Monday, July 28, 2014

SS United States: The Story Continues

I may have retired from a career in preservation but that doesn't mean I have forgotten the significance of the preservation of notable sites, scenes, objects, and structures in the American experience. The SS United States is one of those structures. Here is an OTR post on this magnificent ship written in 2010:

For seventeen years, the SS United States carried passengers across the Atlantic Ocean as the Queen of the American Merchant Marine. This great liner still holds the westbound Atlantic crossing record - at an average speed of almost 40 mph - set on her maiden voyage in 1952. Now merely an empty shell, she has been weathering away since the late '70s and moored at her last destination, Philadelphia, since 1996. With her interior furnishings gone, some may say that she is a vessel we can afford to lose. But instead of decoration, the SS United States was noted for her innovation, performance, and adaptability as a military as well as civilian vessel. She is, therefore, a most suitable example of American industrial and engineering history.

Her reprieve by a group of preservationists came at the very last hour. It represents a very small step in a restoration that will take many years and millions of dollars. Plans at this time are to preserve the liner as a hotel in either New York or Philadelphia. As a preservationist, OTR is heartened to learn that this beautiful piece of maritime history may some day grace a proud harbor and share her history with future generations.
 The link above provides readers with additional information and suggests several links for more in depth exploration of the Queen of the American Merchant Marine. One of those links, Richard April's American Flagship SS United States, should not be missed.

I am pleased to report that in the four years since this post appeared, the SS United States has survived in Philadelphia and is now undergoing "below deck" changes that should make her more suitable for use as a permanent dockside attraction by investors. In an improving economy, several organizations would be pleased to have this vessel grace their urban waterfront. As it is, the SS United States Conservancy seems to be focusing on resources in New York City as their best hope for a permanent home. 

The world has already lost the SS Normandie to fire in 1942 and the SS France to scrap in 2008. Both vessels represented superlative art and engineering in the 20th century. I have come late to appreciating industrial archeology when the subject is great ships. They are incredibly expensive to maintain and operate yet they are irreplaceable and once gone they are gone forever. I would like to think that the SS United States will be preserved for future generations as an expression of American engineering and art as well as a product of our never ending appreciation of ingenuity.

Source: Wikipedia, SS United States Conservancy

Sunday, July 27, 2014

AirVenture 2014 Kicks Off In Oshkosh

The Experimental Aircraft Association's 62nd version of AirVenture, the world's largest fly-in, begins tomorrow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The week-long event draws thousands of aviators, exhibitors, and airplanes as well as 500,000 or so visitors.

Wittman Regional Airport at the height of AirVenture 2011

I had the privilege of attending this event several times in the last decade of my career. Exhausting, energizing, informative, and significant, the show was a great vehicle for delivering an organizational message to a large, captured, and enthusiastic audience.  At the same time it was like turning a kid loose in a candy store. 

The map below gives readers an idea of the scope and scale of Oshkosh and indicates why the event turns a rather sleepy airport into the busiest airport in the world for one week each year.

For scale, the runway at the top of the map is 8000 feet long

If any readers have the slightest interest in an aviation theme, EAA's AirVenture needs to be in your travel plans. If you can't be there tomorrow, the event maintains a comprehensive website with several webcams, live coverage, and a host of other links. We have plans to visit the Upper Midwest in the coming years and you can bet that visit will be planned around AirVenture.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Christmas Story In July

If you 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, and it's famous line that is the title of this entry. 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.

Following service in World War II, Shepherd went on to a career in broadcasting, writing, film, and live performance. In radio, he was heard on a late night show 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.

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 can easily relate to much of Shepherd's/Ralphie's childhood. But many of the rites of passage to adulthood are timeless. The markers are a shared experience for every generation. Jean Shepherd was a genius at capturing them. And his skills as a narrator made him a natural at weaving the common threads into humorous and entertaining listening.

I find Shepherd's personal path - a difficult one - in the American experience a most interesting journey. 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, a Wikipedia entry, not verified, notes that Shepherd 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 Shepherd the opportunity to become a big television star in the 1950's and much better well-known in his lifetime. At the same time, he understood and appreciated the cost of fame and the value of life outside the studio. Had he pursued a life in television, I doubt he would have produced such an enjoyable series of observations blended from experience and imagination.

Fifteen years ago, Jean Shepherd died known primarily for one film produced in 1983 when he was 62. There's much more creativity to him than that. I hope more people come to enjoy his work as it ages into fine wine expressing one man's harvest of life in 20th century America.

Here is a taste of the raconteur at work:

This is an edited version of an OTR post from 2009.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Charles Sheeler: Art As Precision And Personality

I favor a picture which arrives at its destination without the evidence of a trying journey rather than one which shows the marks of battle.

Charles Sheeler (quoted above) was born in Philadelphia on this day in 1883. He was trained as a draftsman and painter in that city and was self taught in photography. If we were to use one word to describe his work, it would be "precision."  By early adulthood his broad training and personal technique made him a successful artist, one who would later be recognized as a founding member of the Modernist arts in the United States.

I became familiar with Sheeler's work during several class trips to museums in Washington in the early '70's. Didn't think much of his style at the time but a career immersed in our nation's natural and cultural landscapes changed my attitude. Today, he's a favorite and here are a few of his paintings I enjoy:

American Landscape                                                              1922

Golden Gate                                                                            1955

Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting                                      1933

Yankee Clipper                                                                         1939

A version of this post first appeared in 2013. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day 2014

Whilst the last members were signing [the Constitution], Doctor Franklin, looking towards the Presidents chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art, a rising, from a setting, sun.  I have, said he, often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising, and not a setting sun.
James Madison quoting BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, debates in the Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 17, 1787. James Madison, Journal of the Federal Convention, ed. E. H. Scott, p. 763

The "Rising Sun" chair used by George Washington during
 the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia

We hope you and your family have a happy Independence Day. If you value your freedom to celebrate this day, do all in your power to ensure that our great American experiment brings to the world all the expectations of a rising sun.  Let freedom ring!

Independence Day postcard ca. 1905 


Quotation and chair photos, Independence National Historical Park
Liberty Bell postcard, family archives

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Paul Mazursky

Paul Mazursky in 2008

A comedy icon died on Monday but few people noticed primarily because we don't pay much attention to the past these days. Still, the passing of Paul Mazursky should matter, He was a master at making entertaining and instructive sense out of life by linking divergent characters, situations, and behaviors in his quirky films. If you're a child of the 1960's you likely know his writing and directorial work well:

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968)
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Harry and Tonto (1974)
An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Down and Out In Beverley Hills (1986)
Scenes From A Mall (1991)

Of course this is only part of Mazursky's filmography. He directed and/or wrote over a dozen additional films, performed in even more, and appeared in several television roles well into this century.

Mazursky's unique approach to interpreting the smiles and sorrows of the human condition deserves to be enjoyed today and I would appeal especially to younger audiences to view his work. Although the settings may change over time, the human calls and responses remain very much the same. 

Photo credit: Petr Novak, Wikimedia

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Arthur Spends The Fourth On The Coast

Well, it seems the first tropical cyclone of the season formed off the east coast of Florida early this morning. Here in Atlanta we can almost tell something's brewing in the Gulf Stream. First, a noisy derecho roared out of Tennessee yesterday bringing monsoon rains, severe storms and high winds to the region before slicing across Georgia into the Florida panhandle. Second, we awoke this morning to heat and low humidity. And third, the steady north-northeast breeze was a sure sign that the tropics were restless.  Indeed, it appears our coastal neighbors will have to contend with Tropical Storm Arthur this week.  Arthur doesn't appear like much of a threat but you can be assured there will be amazing rip currents on the barrier islands along the Southeast Bight.  Along with the clouds and rain, it may not be much of a vacation weekend from north Florida to the Chesapeake Bay. 

I doubt that Arthur will be much of a wind threat so being on a rainy beach in a cozy space with someone you love, a good book, and happy music sounds like a fine option. Families may find themselves with a bit more of challenge!

You can choose your companion easily enough, but I do have suggestions for reading and listening. For summer novel reading, I recommend  Pat Conroy's Beach Music (1995). No writer captures the Southern coast quite as vividly as Conroy.  Blend that with his intense and often dark themes and you'll have a fine week's reading. And your music? Of course it's Beach Music, that R&B, cross-racial sound celebrated by white kids on the Carolina coast since the middle of the last century. If you experienced it as I did a generation ago on 

Tybee Island, Georgia. My home from 1978-88

Georgia's sea islands, the beat, tempo, and shag dancing under the stars soon became character traits. I'm pleased to report that the beach and shag sound is now moving into its third generation of popularity in the Carolinas, coastal Maryland and Virginia, and southeast Georgia. There are some great classics in this genre, but the number of new bands is a healthy sign of a long and happy future. If you don't know the sound or simply want to enjoy some happy sounds, here's a taste of music from the beach:


Tapped your foot much? 

We hope Arthur has an uneventful cruise up the Southeast coast and doesn't interfere with your Fourth of July weekend at the beach.