Cassie, the object of Parris' affections.

Drake plans to go into business when he receives his full inheritance. Until then, he is somewhat of the town playboy, squiring his lady friends about town, much to the dismay of some of the more "proper" citizens. In short, he is not well liked, though he is likeable.

When Parris moves to Vienna to study psychiatry, Drake is left at home, pursuing his many lady friends before finally falling in love with the daughter of the town's other physician, Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) who does not approve of the match. When Drake suffers a horrible railroad accident, Dr. Gordon amputates Drake's leg without cause, assuring that he will not marry his daughter. The scene in which Drake awakens after the amputation is one of the finest pieces of acting ever recorded, as Drake realizes what has happened and screams out, "Where's the rest of me!?" This line would go on to serve as the title of Ronald Reagan's first auto-biography.

As the movie plays out, the secrets of the town are uncovered one by one, and a portrait of a small American town is changed forever. As for just what happens to the two friends, Parris and Drake, as well as the women they love, you will have to watch this stunning film to find out.

The movie garnered 2 Oscar Nominations, one for Sam Wood as Best Director, and the other for Hal B. Wallis of Warner Brothers, for Best Picture. If you are a film buff and have never seen this film, you are missing an absolute classic.

Friday, April 24, 2015

USCG Cutter Cartigan - "The Big Storm" by George Copna

Everybody who has sailed aboard ship for any length of time will have a story to tell about a storm. Some are better than others. But basically, they are all good. They provide an insight, for those who will never experience it, of the wonder, along with the sheer terror, that comes of facing waves larger than the vessel in which you are riding. They serve as reminders that we are all just visiting, and all at the mercy of something, at sometime in our lives. Here is George Copna's latest story of the USCG Cutter Cartigan, during which she encounters some very nasty weather. This story takes place around 1961.

THE BIG STORM by George Copna

Once, while on CAMPAT, we were on the tail end of the patrol looking forward to relief. The weather was warm, the seas calm and we were stopped, just drifting at a certain latitude awaiting relief from the CGC SEBAGO out of Pensacola, FL. I was the RM on duty and I heard them, via CW (Morse code) getting underway enroute to relieve us. I copied their radio traffic which included a weather report to 8th CG District New Orleans, LA. The SEBAGO was reporting winds in excess of 60 mph and seas running 25-30 feet. I thought how lucky we were to be in calm seas as opposed to what they were experiencing.

Let me pause here and say that the SEBAGO was literally twice our size at 255 feet as compared to our 125 feet in length. After being relieved of my watch, I went below and hit the rack. I awoke the next morning to some violent ship movements. All the hatches to the exterior decks were 'dogged down' and nobody was permitted outside on deck. The only way to get to the radio shack was through a hatch in the radio shack deck. I climbed up the ladder to relieve the RM on watch and found that we were in the midst of the weather that the SEBAGO had reported. The duty RM advised me that we had absolutely no communications with anybody. The wind and waves had torn away our whip and wire antennae. The only sounds coming from my earphones was loud static.

So, I spent the next four hours standing in the radio shack door watching the helmsman trying to maintain some semblance of a course while plowing into the seas head on. I watched in awe and some fright as we rode up one wave 25-30' and crash down into the trough with a crash. The next wave would cover us up, sometimes to the flying bridge. It was certainly a wild and somewhat frightening ride, and it was the first time I didn't get seasick in rough weather. I guess I was just too scared to think about it.

At one point, a large wave struck the face of the bridge directly and broke out several windows, showering the bridge watch with water and glass shards. This was truly getting to be a worrisome ride! After getting relieved from my watch, I went to the mess deck for some chow - I actually felt good enough to eat. When I got below to the mess deck, I found the cook fore-lonely seated with the evening meal of oyster stew and biscuits sloshing around his feet. So much for chow, so I just went back to my rack.

I was wakened for my next watch (0001-0400) and found we sere still in the maelstrom so all bridge watch standers were still being routed through the radio shack. I hadn't been signed on long before the sliding door that leads to the bridge flew open. A non-rated seaman watchstander stood there and entered the radio shack, endeavoring to close the door behind him. He looked like he had a mouthful of regurgitated stomach contents (a.k.a. vomitus). His abdomen was spasming and his cheeks were puffed out like a chipmunk. I told him I'd shut the door, just get down below, out of the radio shack. He lifted up the electrical matt covering the hatch that led down below - right into officer's country. He finally got the hatch open and literally slid down the ladder, hitting the deck HARD! This sudden stop caused him to lose control of his ability to maintain control of the contents in his mouth and he sprayed the area with its contents. He then had to clean up the stinking mess.

We rode like this for close to another day before the storm subsided and the seas began to calm themselves. If my memory serves me correctly, we had ended up in the 7th CG District waters (we were assigned to the 8th CG District).

We limped home, beat up, torn up, canvas all gone from fore & aft, port & starboard, low on fresh water and food and very tired. We finally made it into our home port two days longer than we were supposed to be out. St. Andrew's Marina never looked so good!!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Lincoln Stories - 2 Favorites

I love Lincoln. The stories of his youth and physical prowess abound, most untrue, but inspiring nonetheless. The first one was in the book "The Case of Abraham Lincoln" by Julie M. Fenster, which I have reviewed here before. The second one is an old story that I read sometime as a kid, somewhere. Hence I have not backed it up with a source. Both stories are emblematic of the man, and the times in which he lived.

‘Tis said that in his younger day, he made a vow that if he should ever find a man uglier than himself, he would shoot him. One day while rambling over the hills with his rifle in his hand, in search of game, he met a man who was exceedingly ugly; immediately he cocked his gun and took aim, but upon being asked by the stranger what he was going to do, if he was going to murder him, Lincoln lowered his gun, told the stranger his vow and that he must prepare to meet his fate.

The stranger, after eyeing Lincoln for a while and scanning him from head to foot, exclaimed,; “Well, if I am uglier than you, I don’t want to live- so shoot me!”

Source: Iota: pen name, Illinois Correspondence, Missouri Republican, June 25th, 1856 page 2.

Abraham Lincoln was riding on a train when the man next to him lit a cigar, fouling the air about him. "Excuse me sir," said Lincoln, "but your cigar smoke is drifting into my area and I am having a frightful time breathing. Might not you extinguish it?" The man replied that he had paid for his seat, and if the smoke from his cigar was drifting into Lincoln's area that was his problem, but he intended to smoke his cigar.

Lincoln produced a small pistol, which he aimed at the man's head, saying as he did, "I, too, have paid for my seat, and I wish to fire my pistol. If the bullet from my gun strays into your area, well that's too bad." The man extinguished his cigar.

Apocryphal- no source.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Cider House Rules" with Michael Caine and Toby Macquire

Being a Michael Caine fan carries with it many risks. The main one is that he makes any movie offered to him. He once remarked that, "I am an actor, and that's what I do. I don't write the stuff." He’s right, so I am always willing to take a chance on one of his films, hoping that it will be another gem; such as "The Man Who Would Be King", "Secondhand Lions", or this beautifully scripted film from the book of the same name by John Irving; screenplay  by Peter Parnell.

Although this film deals with the thorny subject of abortion, I don’t think it ever really preaches to the issue one way or another. The orphanage where Homer Wells; played by Tobey Maguire works takes in unwed mothers; offering them a choice of an abortion or giving the child up for adoption. That means that there are always children waiting to be taken away by a loving family.

Homer has been at the home since he was born there, and Dr. Wilbur Larch; played by Michael Caine; has raised him almost like a son. He has even taught him obstetrics and also how to perform an abortion. Homer doesn’t have a real “problem” with the choices other people make; he just doesn’t like to perform that procedure. As a child who was given up at birth he often wonders what would have happened had his mother chose to abort him. It is the source of constant debate between Dr. Larch and Homer.
               
The film successfully portrays all of the characters who inhabit the book by John Irving. There is Nurse Edna; played with great sympathy by Jane Alexander. She is not only a caring nurse and surrogate mother to the children in her charge, but she is also in love with Dr. Larch, although she knows that nothing will ever really become of her feelings. Dr. Larch is in love with his work, as well as the ether he inhales to help him cope with the sadness he sees all around him.

When a young couple; Candy Kendall, played by Charlize Theron; and Lt. Wally Worthington, played by Paull Rudd; arrive to have an abortion, something awakens in Homer which causes him to leave with the couple on their departure. When events with the two lovers change the circumstances of their relationship Homer finds that he is confronted by love for the first time.

Meantime back at Candy’s family apple orchard, its apple picking time. With nowhere else to go, Homer decides to stay on at the orchard and work with the migrant workers who pick the apples and make the cider each year. He lives in the bunkhouse; also known as the Cider House. There is a wooden sign in it that has a list of the Rules. Nobody but Homer can read, so it’s kind of silly to have them posted in the first place. The workers feel that the rules were made with no input from them, so why should they be bound by them? The Rules were made by people who never have to face their particular set of problems; making the rulers, and their rules, irrelevant.

Arthur Rose; played by Delroy Lindo; has been picking apples for the Kendall’s for years. He arrives with his “crew”; including his daughter Rose Rose; played by Erykah Badu. Homer is the only white person in the bunk house, and although they are uneducated people, Homer is drawn to them. And, in turn, he is as much a mystery to them as they are to him.

But Homer has a way with people; he is very much Dr. Larch’s son in many ways; and he develops an easy camaraderie with the whole crew. He is particularly drawn to Rose Rose, seeing her as a figure of tragedy and lost opportunity. And when something happens to her that causes him to use the very skills he detests righting a greater wrong, he is both shocked and enlightened by his experience.

Back at the orphanage Dr. Larch finds that the board is going to replace him. He has to do something to salvage his position. This orphanage is the only family he has ever known. While Nurse Edna reads to the girls each night at bedtime, Dr. Larch does the same with the boys. He reads them exciting classic adventures and each night as he leaves the dormitory he says the same thing; "Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England!" He says this as both a blessing and a way of making them feel valued. He is deeply loved by all.

Faced with the prospect of losing his orphanage Dr. Larch fakes credentials for Homer to convince the board to appoint Homer as the next director. This is not the first time Dr. Larch has falsified a document on Homer’s behalf. Unbeknownst to Homer, the heart condition he has been diagnosed with is not real, but it did keep him out of the war.

In the end Homer sees things less in terms of black and white. He still doesn’t like performing abortions, but he has seen some things which change his opinion of Dr. Larch. In the end he is the one tucking the boys in at night. And as he continues to send them off to sleep with the same hopeful thought; “Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England!" he finally realizes what his coworkers at the orchard meant about the Rules.

Note: They spelled Michael Caine's name wrong on the cover.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Let the Fire Burn" - A Jason Osder Film (2013)

Many people don’t even remember the 1985 bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia. The fact that city police used a helicopter to drop a bomb on the place, killing 5 children in the process and decimating just about the whole block of houses; 61 to be exact; would seem to be something we’d all remember.

 Sadly, this event would become overshadowed by other and more “news worthy” sieges; all of which eventually led to the WACO and Ruby Ridge confrontations; when  various groups of separatists began to assert their perceived “right” to have their own mini-nations. These groups ran the gamut from Black Power to the Aryan Nation and even Christian groups.  And each time there were dead children left in the wake. It’s always that way when adults can’t get along; the children get hurt.

The MOVE group began in 1972 as sort of an extension of the community programs launched by the Black Panthers during the 1960’s and 1970’s. For the most part these were programs involved with education and food for the inhabitants of the neighborhood where MOVE was based at 309 North 33rd Street in Philadelphia. Frank Rizzo was Mayor at the time.

Between 1972 and 1975 MOVE staged all kinds of protests which violated not only the law, but the sensibilities of the neighbors all up and down the street. The profanity, loud music and children being allowed to run naked through the street had all combined to takes its toll on the residents. The “Back to Nature” rhetoric of MOVE  had become a living hell.

By early 1976 the members of MOVE armed themselves; openly displaying the weapons on the perimeter of the street which they controlled. Naturally the residents who lived on and across the street were upset with this turn of events and the police were called in again to make an attempt at restoring order. This coincided with the release from prison of several of MOVE’s members, and violence erupted. The group claimed that the police had shot an infant, killing him. They displayed the body openly, but would not allow medical officials to examine the corpse.

By 1977 the FBI had an informant in the house. You have to wonder why sanitation laws were not enforced to end this nonsense in a more peaceful manner. The violence does  seem to have been begun by the members of MOVE themselves, but the constant escalation of it without resolution has to be laid at the feet of the law enforcement agencies who could have handled this better.

What happened afterwards turned an essentially 5 yearlong political battle into a siege; and then a war. And when all was said and done the Police in Philadelphia used a bomb to win a war which no one seems to have wanted in the first place. The informant turned over the cache of weapons and guns, but the raid only led to another and another, culminating in the city’s bombing of the house by helicopter on May 13, 1985.

This is a fascinating documentary to watch. As the cameras rolled at the hearings which took place after the whole affair had ended, we hear witnesses who claim there were no loaded guns in the compound; even as we see the news footage of the gun battle which left people on both sides dead and wounded.

The saddest thing of all is that this did not have to happen. This took place at a time when helmets and bullet proof vests were considered heavy duty gear in the streets. The push to arm our police like the military after 9-11 hadn’t happened yet. So this was very carefully arranged annihilation of a group of people who had become a problem for the authorities.

Although I can’t agree with MOVE and the insanity they chose to live in, I have to believe that if the authorities had the ability to get a helicopter; arm it with a bomb; and then destroy an entire city block; they surely must have been capable of finding some other solution.

Note: There will be those who ask what my solution would have been. I can only say that a mass, evacuation, under force; illegal as it may have been; would have been preferable to what did occur under the color of law.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"The Autumn Balloon" by Kenny Porpora (2015)

This is a searing self-portrait; written in an understated fashion; making it all the more colorful, just as the cover implies. They keep telling me not to pick the book by its cover, but I do anyway, and usually with wonderful results. This book was no exception to that method.

Kenny Propora was raised in a very unusual fashion; by very unusual people. You can tell that by the end of the first chapter when his mother is berating him for being a faggot while she drinks her Vodka. When she runs out she asks Kenny to get her a refill. Kenny was in 2nd grade at the time.

Born to a father who was several decades older than his Mom, the author grew up in a world inhabited by the uncivil war raged by his mother against the whole world; while his father’s war encompassed mostly his own failings. Still, he is a sympathetic character in an otherwise nightmarish world, where home is sometimes the family’s old broken down car.

Relationships between parent and child are hard enough without the twin demons of substance abuse and mental illness to cope with. As a child the author had to have transported himself to a “safe place” in his own mind in order to get through the ordeal presented by his particular circumstances. And that “safe place” often informs the soul of the person who is forced to retreat there. In this case that alternate world turned out an inquisitive and sensitive young man. But how much of that is the result of just blind luck and circumstances; as opposed to fate; would be hard to determine.

Although this is Mr. Porpora”s first book, if his writing here is any indication of the depth which he is capable of reaching, then we are all in for a treat with any of his subsequent books.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Lexington and Concord - The Shot Heard 'Round the World


Today is the 240th Anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, considered to be the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. This was the culmination of Paul Reveres' "Midnight Ride" captured so eloquently by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his epic poem. When I was in fourth grade we had to memorize this lengthy poem. I still know some, if not most, of it by heart. I will reprint it here for those who have never had the pleasure of reading it. But first, as I often say, a little background.

By the spring of 1775 the colonies were seething with resentment and anger at the British for a series of wrongs incurred over the course of a decade. These wrongs included "taxation without representation" and the quartering of soldiers in private residences. The Stamp Act and the tea tax were already behind us on this April morning. The midnight ride that had awakened the countryside was the result of a new transgression on the part of the British and General Gage, who was then the military Governor of Massachusetts.

Sam Adams and a few other of the Revolution's leaders were hidden in the countryside around Boston, most near Lexington and Concord. It was there that they kept a supply of guns and ammunition. General Gage was under orders to take these men prisoner and destroy their supplies. Benjamin Church and Joseph Warren were both still in Boston with Paul Revere as their chief messenger. Revere noticed that the British were making ready several small craft for crossing the Charles River to Cambridge. But they were never sure if the British were going to use the land route instead. So they arranged their signals, just as stated in Longworths' poem.

At 10 PM on the night of April 18th, 1775 Joseph Warren decided that warning needed to be sent to Sam Adams and so he dispatched Paul Revere. They had arranged the lantern signals of "One if by land, two if by sea" to be shown from the tower of the Old North Church. Revere would cross by water as insurance against William Dawes,who would take the land route, being captured on the way to Concord.

Using the petticoats of the boatman's girlfreind to muffle the oars, Revere set out to cross the Charles River. Arriving in Charlestown he began his ride with a narrow escape from 2 British soldiers. Due to this event Revere was forced to use an alternate route to the North, which lengthened his trip by several miles and more than a few precious minutes.

Arriving in Lexington he found Sam Adams and John Hancock. He was then joined by Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott, a resident of Concord. They left quickly, but before traversing the 5 miles to Concord they encountered a British roadblock, which they broke through and then split up. Dawes was thrown from his horse and taken prisoner. Revere was also taken prisoner and under interrogation gave false and misleading information to his captors as to the number of militiamen awaiting the Redcoats at the bridge.

Dr. Prescott, with his keen knowledge of the wooded country between Lexington and Concord, was the only rider to make it. His warning enabled the Militia to arm and ready themselves for the arrival of the British that morning.

Revere, meanwhile, was riding with the British back to Lexington, when he heard the church bells and gunshots that gave proof to his assertation that local militia were waiting the arrival of the British. This convinced the British to turn Revere loose, although they did give him a tired and slow horse as a precaution that he not reach Lexington too quickly. Revere joined Hancock and Adams to retreat into the countryside. Only the fact that Hancock had left some valuable papers at the tavern in Lexington caused Revere to return there.

Upon retrieving these papers, Revere rode out of town past the assembling militia. As he rode on through the countryside he heard the shots and looking back, saw the smoke from the "Shot heard 'round the World."

In April of 1860 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow climbed the tower of the Old North Church and was inspired to write his simplified version of the nights' events. It was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in January of 1861. It has since acquired legendary stature and has served as the inspiration for millions of Americans to learn more about the events of that night. I reprint it here with great pleasure and as a tribute to those men who gathered at Lexington that morning to begin the labor pains that ultimately gave birth to our Nation.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!"
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer's dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

The following is an eyewitness account of that day by 23 year Sylvanus Wood, who wrote the following in 1858. It was sworn before a Notary.

"I, Sylvanus Wood, of Woburn, in the county of Middlesex, and commonwealth of Massachusetts, aged seventy-four years, do testify and say that on the morning of the 19th of April, 1775, I was an inhabitant of Woburn, living with Deacon Obadiah Kendall; that about an hour before the break of day on said morning, I heard the Lexington bell ring, and fearing there was difficulty there, I immediately arose, took my gun and, with Robert Douglass, went in haste to Lexington, which was about three miles distant.

When I arrived there, I inquired of Captain Parker, the commander of the Lexington company, what was the news. Parker told me he did not know what to believe, for a man had come up about half an hour before and informed him that the British troops were not on the road. But while we were talking, a messenger came up and told the captain that the British troops were within half a mile. Parker immediately turned to his drummer, William Diman, and ordered him to beat to arms, which was done. Captain Parker then asked me if I would parade with his company. I told him I would. Parker then asked me if the young man with me would parade. I spoke to Douglass, and he said he would follow the captain and me.

By this time many of the company had gathered around the captain at the hearing of the drum, where we stood, which was about half way between the meetinghouse and Buckman's tavern. Parker says to his men, 'Every man of you, who is equipped, follow me; and those of you who are not equipped, go into the meeting-house and furnish yourselves from the magazine, and immediately join the company.' Parker led those of us who were equipped to the north end of Lexington Common, near the Bedford Road, and formed us in single file. I was stationed about in the centre of the company. While we were standing, I left my place and went from one end of the company to the other and counted every man who was paraded, and the whole number was thirty-eight, and no more.


Confrontation at Lexington Green

Just as I had finished and got back to my place, I perceived the British troops had arrived on the spot between the meeting-house and Bucknian's, near where Captain Parker stood when he first led off his men. The British troops immediately wheeled so as to cut off those who had gone into the meeting-house. The British troops approached us rapidly in platoons, with a general officer on horseback at their head. The officer came up to within about two rods of the centre of the company, where I stood, the first platoon being about three rods distant. They there halted. The officer then swung his sword, and said, 'Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, or you are all dead men. Fire!' Some guns were fired by the British at us from the first platoon, but no person was killed or hurt, being probably charged only with powder.

Just at this time, Captain Parker ordered every man to take care of himself. The company immediately dispersed; and while the company was dispersing and leaping over the wall, the second platoon of the British fired and killed some of our men. There was not a gun fired by anv of Captain Parker's company, within my knowledge. I was so situated that I must have known it, had any thing of the kind taken place before a total dispersion of our company. I have been intimately acquainted with the inhabitants of Lexington, and particularly with those of Captain Parker's company, and, with one exception, I have never heard any of them say or pretend that there was any firing at the British from Parker's company, or any individual in it until within a year or two. One member of the company told me, many years since, that, after Parker's company had dispersed, and he was at some distance, he gave them 'the guts of his gun.'"

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The San Francisco Earthquake - Jack London in Collier's May 1906

The following is the incredible job of reporting done by Jack London when he went to San Francisco in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake of 1906. His sharp insights into human suffering, quite evident in this piece of journalism, clearly show the work of a genius writer, as well as a reader of human souls. Born in San Francisco, to an unwed mother, this remarkable author, who would be dead by age 40, would go on to leave his mark in the world of both journalism and literature. Here is his story;

The San Francisco Earthquake

Upon receipt of the first news of the earthquake, Collier's telegraphed to Mr. Jack London-who lives only forty miles from San Francisco-requesting him to go to the scene of the disaster and write the story of what he saw. Mr. London started at once, and he sent the following dramatic description of the tragic events he witnessed in the burning city.

THE earthquake shook down in San Francisco hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of walls and chimneys. But the conflagration that followed burned up hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of property There is no estimating within hundreds of millions the actual damage wrought. Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone. Remains only the fringe of dwelling houses on the outskirts of what was once San Francisco.

Within an hour after the earthquake shock the smoke of San Francisco's burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away. And for three days and nights this lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke.

On Wednesday morning at a quarter past five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working-class ghetto, and in the factories, fires started. There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water-mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds' twitching of the earth-crust.

The Fire Made its Own Draft

By Wednesday afternoon, inside of twelve hours, half the heart of the city was gone. At that time I watched the vast conflagration from out on the bay. It was dead calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in upon the city. East, west, north, and south, strong winds were blowing upon the doomed city. The heated air rising made an enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was the suck.

Wednesday night saw the destruction of the very heart of the city. Dynamite was lavishly used, and many of San Francisco proudest structures were crumbled by man himself into ruins, but there was no withstanding the onrush of the flames. Time and again successful stands were made by the fire-fighters, and every time the flames flanked around on either side or came up from the rear, and turned to defeat the hard-won victory.

An enumeration of the buildings destroyed would be a directory of San Francisco. An enumeration of the buildings undestroyed would be a line and several addresses. An enumeration of the deeds of heroism would stock a library and bankrupt the Carnegie medal fund. An enumeration of the dead-will never be made. All vestiges of them were destroyed by the flames. The number of the victims of the earthquake will never be known. South of Market Street, where the loss of life was particularly heavy, was the first to catch fire.

Remarkable as it may seem, Wednesday night while the whole city crashed and roared into ruin, was a quiet night. There were no crowds. There was no shouting and yelling. There was no hysteria, no disorder. I passed Wednesday night in the path of the advancing flames, and in all those terrible hours I saw not one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who was in the slightest degree panic stricken.

Before the flames, throughout the night, fled tens of thousands of homeless ones. Some were wrapped in blankets. Others carried bundles of bedding and dear household treasures. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go-carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk. Yet everybody was gracious. The most perfect courtesy obtained. Never in all San Francisco's history, were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror.

A Caravan of Trunks

All night these tens of thousands fled before the flames. Many of them, the poor people from the labor ghetto, had fled all day as well. They had left their homes burdened with possessions. Now and again they lightened up, flinging out upon the street clothing and treasures they had dragged for miles.

They held on longest to their trunks, and over these trunks many a strong man broke his heart that night. The hills of San Francisco are steep, and up these hills, mile after mile, were the trunks dragged. Everywhere were trunks with across them lying their exhausted owners, men and women. Before the march of the flames were flung picket lines of soldiers. And a block at a time, as the flames advanced, these pickets retreated. One of their tasks was to keep the trunk-pullers moving. The exhausted creatures, stirred on by the menace of bayonets, would arise and struggle up the steep pavements, pausing from weakness every five or ten feet.

Often, after surmounting a heart-breaking hill. they would find another wall of flame advancing upon them at right angles and be compelled to change anew the line of their retreat. In the end, completely played out, after toiling for a dozen hours like giants, thousands of them were compelled to abandon their trunks. Here the shopkeepers and soft members of the middle class were at a disadvantage. But the working-men dug holes in vacant lots and backyards and buried their trunks.

The Doomed City

At nine o'clock Wednesday evening I walked down through the very heart of the city. I walked through miles and miles of magnificent buildings and towering skyscrapers. Here was no fire. All was in perfect order. The police patrolled the streets. Every building had its watchman at the door. And yet it was doomed, all of it. There was no water. The dynamite was giving out. And at right angles two different conflagrations were sweeping down upon it.

At one o'clock in the morning I walked down through the same section Everything still stood intact. There was no fire. And yet there was a change. A rain of ashes was falling. The watchmen at the doors were gone. The police had been withdrawn. There were no firemen, no fire-engines, no men fighting with dynamite. The district had been absolutely abandoned. I stood at the corner of Kearney and Market, in the very innermost heart of San Francisco. Kearny Street was deserted. Half a dozen blocks away it was burning on both sides. The street was a wall of flame. And against this wall of flame, silhouetted sharply, were two United States cavalrymen sitting their horses, calming watching. That was all. Not another person was in sight. In the intact heart of the city two troopers sat their horses and watched.

Spread of the Conflagration

Surrender was complete. There was no water. The sewers had long since been pumped dry. There was no dynamite. Another fire had broken out further uptown, and now from three sides conflagrations were sweeping down. The fourth side had been burned earlier in the day. In that direction stood the tottering walls of the Examiner building, the burned-out Call building, the smoldering ruins of the Grand Hotel, and the gutted, devastated, dynamited Palace Hotel

The following will illustrate the sweep of the flames and the inability of men to calculate their spread. At eight o'clock Wednesday evening I passed through Union Square. It was packed with refugees. Thousands of them had gone to bed on the grass. Government tents had been set up, supper was being cooked, and the refugees were lining up for free meals

At half past one in the morning three sides of Union Square were in flames. The fourth side, where stood the great St. Francis Hotel was still holding out. An hour later, ignited from top and sides the St. Francis was flaming heavenward. Union Square, heaped high with mountains of trunks, was deserted. Troops, refugees, and all had retreated.

A Fortune for a Horse!

It was at Union Square that I saw a man offering a thousand dollars for a team of horses. He was in charge of a truck piled high with trunks from some hotel. It had been hauled here into what was considered safety, and the horses had been taken out. The flames were on three sides of the Square and there were no horses.

Also, at this time, standing beside the truck, I urged a man to seek safety in flight. He was all but hemmed in by several conflagrations. He was an old man and he Was on crutches. Said he: "Today is my birthday. Last night I was worth thirty thousand dollars. I bought five bottles of wine, some delicate fish and other things for my birthday dinner. I have had no dinner, and all I own are these crutches."

I convinced him of his danger and started him limping on his way. An hour later, from a distance, I saw the truck-load of trunks burning merrily in the middle of the street.

On Thursday morning at a quarter past five, just twenty-four hours after the earthquake, I sat on the steps of a small residence on Nob Hill. With me sat Japanese, Italians, Chinese, and negroes--a bit of the cosmopolitan flotsam of the wreck of the city. All about were the palaces of the nabob pioneers of Forty-nine. To the east and south at right angles, were advancing two mighty walls of flame

I went inside with the owner of the house on the steps of which I sat. He was cool and cheerful and hospitable. "Yesterday morning," he said, "I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes. He pointed to a large cabinet. "That is my wife's collection of china. This rug upon which we stand is a present. It cost fifteen hundred dollars. Try that piano. Listen to its tone. There are few like it. There are no horses. The flames will be here in fifteen minutes.''

Outside the old Mark Hopkins residence a palace was just catching fire. The troops were falling back and driving the refugees before them. From every side came the roaring of flames, the crashing of walls, and the detonations of dynamite

The Dawn of the Second Day

I passed out of the house. Day was trying to dawn through the smoke-pall. A sickly light was creeping over the face of things. Once only the sun broke through the smoke-pall, blood-red, and showing quarter its usual size. The smoke-pall itself, viewed from beneath, was a rose color that pulsed and fluttered with lavender shades Then it turned to mauve and yellow and dun. There was no sun. And so dawned the second day on stricken San Francisco.

An hour later I was creeping past the shattered dome of the City Hall. Than it there was no better exhibit of the destructive force of the earthquake. Most of the stone had been shaken from the great dome, leaving standing the naked framework of steel. Market Street was piled high with the wreckage, and across the wreckage lay the overthrown pillars of the City Hall shattered into short crosswise sections.

This section of the city with the exception of the Mint and the Post-Office, was already a waste of smoking ruins. Here and there through the smoke, creeping warily under the shadows of tottering walls, emerged occasional men and women. It was like the meeting of the handful of survivors after the day of the end of the world.

Beeves Slaughtered and Roasted

On Mission Street lay a dozen steers, in a neat row stretching across the street just as they had been struck down by the flying ruins of the earthquake. The fire had passed through afterward and roasted them. The human dead had been carried away before the fire came. At another place on Mission Street I saw a milk wagon. A steel telegraph pole had smashed down sheer through the driver's seat and crushed the front wheels. The milk cans lay scattered around.

All day Thursday and all Thursday night, all day Friday and Friday night, the flames still raged on.

Friday night saw the flames finally conquered. through not until Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill had been swept and three-quarters of a mile of wharves and docks had been licked up.

The Last Stand

The great stand of the fire-fighters was made Thursday night on Van Ness Avenue. Had they failed here, the comparatively few remaining houses of the city would have been swept. Here were the magnificent residences of the second generation of San Francisco nabobs, and these, in a solid zone, were dynamited down across the path of the fire. Here and there the flames leaped the zone, but these fires were beaten out, principally by the use of wet blankets and rugs.

San Francisco, at the present time, is like the crater of a volcano, around which are camped tens of thousands of refugees At the Presidio alone are at least twenty thousand. All the surrounding cities and towns are jammed with the homeless ones, where they are being cared for by the relief committees. The refugees were carried free by the railroads to any point they wished to go, and it is estimated that over one hundred thousand people have left the peninsula on which San Francisco stood. The Government has the situation in hand, and, thanks to the immediate relief given by the whole United States, there is not the slightest possibility of a famine. The bankers and business men have already set about making preparations to rebuild San Francisco.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Live by Request" - B.B. King (2003)

If you have never seen BB King live, then this is as good as it gets!

The nickname "B.B." - which is short for "Blues Boy" - was first bestowed upon him in Memphis on Beale Street. It stuck. And the sound that he created has spawned a generation of guitarists, some equal to, and some even surpassing, this legendary musician.

This is a very personal performance, one in which B.B. seems a little nervous as he gets ready to field requests for any one of the hundreds of songs he has written and recorded over the past 60 years. And aside from the music, the stories he relates between phone calls and requests are gems; some of which appeared in his autobiography, and some that didn't.

The story of his guitar, named Lucille (he is currently on Lucille 18, though this film from 2003 has him playing Lucille 16) began in 1949 in a town called Twist, Arkansas. It was in a "juke joint", with a 55 gallon drum filled halfway with kerosene for heat. Two guys fighting over a woman knocked it over, burning the place down. BB ran back to get his guitar, (he claims to have been the first one out the door) and almost got killed. The next day he found out the 2 guys were fighting over a woman named Lucille, and so he named his guitar for her, as a reminder to never do that again!

Between each number he explores the impact that his music has had upon 3 generations, with particular emphasis on "The Thrill Is Gone" in 1969, which was on my first B.B. King album. That was the song that opened up the whole world to him, thanks in part to the "British Invasion", which had its roots in American rhythm and blues. Due to that influence, he went on his first world tour in 1970. And he hasn't stopped since.

Jeff Beck takes stage with B.B. for 2 numbers, "Rock Me Baby" and "Key to the Highway", and also helps him close the show with "The Cost to Be the Boss." With his inimitable style of playing, he is proof of the impact that B.B. King has had on so many musicians over the years, and by extension, us.

Calls for requests came from everywhere! All over America, North and South, even as far away as Argentina. One man called, relating how he met his wife 25 years ago at a B.B. King concert. In between playing and taking requests, B.B. also offered his advice on going to school, graduating, majoring in something that you like to do, while learning something you can make a living at. He also advises that young folks stay single until they're 40.

B.B. even had a story to tell about meeting Pope John Paul II, he gave him a guitar as a gift. Though you are never to directly touch the Pope, instead of handing the guitar to the Pope's aides, he offered it directly to the Pope, who took it. He was strumming it when B.B. left.

Packed with some of the best songs he has ever done, and playing with his long time band, B.B., who had a real problem playing during the '90's due to the constant pricking of his fingers to monitor his diabetes, has never sounded better.

This DVD came to me through the courtesy of George Peterson, one of the librarians at the Cornelius branch of the Mecklenburg County Public Library. We are both Buddy Guy fans and he bought this DVD in from his personal collection for me to see. That's what I love about the libraries; not only are they are a refuge for the soul, but also a place where ideas are exchanged and friendships are formed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker" - Edited by Robert Mankoff (2004)

The cartoons from the New Yorker magazine were pretty intriguing to me as a kid. They covered some political subjects with which I was unfamiliar, but also delved into the world of social interaction on an everyday personal level.

For instance, in the cartoon posted below; which is actually the original I clipped and saved decades ago; a grownup faces his own social anxiety when confronted with a situation where he will have to mix with others who are just like him. This was humor I could identify with. We’ve all been 12 years old at some time; when stepping into a room felt as if all eyes were upon you in judgement. Obviously, it struck a chord with me. I identified with the sentiment enough to save the cartoon for all these years.

Anyway, this is just one of the cartoons in this fantastic collection from New Yorker Magazine. I got it as a gift several years ago, and am still enjoying it today. With two CD’s containing every cartoon; as well as the book which has some of the best cartoons arranged by year and subject; this is the complete collection from 1925- 2004; which is over 68,000 very witty cartoons by some of the greatest political cartoonists of the 20th century.

If you have a favorite New Yorker cartoon in your memory; it’s here in this collection. Here’s one more of my favorites; a bit more modern in theme;


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Shadow of the Titanic" by Andrew Wilson (2011)

I have always wondered why they made that film about the Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio in it. I did finally see it; about 10 years after its release. It was pretty good, too. But I still wonder about the need to fictionalize something which was so dramatic to begin with.

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a perfect example of what can be done with the reality of great events, without the need of adding fictitious characters and events. If you do that, then you get stuff like “Gone with the Wind”, which is a great movie; but the burning of Atlanta was even more intense in terms of real life stories and drama. And, quite frankly, Scarlett annoys the hell out of me.

Andrew Wilson has done something with this book; released in 2011; which I had thought impossible. He has written a book about the Titanic from a new perspective. While most films and books dealing with the Titanic end when the good ship Carpathia docks in New York; this one is just finding its land legs.
 
Rather than just mining the memories of the survivors about the sinking itself, he has gone into the area of how the sinking of the great liner affected their lives after. The answer is a surprising mix of good and bad; as are most things.

My own love affair with the Titanic began when I was about 4 years old and saw the British film version of Walter Lord’s iconic book “A Night to Remember.” The scene where the sea is swirling up the ladder from the engine room is etched forever in my mind. The story of how they staged that movie; using a ship which was about to be cut into scrap; is a great little bit of information. Because the scrapping of that ship had already begun on one side, they used mirrors and backwards letters on the lifeboats to film the scenes of the passengers boarding them.

After a brief recap of events; along with some stories the reader may not have heard before; the book heads straight into the lives of the survivors after the dust of the affair had settled and the waters of emotions were calmer. Well, at least on the surface.

Renee Harris was one of the First Class passengers who lost her husband, but went on to become America’s first theater manager and producer; only to lose everything through over indulgence and stock market losses, relegating her to a life of poverty.

John Jacob Astor; one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time; was on a cruise home from his honeymoon with his 19 year bride, who was 5 months pregnant. He was 54 and went down with the ship. Her life afterwards was marred by a will which forbade her to remarry. Predictably, she lost the inheritance and her home when she fell in love with a man whom she had known as a child. When that marriage failed she tried again with an Italian boxer who used her for practice.

Robert Williams Daniel survived the sinking and married another passenger, Eloise Hughes, whose husband went down with the ship.
But the most intriguing story of all is the one of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who allegedly bribed the crew of his lifeboat into not going back to pick up people in the water. He even had his photo taken on the deck of the Carpathia handing 5 pound checks to the crew who had rowed the boat he was in.

The whole incident was probably blown way out of proportion. Sir Cosmo had overheard the crew talking to his wife, who was lamenting the loss of some personal items. One of the crew remarked that it was okay for her, she was rich. But the crew’s pay stopped the moment the ship sank and there would be no money to compensate the crew for their lost possessions. This prompted Sir Cosmo to offer 5 pounds to each of them to help them get started over.

When the newspapers heard the story at the inquiry it was trumped up and ruined Sir Cosmo life and reputation forever. His wife, the irrepressible Lady Duff Gordon, went on to use the events of that night to further her own career as a fashion designer.

J. Bruce Ismay, one of the owners of the White Star Line, was unhappily married at the time of the sinking. His own conduct also came under question for having survived. He was labeled a coward and spent the rest of his life living as a virtual ghost. His hair turned white overnight after being rescued; from the shock of the sinking. He could never crawl out from under the fact that he was the one who decided on having fewer lifeboats than necessary. Although he was following the law at the time, he had been advised not to decrease the number of boats, which he did anyway. In his behalf, it should be noted that he had been engaged in loading the boats on the starboard side, and only boarded after he saw no more women and children aboard.

One of the strangest stories involves a stewardess named Annie Robinson. She had been on a ship that struck an iceberg once before. She then survived the Titanic disaster only to throw herself into the sea one foggy night from a ship that was about to dock in Boston. The fog horns were a reminder of pulling into New York on the Carpathia and drove her mad.

Silent film star Dorothy Gibson was another passenger who survived the Titanic, only to have her life become a series of missteps and mistakes. She spent time as an American citizen in a German concentration camp, only to survive that ordeal and die in a Paris hotel in 1946.

There were 2 children aboard that night. They were being kidnapped by their father, who died in the sinking. The boys were returned to their mother, making the father’s death all the more useless.

The book follows the last survivors through the original “A Night to Remember” activity in the 1950’s; and the through the craze engendered by the location of the ship in the 1980’s, as well as the Leonardo DiCaprio film of the 1990’s. At that time there were only 3 women left alive who were aboard the ship the night it sank. They were all little children at the time, with almost no memory of the event. The last survivor was Millvina Dean, who died in 2009 at the age of 97.

No matter how much you think you know about the Titanic, this book will surprise you. The approach taken by the author; to trace the lives of the survivors after the disaster; lends a whole new perspective to the events of that night so long ago, when the sea swallowed up the unsinkable Titanic.