Friday, January 31, 2014

"Centerburg Tales" by Robert McCloskey (1951)

This is the 2nd of the Homer Price books by Robert McCloskey. The book opens in Centerburg, the town which sits just a couple of miles from Homer’s home at the intersection of two highways. Mr. McCloskey has a way of getting right to the heart of the matter when it comes to children’s things, and he starts off with a chapter called "The Hide –A-Ride".

The kids in town all know and love Grandpa Hercules; whom they call Uncle Herc for short; and he is a big part of their lives as they go about their daily lives. He spins stories while they spin tops, and he manages to infuse all of his tales; true or not; with a bit of local history. In this chapter he spins an unlikely, though wonderful tale about a ride he helped to build for the Indian natives way back when.

That endeavor involved a barrel rolling down hill, which had an intoxicating effect on the Indians, but was bad for the barrels. So, Grandpa Herc invented the Hide-A Ride, which was a mechanized way for the barrel to be spun without destroying it each time. It’s kind of a Rube Goldberg contraption, with a wonderful illustration by the author for the more unimaginative. This story would probably be politically incorrect by today’s standard, illustrating just how “enlightened”; or thin skinned; we have become.

In "Sparrow Courthouse" the author spins the yarn about the time the town of Sparrow got their days and nights mixed up by following the time on the Courthouse clock without question. A stranger passing through realizes that the problem is being caused by the sparrows sitting on the hands of the clock, making time move slower in a sense. By the time the stranger is able to convince the town of the cause, they have been living night by day, and day by night. (This story was written at the beginning of the HUACC hearings and I can’t help but wonder if this is a sly poke at blind loyalty.)

Grandpa Herc has had many experiences, all of which he eagerly shares with the kids of Centerburg. Like the time he went hunting for gold in California. His adventures there with Hopper McThud are so enthralling that at one point Grandpa has the crowd so mesmerized that they are all looking at the luncheonette ceiling as he describes a cliff hundreds of feet in the air. This guy is some story teller!

One day Grandpa gets a package from Gravity-Bitties, a breakfast food for champion jumpers. This cereal is so potent that it comes with a chunk of lead to put inside your coat to keep you from jumping too far. But Grandpa is wiser than all of the advertisements and proves his wisdom by not eating the Gravity-Bitties and jumping far anyway. His point was proving that the advertising people don’t know what they are talking about. Heck, he fed the cereal to the chickens!

From Homers experiments at home to the goings on at the barbershop, these stories are emblematic of what life was like in the years after the Second World War. In so many ways we were at the acme of our strength and influence as a nation. Socially there were still kinks to be worked out in the areas of Civil Rights and poverty, but for the most part these was the best of times. And in Robert McCloskey’s books about Homer Price those times are palpable.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Father at 83

We never called my father “Dad”. His real name was Bill. But we called him “Bail”, which I suppose came about when either my brother or I asked him what his name was and we couldn't pronounce it right. Either way, I don’t ever remember calling him “Dad” until age 18, when I had already left home. So, in some ways you might say that I grew up without a father. But that would be quite a stretch as he was always around. We just didn’t call him “Dad”, as all the other kids I knew addressed their fathers.

Then there was the time in between; when we were aware that “Bail” was an odd thing to call your father, but weren’t comfortable enough to use the term “Dad.” So, at that point we didn’t call him anything. Oddly, on all of the cards and notes which were preserved by my mother; whom we called “Mom”; we addressed him as “Dad”. We just never spoke it.

It may have been about the time when my brother started to get serious with his then girlfriend Helene that this became an issue in our home. I’m not sure. But it was a long time until I felt comfortable addressing him in that fashion.

Today would have been his 83rd birthday. I can’t say I miss him much; we didn't speak for the last 10 years of his life; and spent much of the rest of it at odds with one another. I cannot even imagine having a relationship with him at all.

There is an old photo of my brother and I in our bedroom in Brooklyn when I was about 10 years old. On the wall over the toy box hangs my first guitar. I got it for Christmas and was eager to make some music. But I was not allowed to play it unless I took lessons. I was never going to be good at math because my mother wasn't. I would never be strong, I would never be able to make a living because my health was bad. The list went on and on.

Today he would have been 83. Hey Dad; I excel at mathematics; even taught myself to navigate by the stars.  I learned it from a book. I've traveled the world 3 times by ship, plane, foot and train. I got really strong while serving in the U.S. Navy and later as a Merchant Mariner. I’ve even built shopping centers and housing developments using those math skills I’d never be good at. I became a surveyor and an Estimator, excelling at both. Later I became a Contract Administrator. Attorneys have called me seeking advice. I own 4 guitars and play them all well enough to satisfy my musical urges and even entertain others; as long as I don't sing.

And remember that $1,000 life insurance policy you bought from Uncle Roy when I was 6 years old? You cancelled my brothers but kept mine active until the day you died. I was 47 years old at that time. You never collected the $350 that had accrued in value over the 40 year period in which you paid over $1,000 into it. I guess you were wrong about me dying before you did. And I was wrong about you being so smart in financial matters.

In short; you were wrong about so many things; but mainly you were wrong about me. Happy Birthday, "Dad".

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

WTC Museum - Cash Cow

The World Trade Center Museum has been hijacked. Not physically. Financially. The City of New York, along with the Port Authority have both resisted the efforts of many American’s; including the families of the victims; to have the Museum taken over by the National Park Service. You have to wonder why since they have been complaining about the cost of operating it since before it even opened.

Last week the WTC Museum Commission asked for the okay to charge $24 for admission to the hallowed grounds where terrorists struck in 2001. So, I began to look into who the people were on the Commission itself. It’s a long list, many of whom are nothing more than political donors. I called and asked to speak with someone about the museum and the admission price. I was transferred to a Mr. Quido. I am not making that up. I am also still waiting on that return call.

I happened to voice my concerns to a friend of mine in New York and the very next day he ran across the following Letter to the Editor in a paper called “The Chief”, a paper which caters to Civil Service Employees in NYC.  The letter speaks volumes, and summarizes my concerns so well that I am posting it here. 

Decide for yourself what you think is right. Personally, I think that when you realize the game of extortion being played out by the Commission you will agree that the Museum needs to be taken over by the National Park Service, just like the USS Arizona in Hawaii.

To The Editor:

In the latest example of money-grubbing by the excessively high-salaried management of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, it now appears they are demanding a handout from NY City and State for millions of dollars to satisfy their bloated salaries and fiscal mismanagement.

According to the Wall Street Journal ("9/11 Memorial to Seek Funds From  New York's Mayor," 1/15/14), the memorial and museum foundation (which is chaired by Michael Bloomberg) is asking Mayor de Blasio and the city to pay for nearly a third of its bloated budget.

We agree with Mayor de Blasio's spokesperson, Marti Adams, that the Federal Government must play a "central role" in funding. However, instead of a handout, we insist that the well-respected  National Park Service take over the complete control of the 9/11 memorial and museum and bring the professionalism and fiscal constraints that this out-of-control situation at Ground Zero so desperately needs.

In addition, it appears legislation is yet again being prepared for introduction in the U.S. Senate to provide Federal funding for the memorial and museum. This comes on the heels of a failed attempt in 2011 by the memorial foundation to "allow" for the Department of the Interior (National Park Service) to accept a "gift" of the property of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in return for a $20 million annual stipend.

Many 9/11 families continue to oppose a bailout plan- they do not feel the Federal Government should pay for an enormously-expensive memorial and museum in which the Federal Government- as well as the families of the victims- had virtually no role in the nearly one billion dollar design and planning.

We therefore petition Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, to support fiscal responsibility and patriotism, and advocate for a bill in which the National Park Service can assume complete control and operation of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero.

This is the least that the victims of 9/11, their grieving families, and the American public deserve.

Chief Jim Riches
FDNY (retired)

Chairman, 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An Image of Justice - Deaf, Dumb and Blind (1944)

They say that Justice is blind. That needs to be amended. At times, justice can be plain deaf and dumb. I don’t mean that as an affront to people who have difficulty with hearing and speaking. I mean it in the worst possible way - as in ignorance.

George Stinney, Jr. was 14 years old in March 1944 when he was arrested and charged with the murder of 2 white girls; Betty June Binnacker and Mary Emma Thames, aged 11 and 8 respectively. The girls had gone looking for wildflowers along the railroad tracks which divided the town of Alcolu, South Carolina by race and never made it home.  

During the subsequent search for the missing girls; which young Mr. Stinney participated in; he happened to mention that he had seen the girls earlier that day. He was immediately arrested and charged with their disappearance. When the bodies were found in a drainage culvert; bludgeoned to death; Stinney was charged with their murder.

Detectives; possibly the two in the photograph above; extracted a confession from the boy with the promise of ice cream. No legal representative was present when he allegedly confessed to the crime. To make matters even worse his parents were not permitted to see him between the time of his arrest in March and his execution in the electric chair that June. Even by the standards of the time, this was beyond the pale. That is, unless you were a 14 year old black kid in Alcolu, South Carolina in 1944.

George Stinney was 5’1” tall and weighed 95 pounds. They had to stack books on the seat of the electric chair in order to kill him. Kind of like a booster seat at the barber shop when I was a kid. That photo above was taken as Stinney, and a 21 year old named Bruce Hamilton, were being taken into the death house in Columbia, South Carolina for their executions.

Aside from Mr. Stinney’s diminutive stature the thing that most captures my attention are the two officers who are standing on either side of the boys. Those two are never named. I have looked for their names and come up empty. I’m sure that if I worked at it hard enough and long enough I could find out. They were, after all, the authority in the town. They had the power, and the license, to put people to death if they ran afoul of the law. These were the respectable ones

Here's Mr. Stinney's mug shot. It will give you a better idea of just how young he was. He was, truly, just a boy. There is no written record of his supposed confession. His trial lasted a mere hours. There was no appeal and he had no representation to speak of.

So, you have to wonder; most people take great pains to tell you that someone in their families have been in the news; especially when it's something historical. I’m sure those two officers names were in the paper that day. That begs the question of just why those two men are never named in the photograph anymore, and why no one claims them as their own. Which is all you need to know to understand just how wrong this was.

Note: I am not against the death penalty. I just think you should have to prove it first.

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Act of War" by Jack Cheevers (2013)

I was just a bit over 13 years old when the Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. Coming, as it did, in the midst of the Vietnam War I couldn’t quite understand why we just didn’t run in and bomb the hell out of them and take our ship back. As I said, I was just 13 at the time.

Six months previous to this Israel had bombed the USS Liberty in the Mediterranean as she was off the coast of Israel during the 6 day War. The United States took no action beyond a diplomatic note critical of the Israeli action. 34 American sailors were killed and over 150 wounded. How much this contributed to North Korea’s decision to seize the Pueblo will never be known; but undoubtedly it was a factor in that decision.

Author Jack Cheevers has penned a memorable book, which is also the first; to take a broad look at the Pueblo incident, as it has come to be known. This book would have you on the edge of your seat even without the extensive examination of the different scenarios which may have been at play in this story.

The main question I have always had is why the Pueblo was loaded with so much classified information and secret publications, almost none of which involved her mission, when it was headed out on a very risky patrol to probe the North Korean system of defenses? The mission was deemed risky enough to have the Pueblo maintain a 13 mile limit from shore, rather than the 3 miles usually recognized by the United States. That alone should tip you that all is not as it seems to be.

There are actually 3 different scenarios which could explain the seizure of one of our ships; it sits today as a symbol of propaganda in North Korea; and its crew, all of whom suffered for 11 months in a North Korean prison. Torture was routine and medical care non-existent. The one crewman who was operated upon for wounds received when the North Koreans attacked Pueblo, was not given any anesthesia at all for the extensive procedures he underwent. Others were returned with untreated compound fractures, and Quartermaster Bernard Law lost most of his eyesight to the effects of malnutrition.

The first and most widely accepted scenario is that Pueblo was spying on North Korea; there is no real doubt about that; and was captured. This doesn’t add up because another U.S. Navy ship, the Banner, had been doing the same thing for a few years at the time. She had some close calls when the Koreans would come out and “charge” the Banner, only turning at the last possible moment to avoid a collision. 

But this begs the question of what would have made the Koreans deviate from such limited action when it came to the Pueblo? With the ship on radio silence for the 12 days previous to the seizure we will never know, independent of the Pueblo’s own logs, whether or not she did indeed violate territorial waters.

Scenario 2 is a bit more complicated. The night before her seizure the North Koreans had slipped in a group of military commandos to South Korea. Their target was the leader of South Korea, President Park. He was to be beheaded in his palace; the intent being to trigger new hostilities with South Korea while the United States was bogged down in Vietnam. With only 50,000 American troops in South Korea at the time, it was apparent that hostilities with the North would require the diversion of troops from Vietnam, which would have been very helpful to the North Vietnamese.

At the same time there were 50,000 South Korean soldiers fighting on our side in Vietnam. An incursion by the North would most likely require that those troops be returned to Seoul in order to defend the capitol. This would have a pronounced effect on the American efforts in that war. At the time President Johnson was asking for more troops from President Park. The raid on the Blue House threatened that effort.

Still, a third and more interesting approach to the Pueblo’s seizure involves the actions of a spy ring operating in the Pacific which was compromising our “key codes” and making it almost impossible for our B-52’s to hit any targets of real value in North Vietnam. That mystery was eventually solved with the arrest and conviction of Navy Radioman John A. Walker. Along with a nephew and at least one other person, the damage done by Walker is estimated to have prolonged the Vietnam War for enough time to cost over 20,000 American battle deaths. He is still currently serving out the rest of his life in prison.

This 3rd scenario would have the Navy making the decision to have the Pueblo become expendable. To that end it was loaded with classified information and secret publications which had nothing to do with her mission and no means of destroying it all in a timely fashion. This could only have been the result of a decision to “reset” all of the codes while making the enemy think they had captured the current ones. Then, by a comparison of the information still being leaked; or not; they would be able to uncover the source of that leak. 
Even if he had not ventured into any of the politics involved in the whole affair, Mr. Cheevers has captured all of the tension and uncertainty of Commander Bucher and his crew during the tedious and sometimes trying voyage en route to North Korea; as well as the capture of the Pueblo and her crew itself. 

But the real “meat” in this book is the story of the sufferings and deprivations experienced by the crew of the Pueblo and her Captain by the North Koreans. From mock executions, beatings and show trials; as well as forcing their captives to pose for propaganda photos and even films; the North Koreans exhibited for the world their true barbarity.

The next 11 months in captivity are chronicled in stark detail, with the author making use of information culled from interviews he conducted with Commander Bucher, and some of the crew members, about their imprisonment. Commander Bucher was often separated from his men; seeing them only sporadically; yet his concern for the crew is clearly visible. After they are moved to a different location for the remainder of their interment, he is even able to establish some semblance of a chain of command.

At the same time, the author fully summarizes the careful dance between Moscow and Washington as they each try to control their separate “puppets.” To lose that control would mean a showdown between superpowers, similar to the one that had taken place less than 5 years earlier over the missiles in Cuba. In some ways, North Korea was hoping for just that scenario to develop.

The actions; or inactions; of the other branches of the Armed Forces; as well as the decisions made by top Defense officials;  including President Johnson; are all examined here. The author never really points the finger at any one individual or group; but the information is all here for the reader to draw their own conclusion as to how this seizure could have taken place unavenged. Indeed, the American public was clamoring for action. And the South Koreans were understandably enraged to the point of going to war with North Korea again. Only the promise of more military aid; including ships; was able to deter President Park from leaving the UN coalition and declaring war on North Korea.

As you review the timing of the release of the Pueblo crew, you cannot help but make some comparison to the way the Iranian hostage crisis was used to influence an election. Remember that the back door diplomacy by Ronald Reagan kept those hostages captive until after Reagan was inaugurated; just as these men were held until after the Democrats had lost the election in November 1968. Richard Nixon was about to take mantle of leadership, promising to end the War in Vietnam and recognize China in the United Nations. A full examination of the Pueblo Incident would have to take that scenario into account.

Through skillful “negotiations” and some back channel diplomacy involving a group of neutral nations, talks were begun as early as one month after the Pueblo had been seized. The North Koreans used the time at the table to cajole and rant at the American negotiators, seeming to enjoy the embarrassment that they were causing the United States. With the War in Vietnam going at full tilt, and the Tet Offensive underway, the United States was in a precarious position in relation to ever getting the crew released alive, if at all.

Mr. Cheevers also takes the time to explore the backgrounds of each of the key players as the drama unfolds, which serves to lend a wider view of the whole affair. Fully explored are questions such as who was President Park and how did he come to power in South Korea? What were the thoughts and actions of the South Korean people in the wake of the attempted assassination of their President? How did the Soviets react, and what were the American people thinking?

The book is a wonderfully crafted look at not only the Pueblo Affair, but the entire region. It also examines how North Korea; with more than a little help from China and Russia; has managed to stay afloat in the midst of her economic difficulties, which at times have kept her from being able to sustain a viable economy, or even to feed her own people. There is much to be learned from this book and its author.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Popeye the Sailor" with Betty Boop (1933)

I hurt my hand and cannot blog for a few days - Please excuse me while I heal and enjoy a couple of my old favorites...

What could be more entertaining than a classic cartoon featuring 2 of the most recognizable feature cartoon characters in it? In this 8 minute classic, Popeye the Sailor finds himself ashore after an ocean voyage. He elects to take Olive Oyl to the Carnival with predictable results, as he and Bluto compete in their never ending quest for her affections.

When the Hula Hula dancer (Betty Boop) makes her appearance and Popeye jumps on stage to perform with her, Bluto sees his chance and takes it; or rather, Olive; and kidnaps her with the intention of making her his wife whether she likes it or not.

By the way, while Popeye is dancing, at about 5 minutes into the cartoon, he encounters a snake on stage, and places his pipe under the serpents nose, quickly neutralizing the snake and calling into question just what was in that pipe? This is not the first time I have sensed that Popeye was a “smoker.” In several other cartoons he uses his pipe as a blowtorch to open the can and then inhales the “spinach” through the pipe.

Once Popeye realizes that Olive is gone and in danger, he jumps into “high” gear; and the chase is on to save the woman of his dreams. As in all of the old cartoons, everything works out in the end for Popeye and Olive. This is a unique cartoon in that it is the first one for Popeye and the only one in which he appears with Betty Boop. He also sings the entire theme song, which was composed by Sammy Lerner in 1933 for this cartoon. It was also a hit for Hoagy Carmichael, which I play in my car, much to most people’s disbelief.

Until this cartoon’s release in 1933, Popeye had only been in the funny papers since January of 1929, drawn by E.C. Segar for the Thimble Theater series. Segar had been working with King Features Syndicate since 1919. Riding the wave of success surrounding the Betty Boop cartoons, Max Fleischer decided to animate the cartoon strip, He chose a Betty Boop cartoon to do it in, figuring that if it failed to gain any traction, it wouldn’t be noticed for long. 

Of course, Betty Boop may have remained a staple in the world of classic cartoons, but Popeye went on to greater success in the 1950’s when King Features re-vitalized him in a new format featuring Brutus in Bluto’s place. Those cartoons never did measure up to the “trippy” style which rolled out of the studios during the 1930’s, making them a delight to watch even today, 80 years later.

Friday, January 24, 2014

" A Dog Named Beau" - Jimmy Stewart (1981)

Johnny Carson used to let Jimmy Stewart read his poetry quite often when he appeared on his show. This one, filmed in July 1981 is particularly good on several levels, the most important being his delivery.

Notice that when he begins that the audience is merely indulging this aging thespian, expecting something “cute” from the old guy. They laugh; appropriately; at the right moments as Mr. Stewart recalls his beloved dog, Beau. 

What the audience didn't fully grasp at the outset was that the poem is really a eulogy, extolling his love for his companion, who is now gone. What’s more, they didn’t expect to feel anything, let alone witness someone else bear his own emotions so unashamedly, as Mr. Stewart does.

So, if you have never seen this clip, please take the time and listen to the reaction of the audience as this seasoned professional, in his own folksy way, takes the audience from laughter to tears with this paean of love for his now lost dog, Beau.

He never came to me when I would call
Unless I had a tennis ball,
Or he felt like it,
But mostly he didn't come at all.

When he was young
He never learned to heel
Or sit or stay,
He did things his way.

Discipline was not his bag.
But when you were with him things sure didn't drag.
He'd dig up a rosebush just to spite me,
And when I'd grab him, he'd turn and bite me.

He bit lots of folks from day to day,
The delivery boy was his favorite prey.
The gas man wouldn't read our meter,
He said we owned a real man-eater.

He set the house on fire
But the story's long to tell.
Suffice it to say that he survived
And the house survived as well.

On the evening walks, and Gloria took him,
He was always first out the door.
The Old One and I brought up the rear
Because our bones were sore.

He would charge up the street with Mom hanging on,
What a beautiful pair they were!
And if it was still light and the tourists were out,
They created a bit of a stir.

But every once in a while, he would stop in his tracks
And with a frown on his face look around.
It was just to make sure that the Old One was there
And would follow him where he was bound.

We are early-to-bedders at our house--
I guess I'm the first to retire.
And as I'd leave the room he'd look at me
And get up from his place by the fire.

He knew where the tennis balls were upstairs,
And I'd give him one for a while.
He would push it under the bed with his nose
And I'd fish it out with a smile.

And before very long
He'd tire of the ball
And be asleep in his corner
In no time at all.

And there were nights when I'd feel him
Climb upon our bed
And lie between us, And I'd pat his head.

And there were nights when I'd feel this stare
And I'd wake up and he'd be sitting there
And I reach out my hand and stroke his hair.
And sometimes I'd feel him sigh
and I think I know the reason why.

He would wake up at night
And he would have this fear
Of the dark, of life, of lots of things,
And he'd be glad to have me near.

And now he's dead.
And there are nights when I think I feel him
Climb upon our bed and lie between us,
And I pat his head.

And there are nights when I think
I feel that stare
And I reach out my hand to stroke his hair,
But he's not there.
Oh, how I wish that wasn't so,
I'll always love a dog named Beau.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The USS Pueblo - January 23, 1968

I was 13 years old when the USS Pueblo, AGER-2, was seized off the North Korean coast and towed into port, where the crew was charged with Espionage. For the next 11 months the 83 man crew would be held prisoner by the Republic of North Korea under the most inhumane conditions. Wounds received during the initial confrontation with the Koreans were left untreated for the duration. Even when one crewman became so ill that surgery was unavoidable, that surgery was performed without the benefit of anesthesia.

I have always held serious reservations concerning the how and why behind the capture of the Pueblo. I had hoped to be finished with a book I am reading on the subject in time to post a review of it here today. That review will be posted here next week on Monday.

In the meantime I felt that I should at least commemorate the day in some fashion. While looking at the material available on You Tube I came across this little film which is kind of like a documentary, but with a twist.

“Bucher’s Bastard’s” is the title of a poem written by Pueblo crew member Murray Kisler while in captivity. It is satirical in nature, poking fun at the North Koreans and even making sport of themselves in reference to their unfortunate circumstances.

While I have serious questions about the way the Pueblo was apparently “set up” to become the victim she became, I have nothing but admiration for her Captain and crew, who were pawns in a deadly Cold War game involving Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China and even Israel which had attacked our ship USS Liberty in June of 1967. That unprovoked and un-avenged attack inadvertently sent a signal to countries such as North Korea that America did not possess the resolve necessary to back up its actions.

The crew of the Pueblo was returned to the United States 2 days before Christmas 1968. The Johnson administration was on its way out and Nixon was on his way in. The only other time I remember the timing of something like this coinciding with a change in leadership in Washington, D.C. would not happen again until the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979. Those captives at our Embassy in Tehran would also not be released until Jimmy Carter had lost his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan. It was later shown that negotiations for their release had been held up until a change in American leadership.

This begs the question of whether or not something similar may have been in the works concerning the crew of the USS Pueblo. As I said, I am just finishing up reading the book “Act of War” by Jack Cheevers and plan to post the review next Monday. In the meantime, enjoy this film and marvel at the ability of America’s fighting men to keep a sense of humor; and even honor; when faced with the most trying of circumstances, as these men were.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Into the White" with Stig Henrik Hoff, David Kross and Lachlan Nieboer (2012)

On April 27, 1940 two enemy planes; one British, one German; fought in the skies over Norway. They shot one another down and crash landed miles from anywhere. The Germans left their plane and spent the night in the snow. The British spent the night in their plane. What happened next is one of the most extraordinary set of events to arise out of the Second World War.

Within days of the shoot down, the two crews; 3 Germans and 2 Englishmen; find themselves vying for control of the same rustic hunting cabin. They must come to terms with one another and learn to work as a team or they will die. It’s that simple. Florian Lukas is convincing as the German Lieutenant Horst Schopis, and Lachlan Nieboer is equally effective as RAF Captain Charles P. Davenport. The two struggle at first to keep their respective subordinates in line, while struggling with their own doubts and fears.
At first tempers flare and the men all struggle for control of the 3 weapons which the German flyers possess. The balance of power shifts back and forth in this amazing and true story. The Germans have the upper hand at first, but as the captors they must provide for the captives. This grows old fast. And when the guns change hands the British flyers find that they cannot care for their captives as well as the Germans had cared for them; albeit unwillingly at first.

Soon, reality sets in and the men realize that they must discard their petty differences or they will never make it until the spring thaw. At this point they begin to understand the futility of the war they have been fighting and even contemplate remaining where they are for the duration.

When the Norwegian Patrol gets word that someone is living at the cabin they set off to capture the men; whom they believe to be German. When they find the two enemies living in harmony they are incensed. While they understand that the Germans had the guns they cannot understand why the British did not kill them when the guns changed hands. It appears that the British are going to be charged with collaborating with the enemy.

The Germans are led away to a POW camp for the duration, while the 2 RAF flyers are returned to duty, where they are shot down and imprisoned for the rest of the war. In 1977 Captain Davenport of the RAF called Lt. Schopis and invited him to London where the 2 former enemies finally became friends.

This movie is a real statement about war and human nature. Tersely directed so that you feel every moment of the cold and indecision, the film invites you to think about the difference between blind duties and simple humanity. That is a bold statement in and of itself.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Non Aggressive Cats - An Absurd Notion

Last week I read something so absurd that I am afraid to pass it on lest I incur the wrath of those who love cats; the animals, not the show. The article in question here was located in my local newspaper on the science page, if that tells you anything.

Basically speaking the article came to the conclusion that cats see human beings as “non-aggressive cats” and show that affection by rubbing against you to clean themselves; as they might with another cat; or the posture of their tails. Rubbish.

There is no way my cat considers me to be anything other than an upright, knuckle dragging, mouth breathing, possessor of opposable thumbs who lives in a heated home and drives a car far, far away to unknown locations, in order to get cans of tuna fish, which I then proceed to open with those incredible thumbs of mine to feed him with.

Anything else is mere conjecture, or simply rubbish. In addition, Midnight feels that it may be actionable.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Year Zero" by Ian Buruma (2013)

What a book! Author Ian Buruma; whose father was a German soldier; has written a book about the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and how man’s inhumanity to man continued in the wake of the worst conflict the world has ever known. At times he even draws upon the writings of prominent German, French and Japanese authors such as Nagai Kafu and Benoite Groult to augment his narrative about post war life in the defeated countries. In doing so, he has painted a searing portrait of mankind at its worst.

As soon as the guns ceased their firing people were looking for retribution against their former tormentors; be they Nazi’s, Japanese or Russian military; all were targets of the wrath of the millions who had been crushed under the heels of fascism, or been kicked by the boots of communism. There was no middle ground, and without a doubt these retributions were long overdue.

The point of this book is, I believe, to show how inhumanity can take so many different forms. How else to explain what happened in Poland after the war, when the Polish people continued killing Jews, sometimes just to prevent them from reclaiming their homes.  With a twisted zeal the Poles went after the surviving Jews for being Communists, being Fascists, and just for being Jews. After all, hadn’t they caused this war?

In Germany, the Russians were embarked upon an orgy of rape and violence not unlike the Japanese Rape of Nanking in the 1930’s. In just about every other liberated country the scene was the same, as the newly freed turned on the people who had collaborated with the enemy.

The disparity between the Nuremburg trials and the Japanese war crime trials in the Philippines is astounding. While we executed General Yamashita for the Massacre at Manila and the Bataan Death March; events he was not even present for; we let Lt. Gen. Masaji and his assistant, Lt. Gen. Shiro; go free. These 2 men were amongst the most monstrous of the Japanese war criminals, having conducted brutal “medical” experiments on POW’s and civilians alike. Through the efforts of General Willoughby the United States took the position that these experiments were important enough to keep from the Soviets, and so they were spared. Shiro died peacefully in 1959 while Masaji went on to found Green Cross, the largest blood bank in Japan.

Sexual activity was a big part of the end of the war. It was not only an expression of relief by the people who had endured long separations from loved ones; but also an economy unto itself. In Japan the women who “worked the trade” were known as Pan Pan Girls, and they were the object of resentment by their own countrymen. The reason is primal; what could be worse than losing a war and having the conqueror take your women? It was the same in Germany with the “Ruinenmauschen”, or “mice in the ruins”, who actively sought the company of Allied soldiers in order to obtain the material goods attendant to such a relationship.

One of the most emotional points of this book comes when Bergen-Belzen is liberated. Through a typical Army supply line screw up, cases of lipstick are delivered to the survivors in place of the earnestly needed food and medical supplies. The women; some still too weak to stand; were delighted and began immediately to make an attempt to alter their grotesque appearances. The medical officer in charge stated that the lipstick just might have given these women the little boost they needed to begin reclaiming their former identities. This moved me to tears.

No matter how you slice it, war is hell. And, we never really focus on anything past the joy brought about by the end of hostilities. We all know about the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan. We all know that there was great deprivation in both Europe and Asia after the war was over. But this is the first book I have read which focuses entirely on the year 1945 and the conditions resulting from the end of the war.

For a good follow up to this book I recommend viewing the film “Germany, Year Zero”, which the author mentions and obviously influenced his work. Directed by Roberto Rossellini and released in 1948, this film follows a young German boy as he attempts to navigate life in his war torn country. Having been born and raised in the United States, books and films like these are important reminders of just how lucky we have been for so long.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Sweet Jane" - Lou Reed Live

Lou Reed defined New York City Punk Rock in the early 1970’s and even pulled that weight long into the 1980’s and beyond. I was never a huge fan, but some of his stuff was stellar, like this song. Another highlight of his long career was the album “Coney Island” released in the late 1970’s.

Some folks dismiss him as a minor blip on the radar of Rock and Roll history, but I have to disagree. He was influential in taking the music he heard and turning that into something new and unique. His lyrics were always edgy, as in “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” which explored the gay sex scene just a few years after the Stonewall Riots in New York’s West Village. The man pushed envelopes.

Although not a guitarist along the lines of Eric Clapton or any of the other superstars he was able to gain and hold a fan base for over 40 years with only a few big hits to sustain him. His magic was in connecting with his audience and knowing how to reach them. Just listen to this song; I mean how many ways can you play 2 chords over and over again and keep it interesting? Somehow he does, which presents an equal challenge for the lead guitarist.

There is a much earlier version of this song recorded in Paris in 1974. Mr. Reed was decidedly under the influence of “glam rock” at the time; it shows in his stage dress. Contrast that video with the later, more mature version and see which you prefer. Both are very good, I just preferred to post the one above. I think it’s because of the more simple staging, and perhaps the sound quality. That video is at;

And, if anyone knows when and where the video at the top was recorded, please let me know!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Frank Zappa on the Steve Allen Show - (1963)

Much has been written and said about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Beatles legendary first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. But, eleven months before that occasion, Steve Allen was already looking for the next big musical sound. In this March 4, 1963 broadcast Mr. Allen looks on as Frank Zappa, later of the Mothers of Invention, plays a pair of bicycles with drumsticks, proving that percussion can be found anywhere.

And, as if that isn't enough to impress the audience, he then proves that a bicycle’s handlebars can also be used as a wind instrument. The result on the audience is comical, and Mr. Allen is, of course, making sport of the whole thing. But watch Frank Zappa.

Throughout the whole ordeal; which at times it must have been; he has a gleam in his eye, as if he can already see and hear the future direction which pop music will take in just a few more years. Those discordant sounds emanating from the bicycles are the birth cries of a new genre of music called Heavy Metal. 

The cacophony of sound made on the Steve Allen Show that night would pale in comparison to the later sounds of super groups such as The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Cream. But, listen closely; you can hear the train of musical change coming in this unique performance by Frank Zappa. He was a most unusual man…

Friday, January 17, 2014

Old Slides #2 - Learning How to Fly (1957)

Most photos have a “back story” to them; where and when the photo was taken being the least important of the details. What happened just before the shutter clicked can be very revealing in some cases. And that’s what makes the photograph above, which is one of a series taken on Veteran’s day 1957, so unusual. There is none.

As I sift through the old family photos I can find very few where there is not something else that has just occurred which mars the memory a bit. Behind most of the smiling faces there was either a very recent scolding, argument or some other stupid and unnecessary problem. No one is really to blame for that; it’s just the dynamics of an ordinary family living and growing; together or apart.

But, let’s get back to this photograph which was taken over 57 years ago. This one is of me and my Dad. I’m the little guy holding the string. He’s the big guy showing me how to fly the kite. It was one of those big paper kites; bright red and with a tail made of rags. We were at Riis Park; for some reason we were always at Riis Park; winter or summer. I’m not complaining; I loved the place!

Riis Park was named after Jacob Riis, the famous campaigner for decent housing and social reform. His photographs of the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th Century are iconic. He championed airways in the tenements and windows in every room. It was only fitting that a bright, sunny, public beach be named for him.

Once again; back to this photograph. In the years after this was taken; remember I said that every picture has a “back story”? Well, this one really has more of a “front story”, as it was taken less than 2 years before my mother began a long illness, which permeated my entire childhood. I didn't really mind, I just always hoped that she would get better; but she never did.

So, this photo is one of the rare ones in which my Dad is smiling and really means it. Life was good. He had just been through the only job “layoff” he would ever know, and also had pneumonia, one of the only times I had ever seen him ill. The other time was when he gave up smoking in 1962 or ’63 after the Surgeon General’s first warning about cigarettes causing cancer. He didn't even wait until the warning was on the pack. He just stopped. And was very ill; throwing up and bedridden for several days. It was cold turkey, just like heroin withdrawal. He may have lapsed once or twice in the first few years after, but never went back to smoking full time again. Instead he discovered M&M’s.

We would go grocery shopping on Thursday nights when my mother wasn't in the hospital; and my Dad would buy a box of Peanut Chews, or a 1 pound bag of M&M's, which we would eat before getting home.When my Mom was in the hospital, either my brother or I would pick up what was necessary ourselves. We used a pull along type folding “shopping cart” to wheel the groceries home. My brother was not fond of this chore; I think he found it embarrassing for some reason; so I was usually the one “bringing home the bacon.”

So, this is a picture of my father before all the bad times began. It’s also part of a set of 14 photographs taken that day. My Dad’s teaching me how to fly a kite, a skill which I have passed on to my daughter and 2 of my granddaughters. And whenever I look at this photo I remember what it was like to have my parents and my brother, before all the bad times began.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Homer Price" by Robert McCloskey (1948)

I was unaware of the wonderful, wacky world of Homer Price until Glen Slater, a fellow blogger from New York City, called my attention to his book “Homer Price” last week. What a break for me! This book, by author/illustrator Robert McCloskey is nothing less than Dr. Seuss on steroids.

Homer lives just outside the town of Centerburg, or as the author puts it, “where Route 56 meets 56A.” But most of his family and friends live in Centerburg itself, which gives the author plenty of room to work with as Homer gets involved in a myriad of adventures.

From his home bedroom “workshop”, where he builds radios, to the new suburban housing development being built, this book is representative of life in the late 1940’s, just after the Second World War and the beginning of the most prosperous time in American history.

Homer has a pet raccoon named Aroma, which reminded me of Sterling North’s award winning book “Rascal” which won the Newberry Award in 1963. I have no doubt that Mr. North read this book sometime previous to writing his. Together, Homer and Aroma are able to solve a robbery with Aroma using his most potent weapon to nab the culprits.

From his relatives to some of the town’s more odd denizens, Homer is always at the center of something in Centerburg. For instance, there is the tale of the Mystery Yarn, which has Homer helping his Uncle Telly create a huge ball of yarn. This in itself is of no particular interest until you involve the Sheriff; who is also a string saver like Uncle Telly; and then the Town Fair as the backdrop for a contest between the two. They are going to unwind their balls of string to settle; once and for all; which is the most tightly wound of the two. Not the Sheriff and Uncle Telly; but the ball of string.

Then there is the day that Homer goes to the movies to see the latest installment of the series about Super-Duper, a superhero drawn along the lines of Superman. Super Duper is even on hand to greet his fans. When asked to fly, he excuses himself by insisting that he doesn't have time. After the film is over Homer is on the way home with his friends when Super Duper comes up from behind and passes their horse drawn wagon with a SWOOSH. A few miles down the road the boys discover their super hero in a ditch, having driven his car off the road. After seeing that he cannot lift the car by himself,he boys use the horse to pull him back on the road.

Back in town, the grateful Super Duper gives the boys a complete set of his comic books as a reward. But, having seen that Super Duper is really just human after all, Homer decides that by trading those comics before word gets around about the all too human super hero, he may just be able to exact a bit of revenge on his friend Skinny for trading him a bicycle horn which didn't work, for a bugle.

The book also calls to mind the works of Booth Tarkington, specifically the Penrod series. Those books were a fairly accurate reflection of a boy’s life in the early years of the 20th century. This book does the same thing, only 40 years later.

From donut machines to the post war housing development, this book is a nostalgic look at a boy’s life in the late 1940’s. We had just won the biggest war in history, and life was continually getting better and better for the inhabitants of America. And Robert McCloskey’s  Centerburg is a slightly off kilter version of those times.

This was a delightful book to read. Thanks, Glen! You can follow Glen Slater on his blog, Stickball Hero, located  at;

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Let No Man Write My Epitaph" with Shelley Winters, Burl Ives and Ella Fitzgerald (1960)

In this searing sequel to “Knock on Any Door” the residents of a Chicago slum building band together in an effort to keep musician Nick Romano from becoming just like his father, who has been sentenced to death in the electric chair.

Superb acting by both Burl Ives, as Judge Sullivan, and Shelley Winters as  Nellie Romano; Nick’s mother; make this movie sizzle. The subject matter was pretty raw for the time. Sex, drugs and murder align in harmony to give the viewer a look at life on the lower levels of society, along with a rough idea of just how hard it can be to break the cycle of poverty and ignorance. Like I said; pretty raw material for its time.

Nick Romano, played by James Darren, is utterly convincing in his role as the son at risk. Willard Motley's novel shines in a cast which includes both Ricardo Montalban and the legendary Jean Seberg.

The acting may seem restrained on the surface, but isn’t that what we all do with our emotions in real life? Restrain them? The cinema photography of the urban neighborhood presents a close up view of the people who inhabit the gritty world of poverty. This lends credence to Mr. Darren’s performance as the struggling youth, looking to break free from the cycle into which he was born. The shadow of his father’s fate looms over him like a weight.

Ironically, while trying to protect her son from the ravages of ruin, it is Ms. Winter’s character who finds herself enslaved to heroin and the dealer who provides the drug. Her son is caught between breaking free and extracting justice from the dealer, played by Ricardo Montablan. Who will save him from the same fate as his father? Will he survive to live his dreams of playing the piano and marrying his girlfriend, Barbara Holloway, played by Jean Seberg?

The most astounding performances in this film are by Shelley Winters and a young Mr. Darren as her son, especially in the scene concerning her drug use. This scene is still played out in hundreds of lives daily, making the movie even more timeless. Throw in Ella Fitzgerald for some dramatic flair and this movie is one you will remember forever. I first saw it on; you guessed it; WOR-TV in New York City as a kid. You can watch it here; just hit the link below.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Earl Scruggs Center - Shelby, N.C.

The Town of Shelby;  home to the Don Gibson Theater; has a new attraction at the old County Courthouse. The long awaited Earl Scruggs Center has opened. Saturday marked the trial run with a "sneak preview" allowing a limited number of visitors to enter on a "timed" basis for about 45 minutes at 15 minute intervals. Nobody was disappointed.

The town of Shelby is usually a bit sleepy on weekends, but with the opening of the Earl Scruggs center that is about to change. The Old County Courthouse sits in the center of downtown Shelby and is surrounded by restaurants and shops, all of whom will be happy with the additional traffic the Center will create.

The Center is well organized, beginning with a short 15 minute film about Earl Scruggs and his rise to fame. Lester Flatt is equally represented in the film, which is as it should be. The two names go together like salt and pepper.

If you love guitars and banjos, then this is the spot for you. Gibson's and Martin's abound; some are even made with gold fittings. These are priceless instruments with a solid history of having changed the direction of a musical genre, even while creating a new one in the hands of Earl Scruggs, with his pioneer style of banjo picking which would set him apart from all the rest. His Foggy Mountain Breakdown is as potent today as the day it was first written over 50 years ago.

The statue above is life sized and sports one of Mr. Scruggs hats as well as a real banjo. If it were done in color you would feel like you were meeting the great man himself. The whole museum is filled with interactive exhibits accessible by using the "ear buds" given at the door. This allows the visitor to roam at will, plugging in wherever their desire might take them.
For instance, there is a room devoted entirely to Mr. Scruggs radio days, where you can plug in and listen to the early broadcasts which came to define his style. Then you can move on into the TV room and plug in there. 

But, for me at least, the best part was the plethora of musical instruments once held by the gods of bluegrass, including the 1970 electric Ibanez shown below which belonged to Mr. Scruggs son. The history behind each and every one of the instruments is breathtaking, considering that they have all been well traveled, bringing the gift of music to millions worldwide.

The only sad part of the event for me was that these instruments, encased in glass, will sing no more. But then again, out of the hands of their original owners, could they ever sing as beautifully again?

For more about the great musicians from North Carolina, visit the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis. Their website is at;

Monday, January 13, 2014

"These Few Precious Days" by Christopher Andersen (2013)

I picked this book up with no intention of reading it all the way through, let alone review it. It seemed as if it would be the gossipy type of “beach book” you take on vacation and don’t expect much of. I love being wrong.

In this carefully annotated and indexed book, the author has penned a comprehensive look at one of the most fascinating power couples ever. This is the story of the marriage of President and Mrs. Kennedy during the 1,000 days that they inhabited the White House, as well as the world stage. It is a fascinating story because it is so well documented and it accurately reflects the attitudes of the early 1960’s.

Relying on the memories of those who were closest to the couple; a range which spans everyone from the President’s sisters to the White House Staff; the author covers just about every base there is in telling the story of the Presidents numerous affairs, as well as his respect for his wife. If that seems odd; as it does to me; then reading this book will expose you to the jet set world of the 1960’s when everybody, it seems, was pushing the boundaries of the ordinary, and accepted, social mores.

The fact that the President had his hands full with one world crisis after another during this period, did little to slow down his Lothario like appetite for women; any women; anywhere; anytime. This appetite was always present, even before he became President, but was exacerbated by his use of powerful steroids and painkillers, mixed with amphetamines. Dr. Jacobson, known to millions as Dr. Feelgood, was logging more air miles that Hillary Clinton as he traveled back and forth from New York to Washington, California, Florida and even accompanying the President on his first foreign summit with Khrushchev in 1961.

But more than anything else, this book is the portrait of a woman coming to terms with a world she did not much like, yet came to command. From her efforts to restore the White House to her last years as an editor, this woman was as close to a Queen as America has ever had. Surprisingly, this was a fascinating book to read.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Pocahontas" - Performed by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Of all the versions of this Neil Young song which have been recorded I enjoy this one the most. It probably has more to do with the interaction of long time partners Gillian Welch and David Rawlings than anything else. The song itself is beautiful; full of imagery recounting the last days of the Indian Wars. I never have figured out the Marlon Brando verse and its relationship to the rest of the song, but somehow it all works out.

David Welch is one of the most underrated of guitarists. When you watch him you’ll notice that he uses his hip to steady his 1935 National guitar while he performs, particularly when playing lead. His whole body is inside of each note. And, that fret board is like a second home; while his ears picks up on any key changes, his fingers following instinctively.

For her part, Gillian Welch is one of the most gifted vocalists of her genre. Her haunting voice can bring new scope and meaning to anything she sings. Together the two are among my favorite musical performers.  I think it has to do with the intimacy between the two, which spills out unintentionally and becomes part of the performance.

Music is a force, just as love is. And when you love the music you perform; and the person you are performing with; you can take that music to new heights. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings prove that point time and time again.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"Donald's Diary" - Donald Duck (1954)

In this 1954 cartoon Donald is a happy bachelor looking for love and finds that true love is more than he bargained for. But before he realizes that truth, he must go through all of the “honeymoon” phases attendant to any loving relationship.

With the standard cast of Donald, Daisy and Huey, Dewey and Louie it is hard to imagine that this was the last feature which would have Daisy Duck in it. She is, after all, the main character in this cartoon, which is a wonderful send up of a typical marriage.

The cartoon begins in what appears to be San Francisco, with Donald strolling the hilly streets in search of love. Daisy hears him whistling down the street and dons a beautiful dress in the hopes of snaring a mate. She does all of the atypical things that women in the movies do; she drops a handkerchief; goes into a faint; even pretends to drown, but Donald seems oblivious to her. But Daisy has a few tricks up her sleeve and the two are soon dating.

Their courtship consists of all the usual things; a drive-in movie; eating at a diner; and they even carve their names on a tree trunk. (The trunk actually has all of Daisy’s previous prospects names on it.) It is at this point that they kiss and “fall in love.”

The next logical step is for Donald to meet Daisy’s family. Huey, Dewey and Louie play Daisy’s brothers and they give Donald the welcome you would expect in a Donald Duck cartoon. He then meets her deaf mother, who is an exact replica of Whistler’s classic painting. After meeting her father, a crazed photographer, Donald is entranced with the idea of entering the state of Holy Matrimony.

He goes to the jewelry store and buys the requisite ring in order to propose to Daisy. He arrives back at the house and the stage is set for him to pop the question. But, while Daisy is upstairs getting ready; which takes several hours; Donald falls into a deep sleep, dreaming of married life.

After Daisy accepts his proposal in the dream the two start out life as a happily wedded couple. But happiness seems to elude Donald at every turn as he deals with his in laws and all of the responsibilities which go along with wedded bliss. Clearly, Donald has made a mistake.

When Daisy comes downstairs to wake him up, expecting him to propose, Donald screams in horror and runs out of the house screaming, leaving a hole in the door which he neglected to open while making his escape. The wedding is, apparently, off.

When we next see Donald he is sitting in a sparsely furnished room writing in his diary. As the cartoon comes to a close Donald writes his summation of what he has almost been through. “"It was a narrow escape. Though I was born when I kissed her, I died when we parted."  
A bugle is then heard playing in the background and he rushes out the door to take his place along the ramparts of a desert fort flying the French tricolor. The last thing he says as the cartoon comes to a close is, "But I lived for a little while".

This is the original 1954 movie poster for "Donald's Diary"

Friday, January 10, 2014

The NRA and the March towards Censorship

Dick Metcalf, longtime writer for Guns and Ammo, the official magazine of the National Rifle Association, has been fired. The NRA, avowed champions of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, would seem to have no regard for their own rights under the First Amendment, which guarantees Freedom of Speech. Personally, I have always thought that the Second Amendment was there to protect the First one. Indeed, that has been the spin put forth by the NRA over the past several decades.

Yet, this disregard for that Amendment was on full display last week when the magazine, along with the full blessing of the NRA, dismissed Mr. Metcalf for having done his job when assigned the task of writing an article for the magazine entitled “Let’s Talk Limits”. Bear in mind that the theme of this article was not chosen by Mr. Metcalf, and the finished product was subsequently approved by those same editors who assigned him the task in the first place.

But, Mr. Metcalf apparently drew the wrong conclusion (I have not read the article and am relying upon news stories for this post) and opined that “all Constitutional Rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.” This modest statement of fact implied that Mr. Metcalf; and by extension the magazine itself; were in favor of gun control. Whether or not that is true is beside the point; it's what happened next which should trouble you.

The backlash was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than the gun lobby. Within days, InterMedia Outlet, the entity which actually owns Guns and Ammo, fired Mr. Metcalf. They also control production of his TV show, the fate of which is now in limbo. The reason given was straightforward enough; several of the leading gun advertisers were cancelling their accounts.

While it is true that Guns and Ammo is a business and runs for profit, it was quite a surprise to see a magazine; which presents itself as so principled when it concerns the Second Amendment;  running for cover so quickly in detriment to the First Amendment, which the vaunted Second Amendment is supposed to protect. You would think that a bunch of gun totin’, highly principled magazine execs would take a stand on free speech and NOT take the money in exchange for that principle. 

So, there you have it, The NRA stands solidly behind your Second Amendment Right to bear arms. But they don’t even care enough about their own First Amendment Rights for me to ever trust them enough to protect mine. Apparently,  it’s just the corporations who make guns that will determine what you can read by virtue of the economic pressure they can bring to bear. Way to go for freedom and democracy!

So, the next time you see an NRA bumper sticker, keep that in mind...

PS: I am a registered gun owner and a supporter of Gun Rights; just not of the NRA.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Panmunjom Incident - 1976

For years I have been looking for more information on what I have always called the Panmunjom Incident. Although I have looked for the story everywhere, in order to bolster my own memory, I have found very little about it. It was only the other day, while googling the phrase “incident while trimming trees in UN observation zone in Korea 1976” that I was able to find out anything at all. The article was posted only 3 years ago. So I decided to test my memory against that of the article. Here goes;

I had just finished with my enlistment papers in August of 1976 in preparation for entering the Navy by the end of September. I had been out of high school for 4 years at this point and was cognizant of the need to find a new direction out of Brooklyn, and the sea seemed to be the most likely route of escape for me.

I was working at H and A Foods on Kings Highway at the time.  It was just after lunch when the first news of what had happened in Korea came over the radio. The way I remember the story; and have always told it; was that 5 American Captains had entered the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to trim a tree which was blocking the UN Observation post’s view of the zone from the Southern side. The tree trimming was supposed to be done on a rotating basis between the two sides, which have been at war since 1950. No armistice has ever been signed.

When the Captains and their men reached the disputed tree they were attacked by North Koreans who used the axes to kill the Americans and the South Koreans. The United States re-acted by placing 40,000 troops on high alert while scrambling fighter jets and B-52’s to circle the demilitarized zone while the Army Corp of Engineers went out with a bulldozer and ripped the tree up entirely by its roots. It was one of President Ford’s finest hours; maybe his only one; but yet I could not even find reference to it in his own autobiography!

Having a good memory can be infuriating, as I have wanted to write about this piece of history for several years, but wanted to check my facts first. But there was nowhere to turn for information until this article appeared on the website Environmental Hippie. I have no idea why it was posted there.

This is the tree after pruning and before the monument was placed. There appear to have been pictures along with the article, but they are not visible on my computer. These photos come from the Wikipedia site. Here is the link to the article on Environmental Hippie;

Notice that I didn’t get too much wrong. It was apparently only 2 American Captains that were killed by the North Koreans and I did not know that the tree was planted by the late Kim Il Sung, was the leader of North Korea at the time. The article also states that there were 8,000 troops on alert, a figure I am willing to dispute as there were 40,000 American troops in Korea at the time, and you can bet that they were all on alert. In addition, the tree was not ripped up as I thought by a bulldozer. Rather it was sawn off at stump level while our planes circled overhead and the North Koreans stood impotently by. A few years after the incident, a plaque honoring the 2 fallen officers was placed on the stump in their honor.

There is no point to this story other than I want to set the record straight about the Panmunjom Incident; particularly that it did, indeed, happen. History is precious and needs to be preserved. Well, that may just be the point of this whole post.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

NAFTA - Who Started It?

I am so sick of hearing that Bill Clinton started NAFTA. I distinctly remember Ronald Reagan campaigning for what he termed the North American Accord in 1979. Though the details were yet to be hammered out, it was during Reagan’s 2 terms in office that the agreement was first proposed and drafted. The torch was then passed to President Bush, Sr.

The finished product arrived on Clinton’s desk in 1993. He did approve it, sending it on to Congress, where the bill was passed by a Republican dominated chamber in 1994 and then signed by the President, who would have lost a Veto fight even if he were against it; which he was not.

The point here is that the divisive politics of our current era tend to distort and mislead us all. And the real kicker is that neither side will listen to the cold, hard facts of the matter.

NAFTA was a huge benefit to politicians of both parties due to the large amounts of cash funneled to both sides by various lobbyists’ intent on getting the bill passed in order to benefit large corporations with cheap labor. Thus, both sides are filthy with guilt. To not understand this is to be blinded by ignorance.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"America's Longest Siege" by Kelly Joseph (2013)

The Siege of Charleston really began long before the American Civil War. In some respects the city was under siege since the first day it was settled by the English colonists who found themselves pitted against Spanish and French settlers along with their Native American allies. That was in 1669.

By 1739 they would be fighting with their own slaves in the Stono Rebellion, which began when the Spanish lured the slaves from Georgia and South Carolina with the promise of freedom. The result was that Georgia and South Carolina both invaded Florida to retrieve their slaves.

The following year brought the great fire of 1740, which many believed to have been started by slaves, and burned the whole commercial district to the ground. With these auspicious beginnings, author Joseph Kelly begins a tour de force accounting of the history of South Carolina through the Civil War and Reconstruction, drawing upon the rich history of the state to explain some of the seeming idiosyncrasies of the South Carolina we know today.

A good book will always lead you to explore further than the boundaries of its own cover; and to that effect Mr. Kelly has done a superb job. I consider myself to be a fair armchair historian, yet I found myself looking for more information on some points at least 5 times while reading this book. That means this book taught me some things which I did not know before, while clarifying the things I already know in a highly entertaining fashion.

Charles Town; the name would not change until after the Revolution; was a major battleground of the war, with many key players hailing from the state. The author explores the lives of father and son Henry and John Laurens, and their attitudes concerning slavery. This brings into play the different practices which prevailed at the time; from simple serfdom to the more complex arrangements of manumission, whereby a slave could purchase his own freedom; and even some “liberal” masters who allowed their slaves to worship freely. That practice was based on a belief called “gradualism”, which held that the African slave could gradually become intellectually acclimated to a life of freedom. Of course this totally ignores the fact that the slaves were free until they were enslaved.

One of the best chapters in this book concerns Vesey Denmark and his so called rebellion, for which he was hung. This man managed to win a lottery while a slave, collecting $1,500 in 1799. He immediately bought his own freedom and lived the life of a free man in Charleston. One day a slave at the docks heard another slave talk about the rebellion in Haiti, in which the slaves had massacred their masters and taken their freedom. Vesey Denmark had nothing at all to do with this. When the slave who had heard this talk ran home and told his master it set into motion a chain of events resulting in the torture of 134 slaves in order to gain a confession about the plans for a rebellion which did not even exist except in the minds of the inquisitors themselves. 34 men, including Vesey Denmark, were hung as a result.

Urban slavery is explored in a way that is remarkable not only for the author’s technique in writing about it, but also because of the circuitous thinking which had to have taken place in order to justify the practice to oneself. In an urban setting, with houses so close, it was not considered “proper” to beat a slave. It wasn't so much out of consideration for the slave as it was for the sake of appearances with one’s neighbor. With few exceptions though, the lot of the urban slave was not that much different than that of his plantation counterpart. Neither was truly free.

The 1822 Negro Seaman Act is explored here as well. This was a South Carolina law requiring that any seaman of African descent; free or not; and working aboard  any ship; foreign or domestic; be jailed and held prisoner when the ship entered port in the state of South Carolina. It was fought in court and became the landmark case of Gibbons vs. Ogden which stated that the federal government was responsible for regulating interstate commerce, which the Negro Seaman Act was clearly in violation of. (This was one of the times I had to leave the book and reacquaint myself with something. And note that even  Gibbons vs. Ogden relies upon treating the slaves as an issue of commerce, rather than human rights.)

The author also finds time to juxtapose what is happening in America with what is happening elsewhere at the same time. For instance, very early on in the book he points out that slavery was abolished on the island of Great Britain in 1772, a full 4 years before our own Declaration of Independence would be written. This I already knew. But what I learned is how it came about.

On June 22nd of that year Chief Justice of the Courts, William Lord Mansfield, found that John Somerset; who had been a slave since age 8 and was currently the property of an English tax collector; had been transported to England as a servant. He escaped and spent 50 days hiding in the slums of London before being arrested and tried. The result was the court decision which held that involuntary servitude could not exist on the English Isles proper. This was akin to our own struggles with the Fugitive Slave Act and the Missouri Compromise 50 years later, and I found it to be very informative.

The connection between Irish-Catholics and their struggle with the English crown has certain similarities to the struggle of slaves and the rise of the Abolitionist Movement here in America. It’s no surprise that so many Irish-Americans fought against slavery in the Civil War. What is interesting though is that so many Irish fought for it in South Carolina, in spite of the slave like conditions at home which had forced so many of them to flee to America in the first place.

This book has so much to offer, and does so in a highly readable and engaging style. A TV mini-series based upon this book would not be ill received. All of the color and flash necessary to hold your attention are here. Be that as it may, this book will have you engrossed from the very first page to the last.