Saturday, August 31, 2013

Arthur Godfrey's Time: Fame And Fortune In A Forgotten America

Today marks the birthday of Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983), a legendary radio and television broadcaster who was reduced to obscurity by his abuse of power and fame. He was born in New York City and introduced to radio during military service. He broke into entertainment and civilian radio in Baltimore and Washington in the early 1930s and had his own nation-wide program, Arthur Godfrey Time, by 1945.  Seven years later, he had two of the most popular shows on television. Without question, he was the medium's first star. In 1953 he made a huge error by firing a popular employee on-air, live, during a nation-wide radio broadcast. That act revealed his true character, one far removed from the folksy personality he had carefully cultivated for decades. Millions of fans abandoned him outright and his career entered a period of slow decline over the next generation. For a comprehensive biography, visit the Arthur Godfrey page on Wikipedia. 

Godfrey developed a wonderful easy going, friendly on-air style that captured American radio audiences. That style, coupled with his big smile and his signature red hair made him a natural for television, and for print advertising.  But it was the radio that made the man. Here is the master at work in 1947:

The pace may seem stiflingly slow and the format and setting anything but catchy, but it was the post-war U.S.  The folksiness of it all was enough for Arthur Godfrey Time, his talent scout show and radio audience to attract over 80,000,000 viewers/listeners a week at its peak in the 1950s.

I never met the man personally, but geography made him close during my childhood. First, Godfrey was a regional radio and television celebrity, having made his start in the big cities a hundred miles east of my home town. My parents had listened to him almost from the beginning of his career. And second, fame bought Godfrey the 800 acre farm known as Beacon Hill, located on Route 9 just west of Leesburg, Virginia. He loved the place and spent most of his weekends there after four weekdays in New York. My family made many trips to Washington when I was a child and we always passed the farm. My dad made sure we knew when we were about to pass it so we could look for the horses, another of Godfrey's passions. I came to look forward to seeing the place, maybe not so much for the horses, as much as for the apples we'd buy at Senator Harry Byrd's orchard nearby if it happened to be Fall.

The third reason for the closeness comes from our shared passion for airplanes. Godfrey owned several planes that he flew either from the farm or from his Leesburg airport.  as readers know, as a child I spent many vacations and weekends at a lodge in Burlington, West Virginia, about 55 air miles from Leesburg. For about twenty years following the end of World War II, Burlington was home to an active airfield and I knew the owner, Dave Baker, very well. The flying stories were endless and I was a willing listener.

Though he wasn't a frequent visitor, Godfrey made occasional fly-ins at Baker's Air Park.  In the '50s, it was quite an honor to have "your" airfield graced by television's most famous celebrity. Godfrey's visits were the talk of the town for Burlington folks, all three hundred of them. Late one afternoon, the little airfield may have saved his life. He and a passenger brought in a twin-engine aircraft with mechanical issues. With the plane repaired the following day, they continued on the return to Leesburg. I'll never understand how they got a twin-engine aircraft out of that little dogleg of grass. They probably stripped the plane, released the brake with balls to the wall, and sampled the tops of the sycamores at the end of the runway. Actually, I don't recall if Godfrey was on board. Fifty or so years is a long time to remember, but it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't send the passenger home by car. For a pilot who at one time flew everything in the U.S. Air Force arsenal, lifting out of Burlington probably wasn't much of a challenge. It did, however, require a tempered ego to reduce the risk.

We know for certain he had both a temper and an ego, not an unusual combination for super successful people. And Godfrey was surely super and successful. He knew how to transcend the airwaves and come into your house for breakfast, make you laugh, maybe even sell you something you didn't need. It was television in it's first real decade in the U.S. And Godfrey transitioned his leading radio talk show into the leading television talk show almost overnight. It was the equivalent of going from silent film to talkies twenty years earlier. He made it look easy. He put our family at ease on those Burlington mornings, made good conversation, strummed the ukulele, sang a bit, made us laugh, then sent us off for the day. We had a good time. That's really because it was Arthur Godfrey's time.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Labor Day Weekend 2013

Not So Old Tybee Ranger                                        ca. 1950   
Labor Day comes Monday, but I figured addressing the theme today would make sense as most of us will be enjoying the day with family and away from the Internet. My most memorable Labor Days occurred in the '50s and '60s when I attended the big day-long picnic sponsored by the paper mill that employed my home town. Four to five thousand people attended those picnics and enjoyed carnival rides, swimming, softball, field events, airplane rides, and a playground filled with wonderfully dangerous equipment that could never be built today. It all ended with movies under the stars at the drive-in theater next door.

Although many of the kids I played with those days ended up working at the mill, I imagine a number of them went on to college and enjoyed the mobility, greater incomes and opportunities it afforded. In the long run the college graduates made the right decision. Today, the mill employs only a quarter of the workforce it had during its post World War II heyday. The picnic is a shadow, too, and now held at a mediocre site.  Although the good union wages remain, the jobs are few, and the quality of life is wanting in a region now into its sixth decade of decline.

In my life, I've always made it a point to family, friends, and colleagues that all work is honorable. Every employee, from minimum wage to executive salary, contributes to achieving organizational success. 
A the same time, I've always agreed that money cannot buy happiness., but I also believe it can help us acquire misery to enjoy. Having owned a sailboat, albeit a small one, I know plenty about misery and enjoyment.  Still, that college diploma largely determines where one falls on the earnings scale and, at least in this country, the happiness index. Our persistent economic downturn may be changing that earnings and happiness index.  For one, opportunities to develop competencies beyond the campus have never been greater. Furthermore, we're learning some hard economic lessons that may likely restore the money habits of our grandparents and great-grand parents. Regardless, I think the American Dream has a good future in store. There will be bumps in the road to full employment but they simply make the good times more enjoyable.  It is widely known that mountains cannot stand without valleys. 

Have a safe and happy Labor Day weekend.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Krakatoa: Climate Change On Speed

The Scream                                           Edvard Munch, 1893

Today,August 27, marks the 130th anniversary of the massive volcanic explosion of the Indonesian island known as Krokatoa. The event killed over 36,000 people, sent a measurable shock wave around the world seven times and produced the loudest noise heard in recorded history. Geophysical impacts included a decline of over 2 degrees in the planet's average global temperatures and more than two decades of memorable atmospheric events including, vivid sunsets, lavender suns, and noctilucent clouds.

This was an astounding event in earth history and a modern-day lesson in the fragile nature of the planet and its inhabitants. As I've said before, nature in all her beauty can be a cruel mother. In light of the recent events like Mount St. Helens, record setting earthquakes, earth-grazing fireballs and meteors, it's also a lesson that radical global climate change could occur tomorrow as well as a century from now. Granted, the sciences in question are little more than 150 years old and we know there are some events beyond our understanding and control. At least we can sleep better knowing that some of our finest earth and space scientists study and stand watch for these threats. I can't imagine a more exciting career than one exploring the far reaches of the planet and its journey in the universe.

Anak Krokatoa, the new volcano growing in the 1883 caldera

Sunday, August 25, 2013

National Park Service At 97

The notable writer and environmentalist, Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), described national parks as "the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."  Today, the agency responsible for the stewardship of the idea and its 401 units, the National Park Service, turns 97.

Entrance fees have been waived today and you're likely to find a slice of birthday cake in the visitor center. When you explore the park resources, you'll be immersed in the American experience Stegner so aptly described. Go find a park today and celebrate!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

At Least He Who Controls The Spice Controls The Flavor

August in the Country - The Seashore        Winslow Homer, 1859

Science tells us that salt has been a part of the human diet for many thousands of years and, at the far end of those years, food was gathered for its nutritional value.  Now some new research at the University of York has concluded that adding a bit of garlic mustard to your charred meat and fish was an important foodway practice as early as 7,000 years ago. Who could resist an evening around a quiet fire on a beach cooking shellfish dressed with a bit of salt and mustard garlic? Thanks to Instapundit for the link to the story. Readers may also enjoy the story about Ice Age peoples and their taste for fish. It's at the bottom of the link.

Some things just never change - only difference is the scale.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Interior's Sally Jewel: Will Her Religious Edict Trump Climate Science?

Sally Jewel, Secretary of the Interior

Word spread last week that the new Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, may not have much interest in scientific methodology these days. In her mind, climate-change - that's Interior newspeak for "anthropogenic global warming" - could be settled science. In fact, it may be so settled she issued a memo hoping "there are no climate-change deniers in the Department of the Interior."  William Katz (Urgent Agenda) has the best summary about this new leadership mindset at Interior. 

This is somewhat disappointing as I had high hopes for Jewell. As a trained and experienced engineer, she worked in the commercial banking world, sat on several boards, and served as the president and CEO of REI. She knows what it means to meet a payroll and she loves the outdoor. Thankfully, she does have a strong conservation ethic characteristic of several Interior secretaries in our lifetime, including two of the most successful, Stewart Udall and Bruce Babbitt. 

I'd like nothing more than to see Jewel dissolve some of the political boundaries that separate the conservatives who like their guns from the preservationists who like their wilderness.  If her statement was a mere misstep on the part of a new and nervous political appointee, we can forgive, forget, and hope for better things in the future.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Today Is National Rum Day

St. Croix Sugar Mill                                             Pre-20th century, artist unknown
My first serious encounter with rum didn't involve a bottle or a drink. It was 1966 and I was hiking across St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands with the intent of documenting the remains of its many sugar mills. Over the next forty years, my career returned me to St. Thomas and St. John  many times where I became more familiar with the most famous byproduct of sugar production.

Though not really a staple in our household, we've come to enjoy rum occasionally. Today, we pour it in the summer to make classic mojitos when there's fresh mint in the garden.  When it's time to entertain on the porch or patio, it's time for Pusser's Painkiller. Makes for a fine dessert all by itself and doesn't need to be powerful to be enjoyed.

And who would think rum could make for a refreshing read? It's true. In 2007, Wayne Curtis, author and contributing editor of The Atlantic, used the subject to write a history book.  My wife and I both found And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails one of the most enjoyable informal histories we'd read in years.

What better way to celebrate National Rum Day than sinking into a comfortable lounger with drink in hand and a good book. Atlanta's high temperatures are expected to set an all time low maximum somewhere in the low 70s so it's far from mojito or Painkiller weather. This is a hot buttered rum day - and if it gets much colder in the den there'll be a warm fire to enjoy as well.

Happy National Rum Day!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Woodstock At 44

Opening ceremony at Woodstock, August 15, 1969

Half a million people. Thirty-two acts. No, I wasn't there, but the music was and it is still very much alive.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

David Crosby At 72: Still Singing And Sailing After All These Years

Today, David Crosby, the American singer, songwriter and musician turns 72 years old. He may be a social and political bad boy in the eyes of many, but he remains an iconic figure in the performance and evolution of popular music beginning in the 1960s. His talents, notably his beautiful high harmony, helped propel The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to the top of the charts. Crosby is still on the circuit adding his signature sound --and rather strong it remains--after all these years. Considering the toll from years of unhealthy life choices both emotional and physical, we're fortunate to have him around for another generation of admirers. For me, Crosby ranks among the best of the singer songwriters. 

Crosby is eagerly awaiting the release of a new solo album possibly by the end of the year. Furthermore,  he's equally excited about this month's release of a long-discussed album based on a CSNY tour in 1974.  Granted, forty years is a long time ago, but the release may give music fans an opportunity to listen to a landmark event performed by a band at their personal best, perhaps best band going at the time.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Crosby, here are two selections. In the first, he performs his own song accompanied by Steven Stills and Graham Nash. In the second, he joins Stills and Nash to sing a song he co-wrote with Craig Doerge. 

Happy birthday, David. Sail on!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Life In The Waning Dog Days

Sirius, the Dog Star, is actually a double star.
These are the waning "dog days" of summer. Western civilization has associated this time with the rising of the constellation, Canis Major - the Great Dog - and its star, Sirius - the Dog Star. Historically, the end of the dog days means that the warmest days of summer are behind us.  This year could be different as our summer in Atlanta has been wonderfully mild. Regardless, the signals of the changing season are all around us. The sun casts ever longer shadows as it arcs lower across the southern sky. Leaves hang limp on trees catching more and more of that light, giving the woods a golden hue even at midday. Many of the birds no longer have their mating season plumage. The gardens, though still producing, have become more ragged and devoted to seed production. The aging summer has also brought this year's acorn crop to maturity. Our squirrel community took notice of the potential harvest about a week ago.  

There is more going on overhead than rising stars, constellations, and falling acorns. This is the time for towering popcorn thunderstorms. The calm winds and high temperatures have them soaring by noon and meandering across the region dying out as fast as they are born. These small storms bring powerful lightning - the positive strikes that start fires - inches of rainfall, high wind, and pea sized hail. In all, they are a big punch over such a small footprint compared to the supercell storms on the Great Plains.

The dog days will stay with us for a week or two, then yield to more comfortable temperatures, moderated even more by occasional easterly waves bringing showers and salt air off the Atlantic. The sound sequence of crickets to cicadas to katydids will come earlier and earlier each evening under the direction of the setting sun.  If it wasn't for the seemingly endless fall to follow, I could get upset that most of this summer has passed.  But why think of that? Let the summer flow.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reprising Entertainment From Another Time

Having the world's library at your fingertips by way of the Internet is a curse and blessing. As an eclectic surfer I wouldn't have it any other way.

Singing not your thing? How about some dancing and acrobatics?

Maybe just some reading? The DeZurik Sisters, The Ross Sisters.

This post is a rewrite of earlier posts appearing in 2009.

Sky Update

The sprite - a transient luminous event has two stories of interest to sky watchers. First is an update on the Perseid meteor shower with the good news that the number of fireballs is growing significantly as we approach the shower peak through Tuesday and Wednesday. The second story documents "sprites and jets" over Oklahoma City on August 3 and 6. Sprites and jets are members of a family of upper atmosphere lightning phenomena called transient luminous events (TLC).  TLC's have likely occurred as long as the Perseid meteors, but have only recently been photographed and studied. I find them fascinating, beautiful, and mysterious.

BTW, our sun is about to flip its magnetic poles. If that catches your attention you can read more about it here. It's nothing new - happens about every eleven years - unless you're a solar system in which case there's a lot going on.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Have You Seen The Stars Tonight?

I spent some hours tonight watching the sky. It brought me to thinking of this:

Once I spent a night on a beach covered in bioluminescence and was never quite the same again. It's odd how a completely unexpected event can change the direction of who you are, what you want to become, and where you want to go in this life.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Washington Post Marches On

We've had our disagreements over the past six decades, but I must confess to having a serious affair with The Washington Post. Haven't been on real speaking terms with the paper for the past decade or so, still, the secret admiration burns on. It's all part of my "Potomac fever." In fact, I wrote a friend yesterday about dealing with my Post Addiction Deprivation Disorder, the fear of not having the Sunday edition of the the paper rattling in my hands at breakfast. Yes, the Internet brings me the pixels; however, nothing can replace the smell and smear of the ink on my fingers.

Yesterday's purchase of the Post by Jeff Bezos ends the Graham family era of ownership and operation of a once-great newspaper. I image millions of readers would enjoy the restoration of the quality brought to the paper by the likes of Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee, and Donald Graham. It will be interested to see how Bezos treats his new acquisition. One of the best assessments of the current environment surrounding the sale and what may be in store for The Washington Post appeared today in a National Review Online post by Michael Walsh. Not to be missed.

I wish Bezos and the Post well. As for me, the affair simply marches on.

Frankly, how can you not love a paper that has its very own John Phillip Sousa march?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945, 8:15 AM, JLT

Forty-three seconds after releasing Little Boy, the pilot was alerted to the blast by radioactivity tingling in his teeth and the metallic taste from electrolysis on his tongue. Ten and a half miles away, many thousands in Hiroshima had already vanished. A massive firestorm would grip the city within minutes.

Today marks the 68th anniversary of the event.

The photograph of the blast was found in a Japanese elementary school earlier this year. It was taken about ten kilometers from the city and thirty seconds after the explosion. The photographer is unknown.

Here is a link to a fascinating Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archive of  material relating to the decision to drop the atomic bomb.

Perseid Meteors: The Fireballs Are Already Here, The Shower Comes Next Week

Antonio Canova's Perseus With the Head of Medusa   Vatican Museum 

Heads up, my friends!

They're back.  Time for the Perseids, the most reliable meteor shower of the year. But you don't have to wait to see some potentially amazing meteors. New research has concluded that the Perseid event produces more fireballs - meteors brighter than the planets, Jupiter and Venus - than any other shower.  There's even more good news. Since fireballs are random meteors, you don't have to watch the skies after midnight to see them. Anytime after sunset works. One of the most spectacular fireballs I ever saw cut across at least 120 degrees of steel blue sky about half an hour after sunset. 

Next week. the shower reaches its peak Monday and Tuesday night, August 12 and 13. A waxing moon will provide minimal interference.  Earth passes through some significant debris trails this year and sky watchers could see as many as 100 to 200 meteors per hour between 10:00 PM and 5:00 AM each night.

So gather family and friends, find an open sky away from city lights, bring blankets or lawn chairs, insect repellent, your favorite munchies and libations, and enjoy the show.

For more information, check out this page.  In addition, will likely have some informative posts on the shower over the next week.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Savannah's Conrad Aiken: A Cosmos Mariner - Destination Unknown

Born in that most magical city, Savannah, I was allowed to run wild in that earthly paradise until I was nine: ideal for the boy who early decided he wanted to write.

Conrad Potter Aiken was born in Savannah in 1889 and lived in an elegant townhouse on Oglethorpe Avenue across the street from Colonial Cemetery. He often played in that ancient burial ground midst tabby crypts and tombstones where the mortal remains of many of Georgia's aristocracy found rest. From the time he was eight or nine he wanted to be a poet. Soon he found himself captured by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and happily sharing the terror with his brother and sisters.

With his parents immersed in Savannah society and surrounded by wealth, privilege, and pedigree, he seemed destined for happiness. After all, his father was a successful New England physician and both parents had a long heritage steeped in Unitarianism and transcendental thought. But all was not well. One day, when he was eleven, he returned home to find his mother shot to death, his father dead by suicide. Conrad Aiken's world changed forever that day and he would never fully recover from the horror he saw.

With his parents gone, young Aiken was separated from his brothers and sisters and sent to live with relatives in New England, but he felt homeless there. Aiken felt detached from his world, but he was a successful student both in private schools and at Harvard where he studied under the guidance of philosopher and writer, George Santayana, and struck up a life-long friendship with fellow student, T. S. Eliot.

Aiken wrote lyrical poetry, weighted with symbolism and psychological exploration so deep that, in his own words, "Freud was in everything after 1912." By 1920, he moved predominantly to prose expressing his "faith in consciousness" and an endless search for knowledge as the means to quell his personal chaos and bring order and structure to the larger consciousness of the world. In all, he wrote or edited fifty books, including his poetry, short stories, five novels, and one autobiography.

For all of his output, Conrad Aiken never achieved the level of fame of his good friend, T. S. Eliot, or other contemporaries. Several reasons explain his obscurity. He was deeply introverted to the point of being clinically shy. That shyness led him to avoid public readings, an activity generally considered essential to a poet's success. Furthermore, he chose to be a most candid critic, a posture that did not endear him to his fellow writers. And finally, during his middle years, he was a resident of both the United States and Europe. Many writers, benefactors, and salons on both sides of the Atlantic never quite claimed him as one of their own. By 1960, readers and critics "rediscovered" him after he had been resident in the U.S for some years. Two years later, he returned part-time to the elegance of Savannah where he spent the winters living next to his boyhood home.  He soon became the focus of social and academic circles and sought out by admirers until his death in 1973.

If you wander toward the eastern bluff in Savannah's magnificent Bonaventure Cemetery, you arrive at Aiken Way. There, with the vast salt marshes of the Wilmington River spreading out to the distant treeline, you find a simple granite bench. Conrad Aiken installed it as his memorial headstone before his death. His parents rest next to the memorial. Their headstone bears identical death dates, an eerie reminder of the chaos we all face in our lives.

For those of us who have found our peace, there is a profound release there under the live oaks and Spanish moss. Others may not be so fortunate. Aiken is one them. In life, he was restless, a constant searcher forever sailing through an uncertain sea. He felt the same about death and wanted us to know. How fitting it was that he should find his epitaph quite by accident while perusing the Savannah newspapers. It appeared in the daily list of port activity and read simply: "Cosmos Mariner - Destination Unknown." Aiken indeed saw himself a cosmos mariner who arrived in this world on this day, August 5, in 1889. On August 17, 1973, he cast off without a port of call, destination unknown. He left behind, engraved on the bench the wish, "Give my love to the world." It is a rather confident wish coming from a restless sailor. We can pray that every man should find safe harbor, all the while knowing that we are not the final judge of such navigation. We are left merely to explore the products of a shy and troubled man who could appreciate a bawdy pun and have his say in singing words and lilting prose.

Read more about Conrad Aiken and his work at these sources which form the core of my blog entry:

The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Conrad Aiken, entry by Ted R. Spivey
Wikipedia entry, Conrad Aiken
Conrad Aiken: Prodigy Unitarian Poet, by Richard A. Kellaway

This post is a corrected and edited version of a 2009 OTR entry.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tony Bennett: Still Belting Out The Music

Tony Bennett performing in 2003                                               Photo: Tom Beetz
Anthony Benedetto, better known as Tony Bennett, turns 87 today. After more than sixty years on stage, he still draws huge audiences to his full concert schedule of tunes from jazz, to Broadway, to the Great American Songbook. Bennett has been at the business so long he's had two careers, a fifteen-year affair with the Greatest Generation, and a now thirty-year reinvention with new artists, music, and audiences following a lull during the rock and roll era. Bennett has also been in the forefront of introducing current generations to the Great American Songbook.

Bennett is an interesting blend of vocal talent and showmanship, a well-perfected entertainer with a not so perfect voice.  You have to learn how to appreciate the value of a permanent vocal strain and a sound out of vaudeville. For me, it was a long learning process, but I've come to appreciate and enjoy the total Bennett experience.  Here he is performing one of his signature songs - from fifty years ago - as a duet with the sensational jazz/pop vocalist, Diana Krall:

So best wishes to the man for a happy birthday and many years to come in the spotlight. The best is yet to come!

Detroit: Chevy Vega Management Meets Liberal Welfare Statism

A week ago I wrote a Facebook post about the effect of "liberal welfare statism" on young Americans. It raised an eyebrow or two with a liberal reader who chose to place blame far more on the erosion of the corporation as a national economic engine and its willingness to place profits over jobs. Granted, corporate capitalism is about profit, but it is profit built on moral obligation.

With Detroit's bankruptcy on my mind, I've been hitting the "liberal welfare statism" component heavily, but my liberal friend's comments on corporate responsibility did set me to thinking.  And on second thought, my 1971 - and last - personal experience with General/Government Motors and its Chevrolet Vega had little to do with liberal thinking or welfare:

[I] had quite an affair with the Chevy brand into young adulthood, including a '57 Chevy Bel Air and a '68 Camaro. It came to an end when I bought a '71 Chevy Vega, arguably in the bottom three pieces of junk ever produced by the American auto industry. Under that modest design and spiffy concept rested an engineering and performance nightmare wrapped in paper-thin sheet metal. The engine warped into an oil burner in a matter of weeks. The dealership was embarrassed and spent thousands to make things right while the corporate suits at General Motors wrote nice letters. As months turned into a year, then two years, there was no end to breakdowns, recalls, and repairs.
*   *   * 

[I] will never own another General/Government Motors product. Ever.

Strong opinion there about the corporate suits. Not so much about the rank and file on the line. Today, Steven Hayward's Power Line post highlights some significant comments by George Will on the role of corporate leadership in Detroit's decline. Some valuable links there as well.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems therefore, we should be thankful that learning never stops.

                                                                                                       Reuters photo/Rebecca Cook