Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Jean Shepherd: Of BB Guns And The Gift Of Electric Sex

Mention "Ralphie" and "Red Ryder BB gun" in the same breath, I'd say most people could make an immediate connection with the film, A Christmas Story On the other hand, most people probably know very little about the remarkable personality behind that story. His name is Jean Shepherd.

He was born on this day in 1921 on Chicago's south side and raised in nearby Hammond, Indiana. After serving in World War II, Shepherd began a career in broadcasting that expanded into writing, film, and live performance. He was heard on late night radio for over twenty years - all unscripted - on New York's WOR where he entertained listeners with his humorous stories, interviews, and practical jokes. Shepherd hosted a television show for WOR as well, but he is best remembered in video narrating a number of productions based on his stories of growing up in the Midwest. Many of the scripts were so popular they later appeared in print.

Psychology tells us that humorists often do not have the happiest of life stories. Shepherd was no exception. Although he surely had the talent to become a well-known national treasure, radio did not provide him coast-to-coast exposure available with the new medium of television. He was fiercely independent, a maverick, and one not to take life too seriously. I can imagine he was a threat to the ego of more than one radio executive. Furthermore, he was a "night owl" on radio, broadcasting to a dedicated but smaller audience, and in direct competition with televised local news and the likes of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. In fact this warm story by a fan notes that Shepherd likely was in line to take over The Tonight Show with Steve Allen's departure in 1957, but Jack Paar had the right of first refusal with the NBC network. Paar unexpectedly accepted, thus, denying Shepherd his big break on one of television's most popular shows. Finally, from my research, it seems Shepherd maligned his radio work when he moved into writing film for television in the '70s. Indeed, it apparently was a clean break - maybe the execs were happier without him - and he did go on to success with films, including The Phantom of the Open Hearth, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, and Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Still, I think the fates denied him the opportunity to become a big television star in the 1950's and much better well-known in his lifetime.

Of course, his best known contribution to American humor is A Christmas Story, a compilation of stories and characters drawn from his earlier work. It was originally produced as a feature film in 1983 and made the transition into a television classic, thanks to the persistence of Ted Turner. Almost any man born before 1950 has lived some or all of Ralphie's/Shep's childhood. Each man's path to adulthood is his own, but the markers are identical. Jean Shepherd was a genius at capturing them. And his skills as a narrator made him a natural at weaving life's common threads into humorous and entertaining listening.

". . . the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window."

Shepherd died seventeen years ago on Sanibel Island, Florida, remembered for one film produced in 1983 when he was 62. There's much more to him than that and I hope more people come to enjoy his work. The settings now and in the future may be different but the collected experiences from childhood and adolescence often age into fine wine. Thanks to Shepherd we can laugh at past times and enjoy the harvest.

Monday, July 25, 2016

AirVenture At Oshkosh: Another Plane Crazy Week

Airventure grounds - for scale, the runway at the top is 8000 feet
The Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) annual week-long Airventure gathering kicks off today. It's better known by its location, Oshkosh, to aviation enthusiasts and you can be assured that every one of them has the event on the bucket list. There's good reason. Imagine a fly-in attracting 7500 airplanes. Imagine 2500 aircraft exhibits, 800 commercial exhibitors, daily world-class airshows, and a total of over 600,000 guests. Organizers call the event "the world's greatest aviation celebration" and this year marks its sixty-fourth presentation. The map above gives readers an idea of the scope and scale of Oshkosh and indicates why the event turns a rather sleepy Wittman Field into the busiest airport in the world for one week each year.

Airventure is far from your average fly-in

I had the privilege of attending the event several times in the last decade of my career. Energizing, informative, and significant, the show was a great vehicle for delivering an organizational message to a large, captured, and enthusiastic audience. You may ask why the National Park Service would send a dozen or so employees and volunteers to work an air show. First, the agency has almost fifty out of its more than 400 units with a significant link to an aviation theme. In addition, the Service maintains a fleet of fixed and rotary wing aircraft contributing over 20,000 hours of flight time annually in support of park operations, maintenance, and resource and fire management. Add to that interagency cooperation across departments as well as airspace regulation over the parks and the justification become clearer. In summation, it's a grand and demanding opportunity to reach out face-to face to thousands of guests who enjoy and impact our national parks.

Nothing like fly-in camping with thousands of your best friends

If you can't attend Airventure, the EAA maintains a comprehensive up-to-the-second website where you can spend hours reading, watching and listening to the day's/week's events. And if summer in Wisconsin doesn't fit your schedule you can take advantage of Sun 'n Fun, the smaller scaled winter equivalent of Airventure held around April 1 in Lakeland, Florida. Although originally an official EAA event, Sun 'n Fun is now managed by an independent organization, but still has the enthusiasm and excitement of its founders.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Rules For Radicals: A Mid-Convention Booster Shot

With Republicans heading home from Cleveland and Democrats gathering in Philadelphia, the national political convention season has reached its midpoint this weekend. I thought it would be the perfect time to give readers a booster shot of the political tactics we're likely to encounter from now until the election in November. The tactics were developed by Saul Alinsky, long recognized as the founding father of community organizing, and best articulated in his 1971 book, Rules for Radicals. Alinsky was a native of Chicago, trained at the University of Chicago, and a veteran organizer and political activist in Chicago neighborhoods. Alinsky's name may not be familiar to most Americans but they are certainly aware of Chicago's other successful and internationally famous leftist community organizer. Barack Obama.

We've already had an eight-year tutorial on community organizing tactics coming out of the White House. We shouldn't expect the use of such successful tactics to be confined to left wing politics especially given that we have all the ingredients for a vicious presidential campaign in the coming months. 

My copy

To help readers identify, understand, and appreciate the rules as well as respond to their power to influence American voters, here they are as written with supporting information is in brackets:

1. Power is not only what you have, it's what the enemy thinks you have. [Power is derived from two main sources - money and people.]

2. Never go outside the expertise of your people. [It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.]

3. Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. [Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.]

4. Make the enemy lie up to its own book of rules. [You can kill them with this because nobody can possibly obey all of their own rules.]

5. Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. [There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating.]

6. A good tactic is one your people enjoy.

7. A tactic that drags on too long become a drag. [Don't become old news. Even radical activists get bored.]

8. Keep the pressure on. Never let up. [Attack, attack, attack from all sides, never giving the reeling organization a chance to rest, recover, regroup or re-strategize.]

9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself. [Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.]

10. If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive. [Violence from the other side can become a positive because the public sympathizes with the underdog.]

11. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. [Never let the enemy score points because you're caught without a solution to the problem. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.]

12. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. [Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people, not institutions, people hurt faster than institutions.]

I trust readers will benefit from this information as we face what may well be the most significant national election in our time.

In closing, readers should know that after seven years in Washington in the 1960's I was a lefty radical by 1971.  That's the reason I have a first edition of Alinsky's Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals [1971]. It's been read more than once, a bit yellow here and there, and the dust jacket has a few small tears and scuffs; otherwise, it's in excellent condition. Now I look at the rule book and its players from two quite separate points of view as the tactics have become mainstream in the world of politics. Time and experience has taught me well and I've moved right of center on political and economic issues but liberals young and old will be happy to know that I never once liked Richard Nixon. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

First Round-The-World Solo Flight Completed Today In 1933

Winnie Mae at her place of honor in the Time and Navigation exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington

On this day in 1933, the famed American aviator, Wylie Post, returned to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn almost eight days after he began his solo round-the-world attempt. Two years earlier he flew a slightly shorter route accompanied by his friend and fellow pilot, Harold Gatty. On both trips he flew his Lockheed C5 Vega, Winnie Mae, an aircraft that had become as well known as its famous pilot. In August 1935, he and the American cowboy humorist, Will Rogers, died in the crash of Post's hybrid Lockheed home-built aircraft while exploring the possibilities of an air mail route across Alaska. 

Although Post is best remembered for his adventures as a pilot he made significant contributions to atmospheric research and high-altitude flight technology. His accomplishments include the discovery of the jet stream and the design and development of pressure suits. Read a brief and entertaining biographical sketch here and more information including several links here at wikipedia.org.

Wiley Post in his third pressure suit

Given the success and extent of our space programs today, it's hard to believe Post's solo occurred just thirteen years before my birth. We've come a long way in aviation and when you think about all the aircraft in flight around the world at this very minute the Post flight seems insignificant. As readers of this blog know, I'm somewhat fond of aviation so I'm perfectly happy to give Post the credit he deserve as an aviation pioneer in a time when even our heroic history seems little more than an afterthought to most Americans.

I offer this piece by Eric Whitacre to honor the dreams, accomplishments, and memory of Wiley Post. 

Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine

Music: Eric Whitacre
Lyrics: Charles Anthony Silvestri

Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine…
Tormented by visions of flight and falling,
More wondrous and terrible each than the last,
Master Leonardo imagines an engine
To carry a man up into the sun…

And as he’s dreaming the heavens call him,
softly whispering their siren-song:
“Leonardo. Leonardo, vieni á volare”. (“Leonardo. Leonardo, come fly”.)

L’uomo colle sua congiegniate e grandi ale,
facciendo forza contro alla resistente aria.
(A man with wings large enough and duly connected
might learn to overcome the resistance of the air.)

Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine…
As the candles burn low he paces and writes,
Releasing purchased pigeons one by one
Into the golden Tuscan sunrise…
And as he dreams, again the calling,
The very air itself gives voice:
“Leonardo. Leonardo, vieni á volare”. (“Leonardo. Leonardo, come fly”.)

Vicina all’elemento del fuoco…
(Close to the sphere of elemental fire…)
Scratching quill on crumpled paper,
Rete, canna, filo, carta.
(Net, cane, thread, paper.)
Images of wing and frame and fabric fastened tightly.
…sulla suprema sottile aria.
(…in the highest and rarest atmosphere.)

Master Leonardo Da Vinci Dreams of his Flying Machine…
As the midnight watchtower tolls,
Over rooftop, street and dome,
The triumph of a human being ascending
In the dreaming of a mortal man.

Leonardo steels himself,
takes one last breath,
and leaps…
“Leonardo, Vieni á Volare! Leonardo, Sognare!” (“Leonardo, come fly! Leonardo, Dream!”)


Photos and Illustrations:

Winnie Mae, Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum
Wiley Post, National Aeronautics and Space Administration


lyrics, ericwhitacre.com

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ernest Hemingway: There Is No Friend As Loyal As A Book

Ernest Hemingway, one of the 20th century's most significant American novelists and short story writers, was born on this day in 1899. Most of us likely met Hemingway through his Nobel Prize winning 1952 novel, The Old Man and the Sea. It was required reading for me in high school and I trust that it remains a rite of passage for graduation these days. 

Hemingway, his wife Pauline, and their three sons posing in Bimini in 1935

Over a fourteen year period he published four blockbuster novels: The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), To Have and Have Not(1937), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). His body of work includes additional novels, non-fiction, letters, collections of short stories and poems, and one anthology. A private person by nature, his lifestyle and literary themes coupled with fame made him a larger than life and very public personality. In a 2010 paper, Professor Timo Muller (University of Augsburg), writing in the Journal of Modern Literature, noted that Hemingway "has the highest recognition value of all writers world-wide." That value is reflected equally in this quotation taken from the Hemingway entry at Wikipedia:

The extent of Hemingway's influence is seen in the tributes and echoes of his fiction in popular culture. A minor planet, discovered in 1978 by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Chernykh, was named for him (3656 Hemingway); Ray Bradbury wrote The Kilimanjaro Device, with Hemingway transported to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro; the 1993 motion picture Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, about the friendship of two retired men, Irish and Cuban, in a seaside town in Florida, starred Robert Duvall, Richard Harris, Shirley MacLaine, Sandra Bullock, and Piper Laurie. The influence is evident with the many restaurants named "Hemingway"; and the proliferation of bars called "Harry's" (a nod to the bar in Across the River and Into the Trees). A line of Hemingway furniture, promoted by Hemingway's son Jack (Bumby), has pieces such as the "Kilimanjaro" bedside table, and a "Catherine" slip-covered sofa. Montblanc offers a Hemingway fountain pen, and a line of Hemingway safari clothes has been created. The International Imitation Hemingway Competition was created in 1977 to publicly acknowledge his influence and the comically misplaced efforts of lesser authors to imitate his style. Entrants are encouraged to submit one "really good page of really bad Hemingway" and winners are flown to Italy to Harry's Bar.

I've read bits and pieces of Hemingway over the years but nothing cover to cover. Essentially he is a victim of my interest in non-fiction; however, the legacy has prompted our family to visit the Earnest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. He and his family lived there from 1931 to 1939. There is something for everyone there including a furnished house, colorful gardens, and a fine bookstore. Our children enjoyed the polydactyl (extra-toed) cats that are descended from a white cat Hemingway received as a gift from a local ship captain. It's a good opportunity to glimpse a private life from another time and a literary legacy that will be with us for a very long time.


Photos and Illustrations:

John F. Kennedy Library


Title quote, brainyquotes.com
Quote and content, New York Times, July, 3, 1961
Hemingway entry, wikipedia.com

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

American Eagle 1969

Forty-seven years ago the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon. Millions watched at 10:56 PM, EDT, as Neil Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission, descended the Eagle's ladder and made what he called a "giant leap for mankind" with his final step onto the powdery lunar surface. Learn more about the Apollo 11 mission here on Wikipedia where you can find scores of links to more National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports and multimedia.

Lunar Module Eagle in landing configuration, July 20, 1969  

Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the module pilot, spent almost 22 hours on the moon including their 150 minute walk where they erected an American flag, collected soil and rock samples, and deployed experiments. On their return to Earth much of the material they collected was eventually archived and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution. Some rocks entered our culture in some fascinating ways, including this one at the Washington National Cathedral, where one was embedded at the center of a red planet in what has become known as the Space Window. 

Time is catching up with those first attempts at exploring our nearest celestial neighbor. Neil Armstrong passed away in 2012 at the age of 82. Buzz Aldrin turned 86 earlier this year. Although we hear rumbling of new manned mission to the moon there's nothing firm coming from our government. Regardless of what the future holds, those early years including the mission we commemorate today, were an exciting and almost magical time for science, exploration, and discovery of the frontier "out there."


Photos and Illustrations:

atlasobscura.com, Space Window detail
nasa.gov, Space Window, full photo



Saturday, July 16, 2016

Now I Am Become Death, The Destroyer Of Worlds

Trinity explosion at 0.016 second after detonation, July 16, 1945

Today marks the 71st anniversary of the Trinity Test, the explosion of the world's first plutonium bomb and the beginning of the Atomic Age. Expectation among the scientists that morning in the New Mexico desert ranged from a dud bomb to a world-devouring atmospheric explosion. Luckily, the result was reasonable and the success allowed the United States to pursue a quick and definitive ending to war with Japan. I am sure the debate on using nuclear weapons against civilian targets in Japan will be an endless one. Also, I am sure that President Harry Truman's decision to use those weapons saved Japan and the United States and its allies millions of additional casualties. Regardless of your position on this question and the Atomic Age, the greater reality is simply that our world has been transformed by this new power. As a leader of the free world, we have a huge responsibility regarding the use of nuclear power for creation and destruction as well as its proliferation. The events of July 16, 1945 and in the month that followed showed us the awesome power of the atom. Seventy years of nuclear history has only focused us even more on being careful to choose wisely in such matters.

The Department of Energy has a fine mixed media post on the Trinity Test and its context within the Manhattan Project. The Wikipedia entry for Trinity provides additional information, including several illustrations, and many interesting external links. Access the Wikipedia Trinity entry here.

Shiva, the Lord of the Cosmic Dance

Our title for this post is a quote taken from the Bhagavad Gita spoken by J. Robert Oppenheimer on the realization of what he and his fellow scientists accomplished in the Trinity Test. In the Gita, the speaker is Vishnu, a supreme god in the Hindu tradition. Perhaps Oppenheimer's pessimism and quote were justified. I like to recall that Vishnu, as supreme god, had many avatars or incarnations. One of them is  Shiva,  the Lord of the Cosmic Dance. As such, the dancer is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of the world as he stands on the Dwarf of Ignorance. I wasn't at Trinity that morning, didn't see the flash or feel the heat or wind from the blast. Still, I have no doubt it was quite a dance for all who witnessed this historic event given that some scientists believed nothing would happen while others hypothesized a nuclear chain reaction that would destroy the planet.