Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Day 157/365 Never Cut From Memory

Against my love shall be, as I am now,

With Time's injurious hand crush'd and o'er-worn;

When hours have drain'd his blood and fill'd his brow

With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn

Hath travell'd on to age's steepy night,

And all those beauties whereof now he's king

Are vanishing or vanish'd out of sight,

Stealing away the treasure of his spring;

For such a time do I now fortify

Against confounding age's cruel knife,

That he shall never cut from memory

My sweet love's beauty, though my lover's life:

His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,

And they shall live, and he in them still green.*

If, over the last 40 years, you've been black or female or sick or disabled or poor or pregnant, searched for affordable housing, needed Meals On Wheels, wanted to play on a women's athletic team or attended a school or college - take a moment to thank Teddy Kennedy for being your senator.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Day 156/365 Va-ca-tion...Just Had To Get Away

What started as a mere Facebook thought is now bugging me and refuses to let go -so I've done some research.

Background: After watching the evening news I realized that everytime the Obama family goes somewhere, the anchor follows it up with "the Obama's paid their own expenses" - whether it is a hometown visit to Chicago, or a trip to Paris during summit meetings, or the Grand Canyon, or this week's vacation to Martha's Vineyard. There seems to be a great effort to reassure the public that the Obama's are picking up their own tab.


I really can't recall every hearing this for any other president, for either party, whether it was Dubya's family flying to Crawford with Laura and the twins (total vacation time was 77 trips totaling 1020 days, or 2.8 years of his 8 year term), or Reagan (flying cross-country to his ranch also for 866 days, or 2.4 years of his 8 year term)(what is it with Republicans and ranches?), or Clinton (closest number I could find was 174 days in 8 years, also fond of vacationing in Martha's Vineyard).

Historically speaking, our earlier presidents took longer vacations at a single time(probably owing to the more time-consuming travel of that day): James Madison disappeared for four months in 1816; John Adams' wife Abigail fell ill at the height of our war with France, and John went home for seven months to sit with her (his political enemies claimed he had abdicated); and my favorite president, Thomas Jefferson spent ten months on vacation as vice-president, and another three months as president (he missed Monticello terribly and felt no real need to be in Washington). President Chester Arthur wandered all over the country and refused to say why - it wasn't until a year after his death that it was revealed he suffered from Bright's Disease and was looking for a climate that didn't aggravate the symptoms. But at the time, it was written off as vacation.

Which president took the least amount of vacation?

That would be Jimmy Carter. President Carter took only 79 days of vacation over his four-year term, which averages out to just under 20 days per year (I received more as a lowly sales rep). Normally, he went back to his home in Georgia. No info as to whether he paid for Rosalyn and Amy's travel expenses.

No mention of any president picking up their families expenses. And, to be fair, no mention of anyone interested in them doing so.

Until now.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Day 155/365 Lady Camille

Anyone who has lived in the south, and to some degree along the east coast, knows some ladies (and a few gentlemen) by their first name only: Betsey, Agnes, Rita, Katrina, and once upon a time, Camille.

In August, 1969, Camille came calling at a full Cat 5 strength, stopping in first at Biloxi Mississippi, with winds clocking 200 mph. After virtually wiping Biloxi off the map, Camille moved through the southeast, finally passing over Nelson County, Virginia.

Nelson County is one of those picturesque places, with tree-covered mountains surrounding deep valleys, each connected to the next with winding passes. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the northern border, the Appalachian Trail reaches north to south, the Rockfish River runs through the county, and the James River runs along the southern border.

For those who remember "The Waltons", its creator lived in Schuyler, in the eastern section of Nelson County. The show was a collection of his memories growing up in the Virginia mountains during the 1930s up through World War II.

A quick geology lesson is appropriate here. A mountain is a ridge of bedrock, covered by a layer of subsoil (in Nelson County this is primarily a clay layer). Over the subsoil is the actual soil, the part where trees and plants anchor themselves.

On the evening of August 19, in Nelson County, Camille brought rain, with very little wind. Overnight, into the daylight hours of August 20, the rain continued. Nelson County received just shy of 39 inches of rain, in 3-5 hours.

Unfortunately it had been a rainy summer, and the ground was already saturated.

It was, in fact, so saturated that when Camille brought her 39 inches of rain, the rivers flooded. It rained so hard that there were reports of birds drowning in trees as cows floated down creeks, while survivors had to cup their hands over their mouth and noses to be able to breathe.

And then - the mountain slid.

Actually, everything on top of the bedrock slid. The trees, the plants, the roots, the soil, the clay subsoil - everything that lay on top of the bedrock. Any slope with more than a 35% grade gave way to an avalanche of debris: trees, boulders, mud, brush, and anything it encountered on its way down.

In Nelson County, Camille killed 123 people, leaving some families with only one or two surviving members.

In Nelson County alone, the flooding washed out 133 bridges, leaving some communities not only completely cut off from assistance, but completely underwater. The flooding downstream cut off all communication between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley.

In Virginia overall, Hurricane Camille destroyed 313 houses, 71 trailers, 430 farm buildings, killed 153 people overall (mostly from blunt trauma incurred during the mountainslides), affected 3,765 families statewide, with the total economic bill amounting to just under $141 million dollars (those are 1969 dollars, in 2009 dollars it's around $850 million).

If the Nelson County damage isn't enough, in 1969, when Camille came ashore in Mississippi as a full-strength category 5 hurricane, she brought a 28 foot storm surge, sustained winds of 190 mph (with gusts at 200 mph), and she caused the Mississippi River to literally flow backwards for 125 miles, then back up an additional 120 miles all the way to Baton Rouge.

Today, when we drive up Hwy 29 on our way to Washington D.C., through Nelson County, the bare rock mountainsides are still visible.

They might as well have "Camille was here" spraypainted across their face.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Day 154/365 Let's Do the Time Warp

What do I remember about Woodstock?

Not a hell of a lot - not because I was there, but because my silly cousin wouldn't stop by and pick me up on her way there. Being 18, and enroute from California, she had this notion that my being 14 would lead to our parents chasing us down, thereby ruining any chance of her getting to the party.

She was probably right. So I had to satisfy myself with her secondhand stories.

Her memories are the usual hazy memories (very hazy): hitchhiking out of L.A., riding cross country with the same folks only to lose them in the traffic miles from the concert, a very, very long walk, lots of haze, lots of cool guys, incredible music that went on forever, more haze, a lot more cool guys, a Biblical deluge of rain, an equally Biblical amount of mud, the realization she should have brought a tent, then meeting people who would share theirs along with their haze, and then the long walk back out, and a less-than-direct route home to L.A. (owing to one of the cool guys she met).

Thanks to her, I didn't get to see Woodstock until the movie arrived at the local drive-in. Every freak in town turned out for it, and we more or less had our own little Woodstock to celebrate. The incomparable Santana (Soul Sacrifice), Country Joe and the ultimate anti-war song, Arlo Guthrie singing Amazing Grace - those were the standouts for me - oh, and of course Jimi playing The Star-Spangled Banner - I've never heard it again - ever- without hearing Jimi in my mind playing at Woodstock. And I wasn't even there.

I didn't really pay much attention to the 2nd Woodstock a few years ago (1994?1999?). It was lacking something.

See the difference is this: Woodstock was real. It was a spontaneous event. Versus being created as a pre-hyped commercial event.

Pre-hyped commercial events are controlled. They have big ticket gates, crowd control and assigned seating, food booths, souvenir T-shirts, printed programs and glow sticks for sale to wave at the appropriate moment. Pre-hyped commercial events are created to generate profit, not music. Woodstock was very vaguely started that way, and then the crowds took it over, and it evolved.

BTW - that whole tradition of waving your cell phone came from the waving of glow sticks, which came from waving your lighter, and before that, waving matches. Everyone had matches and lighters back then, usually in the center of an awful lot of haze.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Day 153/365 Upon Going to College

"Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's
longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they
belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not
their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek
not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries
with yesterday." *

Love, Mom

*from The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Day 152/365 Believe Me....

if I started murdering people… there'd be none of you left... Charles Manson, 1972

This is the back door to 10050 Cielo Drive, Los Angeles, California. It was left unlocked on the night of August 8th,1969, something that would seem extremely unwise in retrospect. After the horrible events of that evening, the door was scrubbed clean, and remained on its hinges.

10050 Cielo Drive was originally built in 1944 for French actress, Michele Morgan. Over the years residents included Cary Grant, Dyan Cannon, Henry Fonda, Mark Lindsay (of Paul Revere and the Raiders), Doris Day's son Terry Melcher, and Candace Bergen.

In February 1969, Roman Polanski rented the home and brought his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate presumably seeing the three acre estate as the perfect place to start their family.

After the murders in August 1969, the house stood empty for a time, then ran through a succession of renters, the last of which was the guitarist for Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor.

Reznor insisted he had no idea it was the Tate house when he rented it, and enjoyed living and recording there, until he met Sharon Tate's sister, who asked if he was trying to capitalize on her sister's death by living there. Reznor said the reality of the murders hit him like a slap in the face. The owner had tried unsuccessfully to sell the house for years and decided to demolish it instead. Reznor was the last tenant, and when he left in 1994, he took the door with him, installing it as the front door of his recording studio in New Orleans.

Back on Ceilo Drive, the demolition was complete.

A sprawling Italianate mansion known as Villa Bella, was built in its place, with a new address of 10066 Ceilo Drive. After standing empty for a time, and going through several price reductions, it finally sold to a Hollywood producer.

The only remaining witness to the events of August 8, 1969 is the huge tree with the large spreading branches, the one they found Abby Folger under.

And of course, the front door to Nothing Studio in New Orleans.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Day 151/365 Seventy-six Percent

A momentous anniversary tonight, one whose details will be re-hashed by many so I won't bother. It was one of those "special reports" that stays with you through the years. One of those events that touches every person who hears it, and not in a good way. For me, lover of ghosts and all things unusual and supernatural, this was the trigger event that eventually drew me to a degree in abnormal psychology.

Charlie and his Family remain a morbidly fascinating enigma.

These days Charlie's an old man -no less dangerous, no less charismatic - word has it he's on the net, Myspace and Facebook, and has lots of fans. One twenty-two year old girl has traveled cross-country to visit him in prison because "he has the answers. He's in tune with nature and understands the cosmos." This one girl could be the poster child for why Charlie needs to be taken seriously and separated from society and freedom for the rest of his days.

How does this turn into the pure embodiment of evil?

How does a mother sell her son for a pitcher of beer?

How does one man spend 76% of his life in prison (a percentage that will surely only increase, since no sane parole board will ever release him)?

How does a prison literally throw a released prisoner out their door, in spite of his begging to remain (Terminal Island Prison, 1967), claiming it is the only home he's ever known?

How could we have expected him to turn out any differently?

And of course, the ultimate question: what makes him different from us? Is the hard wiring different? Was it all environment, a horrible accident of birth - wrong place, wrong time, wrong mother? Perhaps an unfortunate combination of those factors?

Even more disturbing: How does this odd little man still continue to fascinate and entrance our young? What could possibly be so lacking in that twenty-two year old girl's life that she would be drawn to this particular person as someone who "understood"? On what level does a psychopath understand?

Or is it as Charlie said so many years ago: our society is empty of true meaning, and the children flock to him for love and meaningfulness to their lives.

Which one is scarier: Charlie or the thought that we live in a world that empty?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Day 150/365 Charlie and Mary

This photo was taken on August 6, 1924. It's my grandparents, Charlie and Mary - Charlie is just barely eighteen, and my grandmother is just barely seventeen, and they are about a half hour from being married. In the mountains of Virginia, they are considered a little on the old side for just getting around to be married (Mary's mother married at fifteen).

Charlie looks uncomfortable in his suit, but Mary is wearing her best dress and white stockings for this special occasion.

At this point in his life, Charlie was working odd jobs and running shine across the mountains. In the next year, he will begin working in the mines in West Virginia, but still running routes on the weekends to make ends meet. Eventually, Mary will put her foot down, and he'll quit helping the "likker boys", and concentrate on the mines.

A few years after that, there will be a fire in the mine, and Charlie will never go back down. After recovering, he'll take his wife and what will then be five children, and start sharecropping at one farm or another.

In 1946, after 22 years of marriage, the death of their first child, and the birth of six others, they will somehow manage to scrape together enough to buy a piece of land. No house, just land.

Charlie will get on part-time at the Virginia Department of Highways, work the fields full-time, and after a sixteen hour day, every day, he will come back to their cabin, grab a second lunch bucket Mary has packed, and walk down to the piece of land so as to work on building their new house. No construction crews, or bulldozers, or power tools - just picks and shovels to dig out the root cellar basement, axes to cut the trees to haul to the local sawmill to be planed into lumber, and Jerry the draft horse to pull the joists into place. Plus three daughters, all under sixteen, to help.

The photo above was taken the day they put the money down for the land - the original was sent overseas to their oldest son, because he was in Germany at the time, fighting for the Allies.

One of my favorite photos of Charlie and Mary - it's the Fifties, and one of the older daughters has brought home a Polaroid camera - the kind you count off 20 seconds, then pull the paper off the back, and wave it in the air to help it dry. It's an amazing thing to watch, especially if you live where pumping your own water is common, and television is something that only rich people have.

The new livingroom furniture in the late 1950's -it's the first matching furniture Mary has ever had, and she wanted their picture taken with it. One of the new kitchen table chairs is dragged into the picture as well. Charlie has just gotten home from work at the Highway Department where he's gotten on full-time. He still has fields to work after dinner and livestock to tend.

1974 - Charlie is still just as uncomfortable in a suit as he was 50 years before, but Mary has talked him into going to church this morning, since it's their 50th wedding anniversary. Charlie is not much for church-going, but Mary goes almost every Sunday, since it's almost the only place she goes except for relatives homes. She doesn't believe in women driving (or voting).

Later that afternoon, this "formal" 50th anniversary photo is taken in the front yard of that house Charlie built. The six kids and sixteen grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews all come for the party, as well as friends and neighbors up and down the valley. Almost everyone is related some way or the other, since both sides of the family have lived here since the 1700's.

A week later, my grandmother is canning in her kitchen, and stops to look up sharply - she runs out of that house Charlie built for her, straight down the windy road that goes down to the hay field. She just has a feeling.

The tractor has hit a rock (they think), and rolled with my grandfather, straight to the bottom of the mountainside.

Two days later, my grandfather is buried. My grandmother lives another twenty-five years, but for all intents and purposes, her heart goes with Charlie down that mountainside.

Today would have been their 85th wedding anniversary.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Day 150/365 King of New Orleans

Once upon a time, on August 4, 1900, in the great city of New Orleans...

Mary Albert gave birth to a son, Louis. Mary was poor and black, not a fortuitous combination in New Orleans (then or now). Louis' father was William Armstrong, equally as poor as Mary, but not as interested in sticking around for his son. Growing up on the streets, Louis earned money singing on street corners, buying his first horn at the age of 7. When he was 11, he fired a gun on New Year's Eve, and ended up sentenced to the Colored Waif's Home. Those folks saw fit to give Louis his first formal music lessons.

Released after 18 months, Louis supported himself playing around the Quarter, mostly with his new-found mentor Kid Oliver.

Kid Oliver had a few musician friends - locals like Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton -friends who would put blues, ragtime, and Dixieland Jazz on the map and spread it all over the world.

Kid Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in 1922, featuring a young Louis Armstrong on cornet, and the lovely Lil Hardin on piano. Later that year, Lil would marry Louis. The music made included New Orleans Stomp (Alponse Picou on clarinet); Dipper Mouth Blues and Canal Street Blues featuring Louis's cornet; and Working Man's Blues featuring Lil on the piano. The Creole Jazz Band was the first black band to record their own compositions extensively.

By late 1925, Louis and Lil had started their own band: Louis Armstong's Hot Five. The first of roughly thirty-six recordings was Heebie Jeebies, followed by Cornet Chop Suey, My Heart, Gutbucket Blues, and the song that would establish Louis Armstrong as the King of Jazz, Wild Man Blues, displaying a series of solos and incredible technique. A popular quote said it all:
"Armstrong used his horn like a singer's voice and used his voice like a musical instrument. "

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was years after these first recordings. Louis Armstrong had made many many other records, appeared around the world, was recognized as the jazz man of New Orleans, and was a celebrity in his hometown. He had also caught some flack from younger civil rights workers across the South, and some called him an Uncle Tom.

But in New Orleans we loved him.


We adored him.

He had a huge heart, both in his music and in person, and we loved him.

Listen to Cornet Chop Suey - go ahead, I dare you. You'll love him too.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Day 149/365 Who's The Most Famous Agnostic?

Yep, Harry Potter.



He's actually John T. Scopes - ifyou were reading my blog in May, you'd recognize him as the famous defendant at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

Being that he was a substitute biology teacher, and wanted to teach evolution (silly boy), he became the devil incarnate to many uninformed Americans (meaning those who believed what they read in the paper).

Turns out he was actually an agnostic, meaning that he believed it was impossible to know if there is a god. Some would argue that's one step away from a Satanist, but I will grant Mr. Scopes the benefit of a doubt.

At any rate, today is John T. Scopes birthday - he was 25 at the time of the trial and enjoying his first teaching job out of college (and they wonder why so many new teachers leave the education field) - and in his honor (swimming against the current, fighting the good fight for knowledge, etc) here are some lesser known historical tidbits about the famous trial:

1)Most importantly, it was good business. Get the home folks all stirred up, attract national attention, grab as many newspaper headlines as possible, and you've got yourself an economic windfall for the little economically depressed town of Dayton, Tennessee. The hotel would be full, the diner would be standing room only, and papers would sell hand over fist!

The state of Tennessee had just passed a law making it a crime to teach evolution in public schools. A newly-formed organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, placed an ad looking for a teacher to help test the law in the courts. They did this with the full knowledge and encouragement of the pillars of the community of Dayton. Those pillars knew a money-maker when they saw one.

2) Our boy John Scopes had just wrapped up teaching his first year in Dayton. He was going to go home to Kentucky, but met "a beautiful blonde" and decided to stick around to see if he could get a date. While playing tennis one afternoon, one of the local businessmen invited him to a meeting at the drugstore with the other local movers and shakers. They asked him if he would agree to be indicted for teaching evolution.

3) Although he had just finished a full year of teaching, and teaching biology at that, Scopes didn't remember actually teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. Nevertheless, being an intelligent man with a degree in science (geology to be specific), he did believe in evolution, and agreed to the plan.

***Note: Did you get that? This 25 year old man agreed to be indicted for teaching something he never actually taught, because the local townspeople thought it was a great opportunity to fill their coffers. ***

4) Scopes was to be "represented" by famous attorney Clarence Darrow (a criminal attorney),
and Mr. Darrow's worthy opponent was none other than famous politician Willian Jennings Bryan. Radio station WGN from Chicago would broadcast live -a first for the United States.

5) During most of the trial, everyone ignored Snopes as the two big-shot lawyers waxed poetically and reporters recorded every word for posterity. In fact, when one reporter was called out of town, Scopes filled in for him and reported on his own trial. Not like he was doing anything else at the time.

6) At the end of the trial, Scopes was convicted and fined $100. For the very first time, at his own trial, he spoke:

"Your honor," he said, "I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can."

7) After the trial, John T. Scopes gave up teaching, got his masters in geology and moved to Venezuela. Really.

8) He returned to the States in 1960 (35 years after the trial), and watched the premier of "Inherit the Wind" at the Dayton drive-in theater.

9)His final comment on the entire bizarre affair was summed up in his autobiography, Center of the Storm:

"A man's fate, shaped by heredity and environment and an occasional accident," he wrote, "is often stranger than anything the imagination may produce."

Stranger indeed.