Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Swimming Elephant

This footage of a baby elephant swimming on the beach at Phuket, Thailand made the rounds last weekend on the internet. Though it is from 2008, it is still a wonderful sight. Elephants are very special to me. For all of their lumbering size and strength, they possess; and display; a keen sensitivity which I usually associate with dolphins and whales. They’re all stronger and faster than we are, yet somehow I feel as if they look upon us humans with a bit of pity. We do such odd things in their eyes.

The baby elephant; who was on the beach at Phuket for a wedding party; just couldn’t understand why everyone was dressed up in the sweltering heat. The ocean looked so inviting that he naturally jumped in, to the delight of all present. Turn up the volume and you can hear the reaction of the people who were watching this in person.

I have seen the whales, swam with the dolphins, and even had a slight disagreement with a monkey once; but I have never seen an elephant enjoying himself quite as much as this fellow. The funniest part of the whole thing is that while the people on the beach couldn’t understand why he went into the water; he couldn’t understand how they could stay out! 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Louis Jones at Charlotte Country Day School

On January 30th and 31st of this year, artist Louis Jones came to Charlotte Country Day School and conducted a workshop with the students, thus sharing his love for creating; as well as teaching; art to those who would share his passion. And, at Charlotte Day School, located on the corner of Carmel Road in Charlotte, he found an eager audience.

Over a period of two days, Mr. Jones took the time to speak about; as well as conduct; hands on advice and provide encouragement to the students. Actually, he worked along-side of them while creating an original painting of his own. The results are displayed on this wall in the Hance Gallery of the Fine Arts Center; which is located on the grounds of the school; surrounded by a selection of some of the works produced in the workshop. They are all worthy of note.

Mr. Jones work’s in acrylic are both vivid and slightly impressionist in nature. He lures you in with color, and at other times, with a sparse landscape, showing an abandoned farm. His titles are humorous and thought provoking. Clearly, this is a man who enjoys his work enough to share it with others, ensuring that the genre will endure.

Sue and I have been to the Hance Gallery before. It is always free and open to the public. Artists, and the institutions that display their works, are becoming increasingly rare. We are very happy to have displays like this to brighten our days. Art is a vital part of life. Ever since man has been drawing on the walls of caves he has sought to visually represent his surroundings.

In the final analysis, art is somewhat subjective to the viewer’s taste. To that end, art can be judged by the joy evident on the faces of the people viewing it. I walked into the Hance Gallery on a raw and gray February afternoon; looking a bit down; and in only a few minutes I was standing with a smile in front of 2 of Mr. Jones’ finer works.

To view more of Mr. Jone's work you can go to his website at

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Washed Away" by Geoff Williams (2013)

It’s quite a coincidence that Geoff Williams new book “Washed Away”; the story of the Great Flood of 1913; should have been released in the weeks before the recent blizzard that crippled most of the northeastern portion of our nation. Why? Because that storm in 1913 was just about a mirror image of the one that we just experienced.

On March 23, 1913 a dozen tornadoes struck the Ohio Valley region and beyond, to 13 additional states from Arkansas to Vermont, with a ferocity rarely seen then, or; until recently; since. Over 700 deaths resulted from the flooding and the storms which followed. Blizzards in the Midwest also complicated matters, with the resultant melting snow swelling the banks of the Mississippi at the rate of 1 foot per hour the following month, as the snows melted. Of course, this water could not be used to drink, or cook with, until it had been boiled.

And speaking of fire to boil water; there were fires raging everywhere as gas lines ruptured and whole sections of towns burned while standing in the midst of water. There was simply no way to pump water on the fires to extinguish them.

Livestock perished; whole downtown areas of major cities such as Dayton, Ohio were completely submerged; and people walked across rooftops, on telephone wires, makeshift rafts, and any way in which they could get around in order to gather whatever food they could find.

Communications were still in the age of telephone and telegraph wires, which, strung on poles, did not do much good as the poles snapped like matchsticks in the fierce winds, as well as under the weight of accumulated ice. Hard to believe; but in many areas of the country today; that scenario has not changed one bit.

Train service was non-existent in many of the states hit hardest by the flooding as bridges collapsed under; or were simply washed away; by the torrents of water cascading beneath them. So many of the stories told in this book could have been taken from the newspapers of the last few weeks, that it simply boggles the mind.
Some folks will use this book as an argument against the existence of global warming, and they are; of course; welcome to their opinion. But the most important thing about this book is the complacency shown by so many of the victims of the Great Flood of 1913, and the sheer unpreparedness of the nation to cope with that disaster. The reason that it is so important is that not much has changed in the way disasters are handled today, 100 years after the Great Flood depicted so accurately in this book by Geoff Williams.

Using every available means at his disposal; newspaper articles, diary entries, old letters, and interviews with people who experienced the event; he has given life to what was the most widespread flood in the history of America. In doing so, he has also exposed some of the weaknesses still inherent in our national preparedness for disasters of this magnitude; which seem to be occurring more often than ever. This is a timely and well written book.

Monday, February 25, 2013

George Harrison at 70

George Harrison would have turned 70 years old today. Born on February 25, 1943 in Liverpool, Mr. Harrison was often referred to as “the quiet Beatle” for his studious appearance on stage. But in many respects his voice, and influence, have rung louder than any of the other Fab Four since his untimely passing from cancer on November 29, 2001. 

Even more than the platitudes and anthems extolled by John Lennon’s iconic “Give Peace a Chance”, or “All You Need is Love”, and even beyond the foolishness of “Imagine”; which had John Lennon asking you to forgo your possessions, even as he lived a life of luxury himself; George Harrison eschewed the limelight of politics, choosing instead to champion Peace by his own actions. His wife, Olivia, along with Ringo's wife, Barbara Bach, have quietly funded the AIDS orphanages in Romania for over 20 years without any fanfare.

The Concert for Bangla Desh in August of 1971 was the first benefit concert of its kind, and they have now become the “norm” as a way to raise money after various disasters. Farm Aid, Feed the World; you name the benefit and it all started with George making a phone call or two for Ravi Shankar and the plight of the citizens of Bangla Desh.

His interest in a sitar on the set of the Beatle movie “Help” sparked an interest in all things Eastern, including Transcendental Meditation and the practice of Yoga. The spiritual aspects of Mr. Harrison’s later, solo efforts cannot be ignored. His album “Living In the Material World” will go down as one of the most beautiful musical tributes to spiritual beliefs ever recorded. You can read them as simply love songs, or you can delve the deeper meaning as Mr. Harrison sings his spiritual beliefs, shedding some of his personal pain as he does.

This video is of the Traveling Wilburys doing “It’s All Right” from their second album, “Traveling Wilburys Volume 3”, which was released in October 1990 when my daughter was about two years old. She loved this song; I think she still does. I’ll have to ask her. The point is that George Harrison; like all of the Beatles; transcended the boundaries imposed by generational differences. The bouncy and sometimes instospective nature of the songs are reminiscent of the Beatle's albums in the music of this highly unusual group, which released it's first album, "Traveling Wilburys Volume 1" in 1988.

Not since the advent of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had there been such a collection of guitarists in one group. And what a group it was! With ex-Beatle George Harrison collaborating with Tom Petty,  Bob Dylan and Geoff Lynn of the Electric Light orchestra; along with rock legend Roy Orbison; this album just couldn’t miss. They followed it up in October of 1990 with the curiously titled “Traveling Wilburys Volume 3”. That album lacked the remarkable voice of Mr. Orbison, who had passed away just a year earlier, after scoring his last solo hit record in 1989. In some of the videos from this second Wilburys album; as in the one above;  you can see the empty chair left in tribute to him by the other band members.

Former band mates Lennon and McCartney said it best when they wrote, “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make…” By those standards, George Harrison dwells in perfect peace and harmony; probably laughing at us all.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Cousin Jake, Uncle Josh, Earl Scruggs - Nobody's Business

In the film “O Brother Where Art Thou” with George Clooney there is a band called the Soggy Bottom Boys. They perform the perfect version of the song “Man of Constant Sorrow” which was recorded by a partially blind fiddle player from Kentucky named Dick Burnett sometime in the 1940’s. Decades later the song became the mega hit we all know today.

The song “Man of Constant Sorrow”/ “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” was written in 1913 by Dick Burnett, who claimed to have gotten the idea for the tune from a fellow musician. Originally titled “Farewell Song”, it was included in the 1913 publication of Mr. Burnett’s songs. It was recorded as early as 1928 by Emry Arthur. Many folk musicians have laid down their own version of the song over the years, but the Soggy Bottom Boys version from the film will undoubtedly go down as the best version ever recorded, or performed.

The musicians in the movie are comprised of Dan Tyminski and several others associated with Allison Kraus and Union Station. But once upon a time there was a band called the Foggy Mountain Boys, which; as you might notice; is the complete opposite of the name of the band in the movie. The Foggy Mountain Boys were together as a band from 1948-1970. That’s quite a run.

Seen here on a local TV broadcast from the 1950’s are the real Foggy Mountain Boys, composed of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Paul Warren on fiddle, the great Josh Graves on dobro, with cousin Jake doing the lead singing. They only ever had a single #1 hit record; which was the “Ballad of Jed Clampett” for the TV series “The Beverly Hillbillies” in 1962. They also wrote and performed the theme song with Waylon Jennings “I’m a Good Ol’ Boy” for the TV series “Dukes of Hazard” in the 1980’s.
Sunday Television in rural America is something many of us from the big cities missed out on. The shows were not as sopshicated as the variety shows coming out of New York and Los Angeles, but; just as with last week’s Sunday post; they offer a very realistic look at what American’s found entertaining during the decade preceding the Second World War. We were fat and happy; and as a nation we knew no real rival.

These old TV shows are a real treat to watch. They tell us so much about who we are today. Perhaps, somewhere in these old shows, there is a hint of what began the great American decline which we are currently experiencing. But, all of that aside, they are also great entertainment from an era long gone.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Bored of Education" - The Little Rascals (1936)

As a kid I used to watch these Our Gang comedy shorts on TV before going to school in the morning. I expect that most “baby boomers” share this same memory. These films were a “double banger” for me, as they not only allowed me a look back at life in the 1930’s; a period I have always been interested in; but they also taught me that some of life’s troubles were universal and unchanging, especially when it came to the world of children. And, being a child at the time, I considered myself somewhat of an expert on the subject.

In this episode, the gang is confronted by a new teacher on the very first day of a new school year. With the cunning that does not come of age; or wisdom; the boys decide to play hooky by pretending to be sick. What they really want is a day off, even before the school year has begun.

Spanky fixes Alfalfa with a phony toothache and they wait until the class has begun before asking to be excused. Spanky, of course, needs to accompany Alfalfa home. It wouldn’t be right to let him make the journey alone. The teacher readily agrees to their request, all the while hiding a little secret of her own.

As a new teacher on the first day of school, she has prepared a little treat for the class; ice cream. When Alfalfa and Spanky leave the school, they find themselves left out of the little “surprise” which the teacher had planned for their classmates. With a natural inclination towards improvisation, the two pals need a quick “fix” if they are going to be able to partake of the ice cream.

These old films have been restored over the years and many are in pristine shape, as this one clearly is. Another thing that many people never notice when watching them, is that even though there is quite a bit of “politically incorrect” humor involving the racial differences of the kids, they are; for the most part; equal in their roles as children. They even attend an integrated school at a time in which Jim Crow still reigned supreme throughout much of the nation. These little “shorts” by Hal Roach represent some of the first times in which blacks and whites were portrayed as somewhat equal on film. And remember, they were all united against a common enemy; the adults. 

There were 4 African-American actors in the main cast of the “Our Gang” series. They were Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Matthew "Stymie" Beard and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas. Morrison was actually the first African-American actor ever signed by a major studio to a long term contract. He was also the first African-American “movie star” in the history of Hollywood.

If you think the 4 African-Americans were stereotyped, then just take a look at the white kids. Morrison and Thomas were both of the opinion that the white kids were much more “pigeon holed” than they were. There was the little blonde girl, Darla; the freckle faced kid, Alfalfa; a neighborhood bully, Butch; and the little toddler, whose name I don’t even remember.

In an article about the Our Gang series on Wikipedia, "Stymie" Beard is quoted as saying “We were just a group of kids who were having fun." Ernie Morrison recalled that, "When it came to race, Hal Roach was color-blind." I don’t know if that is accurate, as some of the stereotyping would seem to be at odds with that statement.

No matter; these films are wonderful snapshots of what life was like for kids almost 100 years ago, and as such are invaluable in our being able to look back. And, for me, they are great reminders of my younger years and the things that amused me.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Happy Birthday George Washington!

Back when I was a kid we celebrated George Washington’s birthday as a separate holiday; as we did with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. There was a special quality about having the day off in the middle of the week that is lacking in the combined holidays, resulting in the 3 day weekend we now refer to as President’s Day.

First off, a little bit of trivia. Washington was not born on the 22nd of February 1732.  He was born on February 11, 1731, over one year earlier. In 1731 we were still using the old Annunciation Style calendar which was woefully outdated as compared to the science of astronomy. It wasn’t until 1752 that the British government switched over to the new Gregorian calendar under the provisions of the New Style Act of 1750. I actually learned this is in 5th grade.

Calendars have changed many times throughout the history of the world. The earliest calendars were based upon observations of the moon, which was the closest and brightest thing visible to the ancients. The lunar calendar sufficed for thousands of years and served the basic purpose of marking time. Seasonally, there were adjustments necessary due to weather which affected the planting and harvesting of crops; then came the Sun.

When Copernicus proved that the earth revolved about the sun; and not the opposite; it was an upheaval in accepted logic. But this was the beginning point at which human beings came to redefine their understanding;  and methods of; chronicling the passing years.

The Gregorian calendar is the most widely used of calendars due to the fact that it is secular and scientific in nature. It’s interesting to note that this calendar is based upon Copernicus’ observations, as it was only a few decades removed from the Spanish Inquisition, during which the very teachings of Copernicus were banned by the Church. That the church even accepted a calendar based upon the sun as a fixed object, with no religious significance in the keeping of time, was a tremendous event.

The main advantage of the Gregorian calendar is that it keeps most of the world on the same schedule; a feat which became of increasing importance as the world seemingly “shrunk” with the advent of the Age of Exploration and Industrialization. For the most part though, the world’s leading religions; including the Roman Catholic Church; still use an older outdated calendar in calculating the dates of religious traditions and ceremonies.

For instance, the Roman Catholic Church relies on the insertion of a correction each year in determining the dates of Good Friday and Easter. It doesn’t always coincide with the actual history, as Good Friday and Easter often fall before the Jewish holiday of Passover, the events of which had to have occurred before the Crucifixion of Jesus. The Jewish calendar is still lunar based; and much like the Chinese Buddhist calendar, it can get confusing.

Pope Gregory XIII signed a Papal decree on February 24, 1582 adopting the new calendar in Europe. The other European nations followed within the next couple of centuries, with the practice reaching America in the early half of the 18th Century, just in time for the birth of George Washington.

The switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar may seem silly, as it is based upon only 11 minutes or so of difference in the time calculated for the earth to revolve about the sun. But over a period of time; centuries; this adds up considerably if not corrected. Something like 3 days in 400 years. When Gregory was Pope we had already slipped by 10 days since the Roman era. This made the spring equinox fall on the 11th of the March instead of the 21st, and it was still drifting further away from that fixed date; which had been set by the church centuries earlier. Since that date affected the timing of the Christian holidays, the Church decided to “fix” it.

There were 2 parts to the “fix”; the first being a change in the number of “leap years” observed every 4 centuries to 97 from 100. This was the idea of Aloysius Lilius, a Calabrian physician. While the shift from the lunar calendar to the solar based Julian calendar was a big step forward in keeping track of the passing years, the Gregorian calendar was an even further step in this direction.

There is much more involved in the history of the calendar which we use today as we further refine our time keeping methods with atomic clocks and “leap second” corrections. But, this is just a simplified account of how George Washington had his birthday changed by more than a year.


Hey,Rush Limbaugh! 

Rush Limbaugh is ashamed of America! Guess what? We're ashamed of Rush Limbaugh. The talk show host has, in the past, told all apologists for America to love it or leave it. He also promised to move to Canada if President O'Bama won the election in 2008. We're still waiting....

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"This Boy's Life" with Robert DeNiro and Ellen Barkin (1993)

Leonardo DiCaprio plays real life author Tobias Wolff as a young teen in the 1950’s  whose mother, Caroline, played by Ellen Barkin, decides to leave her dead end boyfriend in the East and re-locate to Seattle with her son. There she meets Robert DeNiro, who plays garage mechanic Dwight Hansen. 

On the surface he is the kind of man a woman in the 1950’s was looking for; hard working, a bit charismatic, and full of charm. Before long, Dwight and Caroline wed, which leaves young Tobias in an awkward spot. He is at once thrilled to have a “real” father again; yet he is also put off a bit at having to share his mother with this new man. It doesn’t take too long for the cracks to show in this “picture” of growing up in the 1950’s.

As Tobias quickly learns, his step-father is an abusive man, both verbally and physically. He feels that young Tobias is not manly enough and ridicules anything in which the boy takes an interest.  Dwight also struggles with a drinking problem, making him even more unreasonable than he already is.
As the boy struggles through school and his ever increasing problems with his step-dad, his mother begins to see things as they really are. Toby, as Tobias Wolff is called in the film, is anxious about breaking free from the small town in which he lives, and the image of manhood which it portrays.

When his friend Arthur, an unabashedly homosexual boy, makes a pass at him, Toby quietly rejects the advance, yet doesn’t hold it against him. He recognizes in the other young man the same desire for something different to break the monotony, and destiny, they both face by staying in the town. Toby dreams of being accepted by a college back east and becoming a writer; an idea his father constantly ridicules him for.

Caroline eventually recognizes the failure of her husband on just about every level, and in one of the most dramatic scenes of the film, gathers her son and leaves Dwight standing alone wailing aloud, “What about me?”

In this film taken from Tobias Wolff’s memoirs; with a screenplay by Robert Getchell; director Michael Caton-Jones presents the story of the father and son relationship in an effective and convincing way. And Robert DeNiro, as always, is at his usual best with a young Leonardo DiCaprio in this moving portrait of growing up.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Old Sailors Poem" by Larry Dunn RMCM, USN - Ret.

The following poem was sent via e-mail to all of the crew members of the USS Milwaukee, the fleet oiler I served aboard when I was in the Navy. I could think of no more fitting illustration than the one above, which is a comparison of the real life photo used by Norman Rockwell in his iconic drawing.

The poem was written by Chief Dunn and published on the spiritual blog The Chronicle Watch, which is located at and  forwarded to me by Dennis Bieak, an old shipmate from the 1970’s. It was forwarded in caps, so I’m leaving it that way. Something’s in life don’t need to be polished to shine brightly….

Old Sailors Poem by Larry Dunn, RMCM, USN (Ret)












Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"Cruel Harvest" by Fran Elizabeth Grubb (2012)

Prepare yourself to be shocked and disgusted by the treatment of Fran Grubb and her sisters at the hands of their father, Broadus, an itinerant farm worker, in this brave and gutsy memoir. I have never been able to understand the concept of the Stockholm syndrome, in which people can be made to withstand the most horrific treatment, yet form sort of a “bond” with their tormentors, or captors. But, apparently this is a real phenomenon and well documented.

The narrative takes place in the late 1950’s and 1960’s; the exact dates are not that important; except that it always shocks me to read of this kind of trauma actually occurs. Ms. Grubb’s father makes a sport of humiliating and beating his wife before graduating to the sexual molestation of his daughters, some as young as 12 years old. Their mother is powerless to protect them from her husband’s alcohol infused episodes of violence. Life is lived on the edge, with everyone in the family always on their toes, lest they do something to trigger their father's rage.

Writing this review is hard, as I cannot even imagine living like the author has. While my own father was verbally abusive, he doesn’t even register on the scale of Ms. Grubb’s father. He seems to thrive on the misery he causes. At one point he even kills his own newborn baby.

The author wonders constantly, as a little girl, what she has done to upset her father, and at times blames her mother for making her father angry. She actually wishes her mother were dead; or her father; either way might break the cycle. The guilt she endures for wishing the death of a parent is wrenching. The only reference I have to this, in my own life, involves my mother being very ill for many years and my thoughts that if she would just die then life would be normal for the rest of the family. This is a heavy burden for a child to carry around, and the guilt lasts a lifetime, even after you have come to terms with the reasoning behind the “forbidden” thoughts.

As the family bounces from one harvest to the next, things just seem to get worse and worse for the family. As each of the daughters comes of age; about 12; their father begins to molest them sexually, often beating them savagely afterwards. Again, their mother seems powerless to protect them, lest he turn his attentions towards her. And that’s the part that baffles me; how can a woman stand by silently and allow her own daughters to be treated in such a way?

To her credit, the mother and oldest daughter do plot to kill him, but after they are overheard by Ms. Grubb, she pleads with them not to kill her “daddy.” She would live to regret that.

When their mother turns them over to the Connie Maxwell Home in South Carolina, the children learn that there are such things as mattresses and clean clothing; not to mention 3 meals a day. They are used to sleeping on cardboard and old army blankets in any deserted farmhouse or sharecropper’s shack that they can find as they travel about, following the harvests. And food is always scarce due to their fathers drinking up all the money the family earns picking cotton and fruits. Ms. Grubb thrives, along with her sister, at the Connie Maxwell Home, but not for long.

When their father shows up with his sister in tow, the children are taken out of the orphanage and on a journey through hell as their father seeks revenge on his estranged wife by taking it out on his children. Along the way they encounter people who realize what is happening to the children, but in those days it was considered unfortunate, and so the abuse continued.

When Ms. Grubb’s father meets a woman named Millie, he charms her and her daughter into traveling with them. Millie is larger than Ms. Grubb’s mother, but no match for the brutal man she has attached herself to. Her daughter soon becomes the target of physical abuse, and Millie does nothing to protect her child. Once again, I cannot even fathom this line of reasoning. Eventually Millie prods the girls to run away, leaving only Fran to be abused. And soon after that, she helps Fran to flee from her father as well.

After a last standoff between her father’s employer and her dad, she is finally free of her horrors, although it would take years to overcome the abuse she suffered at his hands. With the help and guidance of her husband, Wayne; and through their faith; Ms. Grubb comes to terms with all that has happened in her life; and recovers her scattered siblings; finally gaining the family she always longed for.  This was a well written and very important book; but not an easy one to read; and I am glad that in the end the author is able to forgive her father; because I sure as hell can’t. That alone is testament to the power of the author’s words.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Southern Snow

We came home in the driving snow on Saturday night. That is, we were driving and it was snowing. It was a southern snow; which never seems to amount to much; yet has a profound effect on us northern transplants. It brings out the Christmas in us; notwithstanding that Christmas has passed us by already. There is a joy in remembering the bite of the cold; all the while knowing that this is just a southern snow; and as such it will be gone shortly after the sun rises in the morning.

To give you an idea of the contrast in weather we experience here in North Carolina, this is a picture of Coddle Creek Church; not 8 miles from our home; just one week ago. It an be unsettling... 

But, Midnight never seems to be fazed by these changes at all; just as long as he gets his tuna!

And the next morning - all is bright and sunny once again. A typical North Carolina snow event. And did I mentioned that it thundered?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Music - The Grand Ole Opry (1956)

When I was kid I always heard of this far-away place called Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. I also had a sense that I was missing out on something that was not only different, but perhaps even better than the more staid variety shows which emanated out of New York, or even Los Angeles.

In this show from the Ryman Auditorium; which was broadcast on April 18, 1956; the cast includes Carl Smith as host, with guests Buddy Ebsen; before Jed Clampett; Chet Atkins, Collins Kids, The Jordanaires; just before the Elvis madness; June Carter; before Johnny Cash; Lester Flatt and the recently departed Earl Scruggs, with comedienne Minnie Pearl, and a few others.

The show may be irritating to some; there are people who will find this show to be annoying. I find it interesting in several ways. It’s a visual record of what was funny to middle America during the 1950’s,; and as such helps to explain the politics and culture of the times. It was; mainly; still an agricultural society, and the entertainment that the people in the rural communities may not have been as sophisticated as that of the slicker network shows; but there is something very personable, and almost noble in these shows.

These were hard working, mainly unschooled folks, who made their own everything; including entertainment. And eventually, as Elvis and Carl and Johnny, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, broke the barriers separating the entertainment business, they became us and we became them. By that I mean that this is where it all began in popular music as we know it today. These are the roots of our modern day culture; even the various reality shows’ and American Idol took something of their formats from these seemingly unsophisticated shows.

I originally was going to post Hank Williams doing “I Saw the Light”, but the powers that control such things made the video not downloadable. It’s too bad for them, and good for me. Because without the inability to show the Hank Williams video, I would never have stumbled across the many other Grand Ole Opry shows  that are downloadable.

I don’t expect that many of my fellow Americans will enjoy this type of show anymore. It will probably get more hits out of Europe, where traditional American music is still revered. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"To Spring" - Happy Harmonies (1936)

The MGM series of Happy Harmonies cartoons were really not preserved as well as many of the other cartoons of the era. However, there are still some real gems out there. Like this one, “To Spring”, in which the elves are awakened from their winter’s nap by the dripping of the melting ice which slowly sets off the alarm clock to awaken them to their annual task. It is a very important one, too.

You see, these elves are in charge of putting color back into the world after the bleak period of winter has passed. They seem to be enjoying themselves until Old Man Winter makes one final push to regain control over the elements, keeping things cold and bleak. But the elves are up to the challenge, restoring the world to its colorful array of beauty and its natural cycle of life.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Silver Linings Playbook" with Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper (2012)

David O. Russell did an excellent job of writing the screen play for this movie, which is taken from the novel by Matthew Quick. Set in present day Philadelphia, the film tells the story of Pat, Jr., played by Bradley Cooper, who is released from John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore after becoming violent when he finds his wife in the shower with another man.

After 8 months, his mother, played by Jacki Weaver, comes to pick him up and take him home. But, there are conditions to his release. He must remain on his medications; which he routinely spits out; and he must not have any contact with his estranged wife, including staying several hundred feet from her place of employment. Any violation of these conditions will see him returned to Baltimore.

Arriving at home in Philadelphia, Pat, Jr. finds that his father, Pat Sr., played by Robert DeNiro, has lost his job and is taking bets on sports events as a way to make a living. Pat, Jr. cannot seem to come to terms with the dissolution of his marriage. He feels that if can just explain to her what happened that day when he caught her in the shower, he can move on. But, there is that pesky restraining order to be dealt with.

He hooks up with an old friend, Ronnie, played by John Ortiz, who is married, and through him meets a woman named Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Her husband was a police officer killed in the line of duty; leaving Tiffany widowed and deeply troubled. She has been on a bender, sleeping with just about anyone she can, to fill the void left by her husband’s death. When Pat, Jr. meets her, things begin to happen.

He continues to eschew the medications and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. His main goal is to get back to his wife; even if just to explain his actions and what caused him to lose control. He also longs to return to teaching, which his diagnosis as bi-polar prevents him from doing. So, he begins to look for the “silver linings” in his life as a way to regain control of himself. The biggest problem he has is that he hears the Stevie Wonder song “My Cheri Amour” playing over and over in his head. It was the song he and his wife danced to at their wedding, and was also the song playing on the radio when he discovered his wife in the shower. Whenever he hears it; or thinks he does; he becomes out of control, threatening the very freedom which he cherishes.

As he becomes involved more and more with Tiffany, he begins to realize that we are all, to some extent, obsessed with something or other. His father is a fanatic Philadelphia Eagles fan, and risks prison for taking bets on the game. After all, how sane is that? As Pat and Tiffany get to know one another more, they begin to feed off of one another with surprising results. What begins as a love-hate type relationship evolves into a deeper understanding of both themselves, as well as those around them who affect their lives. In the end, the question which hangs in the air is not whether Pat, Jr. and Tiffany are flawed, but rather it becomes apparent that we all are; in one way or another.

Robert DeNiro gets better and better with each film he makes. It doesn’t matter if he is directing, or just acting, he simply matures more with each film he does. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"The Comedian" with Mel Torme and Mickey Rooney (1957)

Playhouse 90 was one of the greatest shows ever on television. With a weekly format of 90 minutes, this show offered first rate entertainment from some of the leading; and also upcoming; writers of the era. This classic episode was written by Rod Serling and Ernest Lehman; and directed by John Frankenheimer; and aired on February 14, 1957; fifty-six years ago today. If you have never seen it, you should. You can watch it here, or on You Tube. Naturally, I would prefer you watch it here.

In it, Mickey Rooney plays TV Comedian Sammy Hogarth, who may be a top notch entertainer, but is a lousy human being. Mel Torme plays his brother-in-law, and assistant, which only places him in Sammy’s crosshairs at all times. He is meek, and condescending, bowing to the financial reward of working for Sammy. But with that position comes a price, which is something he must learn the hard way.

Edmond O'Brien, one of the most underrated actors ever, plays Al Patterson, Sammy’s lead writer who is almost driven to the brink of suicide by the utter insanity and impossible demands of his browbeating and sadistic boss.

Richard Joy and Kim Hunter, along with a whole cast of talented and capable thespians; that’s right, true thespians; round out the cast, and make this a must see for any serious student of drama. This is television the way it was meant to be; with the performance captured live,and uncut. The clear kinescope in which it was shot, and preserved, also make it a joy to watch.

Happy Birthday, Sarah...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Rex Reed - The Shallow Man Weighs In

I suppose that everyone on the planet is now aware that Rex Reed, film critic for the New York Times, has referred to Melissa McCarthy as “tractor-sized” and a “screeching, humongous creep”, as well as some other choice and unnecessary adjectives. Apparently he did not agree with the casting director’s choice of the role for Ms. McCarthy; but those who throw stones at others; as Mr. Reed does; should beware, lest the winds change and hurl some of the stones back in their own direction.
Melissa McCarthy, a fine actress best known for her appearance in the film “Bridesmaids”; which I have never seen; is a plus sized and very capable actress who took her new film “Identity Thief” to Number One at the Box Office this past weekend. It earned $36.6 million in the United States. No small feat; as there are several good films out right now.
Mr. Reed, an industry icon for decades, seems to be fraying at the edges these days. Let’s face it though; he has never been a real positive person to begin with. There was a time, when New Yorker's routinely ignored his reviews. Actually, that is not correct. The truth is that if Rex Reed panned it; they went to see it.

People such as Mr. Reed are long overdue for retirement. Giving a movie a bad review is a perfectly honorable way to make a living; but trashing someone for their physical appearance is something which I thought had passed us by a long time ago; back in the days of Twiggy.
In today’s more educated world, we recognize; and welcome; diversity as well as physical differences in appearance. I wonder how Carroll Baker and Sylvia Miles (pictured with Mr. Reed above) feel about his callous and insensitive remarks concerning Ms. McCarthy. Remember, pound for pound, Mr. Reed himself is no longer the skinny little film critic he was in the early 1970’s. If physical appearance were the only thing required of actors and actresses, the majority of films would be as shallow as Mr. Reed and the skinny little waifs which he seems to admire so much.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Heaven's Gate" with Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert (1980)

I remember watching this movie in the theater when it was first released. The film was panned at the time as being too long. And; at 216 minutes; it is lengthier than most movies of that time; or anytime. And this is the director’s cut; which boasts some added footage of the barren, and cold, area where this story took place. So, bring a jacket.

I believe that the director’s intention was to portray the stark and lonely aspect of what is was like to live on the prairie, where there was not much to do. Time would naturally have dragged itself on in an interminable way. To that extent, the director has captured the feel of the times in an excellent fashion.

The movies premise is a good one, and the choice of actors is really diverse; with screen legends such as Joseph Cotten playing alongside of such relative newcomers like Sam Waterson and John Hurt. This movie has a lot to offer if you are willing to devote the time to watching it. And Kris Kristofferson is at his best as the Harvard educated U.S. Marshall who attempts to take on the cattle barons in this epic based upon the real life Johnson County War of 1892. It’s a fascinating piece of our history. You might want to Google it sometime.

Briefly, the whole problem was that there was an influx of new settlers who had been lured to the area of present day Wyoming by cheap government sponsored land. These would be settlers were mainly from Eastern Europe and spoke little English. The land they had bought was also being used by the cattle barons to graze their herds for free. When the settlers moved in, and the crops didn’t grow, these people were hungry. In order to survive they began to steal cattle. In order to protect their own interests, the Cattlemen’s Association offered a $5 per day stipend, plus a $50 bounty for each of the 125 men on the “list” of those to be executed. No trial, no law; just a list of individuals to be killed.

Great acting by all; including a very charming Isabelle Huppert, who plays Ella, a local prostitute who is lover to both Marshall Kris Kristofferson, and the cattle baron played by Christopher Walken; make this film watchable, even if you are watching the clock during some of the second half.

A good film; reminiscent in many ways of “Lawrence of Arabia”, another film which was re-released in a director’s cut. That film took place in the desert rather than the cold winter of Wyoming. For that film, take an extra bottle of water. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

"Double V" by Rawn James, Jr. (2013)

In this exciting new book by Rawn James, Jr., the author examines the history of the African-American fighting man.  Remember, these were guys who had to fight just to get into the fight! And then when they returned home, they were treated as second class citizens at best; and horrific resentment for their patriotism at the worst.

Author Rawn James, Jr. goes to extraordinary lengths in his recounting not only the exploits of these brave men, but also examines what they hoped to gain by fighting for freedom overseas, while the very freedoms for which they were fighting, were denied to them here at home.

Beginning with the American Revolution and the death of Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre, and on through the end of World War Two, when President Truman finally desegregated the Armed Forces, African Americans have contributed greatly to the building of a nation.

From the slaves who built the Capitol city in Washington, D.C., and even on the battlefield, African Americans were a large part of the American Revolution. Officially there were no real “black” troops during the War for Independence, but the hard work of re-supplying the troops, while still working the farms for the sustenance of all, was a very necessary contribution to the Victory at Yorktown in 1781.

General Washington was one of the first to exclude African Americans from the ranks of the Armed Forces. In 1775 the Continental Congress, in an overwhelming decision, voted to bar any blacks; free or slave; from taking up arms in defense of the colonies. The reasoning was simple; since Virginia was the most prosperous colony, with many large plantations supplying the needs of the Continental Army; it was imperative that the slaves remain slaves. The fear of well trained and armed black men was not one that appealed to our founding fathers, who were slave holders.  Any resistance from the northern colonies on the issue of slavery could have scuttled the Revolution before it ever got off the ground.

As a matter of fact, the preceding policy caused John Murray, Governor of Virginia, to proclaim that any African Americans who took up arms against their masters to fight for the Crown would be freed. This action caused the colonies to reverse their course on the ban for African Americans to fight for freedom, and many a Hessian soldier stated that there was hardly a regiment in which African Americans did not take the field, often in the place of their masters.

By the time the War of 1812 rolled around, the Governor of Louisiana would make a direct appeal to President Madison for freed persons of color to be allowed to take up arms in order to oppose the invasion by the British at New Orleans. The permission was granted and hundreds of African American soldiers fought, and died, valiantly under General Jackson at New Orleans. In addition, fully 15%; or more; of all American seamen at the time were black. There was a reason for this.

Just as Crispus Attucks had escaped slavery by becoming a seaman, many other escaped slaves chose this same path to self-emancipation. The reasoning was that if you were aboard a ship at sea, the chances of being caught were slim to none. And; unless you sailed out of a Southern port; you were essentially free wherever you went. It was a form of self-exile, which took many African American men away from slavery, but at the same time denied them a family with a real home ashore.

One of the thornier bumps on the road to integrating the Armed Forces was the dilemma faced by President Lincoln in the Civil War. He was forced to straddle a line between the slave holding northern states of Maryland, Delaware and even Washington, D.C. itself; while attempting to free the slaves held in the Southern states. The reasoning was simple; without the slave labor in the south, the Confederacy would be in short supply of everything imaginable.  The Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the states under rebellion, giving the northern states an edge in manufacturing and labor to draw upon.

At the beginning of the war, blacks were allowed to work as laborers, blacksmiths, scouts and spies. But by the time the south had gotten as far as Antietam, Maryland Lincoln changed his mind. Within the next year there would be over 50,000 ex-slaves serving in the Union Army.

By the time the United States entered the First World War the nation was reeling under the Jim Crow laws of the south. Lincoln may have freed the slaves, but nothing could legislate the thinking of the people in the South. They remained opposed to African Americans in the military. My own grandfather, while training for service in that war, was witness to a near riot in Spartanburg, S.C. when a black officer entered the lobby of a “whites only” hotel to buy a newspaper. 

The situation was the same in the rest of the country as well, with black soldiers routinely beaten in Houston, Texas.  The soldiers finally had enough and marched out of Fort Logan and before dawn of the following morning, scores of white citizens, and black soldiers were dead.

When these same soldiers returned from combat overseas they expected to be finally accepted as full citizens, having just fought for their country, as well as the cause of freedom. But aside from a parade in Harlem, things quickly went back to normal with a vengeance. By 1925 the Ku Klux Klan would be marching openly down Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House, fully robed. Down south lynching’s were becoming the norm, with many of the African American veterans being openly targeted due to their service in the war.

When the Second World War broke out the country was still of the mindset that blacks were inferior to whites. Indeed, the Supreme Court still upheld “Separate but Equal” as the law of the land.  It made no sense then, and boggles the imagination now. From the very first day of the war, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, African-Americans distinguished themselves countless times in the face of the enemy; both in the Pacific, as well as in Europe.

When the Japanese began bombing and strafing Pearl Harbor, Steward’s Mate Doris Miller, aboard the West Virginia, saw what needed to be done, and without training, or orders, he did it. He manned an anti-aircraft gun and shot at the Japanese planes, even as his white shipmates lay dying around him. For those actions, he became the first black man to be awarded the Navy Cross. It was pinned upon Doris Miller by Admiral Nimitz in Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942. He died while still serving his country on Thanksgiving Day 1943.

With the outbreak of the Second World War the military needed to rethink its policies concerning race, and on June 1, 1942 the United States Nave began to accept black recruits. They were trained at Camp Smalls, adjacent to Great Lakes in Illinois. This was the first major step in the desegregation of the entire Armed Forces.
No account of the desegregation of the military can be complete without an accounting of President Harry Truman and his Executive Order formally ending segregation in the services. Born in a border slave state to a viciously prejudiced family, the future President had served in the First World War and seen black troops in service to their country. Although he was not without racial prejudices of his own, he was nowhere near as short sighted about racial issues as many of his fellow countrymen.

On July 26, 1948 Harry Truman signed Executive Order Number 9981 which essentially stated that the Armed Forces of the United States needed to reflect the values we fight for; namely; equal opportunity. What made this so fantastic is that Harry Truman was in the midst of a re-election campaign which no one thought he would win.  Indeed there may have been a political component to Truman’s decision; he wanted the black vote. But there can be no denying that his Executive Order, and the resultant Fahy Committee, were the spears which broke the back of institutionalized racism in the Armed Forces.

The Fahy Committee accomplished the task of desegregation in the Navy and the Air Force in short order.  Both of those branches were ready, and willing, to accept the change. With the Marines and the Army it would be a different matter; a matter of time.

By the outbreak of the Korean War the Army was finally on board with the program and the Marines reluctantly followed in the next decade. Today the Armed Forces are fully integrated, with about 38% of the combined services made up of African-Americans. Has racial prejudice completely disappeared from the military? Not likely; but it’s no longer institutionalized, nor accepted. It took too long, but as they say, “You’ve come a long way baby!” Now it’s on to the newest challenge; women in combat. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Ruby" by David Rawlings with Gillian Welch

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The two partners; in life as well as music; have given me more joy through their music than you can imagine. Their music is pure Americana, drawing on the roots of gospel, rhythm and blues, folk and a touch of bluegrass thrown in for good measure. They are the archetypical troubadours of their time.

In this song from 2009, Ruby’s lover laments that he has been unable to climb her golden stairs, which lead to the paradise he feels could be theirs if only she would let him in. But he also realizes that she is surrounded by her luxuries; indeed she is trapped by them, inside a tower that hasn’t got a door. So, not only can’t she get out, he can’t get in, unless she “lets down her golden hair.”

He compares himself to an old time telegraph man, with a single purpose in mind; to repair that which is broken. Sadly, he realizes that certain things; once broken; can never be fixed. A beautiful, haunting song, this one makes you marvel at what can be done with 4 simple chords. This performance is from an NPR “Tiny Desk” concert which aired on February 5th, 2010. The song was written by Ms. Welch.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"Captain Hareblower" with Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny (1954)

In this send up of the popular C.S. Forester novels about the career of Horatio Hornblower, Yosemite Sam plays the evil Pirate Sam. When he spies the ship bearing our hero Bugs Bunny, his very presence frightens Bugs’ crewmates to literally “jump ship” in the middle of the ocean.

Left alone to battle one another for victory, the two would be buccaneers do everything in their power to gain the upper hand. And, in the end, I’m not really sure who the winner really is…

Friday, February 8, 2013

"On a Carousel" - The Hollies (1967)

While reading Glen Slater's blog “It’s Never Been Easy” the other day I got hung up on this song and a few memories; all of which can be blamed on Mr. Slater and his post about a Carousel, which can be viewed here;

I think it was around March of 1970, probably late in the month, when John and Jimmy and I went down to Coney Island. The amusement parks, like Luna and Astroland, didn't open until April, but some of the concession stands; most notably Nathan’s; were open year round. So, we spent our 20 cents each and got on the subway for the 15 minute trip to Coney Island. In nice weather it was about 20 minutes to ride a bicycle there, but it was March, so we took the train.

Unlike other neighborhoods; we never called the Merry Go Round a Carousel. That term was reserved for the ride in Central Park, which I only remember riding one time. With only a little man-made lake nearby; rather than the Atlantic Ocean; the Carousel just never held the allure of the Merry Go Round in Coney Island. The Merry Go Round seemed more proletariat to me, like something my Uncle Irving would have ridden as a kid. On the other hand, the Carousel seemed to be geared more toward the Manhattan crowd, and all  those gentried folk who live by the Park itself.

The big prize on the Merry Go Round was to grab the proverbial “brass ring” which hung precariously from a wooden board protruding from a vertical post,  and always seemed just out of reach until you were too old to ride the merry go round anymore.

There was also the Wonder Wheel, with  swinging gondola cars mounted on rails which made the gondolas glide precariously to the outer edges of the wheel itself, giving the impression that you were about to be hurled off of the wheel and into the ocean; or even into the crowds below.

When we got tired of being scared to death on that, there was always the confusion of riding the Tilt-A-Whirl. This was one of those rides which are based on the love of centrifugal force, with the spider like arms of the ride spinning faster and faster, almost as if they were about to become detached, once again launching the rider into orbit. When you’d get off of the Tilt-A-Whirl, the meaning behind the name of the ride became apparent. We walked like drunken sailors for a block or so as our equilibrium restored itself.

The crowning delight of a cold March day had to have been a hot dog at Nathan’s with a hot chocolate to wash it down. The combination would probably kill me today, but back then; to a 15 year old; it was a delicacy.

A few of the Roll-a-Ball places were open and so we lost a few bucks there, accumulating tickets towards prizes we would never get. I don’t recall whether or not the bumper cars were open at the time. But we did ride those at other times.

This is just one of those memories which came of reading Glen Slater’s post about the “Boy Who Ran the Carousel.”  That’s the best part of blogging; reading another person’s story can often jog your own memory with delightful results. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"The Dust Bowl" by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (2012)

When we think of the Dust Bowl it is generally thought of in the narrow terms of the classic “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. And, of course, the iconic movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda comes to mind as well. We think in terms of Oklahoma as the only state to have endured the disaster of the Dust Bowl, when in truth the events described by Steinbeck; and shown in the movie; were really happening in a small area of Oklahoma, in the Panhandle region, which straddles the borders of 4 other states; including Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas.

In Ken Burn’s PBS documentary “The Dust Bowl”, this commonly accepted myth is shattered. Drawing upon the photographs and memories of those who endured the Dust Bowl, authors Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns have painted a new, and more accurate portrait of the Dust Bowl and how it came to be in the first place.

In one sense the Dust Bowl was natural disaster, caused by a severe 10 year drought. But, in other respects, the effects of that drought would not have been so severe if the farmers had not been able to cultivate such a large area of land, resulting in no natural barriers being left in place to counter the fierce prairie winds, and the resultant dust storms.

The authors also devote a great amount of time in reviewing some of the Federal Programs which were put in place in order to save the farmers from going broke. Many of these programs were very controversial at the time, particularly the Resettlement Program in which the government bought the land from the farmers, allowing them a chance to resettle elsewhere. Thousands of farmers were spared a life of poverty and malnutrition by this program. The land was taken out of production and re-seeded as grasslands, the thinking being that this would help not only the people affected, but also possibly slow down the dust storms. Programs like these, though not always entirely successful, are what helped to keep 75% of the population from leaving the affected areas. That’s right; only 25% left as shown in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Most people, for a variety of reasons, elected to stay on their land if they could.

Books like this, and documentaries like Ken Burn’s makes, are what should keep us ahead of the curve when it comes to disasters, both natural and man-made. They comprise not only a veritable blueprint of what went wrong, but also a valuable insight into what it takes to make things right again. In times like these, there is much to be learned from the past.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" with Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio (1993)

When Albert Grape passes away he leaves behind a family of 5; a wife with emotional problems, 2 daughters, and two sons; one of whom is developmentally disabled. Johnny Depp plays Gilbert Grape, the older brother to Arnie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his finest roles ever.

Set in the town of Endora, where nothing ever happens, this film explores the nature of relationships and family. Gilbert feels trapped by his dead end job working in the town’s old grocery store. There is a new supermarket located just outside of town which serves as a harbinger of change which is set to come to Endora, and seems to symbolize the impending changes that will take place in Gilbert’s life, if he will only let go.

A new girl named Becky, played with great sensitivity by Juliette Lewis, arrives in town at the same time that Gilbert is having an affair with the wife of a local insurance salesman. She is able to understand and deal with Arnie, and does not view him as an obstacle to a relationship with Gilbert. As he begins to see that Becky may be the key to his freedom, he questions his relationship to the older woman. He realizes that he has been taking care of her emotional needs, much in the same way that he has always had to care for his widowed mother and siblings.

Gilberts mother, who was once the local beauty pageant winner, deals with all of the sadness and problems in her life by eating. She tops 500 pounds and has not left the living room sofa in years. She eats and sleeps there, with the family catering to her every need, which has a stifling effect on the rest of the family. They love her, but her problems complicate their own lives. It’s as if they cannot move forward as individuals while having to care for their mother. And she knows this.

Arnie manages to get into mischief in many different ways; the least of which is climbing the town’s water tower. Eventually this gets him taken into custody by the town police, which forces his mother to leave the house for the first time since her husband’s passing. She goes to the police station, demanding his release. When the family leaves the police station with Arnie, she sees most of the people in town have gathered to stare at her, some even taking pictures.

Realizing how her emotional problems have affected her family, she goes home and climbs the stairs to her bedroom for the first time in years. Gilbert and his sisters tuck her in, relieved that she is going to finally get some rest. But her excessive weight causes her to suffocate in her sleep, leaving the family seemingly rudderless.

But there is still one card left to play in this high stakes emotional drama, and Gilbert, along with his siblings, play that card, freeing them to live their own lives. A very emotional film, this movie underscores the ways in which all of our problems intersect with one another. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; we are all connected. What we do as individuals has an effect on all those around us. It’s up to us all to try and make those effects positive ones.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Jefferson Davis - A Love Story

One of the most poignant love stories ever told involves President Zachary Taylor and future President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. They were in love with the same woman, and the fallout arising from that love would sever the two men’s relationship for years to come.

Jefferson Davis was a graduate of West Point, as were many of the future Confederate Generals, when he was stationed at Fort Crawford in Wisconsin. It was there that he met and fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of the post commander and future President of the United States, Zachary Taylor. Davis was 23 and Sarah was 18 at the time. The General denied his permission for the young couple to wed based on his personal dislike for the young lieutenant, as well as his desire that his daughter not be subjected to the rigors of Army life.

But true love never dies, and after waiting for Sarah to attain the age of 21, Davis left the service and married her against her father’s wishes. They departed for Davis’s cotton plantation in Mississippi, stopping in Louisiana first to visit with Davis’s relations whom Sarah had not met. It was there that the couple both contracted malaria, with Davis making a full recovery. Sarah, however, did not fare so well, and after waiting over two years to be married, died in her husband’s arms only 3 months after their wedding. This marked the beginning of 8 years of self-imposed exile at his plantation.

By 1845 he had remarried and won a seat in Congress. The War with Mexico broke out soon after and Davis was chosen to lead a company of men from Mississippi in battle. Here, in one of life’s strangest twists, he found himself under the command of his ex-father in law. Davis fought a hard and bloody campaign, distinguishing himself and his men in several actions. Davis was wounded at Buena Vista.

The following morning, General Taylor arrived at the hospital tent where Davis was being treated. Looking at the wounded Captain Davis, the General told him, “My daughter was a better judge of men than I was.”

The two soldiers both went on to become Presidents; albeit of different countries. But, in spite of their differences over slavery and succession, the two remained close.  When elected President as a Whig in 1848, Taylor hosted Davis, and his second wife, at the White House on numerous occasions during his short term as the nation’s President. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

"Black Fire" by Robert Graysmith (2012)

When Mark Twain was living in San Francisco during the 1860’s, he became acquainted with a man named Tom Sawyer. That’s right; there really was a Tom Sawyer. And, as a bonus for me, he came from Brooklyn, New York.  Twain met Sawyer at the bath house run by Ed Stahle on Montgomery Street when the young Twain was working as a reporter for the Daily Morning Call. While in the bath house the two would play cards and swap tales. Mr. Sawyer’s adventures were so awe inspiring, and far ranging, that Twain never forgot about them, later incorporating them into his iconic book.

Robert Graysmith, author of several books, including “The Laughing Gorilla”, has done it again. He has taken on the subjects of Mark Twain, the history of San Francisco during the Gold Rush;  and all the characters of those heady days; weaving them together in a rollicking and highly entertaining fashion, to form this book.

The history of fire fighting in San Francisco is in many ways the same as in other cities of the time. Different private fire fighters competed with one another to be the first on the scene of a fire. There were pitched battles waged between these competitors, even while the fires raged, consuming the buildings the firemen were fighting so hard to protect. To make matters worse, there was no real building code to speak of, and houses were built of any available material, including oilcloth and canvas. Along with the wood used in almost every structure in town, the place was just waiting to burn down.

And burn it did; six times; between Christmas Eve of 1849 and the early summer of 1851. To help matters along there was an arsonist; or more than one; who may have even been a firefighter.  Mr. Sawyer’s gripping accounts of the battles waged by the competing fire companies, along with the complete indifference of both the populace and their elected officials to the formation of a Fire Department, would make this a great book all by itself. But, by exploring the relationship between Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer, the author has gone further in giving this book a special place in any collection.

In his usual, almost lyrical, fashion the author has given life to the cold hard facts of how many buildings were destroyed and how much it all cost in dollars. The description of the horror could only be described by one who not only lived it, but by someone who fought the blazes and ate the smoke.

Sawyer was a firefighter in New York before boarding a ship that took him around the horn of South America and on to San Francisco. He was, at times, a firefighter, a seaman, and eventually; playing upon the notoriety brought on by Mark Twain’s book; he became a very well-known saloon keeper.

Although the story of the real life existence of Tom Sawyer has been told before, it has always been a short footnote explaining that there really was a Tom Sawyer. And that’s about it. Mr. Graysmith is; I believe; the first author to seriously undertake the telling of the entire story of both Mr. Sawyer, and how his real life exploits came to inspire Mark Twain to write one of the most beloved American novels.