Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Setting a High Bar

During the middle year of her husband's term in the White House, First Lady Barbara Bush was invited to give the commencement address at Wellesley College. The invitation caused consternation among some students, who thought that a woman who had gained prominence and position by her own efforts rather than by being married to a president would be more fitting. Wellesley's Class of 2017 was less convinced that mattered.

In any event, the students registered their complaint with the administration, but neither demanded the invitation be withdrawn nor tried to shout Mrs. Bush down when she spoke. So she arrived at the podium on June 1, 1990, accompanied by Raisa Gorbachev, and not only spoke to Wellesley's class of 1990 about the kinds of things commencement speakers always talk about, but did so in the context of those who disagreed with her selection.

This speech was the source of the quote seen frequently in online tributes, in which Mrs. Bush urged the graduates not to forget the human relationships that made life truly matter:
"At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent."
It drew some applause at the time, as did her quote from the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But it was a line closer to the end of her short talk that won the crowd that day.

“And who knows?" she began. "Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse...," she continued, setting the hook.

"...And I wish him well,” she finished, hauling the crowd to its feet with a roar from the graduates and an impish smile of her own at the response. Game, set and match.

She had a couple of more sentences left in closing, but she'd earned her Washington Post headline: "Barbara Bush, Wowing Wellesley." RIP, Mrs. Bush.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Just Teasing

The Internal Revenue Service offered taxpayers and extra day to file their returns because its system for e-filing got glitchy and had to be shut down.

Unfortunately, the glitches will get fixed and people can go back to paying their taxes again before the week is out.

For one brief, shining moment...

Monday, April 16, 2018

From the Rental Vault: The Sea Wolves (1980)

Although thousands of miles away from the battlefields of Europe, India was the site of its own theater of World War II, with a large focus on the shipping the Allies sent through the Indian Ocean to the southeast Asian front against Japan. In early 1943, German U-boats are having a field day against Allied shipping, seeming to know exactly were merchant vessels as well as military craft will be traveling. British agents Col. Lewis Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Capt. Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) are tasked with finding the source of the information and stopping the secret transmissions putting the Allied ships in the Nazi crosshairs in the 1980 movie The Sea Wolves.

Unfortunately they learn the transmissions are secretly coming from a German freighter anchored in the neutral Portuguese harbor of Goa, meaning that British military can't touch it. The actual leak source can't be traced, so Pugh and Stewart recruit retired soldiers from the Calcutta Light Horse reserve unit to stage a commando raid on the freighter and destroy its transmitter. Pugh travels with the majority of the unit via a decrepit river craft that should allow a stealth approach, and Stewart pulls strings onshore at Goa to entice the German sailors ashore and distract from the sabotage mission in the harbor. He also finds himself in an affair with a beautiful widow, Agnes Cromwell (Barbara Kellerman), who may be something other than what she seems.

The Sea Wolves has a lot of fun with its over-the-hill commando squad, featuring some longstanding character actor mainstays of British moviemaking as well as a few headliners like David Niven and Trevor Howard. Peck is his usual stalwart self and fits right in with the English cast despite his all-American background. Moore offers a slightly toned-down version of his James Bond antics, although he does manage to be the only cast member with a romance. But it's hard to see "Gavin Stewart" in anything he does here, especially since the character is an intelligence agent.

The movie is based on a 1978 novel by James Leasor, who combined a couple of real-life operations from WWII to make his Boarding Party. One of those operations featured the real life Calcutta Light Horse and was similar to the raid described in Wolves, and it might have been worth it for screenwriter Reginald Rose and director Andrew McLaglen to have developed a script from that actual incident. Wolves itself at two hours starts to slog more than move and could jettison a half-hour to its great benefit. Some of the espionage escapades from the first hour and the entire Moore-Kellerman storyline are good candidates; neither strengthen the movie's centerpiece raid by the middle-aged commandos finally given the chance to do their part for their country in a meaningful way.

As it is, The Sea Wolves isn't so much of a chore it can't be enjoyed, but its construction makes the fast forward button a lot more tempting than a movie-maker would like it to be.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Recently, in the Eternal Realms...

Death reached out a long skeletal hand to tap a shoulder. Its scythe was poised in the other, ready to make his point, so to speak, if this next subject balked. Sometimes they did that, balk, not believing it was truly their time or thinking that they could bargain or bluff their way past the inevitable.

Usually the eyeless stare quashed that notion, the empty bony sockets offering nothing that a person could see and no spark of hope. If that failed, the babbling would trail away when the eyes traveled down to the mirthless namesake "death's head grin" that signaled neither mercy nor compassion, just implacable assurance that the time for bargaining and complaining and imploring was over.

Sometimes, though, neither hollow gaze nor mirthlesss grin persuaded a person that this was indeed and truly the end. A small tilt of the scythe, then, the blade somehow seeming at once to be both ancient and pitted and worn but bitterly sharp, promising a touch that would burn and rip as much as it cut. The scythe was enough. It was always enough.

The shoulder straightened as the bony finger touched it. It and its companion squared, and they rotated as their owner turned, his own eyes shaded under bushy brows and boring into those same eyeless sockets that stilled dissent. Brows furrowed, a chin thrust forth like a weapon. Death hesitated, unaccountably faltering, but then asserted itself and raised its hand again, beckoning with its finger.

"Come with you?" the man said, and sneered. Sneered! At Death! "I don't think so, Skinny. Now why don't you drop that toothpick. And. Give. Me. 20!"

Unbelievably, Death found its grasp on its scythe loosening, the iconic dread blade clattering on the ground. Death dropped to its hands and knees, then rose up and down bony phlanges and tarsals, joints clicking as it did pushup after pushup.

Sgt. R. Lee Ermey, United States Marine Corps (Ret.), raised on eyebrow in satisfaction. "You see, there are three ways to do things, Mr. Death. There's the right way, there's the wrong way, and there's my way. And from now on, you miserable sack of doggie treats, we are going to do things my way."

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Kings of 18th and Vine

During major league baseball's shameful segregationist era, African-Americans who enjoyed the game could go to white major league games, where they often had to sit in remote sections of the ballpark and root for the white players. Or they could attend Negro Leagues ballgames and sit where they wanted -- often in the exact same parks that would force them into the bleachers when white teams played -- and watch their own heroes on the diamond.

The Kansas City Monarchs were one of the most successful of these teams, establishing themselves with a reputation for quality play and classy behavior that earned them notice on both sides of the color line. The Monarchs were also unique in that they were the only Negro League team to be owned by a white man, promoter J. L. Wilkinson. William Young's 2016 book, J. L. Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs: Trailblazers in Black Baseball, explores some of the history of Wilkinson and the team he managed for most of its existence.

Young traces as much of Wilkinson's history as is known, starting with his own time as a ballplayer and then the two traveling baseball teams he managed before founding the Monarchs. He shows how Wilkinson's history with them -- one an all-women's team and the other the multiracial "All-Nations" team -- showed him the path to financial viability for unaffiliated baseball teams lay along a route of barnstorming and a top-quality on-the-field product. The creation of a traveling lighting system allowed the Monarchs the chance to schedule extra games during one of their tours, adding them on after people were home from the work day.

He also puts the history of the Monarchs in the context of their two affiliations, the prewar Negro National League and the postwar Negro American League. Young traces the development and impact of the team from its beginning in 1920 through the heights of the postwar period, to Jackie Robinson's breaking of the baseball color barrier and the decline of the Negro Leagues when segregation ended. Wilkinson understood branding before it was a term, and the Monarchs' brand was the best-dressed, classiest and most gentlemanly-acting team you would find. The owner was frequently known to front the cost of a suit for a new player, very often the first one he had owned, upon signing him.

Young is a professor emeritus in religious studies at Westminster College in Fulton, MO, so he knows well how to research and how to demonstrate his source material. Perhaps because a book on a baseball owner and team is not his usual fare, he sometimes sounds a little chatty, and he only hints at some of the differences between the cultures of African-Americans who came of age during segregation and those from more integrated societies, whether through location or time of birth. But he presents a great amount of material in a very readable platform and doesn't mince words about the financial shenanigans white team owners conducted as they took the best talent from Negro Leagues teams and offered little, if any, payment in return. His book is a good addition to the shelf of any history-minded baseball fan.
The Monarchs formed a large part of the culture of Kansas City, MO, especially its jazz and blues district centered on Vine Street, either at 18th where the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is today or at the legendary 12th Street intersection, now the site of a park. White baseball offered the Kansas City Blues, an American Association minor-league team, but black baseball offered the cream of the crop of its division of the sport and drew well among white fans. Famous jazz musicians and other African-American athletes such as boxing champion Joe Louis made the area their preferred stops when visiting the region, adding to the big-league feel of the team and its culture.

This history gets a good outline in Janet Bruce's 1985 work The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball. Bruce shows, as Young will show later, how the team gained much of its reputation (and income) through traveling games played against local semipro teams throughout the southern and midwestern United States, and even into Mexico. Team members' sophisticated dress, high-class attitude and quality of play brought an aura of "big city" baseball to towns which otherwise could only read about the big leagues or see some clips in newsreel footage.

Bruce also, like many historians writing about Negro Leagues baseball, shows how many different partcipants and fans of the teams had differing goals: Owners wanted to make money, players wanted to be paid to play a sport they enjoyed and were good at, fans wanted to see men who looked like them on the field. But many African-American civic leaders and newspaper writers saw the leagues as institutions which were designed to play themselves out of existence -- to prove that black athletes could play baseball at the elite level and that white fans would pay money to see them do it. They would by quality of play and support prove the owners' fear of negative consequences at the box office unfounded and show that black players were excluded solely because of bigotry.

Bruce traces this arc and shows how the Dodgers' signing of Jackie Robinson, plus the widespread broadcasts of major league baseball on first radio and then television, brought about the end of Negro Leagues baseball as a natural result. She's also clear that major league team owners, by refusing to regard the Negro Leagues as organized baseball, could justify acquiring its stars for minimum compensation. Instead of partnering with the Negro Leagues, major league owners simply drained them until they were vacant shells, in much the same way that school integration would erase and close so many African-American schools in order to integrate majority white schools.

Monarchs is in many ways remarkable by offering one of the earliest modern tellings of this story. Bruce wrote in 1985, nine years before Ken Burns' Baseball documentary would put the history of the Negro Leagues in front of the nation at a much higher profile than ever before, and in her "Acknowledgments" section she highlights how scattered were the sources she had to search for her work. Much of the interview and archive material she gathered for Monarchs forms the research material available at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, founded five years after her book was published.

One quibble with the book is the two-column page layout which makes it a little tougher to read than the usual one-column format. It could have been a quirk of a mid-80's university press trying something new or trying to save money, and in any event doesn't reduce the important of Bruce's book for fans of baseball, American cultural history and of race relations during the 20th century.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Date Noted

So did anything bad happen to you today?

Well if it did, the date had nothing to do with it. For real.

Just my opinion.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Forgetting Is Death

Today is Yom HaShoah, or the Day of Remembrance for the World War II-era Holocaust that killed six million Jews and perhaps as many of some other ethnic groups the Nazis thought the world could do without.

This article at the New York Times suggests that memories of the atrocity are fading, with almost two thirds of people in a survey, aged 18 to 34, unable to identify the concentration camp Auschwitz. This situation demonstrates clearly that the words and actions of those labeled Holocaust deniers are ultimately unlikely to succeed in convincing people that the Holocaust either did not happen or the numbers involved are much smaller than six million. Poll respondents rejected the denier's claims.

On the other hand, if we wind up not remembering that the Shoah happened, well, we won't need to deny it, will we? We'll just be surprised when it happens again.