Saturday, November 3, 2007

Little Eddy #9: Ghosts & Goblins past, plus natural phenomenon

Halloween has come and gone. Wednesday evening children of all shapes and sizes, and dressed in all manner of horrific costumes trundled hither and yon, braving the terrors of the night to collect whatever candy they could muscle out of friends and neighbors. To tell the truth, I don’t think the children of today have a clue as to what Halloween night traditionally meant in my day. Three nights ago the eleven year old boy who lives in my house asked me if when I was a kid whether we went from house to house collecting candy. With a smile I told him, no, that pastime hadn’t been invented yet. I explained that it wasn’t that we lived in caves back then, we lived in houses and apartments just like people these days do.

And as to what we did in lieu of collecting candy, well, what we did was to commit mischief with a capital M. When I was a kid Halloween was the one night in the year when you could be at your worst and get away with it. In our neighborhood we would cast rocks up at a streetlight to try and put it out. We would place a large rock strategically on the street car tracks in hopes of derailing a trolley car at Fairview St. and Mandell St., where the car had to make a turn. (Many times we tried, but only once did we succeed in derailing the car. And afterwards we had the pleasure of watching from a secure hiding place as a truck arrived to lift the car back onto the tracks.) And we would decorate our neighbors’ houses and car windows with soap. And in general we would try and make malicious asses out of ourselves without getting caught on this one night a year, this night of witches and mayhem, this night where we could safely unleash our hostile destructive side.

I don’t remember exactly when that genius came up the idea of diverting children from committing mischief to dressing up in costumes and knocking on doors begging for candy, but it was certainly a master stroke and generation after generation of home dwellers should be eternally grateful to whoever it was that dreamed that up. It has saved homeowners countless amounts of window scrubbing by changing the concept of Halloween night from one of malicious mischief to one of having fun while practicing the harmless age old art of begging.
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One of my early infatuations was with an English professor I had at the University of Houston after I returned after getting out of the army. She was young, a very outgoing person for a college professor, she had associated with a group of performers in the Broadway company of Ethel Merman, and she was missing Broadway and the good and exciting life of the theater. Her name was Edwina Sprague. She had many truisms she introduced to us, but none more important or more true than this one: “All generalities are false, including this one.” Like the old, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” this one leaves you with feeling of knowing everything – and then suddenly realizing you don’t know a damned thing. And yet you cannot argue the phrase’s inherent truth.

I later worked with the lady’s husband who was a radio announcer at KPRC in Houston. It was a station which back then was owned one of Houston’s newspapers. Bill was nervous on air, he could not for the life of him say anything that wasn’t first written out on a sheet of paper. And so when he would read the signoff at 12 midnight every night, which went, “You have been listening to KPRC, the radio service of your morning newspaper, the Houston Post in Houston, Texas. KPRC is owned and operated by the Houston Post publishing company, and operates at an assigned frequency of 690 mghz under license from the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C. This is __________ ____________ wishing you good night and good morning.” Before reading the announcement each night Bill would pencil in his name, Bill Sprague, over the dotted line. Imagine, someone so nervous at being on the air he couldn’t trust himself to say his own name?

This reminds me of my first attempt at public speaking in Mr. Morgan’s English Class at Lamar High School in Houston, Texas. It had been my ambition to be a radio announcer since I was a kid, and so I volunteered for a speaking assignment in the class. I prepared my talk well, or so I thought, but when the time came to deliver, I went up to the front of that classroom and looked at all those faces of my peers, and I froze. Not one word was forthcoming. It was embarrassing as hell, not only to me, but to the whole class and Mr. Morgan, the teacher. Finally after what seemed like at least an hour but was probably no more than a couple of minutes, Mr. Morgan made some lame joke about freezing up in public and excused me. I sat down gratefully. World War II came on during my junior year at Lamar, and the school newspaper suddenly went from being printed to being read over the school’s pa system, and I became one of the gatherers and readers of the school news.

Along about this same period I was an usher at the Tower Theatre and on several Saturday morning Popeye Clubs I played game host, giving an overly excited audience a demonstration of radio sound effects, and then playing a game show type game with them. A far cry from that kid who froze up in English class and couldn’t say a word. I think it had been the formality of the classroom situation which had frozen me.
– • –
You might remember that the late Andy Warhol predicted that each of us will have our own special fifteen minutes of fame. Well, I want you to know he was right. At least he was in my case. I did have my fifteen minutes. It was back in 1965-66 when folk music, or the commercialized version of it, was sweeping the American pop music scene. Groups like the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary were sounding new notes in popular music, and suddenly you didn’t have to have studied music since you were a kid to perform. We were all folk, and a few years of strumming a guitar made us musicians, and with imagination you could write and sing your own songs. After all if Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs could do it, why not you and I?

In 1965 I got a job as managing editor of Sing Out! The Folksong Magazine. We burst forth on newstands around the country, with mostly songs and articles about traditional folk musicians, not the slicked up night club and record selling bunch. Our little magazine was pocket sized and we published topical and protest songs as well as traditional folk songs and many a college student or other young person would fly with guitar in hand and Sing Out! in his or her back pocket to protest demonstrations all across this far flung land of ours. That is until the Nixon administration began encouraging the airlines to ban or restrict the hand carrying of guitars on planes in an attempt to cut back on the amount of protest.

My 15 minutes came during the period now known as the Great Folksong Revival when as managing editor of Sing Out! (the managing editor does the work, the editor expounds and makes policy) the music reporters for both Time and Newsweek would come around weekly to try and pick our brains to find out to what the next trend in music was going to be. Not that we knew a damn bit more than they did, but they didn’t know that, here we were, so-called “experts” in this burgeoning field that for no good reason was suddenly exploding with popular hits. I remember being taken to a fancy lunch one day by a well known psychiatrist and amateur song writer who wanted to try out his songs on me, and wanted advice as to what he should do with them. It is very hard to predict what will or will not work in music, but for all the man’s expertise in the vagaries of the human mind, his songs just didn’t seem to me to have that certain quality they would need to flower as music. However, how to say that? You can’t disparage your gift lunch to his face, at least not before he pays the check, so diplomatically I suggested that he send his songs to a singer he admires to see how he or she responds.

Of course the carousel of popular music kept right on turning and the acoustic folk music of Bob Dylan, the Kingstons and P.P.M. morphed into the electric sounds of the Byrds, the Doors, and the Band, and then the British rock revolution migrated to the United States led by The Beatles, and following them the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, et. al. And in the uncertainties and uproar of an ever changing musical terrain Sing Out! editor Irwin Silber and I got overthrown in an honest to god coup, and the editorial reins of the magazine were taken over by a pair who put out one issue in four months, before they too lost control of the reins. I put out my final two issues of Sing Out! commuting two days a week to our printer’s office in Brooklyn, N.Y from Patterson, N. Y. where we had moved. I later spent a several years in Brooklyn working for that printing company both selling school yearbooks and literary magazines and working on their preparation for publication.
– • –
As you know if you’ve read this blog before, it began with the idea of my writing down some of my experiences for my two grandsons to read and to perhaps thereby give them a sense of the continuity of life. However writing a blog, like the world outside of the blog, offers way too many temptations. And so I have ranted endlessly about the not so mighty shrub, about the R.I.A.A. in it’s endless wars against people who love music, and a host of other topics I felt were pertinent to the moment or might be of interest. However, in today’s edition, I plan to try and stay away from those temptations and mine my memories of yesteryear. Good luck to me.
– • –
One of my most useless accomplishments was to have field-stripped the 50 caliber machine guns from the Sperry Ball turret of a B-24 bomber while the plane was in flight. One of our gunnery instructors back at the Harlingen Army Air Corps Base had told us that while it was not impossible to field strip the guns while airborne, it was extremely difficult and nearly impossible. Field stripping was exactly what it sounds like. You took apart the machine guns to clean the barrel and other detachable parts and soak them in a solution of oil so as to prevent rust and deterioration. Having to field strip our weap0ns after a flight added an extra forty minutes to our after flight chores.

One night, many months later, when returning to from a training mission in the evening I decided to test that instructor’s theory and field-strip the weapons in the turret so that when we landed all I would have to do would be toss the parts in the oil and take off. In the Sperry Ball turret you were in really cramped quarters . It took all the ingenuity and patience I possessed to be able to take those guns apart in that highly restricted area. And it also took a fair amount of time, but somehow I managed to do it. But there was one problem. I had to have the barrels removed from the guns by someone outside of the turret before I could park and exit the turret. And I had made no arrangements for anyone to be there for me. I was desperate, I didn’t want to have to give up at this stage of the game, and so I knocked repeatedly on the turret’s window. Our Navigator happened to be making his way back into the waist of the airplane when he noticed my panicked knocking on the turret window, and being very bright after a moment he figured out what I wanted, and proceeded to lift the barrels out, one barrel at a time.

I exited the turret, gathered up my barrels and prepared for the landing. I had done it. Done what few if anyone else had been able to do. I had saved maybe forty minutes of my post flight time. But so what? I was as exhausted as if I had done an extra day’s work. And where was I going to go with all of that extra time I saved? To the PX? (Post Exchange, our army general store) Anyway, for whatever it was worth, and believe me it was worth little or nothing, I had done it. Done what no Sperry Ball Turret gunner had done before.
– • –
There are natural phenomonon to be seen and experienced in this life, and I have been lucky enough to have experienced several of them. As for the human experience, I was able to witness and photograph the births of both of my sons. My oldest son, Daniel Martin, was born in Houston on September 9th, 1964. In preparation for the event I accompanied my wife to Lamaze classes and was present at his birth. Since I was going to be in the room for the birth I was told to scrub up and put on an appr0priate gown. While I was conscientiously going through my scrubbing routine a doctor came in, eyed me strangely, and asked me in a most sarcastic tone, “are you assisting in a birth this morning?” As meekly as I could I explained that I had helped prepare my wife for the birth and we had arranged for me to be on hand for the occasion. The doctor sneered, but since it wasn’t his patient he couldn’t so anything but act outraged. This was my wife’s first child and she ended up having it induced, and when the time finally came, I was not in position to see our son actually come out. But I saw him moments later, and he was a large and robust baby and weighed in at 8 pounds, 12 ounces. My first photographs of him were when he was in the incubator.

Our second child, Joel Alan, was born at Flower and Fifth Ave. Hospital in N.Y.C. while I was the editor of Sing Out! and we were living in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Joel was a blizzard baby. Anne got the telltale signs the morning a huge blizzard was rolling in. We didn’t know a soul in the building, which was a three family house, and everybody but us spoke Italian. I took Daniel who was two and a half, upstairs and left him with the couple up there explaining our second baby was on the way and we had to leave for the hospital. We crossed the George Washington bridge in our VW Camper just a half hour before the bridge would be closed to bus traffic like ours. We made it to the hospital at nine a.m. and I checked Anne in while she was rushed to the delivery room. Joel emerged at nine twenty five sharp. This time I had free rein to be anywhere I wanted in the room to take pictures of the birth.

I left Anne at about eleven thirty a.m. to return to Ft. Lee and liberate Daniel from the strangers we had been forced to leave him with. Since the George Washington Bridge was closed I had to go under the Hudson River by way of the 34th St. tunnel, and then I tried making my way north to Ft. Lee. The blizzard had dumped fifteen inches of snow, and everywhere I turned, the Golden State Parkway and other highways north were were closed, blocked by stalled trucks. At four o’clock I stopped and had my first food of the day. I ended up having to drive north through the string of cities and villages that line the west side of the Hudson River. There were groups of teenagers out on that night, and when a vehicle like mine would get stuck they would converge around it and push it to freedom. It was a shockingly friendly thing for them to do, and they saved me a couple times on that trip. We had left Fort Lee a little before eight that morning. I got home that night at around ten thirty. I believe it was the longest day I ever experienced. Daniel was glad to see me when I finally arrived to pick him up. The lady upstairs who had been drafted to take care of him was equally glad.

A footnote: Daniel had not said a word during the two and a half years preceding Joel’s birth. Anne’s mother Marty Bowman came up to visit us and help Anne take care of Joel, and Daniel said his first words to his grandmother. And it was an entire sentence, according to Marty, with a subject, a predicate, and a verb. Evidently he had been saving up, and there’s nothing like a little competition to bring out your best.

I noticed a remarkable thing having been present at the births of both of my sons. Each child came out with a distinct personality. A personality which later grew and got fleshed out over time, but basically did not change from the very beginning. Daniel was the entertainer, the showman, the class clown. Joel was more studious, and was the cautious one. For instance every time we got into an automobile, Joel would carefully lock each person’s door.
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In looking back on things, I was lucky to have had a chance to experience two natural phenomenon which I had read about but being from Texas and the deep south, had never had a chance to see while growing up. One of these was the northern lights. The idea of the northern lights intrigued me, and I got to see them several times on camping trips in Maine. The most vivid recollection I have was of one night, a clear cool night, when I was listening to short wave radio on a tiny Sony device, while watching a display of shimmering white light in the northern sky.

The two phenomenon, radio signals from across the globe plus the activity of the sun’s radiation entering our atmosphere made for a lasting impression. And on the shortwave radio came a tale of a bear ripping open the tent of a camper somewhere in the West, and taking a bite out of a young man’s buttocks. Rather a disconcerting thought when you are camped out in the middle of nowhere, northern lights or not. In the small world department, talking with a group of parents at the end of that summer it turned out that the young man in that news account was the nephew of two of our parents, and the boy had been tented with a girl, which the parents didn’t know about. The boy was sore and couldn’t sit down comfortably for awhile, but they assured me he would be okay in the long run.

However the northern lights are not the Aurora Borealis. The northern lights are white, at least the ones I have seen were. The Aurora bears the colors of Christmas, shimmering red and green lights, lashing all over the sky. I never saw these lights in far northern Maine, but I saw them on several occasions when staying after camp at Pete Seeger’s house near Beacon, N.Y. Every time I saw it the display was impressive. It seemed to arc over the entire heavens, at least as far as my eyes could see, and there seemed to be a barely audible crackling sound accompanying the display.

In Mark Twain’s book “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,” the book’s hero Hank Morgan wakes up after a severe head blow, to find himself transported back to England in AD 598, in King Arthur’s Court. Morgan, who had read of the total eclipse back in the 19th Century Conneticut from which he had come, saved his life after being sentenced to death, by predicting the eclipse of the sun just before it happened.

Although I had witnessed several eclipses of the moon I had never heard of an eclipse of the sun before reading that book. But during my first year working as a counselor at Blueberry Cove Camp in Tenants Harbor, Maine, a total eclipse of the sun was scheduled to happen later that summer. Intrigued by the account in the Twain story, and since Tenants Harbor was not in the line of totality, I approached the camp director, Henry Haskell, about the possibility of getting a day off on the day of the eclipse. I had a darkroom in camp for developing pictures, as well as a banjo to lead the camp in singing, and Henry Haskell, the camp director, made a deal with me. If I would develop exposed film which the children in camp could use to safely look at the sun, he would give me a day off on the day of the eclipse. I took on the job with relish and developed enough fully exposed negatives so that every camper could view the eclipse.

The line of totality was a ways up north, near Bangor Maine. On the day of the eclipse we drove to Bangor, but it quickly clouded over there. And so we began began racing to the east, hoping to outrun the clouds which seemed to also be coming from the west and racing east. We ended up on a beach near the ocean. There was a scattering of people, some of whom were there for the same reason we were, to experience the eclipse. There were several telescopes around, and a smattering of people with binoculars. There was a beach house near us, which had a loud television set playing cartoons. The air on the beach was still. Suddenly the sun began darkening and the birds began singing eerie songs, and crickets began singing their symphony. Both species had internal clocks that knew full well that night should not be happening at four in the afternoon. It got darker. The television set clattered on. I thought to myself, there’s a once in a lifetime natural phenomenon going on out here, and those children are inside watching cartoons they’ve probably seen time and time again.

Just then shadows of the moon’s mountains raced across the ground, and when they reached us the sun went out. You could look at it with your naked eye. A bright corona shone from the black disc that was blocking the sun. Totality lasted for 56 seconds. I was able to take four photographs during that time. In each one the corona was spectacularly different. Then the moon’s mountains raced the other way as the sun rapidly moved from behind its obstacle and began to light up mother earth again. And the birds and the crickets ended their neurotic songs and things slowly but surely came back to normal.
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Real success, like riches and fame, has been largely absent in this life of mine, which is why instead of writing and publishing an autobiography, I write a blog. Anybody can write a blog, and Google (or various other blogging entities) will publish you. And you get paid exactly what your musings are worth – nothing. But thanks probably to search engines, one or two readers may happen onto your page. If your musings are worth exactly nothing, why do it you might well ask? I do it for fun and the challenge, for the opportunity to discuss things I think are worth talking about, but which I could never do in a so-called “legitimate” forum.

It is also a forum in which I can hone my writing skills (such as they might be) as well as the saber of my humor, dull though that might be. And last but certainly not least it is a chance to rail against the absurdities of the current administration in Washington, which some of us blame for this nation being lied to and frightened into voting for it in 2004 after getting itself put in power in the year 2000 by Supreme Court fiat. That current merry band of marauders decorating our whitest of houses has since done more to whittle away the liberties our country was founded upon than any other administration in recent history. It is one that has managed to achieve the unthinkable, making the Richard Nixon’ presidency seem as squeaky clean as that of a Sunday School teacher. It would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

Not that we can do anything about it squawking in our hardly read blogs. As one respondent pointed out in the Cafferty Report on the CNN’s Situation Room, it’s time for Americans to once again get out the pitchforks and flaming torches (a la the mob scenes in the movie Frankenstein). Another wise ass pointed out that those very pitchforks would undoubtedly have been made in China, probably with a high lead content. Well, at least the fire could be 100% American.

You might also have noticed that from time to time I mention one or another of Uncle Pan’s erotic writings, which, wink, wink, I might even give you a link to in case you wish you might wish to experience it for yourself. How nice of me to keep you so well informed. Just know that on Wednesday, Oct. 31, Uncle Pan has posted one new story, Uncle Mort’s Excellent Adventure, and two previously published stories, Carrie’s Quest for Knowledge, and Peter’s peter Tale, to his storiesonline page at: http://storiesonline.net/auth/Uncle_Pan

I would have you know that in writing erotic fiction Uncle Pan is following in the lofty footsteps of none other than the afore mentioned Mark Twain, whom many consider the father of true American writing (other published writers of his day wrote in the fashion of European, primarily English writers whereas Twain captured the flavor and speech of the America in which he lived.) For among many other pieces of writing and essays, Samuel Langhorne Clemens had written what was very possibly the first bit of American erotica. Here is a mention of it, from the Wikipedia page on Twain. “[Date: 1601.] Conversation, as it was the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors”, or simply 1601 is the title of a humorous risque work by Mark Twain, first published anonymously in 1880, and finally acknowledged by the author in 1906.

“Written as an extract from the diary of one of Queen Elizabeth's servants, 1601 was, according to Edward Wagenknecht, "the most famous piece of pornography in American literature." It was more ribaldry than pornography, however; its content was more in the nature of irreverent and vulgar comedic shock than of "obscene" erotica. Nevertheless, in the United States, prior to the court decisions (1959-1966) that legalized the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill, the book continued to be considered unprintable, and circulated clandestinely in privately printed, limited editions. Its characterization as "pornography" was satirized by Franklin J. Meine in the introduction to the 1939 edition.”

In case you’re interested several editions of “1601” are available on Amazon.com for upwards of a hundred dollars, even though there are other editions available for under seventeen dollars. Online versions of 1601 are also available at 2 locations: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3190 and at: http://mark-twain.classic-literature.co.uk/1601/ Happy reading.

The Real Little Eddy

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