January 3, 2000 There will Never be Another

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, though Linus almost didn’t get to tell his famous story of the baby Jesus.

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Charles Shulz, high school yearbook photo, class of 1940

Charles Monroe Schulz loved to draw.  He was good at at, too.  Already one of the brighter kids at Central High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Shulz skipped two half-grades graduating youngest member of his class, in 1940.  Already a shy boy, rapid academic advancement did little to help his social life.

In those days, the family owned a hunting dog.  “Spike” had a number of cringe-worthy habits, including eating sharp objects. It didn’t seem to bother him much, and the boy sent a drawing to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!  The magazine ran it, complete with a description of ol’ Spike’s more unusual predilections.

The drawing was signed, “Sparky”.

Even with Schulz later celebrity, you could always weed out those who merely claimed to know the man, as opposed to those who did.  If Schutz-Letterthey called him “Charles”, or “Chuck”, that was a sure sign of the mere pretender.   Schulz’ uncle called him “Sparky” as a boy, after the horse Spark Plug in Billy DeBeck’s comic strip, Barney Google.  He always signed the strip “Schulz”, but friends and family knew him as Sparky, until the day he died.

Schulz was drafted into the Army in 1943, a Staff Sergeant with the 20th Armored Division in Europe and squad leader of a .50-caliber machine gun team.

He never got a chance to fire his weapon, though he did come face-to-face with a Wehrmacht soldier, once.  His blood must’ve turned cold in his veins when he realized he’d forgotten to load, but the man he faced was no Nazi fanatic.  This was a regular guy, who wanted to go home as much as Shulz himself.  The German surrendered, happily.  I hope he got home.

Schulz returned to Minneapolis after the war where he did some lettering for a Catholic comic magazine, Timeless Topix. He took a job in 1946 at Art Instruction, Inc., reviewing and grading lessons submitted by students, a job he held for several years while developing his talents as comic creator.

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Charlie Brown, that lovable little loser who was always close but never quite made it, first appeared in a series of single-panel jokes called “Li’l Folks“, along with a dog who looked something like Snoopy.  The comic was published in local papers from June 1947 to January ’50, and later syndicated.  That first strip was published in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950, but United Features thought the name was too close to two strips already in syndication:  Li’l Abner, and “Little Folks“.

So it was they called it “Peanuts” after the peanut gallery of Vaudeville days, the cheapest and rowdiest seats in the theater. Schulz didn’t like the name, saying it “made it sound too insignificant,” but the name stuck.

Schulz took pride in his service during the war.  At various times, Peanuts paid tribute to Rosie the Riveter and Ernie Pyle.  More than any other, he’d honor “Willy & Joe”, those two GIs from the imagination of war correspondent and cartoonist Bill Mauldin, a man to whom Schulz always referred as “My Hero”.  Over the years, Snoopy visited with Willie & Joe no fewer than 17 times. Always on Veterans Day.PeanutsA Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, though Linus almost didn’t get to tell his famous story of the baby Jesus. ABC executives thought Linus’ recitation of the birth of Christ too overtly religious.  The “suits” wanted a laugh track as well, but Schulz refused. “If we don’t do it, who will?” In the end, the scene remained.  Perhaps the most memorable moment in cartoon history.  The laugh track version was produced, but never aired.Charlie Brown’s love interest in some of those TV specials, the “Little Red-Haired Girl”, was based on an accountant from that old job at Art Instruction, named Donna Mae Johnson.  The couple had an office romance for a time, but she turned him down when Shulz proposed.

Johnson wasn’t the only character based on a real person.  Linus and Shermy were patterned after Schulz’ close friends Linus Maurer and Sherman Plepler.  Peppermint Patty was inspired by a cousin on his mother’s side, Patricia Swanson.  Snoopy himself resembles that old family dog, though Spike was a Pointer, not a Beagle.

In 1967, American opinion polls showed a sharp drop in support for the war in Vietnam.  1968 was a wretched year in American politics, beginning with the Tet Offensive in January.   Media reporting turned the American military victory over the Vietnamese New Year, into a thing of despair.  President Johnson withdrew from the Presidential election, that March.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that April leading to riots across the country.  Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June, after winning the critical California primary.  The Democratic National Convention that August was more of a riot, than a political convention.

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Franklin Armstrong

Race relations were particularly vile in 1968, when a Jewish Mom and Los Angeles schoolteacher wrote to the cartoonist, asking if he would add a black character.  Harriet Glickman never expected a response from the now-famous Charles M. Schulz, but respond he did.  He said he liked the idea but expressed concern the character might seem condescending, to black families.

With Schulz’ permission, Glickman asked friends of African ancestry, how to make such a character “more relatable”.

Franklin Armstrong made his first appearance on July 31, 1968.  What was remarkable for the time, was how unremarkable, he was.  Just another little boy, at first confused about the strange stuff going on in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  Particularly Linus’ obsession with the ‘Great Pumpkin’.  Franklin first met Charlie Brown on a beach.  He said his father was a soldier, off fighting in Vietnam.  “My dad’s a barber,” said Charlie Brown.  “He was in a war too, but I don’t know which one.”

One newspaper editor wrote saying he didn’t mind a “negro” character, but please don’t show them in school together.  Schulz didn’t bother to respond to that one.

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Peanuts went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, with countless animated specials combining with merchandise sales to produce revenues in the Billions.  At it’s peak, Peanuts ran in 2,600 papers in 75 countries and 21 languages.  Schulz himself is estimated to have earned $30 to $40 million, a year.

I wonder if Donna Mae Johnson ever regretted turning down that marriage proposal.

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In 1969, the command module for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon was named Charlie Brown.  The lunar module was called Snoopy.  President Ronald Reagan was a fan, who once wrote to Schulz that he identified with Charlie Brown.

Imitation of Charles Schulz cartoon, madOver fifty years, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 strips, taking vacation only once in 1997 to celebrate his 75th birthday.  In all those years, that five-week stretch was the only time the papers ever had Peanuts reruns.

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Stephen Shea, H/T Huffington Post

Fun fact: Former child actor Stephen Shea inherited the speaking role for Linus van Pelt when his older brother Chris’ voice changed, and went on to perform in eight animated specials. Chris went to summer camp with a boy who happened to be President of The Doors fan club. It turns out that Jim Morrison was a big Peanuts fan, and invited Chris and his father to be his special guests, at a Doors concert.

By the late 1990s, Schulz’ health was beginning to fail.  His once-firm hand, now had a tremor. He never really recovered from the stroke that hit him in November 1999 and announced his intention to retire, on December 14.  The last original Peanuts comic strip was published on January 3, 2000.

This son of a barber and a housewife, just like Charlie Brown himself, passed away just over a month later, a victim of colon cancer.

There will never be another.

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January 1, 45BC Happy New Year

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled their calendar. Caesar hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. As we embark on the third millennium, we still have July and August.

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Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days. By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.

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A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

The Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.

The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition continues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors. It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year. The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

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In most English speaking countries, the traditional New Year’s celebration ends with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds something like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
“Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”

Happy New Year, from Mr & Mrs Cape Cod Curmudgeon, Rick & Sheryl.

December 24, 1822 Santa Claus

In some German speaking regions, a malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, carrying a twig broom with which to spank wicked children. Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

The historical life of St. Nicholas is shrouded in legend.  Born in modern-day Turkey on March 15, AD270, Nicholas was the only child of affluent parents, both of whom died in a plague leaving young Nicholas a very wealthy orphan.

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1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

Nicholas was raised in the Christian faith and became an early bishop in the Greek church.

One of many stories concerning the bishop’s generosity involves a destitute father, unable to raise a dowry sufficient to marry his three daughters off. On two nights in a row, Nicholas crept up to the man’s window and dropped a small sack of gold coins.

On the third night, the man stayed up to learn the identity of his secret benefactor, only to be asked to keep the name, secret.

Saint Nicholas died on December 6 in the year 343.  He was entombed in a marble cathedral dedicated to his name, in the Roman town of Myra.

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The “Sinterklass” of the Netherlands, rides a white horse

Nicholas is remembered as the patron saint of whole nations and cities such as Amsterdam and Moscow, revered among the early Christian saints and remembered for a legendary habit of secret gift-giving.

Some ideas take hold in the popular imagination, while others fade into obscurity.  The “Three Daughters” episode made it into nearly every artistic medium available at that time, from frescoes to carvings and windows, even theatrical performances.

The Patron Saint not only of sailors but of ships and their cargoes, the seas were the internet of the day and the story of St. Nick spread from the Balkans to Holland, from England to Crete.

In time, the Feast of St. Nicholas took hold around December 6.  Children and other marginal groups such as old women and slaves could receive gifts, but only by demanding them.  Secret gift giving appeared sometime around the year 1200.

Krampus-340x540.jpgOn the European continent, legends of St. Nicholas combined with Pagan traditions and developed in quirky directions, including an evil doppelgänger who accompanies St. Nick on his rounds.

As early as the 11th century, the Krampus may be expected to snatch up bad little tykes in parts of Germany, Austria and the Alpine villages of northern Italy, never to be seen again.

In eastern Europe, the witch Frau Perchta “The Disemboweller” was said to place pieces of silver in the shoes of children and servants who’d been good and worked hard over the year.  Those who’d been naughty or lazy would be slit open and their organs replaced, with pebbles and straw.

Yikes.

In French-speaking regions, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) accompanies Père Noël on gift-giving rounds, dispensing beatings and/or lumps of coal to naughty boys & girls.

In some German speaking regions, a malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, carrying a twig broom with which to spank wicked children.

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

In the 13th century, the “Little Ice Age” of led to a proliferation of chimneys.  Windows and doors were common objects, often the things of thieves and vagabonds.  The chimney was different, a direct pathway to the warm heart of the home.  So it was St. Nick made his first gift-giving appearance via the chimney in a three daughters fresco, painted sometime in 1392, in Serbia.

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St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens, Decani monastery, Kosovo

St. Nicholas was beginning to be seen as part of the family outside of the Church, which is probably why he survived what came next.  Saints reigned in the Christian world until the 16th century, when the Protestant reformation rejected such “idolatry” as a corruption of Christianity.

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The Ghost of Christmas present as illustrated by John Leech, in Charles Dickens’ classic, a Christmas Carol

Whatever you called him:  Sinterklaos, Saint-Nikloi or Zinniklos, St. Nick went away entirely in England and Scotland during the time of Henry VIII, giving way to the spirit of Christmas cheer in the person of one Father Christmas.  England would no longer keep the feast of the Saint on December 6.  The celebration moved to December 25, to coincide with Christmas itself.

Protestants adopted as gift bringer the Baby Jesus or Christkindl, later morphing into Kris Kringle.

Puritan arrivals to New England rejected Christmas and everything with it, as “un-Christian”.  In 1644, Massachusetts levied a fine of five shillings, on anyone observing the holiday.

Sinterklaas survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation in places like Holland, transferring to the 17th century settlement of New Amsterdam:  what we now know as the new world port city of New York.

Sinterklass blended with Father Christmas to create a distinctly American Santeclaus, which began to take hold in the 19th century.

The Christmas “celebrations” of the period looked more like Mardi Gras than what we know today.  Drunk and rowdy gangs wandered the streets of New York, Philadelphia and the cities of the northeast, something between a noisy mob and a marching band.  Men fired guns into the air and banged or blew on anything that would make noise.  Mobs would beat up the unfortunate, and break into the homes of the “upper classes”, demanding food and liquor.

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

New York philanthropist John Pintard, the man responsible for the holidays celebrating the fourth of July and George Washington’s birthday, popularized an image first set forth by Washington Irving, in his satirical story A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, depicting St. Nicholas bringing gifts to good little boys and girls, and switches with which to tan the hides of bad kids.

The unknown genius who published and illustrated A Children’s Friend in 1821, first depicted “Santa Claus” not as a Catholic bishop, but as a non-sectarian adult in a fur lined robe, complete with a sleigh inexplicably powered by a single reindeer, coming in through the chimney not on December 6, but on Christmas eve.

An anonymous poem believed to have been written on December 24, 1822 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, began with the words: “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house“…

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Santa Express

“A Visit From St. Nicholas“, better known by its first line, gave us the first description of the modern Santa Claus.  It was a tool for domesticating the occasion, agreeable to law enforcement for calming the rowdy streets, to manufacturers and retailers for selling goods, to the church to make way for a family friendly day of worship and to parents, for  the control of unruly children.

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

The “Right Jolly old Elf” took his modern form thanks to the pen of illustrator and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant and scourge of the Tammany Hall political machine which had swindled New York city, out of millions.

The idea of a Mrs. Claus seems to come from a poem by Katharine Lee Bates of the Cape Cod Curmudgeon’s own town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Today, the author is best known for her 1895  poem “Pikes Peak”, later set to music and widely known as “America the Beautiful”.

Tonight, NASA may be expected to track Santa and his sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, though none are any longer, all that tiny.  Santa Claus will appear around the planet. Regional variations include Santa’s arriving on a surfboard in Hawaii.  In Australia, he’s pulled by six white kangaroos.  In Cajun country, Papa Noël arrives in a pirogue, drawn by eight alligators.69c173c1af76a36f2aae98f4dfe183b6

Santa Claus is the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not too bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

Merry Christmas.

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Fun fact:  Today, the port city of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy is remembered for the WW2-era mustard gas accident, which spawned the discovery of modern chemotherapy drugs. A thousand years earlier, city fathers feared growing Muslim influence over the tomb of Saint Nicholas, and went to retrieve his remains.  Find him, they did.  Saint Nicholas’ large bones were removed and brought back as holy relics to Bari where they remain, to this day.  Smaller fragments were removed during the 1st Crusade, brought back to Venice or enshrined in basilica from Moscow to Normandy.

The teeth and small bones of the real St. Nicholas are enshrined in over a dozen churches from Russia to France and the Palestinian territories.  Some of these cherished relics were believed to reside in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, in New York City, destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and never recovered.

November 24, 1962 Kilroy Was Here

Kilroy was Here became a protective talisman, a good-luck symbol expected to provide good juju, for the American GI.  Soldiers began to write the graffiti on newly captured areas and landings.  Kilroy was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era.  The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived.  He was still there when you left.

The Fore River Shipyard began operations in 1883 in Braintree, Massachusetts, moving to its current location on the Weymouth Fore River on Quincy Point, in 1901.  The yard was purchased by Bethlehem Steel in 1913, and operated under the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation.

Most of the ships built at Fore River were intended for the United States Navy, including early submarines built for Electric Boat, the Battleship USS Massachusetts, and the Navy’s first carrier, the USS Lexington. In the inter-war years, non-US Navy customers included the United States Merchant Marine, the Argentine Navy, the Royal Navy of Great Britain and the Imperial Japanese Navy.

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USS Salem CA-139 museum ship, Fore River Shipyard, Quincy

The Navy Act of 1938 mandated a 20% increase in American Naval strength. Much of that increase came through Fore River. The Shipyard employed 17,000 personnel the day Imperial Japan invaded the American Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor. That number increased to 32,000 by 1943 with a payroll equivalent to $9.69 Billion, in today’s dollars.

Kilroy-3Necessity became the mother of invention, and the needs of war led to prodigious increases in speed.  No sooner was USS Massachusetts launched, than the keel of USS Vincennes, began to be laid. By the end of the war, Fore River had completed ninety-two vessels of eleven different classes.

Builders at the yard were paid by the number of rivets installed. Riveters would mark the end of their shift with a chalk mark, but dishonest co-workers could erase their marks, marking a new spot a few places back on the same seam.

Shipyard inspector James Kilroy ended the practice, writing “Kilroy was Here”, next to each chalk mark.

With hulls leaving the yard so fast there was no time to paint the interiors, Kilroy’s name achieved mythic proportions. The man literally seemed to be everywhere, his name written in every cramped and sealed space in the United States Navy.

For the troops inside of those vessels, Kilroy always seemed to have “been there”, first.  This was a symbol, an assurance that this particular troop ship, was well and truly sealed.

Kilroy was Here became a protective talisman, a good-luck symbol expected to provide good juju, for the American GI.  Soldiers began to write the graffiti on newly captured areas and landings.  Kilroy was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era.  The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived.  He was still there when you left.

Kilroy-6German Intelligence believed Kilroy to be some kind of  “super spook”, able to go anywhere he pleased and to leave, without a trace.

The challenge became, who could put the Kilroy graffiti in the most difficult and surprising place.

I’ve never been there, but I I understand there’s a Kilroy, at the top of  Mt. Everest.  The cartoon was scribbled in the dust of the moon.  There’s one on the Statue of Liberty and another on the underside of the Arch of Triumph, in Paris.  There’s on the great Wall, in China.

The World War 2 Memorial in Washington, DC could hardly have been complete without a Kilroy, engraved in granite.  If you look closely enough, you’ll find two of them.DSC07960 (1)

Under-water Demolition (UDT) teams, predecessors to the United States Navy SEALs, swam ashore on Japanese-held Pacific islands, preparing the way for amphibious invasions.  More than once, UDT divers found that Kilroy had already been there, the silly cartoon nose scribbled on makeshift signs, and even enemy pillboxes.

When Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam, a VIP latrine was built for their exclusive use.  Stalin was the first in, emerging from the outhouse and asking his aide, “Who is Kilroy?”Trumanstalin

Ask a Brit and he will tell you “Mr. Chad” came first, cartoonist George Chatterton’s response to war rationing.  “Wot, no tea”?

kilroy_no_spamThe cartoon appeared in every theater of the war, but few knew the mythical Kilroy’s true identity.

In 1946, the Transit Company of America held a contest, asking the “real” Kilroy to come forward.

Nearly forty guys showed up to claim the prize, a real trolley car.  Doubtless they all felt they had legitimate claims, but James Kilroy brought a few riveters and some shipyard officials along, to vouch for his authenticity.  That was it.

That Christmas the Kilroy kids, all nine of them, had the coolest playhouse in all of Massachusetts.

trolleycarJames Kilroy went on to serve as Boston City Councillor and member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, from Halifax.  Surely there is a doodle, somewhere in the “Great & General Court” up there in Boston, to inform the passer-by.  Kilroy was here.

James Kilroy passed away on this day, November 24, 1962, at the age of sixty.

November 15, 1963 Unintelligible at Any Speed

In 1955, singer-songwriter Richard Berry wrote a tune about a Jamaican sailor returning home to see his lady love.  It’s a ballad, a Caribbean-flavored conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.

MI0001688683.jpgIn 1955, singer-songwriter Richard Berry wrote a tune about a Jamaican sailor returning home to see his lady love.  It’s a ballad, a Caribbean-flavored conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.

The song was covered in Latin and and R&B styles in the 1950s, never becoming more than a regional hit on the west coast.

“Mainstream” white artists of the fifties and sixties often covered songs written by black artists. On April 6, 1963, an obscure rock & roll group out of Portland, Oregon rented a recording studio for $50, and covered the song.   They were The Kingsmen.  Lead singer Jack Ely showed the band how he wanted it played. Berry’s easy 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4 ballad was transformed to a raucous 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat.

The Kingsmen recorded the song in a single take. The guitar was chaotic, the lyrics difficult to make out.  The single was released by a small label in May and re-released by Wand Records in October.

Rock music is so mainstream now, it’s hard to remember the style was once considered subversive.  Decadent.  The impenetrable lyrics led to all kinds of speculation, driving sales through the 15th of November, all the way to the Billboard Top 100 chart.

louie-louie.jpgIt all went downhill from there.  “Louie Louie, me gotta go,” became in the fevered imagination, “Louie Louie, grab her way down low.”  Invented lyrics ranging from mildly raunchy to downright pornographic were written out on slips of paper and exchanged between teenagers, spurring interest in the song and driving record sales, through the roof.

Music critic Dave Marsh later wrote:  “This preposterous fable bore no scrutiny even at the time, but kids used to pretend it did, in order to panic parents, teachers and other authority figures. …So ‘Louie Louie’ leaped up the chart on the basis of a myth about its lyrics so contagious that it swept cross country quicker than bad weather.”

Concerned parents contacted government authorities to see what could be done. One father, a Sarasota, Florida junior high teacher whose name is redacted in FBI files, wrote to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy:

“Who do you turn to when your teen age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the teenage market in every City, Village and Record shop in this Nation?” The letter asserts “The lyrics are so filthy I cannot enclose them in this letter” and concludes with a plea, complete with four punctuation marks: “How can we stamp out this menace????”

louierfk1 (1).gifDad might have taken a breath.  The pop culture scene was not so steeped in filth, as he imagined.  The top television program of the time was the Beverly Hillbillies.  The top movie the Disney animated production, “The Sword and the Stone”.

Louie4.jpgThe FBI took up an investigation under the ITOM statute in 1964, a federal law regulating the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material.  Investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward.  The relentless search for lascivious material lasted two years and in the end, came up empty.

The FBI’s archival website contains 119 pages, covering the investigation.  In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

Inexplicably, G-men never interviewed Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely.  He probably could have saved them a lot of time.  The lyrics never did measure up to the fevered imagination, of a Sarasota schoolteacher.

Louie Louie, with lyrics

The song has been covered by numerous artists over the years, including Paul Revere & the Raiders, Otis Redding, Motorhead, Black Flag and Young MC.  The best ever though, has got to be the Delta Tau Chi fraternity version from John Landis’ 1978 movie, Animal House.

“OK, let’s give it to ’em.  Right now”.

October 14, 1987 Well of Darkness

3309 Tanner Drive quickly became, a circus.  Television trucks arrived, to cover the ordeal.   Baby Jessica’s rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil, from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China. Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union. Telephone linemen installed extra lines, to handle the traffic. 

baby-jessica-11.jpgJessica McClure Morales is 33-years old.  A typical West Texas Mom, with two kids and a dog.  Her life is normal in every way.  She’s a teacher’s aide.  Her husband Danny, works for a piping supply outfit.

Thirty-two years ago, Jessica McClure’s day was anything but normal.

October 14, 1987 began like any other, just an eighteen-month-old baby girl, playing in the back yard of an Aunt.  That old well pipe shouldn’t have been left open, but what harm could it do. Standing there only three inches above the grass, the thing was only eight inches wide.

And then the baby disappeared.  Down the well.

My command of the language fails to produce a word, adequate to describe the horror that young mother must have felt, looking down that pipe.

wellMidland, Texas first responders quickly devised a plan. A second shaft would be dug, parallel to the well.  Then it was left only to bore a tunnel, until rescuers reached the baby.  The operation would be over, by dinnertime.

Except, the rescue proved far more difficult than first imagined. The tools first brought on-scene, were inadequate to get through the hard rock surrounding the well.  What should have taken minutes, was turning to hours.

3309 Tanner Drive quickly became, a circus.  Television trucks arrived, to cover the ordeal.   Baby Jessica’s rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil, from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China. Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union. Telephone linemen installed extra lines, to handle the traffic.

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Local and national news reporters watch from ladders overlooking a fenceline as rescue crews attempt to free Jessica McClure. (October 1987)

The whole world it seemed, held its breath.

Midland police officer Andy Glasscock spent much of those fifty-eight hours on his belly next to that hole, concentrating on every sound to come up from the well.   Hard-eyed veteran though he was, the man could be brought to tears at the sound of that little voice, drifting up from deep in that hole in the ground…”Mama“.  “How does a kitten go?” Officer Glasscock would ask, into the darkness.  The little voice would respond…”Meow“.

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Supporters wait outside the barricade line as workers attempt to rescue Jessica from the well. (October 1987)

Watching the evening news, it’s sometimes easy to believe the world is going to hell.  It’s not.  What we saw for those fifty-eight hours was the True heroism and fundamental decency of every-day women and men.  Fathers, sons and brothers, straining each fiber and sinew, inching closer to the bottom of that well.  Mothers sisters and wives, pitching in and doing whatever it was, that needed to be done.  We’d see it again in a New York Minute, should circumstances require it.

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Rescue crews worked through the night to pump warm air into the well where Jessica had become trapped (October 1987)

You could watch it happen, around the clock. Many of us did. I remember it.  Each man would dig until he’d drop, and then another guy would take his place. These were out-of-work oil field workers and everyday guys. Mining engineers and paramedics. The work was frenetic, desperate, and at the same time, agonizingly slow.

Anyone who’s used a jackhammer, knows it’s not a tool designed to be used, sideways. Even so, these guys tried.  A waterjet became a vital part of the rescue, a new and unproven technology, in 1987.

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Jessica’s father Chip McClure speaks to a cadre of reporters. (October 1987)

The sun went down that Wednesday and rose the following day and then set again.  Still, the nightmare dragged on.

A microphone was lowered down, so doctors could hear that baby girl breathe. She would cry.  Sometimes she would sing. A small voice drifting up from that hole in the ground.  The words of “Winnie the Pooh”.

billresclThese were good signs. A baby could neither sing nor cry, if she could not breathe.

The final tunneling phase of the operation could only be described, as a claustrophobic nightmare. An unimaginable ordeal. Midland Fire Department paramedic Robert O’Donnell was chosen because of his tall, wiry frame. Slathered all over with K-Y jelly and stuffed into a space so tight it was hard to breathe, O’Donnell inched his way through that black hole that Thursday night and into the small hours of Friday morning until finally, he touched her leg.

The agony of those minutes dragging on to hours, can only be imagined. What O’Donnell was trying to do, could not be done.  In the end, the paramedic was forced to back out of the hole, one agonizing inch at a time, defeated. Empty handed.  As men went back to work enlarging the tunnel, the paramedic sat on a curb, and wept.

On the second attempt, O’Donnell was able wrestle the baby out of that tiny space, handing her to fellow paramedic Steve Forbes, who carried her to safety.

Jessica McClure rescueBaby Jessica came out of that well with her face deeply scarred and toes black with gangrene, for lack of blood flow.  She required fifteen surgeries before her ordeal was over, but she was alive.

nintchdbpict000307656606 (1)The story has a happy ending for baby Jessica.  Not so, for many others.  The New York Times wrote:

“The little girl’s parents moved her out of town, to a three-bedroom house that they never could have afforded before she was rescued, to hide from the world that embraced them so hard they couldn’t breathe. Eventually, they were divorced. Others who helped to save the child — O’Donnell was just the most visible of hundreds — found themselves drinking, or in marriage counseling, or in legal tangles, all because of the fickle, seductive, burning spotlight”.

baby-jessica-17175736-1-402President Ronald Reagan quipped, “Everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” Baby Jessica appeared with her teenage parents Reba and Chip on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, to talk about the incident. Scott Shaw of the Odessa American won the Pulitzer prize for The photograph. ABC made a television movie:  Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure. USA Today ranked her 22nd on a list of “25 lives of indelible impact.”  Everyone in the story became famous. Until they weren’t.

For paramedic Robert O’Donnell, the nightmare never ended.  Already claustrophobic, those hours spent alone in a black hole so tight as to all but prevent breath, were pure agony.   The failure and that agonizing inchworm’s crawl out of that hole, empty handed.  The ultimate success.   The fame and celebrity.  The Oprah show.  The relentless pursuit, of media.  “For a year afterward everyone wanted a piece of him” said his older brother, Ricky. “Then all of a sudden one day it seemed like everyone dropped him.”

"Baby Jessica" McClure Rescue
Lee High Rebelettes hold up a sign during halftime of the Lee-Odessa Permian football game showing their support for Jessica. (October 1987)

The Paramedic had rescued lots of people but, somehow, his life stopped in 1987. Transfixed in the bright lights and the fame of those last fifteen minutes of The Rescue.  Everywhere he went, he was “The man who Saved Baby Jessica™”.

Post-traumatic stress is a strange and incomprehensible thing.  The next seven years were a downward spiral.  There were marital problems.  That humiliating episode with that made-for-TV movie.  The whole family watching to see his part, but no one bothered to tell them.  The scene had been cut.  The 11-year career with the Midland Fire Department, collapsing amidst allegations of prescription drug abuse.  Divorce.

22272348_124421455985In April 1995, O’Donnell’s mother noticed the missing shotgun at the family ranch, in Stanton Texas.  The 410 buckshot, loaded with larger pellets intended for bigger game, or self defense.  They found the body some 20-miles away, slumped over the wheel of the new Ford pickup.  This was no accident.  You don’t put a barrel that long into your mouth, without meaning to.

Those of us of a certain age remember the baby Jessica episode, well.  I suspect Robert O’Donnell’s story is less well known, and that’s a shame.  The man is an American hero.  He has earned the right to be remembered.

 

October 6, 1945 Billy Sianis’ Goat

There are different versions of the story, but they all end up with Billy Sianis and his pet goat Murphy being thrown out of the game and casting a curse on the team. “Them Cubs”, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more”.

For a Red Sox guy, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory, putting to rest the “Curse of the Bambino”.  Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. They had grandchildren and great grandchildren and even a few great-greats, and still.  The drought wore on.  For an arid span 86 years, one of the longest World Series championship dry spells in Major League Baseball history.

Yet the suffering of We who love the Red Sox™ pales in comparison, with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs.  And they say it’s the fault of Billy goat.

It was October 6, 1945, game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field.  The atmosphere was festive.  Electric.  The first post-season for America’s pastime, since the most destructive war in human history, bringing with it hopes for the first Cubs World Series victory, since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908

Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.

Billy Sianis

Anyone who’s ever found himself in the company of a goat understands the problem. Right?  There are different versions of the story, but they all end up with Billy and Murphy being thrown out of the game and casting a curse on the team. “Them Cubs”, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more”.

Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
Billy Sianis was right. The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series. The Curse of the Billy Goat, had begun.

Billy Sianis himself tried to break the curse, prior to his death in 1970, but no dice.  Nephew Sam brought a goat onto the field in 1984, 1989, 1994 and again in 1998. All to no avail.

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Sam Sianis, 1984 AP photo

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese zodiac, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named “Virgil Homer” to Houston, during the division championship series. They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

That got the Cubbies through the series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the National League championship. It was Cubs 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6.  Chicago was ahead in the series, when lifelong Cubs fan Steve Bartman deflected what should have been an easy catch for Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou.

Alou slammed his glove down in anger and frustration. Pitcher Mark Prior glared at the stands, crying “fan interference”.  The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning. Steve Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

For fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

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In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across a statue of Harry Caray.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings. Cubs’ manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

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Five fans set out on foot from Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012, accompanied by a goat.  Calling the effort “Crack the Curse”, the group hiked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field. The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but did nothing to lift the Curse of the Billy Goat.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the infamous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the gag “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. With due respect to Mr. Buckner, he was far better than that story would have you believe, there’s something my fellow Sox fans may not know.  The former Cub 1st Baseman was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt.  For “luck”.

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A philanthropic enterprise sprang up in 2011 called “Reverse the Curse”, selling goat milk lip balms, soaps and more, and, according to their website, “[C]ollaborating with an institution that provides technical cooperation for agriculture in the U.S., Dominican Republic and Haiti to develop goat breeding centers, vegetable gardens, and chicken farms for small producers”.

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2015 was once again the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac. That September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in a Bag”. The goat was gone. Surely that would work.

The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

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Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run. Mets fans quipped that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.), but he wasn’t the first.

As the 2017 season drew to a close, the Chicago Cubs found themselves defending World Champions.  That’s right. On October 22, 46 years to the day following the death of Billy Sianis, the Cubbies defeated the LA Dodgers 5–0 to win the 2016 National League pennant.

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The mother of all droughts came to a halt on November 2 in a ten-inning cardiac arrest that had all of us up, Way past midnight.  On a school night, no less.  Personally, I even watched that 17-minute rain delay.  And I’m a Red Sox guy.

So it was, the drought has ended.   Steve Bartman has emerged from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by the 108 diamonds of his very own World Series ring.  Billy Sianis and Murphy may, at long last, rest in peace.  The curse is broken.

 

In reading up for this story, I learned that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, named Fatima. No, really. I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

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