Friday, April 30, 2010

"Daring Young Men" by Richard Reeves

The Berlin Airlift was one of the most heroic and campassionate undertakings in the history of mankind. If you are unfamiliar with this great episode, then this book is a wonderful place to start. Mr. Reeves has, as usual, bought history to life in this tale of the chess game that took place between the United States and Russia in the summer of 1948.

Russia was essentially blockading Berlin in an effort to gain control of it. The Allies, led by the United States, were equally determined to keep at least half of Germany free and democratic. The story of what made the airlift necessary in the first place is carefully examined here.

The currency crisis, which came about when the German Reichsmark was replaced by the new currency, caused people to panic buy whatever was left on the shelves, whether it was edible or not wasn't the point. The fact that the money would be worthless made buying garbage an attractive proposal.

All of our seasoned combat troops had already been sent home, replaced by inexperienced 19 year olds who did not really want to be there. And the Russians knew this. They were counting on it. Truman was even advised by his Generals to abandon Berlin. His reply was a terse, "We are staying in Berlin. Period."

The resultant airlift had to feed 3 million people per day a diet of at least 1700 calories a day. How we did it is fascinating. Why we did it is inspiring today when we still have millions of peolple starving in portions of the world, even as we pay farmers to not grow food. Truman said something else that has always stuck with me, "The only thing new is the history you don't know." I wish the leaders of today's world would read this book.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

Happy Birthday to Harper Lee. She is 84 years old today. In 1960 she gave us one of the greatest literary treasures of all time - "To Kill A Mockingbird." This is the only book Ms. Lee has written. In a way I am glad. I can't imagine anything more perfect than this story.

Based loosely on her own childhood and growing up down South during the years of Jim Crow, the book crackles from beginning to end. The first time I read it, and I have re-read it many times, I just couldn't put it down. I ran into this book when I was 11 years old and it became an instant favorite. I have several copies so that I can give them away to people who have not read it. I buy them at yard sales and used book stores.

The story, as if you did not already know it, involves Scout and her brother Jem, who both live with their father Atticus Finch. He is a widower in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. He is somewhat of an embarassment to his two children. Jem complains that he doesn't play football, while Scout bemoans her fathers rule against fighting.

The Finch family lives next door to Boo Radley, a young man whose family has kept him locked up in the house for years. Apparently the boy suffers from some sort of mental illness and so the family keeps him locked away. He is a constant source of intrique for Scout and Jem. When the neighbors nephew, Dill, arrives for summer vacation, they decide to try and lure him out.

As all this is happening, a young woman who lives on the edge of town, near the Negro section, is beaten and possibly raped. She claims it was done by Tom Robinson, a local black man with one bad arm. Mayella's father Bob Ewell, is local white trash, seldom sober and always mean as a snake. He has Tom Robinson arrested for the crime and a trial is to take place. This is Alabama in the 1930's so it is a foregone conclusion as to what the verdict will be.

The trial is the biggest thing to happen in Maycomb County since the Civil War and so it attracts a lot of attention. What happens both shocks and sickens you, even as the sweet scent of magnolia seeps from the pages to surround you.

If you have read the book, then my review will annoy you. If you haven't read the book, you should. It is a book about growing up, learning tolerance and also understanding the other fellows position before lashing out. Atticus Finch often tells his children not to judge another person "until you get in his skin and walk around a bit."

After the trial of Tom Robinson,in which he is found guilty in spite of the evidence, Mr. Ewell is hell bent on revenge. He considers Atticus Finch to be a race traitor for trying to defend a Negro. His savagery comes to a head on Halloween night with traumatic results for all.

A little trivia on the character of Dill. He is based on Ms. Lee's freind from childhood, Truman Capote. Mr. Capote used to visit his aunt next door to Ms.Lee as a child. They remained freinds until Mr. Capote's death.

The 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, is true to the book and still ranks in the top 100 films, placing at number 34. The role of Boo Radley is played by Robert Duvall in his first screen appearance. With only a brief role and no speaking lines, his presence, thanks to Ms. Lee's writing, dominates both the book and the movie. Unseen, he serves as a metaphor for all that we do not understand. The fear of the unknown is akin to the fear engendered by the racial segregation of "Jim Crow."

Happy Birthday Ms. Lee, and thanks for giving us the best present of all - a great book that will always stand the test of time. And that is our gift to you.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Paolo Nutini

If you have not been aware of this Scottish born singer-songwriter then you have been missing out on some of today's most poignant lyrics and powerful music. Born in Paisley, Scotland in 1987 this artist combines the looks of Jim Morrison with the phrasing of Mick Jagger. Add to this his unique ability to construct the most complicated songs using the most basic of chords and you've got Paolo Nutini.

His first album, "These Streets", was released in 2006 to much acclaim. The title track is the story of his journey to a new home away from Paisley and how it felt to be a stranger in a new town. With only 5 chords he manages to convey all of the loneliness involved in moving on to a new life. This is the link to the live version;

The biggest hit off that album was "Last Request", which reached Number 6 in England. I first became aware of this artist about 2 years ago while watching Austin City Limits on PBS. Do yourself a favor and hit him up on You Tube. As with most of his music, the live versions are best. They showcase his abilities outside of a studio. The best version of "Last Request" is the one of him sitting beneath a tree in a park. You can actually hear the birds in the tree as he sings. This is the link for that live version;

Among the most dazzling of the songs on that record is "Rewind" which was recorded slowly and with much passion. I was so surprised to see this video of the same song played live at Borders- the book store. For some reason he elected to do the song that day with a Reggae beat and it gives a whole new dimension to the song. It's at;

His second, and latest album, "Sunnyside Up", was released in 2009 and contains the insistent and throbbing song "Candy." The video for this one is located at;

I was perched outside in the pouring rain
Trying to make myself a sail
Then I'll float to you my darlin'
With the evening on my tail
Although not the most honest means of travel
It gets me there nonetheless
I'm a heartless man at worst, babe
And a helpless one at best

Darling I'll bathe your skin
I'll even wash your clothes
Just give me some candy, before I go
Oh, darling I'll kiss your eyes
And lay you down on your rug
Just give me some candy
After my heart

Oh I'm often false explaining
But to her it plays out all the same
and although I'm left defeated
It get's held against my name
I know you got plenty to offer baby
But I guess I've taken quite enough
While I'm some stain there on your bedsheet
You're my diamond in the rough

Darling I'll bathe your skin
I'll even wash your clothes
Just give me some candy
before I go

Oh, darling I'll kiss your eyes
And lay you down on your rug
Just give me some candy
After my heart.

For those ambitious ones that want to play this song, the chords are quite simple. (Am Em G D/D7) The key to playing his songs is in the phrasing of his voice. His cadence sets the beat. Great stuff. I hope you'll take a look. Paste the links into your search engine and turn up the volume. You can thank me later.

Newspaper Photo - Makes You Wonder....

This picture was taken last Friday at 12 Bones Restaurant in Asheville, N.C. The Obamas were on a weekend golf trip. Notice the signs above each of their heads? Over Michelle is a sign that says "Every day I wake up next to you is an excuse to drink." Directly over President Obama's head is a sign that reads "We proudly serve pork."

Now I'm not saying that the photographer, Jewel Samad of AFP/Getty Images, actually waited for this position to occur, but I do have to wonder... I would hate to be the President. Every move, every facial grimace is studied and dissected. Imagine having to be cognizant of everything around you and trying to anticipate how some things, even innocent and appropriate wall signs, can be used to ridicule or poke fun at you. That kind of pressure has got to be daunting.

I'm not a fan of President Obama, or any of the other candidates who were vying for the office of President in the last election. But I'm also not a big fan of photographers who wait for the opportunity to influence us unconsciously with these types of images. But on the other hand, it is kind of funny.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Ernie - the autobiography" by ernest borgnine

This may be one of the most unassuming and humble autobiographies you will ever read. If you're thinking of "McHale's Navy" in conjunction with this man, you need to rewind a little bit back to the days of "From Here To Eternity" and "The Catered Affair". And let's not forget Mr. Borgnines' Oscar winning performance in "Marty". This is no one dimensional actor. I say this, because Mr. Borgnine, like his pal Kirk Douglas, is still alive and well, with alot to say about things. As a matter of fact, as recently as 2008 he was still working with old pal Tim Conway doing voices for "SpongeBob SquarePants."

Born in Hamden, Conn. in 1917 to an Italian family, he soon found himself back in Italy, where his mother went after some domestic problems here in America. His early years there have colored his life in a very unique way. But true love never dies, and it wasn't long before Mr. Borgnines' mother returned to America, and her husband.

His parents struggled through the Depression with his Dad working various WPA/NRA jobs building roads and bridges. At home the family raised vegetables in the garden to supplement their food. The area was of mixed nationalities and he grew up with Polish, German, Italian, Irish and black freinds. As a member of the Boy Scouts he ended up only one badge short of becoming an Eagle Scout.

In 1935 he made a decision that would affect him for a long time. He joined the Navy in the middle of the Depression. He was sent to Newport, Rhode Island for boot camp. It was here that one of those strange coincidences in life occurred. He was selected to do a little boxing and knocked the other guy out. Blood was pouring from the man's mouth and ears. Mr. Borgnine never entered the ring again. Flash forward to the movie "From Here to Eternity" and the character played by Montgomery Clift. He plays a boxer who doesn't want to box anymore. Ernest Borgnine was the sadistic Fatso Judson who was hell bent on forcing him to box. Life imitates art - or is the other way around?

From bootcamp Mr. Borgnine went to sea on the USS Chaumont and through the Panama Canal to the West Coast and San Diego. It was in Balboa, Panama that he lost his virginity- kind of. He was so naive and inexperienced with the opposite sex that it is almost comical. And the way he is unafraid to laugh at himself is so refreshing and honest.

Eventually he was shipped to Hawaii, where he remained until 3 months before Pearl Harbor. Talk about timing! He describes a Japanese fellow who sold beer by the can on a corner in Honolulu. From that corner he made enough money to open a dance hall and brothel, just like the one in "From Here to Eternity", only the women were all Japanese. It is Mr. Borgnine's belief that this dance hall was probably the biggest windfall that the Japanese could have hoped for in gathering intelligence. From the loose lips of sailors the Japanese were able to piece together a picture of everything that came and went in Pearl Harbor. This information was all vital to the eventual surprise attack in December 1941.

Back home, he was called up again and served the entire war patrolling the docks of New York City on a private vessel that had been donated to the government. It was called the "Sylph" and stationed at 125th street on the Hudson River.

After the war ends he was discharged and went home. Clearly at loose ends, with no idea what to do, he remarks to his mother that "for 2 cents I'd go back in the Navy." She replied, "Son, have you ever thought of becoming an actor? You always like to make a damn fool of yourself, making people laugh. Why don't you give it a try?" And so he did.

Trying out his wings with the Yale School of Drama was not a good choice. They were more interested in academics than acting, so he left. Winding up in Hartford, he enrolled at the Randall School, where he finds himself launched into acting. He was 28 years old at the time.

His next move was to a stock company in Virginia. From there he went on to a false start in New York, where he was doing well, but didn't feel he had it quite right yet. So he returned to the stock company for more experience. While there his mother passed away and he returned to New Haven for her funeral. After returning to Virginia, to honor his committments, he moved on to Broadway. His description of Marlon Brando and his roommate Wally Cox riding a motorcycle through Manhattan will leave a lasting impression upon the reader. This is where he honed his acting experience. It is also where he landed his first movie role in "The Whistle at Eaton Falls." From there he bounced back and forth a bit until he finally hit his stride.

After 3 movies he was tapped to play the role that would make him famous. He was chosen to play opposite Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Donna Reed and Montgomery Clift in "From Here to Eternity." If you have never seen this movie, you should. Working with no special effects or makeup, he played one of the most vile characters in film history- the sadistic Fatso Judson. After bullying Montgomery Clift for refusing to box they square off in an alleyway where Montgomery Clift fatally stabs him. This is the film that put him on the road to stardom.

"Bad Day at Black Rock" and his menacing portrayal opposite a one armed Spencer Tracy is one of the most unforgettable movies you will ever see. Spencer Tracy plays a disabled Veteran returning from the war. He is stopping at Black Rock to present a medal to a Japanese man's son who died saving Spencer Tracy's life. What he uncovers there in the form of Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan is shocking. The brief fight scene, in which Spencer Tracy uses Judo to throw Mr. Borgnine through a door, is one of the shortest and best fight scenes ever filmed. It is also a movie that cements his freindship for life with fellow Veteran Lee Marvin.

For me though, the best part of the book are the recollections of filming of one of my favorite movies, "The Catered Affair" with Bette Davis, in which he played Debbie Reynolds father, a hard working man who wants to own a taxi. But his wife, Ms. Davis, wants the money they have saved to pay for the wedding of their daughter.It is, in my opinion, one of the most engaging roles he ever played. Authored by Paddy Chayefsky, the characters are deeply painted portraits of life and the dreams that come true, as well as the dreams that get shattered. But when all is said and done, the dreams that do come true are often the most important ones.

In this candid autobiography, Mr. Borgnine takes you on a film by film journey through his remarkable career. Along the way he manages to give you a few of his thoughts on the world today as well as the world of yesterday. He revels in the fact that three generations of people now know him for completely different things. The World war Two crowd knows him as Fatso Judson in "From Here to Eternity"; the post war "baby boomers" remember him as the affable "McHale" of "McHale's Navy"; and now a whole new generation has come to know him as "Mermaid Man", the voice on "Sponge Bob Squarepants" in which he plays opposite his old McHale's Navy buddy Tim Conway, who is also one of the voices on the show.

This is a remarkable self penned book by an actor who has done it all without losing sight of who he is. And that is no small feat in an industry of egos the size of the ship "Poseidon." Thanks Mr. Borgnine!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"The Honeymooners" - Timeless Classics

I was watching "Raisin in the Sun" and decided to take a break and enjoy myself for a bit. So I reached for "The Honeymooners", the original 36 episodes, graciously provided to me by my friend J.W.

These shows were so ahead of their time that it always amazes me to watch them again. They continually explored the never changing world of male-female relationships. No kidding, these shows from 1955 and '56 are 55 years old and still relevant to the way men and women deal with one another. The competiveness and jealousies are still there. Some of the issues of womens equality still have not come to absolute fruition.

And that's what makes these shows so timeless. They show us a mirror of ourselves being foolish. Along with Trixie and Ed Norton, Ralph Cramden (much to the chagrin of his wife Alice), continues to pull them all along on his downward spiral of broken dreams. But all the while he manages to maintain their freindship and love.

I needed a break from reading and films, so this was a great pick for me tonite. If you see these at the library , or at the bookstore, they are well worth the price of owning. Since we don't change much in relation to the topic at hand, they are a handy mirror to keep around. Use them to take a look at yourself from time to time. You might be amazed at the bits of who you see!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Follow Up - The Nazi Manhole Mystery

Following up on yesterday's post concerning the Nazi Manhole Mystery, the sewer lid seems to have originated here in the United States. Apparently there was a Concord Foundry which cast iron in the county years ago. These lids were made in the late 1930's and have been discovered before in Concord as well as Kannapolis. .

I spoke with Mr. Slough at the Department of Public Works in Kannapolis. He was aware of these covers from some of his co-workers who had been working in the Department long before he arrived. As they are found, they are removed.

Now, a little background. In the 1930's the United States was reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. Even in New York there was a Nazi Party that gathered at Madison Square Garden to exercise their Right of Freedom of Speech in an effort to muzzle the rest of us. Apparently this effort was not confined to New York.

Obviously, someone in Concord was sympathetic enough to the National Socialist Movement (remember Nazi is an acronym for this) to stamp the Nazi logo on the cast iron sewer lids being produced under their name. Again, this is free speech. Sometime after 1940 installation of these lids seems to have come to a halt. This makes me think that,and I am only surmising this, that the owners probably had a change of heart after the beginning of the Second World War in December of 1941. Perhaps they had a child who was drafted...

I could go on and try to find out who these people were etc. But what would be the point? I doubt that this was the work of a serious Aryan Nation style group. Just some working class people, caught up in hard times, who bought into a strategy that turned out to be a Hell on Earth.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Something Really Special

I live in a neighborhood with lots of kids. I love to hear the sound of kids playing. I enjoy seeing them in the street doing what kids should be doing; bicycling and playing ball, running races and even chalking up the street with pastel colored chalk. It makes me feel good to know that there are kids like these left. I really thought they were all inside playing computer games!

So, you can imagine how happy it made me when my doorbell rang and I answered it to find nobody there. Looking down the street, I smiled. There was a group of kids walking away from my house. I immediately thought back to all the stuff I did as a kid. Ringing bells and running away. It didn't make me mad, it made me smile. Some things never change...

But here's the surprise - they had rung the bell and then gotten shy and walked away. Having just caught a green tree frog, they wanted to give it to me, knowing how much I enjoy frogs, turtles and lizards. So I was grinning from ear to ear when they made him mine. It was such a treat to be thought of in this way. I'm still smiling as I write this. I just set the frog free in my backyard on some sort of bush. He seems to like it there and even let me take this picture. This is one of the nicest gifts I have ever received.

And by the way, thanks to Shawn and Amber for having such great kids. And thanks to Jordan, Jessica, Mason and their friends for thinking of me in such a nice way.

The Nazi Manhole Mystery

Sometimes you come across an unexpected mystery that makes you want to look further in order to obtain the facts behind what you see. This is a manhole cover photo from Facebook which was forwarded to my daughter, who then forwarded it to me. I live in Concord, North Carolina, and so was appalled to see the name Concord Foundry stamped on it. Turns out that there is a Concord Foundry in New Hampshire as well as a couple of other places. Although the manufacture of most manhole covers takes place overseas, the design has to originate with the customer. In this case it would have been a Public Works project.

I'm not sure if it was meant to mark territory, as with animals (appropriate) or if it is a sign of something more sinister in our midst. I like to think that is an old manhole cover and soon due for replacement. I have not seen the piece in question personally, and am still unsure as to the actual location of it, but I will attempt to find out. If it is local I will go to see it and then ask the local Public Works people about it. When was it installed? Why was the swastika used?

Googling around has provided me with quite an education into the subject of swastikas. I knew that they had been used by the American Indians, the ancient Egyptians and the Romans. But I had no idea about the Hindu connection or the opposite direction the symbol takes. It seems Hitler reversed the Bhuddist version in order to mark the difference more clearly. This photo shows the production of the covers in India. I found it on the web site of a manhole cover manufacturer. The photo was taken by Adam Huggins.

This is the swastika in it's Indian form. I'm not sure what the dots represent. The mirrored version was used in the Vainakh religion as a solar symbol. In Sanskrit the swastika(svástika / स्वस्तिक)) is an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, in either right or left facing form. There is archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments from the Neolithic era. In the modern day culture of India, it is sometimes used as a decorative geometric design, as well as a religious symbol. It is also still used in Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Though it was once a commonly used symbol it has fallen from grace largely due to the Nazi's use of it. It is, in fact, outlawed in Germany today.

There is also a Wilkipedia article on swastikas which explains some associated mathematical significance. Apparently the swastika was not always a symbol of hate and oppression. But somehow that seems irrelevant in a world mutilated by the Nazi's unprecedented use of this symbol to kill millions. Who would want this mark on their products? Who can justify, or excuse, the pain and suffering and loss of life associated with it?

Apparently you can order manhole covers with whatever design suits you. These covers are from a Japanese manufacturer's website. Some are really intricate and beautiful. But somehow the swastika pattern just doesn't do it for me. Of course one can rationalize that a sewer cover is the appropriate venue for this symbol of oppression and it's adherents.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"A Captains Duty" by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty

This is the gripping true life story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, told by the man who lived it, Captain Phillips. Piracy has been going on for centuries. I myself, have been part of "pirate patrols" in the Indian Ocean as a member of Military Sealift Command in the early 1980's. This book rings absolutely true in all regards. From the daily rituals aboard merchant ships and the life story of the author, this book tells exactly what is like to be apart from loved ones while going through a very traumatic experience.

When Captain Phillips left his family back in Vermont for the East African Run in April of 2009, he had no idea of the events waiting to unfold all about him. In lesss than one weeks time he would be fighting for the life of his crew, as well as his own, off the coast of Somalia.

Taking all precautions against being boarded proved futile. Much was learned from this mis-adventure. Armed guards are now the rule on Merchant Ships operating in waters known to be hostile. Prior to the Maersk Alabama incident, merchant ships were hampered by many politically motivated rules regarding the carrying of arms for self protection. All that was legally available was the time honored method of "repelling boarders" by use of high pressure fire hoses and flares. If you were lucky, the Captain may have had a handgun. Useless when confronted by bandits wielding AK-47's.

After being boarded the Captain uses a variety of ruses he has worked out in advance with his crew in order to maintain control of the vessel. This is crucial if you don't want to be kidnapped. By locking themselves in the Engineering spaces the ships engineers are able to maintain control from the engine room and "aft" steering, located just above the rudder. This convinces the pirates that the ship is inoperable and prevents them from taking the ship into a port.

By convincing the pirates that the ship is not functioning properly, Captain Phillips is able to buy precious time while dealing with the Somalis. At the same time he is struggling to put some sort of plan into action which will result in the pirates leaving the ship.

He devises a plan involving an imaginary warship coming to his aid. At the same time his First Mate has hidden somewhere aboard the ship and the other crew members are playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with the hijackers. At one point they capture one of the bandits and then wound another. The Captain is able to convince the remaining two hijackers to exchange himself for the two captured pirates. When the lifeboat is lowered away with the Captain and hijackers aboard, the switch is made, with one exception. They are holding the Captain for ransom.

After 2 days of drifting in an overheated boat beneath a blazing Indian Ocean sun, the American warship USS Bainbridge appears. Captain Phillips attempts an escape and is brutally beaten and tied up as a result. Relief comes when a team of US Navy SEALS take the pirates out with some of the best marksmanship ever seen. Remember, both vessels are bobbing up and down and rolling side to side as the shots are taken.

The book alternates between what is happening in the Indian Ocean to what is happening with Captain Phillips family back in Vermont. His wife Andrea, is the rock that keeps Captain Phillips going. And the same applies for his wife- he is her rock. As much as he is struggling to maintain himself at the hands of pirates, Andrea is experiencing the same type of ordeal with the media. She is literally under siege.

A gripping and exciting read, this book looks behind the headlines and gives us a first person account of what went on aboard the Maersk Alabama in April of 2009. The book reads like an exciting novel, with one big difference. This is as real as it gets.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Ruggles of Red Gap" with Charles Laughton, Roland Young, Charlie Ruggles and Zasu Pitts

This movie is a rare and delightful treat. Egbert Floud (played by Charlie Ruggles)is on a trip to Europe with his would be cultured wife, Effie (played by Mary Boland.) They are from Red Gap, somewhere out West in the United States. The movie begins with Lord Bumstead (played by Roland Young) waking up hungover after losing his butler, William Ruggles (played by Charles Laughton) in a game of poker with Egbert Floud.

Egbert is very uneasy with the idea of having a servant but his wife is insistent and so he finds himself with a "man servant", or "butler." When they arrive in Red Gap, Ruggles sees that he is now free from being cast as a servant at birth, leaving him with limitless choices, and so he begins to rebel.

Falling in love with a local widow, Mrs. Judson (played by Zasu Pitts) awakens in him the desire to be more, and he finally works up the courage to stand up for himself. This is the result of a remarkable discussion in a saloon, about "...just what did Lincoln say at Gettysburg?" The answer comes in the form of the best recitation of the Gettysburg Address, delivered by Charles Laughton, that I have ever heard. (This is fitting, as originally only the English reporters of the time thought the speech to be of any note. In America it was looked upon as a short, though passionate, disappointment. It was only years after Lincoln's death that his speech was fully appreciated here.)

What follows is one man's discovery of what it means to be equal and rise above his own beginnings. Embracing opportunity is something that Ruggles has never had the chance to experience. And though initially aghast at the idea of being something other than a butler, when the chance is laid before him, he is ready to seize the day and further his destiny. In short, he decides to "enter into trade." Egbert, who didn't want a "butler" in the first place, is only too eager to assist him.

Opening a restaurant in Red Gap causes a great stir, particularly due to the fact that Egberts' wife has already introduced Ruggles to everyone as an English Lord, rather than as a butler. When his former boss, Lord Bumstead, comes to take him home, he is met by a new Ruggles, one intent upon reaching his potential in this new country. And this has unintended consequences for Lord Bumstead as well, as he finds himself questioning the rigid autocracy of which he, himself, is also a product.

A wonderful and optimistic film, worth watching if for no other reason than to hear English spoken so well by Laughton. Loaded with some of the best character actors Hollywood has ever produced, this film has long been a favorite of mine. I first saw this one on "The Million Dollar Movie" on Channel 9 - WOR TV in New York as a kid. I was so glad to see that it has been transferred to DVD. It would be a shame to lose this gem of a film.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

" A Pickpockets Tale" by Timothy J. Gilfoyle

For lovers of old New York, the years 1850- 1910 represent a special era in the city's history. There was the great influx of Irish, German and Jewish immigrants. There were the Draft Riots of 1863, the Great Blizzard in the 1880's, the list goes on and on. There has always been a fascination with the past in New York, particularly if you lived there and walked the streets. You can sometimes feel a sense of that history as you look at the old brickwork, or the alleyways, which were once dangerous and unhealthy places. The ghost of Jacob Riis hangs heavily over these scenes. His documentary photos of New York in the late 19th Century speak to us from every image.

But here is a different tale, and an unusual one. Timothy J. Gilfoyle has authored an authentic and detailed account of life in New York during these years. He has done so in a very unusual way - through the diary of one of Old New York's nost notorious criminals, George Washington Appo.

Born on July 4th, 1856 to a Chinese father and an Irish mother, he was 3 years old when he was orphaned. His father was in jail for murder and his mother was dead. Originally placed with a foster family of longshoreman in Donovan's Lane, he quickly became acclimated to a life of crime in the notorious Five Points area.

Apparently he taught himself to read while peddling newspapers at age 12. This was an era where you had to fight for your corner, or lose it. He branched off to picking pockets and by age 14 was arrested and placed aboard a prison ship for juveniles.

This is a no holds barred look at life in New York during some of it's most formative years as an emerging metropolis. Appo kept a diary which is surprisingly well written and informative of the times in which it takes place. His descriptions of the Mott Street opium dens is fascinating. If I ever get back to New York for a visit I am going to number 4 Mott Street just to look at the building and remember some of the things I've read in this book.

At times, Appo made several hundred dollars a night picking pockets. He also gambled and smoked opium. He was shot several times and spent many years in prison. Eventually he wound up in Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he met his father after more than 20 years! And yes, his father was also an inmate.

More than just a book about crime, this is a valuable resource on the social makeup of the times. African, European and Asian immigrants lived side by side in some of the most deplorable conditions. This made for strange alliances. Inter-marraige between these disparate groups was not uncommon.

Using Mr. Appos self penned journal, Mr. Gilfoyle paints a sharp portrait of the history of The Tombs, Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island) and the beginnings of Rikers Island as a jail facility. Along the way the reader is introduced to a variety of criminals that make Damon Runyon's characters look like choir boys.

This book is strongly recommended for lovers of Old New York, as well as the characters that inhabited the city in it's nefarious heydays of the late 19th Century.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"My Life With Charlie Brown" by Charles M. Schulz edited by M. Thomas Inge

This book was a total surprise to me. I grew up reading Charlie Brown and the whole Peanuts gang. My freinds and I were always entertained at holiday times with the Halloween and Christmas specials. They are still played today for a whole new generation. There's a reason why these classic characters are still valid today.

Charles Schulz never wrote a full autobiography. Rather, he left a series of speeches, Commencement Addresses and a few short writings about his life before and after the creation of Peanuts. Mr. Inge has taken these various writings and given us a work that is as close to an autobiography as may be possible.

Mr. Schulz was a very devoted Christian. In addition to his daily syndicated Peanuts strip, he wrote some inspirational Peanuts strips for over 70 Christian publications.Mr. Inge also reprints here some of the inspirational speeches given by Mr. Schulz, in which he expounds upon the thin line he walked in order to get his message of Faith out to the general public in his daily strip.

His war time experience is tremendously underplayed, he only writes of it in terms of a timeline. The day he was drafted his mother died. When the war was over he found that he was a Christian. No spark, no magic moment. Just a realization of his Faith in the wake of losing his mother and then his experiences in the war.

A great history of the Peanuts strip told by the creator himself. For instance, did you know that Mr. Schulz wanted to call the strip "Li'l Folks" but couldn't because there had been an earlier strip called "Little Folks"? Or that he wanted it to be called "Good Ol' Charlie Brown" instead? The syndicate came up with the "Peanuts" title, which Mr. Schulz despised until the end.

His philosphies and motivations are all laid bare in these priceless letters and speeches. They offer a unique insight into one of America's most beloved comic strips - "Good Ol' Charlie Brown."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Rescue Ink" by Rescue Ink with Denise Flaim

This is one of those books that give you hope in mankind. Just when you think the whole world has gone nuts you manage to stumble across these guys. With their common sense and hands-on approach to a despicable problem, animal abuse, Rescue Ink (Ink being a reference to their tatoos) is a breath of fresh air in a world that sometimes seems to have gone stale.

From the misssing dog to the house with 150 cats and on into the world of dogfighting, these guys go wherever their presence is requied to protect our furry little freinds. And along the way they manage to educate the reader on why it is imprtant to treat animals well and in accordance with their needs. Do YOU really want to be chained to a tree all day in the sun? Wouldn't YOU prefer to sleep indoors during the dead of winter?

Like I said, it may seem like common sense to you or I, but some people just don't get it. I hope one of them reads this book!

Visit their website at

Friday, April 16, 2010

"Traitor" with Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce

This film is a real insight into the world of terrorism and counter intelligence in todays “War on Terrorism.” When is killing justified? And by whom? For God? For Country? For Honor? These are the central questions at the heart of this pulse pounding film.

The film, wide in its scope, covers the terrorist cells that operate with seeming impunity while also offering a realistic look behind the scenes of law enforcement as they try, under great restraint, to contain a growing threat to us all.

Samir (played with intensity by Don Cheadle) is an African-American of Yemen birth. When we first encounter him he is selling explosives to Radical Islamics. When he is captured and imprisoned in Yemen he meets Ahmed, who is a terrorist. When the two become friends they are broken out of jail by fellow Jihadists and embark upon a series of terrorist attacks.

Hard on their trail is a team of FBI agents(lead by Guy Pearce) who, without jurisdiction in the respective countries they visit, manage to successfully identify Samir and even come close to catching him just before another successful bombing. The film also explores the nature of counter espionage within the various agencies, who are all pursuing the same goal, but are all reluctant to share their information with one another.

With a minimum of special effects, this film manages to capture the real essence of the War on Terrorism. It also explores the chasm between Radical Islam and Islam as a Religion. At times it serves as an education about all of the different ideologies and beliefs that battle for control of the worlds politics. In addition, it explores the question of why someone looks to Radical Islam in the first place. And ultimately it asks the viewer how many killings are justified in any cause?

This film is a thriller from beginning to end. It draws no conclusions, it only reinforces the questions we all have concerning the role of religion and terrorism in todays world.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"An American Carol" with James Woods, Dennis Hopper, Leslie Neilsen, David Alan Grier

It's Fourth of July and the grankids are restless. They want Grandpa to tell them an old time story about the 4th. He begins with ,"Once there was a man who tried to steal the Fourth of July...." The kids protest, stating that this story is really a Christmas tale. He tells them, "Wait a minute, wait a minute..."

What follows is one of the funniest send ups of both the Left and Right as this hilarious satire, based on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", unfolds.

Down on his luck film maker Michael Malone is on a losing streak. He needs a hit to maintain his place in the world of cinema. So, when he is approached by two Islamic terrorists, eager to finance his latest Anti-American "documentary", he is naturally eager. He plans to hold an "Abolish the 4th" rally on July 4th as a way to kick off the films premier.

That night, while watching a film of JFK's inaugural address, JFK steps from the screen and confronts Mr. Malone on the error of his thinking. He reminds him of the part of the address that everyone seems to have forgotten. "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." He then tells Mr. Malone that he will be visited by 3 spirits who will guide him.

The three spirits, General Patton (Leslie Nielsen) George Washington (Jon Voight) and The Angel of Death (Trace Adkins) are all superb in their roles as they try to show Mr. Malone the error of his thinking.

Add in a group of inept Afghani terrorists, who are seeking to manipulate the film director, and this becomes a fast paced and very clever film. The fact that many of the stars are well known Liberals and Conservatives should serve as comfort to any viewers who may be afraid to laugh at themselves. This is a very funny and well crafted film from David Zucker, the Director of "Airplane" and "Naked Gun."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Titanic - A Timeless Tragedy

This poster was my first encounter with the Titanic. It was in 1958 and my parents took me to see the film. I was awestruck at the luxury of the ship and the wealth of the travelers aboard her. It was, I believe, the start of my lifelong love affair with ships and all things nautical.

Today marks the 98th anniversary of the sinking of that great ship. The Titanic went down on a cold, moonless night in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. The belief that she was "unsinkable" did her no good. And with lifeboats for less than half of the passengers aboard, the loss of life was tremendous.

At 4 years old I was already familiar with the ocean, having been born less than a mile from the Atlantic Coast in Brooklyn, New York. The fact that the Titanic's survivors had been taken to New York aboard the Carpathia only made those waters more holy to me. I would stare out to sea at night, trying to decipher the meanings of those red and green lights called "bouys" and wonder what lay beyond. Eventually I would find out.

The Titanic was one of those grand affairs conceived at the end of the 19th Century and built in the early years of the 20th Century. It was built with the notion that we were now the Masters of our fates. There was no undertaking that man could not achieve. There was a belief that there was no element which we, as human beings, could not conquer.

Sailing from Southampton on her maiden voyage, she left on April 10th, 1912 for New York City with 2,207 passengers aboard. The ship would never arrive and only 700 or so passengers ever made it to their destination.

I remember watching the film and the scene in which the water comes up the ladderways from the mailroom still leaves an impression upon me. My parents made a lesson of that film, instilling in me that nothing is ever a sure thing. There are forces that are constantly working against us. False pride, greed, visions of grandeur are always lurking and waiting to take us down, just as they did the Titanic.

Over the years much has been written and filmed about this fabled ship and her demise. Some of the stuff is quite informative and lends an even deeper meaning to the tragedy of that cold and fateful night. Some are fictious versions of the event. It took me almost 10 years before I would even see Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Titanic." It seemed so silly to attempt a dramatization of such a powerful and true event.

The stories of the sacrifices made that night are legendary, but well documented. This book, "A Night To Remember" by Walter Lord was first published in 1955. Most of the survivors were still alive and Mr. Lord interviewed them all in preparation for the book. This paperback copy was a gift from my parents when I was 11 years old. As you can see, I still have it. Inside are news clippings from over the years, each one documenting the death of yet another survivor. Morbid, perhaps. But my fascination with this event has shaped a good portion of my life.

The sinking of the Titanic marked the first use of the new wireless distress code "SOS." Ships as far away as Cape Race heard the call. Some attempted to assist in the rescue - others, such as the California, less than 10 miles away, merely watched her sink. The rockets, flares and wireless messages all went unheeded. Only the Carpathia made it, although she arrived after the Titanic had sunk. Plucking the remaining survivors from the water, she raced back to New York. From there the crew was taken to a hearing in Washington D.C. before the Maritime Safety Committee. A separate inquiry was later conducted upon the crews return to England.

As a result of these hearings changes in safety regulations were made; all ships would henceforth carry twice the number of lifeboats needed. This is necessary because when a ship lists too far to port or starboard, half of the boats are incapable of being launched. The number of lifebelts required was increased. Ice warnings became the normal procedure, rather than the exception. Use of the wireless and mandatory wireless "watches" were instituted.

But of all the stories told from that night, none has stayed with me in the way that the story of Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus has. They had risen from the ashes of the Confederacy to found a small China business in Philadelphia. From there they went on to make Macy's the world's largest department store.When she was told by her husband to get in the lifeboat along with the other women and children she answered, "We have been living together many years. Where you go, I go." When Hugh Woolner tried to persuade the aging Mr. Straus to get in the boat with Mrs. Straus, he replied, " I will not go before the other men." They were last seen lounging side by side in deck chairs, confusion reigning all about them as they sat, calmly awaiting their fate.

So many stories abound from that night. For the best insight into this remarkable tragedy I can suggest no other source which is better than Mr. Lords' two books on the Titanic. The first is "A Night to Remember", which was filmed twice, the British version being the best. And his follow up "The Night Lives On", published in 1986.

This is Molly Brown, aka the "Unsinkable Molly Brown." A would be socialite from Colorado, she had ben snubbed by all the women in her community. She was returning from Europe aboard the Titanic as a way to gain acceptance in the social circles of Denver. In the lifeboat when some of the inexperienced crew members were failing to do their duty, Mrs. Brown rose to the occassion and took command of the boat. When she returned to Denver she snubbed all the "fair weather" freinds who now clamored for her company.

An interesting note on the collision is that the sinking was avoidable. Had the ship simply continued on course, rather than making that fateful turn to port in a futile effort to avoid the iceberg, the damage would've been limited to the bow section and the pumps would have controlled the flooding. She would have arrived late, but with all passengers and crew safe.

The other interesting note to this story is the fate of the Carpathia, which had rescued the survivors. At the outbreak of World War One she was pressed into service as a troop ship. She was torpedoed in 1918 enroute from England to Boston. An ignominious end to such an important piece of maritime history. Such are the ways of the sea...

Monday, April 12, 2010

"FDR's Funeral Train" by Robert Klara

Sharing the spotlight in history today with the beginning of the Civil War (see next post down) is the death of FDR in 1945. Like him or not, he was one of the most influential, and controversial, of President's in our nations history.

My mother used to tell me about the day that FDR died. She said that the whole sky went black, just like it does on a summer's day before a storm. But this was early April, though it had been unusually balmy for the last week or so. It was late afternoon before she recalled hearing the news on radio that the President had died earlier.

As preparations were being made for his funeral in Washington, DC and, his later internment at his home in Hyde Park, NY, a drama was being played out that would remain largely unwritten about for several decades.

The President had been at his usual retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia when he was fatally stricken with a heart attack. This was not unexpected, as he had been in poor health for many years. Along with his paralysis, his blood pressure at the BEGINNING of the War was 250/140. There were no drugs available for the doctors to counter this pressure, which surely built up over 3 full terms as President. He was literally a ticking time bomb.

Where the drama begins is the fact that The President's long time lady freind, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, was with him at the time he passed. And the drama continues as the First Lady seeks to uncover the truth about who was with her husband at the time of his death. With her detective skills in sharp order due to having served as her husbands legs and ears on several cross country trips, she soon cracks the mystery. But the story continues on from there.

The President had a specially designed train for protection. The Presidential Pullman Car was named "The Ferdinand Magellan" and Roosevelt made regular trips on it. Mostly to his home in Hyde Park, and sometimes out West. The car was 142 tons in weight. There was no precaution too great to take in protecting the President. These things are all well known.

What is less known are the special trips he made to side spurs along the way. There the President would remain for almost 12 hours at a time dallying with Ms. Rutherford. This was all about to become known to Mrs. Roosevelt as the train crossed the country, first from Washington to Warm Springs, then back to Washington for the State Funeral. From there the train would be loaded up again for the final journey to bury the President at Hyde Park, NY.

The trip was filled with even more high drama as the newly sworn President Truman tries to figure out the secret everyone is trying to keep from him. He needed to be told about the A-bomb but no-one wanted to be the one to breach security and tell him first. At the same time there is a suspected Soviet Agent on board, trying to find out what everyone else is whispering about. That all this occurs as the nation mourns the loss of the President while the country is still at war really ups the stakes.

Well researched by the author, Robert Klara has given us a slice of history that has been denied us until now. Using recently released documents and old diaries and letters, he has pieced together a story that would be the envy of any author of fiction. That it is real makes it all the better. It is also reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel, from the setting on the train to the wild cast of characters, who are, in this case real.

The Civil War - Fort Sumter

On April 12, 1861 Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter, S.C. triggering the American Civil War. The attack came after months of talks and 2 days of demands by the Confederates that the fort be surrendered. When Major Anderson refused, the Rebels attacked. The photograph shown here was taken on April 14th, one day after Major Anderson was forced to evacuate the Garrison.

The battle was not a ferocious one by any standards. It was a bombardment of over 3,000 enemy cannon balls, which severly damaged the fort. There were no actual casualties inflicted by the enemy. One Union artilleryman was killed and two soldiers were injured when their cannon misfired. This was small change in comparison to the carnage that was yet to come.

Although this engagement is often cited as the beginning of hostilities for the Civil War, that is not quite the truth. In December of 1860 South Carolina became the first state to leave the Union. Within 6 days Major Anderson took his men from the badly situated Fort Moultrie and secretly removed them to Fort Sumter. He did so of his own volition and with no authorization from Washington.

By January the Government of South Carolina, as well as Brigadier General Beauregard, were both calling for the fort to be turned over to the Confederacy. On January 9th, 1861 when the Union attempted to resupply Fort Sumter via a shipment aboard the merchant vessel Star of the West, Southern troops opened fire, resulting in the ship turning about without resupplying the fort.

In Washington, President Lincoln was faced with the first serious test of his Presidency and the challenge to his campaign promise that he would keep the Union whole. Fort Sumter had supplies which would hold it until April 15th. By April 6th, with no diplomatic relief in sight, Lincoln dispatched a fleet of ships to resupply and defend the fort. Under the Command of Gustavas Fox, the Cutter Harriet Lane, with the Sloops of War Pawnee and Powhatan, and Steamers Pocahontas and Baltic along with 3 tugs, set sail for Charleston. They would arrive on April 11th at the sand bar which comprises the natural abutment around which Fort Sumter was built.

Realizing that the re-supply of the fort would only prolong the situation, General Beauregard ordered the bombardment. The first shot to be fired has always been claimed by Edmund Ruffin, who was not a Revolutionary War veteran, as widely taught in school, but was an ardent secessionist. In reality the first shot was fired by Lt. Henry Farley, commanding 2 mortars from nearby James Island at 4:30 AM. The Civil War had begun and Charleston, one of the most beautiful cities in the country, would be under seige for the duration.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Plain Truth" with Mariska Hargitay and Alison Pill

This is "Law and Order" meets "The Waltons", on steroids. There are more false leads here than answers when Katie (Mariska Hargitay) plays a corporate attorney who is fast approaching 40 and wondering why she helps to vindicate Corporations. She wins and saves them great sums, but questions why. What happened to her idealism? So, Katie decides to take a break - but ends up with a murder trial instead.

And when her defendant turns out to be an 18 year old Amish girl(Alison Pill) accused of murdering her own new born child, the plot becomes magnetic. When she refuses to provide the answers that only she can provide to save herself, the race is on for the defense to find the truth.

At first this film seems to be just another re-make of "Witness" with Harrison Ford, but it is much more. It touches upon subjects of real sensitivity; such as religion, education and even our own subjectation to systems that may not be true to our own real values. There is always a price to be paid. Always a compromise with the truth.

As Katie learns, in a surprise twist ending, there is no real difference in the corporate will to survive than our own as individuals. In the end she is left wondering just why she took that time off to begin with?

Written and Directed seamlessly, this movie had me in my seat the entire time. I never hit pause. And that's rare. Just ask Sue! The Cinematography is wonderful, with panoramic views of the Amish countryside. Released in 2004, this is yet another one that seems to have slipped by me.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Frozen River" with Melissa Leo and Misty Upham (2009)

This is an absolutely stunning movie. The acting is intense and moving. The script, by Director Courtney Hunt, is tightly woven and seamless in it's direction.

The movie basically concerns two women, marginalized and living on the edge of society. They are both struggling to survive along the US/Canadian border. The film is set in the here and now. The subject matter is real and convincing.

Those who remember Melissa Leo from her earlier work on TV's "Homicide" and her performances in other independent films such as "21 Grams" will not be surprised at the intensity of her acting in this film. And that performance is perfectly matched with the understated, fatalistic acting of Misty Upham. Combined with the terse Direction of Ms. Hunt, this is a powerful cinematic experience.

This film simply does not lend itself to review. It must be seen to be appreciated. I hope that you will take me at my word on this one.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Surrender at Appomattox - The Beginning of the End.

I cannot think back to a time when I was unaware of the Civil War. The fact that the wounds of the war were still raw in half of our country was surely a contributing factor to this. I was about 7 when all the Centennial Observances began in full swing. To make matters even more confusing, in school we were taught only part of the story concerning the end of the Civil War.

Today marks the 145th Anniversary of General Robert E. Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. It was there that Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia, which effectively ended the South's ability to wage war. But there never was a formal surrender by the Confederate Government. Neither treaty nor truce was ever called.

WhenI first moved down South I was very confused at the attitude that the War Between the States had never ended. So, I did as I usually do, headed to the library. I was very surprised at all that I did not know.

General Grant, writing his memoirs with the aid of Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, recalled the following conversation just prior to the signing of Lee's surrender;

"Lee soon mounted his horse, seeing who it was, and met me. We had there between the lines, sitting on horseback, a very pleasant conversation of over half an hour, in the course of which Lee said to me that the South was a big country and that we might have to march over it three or four times before the war entirely ended, but that we would now be able to do it as they could no longer resist us. He expressed it as his earnest hope, however, that we would not be called upon to cause more loss and sacrifice of life; but he could not foretell the result. I then suggested to General Lee that there was not a man in the Confederacy whose influence with the soldiery and the whole people was as great as his, and that if he would now advise the surrender of all armies I had no doubt his advice would be followed with alacrity. But Lee said, that he could not do that without consulting the President first. I knew there was no use to urge him to do anything against his ideas of what was right."

President Jefferson Davis refused to surrender the Confederacy, instead seeking to consolidate his forces West of the Mississippi. He was of the hope that they could establish the Confederacy in Texas. This was a misguided hope at best. Davis was captured in May enroute to Texas. He was then imprisoned under unduly harsh conditions and emerged a physically broken man. But he never signed the Loyalty Oath and never formally surrendered his government.

As a matter of fact, the last action of the Civil War took place up around the Artic Circle on November 6th, 1865. The C.S.S. Shenandoah, under the Command of James Waddell and out of communication with land, continued conducting raids and seized 4 Yankee merchant vessels before being informed that the War was over. In June of 1865 the Shenandoah had captured two Yankee ships, and while aboard the Susan Abigail, Commander Waddell saw a San Francisco newspaper that stated the war was over. But it was not until they heard the news from a British ship that they gave up the cause.

At that point the Captain of the U.S.S. Donegal took the formal parole of the Shenandoah, and Commander Waddell elected to sail to England rather than the U.S. to avoid his crew being tried as raiders instead of being released as former soldiers. Some other Confederate ships had surrendered only after their crews were reclassified as "artillerymen", thus avoiding criminal trials for the crime of piracy.

The last ship of the Confederacy was then sailed over 9,000 miles to Liverpool, by Commander Waddell and presented to a Joint House of Parliment in 1866. He then simply walked away.

When the "Carpetbaggers" arrived to plunder the ruined Southern States, in direct opposition to Lincoln's plan of a gentle reunion, the stage was set for the violence and opposition to what the South called "the Army of Occupation." When that "Army" finally left in the 1870's, a backlash of "Jim Crow" laws became the norm and the Southern States entered upon a century of violence and segregation.

The fact that the War Between the States was never properly adjudicated, and the subsequent lack of any formal Instrument of Surrender being tendered, has left a hollowness in the "peace" that is often cited as an end to hostilities. The Union did, however, have the last word. In May of 1866, President Andrew Johnson simply proclaimed the War to be at an end.

Sadly, vestiges of that war remain unresolved to this very day. And the chief culprit of this "hollowness" in our national unity is, in my opinion, directly attributable to the lack of a formal ending of the hostilities.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Beatles " The First U.S. Visit" An Apple Film 1991

This film will really get you back to the spirit of Beatlemania and the early 60's. It was filmed by Albert and David Maysles, who for some obscure reason, were granted unlimited access to the first tour. The film begins with the infamous Idewild Airport arrival on February 7th, 1964 and The Beatles initial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. From there they move on to Washington, D.C. by train for a concert.

The most interesting thing about this film is that it preceeds "A Hard Day's Night" by about 6 months. The script for the movie was crafted from the experiences of this film, including the REAL train trip from New York to Washington, D.C. Apparently, Richard Lester(who is in the film) was taking notes the whole way and his subsequent film is certainly a direct result of this journey with The Beatles. The only thing missing is Paul's Grandfather, who was played in "A Hard Day's Night" by Wilfred Bramble.

The film also includes the 3 Ed Sullivan Appearances as well as concert footage of the Washington, D.C. event. But the real kicker to this film is the live, unscripted videotape on the train ride to D.C. This is improvisational comedy, talking, observances of America and a rare look at the Beatles as they were "off screen."

The scenes in the hotel are a priceless glimpse into what it is like to have thousands of people trying to get near you. Really, they were virtual prisoners, traveling the world and seeing very little of it. Also, in the cars and hotel room scenes you get a great idea of what they were listening to. Paul always has a transistor radio with him and stays mostly tuned to R and B, or soul stations. I found this very interesting, as they were crafting a new "pop" sound at the time.

Neil Aspinall, The Beatles' former press manager, was one of the Producers of this film, which was also released as "What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA.". An associate of the Fab Four for more than 45 years, his unique insights are also on record in this film.

I have long been a fan of The Beatles and shy away from all the nonsense stuff that floats around. I saw this film on a library shelf more than 18 years ago (it was released in the early 1990's) and never picked it up. Recently I was bored enough to take a look. I'm still singing.... and I may even grow my hair long again!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Spring - An Annual Renewal

Spring is back, with a vengeance! Pollen coats our cars every morning, trees are blooming and the whole cycle of renewal is taking shape right before us.

It's easy to overlook, but important to be cognizant of, this important time of the year. I took this photo while driving around Huntersville today. The beauty of the scene was, to me, symbolic of this cycle. The trees are blooming, as they have for decades, or longer, over the graves of the departed. I have always taken comfort from the idea that somehow the tree gets to absorb the deceased, believing that to be the way to true immortality for us.

I don't know what this year will be like, no predictions. Just a deep conviction that this cycle will keep on turning long after we have passed. And that's a big weight off my shoulders.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The First World War

April is a uniquely historical month. There is a reason for this. Prior to the modern era, and before the age of automobiles, it was simply too hard to get around during the winter. Valley Forge is a good example. So are the disasters of Napoleon and Hitler, both of whom tried to go too far, too late in the year.

This is a photo of my paternal Grandfather, William Shone Williams. The photgraph was taken by a freind in boot camp prior to shipping overseas in the summer of 1918. He would make it just in time for the Second Battle of Verdun. He laid wire for communications behind enemy lines. He came home and became a Police Officer in New York City, though the War changed him forever. He died in 1946 at the age of 43.

Today marks the beginning of the First World War, at least for the United States. Hostilities had been raging since Archduke Ferdinand had been killed in August of 1914, plunging the rest of the World into War. We waited it out for a bit as the country debated what to do. Eventually we joined in and turned the tide.

This is my maternal Grandfather, Pincus Max Marcus. He was an early entrant into the War, having entered the United States in 1911 and then enlisting for service prior to 1917. From there he shipped off to England where he would join the Allenby Brigade and fight the Turkish Ottomans to victory in Damascus. This was a multi-national Pro-Zionist force. When the war was through, he had to fight his way back into the United States, entering through Canada.

I know this only through my Cousin Jana Marcus, and she only discovered it recently while researching some family history. "Max", as he was known, came home to make a fortune in the lingerie industry three times. And lose it each time on horses and women. He lived to be about 75 and drove a taxi until the day he took his own life. Was it the War or the loss of his fortunes that drove him to it? We'll never know.

Next to the Civil War, the First World War is one of the most savage wars ever raged. With the advent of new weapons the battlefields became killing fields and set the stage for World War Two and all that followed, leading even up until today.

It is interesting to note that the map of Europe prior to the First World War looks remarkably similar to a map of Europe today. With the fall of the Soviet Empire many of the countries that once existed returned to the world stage.

Sometimes a song says it best. In this case Country Joe and the Fish come to mind. What are we fighting for?

Monday, April 5, 2010

NoDa- Charlotte's Alternate Music Scene

This is The Neighborhood Theatre, located on 36th Street in the heart of Charlotte's "NoDa" district. That's North of Davidson Street for all you out of town folk. A former local movie house, it has become a center for alternative music and some older acts, such as Leon Russell, Johnny Winters, Doc Watson and The Allman Brothers Band, just to name a few.

This 600 seat venue is about the largest place that I go to hear and see music. Tickets range from $20 to $35 depending on the act, and compared to the $65 or more being paid for the "top 40" type acts at the larger venues, is quite a score.

The inside of this non descript theatre is also a versatile place, seats can be removed or set up as shown in this photo, which is from the Neighborhood Theatre website.

Across the street from Neighborhood Theatre is an even smaller venue, The Evening Muse. With about 12 rows of seats in front of the raised dais, which is something like 12" above the floor, this is the penultimate place to see and hear some very good acts. My favorites are Will Kimbrough, Michelle Malone, and Darden Smith.

When filled to standing room only, the Muse holds almost 100 people. This is artistic intimacy at it's finest. They also hold open mic nights and an annual "Tosca Music Party", which allows local artists to showcase their talents.

The sound is superb, and when there is no act booked it doubles as a recording studio. With the brick walls bouncing back the sound, it is a unique and intimate place for recording. The owner, Joe Kuhlmann, is a musician as well as a sound engineer. In addition to that, he loves music and thrives on the alternate music that one is exposed to within his club. New sounds are the norm for this venue and the music never ceases to surprise me.

This photo of Darden Smith gives you an idea of how up front and personal the performances are at The Muse. Mr. Smith, as well as others, frequently step off the dais and away from the Mike. This photo was taken by Sue from her seat 18 inches from Mr. Smith. The sound of the guitar and vocal without mikes is so natural and pleasant. It actually becomes a personal experience.

So, this is where we go to hear music and watch people. It's a real loss to the communities when areas like this are overtaken by developers. They come in, and buy it all up, then sell it back at 5 times the former rate. And when all is said and done, the ambiance and flavor of the area are gone. So far, here in Charlotte, we are lucky. We still have our NoDa.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter and Something from the Vault

To all of my Christian friends, as well as the world's 2 billion people of the Christian Faith, I wish you a Joyous Easter. May the year ahead bring us all closer together in the true Spirit of God.

The above painting, "The Ressurrection of Jesus Christ" is by Noel Coypel, a French painter who lived from December 25th, 1628- December 24th, 1707. It was painted in oil on canvas in 1700. It is almost impossible to escape the irony of both his birthdate and day of passing.

There was a time in New York when people celebrated Easter Sunday by promenading down Fifth Avenue dressed in their "good" clothes. It was called "The Easter Parade" and was in vogue from the late 1890's until about the time this photo was taken in 1965.

My brother and I wore seersucker jackets with gray slacks and brown loafers. My mother wore what you see - an A line ensemble with a yellow hat. This was right before the whole world seems to have dropped any sort of dress code. We went to Manhattan that day and joined the crowd walking up the Avenue. I remember thinking that this type of "entertainment" was probably on the way out, and I smiled a little bit wider knowing that this photo was probably going to become a slice of history, a piece of the past.

So much of our world has changed in the last several decades. There seems to be a great intolerance for one anothers' beliefs. A massive incivility seems to have overtaken us all. Let's hope the coming year brings us all a mutual respect and understanding. After all, isn't that really what it's all about?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"The Poker Bride" by Christopher Corbett

This is a multi-faceted book. It is the story of a Chinese concubine named "Polly" and her life as the wife of a gold miner. She seems to have arrived in 1851 and the story follows her through the early years of the Gold Rush and on into a life of seclusion with a husband in the secluded area of the Salmon River in Idaho.

It is also the story of the first Chinese in America and the various jobs they held. From camp cooks to railroad workers, the Chinese immigrant of the time did so much to change the face of America. The Chinese women, who came later, were largely bought over as concubines for the more wealthy, and as prostitutes for the more desperate.

Mirroring the sex trafficking of the present, Chinese families were often forced, by economic hardship, to sell their daughters into servitude. This often meant sending them to America where they would become "camp girls" or prostitutes. Lucky ones, like Polly, would be wagered at poker games and some, like Polly, would fall into the hands of a kind man and become wives. This is what happened to Polly.

Charlie Bemis was a native of Connecticut when he caught the "gold fever" and headed west. There he set about, like so many others before and after him, to seek his fortune up and down the "gold coast". It was during this period that he engaged in, and won, a poker hand that included "Polly" as part of the stakes. He wins and then takes her hand in a marraige that spans decades.

More than just the story of Polly Bemis, the book is a chronicle of life in San Francisco from the first cry of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 to the 1930's and rural Idaho. By that time, Polly Bemis was a widow and cared for by two prospectors who lived on an adjoining piece of land. Mrs. Bemis left them her land in exchange for their years of care.

Twice yearly she made a trip down the mountain and into the town. It is there that she sees her first automobile and moving picture show. But she always returns to the seclusion of her home.

Incorporated into this book is a history of the Gold Rush Era as well as a sociological look at the make up of mining towns. Composed mostly of men, chores usually left to women become the province of the men. Laundry, cooking and cleaning were relagated to the Chinese workers who came by the droves to earn money in the gold fields.

It is interesting to note that neither James Marshall, nor John Sutter, the owners and operators of the sawmill where the gold was first discovered, ever made much of their lives after the discovery. Marshall became a drunk, while Sutter spent the rest of his life trying, without sucess, to sue the government over land rights associated with his claim.

This is also a book about San Francisco and it's early growth from a small port to a great metropolis. The author explores the social, as well as the financial, aspects of this growth. It takes you into the history of the Chinese "hatchet men", who were the forerunners to the Triad and the counterparts to the Italian Mafia.

One section of the book deals entirely with prostitution. It describes some of the myths surrounding the issue. For instance, in a typical gambling hall, the women were free to engage in sex or not. Their primary purpose was to entice the men to drink and gamble. To that end, women became croupiers and dealers. It was far easier to get the men to a table where a pretty woman presided over the games.

Dancing halls were also a way for the women to make money and stay vertical. The price of a dance was one dollar. A woman was expected to dance with fifty men a night and split the money with the owner. A good dance hall girl could make up to $100 a night. This was more than the average prospector could hope for.

This is a fast paced and informative book that will leave you with a new impression of the Old West.

Friday, April 2, 2010

"Rough Mix" by Ronnie Lane and Pete Townshend

This is a gem of an album. Released in 1977 it is a collection of songs, some by Ronnie Lane, some by Pete Townshend. That the 2 styles of music merge so well is truly amazing. Recorded in the winter and spring of 1976-77 this album is one of my all time favorites. It doesn't age with time, it is still as musically valid as the day it was released.

Opening with the solid bass driven sound and stinging guitar of Pete Townshend on "My Baby Gives It Away", the album moves on to the plaintive ballad by Ronnie Lane, "Nowhere to Run". Mr. Lane, who passed away in the 1990's, is in great form both vocally and lyrically on this one. It is a song of desperation and hope.

"Rough Mix", the title track of the album, is an instrumental featuring a dueling Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend. It has all the rough edginess of real rock and roll.

"Annie" is a soulful ballad written by Eric Clapton and Kit Lambert along with Ronnie Lane. The singing is soulful and Benny Gallagher lends a beautiful nuance to the song with his accordion.

Moving on to Townshend's "Keep Me Turning" tweaks things up a bit as he explores the feelings of life spiraling out of control and pleads with his Higher Power to "keep me turning". A very introspective song.

"Catmelody" is a raucous affair in which Ronnie Lane gets to wail away like a cat on a backyard fence. The skiffle like arrangment gives this one the real feel of out and out rock and roll. Clearly, Mr. Lane is enjoying himself on this number.

"Misunderstood" opens the second side of the original vinyl album. It is a tongue in cheek appeal by Pete Townshend to be "mysterious and bleak." He wants to be "misunderstood". A great song with a beautifully understated harmonica.

"April Fool" is probably the most lyrical and beautiful song on the album. A surprisingly easy song to play, it features Eric Clapton on Dobro. The lyrics and music by Ronnie Lane, along with his plaintive singing make this one outstanding. I'm a sucker for ballads.

"Street In The City" is undoubtedly the most ambitious song on the album. Mr. Townshend does a superb job of blending his acoustic guitar with a full orchestra resulting in a musical portrait of a "street in the city on a working day."

"Heart to Hang Onto" is an insistent song in which Mr. Townshend laments the lack of something, or someone, that he can count on, someone "true".

Closing out the album is a cover of Don Williams' country hit "Till The Rivers All Run Dry". It is at once a love song and a prayer. Beautifully done it reinforces my assertation that no one appreciates, or does more justice to, country music than our English cousins.

The album was re-released a few years ago with 3 added bonus tracks which I have not reviewed here. This album is very special to me and so I suppose I want to remember it as it was originally released. Perfection seldom needs an added incentive.

The cover photo says so much about the recording of this album. Much of it was recorded in the middle of the night with copious amounts of booze as a lubricant. The photo shows a very tired but content looking duo at about 7:30 in the morning after an all night session.

When the album was released the credits included this line, "Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane - various acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins and bass guitars, ukuleles & very involved mind games." It's really not that complicated at all, just 2 great musicians and some of their freinds making great music.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fools

Today is April Fools Day. There is some difference of opinion on when this observance first began, theories beginning with Chaucer's "Nun's Priest Tale" in 1392 (seems like only yesterday) and many others. But I have always been a proponent of Chaucer as the first writer to make literary reference to April Fools Day.

There is some confusion in the wording, it's always that way when you look back at older writing. Styles of grammar change with time. You need only to look at our Constitution to verify the conflicting interpretations of older English when compared to todays version of the language. (Just look at the 27th Amendent and you will see what I mean.)

In "Nun's Priest Tales", Chaucer tells the story of the vain cock who falls for the tricks of a fox, and as a result is almost eaten alive. In the following verse is the reference to April First,the day on which the story is supposed to have occurred;

"When that the monthe in which the world bigan
That highte March, whan God first maked man,
Was complet, and passed were also
Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two."

With March having 31 days it is a simple matter of arithmetic to arrive at April 1st.The confusion seems to be in the line about March being complete. No matter, it's April Fools Day, so go out and do something silly. It will make the world smile!