Wednesday, December 30, 2015

TV GUIDE, 1967: “Are Injuries Wrecking Pro Football?” Plus Mia Farrow, Don Knotts...even the Beatles

The October 21, 1967 issue of TV GUIDE caught my eye at the local antiques mall. First, a beautiful picture of Mia Farrow on the cover, less than a year before Rosemary’s Baby would be released.

Doe-eyed Mia.

All contents Copyright ©1967 Triangle Publications.

The cover is about Ms Farrow’s return to TV (after Peyton Place) for a broadcast of Johnny Belinda. The sidebar gives a synopsis:

I thought it sounded interesting, so I checked the IMDb, only to find the program may not exist anymore. It hasn’t been seen since its initial showing, and no one has a story for what happened to it. Some reader on the IMDb comments board suspects the video tape was erased and therefore the show is lost. If so that would be too bad. It may turn up some day, sitting in a box in some former network executive or producer’s closet. Stranger things have happened.

It must have been sweeps week on network television the week of October 21-27, 1967. There are Don Knotts, Bob Hope, Sophia Loren specials. Don Knotts warranted a three page article, here reprinted in full, which tells us he left the Andy Griffith Show to be a movie star, and he movies that played in drive-in theaters in rural areas. Well, that wasn’t too bad in those days. Roger Corman made a fortune with movies for that circuit. Knotts did all right for a few years, then appeared again on televison in Three’s Company in the seventies.

Included for fellow blogger Kirk Jusko,* a TV ad with Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from Star Trek as unwitting television salespeople. RCA owned NBC, so Star Trek did double duty; going where no man had gone before, and selling color televisions for their network.

As mentioned, the Beatles were featured in their first movie, A Hard Day’s Night. I am not sure if this was the first network showing of the movie or not, but it was an event. Richard Lester’s movie is a perfect time capsure of the 1964 Beatles and Beatlemania. Although it was only three years since it had been released, by 1967 the Beatles had moved far beyond their 1964 image.

The summer of '67 was the Summer of Love. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had been released, and words from the song, “Summer Rain,” by Johnny Rivers said it all: “All summer long we were dancing in the sand; everybody just kept on playing ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.”

Speaking of the Summer of Love, here are Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller as the last hippies in the far-off year of 1997.

As we have found out since his death, Bob Hope believed in free love all his life.

We have been seeing specials on television the past couple of years: Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, and The Wiz. But there have been stage plays on television back to when I was a child in the 1950s. (Peter Pan with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard was a big event in our house every year). So Kismet seems right in with the history of showing musical theater on TV. I am interested because one of my favorite all-time actors, José Ferrer, plays the lead. In 1965 Ferrer starred in the play Oedipus at the University of Utah. My girlfriend’s parents gave us tickets. Before the curtain went up I went to the men’s room, only to realize there was a thin wall between the men’s loo and the dressing rooms for the actors. I could hear Ferrer, with his booming voice, telling jokes to his fellow actors. I don’t remember exactly what was said, except I remember I stood at the urinal for a long time, listening.

Was it standard for Ferrer to tell jokes, maybe to alleviate the tension and butterflies before a show?

I also noticed the sidebar for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which was on its first annual repeat...and has been shown every year since.

The Peanuts specials have been money in the bank for the network since they were originally produced almost 50 years ago.

We finally get to the article on injuries in football ruining the game. What I found particularly interesting was the article focused mainly on injuries to the knees, ankles, shoulders, etc., from being hit and from the player hitting the ground. My curiosity about the current talk about concussions was covered quickly with the author saying: “. . . the game has the finest equipment in history, because sporting-goods firms as well as the Government cooperated in the design and development of football gear. The modern helmet, for instance, stems from military research and has virtually eliminated the head injury, so feared in the past.” [Emphasis mine]

Can it be the League has conspired for decades to keep the seriousness of brain injuries and concussions out of the news? We now know that many players develop lifelong problems, some lives severely shortened because of concussions and trauma to the brain. It had to be obvious to those who had been in the game their whole lives that players taking hard hits to the head later had problems, including dementia. I believe the NFL adopted a tactic from the tobacco industry playbook, to claim that “there is no solid proof” or that “further investigation needs to be done,” knowing full well their liability, and that the players were expendable and less important than the bottom lines of both the League and the team owners.

My wife and I subscribed to TV Guide from the seventies until at least some time in the nineties, when our local listings could not keep up with cable TV. I wish I had saved issues of the magazine. I am sure there are many things written and published then that would be pertinent for today.

*Kirk Jusko has been writing an epic history and commentary on the original Star Trek in his blog, Shadow of a Doubt. The link will take you to episode 12 of 15, and you can work your way around from there.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The union man, Joe Hill

Joe Hill was executed a hundred years ago. He was killed by a firing squad in the Utah State Prison. Joe, a member of the International Workers of the World (the IWW), was a union man. He was troublesome to the powers that be, those monied interests that don’t want workers asking for too much.

Since the police were most often on the side of the money and not the worker, they were sent in to break up strikes and labor disputes, often with force. It isn’t hard to believe they could have framed Hill for a murder to shut him up. As history shows, it worked exactly the opposite way, and Joe Hill became a martyr to the labor movement.

I was a union man for over 30 years. In Utah that branded me as something of a troublemaker. Utah is a right-to-work state, and business owners think people should be content to earn minimum wage and live in poverty.

Pat Bagley, cartoonist and historian, whose work appears in The Salt Lake Tribune, did this series on Joe Hill in early September, 2015. I like Bagley’s work and have shown it before, and I want to share this with you. I hope someday Bagley will expand this into a graphic novel.

Copyright ©2015 The Salt Lake Tribune.

Joe Hill was a songwriter, and when he was gone he had songs sung about him.

Pete Seeger sings “Joe Hill.”

Utah Philips sings a couple of Joe Hill’s songs:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Held at bay by barking dogs

My last couple of posts have been about my elusive memory. Some memories, even important ones, have faded, other minor memories stand out. Why? The vicissitudes of brain functions, I suppose.

For instance, I woke up the other day with a sharp memory of being held at bay by two large, barking dogs.

It was in 1976. I had just gotten the job I would hold until my retirement in 2009. As a condition of employment I was expected to get a physical. I was working for the local school district, and the physical was necessary to make sure I wasn't a walking disease factory when entering schools. In 1976 I did not have a regular family doc, and because I had a deadline of 30 days I checked around for the name of a doctor I could see quick. A family friend told me a college friend of his, Dr Steve, had a practice in downtown Salt Lake City. I made an appointment.

The day of the appointment I was allowed to take time off work. I drove into Salt Lake, but there was a problem finding parking. The medical building was close to a residential section of town, so I drove to a street lined with houses, and parked. I had a couple of blocks to walk, but that was no big deal.  Or at least when setting out I didn’t think so. A block into my walk two large dogs, a German Shepherd and a mixed breed, ran out of a back yard and confronted me. They were barking and snarling, and worse, they were blocking the sidewalk. In those days, just like today, there were restrictions on dogs running free, but those hounds were off-leash. I stood on the sidewalk, held at bay. I tried crossing the street. No good, they ran ahead of me and blocked me there. In frustration I yelled out, “Hey! Whoever owns these dogs! Call them off!” Maybe everyone was at work, or at least did not want to get involved. I saw no one in a window, no one in their yard, just those dogs. After several minutes I was frustrated, running late. I finally just walked back to my car, checking over my shoulder to make sure the dogs weren’t following. They stood like sentinels, watching me leave.

Powerful jaws and big fangs, intimidating!

I drove back to the medical building, where this time I got lucky and found a spot.

When I was led by the nurse to the examining room she walked me past Dr Steve’s office. He was sitting at his desk, reading a medical file, and smoking a cigarette. Even in 1976 it seemed odd to see a doctor smoking. It was a relief to me, since in those days I was a smoker and figured it lessened my chances of him lecturing me about quitting. As it was I quit six months later.

Why worry about smoking? Your doctor smokes!

I got through the appointment all right. The exam was quick. I answered some questions and he did his doctor thing, pronounced me in good health, wished me good luck on my new job, and I was on my way.

I didn’t think any more of it. A month later I got a note from our personnel office saying I had not completed my requirement for a physical, and I was in danger of being fired. I called Dr Steve’s office and was assured they had sent the form to the personnel director, but when I went in person to explain that to the Personnel Department, I ran into the human equivalent of the barking, snarling dogs. My memory goes blank when I try to think of her name, but she was fairly well known for being hard to get along with. She seemed constantly irritated. She was snappish, ill-humored and at times belligerent.

When I joined the school district a lot of the people working there had been there since World War II, even before. The longtime employees were part of my parents’ generation. This being Utah they were also almost universally Latter-day Saints. I knew I did not make a good impression because of my beard and shoulder-length hair (and the aforementioned smoking, which offended Mormons even more than my appearance), but I thought my natural charm (har-har) would win her over. No chance. I had a better chance with those dogs than I had with her. I asked to speak with the personnel director, but she kept me at bay. Like the dogs. All I could do was tell her what the doctor’s office had told me, and I left her office with a warning that my job was on the line.

The secretary I mention has nothing to do with Christina Hendricks’ role as office manager on Mad Men. I just like pictures of Christina Hendricks.

A week or so later it filtered down to me that the secretary had found the doctor’s note. Whew.

There is a bit more to the story. What happened was that I was not a threat to the health of schoolkids. In fact the opposite was true. Kids were always sick, and walking into a school was an invitation to pick up any germs or medical condition going around. My first five years with the organization were filled with me being ill, having a cold or sore throat every few months. I still did not have a family doctor, so I called Dr Steve’s office, only to find out he no longer practiced locally. I asked the family friend who had recommended him. He told me that Dr Steve had confessed to his wife he was gay, she divorced him and he moved with his boyfriend to Arizona.

A couple of years after that I heard from the same friend Dr Steve had died of a “strange disease” that attacked the immune system of gay men. He was the first case of AIDS I ever heard of, before there was even a name for it.

After awhile I built up my own immune system, and didn’t catch every stray bug loose in the schools. One day a kid as tall as me was walking by me in the hallway, turned his face toward me and coughed. I yelled, "Cover your mouth when you cough!" Three days later I had a cold complete with bad cough. When remembering that I also remember the barking sound he made when he coughed.

And when I tell you this story I ain’t just a'woofin'.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Honorable Discharge

Two score and seven years ago, {or 47 years for those of you who might not know that a score is 20 years}, I was released from the United States Army, and resumed my life as a civilian. I had been drafted in late 1966, and I spent one year, 11 months and 10 days as a soldier.

A series of events had caused me to be drafted, and then it became time to get on with my life.

I did, and here I am.

I have here my Honorable Discharge from the United States Army as proof that I did what I was told to do, and stuck out the whole time. (Note: I did put my pseudonym on the digital copy of the document, and redacted my service number. I don’t want someone reading this and stealing my identity, something we never thought about in those days.) You might notice that it says I was actually discharged on November 29, 1972, because that was six years, minus one day, from the time I became a soldier. In those days an enlistment was actually six years. Two years active duty, two years active Army Reserve, and two years inactive Reserve. Because of Vietnam the Army Reserves were all filled up with folks avoiding the draft, so there was no room in those Reserve units. Despite the law, it became four years inactive Reserve.

It does not matter now. It is all over.

A year or so ago I ran into one of my old Army friends. Ralph and I have known each other since the day we entered the Army. There were six guys I was with, all of us from the same hometown, who for some reason — maybe our cards got stuck together — did our entire hitch together. But Ralph is the one I have seen the most over the years. Always by accident, but when we do see each other we have watched each other grow older, grayer and fatter. On running into him in a restaurant he said, "Did you know ol' Dick M. died?” No, I did not, and told him so.

I asked him, “Did you know Wally T. died?” Wally had died at age 52, in April, 2000. “No, I didn’t know that,” Ralph said. Ralph added, “Do you know that Johnny W. has really bad diabetes, and has had several toes cut off?”

“No,” I said, “I did not know that.” Dick M., Wally T., and Johnny W. were members of our group of six. At one time in the mid-seventies Johnny had lived just a couple of blocks from me, but had moved before 1980, and I had not seen him since.

After Ralph and I shook hands and parted company I went home and checked out the obituaries online. There was no obit for Dick M., but two of his brothers were listed as having died. What I found out online was Dick M. was listed as the owner of a car repair shop, the same shop his uncle had started years before, and where Dick had worked when he got drafted.

Another couple of months later I ran into Ralph grocery shopping. I told Ralph about Dick M., saying I thought Ralph was mistaken. Dick was not dead.  Ralph seemed a bit shocked. I said what I had read online was that Dick M. had closed his auto repair business and petitioned the city council to rezone the property to a single family dwelling, so he could live there. The council thought it was fine, as long as he promised to clean all of the cars out of the yard. Ralph’s only answer to that was “Huh!” Then he said, “Did you know Johnny W. finally died from complications of diabetes?” No, I did not know that. So, remembering how Ralph sometimes got things confused I looked online and this time Ralph was correct: I found Johnny’s obituary.

In the first couple of years after we all received our Honorable Discharges when we ran into each other we passed the time talking about being married and our jobs. We also reminisced about our days in the Army together. Once, early on when I ran into Ralph we were in a store. It was December or January. I was talking to him about our nights in Germany, of being on guard duty in the middle of winter. He said, “Yeah, that was a lot of fun.” I said, “Freezing our asses off at 2:00 in morning was fun to you?” He laughed, as did some other customers in the store. My voice carries.

For some reason Ralph and I seem to occasionally be in the same place at the same time. That isn’t true of anyone else I know. I never run into old friends from high school. Once in a while I see someone I worked with at the school district, but high school, no. The fact that I graduated from high school 50 years ago (Class of '65) is probably the reason. Some of my friends have died. One high school buddy called me 20 years ago to tell me he was the boss of a printing plant in the Midwest where the Victoria’s Secret catalogs were produced. I never heard from him again, and can’t find him on Facebook (I’d like to get on the mailing list for those catalogs). Maybe he’s dead now, too. Another old friend called me up out of the blue just before I retired, and when we got through the pleasantries and how-ya-doin’s he revealed the purpose of his call was to ask if I knew where he could find a job. I gave him what information I could, but I never heard from him again, either.

The further away I get from high school the less it matters. It was such a long time ago. The same holds true for my time in the Army. There was a time a few years ago when I wrote several posts for this blog about some of my Army experiences. When I was finished I just did not do much thinking about them again.

It is almost like I never went to high school, except I have my yearbooks and my high school diploma as evidence I did. The Army is the same. On a day like today, Veterans Day, it is kind of nice to hear “Thank you for your service,” but for me, a peacetime soldier in a wartime Army, who was never in combat, or shot at by an enemy, the experience is becoming somewhat vague. I don’t think much about it except on days like today (I was released from active duty on this day, Veterans Day, November 11, 1968) or when I look on my wall and see that framed Honorable Discharge.

Oh, and when I bump into Ralph in the grocery store.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Watching The Exorcist again for the first time

The other day I sat down to watch some DVDs, old horror movies, to write up in this column before Halloween. The missus is gone in her role as professional petsitter and house-watcher for vacationers. I am alone at night this week with only the creaking and settling of my 45-year-old house to keep me company, unless I turn on the television to drown out the other ambient noises of my environment.

The Exorcist was first on my list. How many years had it been since I had seen it? I thought back, and as I watched the movie I came to a startling conclusion. I had never seen this movie before! I “remembered” some parts, but others were a total surprise.

What had confused me after four decades are false memories of actually seeing it. Having heard so much and read so much about the movie (plus reading the novel) had tricked my brain into thinking that at some point I had watched it.

When The Exorcist came out in late 1973 it was a huge hit, much like Star Wars would become a few years hence. In Salt Lake City the movie showed at one theater, the Regency, for a long time. Everyone who wanted to see it had their chance. My memory is not tricking me in remembering people who were scared before they went into the theater. A guy I worked with told me he was so terrified before the movie started that he was hyperventilating. I also got the blow-by-blow descriptions of what went on in the movie from people who wanted to share the experience. I usually stop people before they launch into lengthy descriptions of movies. First, it is boring, and second, I don’t want any spoilers. But The Exorcist was different, and it was because I had read the William Peter Blatty novel and knew the ending. When people wanted to describe it to me I did not stop them. Because the demonic dialogue was much more profane than other movies of that era the guys I worked with loved to repeat it. I knew all of the dialogue, including the famous “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” line.

The ouija board showed up in the movie. Some people, including my mother, felt the ouija board to be demonic. Somehow we had a ouija board in our house in the early sixties, and played it like a parlor game. One day Mom threw it into the incinerator and burned it. Someone had told her by using it we were “letting Satan in.”

So, besides me being possessed by untrue memories, how true is the story of the exorcism that inspired the book and movie? A lot of myths have grown up, and there are various versions of the story. I personally like the version from Strange Magazine, “The Strange Hard Facts Behind the Story That Inspired The Exorcist, which demonstrates the author, Dean Opsasnick, did his homework.

The 1949 event involved a young boy in Maryland, who had been given exorcisms by more than one faith (Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic), and that later it was revealed it took “20 to 30 rituals of exorcism” before the devil was cast out of the boy. In the movie it took a lot less to get the demon out of Regan.

But beyond the artistic license, director William Friedkin, who apparently believes in possession, in the January 2014 issue Fangoria magazine said he thought the evil was directed at Father Karras. Friedkin explained: “When we meet [Father Karras] [he] is on the verge of retiring from the priesthood. He believes he has let his mother down. He tells the older priest, who is his mentor, that he feels he's losing his faith. It gives the demon an opening to show him that human beings are nothing but animals and worthless, and that his faith is in itself worthless.” In my opinion of course the chain of events that led to the girl’s possession and doom to the priest came about because Father Merrin unearthed the devil in Iraq.

Considering the troubles we have had in Iraq over the years, I wonder if George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their gang of neocons weren’t possessed by demons in getting us involved. (I’m only half-joking.)

Another thing I noticed when the movie was first run in theaters was how many people were claiming they were going back to church. Other reports told of people who thought they were possessed by demons. To me those stories meant that people were giving credence to the supernatural rather than admit they might have a mental illness.

Something else were articles exploiting the actress who played Regan, young Linda Blair. The articles worried about how she would survive such a role, as if she was really possessed. I am sure to Ms Blair it was an acting job, not a lifestyle. It got her roles in movies, and then at age 18 she was busted buying cocaine and it cost her. She still acts, but has gone on to an animal rescue organization she founded.

Everyone has seen the pictures of young Linda Blair as the demon-possessed Regan. This is a lot nicer.

 ...And when she grew up! Very nice!

The Exorcist is still a good movie. I don’t believe in demonic possession, but I understand why people related to it.  In 1973-74, when it was playing theaters we Baby Boomers were still young and still looking for our way. The movie affected a lot of people, for better or worse.

And before I forget, HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pyramid scheme

Nick Redfern’s 2012 book, The Pyramids and the Pentagon, is enormously entertaining. Redfern is a reporter who writes about subjects like UFOs and the paranormal. In this book he draws parallels between some of those subjects and the interest in them by the United States government. My natural skepticism gets in the way of actual belief, but I like all his books, anyway. I am interested in why people believe in such things.

In the “pyramids” part mentioned in the book’s title he also goes into the subject of ancient astronauts, and how, for instance, they helped the Egyptians build the pyramids. I’ve never understood why aliens from space would help in such an endeavor, but the stories have gone around for many years and there are a lot of people who believe them. Personally, stories of alien mentors and their out-of-this-world technology seem less credible than the more prosaic explanations, that the Egyptians got the job done without anyone else’s help, and did it using a their muscles and the technology available to them at the time.

(If aliens had helped them it would have been nice if they could have left a few snapshots of the work in progress lying around in the burial chambers for archeologists to find.)

Human beings are tool builders, and some rare humans have a gift for invention, especially during times of need. Our species could not have survived without brains and invention, and glory be, opposable thumbs. So why credit the hard work of building the pyramids to aliens? Why do some people look at the work and logistics involved and think there is no way those old-time Egyptians could have done the job? Evidence shows they did, whereas stories that they were helped by aliens are conjecture at best, fantasy most likely.

I remember when Chariots of the Gods? by Erich Von Däniken came out in 1968, and I thought that popular book had been the origin of such stories. But Redfern reaches further (much further) back to retell a story told 1100 years ago by Abu-al-Hasan Ali al-Mas'udi, a prolific writer of over 30 volumes of the history of the world, based on his own experiences and collection of stories during his many travels. As Redfern explains it:
“. . . al-Mas'udi noted that in very early Arabic legends there existed an intriguing story suggesting that the creation of the pyramids of Egypt had absolutely nothing to do with the conventional technologies of the era. Rather al-Mas'udi recorded, tantalizing, centuries-old lore that had come his way during his explorations strongly suggested the pyramids were created by what today we would most likely refer to as some fom of levitation.

“The incredible story that al-Mas'udi uncovered went like this: When building the pyramids, their creators carefully positioned what was described as magical papyrus underneath the edges of the mighty stones that were to be used in the construction process. Then, one by one, the stones were struck by what was curiously, and rather enigmatically, described as only a rod of metal. Lo and behold, the stones then slowly began to rise into the air, and like dutiful soldiers unquestioningly following orders, proceeded in slow, methodical, single-file fashion a number of feet above a paved pathway surrounded on both sides by similar, mysterious metal rods. For around 150 feet . . . the gigantic stones moved forward, usually with nothing more than the gentlest of prods from the keeper of the mysterious rod to ensure they stayed on track, before finally, and very softly settling back to the ground.

“At that point, the process was duly repeated. The stones were struck once more, rose up from the surface, and again traveled in the desired direction, for yet another 150 feet or so . . . until the stones finally reached their ultimate destination. Then in a distinctly far more complex feat, the stones were struck again, but htis time in a fashion that caused them to float even higher into the air. Then, when they reached the desired point, they were carefully, and with incredible ease, manipulated into place, one-by-one, by hand and nothing else, until the huge pyramid in question was finally completed.” The Pyramids and the Pentagon, pages 69-70.
Fun story! As Redfern states, “manifestly astonishing.” Indeed it is.

But it is from an old book, and is part of a history collected from those who told tales from the oral tradition going back for generations. Those folks grappled for explanations and came up with such fabulous tales, much colored by superstition of a world of the unseen and mysterious, ruled by God (or gods).

The story is too far-fetched to be believed. When a story goes into the realm of magic (via “magical papyrus” and levitation rods) I assign it to the “untrue” column, especially when the magic involves the unlikely help of aliens from another star.

It just does not give enough credit to those who labored in the service of the Pharaoh, and the thinking of the era, that his monument was of paramount importance in their religion. Architects and planners had to work all of this out using primitive tools, and they had to make it so because that was the will of Pharaoh. To me that achievement seems much nearer to supernatural than does some fantastic story of levitation tools provided by alien interlopers.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wire re-seen

Recently I watched all five seasons of HBO’s excellent series, The Wire, on DVD. I binge-watched, six episodes per day until I had finished.*

When it was first run I watched it every week, and missed some of the nuances I saw this time. Characters in minor parts in one season became major characters in the next. There were foreshadowings of events to come, which showed me the creators of the series had mapped out what they wanted to accomplish in the long term. Each season had a theme. A team of actors made their way through each season, keeping a continuity, although we saw some major changes in some character’s lives, and some just stayed the same through the end. In its original run from 2002 to 2008, I thought it to be a very good television program. I have upped my estimation of it. I believe Breaking Bad to be the best serial television program I have ever watched, and it would take something momentous to knock it off its number one ranking, but The Wire is a close second. They aren’t remotely the same (except for drugs being the raison d'etre for the characters), but each in its own way just has its way of kicking other series to the curb.

 I can’t believe my good luck in finding the complete series for $5.00 at a local thrift store. It is made in China (Chinese writing on the back and inside). It is shown in English, with the choice of Chinese subtitles.

So...that puzzled me. Why would the Chinese be interested in such a show?

I see The Wire as the story of a city in dire straits, and despite its problems, people trying to hold it together. Baltimore is the setting. But when you watch it you know the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce probably had fits in its vision of the city. it is a bleak and terrible place, with drug dealers on every corner. As envisioned by the filmmakers, the cops can barely keep the lid on the garbage can that is the drug trade in a city with thousands of vacant houses and no jobs or hope for much of the population. It would be a great propaganda tool for any communist government to say this is life in a typical American city. Drug dealers, murder, crime, crooked cops, compromised policing, corrupt city and state officials. They could sell it as American hopelessness in the face of problems they cannot control, either because of lack of money or even desire to improve.

But I see The Wire as more than that. We all know we have these problems in America. but in America there is also a hope, some optimism that things will at some point be corrected, problems solved, or at least put n the right track. That may be naïve on my part, but I believe that there are always those who are working toward making life better for others. They have varying degrees of success, but I never feel hopeless about the future. I could not face the day if I did. Could a program like The Wire be made in China, showing the problems that their large cities face? I don’t think so.

In 2008 I wrote in a post for this blog about The Wire. With some editing, here is what I had to say:

I believe if Shakespeare were alive today he might be writing for the HBO series, The Wire. Unlike The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, The Wire doesn't fall into the doldrums those series fell into as they gasped out their last episodes. Where The Wire has succeeded is by including in each season a major plot involving some aspect of life in Baltimore. In Season Two it was the dockworkers, in Season Four it was the school system and a group of students, and in this, the last season, the Baltimore Sun newspaper.

The characters in The Wire are Shakespearean. The major players, the police, are flawed but interesting. The characters I like the most are people like Bubble, the junkie trying to clean up, Marlo Stanfield, the druglord working with the most murderous pair of hitmen ever presented on TV, and the best of all, Omar Little, the gay stickup man who goes solely after drug money.

Michael K. Williams as Omar.

All of these characters are deeply flawed by their criminal lifestyles, but are also understandable as being part of the environment of life on the streets in Baltimore.

Like Shakespeare, the plots can twist and turn around until they show their true purpose, but also like Shakespeare the play's the thing: While you're watching The Wire you're watching major drama that builds until the ultimate conclusions, then leaves you walking away shaking your head, thinking, “Man, I'm glad I stuck that out!”

*Yes, I had other things to do, but the beauty of retirement is I can do something like this occasionally without feeling guilty about ignoring more “important” things.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Hard drive in my head filling up

Last night I could not remember the word “artichoke.” Such a simple thing, yet I could not remember. When I have moments like this (also called a “senior moment”), rather than check myself into an Alzheimer’s care facility* I remember what my doctor told me: “Everyone has moments like that. Our brains are like computer hard drives. They get filled up, and sometimes the memory process is slowed down.”

Artichoke. You already know what it is. I am showing it so I can refer back to it if need be.

What brought it on was watching the Utah Utes play football against the Oregon Ducks. The Oregon uniforms reminded me of artichokes. I had a few frustrating moments trying to think of the name of the “variety of a species of thistle, cultivated as food,” (Wikipedia) and then finally asked my wife. She looked at me as she often does at such moments, in amazement, but came up with the answer. So now I can remember artichoke.

What is also funny is that memory is so selective. We can remember some things with near crystal clarity, and others, even things we should remember, we come up empty when trying to think of them.

I have “forgotten” whole parts of my life. In the 1990s when my therapist asked me to recount a memory from my childhood I went blank. I told her, “I know I have it in there somewhere, but I can’t make it come out.” When I went home I had an uncomfortable evening trying to retrieve the memory, and actually it did not come back fully to me for several weeks. So my head hard drive has been full up for quite a long time. Decades, even.

But in one of those interesting things about memory, one recollection came clearly, and was sparked by a cartoon in the September 28, 2015 New Yorker.

Artist: Michael Crawford. Copyright © 2015 The New Yorker.

I recognized the cartoon as being inspired by the cover of an old detective magazine, one I have in my collection. It is in storage, yet I was able to go into the basement and remember the box it was in.

 Special Detective magazine, Oct-Nov 1951.

Apparently my internal hard drive has glitches when trying to recall some life events and the names of everyday foodstuffs, but no problems recalling a cover of a magazine I have had stored in a box for about twenty years (at least).

Beyond that connection, it makes me wonder where the cartoonist saw the magazine. The Internet?

*My mother spent the last four years of her life in such a place. What losing a parent to Alzheimer’s does is doom one to looking at every little failure of memory or cognition and worry that one is afflicted with dementia.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Phantom Killer, 1946

In 1946 a killer murdered five people in Texarkana, the town that straddles both Texas and Arkansas. Four of the victims were young people parked in “lovers lane.” Like the best seductive mystery stories, the true-life events of the serial murders remain provocative 69 years later.

A popular movie from 1976 re-told the story in its own way. Although claiming to be a true story, it mixed fact with fiction, which didn’t get in the way of its box office appeal. A low budget movie, it earned many more times its production costs during its run in drive-in theaters.

Charles B. Pearce was the producer and an actor in The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The stars were Andrew Prine and Ben Johnson. Prine wasn’t given much to do, but Academy Award winner Ben Johnson’s presence lifted it above the usual B-movie category. In Town Johnson was following up another solid performance in a low-budget film, playing another lawman, Melvin Purvis of the FBI, in the 1973 version of Dillinger, starring Warren Oates.(1)

The poster for the film also makes the claim that “Today [the killer] still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.” Reporter James Presley. lifelong Texarkana resident, tells the story of law enforcement in his 2014 book, The Phantom Killer, and how the case was solved with the help of an eyewitness to some of the murders. The law believed a man with the unusual name of Youell Lee Swinney was the Phantom Killer. Swinney was a lifelong criminal, spending most of his life in prison. He was out of prison in 1946 and living in the area when the murders occurred. He never admitted that he was the killer, but his wife, Peggy Swinney, described the crimes, claiming to have been on the scene when some of the murders were committed. Peggy denied direct involvement, going along because she said she was “scared to death” of Swinney. But police and prosecutors believed she participated in at least some of the killings and during her confessions to police was trying to mitigate her own role .

The Phantom Killer was published in 2014.

The problem the cops had was getting her to say it in court. Constitutionally, spouses cannot be compelled to testify against each other. She was not willing to tell her story to a jury. Even after Peggy divorced Swinney when he was safely in prison for life, she would not testify.
Pictures of the Swinneys from The Phantom Killer. Copyright © 2014 James Presley.

The story of the investigation is fascinating in itself. Besides the killer leaving very few clues, in those days crime scenes were often compromised by rubbernecking civilians, and even the police themselves. It made a hard job near impossible.

Swinney was a sociopath and a menace to society. The law felt it was a compromise having him in prison serving a life sentence for being a habitual criminal. Swinney had other plans. He was no dummy and contested his life sentence. He claimed he had not been represented by counsel in a 1941 prosecution and sentencing, which made him a habitual criminal in the eyes of the law. Although surviving documents of the case stated he had been represented by a lawyer, there was no name listed, and Swinney said there was actually no lawyer. Ultimately a judge did not agree. Swinney came close to being set free. Many in law enforcement and prison officials knew that although he was not convicted of the murders, Swinney was being held with no parole due to the belief that he was the Phantom Killer of Texarkana.

Unfortunately, as the book states, the law never went to the families of those who had been murdered and told them what they had done. I believe there was a legal reason they decided not to share with the families. Had they done so, that probably would have been grounds for an appeal by Swinney. So the story grew up that the killer had never been caught.(2)

During the time of the hysteria while the Phantom Killer still operated, Life magazine had a two-page article explaining the terrors in Texarkana.(3)

What could the reporter and photographer show, really? These pictures must have been frustrating for an editor. They seem somewhat placid considering the terror the town was reported to be in. From the June 10, 1946 issue.

I watched The Town That Dreaded Sundown on YouTube. It was later taken down due to copyright claims, but is worth looking for if you are among the curious.

(1) Oates played his brother in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). No need to feel sorry for Johnson, doing low-budget films at this stage of his career. He put on no airs nor asked for extra money because of his Academy Award. He did well for himself. He was a horse breeder during his whole acting career, and as Wikipedia puts it, “. . . shrewd real estate investments made Johnson worth an estimated 100 million dollars by his latter years.”

(2) There was also the eyewitness, a young women from the couple who survived the first attack. She claimed the attacker was a black man. The boy who survived said the man wore a mask. It added confusion to the case. I believe the hood worn by the killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown is actually inspired by the real-life Zodiac killer, who operated in California in the late sixties. Zodiac is another killer whose identity is strongly suspected, but due to lack of evidence was never called to account for his crimes.

(3) At least the hysteria in Texarkana was earned. The case of the so-called “Mad Gasser of Mattoon (Illinois)” is considered a textbook case of mass hysteria. Occurring just a couple of years before the Texarkana events, whether there was actually an attacker or just a lot of fevered imaginations at work, it is still a fascinating story. Read about it in this article from the Oddly Historical website.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Blood moon will bring doom, say followers of popular Mormon author

Despite living in the Mormon Mecca of Utah, I had not heard this about my fellow citizens until this past Friday: Some Mormons, called “preppers,” are stocking up on emergency supplies for what they see as an impending doomsday. Their fear isn’t based on anything scientific, but on the word of a woman who writes books for Mormon readers. The story originated in a couple of Julie Rowe’s books, A Greater Tomorrow: My Journey Beyond the Veil, and The Time is Now.

Julie Rowe, author and visitor to heaven.

In 2014, this Mormon mom of three published her visions from a near-death experience, where she “visited the afterlife, and was shown visions of the past and future.” (I get my information on this phenomenon from a copyrighted article by Peggy Fletcher Stack in The Salt Lake Tribune, September 11, 2015.)

Ms Roweֹs “prophecies” have something to do with seven-year periods of history. As reporter Stack tells it, “Here’s how the doomsday scenario plays out: History, some preppers believe, is divided into seven-year periods — like the Hebrew notion of ‘Shemitah’ or Sabbath. In 2008, seven years after 9/11, the stock market crashed, a harbinger of a devastating recession. It’s been seven years since then, and Wall Street has fluctuated wildly in recent weeks in the wake of China devaluing its currency.
“ . . . Starting September 13 [that is today as I write this], the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, there will be another, even larger financial crisis, based on the United States’ ‘wickedness.’ That would launch the ‘days of tribulation’ — as described in the Bible.

“They say September 28 will see a full, red or ‘blood moon’ and a major earthquake in or near Utah. Some anticipate an invasion by U.N. troops, technological disruptions and decline, chaos and hysteria.”
Whew. That is some heavy stuff. I was unaware of this drama going on in parts of my community. I thought, these people believe a woman who claims to have visited heaven, but how many of my religious Republican neighbors believe in the thousands of scientists who preach that climate change is real, and have actual evidence to back up their belief?

The other thing that caught my attention was that “near-death experience.” It is not explained in the article. How near death was it? Obviously she survived it, so she was fortunate. Did a skilled physician pull her back from heaven? When she awoke did she complain? “Hey, Doc! WTF? Send me back!”

As another Tribune writer, columnist Robert Kirby (himself a practicing Mormon, although with a satirical sense of humor about church beliefs that must cause brain-freeze to LDS leaders) put it, “I’ll believe an NDE [near death experience] claim when the person relating it was all the way dead. None of this waking up an hour later and saying heaven is like Disneyland only free, or that angels gave them a painless bikini wax. I mean dead, embalmed, and in the ground for, oh, say, a year at least. That’s dead.” (“Death and What Comes Next?” by Robert Kirby, Salt Lake Tribune, February 27, 2015.) Kirby’s comments were not about Julie Rowe, but about people who claim to have visited heaven, then come back to earth and reap earthly rewards when they sell their book or movie based on the “event.”

Up until now, the official position the LDS Church takes on movements that are started by rumor, misreading of scripture or pop culture —  like Rowe’s books —  is usually to keep quiet and let people think what they want to think. This time is different. They actually responded publicly by, according to the newspaper article, “ . . . sending a memo to administrators and teachers in the Church Education System, saying, “Although Sister Rowe is an active member of the [LDS Church], her book is not endorsed by the church and should not be recommended to students or used as a resource in teaching them. The experiences . . . do not necessarily reflect church doctrine, or they may distort doctrine.” Sister Rowe responded, contritely, by saying, “My story is not intended to be authoritative nor to create any church doctrine. It is simply part of my personal journey that I have chosen to share in hopes that t can help people to prepare for the times we live in by increasing their faith in Christ and by looking to our prophet and church leaders for guidance.” That statement might be enough to keep Julie out of the hot seat of a Bishop’s Court, where she could be called in by church elders to explain herself, and why she shouldn’t face excommunication.

Of course Mormons aren’t the only group who believe in doomsday scenarios coming from the full wrath of God, smiting the wicked (i.e., those who don’t agree with the religious types). Every few years there are stories going around about one prophet or another picking a date when everything collapses and the world ends, Christ returns, and all of the sinners and non-believers begin their eternal sentence in a lake of fire. In my opinion those stories are fables told to keep a group in line, designed with religious trappings and scripture to fool the devout.

Just in case, maybe we should all put in a stock of bottled water and tins of Spam to carry us past September 28, in case, you know, doomsday just might be real.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Donald Trump: Celebrity Presidential Apprentice

Ladies and gentlemen...grinning his Satanic grin, The Donald!

I am a Democrat, yet fascinated by Donald Trump. Not as a fan, but as someone who keeps anticipating the inevitable meltdown, when his candidacy for the Republican nomination finally explodes. It hasn’t happened yet, which has surprised almost everyone who watches politics. Especially me. Trump can be devilish, and yet his followers forgive him. He has insulted Hispanics, women (including one from Fox News, which should be promoting him, not trying to counter his attacks), and naturally, other politicians. He even called Senator John McCain a “loser” for being captured by the North Vietnamese(1). If there is a line one does not cross, that is probably it. It caused a lot of controversy, but the other feature of Trump’s is his refusal, or inability, to apologize for anything he says. His crowd loves him for it.

Last week he called the husband of Hillary Clinton’s aide, Huma Abedin, a “perv” — the “perv” being former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who sent pictures of his private parts to women. It cost Weiner his job. I cannot imagine anyone else but Trump saying that in the heat of a Presidential campaign. He could think it, but to say it out loud takes a shoot-from-the-lip type of personality. Once words leave his mouth, no matter how outrageous, he defends them. When he said that Fox News’ Megyn Kelly was “bleeding from her eyes or wherever” he defended it by saying it was a common expression. Well, a common expression no one else but Trump has ever heard, but he did not back down from what he said.

How then to account for his popularity? Some of it is his celebrity. He appeared for a long time on television. That is really enough to give him credibility to a lot of people. People who are on television have gotten some sort of golden ticket from the public. Think of all the publicity the Kardashians get. I can’t think of one thing that should make them famous except that they are on television (and have big butts, but by saying that I am moving into Trump territory).

Here is what surprises me the most. Trump, who is a businessman, a purported billionaire — and someone with a reputation for trophy wives (three so far), should have people coming out of the woodwork to tell tales of his business dealings, or his love life, or things he did when he was in school. They did at least two out of the three to Mitt Romney, also a successful businessman. With Romney, the love life, or any kinds of extra-marital business, they could skip. Trump, I am not so sure. He has a thing for young, beautiful women, and with his wealth and fame he can attract them. I would bet he has some dealings with individual women that would cause someone who was wronged by him to come forth and tell the world.

But if and when those things happened (and I have no inside information), either business or pleasure gone wrong, if The Donald was sued, his lawyers would be smart enough to have anyone Trump has paid off sign non-disclosure agreements. Women coming forward a few years ago with stories about Godfather Pizza’s former CEO, Herman Cain, were enough to scuttle his campaign. So far if there are women out there with stories about Trump we haven’t heard from them. They may have been gagged by Trump’s attorneys.

Pictures of Trump and Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, look correct shown together. I detect similar characteristics, not just facially, but in attitude and possible personality issues.

I believe Trump has a personality disorder; he may be a narcissist. He may feel that the presidency is his destiny. He may believe that no matter what he says or does the public will support him. I am surprised that so far no one has really proved him wrong.

Coming into this campaign cycle we have more Republican candidates than we can shake an elephant’s trunk at. Yet none of them, including candidates who were presumptive favorites before Trump entered the race, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush(2), seem to be unable to keep up with Trump in the polls. Bush sounds especially desperate. He has had to go on the attack against Trump, recently claiming that Trump is “not a conservative.” Of course not. Trump is neither conservative nor liberal. He is just a loudmouth with no filter, who loudly proclaims in a hyperbolic manner. I was amused when he said he would deport all illegal immigrants. I have the same answer to that fantasy as I do to those who think Obama will confiscate all the guns in America: there is not an army big enough to pick up all the guns, or deport all the illegals in this country. That is something that is said to play to a base of his fans. Say the most outrageous thing to get people talking, or that plays to their fears or prejudices. It has worked since time immemorial.

Finally, the September 7, 2015 New Yorker has an article on the demise of Atlantic City, NJ(3), and Trump is part of the story. A couple of the quotes struck me, because they show me how at least a couple of his employees saw him. Author Nick Paumgarten quotes Dawn Inglin, a cocktail waitress, who described her former boss with adoration: “When he was there, it was tip-top. You’d’ve thought he was the Messiah.” Another former employee, Kip Brown, who once bussed tables at the Showboat Casino, described an uglier side: “When Donald and Ivana [Trump’s first wife](4) came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor . . . it was the eighties, I was a teen-ager, but I remember they put us all in the back.” The inference from his description is telling.

(1)Trump was a “Fortunate Son,” as in the song by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the rich man’s son who gets out of going to war. Trump had a college deferment, and when it ran out he got a 4-F draft classification for a bone spur in his foot. Which foot, Trump claimed he could not remember.

(2)Do we, as a democratic society, really want to elect a third member of the Bush clan? It smacks of royal succession. I would think two would be enough. Maybe someone should propose a law limiting one family to two presidential candidates in a generation.

(3)“The Death and Life of Atlantic City”

(4)Potential voters seem to have forgotten that Trump and Ivana were divorced after Trump’s affair with Marla Maples (who became the second Mrs. Trump). At the time, people were taking the side of the wife. In the 1990 article, “After the Gold Rush”, from Vanity Fair, Trump told author Marie Brenner, “When a man leaves a woman, especially when it was perceived that he has left for a piece of ass — a good one! — there are 50 percent of the population who will love the woman who was left.” In the article Trump revealed that as far back as 1990 he was thinking of running for President, and also of his admiration for Hitler’s ability with propaganda.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Is someone listening? Paranoia strikes deep, deeper, deepest

In the middle of August we are in what is the silly season for news. Or it is what would traditionally be the silly season, but that was mainly in the days of more traditional news. With the Internet, with 24-hour news channels, every day of the year can be the silly season.

How else to explain the attention given to Donald Trump, in his bid for the GOP nomination for President? The only thing worse than hearing Trump talk is having pundits on the news stations talk about what he is talking about.

We Americans have short attention spans, and like children we get distracted easily when we see something bright and shiny, drawing us away from the more mundane. That is the way I see Trump. And because of Trump and his Trumpiness we stop paying attention to more important stories.

Which leads me to...

...just a couple of months ago there was a lot of talk about how Congress wanted to stop the NSA from collecting phone calls from Americans. They voted to do that. But where was the outrage over the idea that such unlimited power on the part of our government exists? I guess there are the paranoid people who worry about abuses by their government, and then there are the non-paranoid people who just ignore it. And they outnumber the paranoid. In the way of all things American, we quickly got away from the subject and went back to news stories about celebrities and athletes and bizarro politicians. The NSA story got filed away with those other stories that have no legs, and don’t involve us for more than a couple of days.

As I said, we Americans have short attention spans.

I keep going back to a book I read over a year ago that addresses the technology and power of the United States government and how helpless we citizens are against that power. The book is Black List by Brad Thor, and if you know his work you know he is a thriller writer, a conservative guy who might be just a few steps left of the crazies in Texas who were sure President Obama was going to invade them and put them in concentration camps made from Walmart stores. At least Thor has done his research and has information in his books that might sound like science fiction, but as we all know, science fiction can turn into science just depends on how much the people controlling the federal purse strings are willing to pay to make it happen. When Osama Bin Laden launched his war on Americans the purse turned out to have no bottom when it came to paying for what the Feds felt was needed. As for observing due process, the Constitution and any kind of privacy for citizens, pfah. We “re-prioritized,” and for several years it was to hell with due process, to hell with the Constitution.

From the book, quoting the author:
“Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the unparalleled listening ability of the National Security Agency — which had always been aimed outside the United States — was turned inward. No longer was the NSA restricted to tracking foreign spies and terrorists, whose surveillance had to be signed off on by a judge of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Now, in the name of national security, All American citizens were suspects, and due process had been completely abandoned.

“. . . every citizen's electronic traffic was sorted and sifted by NSA analysts, using . . . software and equipment to search for and flag particular words and phrases. Anyone and everyone could and was being targeted. Privacy had been obliterated.” — Page 135 (Page numbers given are from the Pocket Books paperback edition, published in 2012.)

“In the name of ‘security,’ the liberty of citizens was being eroded, not on a yearly basis, not even on a daily basis, but continuously, around the clock, 24/7.” — Page 136
Thor has more bad news about the abilities of our government, paid for with our tax dollars, to keep tabs on us through our GPS devices and cell phones. According to him, the DHS even has unmarked vans driving around with X-ray machines, “X-raying whatever and whomever they wanted.” — Page 137

And here all I used to worry about was exposing a hole in my sock when taking off my shoes at the airport.

Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

As I have mentioned before, there is a major NSA facility just down the freeway from me, at Camp Williams in Utah County.(1) For a very brief period there were some demonstrations at the gate by various citizens who were protesting the NSA’s policies, but that died down very quickly. Many people just ignored it. I have the feeling they thought that as long as they weren’t doing anything wrong, not plotting insurrection or terrorist activities, the NSA would not be interested in what they had to say, anyway.

So in that way, by ignorance or just not wanting to think about it, the bottom line is the privacy war is over, and we lost..

It has been coming for a long time. Think about it. Up until the last century people did not carry around identification. Before cars there were no driver’s licenses. There was a certain amount of privacy in anonymity. Once we started making it possible for strangers with badges to know our names, when we were born, what our address is, on demand, the right to privacy began its erosion.

Like 99.9% of the population I have gone along with that. It is a price we pay to live in civilization. I would be unable to go live on my own in the mountains and fend for myself without the conveniences of modern society. In the nineteen sixties there were people worried about the loss of privacy. This article in Life for May 20, 1966. shows the state of the art of surveillance 49 years ago, and there is no reason to doubt that as technology has improved so has the techniques of spying on citizens, whether for crimes, or terrorist leanings, or what the hell, maybe just for entertainment.(2)

If it can be collected it can be used, and it can also be misused.(3)

Copyright © 1966 Time, Inc.

(1)Utah is also home to Dugway Proving Grounds, where for decades chemical weapons have been studied and tested . It made the news this year when live anthrax was shipped from Dugway to labs around the country. It was yet another story that came and went quickly. Dugway is also known to conspiracy theorists as being “the new Area 51,” where captured UFOs are stored, alien technology is being back-engineered, etc., etc. There are a lot of fanciful stories about Dugway, including UFO sightings at night. I will keep my eyes open, and I promise if I see anything, you will be the first to know.

(2)Over 30 years ago I worked with a woman whose husband was in the billing department of a major credit card company. He and his pals would think of a celebrity and look up their accounts. She told me that the only two people whose accounts they could not access were President Reagan and the president of the credit card company. I also found out that a certain popular singer, whose name I will not repeat, spent $40,000 a month on her card. I said to the woman, "Your husband and his friends are violating people's privacy!"

“Nah,” she replied, "they're just having fun.”

Other people’s privileged information, none of our business, can also be considered entertainment to tabloid TV and nosey Parkers everywhere.

(3)Just yesterday, as I write this, a dating site for adulterers, called Ashley Madison, was hacked. Thousands of e-mail addresses were stolen. Since it was supposed to be a secure site, it sets up a lot of potential problems for the users.  Let the buyer beware when engaging in risky behavior over the Internet.