Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Awaiting Delivery" by John Wiley

I don’t remember which book I read this in, but it was way back before I was blogging, or even e-mailing for that matter. It meant enough to me that I Xeroxed the story and have kept it for many years, so it’s worth sharing. It was written by John Wiley of Charlotte, North Carolina and was in a book which I had obviously borrowed from a library.

I found it  the other day in a stack of stuff I was putting in order; something I find myself doing more and more these days. Not for any particular reason; except to have a complete picture of who I am and the things which I like. This is one that I like. It cuts right to the random nature of our lives and how one tiny thing can affect another, underscoring; once again; that we are all connected. Here is  Mr. Wiley’s tale;

Awaiting Delivery by John Wiley

I work as a Postal letter carrier in Charlotte, North Carolina. One day a couple of years ago, I drove up to a mailbox. Christy, the young divorcee who lived there, was waiting by the side of the road. She said that she had a story to tell me.

About six months earlier, it seems that I had delivered a letter to her which had her street number on it but was addressed to another house with the same number on a different street in the neighborhood. She had to run some errands, so she decided to drop off the letter at the correct house.

It turned out that the letter had been intended for Stan, who happened to be single. They talked for a little while, and later on he called. They started dating and had been going out together ever since.
I was embarrassed about delivering the letter wrong, but I was pleased that I had brought these two nice people together.

A few months later, a For Sale sign went up in Christy’s yard, and then the wedding invitations were sent out. In short order the house was sold, the wedding happened, and Christy and her kids moved into Stan’s house.

A few months later, I saw a For Sale sign in their yard. I feared the marriage might be in trouble, so I made an excuse to go to their door and check on them.

Christy opened the door, smiled broadly, and pointed to her stomach. “We’re having twins!” she said. “This house won’t be big enough, so we have to move.”

As I walked back to my truck, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that my one mis-delivered letter was now giving two little yet-to-be-born people a shot at life. Awesome.

Note: The above story was originally published in "I Thought My Father was God" which was edited by Paul Auster of NPR's "All Things Considered." The book was released in 2002 and was part of NPR's National Story Project.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Two Guitars - Nesting?

I am not the greatest guitar player in the world; although I probably do enjoy it more than most. Never had a lesson; and it shows; which limits me to simple songs and ballads, along with lots of folk and gospel; but I am capable of figuring out alternative approaches to some of the big band stuff and movie soundtracks; which always amazes me when I do it well, since that happens so rarely.

The other day was a frosty and sleet driven day and I had been out for a few hours in the teeth of the weather. When I came home, one of my guitars; the ash Washburn D-11; was not in its usual place. So, I went looking for it, mainly because all of my things are usually in the place where I last left them, so this was kind of a mystery.

Strolling from room to room yielded no quick answer to this puzzle, which was fast becoming more than a bit annoying. So, I decided to check the one place I was sure I wouldn't find it. The downstairs computer room! Knowing that if the guitar was indeed in that room it was there of its own accord, I crept up as quietly as I could, until I was just outside the slightly ajar door. Quietly, and as softly as possible, I swung the door open and caught them “nesting”. They were a bit embarrassed to be caught in such a compromising state; even musical instruments enjoy their privacy; but apart from the Washburn being a little out of tune from making such an arduous journey; we were soon making music again.

The only thing that bothers me about the whole mysterious affair is that theWashburn is starting to show; so I would guess that we’re expecting a little ukulele anytime now.

Monday, January 28, 2013

"The Presidents Club" by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (2012)

I've often wondered about the relationships between former Presidents; of either party; with one another after they have left office. Next to retired Five Star generals; like Eisenhower; ex-Presidents are one of the more unusual occupations leading to retirement. How do they keep in touch with one another? Have they always done so? And what do they talk about? This book is a wonderful insight into just that question.
Beginning with President Truman, who wanted to do a proper “turnover” of command with Eisenhower; who was snubbed by the General; the authors have done a very credible and organized job in presenting the story of the few men who have led our nation; in war and peace; and how their relationships have often helped to shape foreign policy and world opinion.

I have to confess that I originally picked this book up with an interest in only the Truman-Eisenhower feud. I wasn't expecting to read the entire thing, but found myself drawn in deeper with each chapter. I was fascinated by the whole Truman-Eisenhower affair; as I knew I would be; but I was also pleasantly surprised at the author’s ability to maintain my interest beyond that.

Briefly put, the Truman-Eisenhower feud began when General Eisenhower criticized; for political reasons; his ex- Commander General Marshall, who was a friend of President Truman’s and ex-President Hoover. Although the plan to feed Europe was known as the “Marshall Plan”, it was really the brainchild of former President Hoover, who had done this very thing once before, after the First World War, when he was Secretary of Commerce. His humility drove his desire to not have his name associated with the plan, so the honor went to General Marshall, who implemented it. Remember that Hoover; like Ike; was a Republican. But he was also friends with Truman, and together the two formed the President’s Club on the very day of Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953. It wouldn't be long until Eisenhower joined the club, his ongoing feud with Truman notwithstanding.

As I've said, this was the most interesting part of the book for me, as I have wondered about the relationship between the two for many years; and through many books; without ever having read such a complete and informative account as I have in this book. The feud between the two men came to an abrupt end on the day John Kennedy was buried. Eisenhower had learned that Truman was staying at Blair House, across from the White House, and in the confusion no one had bothered to provide him with transportation to the funeral of the slain President. It was Eisenhower who phoned Blair House and made arrangements for Truman to ride with him to the funeral. The last time they had ridden together was in 1953, on the way to Ike’s inauguration. During that entire ride they had not spoken to one another at all. But by the end of this day, in 1963, the two would be friends again for the rest of their lives.

It would be easy for the sitting President’s to blame many of their current troubles on their predecessors, and to some extent, that is what the club is there to prevent. All of the former Presidents agree that a show of national unity; rather than an adherence to party loyalty; is the most important role which they each play after leaving office. Even Presidents Ford and Carter found common ground, after their terms were over, by dealing with the Middle East. President Carter even delivered Ford’s eulogy in 2007.

From foreign affairs to politics at home, there are very few men the sitting President can turn to for advice or counsel. Only a few men have held the position and know the pitfalls which await each and every move they might make. At times like these, the Presidents club springs into action, with telephone calls made in the middle of the night. I can’t help but wonder at how these conversations begin. In my mind, it goes something like this, “Hello, Mr. President? This is the President. I hope I didn't wake you. But I need some advice.”

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll" - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

I’m thinking of making Sunday a day for gospel music; and while I’m thinking about it; I can think of no better representatives of the modern gospel scene than Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, whom I featured here last week singing “I’ll Fly Away”.

Gospel music is often mistaken as simply being songs about Christianity; but, as a Jewish kid from Brooklyn; I can tell you honestly that there is so much more to gospel music once you scratch the surface. Gospel music transcends not only the troubles of this world; promising something better beyond the present; it also bridges the differences between us all with its themes of sorrow, redemption and joy. It’s like listening to Hank Williams “singing” his pain. It lifts you up just hearing him get the pain out. Like the blues.

In this song the emphasis is on wanting what you don’t have, and feeling left out. It speaks of peer pressure, and reluctant change; “everybody’s been making a shout, so big and loud, drowning me out….” The singers want to lay down their old guitars and pick up new electrified instruments. They are weary of trying to be heard above the din. I think we have all felt this way at one time or another when confronted with change. Because sometimes change doesn't feel like progress at all. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Dancing on the Moon" (1935)

Dave Fleischer really put a lot of effort and imagination into this 1935 cartoon. I can almost hear the laughter of the audience watching this just before the weekly “Flash Gordon” serial. The rocket ship is about the same, but the cast of characters is straight out of Noah’s Ark!

The cartoon begins as all of the animals within hearing distance strive to board the “Honeymoon Express”, as it prepares to take off for a journey to the moon, and promises of connubial bliss. The only thing which goes wrong is when the tom cat’s bride gets left behind. She is furious, and he is “mooning” over her for the entire trip, even as the other guests enjoy their “special” time with one another, far away from earthly woes. The giraffes “necking” is one good example of the humor employed in this flight of fancy.

The usual fluidity is readily apparent, and even without the credits at the start, you’d have to be blind to not recognize this as a Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon. The song “Dancing on the Moon” was written by Charles Tobias and Murray Mencher; the song writing team who, along with Eddie Cantor the comedian; wrote the Merrie Melodies theme song “Merrily We Roll Along”.  Mr. Tobias also penned the popular hits “Lazy, Crazy, Hazy Days of Summer”, the World War Two staple “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree”, and even the slightly annoying “A Hunting We Will Go.” His collaborations with his brother, as well as other songwriters, are too numerous to list here.

There’s a lot that went into these old cartoons, usually with only about 6 people working on them. The Fleischer team was typical of the era, employing less than 10 people even for a feature cartoon. Compared to today’s technically proficient releases; which usually cap out at about 1,000 people taking part in the creative process; the most amazing thing about these older gems are that they got made at all!

Friday, January 25, 2013

"The Caine Mutiny" with Humphrey Bogart and Jose Ferrer (1954)

This is another one of my all-time favorite classic movies, and I have to wonder how the geniuses at Columbia Pictures ever let this one be re-released with Van Johnson’s name misspelled on the cover!  Seems as if someone should have caught that one…

“The Caine Mutiny” is the brilliant screen adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1950 best seller of the same name. It is billed as a work of fiction, but the whole story is actually grounded in some truth. And that truth includes the fact that Admiral Halsey completely ignored all storm warnings which had been issued to the fleet, taking them into the heart of a typhoon which cost ships and lives at a time when we could least afford them. As a matter of fact, the Admiral was actually brought before a Naval Court of Inquiry concerning the matter. The full story can be found in the book “Halsey’s Typhoon”, which I reviewed here in October 2009 shortly after its release. 

The film takes place during the Second World War in the Pacific aboard a minesweeper named the Caine. The crew is tired and worn out from heavy operations in support of the continuous island hopping necessary to win the war against the Japanese. Their skipper is as tired of the war as his crew is, and is very happy to be relieved by a new captain, Commander Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart.

The old skipper, Cmdr. DeVriess, ran a lax ship; he did very little by the book; allowing the crew to do its job with as little interference as possible. But the new Captain is a “by the books” man, with very little imagination of his own. He has seen long service in the North Atlantic and is clearly on the verge of mental collapse. The rule book, along with his own personal problems; which would today be labeled as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; have  conspired to leave him very little room, or patience, for anything which falls outside of the “norm”. Every shirt tail must be tucked in, and there are no acceptable explanations for any breach of the rules; no matter how insignificant. His efforts to immediately reform the crew only serve to make then resent him even further.

To complicate matters even more, the Captain’s three main officers, including his executive officer Lt. Maryk, played by Van Johnson; and his Operations Officer, Tom Keefer; played by Fred MacMurray; do little to advise him, contributing to the building drop in morale. When the crew finds itself lost in the typhoon, with the Captain seemingly incapable of making the simplest of decisions in order to save his ship from the storm, Lt. Maryk takes decisive action and relieves Captain Queeg of his command. His intentions are noble, but he has been misled by his Ops officer into thinking he has the legal authority to take command of the vessel.

When the storm is over, the ship is called into port for a Court Martial of the officers involved in the “mutiny” aboard the Caine. In one of the most exciting courtroom scenes on film, Lt. Maryk’s attorney, Lt. Barney Greenwald; played by Jose Ferrer; challenges the courts assertion that Captain Queeg is not mentally ill. Although the evidence points to cowardice on the part of the Captain, the defense maintains that “an officer in the United States Navy cannot possibly be a coward, and so the explanation must lie elsewhere.”
This is one of the most dramatic films about the pressures of life aboard a naval ship in wartime, and how they affect both those who are in command, as well as those who are serving beneath them.

For those with any lingering doubts, this film will dispel any notion you may have concerning whether; or not; Jose Ferrer is the father of actor Van Diesel. Mr. Ferrer’s role in this film; although short; is one of the most important ones. The screenwriters shortened his siliqouy a bit, taking out the part about the Germans wanting to turn his “grandmother into soap”, which was one of the most effective portions of the scene in which he confronts the mutineers with the reality of their crime after having won the case against them.

Fred MacMurray is wonderfully cynical as the would be author Ton Keefer, who plants the seeds of mutiny in Lt. Maryk’s head, and then does nothing to aid in his defense at trial. Mr. MacMurray would later shed his darker roles in films like “Double Indemnity” and “The Caine Mutiny” for lighter, more family friendly parts in Disney films such as “The Absent Minded Professor”, “ Flubber “ and “The Shaggy Dog”,  all of which led him to becoming type cast as the perennial father type, as evidenced in the television series “My Three Sons”, which aired for several seasons in the 1960’s.

Of special note is that future President Ford was a seaman serving aboard one of the ships caught in the real life typhoon depicted in this film. Also, look for Lee Marvin playing "Meatball", a crew member who later appears at the trial.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Senseless Squabbles about Egypt

Marriage is a series of negotiations. From the first kiss, right up to, and including the wedding vows; and even the venerated 50th Anniversary; married couples are forever swimming in an ocean of potential misunderstandings and strife. Take this latest episode between Sue and myself as an example. It was the most passionate argument we have had since the one about recycling a few years ago.

When I was a kid I always dreamt of going to Egypt to see the Pyramids and cross the desert on a camel after poling down the Nile on a raft. So, when I got older, I did. Sue also dreamt of this same tableau, but never got around to it, electing instead to get married and have kids; a decision she does not entirely regret; but the desire to make the journey remains unfulfilled. That brings us to the “meat” of the story.

I can’t travel very well anymore due to some physical problems; so I won’t be going to Egypt anytime soon. Sue has no such limitations and would like to go tomorrow, if possible. She has expressed this to me several times over the course of our marriage. And, there was even a time when I could have gone. But that time has passed me by, and regrettably, we will never be making that trip together.

Well, last week, Sue and I had a knockdown, drag out fight about making the trip; that is to say the argument was about her making the trip without me. I was angry that she was taking the trip and leaving me alone and in poor health. I even hurled the “whatever happened to better or worse” bomb at her. And she, for her part, nuked me as a “dreamkiller”. Harsh words on both sides.

Now, the worst part of having an argument as you get older is that it is physically draining. Even a simple verbal dispute can leave both parties exhausted and feeling ill. And, beyond that, it’s a fact that due to age limitations, most wife beaters are young; as are most women who kill their husbands. Let’s face it, things are simply just too much more demanding as we age.

Now, this argument was a loud one; entertaining the neighbors being a by-product of marital disagreements; and so we even had a few neighbors standing outside in the cold night air to get a better take on the issue at hand. Most; no doubt; are even expecting a postcard from the Sphinx sometime soon. But here’s the rub.

There isn’t going to be any trip to Egypt in the foreseeable future. It’s not that I’m a “dreamkiller”, and it’s not that Sue wants to forsake her marriage vows concerning “better or worse.” Simply put, we don’t have the extra cash to take the trip, making the entire argument specious; or to put it more simply; totally unnecessary. But, after 26 years of marriage, it’s very important to keep in practice.

Now, that’s my side of it, here’s a few words from Sue; my better half; concerning the above.

As Robert said, it’s draining to have these passionate fights anymore, especially unexpectedly out of the blue.  I was just coming down from upstairs, where I was working, to have lunch when the trip to Egypt that I've dreamt of taking since I was a child was suddenly thrust at me. I still haven’t figured out why or where this came from, I've only ever wistfully mentioned that maybe someday I could see the Pyramids, the Nile and ride the camels.  As much as I want to visit, going without him would be lonely and I would miss him. He has been there before and could tell me of all the changes and a history of the area and people.

So, Egypt has been a dream that most likely will remain unfulfilled, but other dreams have been filled, and overshadow this one many times over; such as falling in love, marrying, and raising children together, having mini vacations and road trips.  My dreams are far from over; some are fulfilled (love); and others are benched (Egypt); while some fall totally by the wayside (winning that last big Mega Lotto) and new ones are made – Should I dream that we no longer fight over nonsensical things? Hmm, fat chance that that one will happen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"All or Nothing" by Small Faces (1966)

This song was used in the film “Made in Dagenham” which deals with the Equal Pay Act in Britain, and was passed in 1970 as a result of the Ford strike by sewing machinists in 1968. The law went into effect in 1975; we’re still waiting for ours here in America; the champion of Human Rights.

The song is a real old favorite of mine, coming from the first album by Small Faces, the group which later became known as Faces, with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Lane; of future Rolling Stones  fame; on guitar. Their hits eventually eclipsed the brilliant work done by the band when it was under the leadership of Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane; shown here; before they left the band in 1969.

Although Faces was tremendously successful; commercially; for me they never came up to the artistic achievements of Small Faces earlier works; such as “Itchycoo Park”, “Lazy Sunday” or even the concept album “Nut Gone Flake”, which was a heavy influence on other pop artists such as Pete Townsend and the Kinks’ Ray Davies.

According to Steve Marriott’s mother, this song was apparently written by Steve Marriott about breaking up with his girlfriend. However, Steve Marriott disputes this, claiming the song is about Rod Stewart’s first wife breaking up with Rod Stewart. Personally, I believe Steve's mother.

This song is from the album “From the Beginning" which is on Decca records and was released at the beginning of 1966. The original lineup of musicians was changed once during their short tenure; Jimmy Winston, the keyboard player, was replaced by Ian McLagan around the time of this film from BBC television.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

New Car, Fording a Stream, Graveyard and the Cat

Old cars; like people; wear out with age, necessitating our looking for a new car. Or, to be more accurate; a new used car to fit our budget. We picked up this incredibly clean and rec-conditioned Toyota Corolla, in large part because it felt so familiar to us from the moment we sat in it. We have owned Toyota's for many years, and even with the occasional problem, have found them to be reliable

Now, when road testing a new car; used or otherwise; it is important to learn the limitations of your machine. So, to that end, we drove to Chapel Hill; which is about 2 hours away; to see our daughter and ford a stream. It did seem a bit ironic to “ford” a stream in a Japanese car, but it was a pretty day with just a bit of snow left over on some of the grassy areas making the day seem a little more special.

The stream is located just near this gravesite, which is the resting place for the original Morgan and Mason families. I wasn’t really paying attention to the specifics of the place, so I don’t know who they were. The magnolias were fresh and crisp, as they always are in North Carolina at this time of year. They are such stately trees, and I couldn’t help but think about those who lie beneath the ground, and wonder if they had become part of those trees. That’s where I want to go when my time comes. To become part of a tree seems a fitting way to leave something positive and alive behind when you have passed on. In a way, it’s a form of immortality, standing with leafy arms outstretched, providing shade and fragrant blossoms for the living.

Meantime; back home; the cat waits, sitting in the flower pot on our neighbor’s porch, watching and waiting for our return home. He worries about us, he cares about us, he frets when we are late. He wants his tuna fish.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"Tales from Old Iredell County" by O.C. Stonestreet (2012)

Thanks to author O.C. Stonestreet I will never look at the local roads, such as route 115, 21 and 150, in the same light again. They say that the only thing new is the history you don’t know, and Mr. Stonestreet has managed to gather all of the local folklore into this delightfully entertaining, quickly read, 200 page book.

Mr. Stonestreet was speaking at the DAR meeting last Saturday in Mooresville, and Sue; who is a member; bought a copy of this book which details all of the local legends in the county. Some are suspect, but others ring very true, even explaining some of the things I see; or wonder about; as I travel the local roads each day.

Among the stories related here, which vary from Tom Dooley’s hanging, which made a great folk song; to some more important; although not fully proven tales. We also can boast that Iredell County was the birthplace of Kit Carson, the legendary pioneer, and North Carolina’s version of Daniel Boone. Remember, these events took place when North Carolina was the western frontier of our nation.

I especially liked the story about Abraham Lincoln, whom I have written of several times here and is one of my favorite Presidents. It seems that Abraham Lincoln may have been fathered by a man named Abraham Enloe in Rutherford County; about 60 miles from here; who had a maid named Nancy Hanks. She became pregnant by her employer; and although he was already married with kids; he did the honorable thing by paying Tom Lincoln $500 and a wagon; with a team of oxen; to claim the child was his. Tom Lincoln was on his way to Illinois and just passing through, so he readily agreed to the arrangement. Moreover, Tom Lincoln; who was never overly fond of his son; was short and stocky; while Mr. Enloe was tall and lean, just as Abraham Lincoln was. Even pictures of Mr. Enloe’s son bear a striking likeness to the President. This story has never been definitively disproven, with even some of Lincoln’s own words alluding to the uncertainty of his parentage.

From crimes and punishments, lynching’s and murders; with a bit of mayhem thrown in; there are some truly colorful stories in this book. Along with some stories concerning gravestones; the book is a wonderful thing to have in the car as you go about your daily business. It will enable the reader to expand upon the little tidbits of tales which he may have heard about, but thus far been unable to verify. So much of local history has been lost to the ages, and Mr. Stonestreet’s little book may go a long way in stopping some of that loss. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Pantry Panic" - Woody Woodpecker (1941)

When all the birds go south for the winter, Daffy Duck decides to stay behind, giving no thought to how he will get through the winter. Ignoring all advice to the contrary, he avails himself of the last mild days of autumn. When winter finally does come, he is at first satisfied to sit it out with his stockpiles of food. But when those stores run low, and the cat comes to town, all bets are off as the two try everything in their power to trick one another into becoming the other ones meal.

The Schlesinger-Warner cartoons are amongst my favorite. They have the same fluidity as the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons by Max and Dave Fleischer. They may a bit violent by today’s standards; video games and most major motion pictures and television shows excluded; but they do manage to impart some of life’s more important lessons. In this case, Walter Lantz has cleverly redone the old story of the Ant and the Grasshopper, as well as reinforce the Boy Scout motto about always being prepared.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"The Flowers of War" with Christian Bale (2012)

In 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army set its sights on Nanking, China. The “rape” of Nanking is one of the most brutal atrocities committed by the Japanese forces as the made their way across the Far East. In the midst of all the carnage; when everyone was looking out for themselves and trying to escape the Japanese onslaught; there were few heroes. This film tells the story of one of those men; an American mercenary, played by Christian Bale; who has a chance to leave the war ravaged province, but chooses to remain.

While hiding from the Japanese, he comes upon some schoolgirls who are trying desperately to make it to the Catholic cathedral. Together they reach the sanctuary, only to discover that the Priest has fled, leaving his parishioners, and the girls, alone. To complicate matters a group of prostitutes, or “flower girls”, show up at the church seeking sanctuary. This is okay with the people inside the church, but infuriates the Japanese, who then surround the church, laying siege to it.

Posing as the absent Priest; and using every ounce of courage to obtain food and fuel so that the girls might live, the group is ultimately faced with a stark choice; only the surrender of the prostitutes to the Japanese will save the girls. Of course, this means brutal treatment and most likely death to the flower girls. Recognizing their position, the “flower girls” come to the only conclusion possible; they sacrifice themselves to the fate of Japanese captivity, giving the girls their only chance to survive.

Brilliant and sensitive performances; along with realistic set designs; make this film a stark reminder of war and the choices we are sometimes forced into making in order to maintain our own humanity. In the face of overwhelming odds, these are not always easy choices to make. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"Deadline Artists" - Edited by Avlon, Angelo and Louis (2012)

When I was a kid we got two newspapers a day; the World Telegram and Sun in the afternoons and the evening Post, which my father brought home with him from work.  The columnists in both these papers and the Daily News helped to shape my world, often introducing me; through their own writings; to the likes of Harry Golden, Jack London, H.L. Mencken and others. All of these authors are included in this collection along with such icons as Ben Hecht, and  Frank Ward O'Malley.

With these columns from the golden age of newspapers you will recapture the excitement of the daily newspaper;  in an era before the 24/7 news cycle took control; and journalists really worked at their trade, while columnists did their best to distill the bigger picture into the essence of meaning for the masses.

Some of the columns featured here, and chosen by co-editors John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis include such events as the Scopes Trial, the execution of Mata Hari, Ku Klux Klan Klaverns, Civil Rights Marches, Al Capone's Trial, the Black Sox Scandal,the Galveston flood of 1900, and a myriad of others.

Deftly edited , the book covers some of the best columnists; and some of the best columns ever written. In the best tradition of Twain, O. Henry, Damon Runyon, Melville; and so many others; these authors all began their careers as journalists. And in doing so, they have left a portrait of us all; sometimes good; and often bad; of just who we really are.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Girlfriend" with Shannon Woodward and Amanda Plummer (2010)

What you see isn’t always what it appears to be; and people can’t always be counted upon to be what you'd like them to be; well, sometimes. But in this film by Justin Lerner from his script/screenplay, that axiom is the rule as you struggle with your own set of values in trying to figure out just who is good and who is truly bad in this thought provoking work.

Newcomer Evan Sneider is absolutely amazing as a young man named Evan. He has Down’s syndrome, and when his mother passes away, suddenly, he is left alone to figure out about life. He has always been in love with Candy, played by Shannon Woodward, but she is so far out of his league that he has never let her know his feelings. At any rate, Candy has a child by her ex-boyfriend Russ, played by Jackson Rathbone, or does she? Russ doesn’t think so, and so he does little to help Candy with the boy, leaving her desperate for money and evicted from her home.

When Evan offers her some money from the insurance his mother has left him, to help her out, she initially refuses his offer. But when she is actually put out of her house, she has a change of heart and accepts his money. He wants them to be boyfriend/girlfriend, and in an effort to justify her taking his money, she plays along.

Meanwhile, ex-boyfriend Russ is having a fit seeing her with Evan, after having caught her with another; married man; in the past. He questions whether he is truly the father of the boy, and this doubt eats at him. It doesn’t take too long before he begins to use Evan as a way of finding out.

Evan is trying to keep his wits as both Candy and Russ take advantage of him in a game which turns dark pretty quickly in this tense and well-paced drama. But, in the end it’s hard to tell who is really good, and who is really bad in this film. John Steinbeck said it well in “Grapes of Wrath” when the preacher says, “Maybe there ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing.” 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Against All Odds" by Eddie Ray (2012)


Elyshia Brooks                                              
Kreative Group, Inc.
T: 800-511-5410

For Immediate Release

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—He has been called a “national treasure.”  North Carolina native, Eddie Ray, the grandson of a former slave, gives readers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the burgeoning record industry of the 1950s and early 1960s in his newly released memoir “Against All Odds—The Remarkable Life Story of Eddie Ray.” 

Ray, now in his mid-80s, started as a stock boy for Decca Records in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he was 18 years old and eventually rose to become vice president of Capitol/Tower Records in Hollywood, California, one of the top major record companies in the U.S., the first African-American in such a decision-making role.

But prior to this top post, he was first an extraordinary record sales and promotions man whom acquaintances still describe today as having “an ear for what would sell,” and “a commercial mind.”  It was during some 60 years in the commercial music business that Ray had a significant   impact on the careers of rising stars such as Rick Nelson, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Ernie Freeman, Mike Curb, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Sandy Nelson, Pink Floyd, and many others.
Ray also founded one of the first commercial music schools in the country and subsequently was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve as a Commissioner of the U.S. Copyright Royalty Tribunal in Washington, DC.
“Against All Odds—The Remarkable Life Story of Eddie Ray” takes readers on a journey from the rural foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina to the top executive suites of the dynamic music industry of the ’50s and ’60s. The book opens with a prologue dated October 3rd 2009 at the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where Ray was one of the first inductees.   He notes that the unusual venue of the ceremony is symbolic, indicative of the out-of-the-ordinary events in his life.
Readers will immediately be drawn in from the first chapter, which doesn’t start with his childhood, but a description of his life as a tapestry with people being threads woven through his experiences.  Readers will also learn about the behind-the-scenes operations of independent record companies—hundreds of them formed after World War II, opening the recording door for many artists, especially minority performers.  And most of all they will be inspired by Ray’s courage to take risks from his young life all the way through to his current years.

Robert Williams of “Rooftop Reviews” said of the book, “It was fantastic. In understated tones, he has delivered a living portrait of a time, though long gone, which still influences us until this very day. The book is all about taking chances and trusting your instincts in order to help make your dreams come true. It's the story of a family, raised in segregation, and yet still successful by virtue of hard work.”

Baby Boomers especially will enjoy this book that will evoke feelings of nostalgia as they think back to where they were when certain songs of the early Rock and Roll era became hits.  They will be fascinated by Eddie Ray’s connection with the success of mega-stars such as Fats Domino and Rick Nelson and names they may not immediately recognize, but whose works they certainly will. 

Music historians will appreciate learning about Ray who can be added to the “untold stories” of influential African Americans.  And African Americans will be inspired by his quest to open doors, courage to break racial barriers, and audacity to ignore the status quo. Even music students will find this book enjoyable as they read about the people who laid the foundation for the music business today.

“Against All Odds—The Remarkable Life Story of Eddie Ray” will inspire, inform, and immerse readers as they peer into the personal and professional experiences of his life.

This “living history” makes the book an important autobiography in that it preserves little-known facts about an industry that has had such a tremendous impact on American culture. 
“Against All Odds—The Remarkable Life Story of Eddie Ray,” written with Barbara Jackson Hall, is approximately 200 pages and available in paperback from

Note from RT: This is the book which I reviewed here on December 5th. You can imagine how proud I am to have been included in this release, which will be going to many of the major newspapers across the country. My original review can be viewed at the following link;

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Rise to Greatness" by David Von Drehle (2012)

When I was growing up; in the days before computers and the internet; the best authorities on Abraham Lincoln were Bruce Catton, and also Carl Sandburg. Their biographies of the nation’s 16th President were the best resources available at the time. The internet age has allowed so much history; that was previously tucked away in obscure corners; to come forth, and the result has been that authors are now able to concentrate more fully on particular areas of interest. Author David Von Drehle has certainly availed himself of just about everything that Lincoln said, or wrote, in the year 1862 to create this remarkable account of Lincoln’s second; and perhaps most difficult; year as President of the United States, at a time when we were anything but.

During his second year in office, Lincoln had to deal with a recalcitrant General McClellan; who simply put; would not fight, forgoing many advantages, while continually overestimating the enemy’s strength. At the same time, he was also plagued with keeping the country out of war with France and England, secure the cotton trade, establish a naval blockade, ensure that his generals were prosecuting the war in an aggressive manner, and keep his sanity as he struggled with his composition of the Emancipation Proclamation. All about him was chaos, and it would be on his shoulders to bring order to it all, if he hoped to hold together the Union.

Even with General Grant there were problems. Although he would fight, he took some extraordinary measures to achieve victory. His infamous Order Number 11; evicting all of the Jewish people from Paducah; which resulted in a delegation from that city undertaking a journey to Washington for an audience with the President, is a prime example of the myriad of problems which constantly besieged him. In this same year he would also lose his favorite son, Willie, to an epidemic of yellow fever, leaving the President haunted and empty. This would prove to be the hardest year of Lincoln’s life, as well as the most perilous to a Union victory.

Some of the most compelling portions of the book deal with General McClellan and his “missed” opportunities to turn the tide of the war in the Union’s favor during its first year. His failure to capture Richmond with superior numbers of troops will always baffle historians. Was he just meek, or was he trying to influence the outcome of the war? We may never know. What is sure is that no President, save Truman, ever had to deal with such a problem some General, and Truman freely admits to having looked to the history of the Civil War in an effort to deal with MacArthur effectively.

Having lived in the area around Washington and Baltimore, where many of these events took place; made the events seem even more real to me than they already were; notwithstanding that I have visited most of the places involved. While in the Navy I was stationed at Norfolk, where each day I could look out and see the site of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack; the first battle ever fought between two armored vessels.  France and England may have already had ironclad vessels; but the Civil War was the first test of how they would fare against one another; as opposed to an ironclad vessel undoubtedly being superior to a wooden one.

The book is filled with things that will be new to some students of the Civil War; the economic aspect of which is very interesting. At one point there was a “gold for cotton” program by which the United States bought cotton from the South, who then bought more arms from the French and British. This was a short-lived program, as people were furious at the stupidity of it. There were a number of programs which dealt with freeing the slaves in the hopes of shortening the war. The principal one dealt with in this book was the Compensated Emancipation program, which worked in the same manner as the “gold for cotton” fiasco. Essentially, the slaves would be bought by the government at the rate of $400 per slave and then set free. It was a system designed for abuse and was as long lived as the cotton deal.

The Emancipation Proclamation is explored by the author as it took shape during the year in which Lincoln worked on it. The President was walking a tightrope, impossibly trying to appease all factions; an impossible feat to accomplish; as he himself had stated in an 1858 address that “a house divided among itself cannot stand.” Although that speech referred to the Union in the days leading up to the Civil War, it was no less true of trying to govern the North alone, with its many opposing views on how to win the conflict.

The Supreme Court, and Lincoln’s uneasy relationship with Chief Justice Taney; author of the Dred Scott decision; is another aspect of the Lincoln Administration which has been relegated to the back shelf of history. And here again, Mr. Von Drehle takes it down and dusts it off for a clearer understanding. The Court; constitutionally composed of 9 judges, was down to just 6 when Lincoln took the helm of the nation in 1861. He, like those before and after him, hoped to pack the court with justices he could count on to back him up in his interpretation of the constitutionality of the laws proposed by himself as President, as well as those of the Congress and Senate.

There is a bit of humor in this well written account of Lincoln’s; and the nation’s; most troubled year. At one point; when he was having troubles with his toes; he was seen by a podiatrist in Manhattan, Isachar Zacharie, who was so successful in resolving the President’s problems. Lincoln wrote him a note thanking him and affirming the success of his treatments. The good doctor lost no time in having handbills printed with the President’s complimentary remarks, which he then had distributed all over New York. Of course, the New York Herald lost no time in holding this up as an example of the Presidents misplaced priorities, going so far as to blame the recent military failures on Lincoln’s paying too much attention to his feet. Some things never change, and the predilection towards sensationalism by newspapers is a prime example.

The Emancipation Proclamation has always seemed to be a bit duplicitous to me. It freed the slaves only in the states under rebellion, even as slavery was still in force in Maryland, Delaware and even parts of Pennsylvania. Nothing short of a Constitutional Amendment would ever be strong enough to truly free the slaves in the entire country. But the story of 1862; Lincoln’s most difficult year; is the story behind the birth of that Amendment. With his careful and far ranging study of that year, Mr. Von Drehle has taken us on a month by month journey leading up to the final revision and actual release of the Proclamation itself. 

And though President Lincoln would not live to see the culmination of the events he had played such a significant role in achieving; without him our nation may have foundered before having ever achieved equality under the law for all of its citizens. And that work continues, even unto this very day.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Moscow On the Hudson" with Robin Williams (1984)

It’s hard to believe that this film is almost 30 years old already. And it’s not dated at all. The absence of cell phones and laptops is hardly noticeable in this carefully directed comedy/drama by Paul Mazursky; in which Robin Williams plays a Russian saxophone player, Vladimir Ivanoff, on tour with the Moscow Circus, and his sudden decision to defect.

The film is extraordinary in that it shows the lines in Moscow for consumer goods in the last days of the Socialist Soviet Republic. When walking down the street and seeing a line, you simply joined it; no matter if was a line for toilet paper, or food; both were in short demand. So, when Vladimir is slated to go to New York as part of a cultural exchange, he has no basis with which to compare the abundance of the west with his homeland in Russia.

Ironically, Vladimir is not even interested in defecting, as is a friend of his who is a fellow circus performer. The choice to make this character a “sad clown” was brilliant, and his face, as he leaves for the airport without having defected, is hard to forget. Vladimir; on the other hand; is quite believable as a jazz enthused musician whose soul cannot possibly endure a return to Moscow.

The real “meat” of this movie occurs when the circus troupe stops by Bloomingdale’s; a symbol of western decadence; for a shopping trip on their way to the airport on the way home to Russia, Vladimir is seized by all that he has seen and heard in New York City. After he has been to Harlem, and played in a jazz club, how could he ever go home again? The artistic freedom is the magnet which lures him to his most bold and daring act; he defects in Bloomingdale’s, leaving his Russian KGB handlers baffled as to what; if anything; they can do about it. And as Vladimir watches his friends departing for the airport, he is standing outside of Bloomingdale’s, screaming “Freedom!” in English and Russian to his friends.

This film came out when I was still working aboard ships, and so I missed it at the time it was released. For one reason or another, I have never seen it until now. And what a pleasure to find that it still rings true. With all of our differences; and in spite of our seeming disengagement from one another; both politically and socially; we are; as shown in the final moments of the film; a nation of immigrants. And I find a strange sort of comfort in that.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Peeping Penguins" - Max Fleischer (1937)

With the weather so cold up north in New York; and hotter down south; I found myself in a bit of a lurch while trying to decide what cartoon to post today for my grandkids. Around holidays the choice is easy enough, but what to do when the kids live so far away, and in opposite directions, as well as climates?

The answer, of course, is to simply pick out the one which you like best (the cartoon, not the grandkid!) and just go with it.  The grandkids up north will appreciate the snowy theme, and the ones in Texas will remember being here for a white Christmas 2 years ago.

This is another fluid Max Fleischer creation, featuring 2 small penguins, both of whom ignore their mothers warning and go exploring the inside of a hunter’s cabin. The things they find within, along with their naivety about humans, make this a cute little cartoon for a cold winter’s day in upstate New York; or even a warm and sunny day in Texas.

Friday, January 11, 2013

"Carnage" with Jody Foster and Kate Winslet (2011)

When two young boys come to blows in a Brooklyn Heights playground, the parents of the two children get together to discuss the incident and just who is responsible. What happens from there is both hilariously funny, and also sadly true.

The two boys are never shown, except during a longshot while the opening credits are rolling. It is apparent though, that one of the boys has hit the other with what looks like a hockey stick. The film immediately shifts to the living room of Penelope and Michael Longstreet; played by John Reilly and Jody Foster; he is a hardware salesman, and she is an activist as well as a writer. They are the parents of the boy who was injured in the fight. The other couple, Alan and Nancy Cowan; played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet; have agreed to come over and talk with the Longstreet’s about the incident.

What follows is the unraveling of the masks we all wear in order to justify our own views, as well as impress others. The two couples are very different, yet the problems they face in their marriages are somewhat similar, and may have colored their children’s behavior.

As the day turns into evening; and the bottle of scotch gets lower and lower; the true feelings of each couple come to the surface, and surprisingly they are not always in lockstep with one another. And when all is said and done, the children have gone on playing in the park, seemingly unaffected by the differences between the grownups at all.

Directed by Roman Polanski, this film is reminiscent of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, in that the interaction between the couples exposes the cracks in the facades of their seemingly “perfect” lives. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Italian Cookies and Edgar Allan Poe

This is really just a story about my daughter, Sarah, and the trips we used to make into Baltimore each weekend to fly kites at Fort McHenry, eat Italian cookies in Little Italy, stop in to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, visit “our” gold collection at the Walthers Art Gallery, and even look at the open air drug markets which were thriving in the ‘90’s.  That’s right; I used to take my daughter down to the seediest areas of “Pigtown”; as it was called back then; and show her the crack whores and junkies in an effort to let her visualize the consequences of hard drug use; particularly cocaine and heroin; in any form.

Guess what? It worked.  The human skeletons walking the streets, along with the drug runners touting their wares, gave her a bird’s eye view of the pitfalls on that road.  And along the way we got to do a lot of fun stuff; some of which I am now recalling with great joy as I get older and sit in an empty nest. 

This is Sarah outside the gate to the Fayette Street Entrance to the gravesite of Edgar Allan Poe. That’s his marker in the center of the photo beyond the gates. Apparently Sarah is trying to get in. Just a few years ago she wrote a piece for school in which she describes herself as not having known who Poe was at that age. She thought we were visiting the grave of one of my friends.

We also joined the Walthers Art Gallery on Monument Street, which has a fantastic collection of gold; both coinage as well as artifacts. We dubbed this to be “our” gold, in the sense that we had paid a yearly membership fee, and so the gold was accessible to us at virtually all times, which made us both feel really wealthy. We also had memberships at the Baltimore Zoo, where we had some friends in the animal kingdom. Elephants were always pretty popular with us both, as were the Otters. The Giraffes; on the other hand; were rude and slobbering beasts with whom we spent very little time. But for seals, we always went to the National Aquarium; located in the Harborplace; our favorite was Ike, the oldest; and bewhiskered; seal who was the boss of the pack.

On the way home we would usually stop at my friend Ollie’s house. He ran a junkshop, much like the one shown on “Sanford and Son”. His living room was a colorful collection of many discordant things which somehow all blended together to form a lively and unique tapestry, all its own.
Our best adventure was the time our kite was up about 500 feet; or more; and came crashing down on the opposite side of the channel, between Ft. McHenry and Fells Point. We went to retrieve it from the oil tanker we thought it had crashed on, only to find that it wasn’t there. I was for giving up, but Sarah insisted that we keep looking for it up by the basin just west of Fells Point. I thought it was a waste of time, but we went looking anyway. Low and behold, in comes a small 24 foot motorboat, manned by two yuppie types, and what does Sarah spot on the thwart ship seat but our kite! We approached the two and asked for the kite in the nicest way possible, but they were more than vocal about having their prop fouled by over 500 feet of 80 pound test kite string, and more to the point, seemed unwilling to return it.

There are times when being a father requires one to “step up to the plate”, and, knowing that if I did not I would have to spring for another kite helped me tremendously. I stepped down to the boat’s railing and quietly explained that the kite wasn’t mine, but rather belonged to my 8 year old daughter, and that I was willing to do whatever it took to retrieve it. Reading the meaning in my eyes, the kite was returned forthwith, and lived to fly for several more years before coming to an inglorious end in the surf at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was a lot harder to argue with the winds and surf of mother nature than 2 yuppies, and so the kite was retired; actually it was buried at sea.

It’s so easy to get lost in the everyday troubles of raising children. We often forget the good moments, dwelling instead upon the bad times. At least that’s the way I can be at times; most of the time if you want to know the truth. And that’s what I like so much about those Italian cookies. Whenever I have them I remember the cold days in March, flying kites with my daughter at Ft. McHenry and sipping tea in Little Italy afterwards. And from there it’s just a hop, skip and jump to all of the other good memories. It doesn’t erase the bad times; but it sure makes having gone through them worthwhile; just for the memories.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Poker Dice and Business Cards

Life is about taking chances. It sounds like a cliché, but we all do it. From crossing the street, to taking on a new job; or even driving home from your current one; life is fragile and uncertain. Each step of the way is akin to a roll of the dice. You might get lucky and land that perfect job; the one you’ve been waiting for all of your life; only to have it taken away in an instant, and without warning. Or, you may struggle for years at one job, toiling diligently with the promise of a promotion; or raise; dangled before you, only to have that incentive snatched away just as your reward is in sight. I speak from experience, having played the game for many years, in both the aforementioned categories, as well as some unique situations of my own.

Look below and you will see the symbols of 25 years of working for others; business cards. Each one represents a chapter of my life and a piece of the puzzle that my life has sometimes been. There are many memories; and memorable characters; associated with each one.
Beginning with the ultra-American looking Anthem card, I have worked for some of the smartest and dumbest people on the planet. The smartest man I ever worked for had a 6th grade education. That was at Anne Arundel Excavating in Maryland. It is one of the only jobs for which I never had a business card. And I wish I did, for working there was the beginning of an education not available in schools anywhere, at any price. George Edwards was the owner, and he taught me the fine art of “sitting on your hands.” That’s no joke, and in legal battles it is sometimes the most effective tactic, forcing the other side to show all of their cards while you do nothing. I’ve written very little about George before, but he is one of many men I have met in the course of my working years, whom I actually looked upon as a sort of father figure. And he, in turn, treated me in many ways, as a son. A complete contradiction in words and deeds, he was, nonetheless, a man of honor and compassion, though he would never let it be known that he possessed either of those qualities.

There were of course other, less important employers in the chain of business cards, which resulted not from my being fired, but instead from my leaping from job to job; either by invitation, or design; in order to make more money. Each of these cards reflects a raise in pay and abilities as I continually found myself bumping my head on the “glass ceiling” which was never visible until I asked for a raise. At those times, the glass ceiling became an opaque covering, blocking out all light, or chance of advancement.
Soil Safe was an interesting job. I was working for a guy named Art Duduke; which tickled my daughter no end as she interpreted his name to be “Art the Duke”, and was the first royalty she had ever known beyond the cartoon princesses that populated her world. He had developed a new paving material, based upon the principles of soil cement, only using petroleum contaminated dirt in place of fresh soil, which was then encapsulated in a 5% mixture of Portland cement. The result was a rigid and long lasting Material that outlived asphalt, and also kept the hydrocarbons in the contaminated soil from leaching into the ground. It was a brilliant product, but never caught on, mostly because people did not understand the technology behind it. You could say that Art; Duke or not; was just a bit ahead of his time. At one point we had a stockpile of the contaminated earth that could be seen from space. That’s not a joke. It’s a fact.
R.B. Stine is a man I have written about before. He had a small earthwork company based out of some trailers in the woods outside of Frederick, Maryland. He also had a son named Ritchie, who was over indulged and spoiled. I shot at his car once, destroying the entire top end of his engine after he did something I specifically warned him not to do or I would shoot him. He did it anyway, and then ran away. The only thing left in my sight was his truck, and so he outlived his engine.
The next card below that represents the time when R.B. Stine was in debt, and looking for a partner. He found one willing to team up with him in Williams Construction, no relation to me, which was also heavily in debt. It was quite an education as I watched the two companies dance around one another, each one looking to stick the other one with its own past debts. Both men were equally dishonest with one another and eventually dissolved their partnership, each electing instead to return to being in debt on their own.

Mainline Construction was where I began to hone my abilities as a Contact Administrator, which was a fancy way to say that I had 2 jobs in one. But finding Bob, my boss, was a time consuming matter which affected our business greatly until I was able to find out where he disappeared each day. There was a woman from the Philippine Islands who had been married to an American serviceman for some years before he died and left her a bar in Linthicum, Maryland. The man was hardly in the ground before Bob moved into the apartment above the bar, which is where I had to go and wake him up in order to have certain papers signed form time to time. Working with a compassionate banker; while breaking all of the rules laid down by the Small Business Administration; I was able to keep the company afloat just long enough to take it through a controlled bankruptcy, which left him in his home. But that was right before  his wife found out about the bar and kicked him out.
Shortly after moving from Maryland to North Carolina in 1998, I went to work for Pedulla Excavating, a small, but growing family business located in Mooresville, North Carolina. Headed by Mickey Pedulla, this job was one of my favorites, as I was in the office only about half the day, while roaming around looking at new work during the other half.  Mickey had a reputation for being a bull in a China closet, but beneath his blustering veneer was a heart of gold. His son eventually graduated from college with a degree in engineering and took over as estimator, which had always been the plan. The business is still up and running today, with a very good reputation for the quality of work they produce.

Spectrum was a challenge, with something like 8 LLC’s to keep track of. I never got out of the office, or away from the phone. I administered contracts, obtained licenses to work in other states, handled legal matters such as liens, and so many other things I cannot remember. But there, too, I ran into that old glass ceiling and left for what would be my final job as Chief Estimator for Huffman Grading. These were some of the nicest people I ever worked for, but the economy was bad and the owner was unwilling to take a chance on developing his own land holdings, and so we parted company amicably.
Looking at these cards; which I have carefully preserved as a record of my jobs in the earthwork industry; I can see each and every one of the people I worked for. Some were wise; some not so. Some were generous to a fault; while others were so frugal that they collapsed upon themselves. Some of them possessed the courage which is necessary to go into business; while others rode the backs of their families, often straight into the ground.

Each of these cards contains a score of stories; some good, some bad. And all were a piece of my education in taking chances.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"38 Nooses" by Scott W. Berg (2012)

Abraham Lincoln was one of the busiest Presidents this country has ever known. Not only did he preside over a fractured nation at war with itself, the result of which abolished slavery, he also was present at several battles during that war; most notably the Battle of Hampton Roads; which re-captured the city of Norfolk in 1862. His Gettysburg Address still stands as one of the greatest speeches ever made by any leader in history. These are some of his key accomplishments, for which he is rightfully remembered. But in the area of Indian Affairs he remains very much overlooked.

Author Scott W. Berg has changed that with this highly charged account of one the lesser known accomplishments of the Lincoln Administration; his handling of the war along the Minnesota border in August of 1862, as the Dakota Indian nation battled with settlers and federal troops over the non-payment of gold which had been promised them in payment for giving up tribal lands east of the Mississippi River. When those payments stopped, largely due to the war back east; and the Indians were issued paper money in lieu of that gold; a spark was lit which ignited the powder keg that had long been festering.

Already bogged down with the Civil War; and a recalcitrant General McClellan, who seemed unwilling to press the military advantages as directed by the President; the last thing which Lincoln needed was an Indian uprising in the West. That uprising, when it occurred in August of 1862, took on every nuance of the greatest dramas ever written.
Led by Little Crow, the Dakota were a group of tribes which existed first on the east side of the Mississippi, until they were herded to the western side for “re-settlement”, an politically correct term for stealing land. Through many broken treaties and promises they waited patiently for the “great white father” in Washington to bring them justice. When that justice did not appear, the Dakota began to strike back, and the results would be anything but pretty.

Little Crow himself is worthy of an entire book on his own. A contradiction in all manners; including his manner of dress; he seemed to straddle both the white world as well as the world of his ancestors and tribesman. But no man can stand with two legs apart and not take sides for long, and that is exactly the fate which befell Little Crow.
From the opening chapters of this book, which take place in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., and on through the Dakotas flight toward Canada; where they hoped to gain the recognition of the British Government, the book reads like the finest western ever written.

Relying upon the rift between the North and South as they engaged in their “civil” war, Little Crow and the Dakota never really had a chance. In one of the most poignant moments of the book, when Little Crow is confronted by his fellow tribesmen, who are eager to go to war with the “whiteman”, Little Crow delivers one of the finest speeches ever made as he warns them of the path they are about to embark upon. He tries to tell them that a war would mean a complete loss of their way of life, and after blackening his face in mourning he retires to his teepee. When he is called a coward by his one of his own braves, he re-emerges from the teepee, reluctantly agreeing to lead them to war, while still arguing against the wisdom of his braves.
And so begins a 6 week odyssey of Indian raids, US Cavalry reprisals, hostage taking, and even a bit of international intrigue as Little Crow attempts to find a new home for his tribe. When all of those plans fail; as he predicted they would; he is forced to surrender. Almost 300 of the Indians were charged with various crimes and all set to hang for them when the President; still busy with his prosecution of the war, and General McClellan; stepped in, pardoning 265 of the condemned men. That still left 38 Dakota to hang, and hung they were, in the largest single government execution ever held.

A fascinating book, which leaves no stone unturned, the author has carefully examined every resource available in order to present the story as accurately as possible. The result is history come to life as you follow the Dakota tribe from their first dealings with the white settlers in the late 18th century, until the last of their battles with the cavalry and the executions of the 38 braves who were not pardoned.
There is a brief section at the end of the book in which the author follows up on the fate of some of the principal characters in this sweeping, and true, drama. And, winding up the book is a very thorough, chapter by chapter listing of the sources which the author referenced in order to write the history of one of the lesser known tragedies that spelled the end of the Dakotas, and their way of life.

Monday, January 7, 2013

“Kill the Irishman” with Val Kilmer and Christopher Walken (2011)

In this gritty story based upon the true life exploits of gangster Danny Greene,played by Ray Stevenson, an Irish immigrant who worked on the docks in Cleveland during the early 1970’s. The old “pay to work” racket was rampant, with men routinely passed over for work in rotation if they did not pay a “kickback” to the bosses who ran the hiring. The times, as well as the environment of the waterfront, soon convinced Danny to take action on his own, taking over his local and putting himself squarely at odds with a local loan shark named Shondor Birns, played with the usual coolness of Christopher Walken.

In order to battle the forces at the disposal of Birns; who made the bulk of his money through the “pay for work” scheme; Danny is forced to make an alliance with local gangster John Nardi, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, in a role with much more depth than any of his work on the “Law and Order” television series. Danny and John blaze their way across the waterfront, taking on the gangsters who control it, only to try and control it themselves.

With the government attempting to turn him into an informant; something which he refused to do; and the mob trying to assassinate him, blow him up, and otherwise do away with him; Danny is caught between the forces of good and evil, where he finds that the two are not always dissimilar with one another.
I was living in Cleveland at the time that some of these events took place. There was almost never a day that went by in which someone got killed on; or disappeared from; the waterfront. Though Danny Greene’s story has been legendary amongst the union hiring hall for decades; this is the first movie about the legendary and seemingly indestructible Danny Greene. Tightly written and directed by Johnathan Heinsleigh, this is one movie which will keep you in your seat for the entire film without ever wanting to take a break. Val Kilmer and Paul Servino, along with Linda Cardellini all turn in great performances in this film which rivals “Goodfellas” in almost every respect. And that alone is high praise indeed.
 Overseas Reymar Meets the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

This TV video shows the Overseas Reymar on Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, shortly after it struck the westernmost  support of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. As a former navigator on oil tankers, all I can say is that it never would have happened on my watch!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Just Dropped In" - The First Edition (1968)

If you’ve seen “The Big Lebowski”, then you’ve heard this incredible piece of psychedelic music before. Funny thing is, unlike a lot of the old records from the time, this one still holds up. It’s got something special; and sincere; about it which keeps it forever relevant. Hey, we all wonder what we’re really made of, and this record explores one man’s journey into his inner self. It’s not as pretty as it is confusing; and unlike “Lucy in the Sky” by The Beatles, with its gentle surreal imagery; I suppose that many people would find themselves less sure of what they believe after listening to this record.

The song itself was probably the impetus for many young people of the time to “expand their minds” through the use of LSD. The irony in that is rooted in the fact that Mickey Newberry wrote it as a warning against the use of psychedelic drugs. First recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1967, it was this 1968 rendition of the recording by Kenny Rogers, with The First Edition, which will always be remembered.
Evidently, it didn’t scare many folks; rather; it might have made them a bit more curious about expanding their minds. Just listen to that guitar solo- which is, by the way, none other than Glen Campbell. Talk about versatility! Glen Campbell was, and still is, one of the greatest studio guitarists ever. His skills ranged from songs like this, to writing scores of hits of his own, doing a stint as a Beach Boy while Brian Wilson was stuck at home, and eventually moving on to have his own Sunday night variety show.

Of course, Kenny Rogers would split from The First Edition and achieve fame as a solo artist, with hits such as “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County” being just two of the ones which spring immediately to mind.
This is one of those songs which I keep on ipod, flashdrive, and even a disc in the car. Whenever, or wherever it comes on, I’m always pleased with the sound and imagery it conjures up. My favorite part of the lyrics is at the end, when he sings “8 miles out of Memphis and I got no spare, 8 miles straight up, downtown somewhere.” It’s a dark and foreboding image, one which reeks of danger and irresistible adventure all at once. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.