Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Time to Say Goodbye

I've noticed some blogs, either after
a few posts or many over several
years, just end.  You wonder what
happened -- something drastic, or
just a loss of interest, or something
mundane like moving.  Probably
people just get busy with other

When I started "Just Sayin' " I had a
lot of things in mind to explore, explain
or look into.  Into the process a hundred
other things popped up, like finding
that story in an old book that I researched
and developed into "Love Among the Coconuts."  I never would have found out about that
forgotten tale without a blog to write. 

I taught exactly one course, once at a technical school, and found that it's true you learn more
as a teacher than as a student.  Whatever you have found here, and I hope you enjoyed it, I
found so much more digging, researching, and even looking for fun illustrations.

But there's so much noise out there I don't need to add to it any more.  So, as a wiser man
once said, good night and good luck.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Beyond Zip Codes

Ballestas Islands, Paracas
Watch your step!

You'll notice in the little "About Me" box to the left that my location is "U.S. Minor Outlying Islands."  I thought that was a pretty accurate description of our obscure little river town.  Oh, but a story is behind that geographical designation.  You would expect nothing less.

Would you believe -- as Maxwell Smart used to say -- that the United States owns an island, included in that group of Outlying ones, just off the coast of Haiti?  And why would we?  The answer has to do with the intersection of the law with that white goop deposited by generations of birds, like you see above.

That goop is called guano, and it was a sought-after source of saltpeter for gunpowder and as agricultural fertilizer for quite a while, even while the first artificial fertilizers were available.  Before both of those, the techniques to improve food and fiber production included cover crops, rotation, and manure and mineral application.  The explorer Humboldt recommended the use of guano, and the race to exploit it was on.

An American sea captain claimed the island off Haiti, Navassa, in 1857 under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which stated that could be done legally if said guano-encrusted island were (a) administered by no other government, and (b) uninhabited.  You can readily see why such islands tended to be uninhabited.  The bonus was that the U.S. military would protect the claim, because we needed the stuff.  The Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore ended up with the rights and proceeded to set up mining operations.  Barracks were built for 140 very unlucky laborers from Maryland, and since there was no harbor and mostly steep cliff faces at the island's edge, the product was lowered in sacks to waiting boats for export.

Navassa Island

It was really hot and smelly, and the supervisors must have been pretty short-tempered, so the inevitable happened in 1889 when a rebellion broke out, resulting in the deaths of five.  The miners were hauled off to trial in Baltimore, and the operation tapered off, finally ending with an evacuation in 1898 when the Spanish-American war began.  I assume the birds went back to rebuilding the guano supply.

Navassa then had a strategic importance after the opening of the Panama Canal, and a lighthouse was built in 1917 to guide the increased shipping.  A keeper and two assistants lived there for the next 12 years until the light was automated.  Probably a better job than the miners had, but it must have been dull on those two square miles:  there are only goats and lizards around, besides the busy birds, and only four species of trees to look at.   The Navy staffed an observation post on the island during World War II, but after that nature took over again and today it is a National Wildlife Refuge, with the only human activity being the Haitian fishermen who ply the waters.
It's gone now, but the lighthouse was impressive

Despite over 100 islands being claimed over time under that Guano Act, only ten remain U.S. possessions.  One other (French Frigate Shoals -- sounds like a resort) has been incorporated into the state of Hawaii, and two in the Caribbean are disputed by countries they're close to (Bajo Nuevo Bank and Seranilla Bank).  Swains Island became part of the territory of American Samoa; the rest just bake in the sun, their guano piles undisturbed by commerce or geopolitics.

Investigators follow the money.  Sometimes in history you just follow the poop.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Checking Into Hotel California

Two articles from California caught my attention today.  One was about the four-year drought crisis, about which not much in the way of solutions has been implemented yet, and a solution so successful it almost obscures the fact that the only problem solved was making one couple insanely rich.

My own, and probably your, experience of working with people in groups at even the lowest levels like PTAs, HOAs, and staff meetings is that getting a problem to be recognized and solved expeditiously and efficiently seems impossible.  Imagine now how all the many governmental, citizen and business bodies would have to work together to take on the drought situation in that populous state which provides an inordinate amount of the nation's food (and wine!).  Their interests, given human nature, will always collide -- even though they're all in the same boat -- and powerful individuals' interests in each group far outweigh those of the general population.

Conservation is necessary, but most want the other guy to do the conserving.  And in areas like San Diego, there's not enough rainfall or groundwater even to start with, much less conserve.  Any slightly increased costs due to conservation or alternative solutions to the usual draining the rivers and reservoirs can cause backlash.  Up the coast, Santa Barbara County built a desalinization plant in response to a similar drought period in the 1980s, but promptly closed it when rains and snowmelt refilled the reservoir; that water is of course less expensive (the infrastructure and energy inputs to turn sea water into drinking water are very large).  San Diego will open their new plant in 2016 and the closed one is being looked at for reuse now, but it's four years into the current drought, remaining conventional supply is low, and the plants will only provide drinking water to some homes in those two cities.  And California uses 80% of its water for agriculture; that's a different animal than potable water for personal comsumption.

Are California's radical right-wing Congressmen, mostly from either the agricultural heartland owned by millionaires and corporations or from wealthy areas such as Orange County, working on this devastating problem?  No, you know from their public fulminations that they're fixated on Mrs. Clinton's e-mails and spending years investigating the Benghazi attack, all the while forgetting that G.W. Bush and R. Cheney slipped their e-mails through private accounts, and that they had cut $500 million from embassy security earlier in their ongoing efforts to gut the government.  But even overlooking their amusingly simple-minded hypocrisy, they really should be paying attention to the state of their state.

Now, contrast this lack of focus and organization to the empire of Rick Warren, leader of the Saddleback Church in Orange County.  He and his wife will be celebrating the 35-year anniversary of that empire's creation with 50,000 attendees at Angel Stadium right about now.  They developed a long-range plan for their own brand of church after graduating divinity school in Texas, seeing an excellent model in Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, because they wanted no parts of the usual first assignment to some poor, rural church circuit by their Baptist denomination.  While in Orange County to study Schuller's organization, they carefully studied the local demographics -- wealthy yuppies who had lost interest in conventional religion -- and picked their sweet spot, where the 405 and 5 freeways merge.

After beginning with a group meeting in their condo and then twelve years of holding services in two high schools, and never giving up on their plan while polishing that charisma and sincerity, the Warrens have ended up with 27,000 followers in ten Southern California campuses along with 7500 more faithful meeting in homes.  Even a solid plan without the talent is not enough, of course; Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life shows he surely knows what people want to hear, in that it is the top nonfiction hardback with 40 million copies sold, second in translations only to the Bible.

Warren, Inc.'s success, assets, fame and wealth are a result of their solving a marketing problem for Protestant Christian religion.  That's all.  Sure, they have people do good deeds, but that's to weave a mantle of good publicity which is created by the labor of volunteers, so it is cheap and keeps the nonprofit status unassailable.

So out on the west coast we have one serious problem with nationwide impact and in desperate need of solutions on one hand, and a small problem of no real consequence, on the other, solved neatly and successfully.  A funny thing about human society is that one person, or family, driven by purpose or greed (or both), can move mountains, but the talents of many people together usually can't even get to the mountain.  As someone noted recently, the former USSR and Sam Walton's WalMart are both centrally planned command economies, but one got results and the other did not (but the workers, peasants and middle class lose either way).  We rightly fear dictators, CEOs and kings.  It's just that  putting all the king's men in charge doesn't inspire much confidence either.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Going Over the Wall

We were talking about other places to escape to, since a whole lot of us have been in the grip of cabin fever.  There's another aspect to consider, a more drastic one:  finding a place that would just be better all around. 

In addition to the television shows about house hunting (we happened to be in the restaurant where the couple was discussing their final choice in their move to this area; no one noticed the taping because there were no lights and only a tiny handheld camera -- and we were too far away to eavesdrop), there are more specialized ones about relocating abroad, finding beachfront or island second/retirement homes and extreme places to live .  It's television, of course, so you may find out a little but not nearly enough to base making any decisions on.  Your situation will be different, i.e., probably unlike those young couples who are looking at $400,000  homes in high cost-of-living areas on incomes no greater than your own, and with young children to support too.  That just puzzles me -- how in the world does that work?

You have to be honest with yourself, not dreamy, and if you use some of the many free research tools available you'll find there are many other sides to any other place's story.  For example, I looked at the forum discussions about some nearby locales on www.city-data.com, and even when residents responded to inquiries from other states, big issues sometimes don't even come up.  Those who were interested in Palmyra (east of Hershey) should really have been warned that parts of the town continue to be gobbled up by larger and more frequent sinkholes.  That charming Victorian is selling for such a good price for a reason.

Weather and climate change really needs to be looked into, although it is already one of the main factors driving a completely voluntary relocation decision.  Check out www.noaa.gov for local flood zone maps and an interactive feature which shows, down to zip code level, what sea level rise will mean when you dial in any amount (try 1' - 3' for Florida, Louisiana, or the Carolinas' coast).  You can easily find earthquake fault lines and hurricane tracks, but a serious one you won't find is the deadly pollution that spreads from the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  The cancer and neurological disease rates in riverine places like Memphis are scary.

Crime rates and tax rates are of interest too, and are easy to find.  Lovely Beaufort, SC, an old low country town surrounded with rivers and bays with all the charm, Southern cuisine and easy life that's like a siren's call to retirees, has an astonishing amount of crime, both property and violent.  Low tax states are sometimes very lacking in the area of health (like Kentucky and Mississippi).  And states famous for no income tax (Texas, Washington and Florida) more than make up for it in high property taxes, fees, and sales taxes (like Tennessee, California and New York).  Those are of much more concern to most retirees than state income taxes -- although no state tax on retirement income is of prime importance. 

I was surprised to find the retirement haven Florida is actually one of the higher cost-of-living states, and also found out while doing my part with the disposition of our parents' home and estate there that like California, homeowners and auto insurance was much higher than ours, by 300%.  You should know there are a lot of uninsured drivers there, which is why.  And I saw a sign (just one little one)  near the bay, which warned that a potential storm surge could reach up to 12'.  Yikes.

There are articles and books in print and online recommending the "best small towns" and "best places to retire," but the criteria used has to be considered before the sunny pictures and seductive descriptions take you in.  I've  noticed writers in the greater New York area don't seem to think high cost of living is important, and blithely recommend places where homes start at $300,000.  Those lists always include places that are in deep freeze for more than half the year, also.  I can do that, for a whole lot less and even for a shorter winter, right here.  That said, one list seemed more thoughfully considered than most, ranking states from 1 to 10, considering all of health, COL, taxes, and social factors:

1. SD, 2. CO, 3. UT, 4. ND, 5. WY, 6. NE, 7. MT, 8. ID*, 9. IA, 10. VA      *lowest crime

North and South Dakota -- really?  But the surveys told the author that the job market, economy, health services, social stability and general happiness there put them in the top ten.  (Also something to consider:  the ten states with the worst quality of life are all controlled by Republicans.)  I knew someone who had lived in Minot, ND, on the Canadian border.  He said there was absolutely nothing to do and one could not even imagine how cold and dark it was.  But Colorado, Virginia and Iowa look like good candidates, I think (disclaimer:  have only been to one of those three).

You can also look at www.findyourspot.com, which requires you to fill in a survey and matches you with your ideal state or locale date.

Love, and other things are...where you find it.

COLI Publication Image
Cost of living by county


Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Unless you live at the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer or thereabouts, February -- the shortest but the longest month -- will try your patience to the end.  And for those who have to park their cars outside and yet must get going early in the morning after a day and night of frost, ice, sleet or snow:  if you haven't gone postal by now you should get a medal.


Thoughts (and you have a lot of time for those, and they're mostly dark ones) turn first to a vacation getaway and finally in the hour of desperation, to moving somewhere that never sees single digits on the thermometer.  I don't know about winter vacations anymore; granted, some friends have successfully managed to make their cruise ship departure or connecting flight, but hundreds of thousands have been stranded and frustrated the past several winters.  And remember, weather-related problems are yours, not the airlines'.  I know we've already lost a day or two on trips that way, losing hundreds of dollars already paid for the destination lodging while paying $5 for a tiny tube of toothpaste at the airport convenience shop.

So I watch marathons of tropical island shows on television as a pathetic alternative.  One the other day featured a frozen Canadian couple from Edmonton scouting out then buying a home on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.  Being a television production, of course everything looked fabulous and you could almost feel the caress of warm breezes.  And they have you with the first shot of those gentle water vistas, in more shades of blue than you can name.

Sobering up, you do some research to see if such a move really would be possible, with a lot of due diligence and some rum-fueled courage.  Before our friend the Internet, there were any number of books on retirement or escape destinations; I still have two old ones about moving/retiring to the Caribbean.  They're all written by (1) travel writers who sell the shine and sizzle, or (2) real estate people who are just drumming up business.  These days you can find hundreds on-line writers who fall into these categories, plus the many investment/financial folks.  Their perspective is based on  making their own livings, not securing a worry-free major life decision for you.

So we investigate St. Lucia, which has natural beauty from beaches to mountains, is not arid, and is below the hurricane belt.  I started island searches years ago by first looking up over 100 years' history of hurricane tracks online, which is where you'll find the most popular islands all located (the triumph, as they say, of hope over experience).  So, for beauty and safety from monster storms, score two for this island.   After you look into the rest of reality there, all you can say is, those poor Canadians from Edmonton.  Despite the pictures, books, online travel essays and real-estate porn, the island is more like Newark than paradise.  The beach vendors are everywhere, all day and night, and they're aggressive.  To the cab drivers, you're just another sucker.  Robberies at knifepoint are a regular thing, and the word is they're not shy about using that knife, either.  The police are all related to the locals, so whose side do you think they're on?  You can figure that the cost of everything is crazy (yes, the toothpaste is $5), since unless it's bananas, it's all imported (there is very little property tax in the whole area, but that is offset by high VAT and all sorts of duties).  And even in Bermuda, one of the few wealthy islands, half of what arrives on the dock is stolen.

It can be done: Tiffany moved to Maui!

I guess (sigh) that you can have this or you can have that, but you can't have it all in one place.  We have local government that works, police that look out for us, and an average cost of living.  They even have palm trees at two of the riverside restaurants (yes, real ones).  And it topped 50 degrees as of yesterday while the sun made a reappearance, doing a beatdown on the snow piles.

So, never mind.  But next February, I don't think any of us can promise we won't be thinking escape!      

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Cinderella Garden

The sinister reputation became widespread when the mutilated corpses of dogs were found at the edge of the garden in 1976.  Forgotten and progressively in ruins since it was given to the city in 1946, the crumbling statues and walls were being covered in dark graffiti, the authentic Roman columns reflected not light, but gloom; the sphinxes beheld it all in their silence.  The next year, when David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam, was captured, he claimed to have participated in Satanic rituals there.  Anyone who visited after this went with no good intentions.

8106840336_c7ea983d3e_z (1)

But the garden park in Yonkers, New York had been built back in 1912 with all the skill, vision and funding that could be desired.  Former Virginian and lawyer Samuel Untermyer had moved to the city after the Civil War, had prospered as an investor as well as with the law, and built his Greystone mansion on 150 acres with a stunning view of the Hudson River and the Palisades at the turn of the 20th century.  When completed, the extensive gardens (Untermyer's architect was instructed to design "the finest garden in the world") employed 50 to 60 gardeners and trained many apprentices.  The proud owner opened it free to the public on Tuesdays during the 1920s and 1930s, but by the 1970s the locals had forgotten about it all.

Untermyer was something of a Renaissance man, with wide interests beyond becoming successful in society.  In addition to being a knowledgeable horticulturist, he was active in efforts to regulate the stock exchange and establish the Federal Reserve, led a boycott of Nazi Germany and strongly supported and aided women's suffrage.  His garden featured a Greek amphitheater where Isadora Duncan once danced and soaring classical pavilions, but its claim to fame, and the part that survives today in the 43 acres left, is the walled Indo-Persian garden.  It has been called a "paradise" by many visitors and writers and is the best of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Or it is once again.  Just a few years ago a visitor was inspired by the garden's history and its remaining classical pieces and spurred the founding of the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy.  After much labor, design work and fund raising (as it always it with such projects), it is now open once again, daily and without admission charge. 

Samuel Untermyer passed away in 1940, his fortune depleted, and his mansion was razed.  But if anyone's spirit is still around, you can hope his is, strolling the garden at dusk and quietly enjoying the view to the far side of the Hudson.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

One Song

The first sentence of my first post here was:  "Clyph put me up to this."  Filling Blogspot with drivel, that is.  Well, he did it again:  sent me a link to a YouTube video of Jeff Beck playing an old instrumental hit, "Sleep Walk," which piqued my curiosity.

Not too many people fail to be amazed by anything Mr. Beck has done, but I couldn't believe he could make his Stratocaster sound just like a steel guitar, which was the instrument used in the song,  a number one hit for two weeks in September 1959 by Santo and Johnny.  It sounded familiar, but I had not known its title.  Never having heard of those two, I thought it was a one-hit wonder, but there's a lot more to the story.

Would two Italian boys from Brooklyn, Santo and Johnny Farina, have ever thought they'd someday be inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame?  The road to there began much earlier during World War II when their father was stationed in Oklahoma and heard steel guitar on the radio.  He thought his boys back home should learn to play that when he returned.  And so it was.  He found them a teacher who knew Hawaiian music, and they started playing local gigs first with a modified guitar, then a real Gibson 6-string lap steel.  Making $15 a show, Santo eventually could afford a stunning 1956 Fender Stringmaster steel guitar mounted on legs.  It had three necks, with eight strings each.  Leo Fender was a big country music fan, and made his instruments for those artists in the early days.

They came up with an early version of "Sleep Walk," originally titled "Deep Sleep"; it was inspired by the 1928 tune "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise," and the chord changes are similar.  The brothers shopped it around New York for a year and a half before getting it recorded at Trinity Records.  Another label heard it and bought the rights; Canadian-American released it in June 1959 and after their appearance on Dick Clark's "Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show," it became a hit.  They appeared on all the television and radio shows and toured worldwide afterward.  A second song charted, but further Top 40 success at home eluded them, as is often the case.

And is also often the case, they found, like Jimmy Hendrix, James Taylor and David Hasselhoff, a great reception overseas.  They did the James Bond cover albums, and their "Godfather" movie theme was number one in Italy, for their second gold record.  The Farinas' 1964 Beatles cover, "And I Love Her," was number one in Mexico for 21 weeks.  The Beatles hadn't been released there yet, and the locals thought that the Beatles had covered them

And "Sleep Walk" never fell into obscurity.  In 1999, it received a BMI award for 2 million radio airplays.  The list of those who have covered it would go on for a page.  Brian Seltzer's won a Grammy 40 years after the original came out.  Many people remember how it played at the sad end of the movie "La Bamba," and it was used in five other movies.

The first cover was, oddly, issued by their own label right after the Dick Clark show.  Canadian-American recruited Richmond, Virginia big-band singer Bette Anne Steele (ironic, no?) to sing lyrics to go with "Sleep Walk" written by one Don Wolf, renaming her Betsy Brye.  Unfortunately, it didn't chart, although Bette/Betsy, now in her eighties, still performs with jazz groups back in her hometown occasionally.  It is known for its use in the move "The Conjuring," which finally brought her some fame.

The story of this song goes deeper.  Inspired by that 1928 song, it in turn inspired Peter Green's "Albatross," one of the most-loved instrumentals of the rock era.  That, in turn, inspired John Lennon's "Sun King" on the "Abbey Road" album.  He and George Harrison were big fans of Santo and Johnny's tune, and they returned the love.  That two and half minutes of steel-guitar bliss was no one-hit wonder -- just a wonder, period.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ghost Restaurant

The doors closed at 7373 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles in the late summer of 1961, and on the glass there was a sign posted that read:  "Closed for vacation.  Be back August 23d."  But that date came and went.  The place settings remained on the tables and a pot of the Original Spanish Kitchen's famous enchilada sauce was still on the heavy commercial stove. 

The Kitchen had been popular since its opening in 1932; many stars including Bob Hope, John Barrymore and Mary Pickford dropped by regularly.  Founder John Caretto not only served food that people came back for; they enjoyed his warmth and humanity even more.  So he and his restaurant were missed in the waning months of 1961, in a sprawling city with many hundreds of other places, some much more famous and certainly more tony.

With no explanation from John's widow and co-owner Pearl forthcoming, the mystery grew and so did the rumors, especially after an article appeared in the L.A. Times.  A story on TV's Lou Grant Show was based on the closed and untouched restaurant, which added an angle involving murder of the owners, who lived upstairs.

Writer Don Ray, doing extensive research for a 1986 article in Tables magazine, eventually found out what had happened, and why, despite Pearl and her daughter refusing to talk about it.  The daughter, living in Phoenix, did drop enough hints so the long story could be brought to light.

When John's Parkinson's disease finally prevented him from going on after three busy decades, Pearl attempted to keep the Kitchen open for a while and simultaneously take of her husband upstairs.  She did believe the closing would be temporary, and John would recover enough to go back to work.  That is why she kept it ready, even after he died in 1967.  Pearl never considered a possible new operator, who might "change any thing in what had been Johnny's whole life."  That was the only statement Mr. Ray teased out of Pearl's daughter, but it was the only explanation needed.

A beauty salon and spa opened in the building in 2005 after Pearl was gone (she had remained upstairs as somewhat of a recluse since 1961), and the iconic sign was defaced by covering up all its letters except S P A.


There's enough weirdness in L.A., even just in the restaurant business, to keep us busy here for a while.  If you want to take a look, writer Mark Evanier's blog www.oldlarestaurants.com is a delightful treasure trove.  A good example:  the Quality Cafe, which stayed open after it stopped serving customers in 2006.  It has a new and very busy ghost life as a set in more TV shows and movies than anyone can name.  People recognize the seats, counter, napkin holders and coffee cups, seen in such shows as Mad Men and CSI:NY (despite it being a West Coast diner!) as well as movies -- Million Dollar Baby, Se7en, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Catch Me If You Can, Gone in 60 Seconds and many more.

Only in L.A...


Friday, February 20, 2015

Por La Causa

The slogan, "they shall not pass!"
was originally spoken by a French general
 at the Battle of Verdun
Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American
volunteers who fought to defend the Spanish Republic in
the Civil War of 1936-1939, participated in a 1981 march
on Washington against Reagan's support for the
repressive regime in El Salvador, wearing their
exotic berets and carrying their banner.

A young protester said to a former officer of the ALB,
"We have the same heart.  I hope my generation has
the same courage as yours."

Most literate people probably remember the character
Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls.
If your life has been celebrated in a major novel of
the century and in a film where you are portrayed by
Gary Cooper, you may have done some memorable
or courageous things yourself.  Or people may forget
your real name and that your short, heroic and tragic life was
not fiction.

In 1936, 27 nations signed the Non-Intervention Agreement to state their neutrality in regard to the Spanish Civil War (really a military coup that became three years of class war), imposing an arms embargo.  It didn't work out because Germany and Italy sent troops, airplanes, supplies and armor to General Francisco Franco's "Nationalist" forces, and the USSR did the same for the Republic, the formula for a proxy war between major powers.

Initially, the milicianos of various unions and parties faced Franco's experienced African Army  which was strongly augmented by dozens of divisions of well-trained and -equipped Axis troops, confronting that formidable opposition with leftover World War I weapons and never enough air power or artillery.  35,000 people worldwide heard a call they could not resist to come to the aid of the Republic in this grossly unequal fight.  They were called the International Brigades, streaming in from England, Poland, Belgium, France, Canada, Italy, Austria and the Balkans; there were several thousand from the United States in two battalions (the Washington and the Lincoln).  Their arrival saved Madrid from Franco early in the war and gave a hopeless cause great hope. 

They, the milicianos, some Russian fliers and regular troops then advanced to contain Franco's Nationalists on the banks of the Jarama in early 1937, but at a horrific cost to the International Brigades. The Axis artillery, air power and armor took another huge toll in the Brunete offensive later in the year when the IB lost another 4300.

Robert Merriman, third from the left
The commander of the ALB was wounded in the shoulder at the battle of Jarama (a total of nine commanded over the duration; four died and four were wounded).  An unlikely-looking volunteer soldier, he was a tall, bespectacled, former economics professor (at UC Berkeley) named Robert Hale Merriman.  His background must have made him sympathetic to the downtrodden ordinary people of Spain; the son of a poor lumberjack, Merriman worked his way through college then won a fellowship for graduate school.  Among those jobs were construction and ranching, and Merriman spent two years in the ROTC, because he needed the $7.50 a month pay.  He and an ex-Army sergeant were put in charge of training the enthusiastic but inexperienced American volunteers at their first camp in Spain.  He led from the front in action as they defeated the Nationalists in house-to-house fighting in Belchite, where he was again wounded by grenade shrapnel.

As Soviet support dwindled and Axis bombers pounded the defenders and civilians both indiscrimately and relentlessly, the Nationalists pushed toward Catalonia.  The remants of the Lincoln Brigade (now merged with the Washington and under the 15th IB) couldn't hold any high ground and were lying low in a vineyard near the town of Gandesa in August 1938.  When Merriman left cover to organize his men, he and LT Edgar Cody were cut down by machine gun fire.

The last salute of the International Brigades at Montblanch
The International Brigades were dissolved two months later by the prime minister in an effort to appease the Axis powers, hoping they would respond in kind and withdraw their troops.  By then, there were only 7000 left alive.  That action was not only in vain, but the Brigades' exit was a sad thing.  Marooned in dirty, cold villages, they had to wait for international representatives to sort out their legal status and return them home.  Many who went to fascist-dominated countries were imprisoned, driven to suicide or executed.  At home, the few Americans (about 300) who returned were watched by the FBI, rejected by the American Legion and hounded in the post-World War II red-scare years by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  The Republic's government and military was indeed largely taken over by Stalin's agents, and the guilt by association lingered the rest of their lives.  So many never came home to be shamed, or be called mercenaries, remaining where they fell on the Spanish soil.

Photojournalist Gerda Taro did not survive the war

"Sheer force can trample the human spirit underfoot..."   -- Albert Camus

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Closing Time

Another one bit the dust.  The third or fourth little bakery/cafe in a row suddenly closed.  The owners were hard-working and personable, and prices around here are always reasonable, but something always seems to be off, like their 10 am - 2 pm hours.  There is parking to be found, all free.  The odds against any of these little shops surviving must be staggering.  I'm not sure anyone who keeps aspirations and emotions out of the equation and considers only the hard facts would ever open a small business in a small downtown.

We had a big, busy bakery cafe in town for years, named after its owner, chef Dingeldein, formerly of the Hotel Hershey, which was esteemed enough to draw customers from across the river and the region.  We also had, for three decades, an Irish themed restaurant and bar that had the same status (although not the same high quality food products).  Both were in old buildings, with a load of character and an equal load of physical problems -- and both are gone despite their popularity.  The main thoroughfare, Bridge Street (so called, but actually Third) has constant traffic but little of it stops.  Someone in the past did have the brilliant idea of eliminating the parking meters, which keep me (and probably others) away from Carlisle and Harrisburg, but that's not enough.  The post office seems to be the only storefront that will probably not go blank suddenly.

A pair of shops further up the street have housed so many six-month enterprises it's hard to recall them.  Diners do well around the area and seem to last for decades, but the 24-hour one at Fourth Street seemed closed today as we drove by.  I knew the ramshackle building they opened in had been for sale for $450,000 -- I hoped they didn't pay near that; you can't pay that kind of mortgage off with $2 breakfasts.  Maybe they found that out the hard way.

I know of a few businesses operated as a hobby by ladies with husbands who came with high incomes, an inherited building or family money.  For those trying to make a living at it all on their own, though...good luck. 

The sale prices of these old buildings, and the rents, are nowhere in line with the condition they're in.  One has a wet, slipping foundation so bad it won't sell, and poor slobs (at least six I can think of over recent years) pay, most likely, far too much rent which bails out the owner but does who knows how much damage to their own futures.  Even the former home of Dingeldein's bakery (now a deli, which seems to be hanging in there), has really deficient electrical service in the front of the store where refrigeration units are usually placed.  Heating and cooling these spaces, especially at commercial rates, is eventually an unsupportable expense (as one former business lady explained to me).  And there is insurance of all kinds, as well as permits, fees and licenses.

A higher-end men's resale clothing shop opened a while ago, and we've bought some very good things there for very little.  There is no competition, but the demographic around here is just old, and neither retired white-collar or still-working blue-collar older men buy nice clothes.  The former have closets full they won't wear out, and the latter get replacements at Wal-Mart.  A pilates and a yoga studio have opened on either side; time will tell whether that kind of service business can last.

No one has any answers.  A half-dozen malls have failed in Richmond, VA, and that is a bigger, richer and more vibrant market than we'll ever have here.  And they have tried everything, at huge expense, to bring back their downtown, which used to have everything.  Now, it's like:


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Barely There

Barely there??  I might be misleading you a little, unless you would enjoy this (fictional) cable access show:

A Sheldon Cooper Production

because we're talking geopolitical oddities, not Miami Beach swimwear.  I understand if you're disappointed.

There are over 200 sovereign states in the world, but it's not easy to establish one.  Any number of them have almost, but not quite, come into being or have and lasted as little as seven hours.  You're curious about that one, mmm?  Some of these declared nations have pretty amusing stories behind them, but this one does not.  During the Nigerian civil war of 1967 - 1970, the southeastern region of Biafra tried to secede, due to extreme ethnic differences, from Nigeria, and set up a buffer puppet state next door named the Republic of Benin on September 19, 1967 during a pause in the advance of the Federal forces.  Biafra itself was recognized by some other states worldwide, but there was little time for that in the case of Benin.

The second shortest life for a country was 24 hours, in the case of Carpatho-Ukraine, which was once the far eastern end of Czechoslovakia.  It and Slovakia were autonomous after the Munich Agreement of September 1938, but soon each region lost their southern thirds to Hungary.  On March 14 and 15, Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine declared their independence but Hungary invaded knowing it had the full support of the Axis powers; both were quickly conquered and annexed.  Carpatho-Ukraine surprisingly did have a short constitution, a president and a cabinet in that day; they fled to Romania when the cause was lost.  The Soviets took the Carpatho region from Hungary and attached it to its Ukraine in early 1945, where it stays.

American history students learn of the short-lived Vermont, Texas and California republics, and the proposed one of Franklin, but who has ever heard of the Republic of Madawaska of that of Indian Stream?  They did exist, and the former's flag still flies in the Edmunston (New Brunswick) city hall.  Gone, but not forgotten.

The woodsy Republic's flag

The name means "porcupine place" in a local Algonquin language, and Madawaska consisted of parts of New Brunswick, Maine and Quebec.  The border between the new United States and still-British Canada weas a little vague in backwoods areas after the Treaty of Paris (1783), allowing locals to do things like declaring their own countries, which one John Baker did in 1827.  The authorities to the north didn't much appreciate that, and arrested, fined and jailed him for the cheekiness.  Not really organized as a country, it nonetheless lasted until 1842, when a treaty settled the border and put and end to Madawaska and the Republic of Indian Stream also.

Indian Stream is located in the north of New Hampshire on the border with Quebec, and was home to 300 people in their own 291-square-mile country from 1832 until 1835.  It was more of a state than its neighbor in that it had an elected government and constitution; President: Luther Parker.  The reason for declaring its independence was the annoyance of both British and U.S. officials coming by to collect taxes.  A plague on both your houses, the backwoodsmen (and women) said!  But after a big dustup over its expedition into Canada to free one of their brethern imprisoned there over debt, the Indian Stream citizens elected to join the United States and cease their contrariness.  But it took a long time for the Census and maps to catch up with the Republic's formal end.

The Sahrawi people and flag

There are many more, like declared island nations (one on a WWII North Sea gun platform sort of serving as an island) no one recognizes but no one bothers about; an area of 800 square miles between Egypt and Sudan (Bir Tawil) that is unpopulated and claimed by neither country (you can bet it would be if there were oil present), and a partially recognized country that's a slice of the former Spanish Sahara bordering Algeria in northwest Africa (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), whose governmental business is conducted from a refugee camp.  It does have a wonderfully titled national anthem that could have come from one of those early 20th century films and operas set in exotic lands:  "O Sons of the Sahara." 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Finding The Osage Orange

This long winter nap thing is getting old.  Winter and discontent, as Shakespeare observed, are closely linked.  What to do?  Weekday getaway, that's what.

To the far northeast corner of Maryland we go.

Nancy found Elk Forge, a 250-year old manse turned B&B, and we lit out during a little break in the relentless waves of frozen precipitation coming from north, west and south.  As we expected, hardly any guests were there and the wind chill and mud on the walking trail kept outdoor activities to a minimum (except for a dip in the hot tub the first evening; feet almost froze to the deck but a Sonoma Cabernet made things much better).  We were lodged on the third floor, directly below the attic, where the ghosts hang out in Colonial-era buildings.
The Osage Orange, not a great choice for your yard

There is a large water feature behind the wedding reception hall, valiantly flowing through mounds of ice, and many signs of deer.  We asked the handyman what the piles of tropical-looking rotting fruits were, and he pointed to the witchy tree centered on the rear lawn, identifying it as an Osage Orange.  The fruits, it turns out, though produced in abundance, are useless.  I recall the wood is a beautiful orange-flame color, but anything that has lived this long deserves not to become a dining table just yet.

We had a few nearby places to visit on our list; first was the ghost town of Frenchtown, to the south and by the Elk River.  It had been a small but busy port and depot before being burned by a British Admiral named Cockburn in 1813.  The C&D Canal and the railroads made its comeback a non-starter.  Today the road to it is lined with homes, all of the white, but a gate where the pavement gives way to dirt and gravel keeps curious folk like us out.  A large tavern lived on after the town disappeared, and was said to have been particularly ghost-ridden, but it burned down in the 1960s.

The woods are full of abandoned farm buildings and homes

We proceeded on to a charming town we had never heard of, Chesapeake City, on said C&D Canal, and reached over a bridge so tall (so shippng can clear it) anyone who dislikes heights would have been shaking.  It resembled our recent discovery of Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada: water and wineries nearby, more Victorian architecture than you can take in, and several alluring dining and watering holes.  The single-digit wind chill, despite a brilliant sun, kept our tour a short one; in fact, we didn't see one other person out.  I found a summertime picture on the internet of where we parked alone, and it was jammed with cars everywhere, as you would expect.  We'll be back -- it's only two hours away -- to spend a full day in the Spring before the summer crowds arrive.  I almost hate to publicize it!

Cecil County (that far northeastern corner of Maryland) has an impressive industrial history, but it's mostly expressed now in stone ruins and the hundreds of simple worker homes that remain, as it is history by now, dying out after 1930.  Famous for mills of all types (saw, textile, flax, paper and more), the county's glory was the iron industry, particularly the Principio furnace and specialized offshoots such as a nail factory.  In the 19th century, slave labor replaced that of the indentured servants who had moved on to be landowners and farmers.  Old atlases show hundreds of dwellings and farms that are lost in the woods today.

Charmer on the C&D Canal

You can almost hear the echoes of a vitally busy past, like the footsteps of the entire Continental Army going down the Old Post Road south to Yorktown in Virginia and...into history.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Sold by the Golden Rule"

Like some others in the 60s and 70s, I had a dream of building a DIY home to be mortgage-free, starting off with a small cabin-like core, and I thought I'd found a way to do that without learning all there is to know about construction from foundation to chimney when I came across a start-up called Shelter Kit from New Hampshire.  Founded in 1970, it looks like it would have been a good choice after all, as they have survived and today have models far in advance of their original simple bolt-together cubes (www.Shelter-kit.com).
Never did find any land though; looked at a few sites that were priced low enough to be possibly acquired, and they were all unbuildable or hard to get to and get to work from -- even I could see that having about a half-dozen springs under the squishy grass was a sucker deal.  Real estate agents back then weren't constrained by many truth-telling rules, and the buyer had better be pretty aware.
I was aware of the Jim Walter plan, whose only attractive quality was price and the choice to finish as much of the interior by yourself, in time, as you desired.  They were bone ugly, though, and I had serious doubts about the quality of materials.  The only other kit home I knew of was Sears, but they had ceased production in 1942!  It still probably wouldn't have come together, but it's a shame I'd never heard of Aladdin Homes until this week.
Founded in Bay City, Michigan, in 1906, the company started with kit boat houses, cabins and garages.  They moved up to what they termed "Knocked Down Dwelling Houses" and had almost 2 1/2 % of the housing starts in 1918, after enjoying success with U.S. government contracts during World War I.  Dupont bought hundreds of their kits to house workers for their dynamite and gunpowder plants in Hopewell and Sandston, VA during the war.  Although many have been torn down, Hopewell still has many remaining (although mis-identified as Sears homes on the historical marker!).  Their quality (they guaranteed no knots in the lumber) and architectural charm -- especially in the Craftsman, rustic and bungalow styles -- still stand out a century after being constructed.
Whats not to love? The Aladdin Brentwood as seen in the 1919 catalog. What a house!
Before the Depression knocked them back, the company was devastated by the pop of the Florida real estate bubble in 1926.  In a bold move, they had bought enough land in Dade County, 20 miles south of Miami, for a planned community of 10,000 in 1925.  As a publicity stunt, the first home in Aladdin City -- the community was to be in "the Persian style," with a center called Ali Baba Circle -- was built in one day.  There was a big problem before the boom went bust, however:  Florida's rail and road infrastructure couldn't handle the hundreds of boxcars of materials that were to be shipped from the company's plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, and to the railroad, shipment of perishables came first anyway.  Aladdin, after building a few homes, had to sell the large amount of land at a loss over the succeeding years. 
Hurricane Andrew destroyed the remaining structures in 1992; some streets with their quaint names are all that remains.
After building some company towns (even one in England) and structures under government contracts during WWII, Aladdin's classic designs didn't suit buyers in the midcentury and they moved to almost all ranch styles, with the postwar tagline "Readi-Cut" replacing "Knocked Down."  Ahead of their time, they also offered pre-assembled exterior and interior walls and doorframes in the 1970s.  But the end was in sight when inflation and the high mortgage interest rates priced people out of new construction.  The last catalog came out in 1980, and all operations came to an end in 1987.  The company sold 50,000 home kits during its three-quarters of a century existence, and was always family owned.
But don't put your hammer down yet.  Last year, the old trademark's new owner launched Aladdin again on the internet (www.thealaddincompany.com).  Take a look -- imagine building an early 20th century Craftsman with a modern interior and insulation.  My tastes have gotten a little more expensive since the bolt-together cube days, and I really hope someone does it.       

Friday, January 23, 2015

How to be a VIP Without Really Trying

Part of the Cyclorama, beautifully restored

It used to be that retired folks traveled during the school year if they were clever, and avoided the family vacationing crowds.  That worked until we were those retired folks; now everyone seems to be on the airplane or the highway any old time.  Maybe it's a horde of homeschoolers, or school districts are afraid of parents of means who demand special exceptions.

Some places are definitely "on" or "off season," though.  The Caribbean islands are surprisingly quiet during the height of hurricane season, and that's why we've gone there many times in August.  It's also hot as hell, but we've only come close to being hit once, and the hurricane graciously swerved away from its predicted path and left us with only a rainy morning.  If you take this tip and get screwed royally by tropical weather, I apologize in advance.

We went to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls just as it got chilly in the autumn, and the city and sights were just crowded enough to be fun but never enough to cause any delays or lines.  Plus, even Americans behave better when they're around Canadians.

There are two places around here we take visitors and many times, ourselves, because a mini-vaca that requires only 30 to 45 minutes of driving is the kind you can't pass up.  Last week we went to Gettysburg Battlefield National Park to see the lovely new Visitors Center and museum, and especially the restored Cyclorama, a 360-degree painting of Pickett's Charge on July 3, 1863.  There was no one else to see it or the film (narrated by Morgan Freeman:  you don't get tired of it), and only about two people in the museum.  There's a lot of text, photos and artifact signage, and in the summer or during a holiday you can't get much of a look.  Despite the cold winds outside, it was the right time to go.  And, unfortunately, the summer visitor is blasted by 1,000 Harley riders who have taken a great liking to the town.  Yuck.

The other jewel in the scroungy crown of the Capital Area is Hershey.  If you've been to the amusement park after 1970 or so, or to the Giant Center or Stadium for an event, you wonder how 13 million people can show up in such a small town.  From May to September, that is.  First off, we pulled into the zoo parking lot, amost empty -- you can't do that in warm weather.  And a tour found the animals out and curious, the opposite of what they are in, again, warm weather.  The deer really seemed interested in some interaction (or maybe it was lunchtime).  We then stopped at a favorite watering hole and the Trevi 5 restaurant in the Hotel Hershey, and it was like we were out in Iowa somewhere.  Almost eerily quiet, but nice.  Well, the watering hole (Troeg's brewery) filled up around 5 p.m., but we had spent quite a while there already with all the waitstaff attention we could handle, and there was no line at the bar to fill and refill the tall glasses.  In tourist season, you'd go thirsty (my friend).

Baby, it really is cold outside, but that's the time to head out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Not Again!?

You, my many and varied readers, might have noticed I've pretty much given up on political/economic commentaries here.  Mr. Jon Stewart, among others, does a much better job of jabbing those who seem to need it, so I will back away.  I'm glad I did do an investigation of Dubya's "Mystery Ranch" in the scrubland of Texas, way back, but that's enough.

So what else do we do here?  Pictures and tales of travel will probably make appearances, but we really don't go anywhere hair-raising.  Maybe Nova Scotia in August this year (see what I mean?).  The most-read post was on a bike much like those in the movie "Tron."  The essays on advanced bicycle technology have all been well-received, which is a little odd to me, since I haven't seen one of them in person and probably never will.

What I won't give up on is finding and relaying stories about the obscure, weird, or odd.  Call me naive, but I still think it's pretty neat that what actually exists or has happened is often stranger than anything you can cook up in your imagination.

You know a story is coming.  I'll wait while you get a stiff drink.


In 1729, a campaign for independence began on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which had been under many masters, the one at the time being the Republic of Genoa, and suffered from sundry invaders.  It was led by one Luigi Giafferi e Giancinto Paoli and later by his son, Pasquale (for whom Paoli, PA, was named in case you've always wondered).  But things took a turn more toward comic opera in 1736 when a German soldier/adventurer, Theodor von Neuhoff, conspired with some exiles on the mainland to lead their insurrection if he were named king, i.e., Theodore I of Corsica. 

You can guess that, despite some early successes, he was chased out -- but not after taking care of important kingly business like establishing an order of knights.  A republic, not kingdom, was declared in 1755 and lasted until 1769, when Genoa handed the politically active island over to France, who put an end to all the disturbance and has held onto it ever since. 

Theodore bounced from one country in Europe to another, landing in debtors' prison twice, and even interfered in Corsica a few more times.  He died in 1756, but did live on in a way as his exploits were written up by his son.  Several other books followed, so the one-year king has found his footnote in history. 

Can we get more obscure at Just Sayin'?  Don't bet against it.


Thursday, January 15, 2015


Remember the movie and television show, "Wild, Wild West"? I was surprised about the bad reviews, because it seemed to me that the premise of a highly developed Victorian steam-powered alt-future was a far more interesting scenario than the existence of superheroes or zombie/werewolf hordes, as fictional realms go.  It did have legs, though, as "steampunk" became a thing.


Who  knows if that inspired the Pagani supercar designer in Italy, but in 2012 they debuted their "Huayra," a $1.6 million, 720 h.p. mid-engined V-12 monster that looks like it came from a very different future than a Toyota would evolve into.

The Huayra is featured in videogames and has been covered by the media, like other supercars, but this one is distinctively described as a "steampunk jet aircraft."  A look at the interior gauges and controls makes that clear.  Wearing a Flash Gordon helmet while in the driver's seat seems quite appropriate.

I saw a handmade car that looked like a rocket Mr. Gordon would be familiar with on "American Pickers," I think.  Now if you had a well-equipped shop, along with the time and funds, wouldn't it be even more fun to make your own steampunk car?  Restored collectibles are nice, but that would be, to use a very non-Victorian adjective, awesome.



Monday, January 12, 2015

Odd Ogg

That was a plastic toy that my brothers and I thought was just hilarious.  Sort of a mutant frog thing that joined us in the bathtub.  I guess no one remembers it now (hasn't shown up on "Pawn Stars"), but that may have been the beginning of my love of oddball stuff. 

Fellow blogger Clyph (at "Just Another Life" on this fine network) referred me to a site, www.impulcity.com, wherein you can gawk at creepy, old or forgotten places in all 50 states, some of which are in your own backyard but you've probably have never seen.  Castles, amusement parks, eerie abandoned towns, spooky industrial structures -- even rusted locomotives lurking incongruously among the pines of Maine.  The one selected for Pennsylvania is the monstrously oversize Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic church in East Liberty, Pittsburgh.  Built in 1890 and closed in 1992, its claim to fame is having been used in the film Dogma.  Not all of it looks as bad as this,

but it's so huge no one can come up with a way to refurbish and repurpose the building. 

Strange places can be either ones just abandoned in hard-to-find locations (like former asylums), some are true mysteries (like the Elko Tract near the Richmond, VA airport), and some are attractively unique (giving rise to rumors and myths)  but the story behind them can be found out.  Among the last type: the dome houses of Cape Romano Island.

Now, and...

Situated south of Marco Island on Florida's Gulf Coast, this group of structures seemingly from "Lost in Space" is deteriorating and slipping, listing like a ghost ship, into the water.  Built as a vacation house in 1982 by retired oilman "Big Bob" Lee, it was an experiment in self-sustainability, with solar panels and a 23,000 gallon cistern in which rainwater was collected.  It also boasted a large outdoor hot tub, satellite TV and a special underfloor heating system.  The home mostly survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but the windows failed.  The family moved out and sold it in 1993.  Subsequent hurricanes have eroded the beach, leaving the former home in paradise standing forlornly in the Gulf waters, while two other structures built alongside have disappeared completely.


It is now rated the #3 Marco Island attraction on Trip Advisor.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Mongolian cavalry

A play opens for off-Broadway trials and for previews by the critics.  You can attend, peruse the publicity or read those critiques and decide for yourself about it.  Books and movies, the same.  But when history offers trial runs and early previews of the big shows to come, it doesn't tell you when or where they will be, and even in hindsight they may remain mostly unknown.

When Anthony Beavor's Stalingrad came out in the nineties, many including me were eager to find out, from what had been hidden in the Soviet archives before the 1991 collapse, how the USSR could turn their desperate toehold in the city into a decisive victory and turning point.  What the Germans and the Allies did not recognize was that the strategy and methods had been well developed and used to great effect already.  The lesson was there to be learned, but it was so far off the horizon it remained mute.

Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who achieved the Stalingrad victory, had developed his game-changing technique a few years earlier when in command on the Far Eastern front facing the Japanese Kwangtung Army in Manchuria during the summer of 1939, culminating in the decisive Battle of Khalkhin Gol (August 20).  During the 1930s, Japan's conquest of large parts of China and possession of all of Korea and Manchuria put her on a collision course with the USSR.  Their leadership was considering a Northern Strategy versus a Southern one, both more in pursuit of resources than territory.  While they were considering that a push south toward India and Australia would yield oil, rice and rubber (the navy was strongly in favor of it) border clashes with the Soviet Union decided the issue in the little-known, but all-important, battle that would end any desire to take on the Russians, lead to Pearl Harbor and to the end, largely, of European imperial possessions in Asia.  The progress of WWII and its aftermath were both clearly laid out in a godforsaken place few could find on a map, or consider important or even memorable.

In a few words, at Khalkhin Gol Zhukov employed a suite of bold new tactics -- a final armor/combined forces blitzkrieg assault, keeping the Japanese in the dark about the preparatory buildup, employing superior air power, and pinning down the enemy center while sweeping around his flanks in a pincer envelopment -- exactly the winning formula he employed a second time at Stalingrad.  The only essential difference was the lack of infantry integrated with the armor thrust at Khalkhin Gol, an oversight which Zhukov corrected.

Marshal Zhukov and the Mongolian commander

Stalin thanked his Far Eastern commanders by executing them in the 1941 purge, sparing Zhukov.  Tough company to work for.

The main revelation made in Beavor's book concerned the astounding size of the secret Soviet rear-area buildup at Stalingrad prior to Zhukov's successful counterattack at the beginning of 1942.  The decisive victory in  1939 on the Manchurian border had ended the prospect of a second, Eastern, front for the Soviets and freed up almost all those troops (28 divisions) to overwhelm the Germans on the Volga plains. 

Lincoln's words about the dedication ceremony of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg -- that it would be little noted or long remembered by the world -- could well be applied to the events of a long-ago August along a river in the farthest parts of that world.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime"

Thinking about that general idea, this fine song from the Korgis, circa 1980, just popped into the old frontal cortex.  But why was I thinking while watching a popular, but of course low-rent, TV show? 

Well, I wasn't until Corey Harrison, the grandson and heir of the Las Vegas Gold & Silver pawn shop featured on "Pawn Stars" stated, during a failed transaction to buy a 1940 Indian military motorcycle with sidecar that had been sent to Europe before the U.S. entered the war, that the French surrendered and "didn't fire a shot."  After giving consideration to the fact that the younger stars of the show, though now probably millionaires (life's fair, you know), are about as educated as stumps, the shocking thought occurred to me that most of the domestic population, most of the time, also doesn't know much of anything beyond their uninformed prejudices and has no awareness of their situation or feel any need to improve on it.  The grandfather on the show had said previously that John Wayne was a "great American hero."  And most of his generation as well as all those of conservative bent think that also.  When Republic Pictures lobbied successfully to spare him from the draft, Wayne was pressured a little to defy them and enlist, but he thought not.  So he and Reagan, another great hero in the imagination of many, spent the war all cozy in Hollywood.  Never let the facts influence your beliefs, fellow citizens.

So, Corey, in case you might want to learn something, it went like this:

In the official press release after the fall of France, the Germans (quoted from the English-language "Facts in Review" for July 22, 1940) referred to a "desperately resisting enemy," and that "fighting the enemy rear guards was heavy at first." By their own tally, they suffered 156,942 total casualties from those who "didn't fire a shot".  Somehow the French lost 217,310 killed, missing and wounded as well as 792 - 1274 airplanes (records differ), and one fortification alone fired 15,802 artillery rounds at the invader.  So if that's not serious fighting, I wonder what is.

A number of interrelated factors sunk the French, but an inexplicable desire to give up immediately was not among them.  The bureaucracy and the military was frozen twenty-five years in the past; old, tradition-bound and conservative.  Nonproductive ideological fights with the left consumed their energy, and no one wanted to admit that the horrors of the Great War were clearly coming again.  And no contemporary American spouting nonsense about "freedom fries" could ever see the parallels between himself and a stodgy interwar European.

(At the beginning of the Korean War, our WWII-era "bazooka" anti-tank rockets just bounced off the enemy's Soviet-designed tanks.  Were the U.S. military and Congress in the late 1940s lost in navel-gazing just like their French counterparts in the 1930s?  So one might asssume our military planners would keep an eye on Soviet armor developments henceforth.  But in Vietnam, since they thought that North Vietnam would never employ armor, there was no need to do so, right?  Our pathetic LAW antitank rockets bounced off even the enemy's light BP-7s when they showed up.  Deja vu all over again.)