Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Smashing the Nazi spy ring!

The scare is upon us again: another terrorist on an airplane, another failed bombing. At least we can be grateful he failed, if not angry that he got on the plane in the first place..

After the last big scare, the shoe-bomb attempt by Richard Reid, it became a requirement for us to remove our shoes while going through the security line at airports. Since the latest guy set his bomb off in his underwear my worry is that they'll make us all strip off our knickers to get through the line. Well, maybe it won't be that extreme. Hope not, anyway.

There is always a lot of finger pointing when guys like this get through the so-called safety net. Even President Obama is blaming the government, although I see it as equally a problem with Lagos, Nigeria, and Amsterdam, where he was allowed on the flight to Detroit.

Back in 1937, according to this article from Liberty Magazine, a popular periodical of the day, the G-Men caught some Nazi spies, the terrorists of the era! Ah, for the good old days...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The missing mom

A young wife and mother goes missing. A husband acts suspiciously. He has an unconvincing alibi, which can't be checked to anyone's satisfaction. He won't talk to police, but "lawyers up." Vigils are held for the young woman; the husband shows up but won't speak with his in-laws.

Doesn't sound good for the husband, does it?

That's the case of Susan Powell and her husband, Joshua. Joshua's story, that on the Sunday night of December 6, 2009, he took his two young boys, age 2 and 4, camping at midnight to a remote spot in the West Desert of Utah, and came home the next day to find his wife gone, doesn't sound very convincing to the public or police. Police would like to talk more with him, but he won't talk to them. In his initial contact with the media his answers were incomplete and vague. He appeared shell-shocked, blindsided by the attention.

For some reason this story has legs. The national media has picked it up. Why? Well, pretty wife for one thing, very young children for another, bumbling, suspicious husband with a history of controlling behavior. Reporting the story has lead some of the public to a rush to judgment. Unfortunately, unlike TV shows CSI or Law and Order, it isn't that simple. Police have some things they've taken from the Powell home, and they have the suspicious actions of the husband, but apparently they don't have evidence that Susan Powell is dead or being held somewhere against her will or the husband would be in custody.

She could have left on her own. But that wouldn't be her, her family and friends say. She'd take her children, she'd take her cell phone and her purse, for cryin' out loud. And what the hell kind of story is that the husband tells? Taking two young children camping at midnight on a winter night of sub-freezing temperatures?

Everyone has an opinion, and most opinion settles on the husband's guilt.

I don't know. I don't have any more information than is released by the media. I only have the experience of having personally known the principals in a past case where the public damned the husband of a missing woman only to find out a couple of years later they were wrong when another man confessed to murder.

Warren and Margo were my coworkers in the 1980s and early '90s. Margo went missing on a February morning in 1992, only to be found in a shallow grave six months later. I told the story here, and I also made a point that if a wife goes missing, a husband had better have some sort of alibi that can be easily checked. Otherwise suspicion will automatically fall on him. Everything he's ever done wrong--and let's face it, there aren't any perfect husbands--will be used against him, either by police or the court of public opinion.

It will take time for police to come to some sort of conclusion one way or another. Maybe Susan Powell will walk in the door. Maybe someone will find her body covered by snow in the West Desert. Like most people I'm sure her husband isn't telling the truth, but whether the truth leads to a body I don't know. Neither does anyone else, so we should probably all just shut up. Human nature being what it is, shutting up is the exact opposite of what we'll do.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Santa Claus: the god of children and admen

A few years ago a local man wrote letters to a Salt Lake City newspaper complaining about the image of Santa Claus. He called Santa "the god of children." At the time I thought the writer was just a crank. Now I've changed my mind and see his point. As a society we sell Santa Claus to kids as having godlike powers: "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake..." Santa passes judgment, "He knows when you've been bad or good..."

Santa is pictured as an older man with a long white beard. A lot like the image of God as painted by Michaelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

You know to click on the pictures to make them big.

But whether Santa has ever been the "god of children," he sure has been a godsend for advertisers. The white-bearded man in the red suit has endorsed just about every product there is to endorse. These selections from the 1940s, culled from Life magazines found on Google Books, are just a fraction of the uses to which the jolly old elf has been put by those hard-working folks on Madison Avenue.

Top: The Santa Claus said to have set the modern-day image of Santa in the minds of the American public was painted by Haddon Sundblum in a series of ads done for Coca-Cola over decades. These are still used, still reproduced every year on various products sold by Coke.

After selling sugary soda pop, a snaggle-toothed Santa went further for the cavity crowd with Whitman candy:

Santa wasn't discriminating in his huckstering. He sold everything, even razors.

He sold electric products. The beautifully eye-catching ad for GE Christmas Tree Lights puts Santa squarely in the postwar jet era, anticipating rockets. Phooey on an old-fashioned sled with eight reindeer. Pour on the afterburners!

This might be the most jarring ad. It's from World War II, with the enemies of America in for an asskicking by Santa. Since Santa traveled all over the world--or so the story went--there's no telling why he was picking on the Axis leaders. This crudely drawn full-page color ad even features a racist portrait of the Japanese emperor as a rat with a human face.

The ads that bothered a lot of people were Santa shilling for tobacco companies. In the Chesterfield and Camel ads he isn't pictured with a cigarette in his mouth, but the company who makes cigarette lighters doesn't have any scruples about its portrayal.

If Santa is "the god of children," as the letter-writer claimed, he hasn't always been treated with the reverence due a god.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A changed man

Dickens' A Christmas Carol has become the most familiar Christmas story of all time. Life Magazine did a layout in its December 25, 1944 issue, featuring actor Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge.

According to the article Barrymore had done an annual radio play of A Christmas Carol for years. That sounds like a wonderful tradition for families, gather around the radio and listen to the familiar story. The Life layout was set up in such an elaborate fashion just for the magazine, photographed by Ralph Crane. The costuming and settings look great.Too bad Mr. Barrymore didn't do a movie version of the story. We have several available now and we love every one of them. I'd love to see this version on film.

You can read A Christmas Carol as either a straight ghost story or as allegory, but it works either way.It is mainly a story of redemption. When Scrooge comes to the window on Christmas morning to hail the passing boy we are assured that he's a changed person.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Night of horror

In Utah, where I live, there have been about four dozen legal executions in the 160 years since Utah attained territorial status. Two of the executions, Joe Hill and Gary Mark Gilmore, are world famous. I went online to see if I could find information on any of the non-famous executions, which were, after all, carried out in the name of the people. One of the oddball things I found was a series of 1943 murders by Austin Cox, Jr., in Ogden, Utah, replicated in a lurid crime comic book story from 1951.

Cox was executed for his crimes in 1944. What I found in my internet search were his death certificate and a few lines in a book review, which tell essentially of the same incidents as the comic story.

Along with murder cases, [Judge] Trueman handled the usual divorce cases. One was that of Austin Cox Jr. Cox didn't like the outcome, and on the night of July 24, 1943, went hunting for his wife.

He'd heard she was staying at a house at 2240 Lincoln Ave. (now the site of a home improvement center) and went there. She wasn't there but six other people were and he shot them, killing four and wounding the rest.

Then he drove to 1543 27th St., Trueman's home, and fired a shot at a kitchen window. Trueman and his wife, in a second story bedroom, turned on a light and went to a window to see what was going on, and Cox shot him.

Cox was executed a year later.

The Unforgiven, Utah's Executed Men by L. Kay Gillespie
It's a terrible tragedy when a man kills his estranged wife. It's inexcusable. Unfortunately it happens and the cases usually make the headlines, but as far as I know Cox is the only man in Utah ever put to death for the crime. Killing the judge who granted the divorce might have had something to do with it. (I doubt the way the divorce is depicted as taking place over a telephone call to the judge from Cox's wife.)

Utah was also the answer to a trivia question that went around for years: "What's the only state in the U.S. where a prisoner gets a choice for his execution?" Why, Utah, of course, where the condemned could choose hanging or firing squad. The trivia questions usually leave out the choice of decapitation. It was only offered for a time and never chosen by any condemned man. Nowadays the law has been changed and there are no more choices, only lethal injection.

I assume firing squad seemed better than hanging, because most murderers chose it. At least it was quick, but good god, what a choice. I would say you're in a very bad way when the last decision you're allowed to make is, "Do you want to die dangling from a rope or strapped into a chair with a paper target pinned over your heart?" Uh, can I instead choose 'dying of old age'?"

From Crime-Fighting Detective #14, 1951:

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"His face was chalky white..."

I was 15 years old when I read this story in Life magazine for February 9, 1963. Such is the power of the imagery--the description of Lincoln in his casket 36 years after his death--that I never forgot it. For years I told people the story of the boy who witnessed the opening of Lincoln's coffin in 1901, before Lincoln was permanently sealed away in a concrete tomb.

After my current reading I remembered thinking in 1963 that the assassination of a president was something that happened in the past, and had little relevance to modern times. A few months later, in November, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I came to understand with others of my generation what it feels like when it happens.

Life has made its archives from the 1930s to 1972 available on Google Books.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

People of Freakmart

I was led to the People of Walmart website, and after spending a couple of hours going through the archives I have a couple of thoughts:

1. Thank god none of those pictures is of me. How would you feel if someone called you up and told you, gleefully, "I saw you on People of Walmart!"

2. We all need to feel superior to someone, but some of the folks pictured look like they need our help, not our sarcasm and derision.

3. Who are the folks who can just upload this sort of voyeurism and not expect repercussions? If I ended up on this site I'd be in a lawyer's office discussing how much I could expect to make from a lawsuit.

Having said all that, I'll climb off my high horse and admit, yeah, I found some of the photos more than interesting. I'm showing a few, especially the ones I found from my home state of Utah.

I'm not sure any of these people shop at my local Walmart store, but I'll keep my eyes open, especially for the young girl in the rabbit fur leg warmers and bikini bottom.

This is a picture I found fascinating. My first thought at seeing it was, "That's M.S.!" M.S. was a coworker of mine; we all hated the guy because he was a brown-noser and got away with murder. After seeing the picture I drove to my former jobsite and talked to a couple of the guys who shared my opinion of M.S. I asked, "Ever seen People of Walmart? One guy said, "You mean the one with M.S.'s picture?" He'd already seen it. We looked it up on the office computer and chortled about it. The frilly socks are just too-too, if you know what I mean.

After I got home I looked at it again and reluctantly decided it's not M.S. Not that I wouldn't give anything to have it be him, but there's a certain shape to the profile that just doesn't ring true. We worked with the guy for five or six years and he's distinctive enough I'd be able to recognize him anywhere, so I had to conclude it wasn't him in the picture. Sure looks like him though, enough that it nearly succeeded in fooling me.

The following people are not from Utah. I just want you to know that.

There is an implied warning with the People of Walmart website: make sure you don't dress down to go to Walmart.

I notice they really like pictures of morbidly obese people, especially wearing clothing inappropriate for their size. If you go to Walmart put something over your bikini. They like pictures of obese people showing the cracks of their asses. Don't bend over in Walmart.

If there's a guy behind you fussing with his cellphone you can figure he might be taking your picture. Stare at him until he gets uncomfortable and goes away, and make sure he doesn't sneak up on you later.

They like pictures of people with hostile or obscene messages on their clothing. I'll bet this guy gets a lot of dates. Not.

Women, do not expose your back boobs. Of all the sights no one wants to see, that tops the list.