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.”