Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Birth of Progressive Radio, and my little piece of it

Back in 1967, radio station KMPX-FM in San Francisco, under the direction of the legendary Tom Donahue, became what many consider to be the first "underground" or "progressive" station, playing album cuts rather than hits and being programmed exclusively by the DJs rather than some overall station plan.

I was 10 years old back then, and my family and I lived in Pacifica, just south of SF on the coast. My dad was a bit of a stereophile, and one day he announced that he had found this incredible new station that was playing cool music. On a Saturday evening, he pulled out the big unwieldy reel-to-reel tape recorder, put the microphone in front of the speaker, told us all to shut up, and recorded two hours of KMPX.

What a great collection of stuff! Imagine a radio station today playing the following songs:
  • "Buy You A Chevrolet" by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (vocals by Goeff and Maria Muldaur)

  • "Let's Go Get Stoned" by Ray Charles

  • "National Hotel" by Ian and Sylvia

  • "Day Tripper" by Sergio Mendez and Brazil 66

  • The great "Green Rocky Road" by the doomed Tim Hardin

  • "Candy Colored Dragon" by Jameson

  • "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum (along with a discussion of where the organ bit came from) and the lesser known B-side, "Lime Street Blues."

  • “There is Something On Your Mind” by The James Cotton Blues Band

  • and a long, weird song about a guy using a pepperoni for a pool cue
along with traffic reports ("be sure to turn on your lights -- the freeway is a fright") and discussion of the previous night's Ravi Shankar concert.
That damn tape was my dad's "party tape" for years. I thought we had lost it long ago, but I recently found the first hour and made an MP3 of it. You can listen to it by clicking here, or downloading it by right-clicking and saving.
Listening to it, I got a little obsessed with it. It really is a piece of history, recorded at the very moment when radio, and most of society, was poised to head off in many weird directions. So, lacking any other hobbies, I decided to research it.
First, some background. KMPX was the brainchild of Tom Donahue, the top boss jock at Top-40 giant KYA in the early 60s. When the counterculture started to hit in the mid-60s, Tom noticed that the music that he and his friends listened to while cross-legged on the papa-sans (well, his friends – Tom was an extra-large) wasn’t the music they were being told to play on the radio. So in early 1967, Tom did the simple exercise of getting out the Yellow Pages, turning to the “Ks,” and calling FM radio stations in alphabetical order to see if one was interested in playing good music. (Contemporary music on the FM band was pretty new. FM had been around since the 40s, but nobody ever used it or listened to it. Our family didn’t even own an FM receiver until 1966, and I didn’t have one in my car until 1978.)
KMPX, at 106.9 on the FM dial, was a struggling foreign language station that provided programming for the large Portuguese and Italian fishing population in San Francisco. (Most people don’t think of SF as an ethnic, blue-collar kind of place, but until fairly recently, it was – remember, Joe DiMaggio was a fisherman’s son from San Francisco.) Actually, Tom never got KMPX on the phone – the station was so struggling, the phone had been disconnected. The owner, figuring what the hell, agreed to let Tom have a chunk of time from 6 to 10 PM to try out his idea. (And let's give credit here - starting two months before Tom, an innovative DJ named Larry Miller had already been doing a progressive show on KMPX from midnight to 6AM. Tom expanded the idea, but Larry was there first.)
My first question to research was the date of the recording. The DJ gives a few clues:

He mentions that the foreign language shows were being phased out. According to some articles I ran across on the web, all the foreign shows were eliminated by August, so the tape must fall between then and the format’s premiere in April.

  • He tells everybody to be careful when driving, because it’s “that weekend.”

  • There was a Ravi Shankar concert at the SF Auditorium the night before.

  • He occasionally gives the current time.

I figured the traffic reference must refer to the Memorial Day weekend (remember those damn Memorial Day traffic body counts?), and I browsed around at some vintage concert poster sites until I found the Shankar concert. The tape was made between 5:20PM and 6:17PM on Saturday, May 27, 1967.

What to say about the music? In addition to the above songs, the hour also included a bluesy version of “The Twelfth of Never” by an unknown artist, an unknown piece by jazzman Jonah Jones, a Guaraldi-like version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Uskudar” by Herbie Mann, “Another Girl” by the Beatles, “Egyptian Garden” by Kaleidoscope, and (an especially cool find) “Miserlou” by the Devil’s Anvil, a kick-ass proto-punk band from the Middle East. Counting the first bar of “River Deep Mountain High” by Tina Turner that ends the tape, that’s 19 songs in 57 minutes, an astounding amount of music. Of course, there are no commercials , despite the fact the KMPX was definitely a commercial station. Still don’t know what the story is there. But it's also obvious that there was a huge Middle Eastern influence at work here. Everybody was doing it - the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black," the Hollies' "Stop Stop Stop" and many others. I've never seen any kind of study on this.

The only thing that still bugs me about the tape is the name of the DJ. I think that was my dad's favorite part of the tape, actually, because he thought the guy sounded like Pat Paulsen. I distinctly remember that in the now-lost second hour of the tape, he said his name was Vince Something-or-other, but I can't find any record of a Vince at KMPX.

But I did find the above photo - the staff of KMPX, circa 1967. Take a close look at these folks. (People tend to forget that a big part of hippie culture in '67 revolved around Wild West garb and big frigging guns.) First off, that’s Howard Hesseman – yes, that Howard Hesseman, the legendary Dr. Johnny Fever from WKRP in Cincinnati, the coolest sitcom ever - in the natty ascot upper left (next to his wife). Tom Donahue is seated in the middle, with his child bride Rachael (she was 18 at the time) in the derby and sitting in his lap. (Rachael is currently the director of the oldies broadcasts emanating from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and is one of the DJs at Sirius.) Also, the blonde three over from Howard is Dusty Street, currently also with Sirius, and three over from her is Carl Gottlieb (DJ name "Egg"), who later gained fame by taking Peter Benchley's shitty shark novel and writing the script for "Jaws." (He played the newspaper editor in the movie.) Lary Miller is the gnome-like fellow with the Prince Valiant haircut in the right rear, next to an arch-looking blond salesman in a coat and tie who just happened to wander into the picture. And I'd love to know who the psychotic looking blonde next to Rachael is. I could go on for each of these guys, because just working for KMPX at this point in time made them all radio legends.

The last piece of the KMPX puzzle is the name of the DJ in the tape. You’d think that would be easy, but it’s still eluding me. I sent a scoped (just the DJ) version of the tape to both Rachael Donahue and Dusty Street. Neither of them recognized the rather distinctive voice. I'll keep looking.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Parliament of Whores

"The whole idea of government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take something and not pay for it. And here, in small-town New Hampshire, in this veritable world's capital of probity, we were about to commit just such a theft. If we could collect sufficient votes in favor of special town meetings about sewers, we could make a golf course and condominium complex disappear for free. We were going to use our suffrage to steal a fellow citizen's property rights. We weren't even going to take the manly risk of holding him up at gunpoint. 

"Not that there is anything wrong with our limiting growth. If we Blatherboro residents don't want a golf course and condominium complex, we can go buy that land and not build them. Of course, to buy the land, we'd have to borrow money from the bank, and to pay the bank loan, we'd have to do something profitable with the land, something like . . . build a golf course and condominium complex. Well, at least that would be constructive. We would be adding something -- if only golf -- to the sum of civilization's accomplishments. Better to build a golf course right through the Redwood National Park and condominiums on top of the Lincoln Memorial than to sit in council gorging on the liberties of others, gobbling their material substance, eating freedom. 

"What we were trying to do with our legislation in the Blatherboro Town Meeting was wanton, cheap and greedy -- a sluttish thing. This should come as no surprise. Authority has always attracted the lowest elements of the human race. All through history mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. The worst off-sloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every government is a parliament of whores. 

"The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us." 

--P. J. O'Rourke, Parliament of Whores, 1991

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Titanic Distress Call

The sound you can hear by clicking above is a recreation of part of one of the Titanic's distress calls sent by Marconi operator Jack Phillips aboard the RMS Titanic just after midnight on Monday, April 15, 1912.

Morse Code in 1912 did not sound like the neat beeps and boops we often hear in movies.  It was basically playing with crashes of static.  This signal was recreated for the Titanic Historical Society using vintage equipment, and it's an exact recreation of what the radio operators would have heard that night. As best as my rudimentary Morse code skills allow, the message translates as follows:


"CQD" was the standard distress call at the time; there were a whole series of "CQ" codes, and the "D" meant distress. In 1909, an international convention adopted "SOS" as the new distress signal-- not because it means "save our souls," as is often reported, but because the three dots, three dashes and three dots are a very distinctive signal that cannot be confused with anything else, especially by those not very familiar with Morse. (Even you can hear it, right?) "MGY" were Titanic's call letters. And the "DE" means "this is."

Imagine sitting in some radio shack on one of the many ships in the North Atlantic that cold, still night, listening to the staccato mutter of the Morse spark, and suddenly hearing this call out of the ether. Anyone who heard the call that night remembered to his dying day the hair rising on the back of his neck at the almost incomprehensible message -- the Titanic in distress.

A Stretch on the River

Richard Bissell (1915-1977) was an American novelist, best known for The Pajama Game, the Broadway musical based on his novel 7 1/2 Cents. Bissell was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, and graduated from Harvard in 1936. On his graduation, he shipped out as an ordinary seaman with the American Export Lines. He also served time in his family's garment factory, and during the war served as a deckhand, mate and master on the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Monongahela and St. Croix rivers.

In 1950, Bissell published A Stretch On The River, one of the greatest American novels ever written. I hate to reduce it to a synopsis, because there really is no story, but the basic premise is that in the early 1940s, a young college graduate named Bill Joyce, jaded and disillusioned with the posh life afforded him by his father's high-class bootlegging business, signs aboard the diesel towboat Inland Coal as a deckhand.
"I better get in the Army, Georgie. They're already starting to talk." 
"I love that line," Georgie said. "All our lives we been reading Remarque and telling each other what a line of cheese all that war stuff is. Now the Community Band goes down the street with the cornets playing flat on the high notes and right away you wanna get in the army. Smarten up, Bill. You and I don't have to prove nothing. The one thing we have in common is we don't give a damn for nobody or nothing." 
People were doing the most peculiar things in those days. 
"Smarten up, boy," he said. "Leave the dumbbells settle the war. Remember the line we was brought up on? 'Cannon fodder.' Remember Paul Baumer? Remember Katczinsky? Smarten up."
The novel, however, is not about coal or the Mississippi or the war. It is a brilliant character study about the men who work the barges, from the deckhands to the cooks to the cabin boys to the captain. Bissell's ear for dialogue is stunning:
"What about this here Hitler?" Diamond said. 
"No good," I said. 
"That's the way I figure him. And them French and English, too. I wouldn't trust none of them. They . . . " 
"Hey, wait a minute," I said. "They're on our side." 
"I don't give a ----- what side they're on. Take this here Duke of Windor, all he wanted to do was get to be King. He is so sore they won't let him be King he marries this here American girl and figures he'll be King of the U.S.A., by god, if he can't be King of England." 
"But god damn it, man, he already was King. They bounced him out because he married Simpson." 
"Sure, that's what they say. You wouldn't expect them to come right out and admit it, would you?" 
"Admit what?" 
"Why that he wants to kick out the Congress and run it like them old-time kings." 
"But he hasn't even been to the U.S. yet, and they bounced him out over there four or five years ago already." 
"How do you know he ain't been here yet? They never tell you nothing." 
"But, damn it, Diamond . . ."
and he often rises to pure poetry in his prose:
The trouble with steamboating is, there's too much of it. You can't get away from it. In the morning when the barges were wet with the dew and the hot cakes downed in Karo, all good high school graduates were sitting in clean buses reading the box scores on the night games, but we were on our knees scrubbing the pilothouse floor; at noon, when the boys were hard at the egg salad sandwiches at Walgreen's and the girls were sipping their iced tea, we lay down in our dirty bunks to listen to the luncheon music of the Diesels; in the evening, when the marquee lights commenced to twinkle in the streets and the couples strolled past the dime store windows, we arose from our sad blankets and went at it again. And in the middle of the night, when the kids were asleep in their trundle beds, the clock ticking in the kitchen and the mice making merry in the breadbox, we were still at it, pumping the barges, painting the hold, mumbling, spitting, rolling cigarettes, wondering what was doing on Main Street, and feeling sorry for ourselves. And it was a dismal feeling when we passed some little river town in the early evening and heard a bicycle bell under the trees.
Now this young lady was perfectly beautiful and she did not read Vogue magazine, discuss Braque, Albright or Rouault, did not have to be cajoled and flattered into bedding, or act real peppy and cute. She did not try to talk like Hepburn or to put character in her handwriting by separating all the letters, nor did she talk sexy and then run for cover when cornered. She shut up when she had nothing to say. She did not quit drinking at a party for fear she might say something natural; neither did she get drunk and blow lunch. She did not live on fruit salad and diet pills. If she felt like it she chewed gum. She did not claim to like or know anything about prize fighting or baseball. She did not say she wished she had time to read some really good books. She did not give a good god damn what kind of hat the girl at the next table had on. She didn't want to go to Hollywood and see the homes of the stars. And loving was her middle name.
After you have been on the river long enough to get the disease, everything looks different: Chicago is a town 200 miles east of the river. South Dakota is someplace west of Minneiska and of no interest as it hasn't even a mile of Mississippi River in the whole state. Lake Superior is an inferior watery deposit of some kind, in a general northeasterly direction from Grey Cloud Landing. And as for St. Louis, Quincy, Davenport, Moline, Rock Island, Dubuque, La Crosse, Winona -- what are they? River towns, of course. Not towns -- river towns. And what a difference that makes.
What possible charm can we attach to any of these towns other than that the Mississippi River flows past them, touches them? What is John Deere at Moline? French and Hecht at Davenport? Standard Lumber Co. at Dubuque? Ah, we love and cherish these mammoth enterprises because they are by the river. What is left of glamour at Reads Landing? A store with Rice Krispies -- and the river. McGregor, Iowa, is all tired out but the river keeps it on the map. Lancing, Iowa, would be worse than South Dakota -- but it's on the river, and in the evening it's better than Lake Louise. 
These grand old towns are pretty much shot, now. The aristocracy has fallen from the firmament and there are no bankers who read Greek in the evening. Papa and the Kellys and the Schwartzes are the new aristocracy, and they live in plastic houses with electric cocktail shakers and not a piece of reading material in sight. And the new sophistications of the inhabitants has systematically eliminated all action, drama, excitement, and color from the scene. My home town used to have a baseball team in the Mississippi Valley League and a ball park with pop vendors in lovely soiled white jackets. It's gone. We used to have an Amusement Park, a roller coaster, and a Bier-Garten. All gone. We used to have a Fair Grounds, and open-air trolleys to the scene. Gone. And a racetrack and trotting races. Gone. We used to have a millionaire who kept peacocks on the lawn, had a private trotting track, and arrived at the mill in a white suit via 1912 Mercedes limousine. Most completely gone. Why there's nothing really left there at all except the lights in front of the movie houses and 60,000 people criticizing each other and buying new-model radios. Except the river. That makes it a place. It's on the river. 
Aside from the river my town is like every other American town -- the fourteen-year-old girls run around Main Street half naked all summer and the evening paper is filled with sex crimes perpetrated on fourteen-year-old girls. And we have the usual town characters -- a half-wit who is a scream, and a bartender who eats lighted matches; but what makes my town worth coming home to? Why, the river, naturally; if I had lived in Fort Dodge or Topeka, I wouldn't even have come home for the burial of relatives.
My favorite part of the book, and the most accomplished piece of writing, is Chapter 18, wherein Shorty the deckhand trips, falls under the bow of the barge, and drowns. The chapter is one big five-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph of Shorty's thoughts as he dies, and it is brilliant.

The tone of the book is low-key in its detachment and indifference to the outcome of events. His relationship with his girlfriend in St. Paul is remarkably mature and sexual for a book written in 1950, and there is not a trace of sentimentality in any of the characters. There is not a single dated note in the whole book.

I was an English major in college (Elizabethan literature, to be precise), and I have read enough pieces of crap labeled "great literature" to choke a horse. A Stretch On The River is the real thing.

Bissell wrote some other books (The Monongahela, Goodbye Ava, You Can Always Tell A Harvard Man, Still Circling Moose Jaw), one of which, Say Darling, was also produced on Broadway. Later in life, he bought a river towboat and was known as the only author since Mark Twain to have both a master and pilot license, all tonnage, for the Upper Mississippi and Upper Monongahela Rivers. He belonged to eleven historical societies and collected everything from antique cars to saloon pianos. His prize possession was a majestic eleven-foot mirror from Mark Twain's New York house. He and his wife and four kids divided their time between their 1909 Stanford White house in Fairfield, Connecticut, a summer house in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and various travel locations. He died in 1977.

My Secret San Francisco, 1967

San Francisco in the 1960s was a little like the old joke about the blind men and the elephant -- what you thought it was depended on where you grabbed it. To the beats, it was coffee houses, Birkenstock sandles and nodding to Ferlinghetti in North Beach. To the hippies, it was the Haight, the park and panhandling. To straight bachelors, it was Vertigo, Sam Spade apartments with pocket-door foyers on Geary Street, and very dry martinis; to office girls it was looking for rich guys at the Buena Vista and seeing how many times you could wear the paper dress before it got ratty. To a nice, normal, Rob-and-Laura family like mine, it was my dad's office building at 49 4th Street, drives down to Pescadero in the VW camper for breakfast, seagrass rugs from Cost Plus, Sunday morning hot chocolates at the Sea Witch in Ghirardelli Square, and toe-dipping into some of the other realities in town. It seemed that there was at least one San Francisco for every resident.

In 1967, the year of the miserably misnamed Summer of Love, my dad bought a copy of a little, badly-printed guide book called My Secret San Francisco, subtitled "How to Eat, Drink and Swing in San Francisco on Almost No Money." (Why my dad, a 35-year-old happily married father of two, was interested in how to "swing" is a question I refuse to research any further.) The book was written by Arthur Fleming, and in 68 pages of his unique prose and perspective, he gives a fascinating look into that particular snapshot in time, when the beats, the hippies, the Playboy bachelors and perky girls coexisted for a moment in the bright sunshine before the storm.

I'll shut up and let you read Mr. Fleming's opus. I originally planned to scan just the text into HTML, but so much of the charm of the book is the Olivetti typography, the wandering little corrections, and the cut-and-paste layout. So I've scanned the whole thing as a series of 38 JPGs.

Friday, November 13, 2015


Oh, this Schadenfreude is delicious.  Tastes like fine wine.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hey, Bill

In the summer of 1972, I was 15 years old and working in the office of Congressman Philip M. Crane of Illinois. It sounds grander than it was – I basically spent all my time in the congressman’s hot, stuffy attic storage area in the Longworth Building running an AB Dick 360 printing press for various campaign-related materials. But I was down in the office quite a bit, as they also let me draft some letters, play around with their Ur-word processor (called a MagCard), and make lunch runs.

For those of you kids for whom 1972 is basically the Dark Ages, a little history lesson. That summer, the Democrats had nominated George McGovern to be their presidential candidate, and he had chosen a Missouri senator named Thomas Eagleton to be his running mate. But only a week or two into the campaign, it came out that Eagleton has spent some time in a mental hospital and had been subjected to repeated bouts of electroshock therapy. (Think Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”) After a lot of press buzz, McGovern was forced to dump Eagleton and chose as his replacement Sargent Shriver, the former head of the Peace Corps and (hey, it couldn’t hurt) Jack Kennedy’s brother-in-law.

About a week after all this transpired, one of Crane’s earnest young office workers came running into the office with big news. “Some jerk intern” (as he put it) in Senator Scoop Jackson’s office was offering to buy up any McGovern/Eagleton buttons, sticker or signs for $1 each. We were flabbergasted. Who in their right mind would want to blow their money on useless campaign materials? (The notion that this stuff might be collectable never occurred to us; in fact, back then most people treated all kinds of stuff we would cherish today as disposable.)

So we gathered up all the stuff we could find. I had a few buttons, and one of the secretaries had a stack of bumper stickers. (All the congressional offices did; McGovern’s folks had sent this stuff around to everybody, Republicans and Democrats alike.) Somebody took it all over to Jackson’s office, and I got $3 back, which I immediately spent on a Philly cheesesteak at one of the little food caverns under the Capitol.

Years later, I was reading a biography of Bill Gates, and there it was: he was the “jerk intern” in Scoop Jackson’s office. Even at 17, his little entrepreneurial mind was churning away. I hope he eventually made a decent profit on my McGovern/Eagleton buttons. I like to think that my little seed germinated into the $38 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And if I have any other stuff laying around that he might want – make me an offer, Bill.

Stan Casanove

Back in 1979, I was just starting out as a government contract negotiator with the Navy Department in DC. They had hired a large number of us recent college graduates, a bunch of 20-something idiots who thought we owned the world.

One of our favorite pastimes, I hate to admit, was making fun of the career bureaucrats in the office who were nearing retirement. One guy, who had been a Helldiver pilot off the Ticonderoga during the invasion of the Philippines, spent every day bombastically retelling his story of being shot down, to the point where we could all recite it over drinks after work. Another guy, long past retirement age, took his role as floor warden so seriously that he had stopped doing any official work and spent the day wandering around in his yellow hardhat, passing out copies of his 300-page manuscript calling for a world government run by - you guessed it - himself. Yet another guy, who looked like an old, skinny, even weirder version of Clint Howard, impressed us all with his dedication and his long work hours - until we discovered that he was, in fact, living in the office. They were all deep mines of amusement to us.

But the one we made fun of the most was a guy named Stan Casanove. Stan was a little guy, just over five feet tall. He had a moon-shaped face and a body shaped like a pear. He wore thick bottle-bottom glasses, had large unwieldy hearing aids in both ears, and he walked with two aluminum canes. He almost never talked, and we assumed he was just slow. Some of us got pretty good at imitating his whispery voice, his halting walk, his way of looking around without moving his neck. We thought he was hilarious, and he became even more laughable when, during a fire drill, he pitched face-first down a concrete stairway (just missing me) and ended up with grotesque stitches across his face.

Soon afterwards, Stan retired, and we all ponied up a couple of bucks and took him to the Orleans House in Rosslyn, one of the few decent restaurants in Northern Virginia back then, famous for its 100-foot salad bar. After we ate, the boss made a little speech (which showed us he didn't know Stan any better than we did), and Stan got up to say thanks.

"I know some of you make fun of me," he started. "You say things behind my back. But none of you know anything about me. You never bothered to ask about my canes, my hearing aids, my glasses. You never bothered to talk to me at all."

"Well, let me tell you something about myself. I served in the Army in the war. I was stationed on Corregidor. And I was captured by the Japanese when Corregidor fell."

Dead silence in the restaurant.

"They marched us 60 miles, and a third of us died on the way. No food, no water, and if you collapsed, they chopped off your head with a samurai sword. I survived the Bataan Death March - and I survived three years in a POW camp. Not many of us did.

"My glasses?" He waved at his thick spectacles. "One guard took great pleasure in hitting me upside the head with a wooden plank until I was blind.

" My hearing aids?" He gestured at them. "A guard didn't think I was listening to him closely enough, so he punctured both my eardrums with a stiletto.

"And my legs?" Nodding at his canes, "I didn't leap up fast enough when the camp commander came to our barracks, so the guards broke both my legs with a lead pipe and refused to set them.

"But these are just things that happened. They didn't diminish me, or make me any less a person in the eyes of God. I'm proud of my service to the country, and the work I have done here at Navy as a civilian. I hope that you find as much fulfillment in your career as I have. Thank you." And he sat down.

I have never, before or since, felt as mortified, as embarrassed or as humiliated as I did at that moment. I glanced at my officemates. The guys were beet-red, and some of the girls had tears running down their cheeks. Even the old guys looked stunned.

I grew up as a very sheltered kid, went from a quiet childhood to a good high school to an excellent college to a good job. But I had never been confronted by real life like that. I'd never had my immaturity, my cruelty and my heartlessness thrown in my face like that. I'd like to think it made me a better person. And I hope my compatriots, all nearing 60 now, took the same thing from that experience that I did.

Rest in peace, Stan. And I'm sorry.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Man, I Miss Secretaries

Geeky space photo of the week: Jim Lovell saying goodbye to his secretary, Martha Caballero, on the way to the Apollo 13 launch, April 11, 1970. 

Overachieve Much?

This is Astronaut Jessica Meir. She is also a professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School. She has a Ph.D in marine biology from Scripps. She spent time diving in Antarctica studying penguins, and is currently studying how geese can fly over Mount Everest. She lived underwater for 5 days to study long-term effects of mixed-gas atmospheres. And she's pretty cute, too. She's either one of those damn overachievers, or she can't hold a steady job.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas"

I can’t believe it’s been almost 50 years since “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered on CBS on Thursday, December 9, 1965. I know a lot of you younger folks just look at it as 30 minutes of crappy animation, but let me try to explain why it was such a big deal at the time.
The “Peanuts” comic strip (which we all, adults and kids, read every day in the newspaper) was a gigantic cultural phenomenon in the 1960s, far and away the one pop culture thing that knitted all ages together. We only had 5 TV channels, no internet, no instant access to news or info, and pop music was age-sensitive. What we *all* did was read “Peanuts.” It was cool, because while Charlie and the gang were undeniably kids, they thought and talked about grown-up stuff, to an extent that I didn’t realize until I grew up myself. Charlie Brown was the poster child for angst, self-doubt and bad karma, surrounded by the laid-back Linus, Linus’ bitch sister Lucy, Charlie’s Mitty-esque dog Snoopy and the rest of the gang. No identifiable locale, no adults, they existed in a timeless void never intruded upon by real events. So all they did was talk about their dreams, their inner turmoil, their inability to figure out why we were here and what it all meant. All the kids I knew talked in Peanuts quotes, much like my kids and I talk in Simpsons quotes today.
When we found out that there was going to be a Peanuts special on TV that Christmas, we were all excited. I was a little more apprehensive, because the fall of 1965 was full of TV disappointments for me. I was a gigantic nut about the space program and the race to the moon, and I’d looked forward to the premiere that fall of two space-themed TV shows – “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Lost in Space.” Jesus, what crap. Within weeks, I was yelling at the TV like any self-righteous 9-year-old who had had his dreams shattered: “Astronauts don’t wear their uniforms to work! Why does Roger Healey have an Army Corps of Engineers badge? And they don’t live in Cocoa Beach! Why are you showing an Atlas launch but saying it’s a Titan? Who brings their kids into space with them? Doesn’t June Lockhart ever take off that stupid silver suit? Why hasn’t someone pushed Dr. Smith out of the airlock? Arrrgggghhh!” I was so aggrieved by how wrong TV got those two shows that I didn’t watch the first season of “Star Trek” the next year, opting instead for “The Tammy Grimes Show” (something my parents still bug me about, since, based on the ratings, I was the only one watching it) and “That Girl.” Good thing I don’t bet on the horses.
But I digress. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered during the flight of Gemini 7, and just three days before the planned launch of Gemini 6. (There is a reason those numbers of out of order, but that’s for another post.) I had never felt as excited to be living in the present as I did that week. Americans are orbiting the earth, Charlie Brown is going to be on TV, and Christmas is only 16 days away. Hot damn.
The gold standard of animation was, for me, the lavishly-done Looney Toons that Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng did for Warner Brothers – Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and the gang. The Peanuts special didn’t look like that. It was a spare, jerky, cheaply-done animation, but it somehow, given the times, looked modernistic, avant-garde and hip – the same way that “South Park” looked edgy and cool when it premiered. But the hippest thing about it was Vince Guaraldi’s score. He had previously hit the charts in 1962 with the wonderful “Cast Your Fate to the Winds,” which I read somewhere was Jack Kennedy’s favorite song. We had never heard that kind of hip, trendy jazz score applied to a cartoon before. (Even today, I always hit the “replay” button when “Linus and Lucy” comes up on my playlist.) And for the voices, the producers, working on a tight timeline and a shoestring budget, went with real kids, not the kind of Walter Tetley/June Foray adults-pretending-to-be-kids we always heard in cartoons. Even the fact that the kid playing Sally screwed up her lines, and they didn’t bother to fix it, was electric.
The combination of the animation, the score, the voices, and the adult theme – seriously, a bunch of kids worrying about the commercialization of Christmas by “a big Eastern syndicate?” – all blended together into the coolest damn thing we’d ever seen. The ratings were huge and the reviews were glowing, despite the fact that the producers and Coca-Cola, the sponsor, were convinced that it was going to be a major disaster and almost pulled it at the last minute. Because what we really needed was another episode of “The Munsters,” right?
It was all we talked about at school the next day, and for the following week. We felt that TV had actually spoken to us at the right level for once. I mean, it’s hard to take Captain Kangaroo seriously when we were regularly doing nuclear attack drills, earthquake drills and tsunami drills at school. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aimed higher than that. Ever since, I’ve had a big warm spot in my heart for it, and up until I bought a VHS copy of it in the late-80s, I watched it every December when they rebroadcast it.
And beyond all that, we have this to thank the show for. From Wikipedia: “The popularity of the special practically eliminated the popularity of the aluminum Christmas tree, which was a fad from 1958 to 1965, when the special portrayed it negatively. By 1967, just two years after the special first aired, they were no longer being regularly manufactured.”

Dial-up Speed, Mr. Sulu!

My first computer game. A friend and I played this thing endlessly on a GE mainframe terminal at my old high school in the mid-70s. All text-based – you had to print out each turn on a dot-matrix printer to keep track of where you were. (The terminal didn’t even have a screen.) You also had to be able to calculate cosines (on paper – no calculators!) to know which way to point the torpedoes, and it took three or four days to complete a game. And I hate to admit it as a taxpayer, but we spent a lot of time in the early 80s playing this on the mainframe computers at the Navy Department.

Da Cubs

My grandfather, Bob Fleming, and me in the summer of 1960.  He was 53 and I was 4.  (I’m 59 now, which is kind of a horrifying thought.)  I was thinking about him this week while watching the Cubs advance in the playoffs.  “Champ” (our nickname for each other) was a huge Cubs fan, and one of my best memories of my childhood is sitting in the dark on the back balcony of our two-flat in Irving Park, Chicago, listening to the Cubs on the radio.  (Away games only, of course – Wrigley Field didn’t have night games until 1988.) The only lights were the glow of the radio dial and the tip of his Luckys as he chainsmoked a pack, while knocking back one Heileman’s Old Style after another. The murmur of the crowd blended with the hum of the Northwest Expressway a block away.  He never said anything, but made a satisfied grunt whenever the Cubs scored a run. He died, of throat cancer of course, in 1983, and I know he’s watching over the Cubs and saying, as he did every season, “This is their year.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I'll Get the Hang of This Eventually

I haven't posted anything here for almost 4 years.  That's stupid.  Blogger is a good platform, and I need to stop cluttering up Facebook with my TL;DR posts.  So all the action is going to be over here.

Fast Lens, Dude!

Some guy with a telescope, a camera and an accurate watch caught the International Space Station crossing in front of the moon.  You have to be quick, since the transit only lasts 0.3 seconds.