I am not a hematologist. Nor an immunologist or a virologist. Just an aspiring amateur writer who has recognized that typos fall into two dominant categories. Regular readers have no doubt spotted more than a few.
The first kind of typo comes from stream of consciousness
– such as just getting the initial thoughts and sentences tapped in. Misspellings, poor grammar, dreary or
ambiguous word choice, double words, lazy punctuation. The long list continues: verb/noun mismatch;
change of tense within a paragraph; chronological inconsistencies; using
“their” or “your” for “they’re” and “you’re” …
These are all forgivable, and relatively painless. Many make it to draft status, when well over 90% can be cleaned up by a few proofreading passes.
It’s the second kind of typo that is really painful. These result from late edits. The eleventh-hour flash of brilliance that
results in a “catastrophic improvement.”
At the final moment, with the cake fully iced, the product is ready for a
la mode, and full reader enjoyment!
But no! Those last flourishes require just as much proof reading as the original drafts. Yet, it is so easy to skip. I’ve done it many times. Slow learner.
To my readers: Thank
you. Many of you have gently suggested
improvements and corrections to my typos and “facts.” The rest of you have kindly ignored them; or,
perhaps in your brilliance, merely read what I intended, not what I wrote. Exhibit A: My last
essay enfolded references to (a) a famous bathroom fixture
company, (b) its founder, (c) the label for a common convenience, and (d) my
regular tapestry of history, factoids,
and observations. During some
post-published proof-reading I found a few major hiccups. It’s better now, but
only after some help and a couple of paragraph re-writes.
Not only are there two kinds of typo; there are two kinds
of Type-O. Positive and negative. We’re talking blood here.
I am O-positive. That’s the most common blood type, nearly 40% of humans have it, despite O’s transmission on a recessive gene. About 85-90% of people in need of transfusion can accept my blood. If I didn’t carry the Rh-positive antigen, 100% could take my blood.
Through the magic of genetics and natural anti-bodies, I
am quite valuable to blood banks. There
is a virus connection here. How
appropriate for this time of novel coronavirus, SARS CoV-2 and international tumult.
Most adult humans have, at some point in their lives, contracted the Cytomegalo Virus (or CMV). As much as 80%. Of those affected, nearly 100% who contract it suffer from only mild symptoms, if any. Except infants. CMV can cause severe long-term damage to new arrivals – especially “preemies” – as their immune systems are just waking up.
Of the many scores of
herpes viruses discovered, only eight are known to regularly affect
humans. Once infected, our bodies almost
always eventually mount a swift and decisive victory, driving the virus from
the battlefield – our homeland: tissues, organs, blood. Better, our well-evolved immune systems
retain intermediate and long-term immunity via anti-bodies (of the five main
types Immunoglobulin-M and -G antibodies are of the most interest here).
Like many types of virus, the herpes family is insidious. Even though thoroughly thwarted by a superior foe, they execute a strategic retreat, never quite leaving the body. They “hang out” in nerve cells. Lying dormant for long intervals, they occasionally “wake up” to see if their host – us! – is healthy enough to fight them off for another round of battle. If the response is “yes”, they retreat again to the sanctuary of our nerves, a place a proper immune system has been trained to not attack.
This happens over and over again, until we die, as sufferers of HSV 1 and 2 can attest (Herpes Simplex 1 or 2); that is, repeated blistering around the mouth, or even in the mouth. Those episodes of re-occurrence are only mildly annoying when compared to what can happen with the Chicken Pox virus (Vicella Zoster Virus, or VZV); later in life it can manifest as what’s commonly called “Shingles” – with an agonizing and often debilitating rash accompanied by stabbing pains.
Since CMV is in the Herpes family there is always a likelihood it is in someone’s blood; that is, if they have ever had it in their life. Hence, their blood must never be used for transfusions to infants.
My blood always tests
negative for CMV anti-bodies, both IgM and IgG. This means it is not lying
dormant somewhere and I am a safe donor for infants.
Until the previous turn of
the century, blood types were unknown. The
micro-biological processes of transfusions and outcomes were a mystery, so it
was practiced sparingly and as a last resort. Sometimes with spectacular
success. But more often with horrible,
painful, fatal results.
At that time Austrian
scientist Karl Landsteiner was wondering about this. He hit upon the idea of
simply mixing blood from various people together to see what happened. No
chemistry. No microscopes. In hindsight, this seems most unsophisticated – even
elementary; but no one had done it.
What he found was rather amazing. Some samples got along well together, and most others did not; they made globules: which was the observable effect of one blood trying to obviate the other; or each other. Landsteiner had discovered blood types! For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, decades later, in 1930.
At first he identified 3
types: he labeled them A, B and C.
In the scaled down world of micro-biology and microbes, red blood cells are like titans. Thin and disk-like, they average about 7 microns in diameter, with a thickness of 2 microns, which “squishes” down to about 1 micron at the center, not unlike Life Saver candies. [From now on, I will give sizes in microns, with no units, for simplicity]. This topography gives the red cell a very large surface area compared to its mass and size, which is useful for its main duty: ferrying oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules around the body and passing them across its surface membrane.
A CMV virion’s size is about 0.2. The SARS nCoV-2 is
probably smaller than that: about 0.1.
Bacteria, like staph and strep are bigger, but still smaller than a
reddie: size, on average, about 1.
A and B blood types were found to carry antigens on their surface. Antigens are anything that triggers an “attack” from antibodies. These red blood cell antigens are, surprisingly, sugars of the D-galactose family, size about 0.0005 (or 1/2000th the average thickness of a red blood cell).
A blood type which has no sugar antigens, C, was re-named O, which basically means zero, or none. A little later it was discovered that some types carry both A and B antigens, so they were naturally named “AB” – pretty rare. These 4 types (A, B, AB and O) comprise 99.9+% of all blood types.
Now it’s not at all complicated to tell who can take whose blood for a transfusion. Since my O has no sugar antigens, anyone can take my blood. But my body will “see” the A, B, and AB cells as invaders. We Type-Os are picky. Although anyone can take my blood, I can only take Type-O.
But wait, not quite so simple. There were still problems.
Rh markers were found a few decades later, around 1940 (also, sort of, by Landstein ) – just in time for most of WW2, resulting in fewer multiple-transfusion complications … and a better understanding of baby-to-mother Rh mismatch for the baby-boom that followed WW2.
The Rh markers are proteins (there are actually about 49 of them; the most common is type-D), about size 0.003. About 90% of people have Rh-positive blood.
Floating nearby in the plasma are anti-bodies. For mammals these are about size 0.1 – quite small. In Rh-negative people, these little workers are always “on the ready” to identify Rh proteins as “bad guys.” And also to identify foreign A and B antigens.
People, especially prospective mothers, with no Rh proteins (i.e. Rh-negative) must be careful with donations and pregnancies. The first time the body encounters the Rh antigen the process or pregnancy is usually OK. But the body is stirred up, and it remembers. The next time it’s “attack.” If a Rh-negative patient gets more than one Rh-positive transfusion — or a Rh-negative mom gets a second Rh-positive baby in utero — it can be bad news.
Returning to the red blood cell. It is quite large; a workhorse of the vascular system. Yet, one might wonder: why have we evolved so that its surface is laden with thousands of tag-a-longs and stowaways that seem more trouble than their load is worth?
Well, maybe those labels are a bit harsh. Research suggests that the Rh proteins can
provide a sort of osmotic-efficient pathway for the relatively large CO2
molecules (compared to oxygen) to slither through the cell membrane. And it appeared millions of years ago – before
anything like a hominoid walked on two legs. 
We can consider these ancient genetic tweaks as a sort of typo: a minor transcription mistake in typing out genetic text from DNA to RNA and back again to the DNA of a new cell, thus creating a new or different function for such genes.
Sugar antigens, similar to A and B, appear in the blood of all mammals. Again, these evolved in our pre-hominoid ancestors long ago.  Just why this is so, is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it was for a weird but clever type of “trick play herd immunity.” A virus sees cell coatings as something that can provide an attach point on, or even pathway into, a cell. If a population has a random collection of these sugars and proteins, then a single type of virus pandemic cannot wipe out the entire species.
Here I like to imagine a sports team cleverly crafted to beat any team at, say, a football match. That team is the Evil Virus. The first games for team EV are easy victories. The next several matches they stampede confidently onto apparently identical pitches, only to be confronted with rules for cricket. Or golf. And then tennis. Then speed skating. Result? Team EV fails. – The species survives; the virus must go off and mutate further or die out.
All these rule changes – different cell
coatings among individuals among the same species – makes our bodies suspicious
of one another. When there’s a
transfusion mismatch the coatings are identified as antigens and marked for
destruction by those tiny antibodies.
Interestingly, something similar might be happening with the virus du jour, SARS CoV-2 which causes Covid-19. Early analyses of cases (and deaths) in hard hit areas of Europe suggest that those with Type-A blood are disproportionately susceptible.  How or why this happens is not understood but could give virologists and immunologists an understanding of the virus and our bodies’ machinations. Perhaps the A-type sugar is a sort of 5th column for the virus; or the presence of B-type antibodies somehow distracts, diminishes, or delays the body’s defense.
I expect there will be a plethora of studies of many sorts regarding this coronavirus, its impact, and our reactions in the months and years to come. Brace yourselves.
improvement and acceptance of blood type science went beyond medicine and into forensics.
It helped reduce Charlie Chaplin’s embarrassment, but only a little.
Chaplin, the famous actor-comedian-film maker, was married
four times and a well-know philanderer, as well as a misogynist. 
A paternity suit against him in the ‘40s resulted in blood testing, and
eventually changed family law.
In the 1940s a young actress (with whom he was “friendly” –
this during his 3rd marriage) claimed he was the father of her child.
She sued him for child support. Blood tests on Chaplin, the child and mother
showed that he could not possibly be the father.
Chaplin, with recessive Type-O, could not have been the father of a Type-B child whose mother was Type-A. Case dismissed? No. She pressed her allegation, nonetheless.
Astounding to us in the 21st century, accustomed as we are to such quotidian data as DNA matching, blood tests were not permitted as evidence at the time. Chaplin lost the court case and was compelled to pay child support. Worse: His trysting filled the pages of the days’ print media. His reputation was trashed.
The law was changed a few years later. But not in time for Chaplin. He was so disgraced that – combined with
other bad press and McCarthy-era distrust – he was even denied re-entry to the
United States, in 1952. (He was not a US citizen, although he’d lived there for
over 40 years).
He resided in self-imposed exile in Switzerland for the rest of his life. He returned to America only once before he died, for a few days in 1972, then aged 83, to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars. On stage, with Jack Lemon, he received a 12-minute standing ovation – the longest in Academy Awards history.
Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing email@example.com
Final footnote on Chaplin. He was soon married a fourth time. He reportedly approached the young 18-year old Oona O’Neill with the line: you look like my next ex-wife. As he was 38 years her elder (in fact nearly the same age as her father, famous playwright Eugene O’Neill) he was disgraced again. Next ex-wife? Wrong! They stayed married for over 30 years, until his death, producing 8 children. The eldest, Geraldine, starred remarkably with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago: at the tender age of 20 when filmed.
“There was a virus goin’ ‘round, Papa caught it and he died last spring. Now momma doesn’t seem to want to Do much of anything.” – From Ode to Billie Joe, by Bobbie Gentry
Introduction. Those lyrics popped into my head – I wonder why? – during one of my recent daily social-distancing long walks and bike rides that I’ve been taking during this time of coronavirus isolation. The lines are a couplet from the last verse of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 smash hit, Ode to Billie Joe. [Note: if you haven’t heard the song in a while – or ever heard it – then maybe have a listen by clicking the link].
The tune became an earworm. I hummed it over-and-over to myself. Most of the melody and lyrics of the song came back to me – and of the story they told. The song remains as catchy and haunting as when it first came out. It mixes matter-of-fact family life in the Mississippi Delta with references to things mysterious and wrong, all packaged within a simple, non-distracting melody. The catchy, yet minimalist, musical arrangement even suggests naivety, such as an adolescent innocence.
“The hardest thing in song writing is to be simple and yet profound” – Sting, in the documentary “Still Bill”, about Bill Withers.
Well, the song “Billie Joe” is profound … if initial and sustained popularity are any measures. It’s simple. But it’s more. It’s memorable. It’s catchy. It sticks with you. It tells a story. It’s moving. A story that is both awkward and incomplete. As humans, we crave completeness. Closure. But in Ode to Billie Joe it’s not there … just out of reach. And so, we always want a little more.
“… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” – Winston Churchill, describing Russia during WW II.
Similarly, the mysterious story of Billie Joe McAllister, is wrapped inside the enigmatic life of author/singer Bobbie Gentry. We don’t ever get to know the “why?” of the story of Billy Joe. And Bobbie Gentry – reportedly still alive – simply disappeared four decades ago when she was still a culturally popular and gorgeous brown-eyed brunette. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
Tons of research and speculation about the song’s background and meaning have been published. Go ahead. Google “What happened to Billie Joe McAllister?” You’ll get a zillion hits. None has the answer. Almost as many hits for “what happened to Bobbie Gentry?” Again, there just really are no fulfilling answers.
Nonetheless, my analysis follows. Why? This is largely a product of this bonanza of extra time — thanks to the novel coronavirus. I’ve contemplated the details of the lyrics, in the context of Gentry’s life. The lyrics are richly textured. They reflect an uncommon authenticity, even for country songs.
The musings and reflections herein are based mostly on: my own memories from my years living in the South; my book-learnin’ for the Ag Engineering degree that I earned there; fading memories; a little internet research; as well as my thoughts and imagination.
It was the third of June – another sleepy, dusty Delta day. I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was baling hay. At dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat. And mama hollered out the back door: “Y’all, remember to wipe your feet.”
Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in northern Mississippi in 1944 (or 1942, depending on source). Her family moved a few miles west when she was young, to Delta cotton country. Not unlike eastern Arkansas, where I lived for four years: also Delta country. In the South, it’s not hard to imagine she was called “Bobbie Lee.” She lived in Mississippi until age 13, when a messy divorce took her and her mother to southern California to stay with family.
During those early years, her family reportedly had no
electricity and no plumbing. It must’ve been a hard life. One that gave heartfelt credibility to songs
like “Billie Joe.”
Analysis: In Ode to Billie Joe, verse one starts out as a set up. Seems like regular, work-a-day life in a hot, dusty early June in the deep South. I’m not a musician, but it’s neither a happy key, nor a somber key. It sets a mood of ambivalence and ambiguity. Not joy. Not sadness. As in: I’m just here telling a story.
The song is a first-person narrative (“I was out choppin’ cotton …”). We instantly suppose that there are some autobiographical aspects in the story. What details support that supposition?
— “Chopping Cotton”: This does not mean picking cotton. Picking is done in late summer to early fall. “Chopping cotton” is done shortly after the cotton plants begin to emerge; so, the June 3 date makes a lot of sense. Using a manual hoe, the “chopper” turns over the weeds among the small, vulnerable cotton plants. It takes a good eye to tell the weeds from the cotton – an eye that usually has sweat dripping into it.
Chopping also includes thinning the cotton plants if they are emerging too close together. It is back-breaking grueling work. Bent over, in the sunny Delta humidity, hour after hour, row after row, acre after acre. It’s obviously a labor-intensive task that is physically demanding and boring. Yet, it’s an important task you can screw up with a slight amount of inattention, or clumsiness. If Bobbie Gentry didn’t do chopping herself as a girl, one can surmise she saw others doing it.
“Brother” is baling hay. The June 3 date again makes sense. “Hay” is usually a grass or a legume (alfalfa). It is richest in nutrients when it is fully leafed, just as after it blooms; as it prepares for seed growth. Once pollinated, the plant puts ever more energy into its next generation: healthy seeds. So, it is cut, dried and baled before seeds can form, when its nutrition is dense. In fertile Delta country, “Brother” is harvesting the hay, probably the first hay harvest of the year. It’s not clear whether this is done manually or with a mechanized hay harvester/baler.
Whether the family has farm animals to feed is not clear. If they don’t, they would sell the hay to others in the area who do.
Mechanized cotton equipment slowly became more and more available, affordable, and prevalent in the decade or two after the 2nd World War. Since this is the 1950s, it’s likely that this family baled their hay – and picked their cotton – by hand. Perhaps with migrant workers, as in John Grisham’s novel A Painted House.
“At dinner time we walked back to the house to eat.” Clearly, this is southern-speak. Until several generations ago, across America, the mid-day meal was the main meal of the day, and hence called “dinner.” The evening meal was “supper.”
In most of America, “dinner” has become lunch; “supper” has become dinner, and the term supper … has just faded away.
In many ways the south is
traditional and slow to such changes. Lunch is still quite often called
“dinner.” I worked various factory jobs
in Arkansas in the mid-70s; the mid-shift meal was always called “dinner
[Close of the first verse,
mama still speaking]
Then she said: “I got some
news today from up on Choctaw Ridge.
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Boom. Someone they all know has jumped off a bridge. A suicide. This is a sudden change. It’s not an everyday southern thing, like the song until now. You’re on edge the rest of the song: why?
Yet Bobbie continues in her matter-of-fact and I’m-just-telling-a-story-here tone of voice, strumming gently.
And papa said to mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas, “Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please. There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.” And mama said: “It’s a shame about Billy Joe, anyhow. Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge. And now Billie Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Roberta had shown a knack for music at a young age. She sang in the church choir and learned to play piano by watching the church pianist. Her grandparents encouraged her musical interests. They traded a milk cow for her first piano.
After the divorce, when she and her mother were in
California, living at first with relatives, her life prospects improved.
Especially after her mom re-married. She started writing and singing
songs. She taught herself guitar, banjo
A promising music and entertainment career took her briefly to Vegas – with a new name, Bobbie Gentry – where she performed in shows as a dancer and backup singer. She returned to LA after a couple years and attended the UCLA Conservatory of Music, working side jobs to get herself through. There she learned, among other things: music theory, composition and arranging. She had been writing songs since she was a girl. Now she had all the tools to do something with it.
She was completely prepared in all aspects to be a star. Mature beyond her years, she could write, sing, arrange, produce and play the music for her own songs.
Summer, 1967: Ode to Billie Joe was recorded as a demo. The session took only 40 minutes. The song immediately took off. Bobbie Gentry, an unknown country singer, crossed over to pop, and bumped the royal much revered Beatles (“All You Need is Love“) off the top of the chart. Until now, virtually totally unknown … she’d soon be awarded three Grammys. She was an instant star. Her story would be the unbelievable stuff of fancy, if it weren’t true.
Analysis: the song now mixes more everyday life on a family farm with recent news. “Papa” is very calm and unmoved. He clearly doesn’t think much of Billie Joe (“never had a lick of sense”), then barely pausing for breath to ask for some biscuits.
“Lick of sense” is a southern and rural expression that has migrated to some other areas. “Lick” means less than the bare minimum and is used to refer to things like “give your hands a lick” instead of a wash. It’s merely a perfunctory effort. Less than sufficient. That’s what Papa thought of Billie Joe.
Biscuits and black-eyed peas. Again, this is a true southern experience.
The mid-day dinner is meant for a good dose of calories to replenish what’s
been worked off in the morning, and for the long afternoon in the hot sun
Black Eyed Peas are a staple of southern diets. They are easy to grow, especially in rich Delta country, healthy to eat, full of protein, and are quite good for the topsoil. Being a legume, they deposit nitrogen, leaving healthy and fertile earth for the next crop. So, it is often built into the regular crop rotation (as is hay). As southerners — whether share-cropping farmers or not — the Black-Eyed Pea would certainly have been a family diet staple.
southern meal would be complete without biscuits? Easy to make, and so tasty (calorie rich) when
smothered in gravy.
Other thoughts and possible clues for Billie Joe’s fate. Black-Eyed peas came to the South with the slave trade. They are generally pale in color, with a small dark spot – the Black-Eye. Could there be a black-white thing between the narrator and Billie Joe? Many have surmised this. I think not. This was mid- to late-1950s Mississippi Delta country. Like “pass the biscuits”, the “Black-Eyed Peas” reference is just settling the listener into day-to-day southern life.
Whereas “Papa” doesn’t feel any pain for Billie Joe, “Mama” seems to briefly manage a modicum of pity: “It’s a shame about Billie Joe” and then she immediately minimizes even that by adding “anyhow.”
Finally, Papa must plow another five acres on the “lower
forty”, meaning forty acres. That’s a
lot of land, and it implies they have quite a bit more. Whether they own it, or
just work it, we don’t know.
The lower forty is also an expression for “way out yonder.” And there’s a reason: the “lower 40” is the acreage that is on your lowest land; the house and farm buildings are built on higher ground. The “Lower 40” would probably be the last acreage plowed in the spring, as they’d have to wait for it to dry out from the winter and spring rains. You can plant that late in the South, in fertile Delta soil, and still get a crop. So yes, June 3rd again fits. And yes, it dried out: it’s a “dusty Delta day.”
In any case, it sounds like Papa has a tractor to pull the
plow. So, they are not completely
Southern diet, southern language, southern rural farming workdays. The timing of chopping, baling and plowing. I conclude Gentry wrote from personal experience: both her own, and things she’d seen up close. This is authentic southern life. Her life. Not stuff you pick up from listening to stories and reading books. I judge this song to be largely autobiographical. Gentry has pulled back some veils from her history. _________________________________________________________
And brother said he recollected when he, and
Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie. You know,
it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the
Bobbie Gentry worked her fame into a great career that must’ve been financially rewarding. She took personal control of virtually every detail of every tour, every show, every arrangement. The lighting, the sound, the production. And, she was very successful at it.
She returned to Vegas with her own show; she was a huge hit in Vegas. Her show ran quite a few years and always got rave reviews and a packed house of adoring crowds. I was lucky enough to see her Vegas show, August 1974. I was not quite 18 years old. I was blown away: Great show, beautiful woman, really good music. Just, wow.
Analysis: Brother – and the whole family for that matter – still has no name, but a new name pops up: Tom. I suspect this is only to give the line a more even meter. (As an Ode, it technically has minimal lyrical meter requirements — just a lick).
The “frog down my back” comment is, to me, very apropos. The kind of light, odd, funny comment someone would make at the wake of a deceased person. Or during a get-together after the funeral and burial. But … There is not going to be a wake, funeral, or get-together for Bille Joe. Or, if there is, no one from this family is going to attend.
“Brother” and Billie Joe were friends once, perhaps just a few years ago. This is a stunt one or two boys would dare their friend to do. I can imagine that Billie Joe had a crush on the narrator and his friends have figured this out – they tease him about it and eventually dare BJ to put a frog down the back of her shirt. Wanting to fit in, he complies. Billie Joe is a bit of an outsider. He’ll put a frog down the shirt of a girl he likes just to show he “fits in.”
And what is a “picture show”? It’s another phrase that left most American lexicon long ago but remains in parts of the South. It’s just a word for “movie”, and “movie theater.” Carroll County is not very populated. Even now the entire county has only 10,000 scattered souls (although it has two county seats). So, it’s not hard to imagine that in the ‘50s there was but a single “picture show” in the entire county.
No doubt: This song has a reverberant ring of southern authenticity.
Why did “Brother” see Billie Joe at the sawmill up on Choctaw Ridge? I think this is a possible clue to the story. “Brother” could be there for two reasons: 1) he worked there (when he wasn’t baling hay on the family farm); or 2) he was buying lumber. #2 is rather unlikely (he’d probably go to a lumber yard in town), but in any case, he was there, at the mill. But: why was Billie Joe there? I suspect he was looking for a job. And he got turned down.
Conjecture: Billie Joe wanted a job to impress the narrator, or rather, the narrator’s father – who clearly disapproved of Billie Joe. Partly because he didn’t have a job. He’s not worth a lick.
And mama said to me: “Child, what’s happened to
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t
touched a single bite.”
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday.
Oh, by the way:
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you
up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’
off the Tallahatchie Bridge
Bobbie Gentry started slowing her career down in the mid-‘70s. She had a few TV specials, mostly for Canadian and BBC viewers. Appeared on some talk shows.
In kind of an odd twist – and very fitting for the song and story – she re-recorded the song in 1976. It was released again, and it made the charts.
But – she insisted – the title and words to the original
song were incorrect. It should have been
Billy Joe, not Billie Joe.
Ode to Billy Joe was
the last song she recorded to make the charts (peaking at 46 in Canada, and 65
in the US). That’s probably the only time
in music history that a singer/songwriter’s last song to make the charts was
the same as their first song to chart – and with different titles no less.
“Billie Joe” remained very popular in decades that followed. The song – and the mystery of what happened – was still so intriguing that it was made into a movie, in 1976. In fact, the song was re-recorded for the movie (see album cover).
Gentry was originally cooperative in helping with the movie. She worked with Herman Raucher on the screenplay, which has the lead female role named “Bobbie Lee.” If she agreed to that name (her own!), she clearly saw the song as autobiographical.
At some point Gentry pulled her support for the movie. Raucher and Baer seemed too attached to the idea of setting up the mystery, and then revealing it to the audience at the end – a la Sherlock Holmes. She might not have liked the movie’s purported reason for Billie Joe’s suicide (no plot spoiler here). But she was most disappointed that they failed to fully present the casual and unfeeling way that the family reacted to the suicide and her situation.
About the time of the movie’s release Gentry started to reduce the frequency of her public appearances. This, as she went through two marriages. One was short. The other – to another country music star, Jim Stafford of “Spiders and Snakes” and “Wildwood Flower” fame – was extremely short. Although she and Stafford did have one son, her only known child. I simply cannot imagine anyone who wrote and sang “Billie Joe” being married to someone who sang about Spiders, Snakes and Wildwood Flowers.
Anyhow, by 1981 she was
twice-divorced and had completely vanished.
Analysis: Verse four is curious because it is all “mama” talking (as verse three was all “brother” talking). I suspect she is babbling nervously to fill space and mask her own discomfort.
only one verse left. You can tell the
song’s almost over, because if it lasts much more than four minutes it would
never have made it on the radio in 1967.
What can we tell here? The narrator is nauseous. She was well enough to chop cotton in the field all morning, walk up to the house and wipe her feet … but now she’s ill. Clearly, Billie Joe meant something to her. The news of his suicide has disturbed her. But even mama has missed her own daughter’s quiet emotional pain. She’s even offended that the girl isn’t eating: “I’ve been cooking all morning!”
Worse, Mama calls her “child.” This is a truly southern term, and one that – to my understanding – is usually part of the Afro-American lexicon. Yet, whites use it too, especially when emphasizing that someone is not yet adult. Or they are a young adult, but not acting like it. As in: “Lordy, child! What’s gotten into you? Clean your hands before you come to this table.”
We don’t know any other details, but we can guess the girl is at least mid-teens, maybe a tad older, and had done something(s) recently that made mama (and papa) think she’s sliding back into childhood. Like maybe confiding to them that she thought Billie Joe (who doesn’t have a lick of sense) might be “the one” for her.
The narrator is hurting, yet mama is thinking of her as
a petulant, unappreciative adolescent who can’t act proper. “Rub some salt in that wound for me, please,
Is it coincidence that the same day that Billie Joe jumps off the bridge, the “young preacher” stops by and announces he’d be “pleased to have dinner next Sunday” with the family? Dinner would be lunch to us non-southerners, and Sunday – especially in summer – is an all-day church-related series of events in many parts of the South and even Mid-South. Church all morning, Church in the evening, with a church-congregation-centric social dinner in between. [Recall in verse three, the narrator was talking to Billie Joe “after church just last Sunday night”].
So, Brother Taylor. He gets a name, and a title. He’s young. He’s nice. Does he have an interest in the narrator? And, since mama gives him a proper title and name, does Mama have an interest in the “nice young preacher” as a mate for her daughter? The inference is certainly there. Safe to assume that Gentry wants us to recognize it.
And what was he doing up on Choctaw Ridge? Doesn’t he have pastoral duties? In many small southern congregations preachers have a career outside of the church. These congregations tend to be small and poor; there’s not enough money to support a full-time preacher. Brother Taylor probably wasn’t up on the Ridge for work. Was he stalking the narrator?
Regarding the “Brother” title for a preacher: this is a form of address that many Christians, especially in the South, address each other with.
And the second biggest question of the whole song, besides “why did Billie Joe jump?” — What were they throwing off the bridge? Is this a clue to their relationship, and, hence, a clue to the whole mystery?
Ruminate on that while we tackle the final verse; the one that first popped into my head during that lovely spring afternoon.
[5th and final verse] A year has come and gone since we heard the news about Billie Joe. And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo. There was a virus going ’round. Papa caught it, and he died last spring. And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge, And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Well, papa died. Mama, sensitive soul that she is, has fallen despondent and unable to do anything. The narrator is left alone; her older brother got married and moved away. Who could blame him? This family is emotionally detached from each other. — Besides: farm work (and sawmill work) are hard labor. So, brother’s gone, probably after getting a small inheritance. It’s easy to surmise that “Papa” did not approve of Becky Thompson either. Given freedom by Papa’s death, “brother” marries Becky and runs away.
Oh, if Billie Joe had only waited a few more months – Papa would have been gone and then he could have courted our little darling narrator. Alas, things happen the way they do, and they can’t be undone.
The story’s narrator. Where is she? She’s not working the farm. Is anyone working the farm? It’s been nearly at least half a year. In fact, what is she doing?
She is up on the ridge,
picking flowers. Then she wanders over
to the bridge and drops them into the water.
Apparently over and over.
Analysis: The narrator is as emotionally detached as the rest of her family, just like they were toward her and Billie Joe when he jumped. What goes around, comes around. With papa dead, Mama is clearly suffering; yet darling daughter is off alone, feeling sorry for herself. And Brother is off in Tupelo, with his new bride.
There’s a lot of theories about the song. What it was about. What really happened. The song’s real meaning – the why? – will always remain a mystery. Bobbie Gentry – mysterious, beguiling – has never really said.
Bobbie Gentry disappeared. At first she made sporadic appearances — ever the mystery woman, as if she had planned to deceive us all along. She appeared on a Mother’s Day special in 1981, then disappeared for almost one full year — until the next April, when she showed up at the Country Music Awards (CMA) in Nashville, Tennessee. [We were there during CMA week in 2018 — the town is really fun anytime, but super abuzz that week]. No one has seen or reported on her since.
Fruitless analyses of the song and her life have been going on for decades. We’ll never really know why Billie Joe jumped to his death, what was his relationship with the narrator, or what they were throwing into the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River. Pressed hard for an answer during an interview once, Gentry finally answered, with practiced carelessness: “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it was a ring.”
Endless research by inquiring reporters and fans have suggested that Gentry lives quietly in an upscale gated neighborhood near Memphis, not far from her birthplace and childhood Mississippi Delta roots. She takes no visitors and takes no calls. And the song? It’s meaning is left to the listener — which can change with mood and even time of day.
By many accounts, Jim Stafford is still in love with Bobbie Gentry. As a hopeless sentimental romantic, I sympathize. Alas, they simply weren’t meant for each other. In rare interviews, he is still probed about the meaning of Billie Joe. Through a lot of digging I have found one website, wherein a reporter claims that – in an interview through an alcohol lubricated night – Stafford suggested that Gentry one time shared some dark details of her youth with him. Details that fit with the story.
The details that Stafford recalled, and that the reporter recalled (hearsay), are all probably hazed, and the implied dark story are not worth repeating. [I lost the webpage, so I won’t tell the reporter’s text of Stafford’s take on the story.]
But I think the story/song is exquisite and sufficiently complete just the way it is. If Gentry had told us anymore, then it probably wouldn’t have been such a hit. Let alone a long-lasting hit. That’s the genius of good song writing. We’ve been hooked for decades just trying to figure it out. It still generates a regular healthy royalty check for her today.
Final analysis: Papa is a harsh man and stern head-of-the-household. He probably felt he had to be that way as the patriarch of a family working its own farm in 1950s Mississippi. Perhaps a WWII veteran and feeling the pain of the Great Depression. He didn’t want to lose his children (workhands) via marriage to some slackers who didn’t know the value of hard work. He was dismissive of his children’s yearnings to find a mate. Sadly, his emotional distancing set the tone for the family.
No one wanted to challenge Papa by expressing sympathy for Billie Joe, who’d committed suicide because of Papa. Nor did anyone dare show sympathy to the narrator, Billie Joe’s probable love interest.
Then, Papa got a virus and died. Probably between 35 and 45 years of age. Not old. Mama fell into depression and had to sell the farm. Whatever money “brother” got, he used to buy a store in Tupelo (Elvis Presley’s birthplace). He ran away with the girl Papa wouldn’t let him court. And all the narrator-daughter got was lots of free time to pick flowers.
In the end, the children were just like their parents. They didn’t know how to console others and show compassion in difficult times. Unable to respond to Mama’s and each other’s suffering …. they just ran away.
That’s sad. It’s a strong message. It’s a warning, delivered by a story, wrapped in a song.
With this virus “goin’ ’round” us now, and time on our hands, let’s remember what’s really important: family, understanding and support.
Afterthoughts & Things not included Ode to Billie Joe changed country music and paved the way for new heartfelt types of music, telling stories where something is quite wrong, like Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn and Jeannie Riley’s Harper Valley PTA.
The Tallahatchie Bridge is only about 20 feet above the muddy river waters. Jumping to one’s death there is unlikely. But it fit the song well, and rhymed with Chocktaw Ridge. So unlikely is fatality, in fact, that jumping off the bridge became quite common, due to the song’s popularity. You can’t jump off that bridge anymore. It collapsed in 1972 and was rebuilt. Jumping was made more difficult and a fine for jumping was imposed. Other hints. Bobbie Gentry’s original draft was said to have been eleven verses. It was cut to five verses for marketing, so it could fit on a 45rmp record, and manageable for radio airtime. Gentry donated her handwritten lyrics of the first page of draft lyrics to the University of Mississippi (see below). The only new information is in an alternate verse one, which starts out “People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore.” Some have speculated that what they threw off the bridge might have been the body of Sally Jane.
Dawn Wells won the title of Miss Nevada in 1959. She went on to star in TV, live theater and movies, most memorably as Mary Ann in the Gilligan’s Island TV series. Still a beauty at 81, she and Tina Louise (Ginger) are the last surviving actors in that ‘60s TV show – which continues to live on in re-runs. Wells was born in October 1938.
Also, in 1938 – just a few days after Miss Wells’ birth, on the Sunday night right before Halloween – a series of “news” flashes and reports were broadcast nationwide over the Columbia Broadcasting System. The news went out as part of a regular show: Mercury Theatre. But unless listeners were tuned in at the very beginning, they might well have not realized that the “news” was a spoof — part of an entertainment show. 
The news shocked and, briefly, terrified more than a few people – and a bit of panic broke out. (The panic was not nearly as widespread as legend has it). Even some who understood that the “news reports” were fake did not understand it was actually a radio show dramatization of H.G. Wells’ famous novel, “War of the Worlds.”
The creator and producer of the 1938 radio show? Orson Welles. (He also played several voice-roles in the dramatization.)
So, Welles produced a show based on a novel by Wells? Put on the air the same week as Wells’ birth?
Wells, Welles, Wells. These are simply coincidences. A sequence of events and names that present a
curious pattern of no significance.
But as humans, we cannot help but notice such coincidences. Coincidences look a lot like patterns. And humans have evolved to be probably the best pattern recognizers in the world – outside, perhaps, of advanced Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning Algorithms. (Such as: whatever on the internet seems to know what I might be shopping for?) As humans, we’ve used pattern recognition to help us survive and thrive, evidence of Darwin’s theory. We hunt prey, avoid predators, plant, harvest, and socialize – including finding mates – according to evolved inherited skills of pattern recognition.
One of the most important is patterns for weather forecasting. We recognize “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night sailor’s delight”. It was already ancient when Jesus said “When it is evening, you say ‘it will be fair weather for the sky is red.’ And in the morning: ‘it will be foul weather today, for the sky is red.’ O hypocrites. You can discern the face of the sky, but not the signs of the times!” [Matthew, 16:2-3].
Long ago humans recognized patterns of movement in the night skies. For example, every 780 days the red-orange planet Mars appears very bright in the sky, and almost directly overhead at midnight. (This phenomenon, called “opposition”, would likely have been tracked by counting lunar months, and predictably occurred every 26 lunar cycles, plus 19 days). Such celestial movements and tracking have meager connections to our lives, try as astrologists might to make them. On the other hand, the single biggest influence on ocean tides is the moon. Plus, constellations and the north star have been trusty navigational tools that pre-date history. So, our planet and our fates are not fully disconnected from all celestial patterns.
In 1894 Mars and Earth met in their regularly scheduled dance
of syzygy. Astronomers were ready and turned their telescopes toward the planet
named for the god of war. Their
observations, sketches and conjectures helped inspire a novel: “War of the
Worlds”, by H.G. Wells.
Percival Lowell saw the great Canali on Mars and fancied that they were massive water projects, undertaken to manage water by a civilization on a nearly barren planet that was drying up. H.G. Wells’ imagination: Would they be interested in coming to water-rich earth?
Further exciting scientific speculation: great flashes of light were seen on Mars during that alignment. From the respected astronomer Perrotin in (Nice, France) to the Lick Observatory in the hills outside San Jose, California, Mars-gazers confirmed to each other that the bright Martian lights were real. H.G. Well’s imagination: Might these flares of light be the firing of a giant gun, to send a spacecraft to earth at this opportune planetary alignment?
Like most science fiction writers, Wells was pretty well attuned to scientific developments. And world affairs. Thus armed scientifically and culturally, and with a great imagination, Wells wrote “War of the Worlds.” Initially published as a series in 1897, the work was published as a novel in a single volume in 1898.
I’m not sure why the title has the word “Worlds”. In the Wells novel, per my recollection and re-perusing of the fairly short book , the only locale inflicted with invasion and destruction of the Martian “heat ray” was southeast England, in and around the London area. 
In Welles’ 1938 radio show, the Martian invaders’
destruction was mostly limited to New Jersey and around New York City, although
he does make brief passing mention – almost like an afterthought – of Buffalo,
Chicago and St Louis. 
I’ve seen the 1953 movie a few times, mostly as a kid, and the “invasion” was limited to California. Writers can be so parochial. If it were really “War of the Worlds”, the whole human race would have been affected, and united in an effort to fight (or at least survive) the invaders. 
Alas, uniting our race would have done no good in any of the versions of the story. The Martians were virtually indestructible. The annihilation from their heat ray was total. Their only weakness was that they lacked an immune system adapted for earth. At the end they all perished due to exposure to simple common germs.
Virology was not even in its infancy when Wells wrote his novel; the very existence of anything like a virus was postulated (and indirectly proven) only a couple years before that Mars-Earth alignment. Scientists and novelists knew, of course, about bacteria. But those are usually many, many times larger than most viruses, and had been observed under microscopes. Humans would not truly “see” a virus until 1931, with the development of the electron microscope.
If Wells had known about viruses when he wrote his novel, he might well have included them in earth’s “victory” over the Martians. If he wrote the novel today, he might have included a “novel virus” (ha, pun intended) as the “hero.”
Returning to patterns (like novel & novel), and the
current novel virus (AKA SARS-CoV-2 and 2019-nCoV – the “n” indicating
“novel”), we can understand a bit how the US under-reacted, at first, to this
The virus that causes COVID-19 is a “new” virus (that’s what novel means) but is closely related to the corona viruses that caused SARS in 2002-3 and MERS in 2015. From a US-perspective, these were mostly well contained to Asia and the Middle East, although a nasty outbreak of SARS occurred near Toronto.
More novel viruses will come. They mutate easily and quickly. Some will be worse than SARS-CoV-2 or even the H1N1 variant that caused the pandemic of 1918-19 … more fatal and more transmittable. Concurrent with another existential catastrophe, they might even threaten the species. Not sure when … next year … next decade or in a few generations. But they will come.
In my imagined minor and more modern re-write of Wells’ story, it is a virus that saved the Homo Sapiens species. In future, perhaps the lessons-learned from this 2020 virus pandemic will save us too.
Final thought: By the way, from way back in the ‘60s until today, I always preferred Mary Ann over Ginger. No contest. Is it because she was a brunette, or because Mary Ann was … well she was Mary Ann? Or because she was Dawn Wells?
 Backstory spoiler: Wells was disheartened by the methods and human impacts of British worldwide colonization and empire building. So, in his novel, the roles are flipped. The Brits are set upon and invaded by strange and powerful foreigners who have come to take their resources, without regard for human life, or for destruction of a civilization.
“Well, there’s only one thing I can say about the war in Viet Nam. Sometimes when people go to Vietnam, they go home to their mommas without any legs. Sometimes they don’t go home at all. That’s a bad thing. That’s all I have to say about that.”
– Forrest Gump
In the 1994 box office smash and critically acclaimed movie “Forrest Gump” there is a re-enactment of the massive May, 1970 Anti-War Rally, at the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting pond, on the Mall in Washington, DC. In the movie, the eponymously named lead character is inserted into the speakers’ program, and he gives a short speech.
Most of the speech was not heard by the crowd. Movie viewers didn’t hear it either. That’s because – per script – the sound system was disrupted by an anti-anti-war protestor, disguised as a part of the security detail, just before Tom Hanks, as Forrest Gump, stepped up to the microphone. [Forrest Gump’s unheard speech before the Reflecting Pond anti-war rally, in DC, with the whole scene. — early link was taken down, I suppose for copyright issues.]
That doesn’t mean he didn’t have anything important to say. The words above are what Tom Hanks claims to have said into the dead mike.
Much of the US population dealt with Viet Nam war veterans rather disrespectfully, especially from 1968 until about 1980. Instead of treating them as youthful wide-eyed 18 to 20 year olds, sent off to do their country’s dirty work in a proxy war of the Cold War era, they were spat upon and derided as “baby killers.” This was most unfair.
Hollywood and the media treated them rather shabbily and ungraciously as well, usually depicting them as damaged goods and misfits. This is well-documented, and doesn’t even touch upon the disturbing “Full Metal Jacket” and “Coming Home.” From last year’s Oscars … it seem the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still feels that way. [I stopped watching awards shows a while ago].
I touched on this in an earlier essay, but it was longer and the treatment of Viet Nam vets, particularly with regard to Hollywood, was part of a broader context.
Staying in a war 6,000 miles away for 18 years? “You break it, you bought it” is not an intelligent foreign policy. Stupid is as stupid does. [H/T to Rep Barbara Lee (CA), the only person in either House to vote against the Afghanistan War Resolutions (2001), which she did on the basis that it was too broad, and had no “end game.” Even Ron Paul voted “Yea.” Astonishing.]
By the way, Hanks’ co-star in Forrest Gump, Gary Sinese, is doing wonderful things for veterans and first responders through his actions, words and foundation. Bravo, sir.
Recently the brand new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,
Boris Johnson, suspended parliament at a moment in history that portends a
possible keyhole event: a “Hard Brexit” is
about to occur. Technically the term is prorogue. That is to say: “Johnson has prorogued
Parliament.” He simply sent them home
for a few weeks. Although not
all that uncommon for a new government – it comes shortly after his
placement as PM – the timing has made many
Brits uncomfortable, to say the least.
One supposes that my writing has been sort of prorogued of
late – not much publishing anyhow. I don’t
think many readers are uncomfortable about that.
I have a pair of terms for events that are
so transformational that things can never return to the way they were; not even
ways of thinking can return: Wormholes and Keyholes. Either way, when we pass
through them – either as individuals, families, communities, cultures,
countries or the entire world – a new reality emerges.
A possible alternative to keyhole and wormhole is “Rubicon”; or the full phrase “crossing the Rubicon.” Way back in 49 BCE, a Roman general named Gaius (of the patrician clan “Julia”) took his powerful and famously successful army across the River Rubicon. When he did, he also created a keyhole through which he, his army, and Roman culture passed and could never return.
Rubicon: Reality was irreversibly changed. A civil war ensued. At its conclusion, there was no more Roman Republic, although it had endured nearly 500 years with a slight flavor of democracy. It was replaced with the Roman Empire, to be led by a sovereign head of state named “Caesar” (the first one being the aforementioned general).
“Crossing the Rubicon” is a term that means total commitment, and no turning back. You’ve gone through the keyhole. Although, for Julius Caesar, there was an strong element of personal choice in the matter. That’s not always the case.
Using the theme of keyholes, I will touch upon many a quaint
and curious story of forgotten lore , including brief
biographical glances at the lives of three individuals.
These are but three people among countless. Passing through the same keyhole in history. An entire nation of millions was transformed by that keyhole, through which nothing – no person and no part of American culture – could return to their previous state … forever transformed. These three people made history because of their transformations – and society’s – brought about by a major disruption to American national culture.
Hattie had a sweet personality and an even sweeter voice. And she had a quality of magnetic personality mixed with pizzazz, or panache. Today the name “Hattie” is rather obscure – in fact, it almost completely disappeared in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was not an uncommon name at all across American cultures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hattie Caraway (ARK) was the 1st woman elected to the US Senate, in 1932. Our Hattie was born in Wichita, Kansas, to parents who had been slaves. Although the name Hattie would later virtually disappear, her own name would not.
Born and raised of pure German descent, Henry hailed from the German neighborhoods on the southside of the great beer-making city of St Louis. But he usually went by the nickname “Heinie” (or “Heine”), since it was German and rhymed with his last name: Meine. Of course, it was Americanized to “High-nee My-nee”; you can’t get a much more memorable name. Nonetheless, he’s virtually forgotten, although Heinie came through the keyhole and left his name in the record books.
A first generation Italian-American, he preferred to go by “Al” rather than his given “Alphonse.” Born and raised in Brooklyn, he’d make his name in Chicago. Known for many things – including feeding over 100,000 Chicagoans each day during the Great Depression’s early years – Al was not known for being very faithful to his wife. That’s too bad, because she was extraordinarily faithful and loyal to him. At least he was loyal: he treated her well and never spoke poorly of her. That, and his Depression-era food lines, are among the few good qualities we can credit to him. ___________________________________________________________________
On a geological scale, the biggest disruptor to life on earth was almost certainly when the 12-mile diameter Chicxulub Asteroid slammed into the earth at 40,000 kilometers per hour, near the Yucatan peninsula (modern day Mexico) about 66 million years ago. Scientific estimates of the energy released approached one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) Hiroshima atomic bombs.
The asteroid event is probably the biggest reason, among many, that between 99.9% and 99.999% of the all species that have ever lived are now extinct.
Dinosaurs had ruled the earth; they had for some 250 million
years through advanced evolution which tracked the earth’s warming climate. (Consider
how far humans have evolved from advanced apes in less than 1/1000th
the time). For most of those many millions
of ”dinosaur” years, the earth was generally a very warm, even rather tropical,
CO2 rich environment. Literally, in a very
few years (perhaps a handful) all had changed.
The world, relatively speaking, became a frigidly cold “ice box.”
The asteroid, as agent of disruption, had altered reality so suddenly, and so irreversibly, that the world and its reality was forever immediately changed. We should be thankful. That stupendously, mind-boggling cataclysmic event permitted the survival and prominence of tiny mammals – and eventually to us: we humans and our many friends like horses, dogs, cats – over dozens of millions of years.
I should hesitate to even suggest candidates for
“disruptors” in the human era – especially in our post-industrial age era. But, eventually we must get to our three
protagonists: Hattie, Heinie and
Alphonse. Therefore, I submit some
examples, starting with —ta da – the internet.
It has spawned on-line commerce and “the sharing economy.”
The “sharing economy” starts with the simple idea that we, as humans in a free-market economy, have assets that are lying dormant. In economists’ terms: non-performing assets. Our houses. Our cars. Our time. The sharing economy idea suggests we can put those assets to work. Over just a very few years, this simple idea has disrupted how we consume, travel, commute and vacation. Many of us now think of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, CrowdFunding as powerful and preferred alternatives to “traditional business models.” The value of Taxi Cab medallions in New York City has fallen by some 85% since their peak value of $1.3 Million in 2013. Entire industries must now behave differently – or die.
The sharing economy has been co-joined on the internet with
our lust for connectivity and ease. Amazon has put booksellers out of business.
Thanks to the internet, we often now shop in the comfort of our homes, in front
of our computers – often clad only in our underwear (if we are dressed at all –
sorry for the visual).
Merchandise is delivered to our front door, sometimes within hours – while many old and drab strip malls slowly, silently go vacant and “turn-over”, their dull slots replaced by the equivalent of pre-human mammals that are mostly just cheap “creature comforts”: nail salons, micro-liquor stores, tattoo and/or piercing parlors, micro-breweries, tobacco-friendly stores, massage parlors, pot shops (where legal), second-hand and antique shops, etc. And that’s if the vacant spaces are filled at all. There is no telling which will survive to coming generations, if at all: evolution, disruption and their effects have their ways of being unpredictable… that is their very nature. 
In American culture, looking back over the past 125 years,
or so, I cannot think of any more forceful disruptor – outside of the Internet,
the Depression, and the Great Wars – than Prohibition.
Prohibition. The 18th Amendment. The Volstead Act. The culmination of decades of effort by the Temperance Movement, the Women’s Movement, and Cultural Conservatives.
I’m sort of a fan of Prohibition. Why? It was, in effect, a vast significant social scientific experiment. It made being anti-government-control very cool. It made counter-culture cool. It made “shoving it in The-Man’s-face” cool. For many cultural icons and movements – from the obvious, like craft beer brewing and craft alcohol distilling, to the Beatniks, to Elvis, to The Stones, to Jay-Zee, to tattoos, to piercings, to sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, sexual licentiousness, the prevalence of Sugar Daddies, and even NASCAR, (America’s most popular spectator sport) – Prohibition helped paved the way.
To me, on balance, those are good things. But every die comes with many sides: it also gave more profit and respectability to the mafia and the underworld.
Our protagonists: In order of how famous they are today:
#1. In 1913, Young Al dropped out of school at 14, after slugging his teacher. He then worked odd jobs while falling in with various young gangs of hoodlums. Eventually, he got connected to the local mobs, and began working his way up the mob ladder – getting a nasty razor gash across a cheek in one episode – before finally getting in so much trouble that he was sent off to a different “branch of the business” in Chicago, along with his wife (the one he was not quite “totally committed” to) and young son.
Propitious timing: Prohibition was about to start. Chicago is where Alphonse – Al Capone and Scarface to us – made it big. Really big. Prohibition provided almost unlimited opportunity to make money … either through booze itself or through protection schemes. Capone inherited the top position of a major Chicago crime syndicate, at age 26, when boss Johnny Torino retired and went home to Sicily.
After various deals and “take outs”, like the 1929 Saint
Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone’s gang ruled supreme in Chicago and Cook
“Scarface” (a nickname he hated) escaped criminal conviction many times. But Prohibition Agent Elliot Ness and the government finally got him on income tax evasion; his lifestyle and braggadocio were just too conspicuous during a time such as the Great Depression. Yes, he daily fed many thousands in the early years of the Depression. But everything ended on October 17, 1931, when Capone was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.
While in prison – eventually at Alcatraz – Capone’s old cronies in the Chicago mob did quite well. But he didn’t fair so well himself, even though he was released for “good behavior” after serving only about 7 years of his term. It turns out his good behavior was probably because he developed advanced dementia caused by syphilis. Evidently it had been attacking his nervous system since his teens – considering that his only son, Alphonse Jr, was born with congenital syphilis.
Capone’s wife, Mae, remained loyal, and took great care of him until his demise, in 1947, only one week after his 48th birthday. He was probably not aware of that or much else, as he was given to talking to inanimate things and people not present. Their son Al Jr, an only child – who lived quite deaf since infancy on account of surgery for syphilis-caused infections – changed his name to “Albert Brown” in 1966, to distance himself from the infamy of his father. “Brown” was an alias his father had sometimes used.
2) In 1895 came Hattie McDaniel into this world. She was the
13th and last child born to Susan and Henry McDaniel, both former
slaves. Her father was a freed slave, who fought in the Civil War and suffered
the rest of his life from war injuries.
Originally from Wichita, Kansas, the family moved to Ft Collins, then Denver, Colorado seeking opportunity – as Henry had a difficult time with manual labor on account of his war injury – about the time young Hattie was 5 or 6. There, in school and in church, her phenomenal musical skills were discovered.
By age 14 she had a professional singing and dancing career
… and she also dropped out of Denver East High School. As feature vocalists for various bands, mostly
Blues, Hattie had made something of a name for herself.
In 1930 she found herself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part
of a traveling theatre troupe on the Show Boat production. Then,
disaster: The Depression struck. The
show and tour were abruptly canceled, leaving Hattie and the rest of the cast
abandoned … and nowhere near home.
Club Madrid was famous for great entertainment, as well as a great stash of alcohols. It was a place to visit and be seen for politicians, high rolling businessmen and other wealthy gangsters.
Word had gotten around Club Madrid that Hattie was extremely talented; but Madrid was a “whites only” establishment. They kept her in the restroom. Until one night when an act didn’t show. Desperate to keep the lubricated and influential guests engaged, Sam brought out Hattie. She brought the house down … and did so for over a year. Her income and notoriety soared.
Whereupon her skills as a performer were noticed by
Hollywood. She’d go on to a rich film career
of over a decade, most notably as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. In perfect Hattie pose and poise, she was
virtually “playing herself” as the only truly likeable and reasonable person in
the entire saga.
For that performance she was justly awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black to receive an academy nomination, and the first to win an Oscar. Bravo Hattie.
She remained popular, and used that popularity to serve in
World War II, entertaining troops and performing at War Bond rallies.
At the end of the war the role of blacks in America was about to dramatically change. Truman integrated the military with a stroke of his pen. There was a loud popular cry to end the stereotyping of black characters as obsequious, simple-minded submissives in movies. The cry was heard. Unfortunately for Hattie, she had already been well typecast into such roles, and her Hollywood career faded.
Not so for radio, and Hattie signed on to play a maid on the nationally popular regular radio show Beulah. Another first: she was the first black to have a weekly appearance on any media.  Her years were running out, however. Too young and too late she was discovered to have breast cancer, and she succumbed in 1952, aged only 57.
And #3. Henry “Heinie” Meine is surely the least famous of the three who actually achieved a significant level of fame. Born in Saint Louis in 1896, he was a sports enthusiast who took to baseball well. He played a lot of local sand-lot and then semi-pro ball as a young man, mostly as a spit balling pitcher.
By 1920 word got around that he was pretty good – especially with his favorite pitch: the spitter. He’d been noticed by legendary scout Charles “Charley” Francis Barrett, and he was signed to a minor league contract with the St Louis Browns of the American League. In 1922 he was called up briefly to his hometown Browns and pitched in one single game — a mop up effort in a late season blow out. Unfortunately for Heinie, the spitball had been outlawed as an unfair pitch; and was now being enforced. His major league career seemed over.
He bounced around the minor leagues for a while, gaining a reputation for a “rubber arm”; he was kind of an energizer bunny, as he regularly pitched 250-300 innings a season during those years in the minors. Finally, Meine just gave up, retiring at the end of the 1926 season after learning he’d be demoted to the Single-A level for the 1927 season. It seemed he had no path to the majors, especially without his spitball. There were other options: he intended to make money in his beer-happy hometown of Saint Louis running a Speakeasy. Prohibition provided opportunity.
Like Pick’s Club Madrid, Meine’s “soda bar” was located just outside
the city limits, in a German neighborhood that was known for some reason as
Luxemburg. His drinking establishment was so popular, he got the nickname “Duke
When other major league teams came to Saint Louis (the city had two teams then, so it was often), Luxemburg was a frequent stop for refreshment. After a few drinks the players often teased him about being a good minor league pitcher, but not being good enough to make it in the majors.
This was motivation. He’d show them! After a layoff of nearly two years, Meine returned to baseball. He was determined to make it as a “control pitcher”, one who could make the ball move any direction, who could constantly change speeds and hit any spot on the edge of the strike zone. He became an early effective “junk” pitcher. He didn’t strike out many batters; they just hit soft grounders and popups. After a couple minor league seasons, he was eventually acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As a 33 year-old rookie, Heinie Meine made his major league debut in 1929. Unheard of even in those days. After two moderately successful and contentious seasons with the Pirates (including missing much time with a bad case of tonsillitis) he set the baseball world on fire in 1931, leading the league in wins and innings pitched. A phenomenal record for a Pirate team that managed only 75 wins against 79 losses that year.
Meine was a holdout for the 1932 season – one of the first
to successfully do so – demanding more money.
Starting the season over a month late, after a contract renegotiation,
he still managed 12 wins and nearly 200 innings.
But Meine was now approaching 37 years old. His rubber arm was wearing out. Still, he managed 15 wins and 207 innings in 1933, impressive totals for any age in any era. All the league’s pitchers with more wins than Meine were aged 31, or younger.
The next year, 1934, would be his last, as Meine was getting past his prime. He still put up a winning record, at 7-6, but he knew the end of his career had come. If he’d stayed for just a small part of the next season, he’d have seen a national superstar who was well past his prime have one last unlikely and very dramatically successful day at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. A very wobbly 40-year old Babe Ruth hit three home runs in one game in late May … the last three he’d ever hit. Then promptly retired a few days later.
But by then Meine had already retired to run his saloon business full time. With Prohibition over and his reputation for Gemütlichkeit, Meine’s career as saloon keeper was safe for years to come. And with some thanks to Prohibition and the customers who teased him, he had made his place in baseball’s record books.
Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.
 With apologies to Edgar Allen Poe fans. Lifted almost verbatim from verse #1 of “The
 Strip Malls have a rather interesting history in the US
(and Canada). Briefly: The preponderance
of Strip Malls exploded in the 1950s in North America, along with the expanding
post-war economy and our love affair with cars. Ubiquitous on the edges of urban areas, and within
the new suburban areas, they were a “strip” of available business spaces in a
single building with parking in front. Sometimes
“L-shaped”, they lined major and semi-major roads, near residential areas, but seldom
near central business districts.
They provided convenient, if not “drab”, space for respectable
businesses like pharmacies, butcher shops, barbers, and sellers of fresh
produce and groceries … where everyone seemed to know everyone else and friendly
chit-chat was interwoven with business. In an America that no longer exists.
But cars got bigger and ever more plentiful. Available parking for strip malls was too small. So then came the “Big Box” strip malls, with huge parking lots anchored by one or two major retailers, like Walmart, or Home Depot. The small strip malls lost business, tenants and most public interest. Also came the super malls … and strip malls were just so-o-o 1950s and ‘60s.
If not already scraped away, strip malls still exist, but ever more with spaces that are vacant, or populated by the likes of businesses I listed above. Always drab. Always an eyesore.
 At about this time, only about 10% of US homes had televisions. Nearly 100% had radios, and people built their daily schedules around radio shows. By 1960, this had reversed: nearly 90% had TVs, and Americans lives revolved around their favorite shows, on only 3 networks.
Regarding Strip Mall history: One of the better sources I
found was here.
“In that clear water you could see the sharks circling. Every now and then, like lightning, one would come straight up, take a sailor, and take him straight down. One came up and took the sailor next to me. It was just somebody screaming, yelling …” – Loel Dean Cox, USS Indianapolis survivor 
In August, 1989, my wife and I “did” southern California. Including Disneyland and Universal Studios. Then we only had two kids: the oldest nearly four years old, the next just over one year old. I doubt they remember.
I clearly remember the robotic sharks at Universal Studios tour that were used in the thriller movie “Jaws.” Parts of the movie flickered through my mind’s projector screen. Intrigued, I resolved to watch it again, the next chance I got. I think we rented the video tape and played it on VCR shortly thereafter (remember VCR?). I don’t think my wife watched much of it.
Great Whites can exceed 20 feet
I can vividly remember the day that I first watched “Jaws”, in August of 1975. I was not quite 19 years old and I was working a 7-to-4 job in an unairconditioned Arkansas sweatshop factory that summer ‘twixt my freshman and sophomore years at A-State. I had a high school friend on his way, via Continental Trailways bus, from Wisconsin. We planned to go to a late evening showing when he arrived. It was a Friday.
Right after work was the company picnic. It was my first introduction to southern-style deep-fried catfish and hush puppies. I was a strapping growing lad. “Self-indulgent” doesn’t begin to describe my ravenous consumption. I stayed late to make sure there were no leftovers. Then I hustled down to the bus station to fetch my buddy.
A few hours later – in the theatre – well, I didn’t feel so good. Pretty rumbly in the tummy. And a rather gruesome film didn’t help. When shark expert “Hooper” suddenly and unexpectedly sites Ben Gardner’s face while investigating the underside of Ben’s fishing boat late at night … of course, late at night … well, I got the sudden urge to lose about five pounds of southern deep-fried crap food. I did make it to the toilet in time — just barely.
Even though my wife and I are already members of a great health club (Camp Gladiator) – each 1-hour session is a team event – we recently joined a second club. It is only a couple minutes from our new home. It is quite inexpensive, especially considering the many benefits available. We use it to augment our team workouts with individual strength and cardio work in its huge facility. It has hydro massage, hot tub, sauna … One of the blessings of being mostly retired.
Benefits and cardio work. In one of the cardio rooms the club has the largest video screen I’ve ever seen, outside of a theater. Probably 40 feet across. Very wide screen. Last weekend I dropped into it for the first time to burn several hundred calories and to watch that old ‘70s suspense thriller movie that I had seen twice before.
“Jaws” is blatantly a modern twist on Moby Dick. It has a great white shark instead of a great white whale; and has a crazy old seaman named Quint instead of Captain Ahab. Directed by young, still-largely-unknown, 26-year old Steven Spielberg, and based on a book by Peter Benchley (subbing for Herman Melville), the movie stands out for a few more parallel reasons with “Moby.”
[Warning: a few minor plot spoilers ensue]
First, as a sort of old-time adventure story, there are no major female roles in the storyline. Second, even though there is a lead protagonist in each story (Ishmael in Moby, Chief Brody in Jaws) the roles most remembered are those of supporting characters.
Roy Sheider does a very good, yet non-showy and straight up, portrayal of Police Chief Brody. Yet he was, in my estimation, totally upstaged by two remarkable performers, playing their roles expertly.
A very young looking Richard Dreyfuss plays the shark expert Hooper. Hooper is the rich, over-educated, know-it-all, smart-ass city boy. Dreyfuss is convincing as Hooper, the outsider here on the island, who gets roundly antagonized for it, and refuses to change. This was when Dreyfuss was just becoming a big star (his only big hit ‘til then was “American Graffiti”); he was only 26 at the time of filming.
To me, even Dreyfuss is quite upstaged by Robert Shaw, who plays crazy seaman Quint. Quint, it becomes obvious from his first appearance on set, is quite attracted to the idea of hunting and killing large sharks. As it turns out, he had good reason.
Robert Shaw as Quint
We learn that reason in back-to-back scenes aboard Quint’s boat, while the three main characters are out hunting the killer great white shark at night. Of course, it’s night.
These are two of my favorite scenes in cinema history, even though overall the movie is not all that spectacular. These scenes come back to back; in fact, technically, they are probably from the same scene.
In the latter of two scenes, all three have had a bit to drink – Quint of course acting as ringleader. He starts mumbling one of his crazy sea songs and is interrupted by Hooper (Dreyfuss) who breaks out into “Show me the way to go home … (I’m tired and I wanna go to bed. I had a little drink about an hour ago, and it got right to my head)”. Soon, the other two have joined in – I wouldn’t call it harmony – pounding in synch on the table. To this point in the story, the three have gotten along poorly. Now they have bonded. That’s when the shark rams the boat.
Immediately preceding this scene comes – in my opinion — one of the best and most memorable monologues in cinema history.
Hooper and Quint have been at each other for most of the movie. The scene has gotten a bit testy – alcohol enhanced – when Hooper and Quint start comparing injuries and scars. Antagonism is turning toward warmth and respect.
Eventually Quint wins the scar contest.
How? He is asked about a scar on his arm that turns out to be from a removed tattoo. What did the tat say? Hooper teases: “Don’t tell me: MOTHER”, then roars at his own joke. Softly, Quint replies: “USS Indianapolis, 1944.”
Brody seems ignorant of the significance. Hooper is incredulous that Quint was on board. And then Shaw/Quint breaks into a 670-word monologue describing his experience as a survivor of the USS Indianapolis.
Clearly whoever wrote the script for that had done some in-depth research on survivors’ testimony and knew how the lines should be delivered. Turns out that person was Shaw, himself.
Besides being a terrific actor, it turns out Shaw was also an accomplished writer of novels and screenplays. Correctly sensing that it would be one of the most important scenes of the movie, perhaps the one most remembered, Shaw did not like the original versions and convinced author Benchley and director Spielberg to let him re-write it himself.
One reading – with Shaw’s newly acquired crazy-seaman-northeastern accent – and they were all confident: Shaw had nailed it perfectly.
Filming the monologue took only two takes. The first did not go according to plan. Shaw was a hard drinker his whole life – had been since losing his alcoholic father to suicide at age 12 … those damned genes – and he decided he should do the scene a little under the influence.
Except, he was a lot under the influence. He awoke the next morning with little recollection of the shoot and feared it was terrible. I suppose everyone else thought it was OK, but Shaw begged to reshoot it.
Born in England (Lancashire), and moving first to Cornwall and then to Scotland after his father’s death, Shaw must’ve had quite the breadth of accents down before coming to acting. It’s kind of unfortunate that he got typecast in movies; it’s just that he played the crusty old-guy so well. He was an accomplished theatre actor, touring widely and doing mostly Shakespeare, into his mid-twenties. But he did have a gift for accents; in his film career, he played a 16th century British king, an Israeli spy, a Russian spy, A German WWII officer, and a crusty Long Island fisherman. 
Crusty old guy? Shaw was never an old man. He was only 46 for filming Jaws – although he looked and acted about 66. His hard-drinking and workaholic ways — both exacerbated by losing his beautiful wife rather young (age only 42), just before Jaws was released — led to stress and poor health. He passed on, age only 51, from a heart attack, on the road just outside his cottage in Toormakeady, Ireland.
Anyway, at least he left us some cinematic memories.
Ben Franklin famously quipped that nothing is so sure as death and taxes. I’ll add that the quip will never die; and both can be so unfair.
Speaking of taxes, Shaw essentially made nothing for his role as Quint – even though Jaws was the first movie to gross over $100 million, was probably the first Summer Blockbuster, he got first line billing and it is probably his most remembered role. Why? Taxes, taxes, taxes. The jaws of taxes. His taxes were excessive that year from reported income in Canada, Ireland, Britain and the US, reducing his US take-home pay to nil. I wonder if those governments spent his millions wisely?
Here’s hoping for some modicum of fairness in your lives, dear readers.
Adieu for now. “Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I wanna go to bed ….”
Shaw made one slight mistake. The torpedoes hit on June 30, not June 29. However, the torpedoes hit at 12:03AM, so a survivor could be forgiven for thinking it was the day before. The movie script was adjusted so that the shark attack on the young boy was June 29.
 Short version of Shaw’s filmography:
From Russia, with Love
A Man for All Seasons (as Henry VIII)
Battle of Britain
Young Winston (as Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Force 10 from Navarone
 Copyrighted text to Jaw’s screen play: Shaw’s talk about the USS Indianapolis.
[Actually I’ve come across two versions of this. Not sure which is more correct. Guess I need to see the movie, again].
HOOPER: You were on the Indianapolis? In ’45? Jesus…
CLOSE UP ON QUINT
Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. It was comin’ back, from the island of Tinian ta Leyte; just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes.
Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer. You know, you know that when you’re in the water, chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. Well, we didn’t know. `Cause our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Huh huh. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.
Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it’s… kinda like `ol squares in battle like a, you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark nearest man and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.
Ya know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin’ chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, bosom’s mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well… he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He’d a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.
So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945.
During the summer of 1938 a New York school teacher spends his three-month break visiting distressed friends in Vienna. He has stopovers in a few European cities along the way. These experiences, augmented by a keen eye and a vivid imagination, inspire him to write a play. The play is not published; it is not produced. And yet, the play’s story would soon go on to inspire, captivate, and enthrall millions of entertainment seekers almost immediately, and well into the future.
Thanks to Netflix, we’ve been already able to watch a fair fraction of the movies acclaimed this year (2012) by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – this, within only a few months after the Academy’s big awards ceremony. So far our reaction has been: Yawn – a big fat Yawn. Yes, there is some evidence of good acting, with occasional clever writing. But really, there is nothing to recommend.
The biggest disappointments are (if it’s not too late to save you considerable time): The totally forgettable “The Descendants”, ”Hugo”,” Midnight in Paris”, “The Bridesmaids” and the almost memorable “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” It’s not unlike what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland: “There isn’t any there, there.” [Disclosure: “The Artist” just became available and is nearing the top of our queue].
This justifies, yet again, why we’ve been turning more of our “couch leisure entertainment time” to European-produced TV shows and movies. There is much more enjoyment, meaning, risk and diversion – both just plain fun and also intellectual diversion.
Take for example one of our favorite actors, Bruno Ganz, from Switzerland. Ganz is an established successful actor, with a long career of dynamic performances in challenging roles. Most Americans barely know him, if at all, since his movies are all filmed in foreign languages: German (various dialects, including Swiss German — Schwiizertüütsch) and Italian. At age 63 he, along with many other actors, took a crazy chance and risked their careers and reputations to make a terrifying movie about despicable people during a horrific time in history.
Hardly anyone doesn’t know about The Downfall (Der Untergang), with Ganz as Adolf Hitler during the final days of the Third Reich. Sadly, our era’s familiarity is mostly accidental. Even comical. There are almost infinite parodies to be found on YouTube and across the internet of the critical scene wherein Hitler reacts to being informed that there are no armies left to defend Berlin. Ganz brilliantly portrayed the man who is maniacally delusional, emotionally unstable and violent. And ultimately, suicidal.
Decades before Ganz, other actors had more personal reasons for making such “statement” movies. Here I’ll touch on two: Conrad Veidt and Laszlo Löwenstein. And we’ll peek at the unpublished and unproduced play that brought them together, while imprinting them both forever on the cinema psyche.
Veidt (pronounced like “fight”) was born in 1893, in Kaiser’s Germany, in Berlin. He became interested in theatre and acting while away on the eastern front in World War I, when he received a letter from his girlfriend saying she had taken up an interest in acting. Veidt became very ill at the front, returned home, and took up acting – originally as a way to contribute to the war effort by performing for troops.
Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser
That relationship quickly dissolved, but soon after the war Veidt’s career took off in the silent movie era. He was bold and brave from the beginning: in 1919 he played an openly homosexual character in Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others)
Veidt ground out a couple dozen movies in the 1920s (including Germany’s first “talkie” in 1929), as he worked through a couple of marriages. In the early ‘30s he finally met the love of his life: Lily Prager, a Jew. He courted and married her. Then came 1933. Hitler rose to the German Chancellorship as Der Führer. Veidt and his new bride fled to England.
He continued making movies, and eventually moved to the US to make movies in Hollywood, where he found himself typecast as a German on account of his accented English. He passed away suddenly of a heart attack, aged only 50 – without knowing that the last major movie he ever appeared in would go on to win the Academy’s Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay.
Laszlo Löwenstein (pronounced like LOO-ven-sh-tine) was born in 1904, in Rózsahegy, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, moving at a young age with his widowed father to Vienna, which he considered his hometown. Born and raised Jewish, he began acting while quite young. His career blossomed: he was frighteningly effective as the first serial murderer ever portrayed in cinema in an early talkie, usually called simply “M”, released in Germany in 1931 (Actual full name: “M – Eine Stadt sucht einem Mörder”: “M – A City Looks for a Murderer”). Löwenstein began to draw a lot of attention.
[one reason I liked the movie is that whistling — one of my favorite little hobbies and skills — plays a key roll in finding the murderer]
In 1933 Löwenstein also fled from Germany, for the same reasons as Veidt and thousands of others, ending up first in London. Here, his talents, creepy looks, success in sinister roles such as in M, and odd accent attracted the attention of producer Alfred Hitchcock. Although this connection got him a few roles, he moved on in the mid-‘30s, thereafter making a successful Hollywood career of second-tier roles, mostly playing sinister villain-type roles.
Peter Lorre as Signor Ugarte
Middle age brought on severe gallbladder problems, and Löwenstein eventually became addicted to morphine, as he struggled to find a balance between pain and awareness. Eventually, complications led to a stroke, and he too died relatively young, aged only 59.
Murray Bennett was a vo-tech (vocational/technical alternative high school) teacher from New York when he took his 1938 summer vacation to travel to Vienna to visit and help Jewish relatives in Vienna. Austria had just been annexed into the Third Reich only a few months before. His experiences in Europe, traveling to and from Vienna, through cosmopolitan and vibrant cities like Paris and Marseilles, led him to write a play based on the sights, sounds and feelings he experienced. He worked with cohort Joan Alison on the script.
A quick synopsis of the three-part play reveals colorful, cynical people living in difficult times; a play about people who get overwelmed by history, and try desperately to balance between doing the best thing for their own self-interest on one hand, and just plain doing the right thing on the other. Its action is centered on a night club — called a café — with a casino and live music. Bennett called the play: “Everybody comes to Rick’s.”
Marquee for Rick’s Café Américain
After a few years of failure trying to sell the script for theatre production, Bennett was eventually able to get a movie company, Warner Brothers, to buy the script for $20,000, almost exactly 70 years ago from this writing (*1st draft 2012*), in early 1942. This was shortly after war had come to the US in the form of the bomber troika at Pearl Harbor: dive bombers, torpedo bombers and high altitude bombers. Warner was eager for a cosmopolitan script in an exotic setting that could be re-crafted into a war theme. A plot with a positive allied-friendly story line.
Recruitment of actors began almost immediately. Filming of the movie, set exotically in Vichy-France-controlled Saharan Morocco, followed very soon thereafter. In fact, the screenplay was not yet complete when filming began. Much of the script was written – or made up – a day or less before shooting. But the plot remained largely the same, which can be re-summarized as:
· Man and beautiful woman with a mysterious past meet, and fall in love;
· Man loses beautiful woman in the tumult of unfolding history that steamrolls their lives, and due to an unexpected arrival from the woman’s past;
· Man grows crusty and cynical, becoming purely self-interest driven and “sticks his neck out for nobody”;
· Beyond all odds, they find each other again;
· Through personal growth, self-discovery and new sensitivities to the world, the man turns out to be not so cynical and selfish after all; … and,
· Man gives up the beautiful woman for the good of mankind;
· An unlikely and “beautiful” friendship begins.
Such a movie could not be complete without villains, and two convincing villains are required for “Rick’s”. One was a slimy parasite, who by nefarious crimes — probably including murder — comes into possession of important valuable documents. When the couriers of the documents turn up dead – and the documents turn up missing – police are instructed to “round up the usual suspects.”
The other convincing villain is a Nazi officer – a refined man of culture and high society; a man who is not concerned so much with the missing documents, but rather with ensuring that Nazi resistance fighters don’t go free. In the end, the heretofore cynical protagonist, Rick, turns heroic. He gives the woman the freedom she needs to help fight oppression – and then shoots the evil Nazi officer, Major Strasser, in cold blood. Police are instructed, once again, to “round up the usual suspects.”
Strasser, deliciously evil, was played exquisitely by Conrad Veidt; his German manner and accent coming into perfect play. The slimy character, Signor Ugarte, was played by Laszlo Löwenstein, had since changed his name to a much more American screen-friendly name: Peter Lorre.
Of course, the hero of the story – the selfish cynic who proclaims throughout the movie “I stick my neck out for nobody” and at the end of the story sticks his neck out for little more than “a hill of beans” in order to make a statement against fascism – is Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart.
For the movie the title was changed to Casablanca, which premiered in November 1942, with its nationwide release delayed until January, 1943. Thus it was withheld for Academy recognition until 1944, whereupon it won Best Picture, with Jack Benny as emcee.
Casablanca is consistently rated among the best 10 motion pictures ever, usually among the top three.
As with many great films, the real heroes of the story were not the characters played by the glamorous actors — Ingrid Berman’s natural beauty, Bogart’s rugged good looks, and Claude Raines’ personality that almost stole the show completely — but rather the actors who played the non-headline roles. Actors who had fled the terror of Nazidom, and through their acting in support roles, were able to make a token strike back at the evil that had pervaded their homeland.
Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund — certainly one of the most beautiful women in the world
Much too late for the would-be playrights Bennet and Alison, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” was eventually produced in 1991, fifty years after its writing, receiving fair-to-poor reviews. It’s just hard to match up with a historic five-star movie.
Remember when movies meant something? Remember when you actually went to the movies? You went “there”? And there was a there, there?
I wonder what generations hence will say about Hollywood’s current millennial films. Probably: YAWN.
 So anxious was Warner to get the movie made, that Casablanca has one of the most blatant and significantly historically inaccurate plot holes in the history of successful films. The supposed missing documents were two “Letters of Transit”, signed by General de Gaulle, that permitted its holders free passage out of Vichy territories like Morocco.
In fact, there were not only no such things as such “Letters of Transit” – especially blank Letters, for that matter, for anyone to use – de Gaulle had no standing with Nazi-friendly Vichy France, having fled France almost immediately after the June, 1940 Armistice. Thereupon he helped found and then lead the Free French Forces, which were quite technically in an open and declared state of war with Vichy at the time.
 Almost exactly coinciding with Casablanca’s premier, the actual city of Casablanca was captured by Allied Forces as a part of Operation Torch, under General Eisenhower. Most French military stationed there put up no resistance and subsequently joined the Allies, fighting with the Free French against Vichy and Nazi Germany.
“There’s no tick-tock on your electric clock,
But still your life runs down”
— Harry Chapin (song: Halfway to Heaven)
The Long Island Expressway is often called by its acronym LIE, and seldom by its assigned number ID: I-495. It is also often called the Long Island Distress-way, a tribute to its notorious snarly traffic jams that can go on for miles and miles and several hours each weekday.
Monday through Friday the expressway turns into a slothful snake, slithering on the cold concrete as it stretches from the Queens Midtown Bridge out east to Suffolk County. Late in the morning and early in the afternoon, the LIE wakes up. The traffic drops below a volume threshold, and — voila! — cars can often zip along at 65mph (105 kmh), sometimes even with a few car lengths between them.
I have a confession to make. During my high school and college years, I didn’t like the contemporary popular music as much as I let on. Sure, I learned the words to many of the more popular songs and was, thereby, able to fit in. I faked it.
The songs that attracted me were more earthy. Songs with words that could be understood; songs with words that told stories; songs where the words were more important than the music. The music was simply the walls upon which murals were painted; murals that told stories of a vast range of “ordinary” people, trying to do their best, survive the world’s vagaries, and just – somehow – get along.
Thirty or forty-five years ago a guy would rather die before admitting that Barry Manilow’s songs about a washed up show girl (Copacabana) or a man who mourns that he is no longer in love (Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again) were his preference. Include Gordon Lightfoot’s saga of a doomed freight ship (Edmund Fitzgerald). Or maybe worse, “chick” songs: Judy Collins singing a ballad about someone who did all the right things in life, except the important things (Send in the Clowns), or acknowledging that everything important we think we know about life might be wrong (Both Sides Now).
At lunch hour the LIE offers an enticing route for mid-day errands. Clients to meet. Lunch with friends. Errands to run. Doctor appointments. In the summer, pick up or drop off kids at camp, make an early get away to – or late return from – the outer beaches. Trucks are out making deliveries and pickups. Noon hour traffic usually zips, but it’s a crap-shoot: sometime it’s a bit tight for 65mph, and – with just one accident, or breakdown, or a little precipitation – it can return to “the Distress-way”, slowing to a sudden and unwelcome complete stop.
Shoot, I even liked some ballads, like Marty Robbins’ cowboy ditty “West Texas town of El Paso” and Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Boxer.” Among the “story teller” singers and songwriters, by far I liked Harry Chapin the most. He wrote and arranged his own songs. His voice was just bad enough that anyone could convince themselves they could sing them. But the stories — the lyrics — captivated me.
Harry Chapin, Album cover: Heads & Tales
By Chapin’s own admission, he was a delusional dreamer. His first songs (he often joked) went something along the lines of “If only everyone could hold hands and hum along to the wonderful songs I am singing, the world would be a wonderful place and we’d have peace and friendship and boundless goodwill.”
Born to a musical and theatrical family, Chapin even made a brief yet successful foray into movie making, writing and directing a documentary for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legendary_Champions]
Harry found his stride in music in his own form of ballad, telling stories of life. His breakthrough song, in 1972, was Taxi, a story about a taxi driver who has lost his life’s dream and purpose — and then, without warning one night, he picks up a fare who turns out to be a former lover needing a ride home. Her life has also not turned out so well. They briefly reminisce. Among his many studies:
Sniper – a confused and frustrated young man seeks notoriety ·
Better Place to Be – a midnight watchman fills his empty life for one night, and then, maybe, for the rest of his life. ·
WOLD – a washed up DJ is still trying to make something of his life and career
Mr Tanner – A dry-clean shop owner with a talent for singing ·
Corey’s Coming – an aged railroad worker still hangs out at the rail yard
What Made America Famous – Hippies living in a communal hovel survive the scare of a life [which he also wrote into a full length musical play,The Night that Made America Famous; it ran a full season at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Manhatten]
Dance Band on the Titanic – title tells it all
30,000 Pounds of Bananas – a young truck driver negotiates the hills of eastern Pennsylvania
Dogtown – Life in the old whaling town of Gloucester, MA ·
Mail Order Annie – Life on the North Dakota Plains
Vacancy – A Motel Keeper’s Life
Six String Orchestra — Harry makes fun of his guitar abilities
Tangled up Puppet — A father’s love for his daughter is clouded by the mystery of transition from young girl to young woman
It was in telling the stories of simple salt-of-the-earth people’s lives that Harry made his mark, but it took a while before he made it really big. Most of his good songs were quite long, six to ten minutes. That makes good concert material, but doesn’t get you on the radio. After a few years, with the help of his wife, Sandy, he finally made it really big.
Sandy had already been in an unhappy marriage and divorced with three children – and nine year Harry’s elder – when they met. [Of course, Chapin adapted their meeting and falling in love to a song: I Want to Learn a Love Song]. When they married, Chapin adopted her children and became the loving father that they never had.
The Chapins’ marriage and coming together as a family began a happy story just as it ended a sad story for Sandy — a sad story she wrote into a poem … and Harry turned into a song. All at once the story describes both the relationship between her first husband and his father, as well as the relationship between her first husband and her children. The song was poignant, touching and of the right length, under four minutes. Harry had his only #1 hit with Cat’s in the Cradle. Now he wasn’t just famous and well off, he had a substantial cash flow.
There is a lot to do to set up a benefit concert. Especially when you have to — okay, maybe when you insist on — doing most of it yourself. Better leave plenty of time, just in case the LIE gets all jugged up. After a few hasty phone calls and a quick check to make sure that the contracts, music and guitars are all packed – oh, and a fast food lunch – it’s time to hit the road. The LIE is remarkably smooth. To heck with that silly 55mph speed limit, 65 is plenty safe. And besides, the oil crises are long over.
Born exactly one year after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, perhaps Harry Foster Chapin was destined to great things. He surely had great visions. Great aspirations. Harry was out to change the world. He received a commission to the Air Force Academy. But he dropped out: the military was certainly not his style. He transferred to Colgate in his home state of New York to study music and theater, through which he — of course — intended to change the world. He soon learned it wasn’t so easy. When his music couldn’t change the world, he figured out another way: he would use the money and notoriety that his musical success provided to change the world.
Among Harry’s many concerns were the inanity and the evil of Hunger. And not just hunger, but hunger on a global scale. Harry founded and funded the WHY (World Hunger Year, which is now called Why Hunger … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Hunger_Year).
The foundational beliefs of WHY are: 1) that the world produces every year more food than we can all possibly eat and, yet, people suffer in hunger around the world, and 2) that most causes for hunger are local, and therefore can be solved locally. But he didn’t just think globally; he also founded the Long Island Food Bank.
Harry was in love with the human race; and wanted to make a huge positive impact.
I saw Chapin in concert only once — at Arkansas State University. I think it was April, 1977. He was alone. Perhaps one of his brothers Tom or Steve came out to do a few songs with him. He had a rather large band and following at that time, and I wondered why he was mostly alone. Well, it turns out that by this time most of the concerts Harry did were benefits, usually supporting a combination of local charities (philharmonics, theaters and food banks were often favorites) as well as his world causes. He was WAY ahead of his time; before FARM-AID and LIVE-AID he was putting together concerts with other save-the-world types like John Denver and Elton John. Turns out he often had a falling out with his band, and they wouldn’t perform with him – sure his causes were great, but they wanted to be paid. Harry didn’t care about the money and couldn’t figure out why they did.
At least two of his songs were views of his own life. One an overview: the appropriately named Shooting Star, in which a man lost in his own visions is given meaning to life by his wife. And another song was a portent: 30,000 lbs of Bananas, in which a young distracted driver must negotiate a potentially deadly situation while driving a truck.
Harry lived fast and hard, always on a mission. He wrote and performed constantly. Even with a large income, he gave so much money away that he had no idea how much money he had. He lived simply, driving a 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, eating quickly and horribly. Nonetheless, he had the ear of President Jimmy Carter, and lobbied congress on the president’s behalf to get support and funding for the Commission on World Hunger.
The LIE is really moving now. Not much farther now. The concert will be just past the next exit; from there to East Meadow, near Levittown, the humble first post-war planned community — the one that set the model for suburban sprawl.
The 1975 Rabbit has moved to the center lane, preparing to exit soon, as it shoots down the expressway, when — suddenly — it slows from 65 mph to 50, then to 40, then to 30. The emergency flashers come on. Cars are whizzing by on both sides.
The driver is trying to make it to the right shoulder. Something is terribly, terribly wrong. Its slows to 20, then 15 mph. Is there a chance to slide into the right lane? No, a car is there and the Rabbit nearly collides with it; the Rabbit’s driver over-reacts, veering to the left. It hits the car to its left. Careening and over-correcting again, it turns to the right, entering the right lane ahead of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer semi-truck, en route to a delivery at a Long Island supermarket.
<updated> Thirty-six years ago this summer, on a glorious, sunny and beautiful Thursday noon hour, July 16, 1981, Harry Chapin made his way down the LIE, as he had so many times before. Heck, New York City was his hometown. Along the way he passed signs and exits (“that he should have seen“) for parks, buildings and humanitarian institutions that would one day bear his name.
He was a man with a big heart and big dreams. He had spent his adult life giving from his heart, sharing his dreams. Now, his big heart had little left in it; on that sunny afternoon Harry Chapin had a massive heart attack right there on the LIE, and at that moment it became, truly, a Distress-way.
His car came to a nearly complete stop, directly in front of a grocery store delivery truck. The truck was unable to stop. In a cataclysmic collision, the truck not only rammed the tiny Rabbit, it ended up on top of Chapin’s VW Rabbit. Ironically, he was under a truck carrying 30,000 pounds of groceries. Miraculously, brave passersby, together with the truck driver, were able to extract him from the car, through the window, just before it erupted into an inferno. To no avail. Harry left his heart and dreams behind and moved on, aged only 38.
When I heard the news that night, where I lived with two friends in a rented house in West Seattle, I got physically sick. This was a punch to the gut. My intestines roiled and their contents emptied out. As was our custom, when someone famous died, we would have an Irish wake – which meant drinking. For me it was a drowning of sorrow. And at that time, I didn’t know the half of it. I just liked Chapin’s music. I had no idea of what a big dreamer and doer he was.
I don’t think I would have liked his politics much. As a dreamer he had the opinion that every problem should be fixed with a big societal toolbox. He was hanging out with Michael Moore before he was famous, helping keep his little protest-print-shop in Flint, Michigan alive. I’m sure Harry would be touring the “Occupy” protests, going from city to city, country to country, putting on free concerts and offering encouragement.
But Harry was way better than that. He didn’t just demand that somebody else, or government, fix problems. He set out to do it himself. He poured himself into his beliefs and humanitarian causes. And THAT I admire.
My lessons from Harry:
Life is short, sometimes tragically short. Get over it.
Get a dream and just do it.
Tell your stories. Share your dreams.
Be in a bit of a hurry.
Enjoy the Music of Life, whatever it sounds like to you.
Make no excuses for whatever inspires you, no matter what others may think.
Pick causes greater than yourself
Listen to your wife
Don’t let this be you:
“Oh, I’ve got something inside me — Not what my life’s about. I’ve been letting my outside tide me Over ’til my time runs out”
(1) this essay’s title “Another Love Story” is derived from the title of Chapin’s Album: Sniper and Other Love Stories.
(2) Long Island Expressway: I don’t know why it is I-495. The rule is that the first digit (“4”) is supposed to indicate a loop or bypass to the nominal route (I-95). Not only is it not a loop, it is a spur and doesn’t even formally connect to the I-95. Those crazy New Yorkers.
(3) Disclosure: “Even though Chapin was driving without a license, his driver’s license having previously been revoked for a long string of traffic violations, his widow Sandy won a $12 million decision in a negligence lawsuit against Super Markets General, the owners of the truck.” — Wikipedia