Monday, February 19, 2018

Recommended Reading

Writer Carson McCullers was born on this day in 1917. If you do the math, you'll note that's five days after February 14, but just because McCullers missed out on a holiday dedicated to love and romance doesn't mean she didn't have some thoughts on the subject:


First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world — a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring — this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.

Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else — but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.

It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.

So what is this 1951 Southern Gothic novella about exactly? It details a romantic triangle involving a woman and two men (one of which happens to be a hunchback.) So who among this trio is the beloved? That's why I'm recommending the book to you, so you'll read it and find out.

I'll tell you what, though, let me google up an image that might clarify things a little. 

"hunchback"..."romantic triangle"..."Southern Gothic"...CLICK!

 OOPS! Wrong hunchback, wrong romantic triangle, and while that building may be Gothic, it sure ain't Southern.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Vital Viewing (Senior Living Edition)

Actor Burt Reynolds (seen here with a "cougar") was born on this day in 1936. Just last year he appeared in the feature film The Last Movie Star, with Chevy Chase and Kathleen Nolan (Richard Crenna's wife on The Real McCoys.) I can't tell you whether this flick was good, bad, or in-between, because I didn't know of its existence until about 15 minutes ago (if you've seen it and want to give a mini-review in the comment section, feel free to do so.) Here's a clip not of the movie itself but the movie's premier at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, featuring the aforementioned Reynolds, Chase, Noland, and festival co-founder Robert De Niro:

 It may be just simple nostalgia on my part (after all, I grew up in the 1970s), but even in stoop-shouldered, cane-wielding old age, Burt Reynolds is still the coolest guy in the room.

Here's a clip to enjoy from way-back-when:

Fun and games during the Energy Crises.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

This Day in History

In 1961, Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel in space. Note I didn't day first human; that honor went to Yuri Gagarin (damn Rooskie!) Unlike Gagarin, Shepard did get to manually control his craft, so that was kind of another first. And his feat did give Americans hope that this space program might be worth spending money on, President Kennedy using the occasion to push for a manned trip to the moon. Shepard's achievement was overshadowed about a year later when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, rather than merely go up and down as Shepard did. Nevertheless, Shepard assumed he'd be in space, and was in fact scheduled to be the lead astronaut in the upcoming Gemini program (in which a capsule carried two astronauts rather than one.) Unfortunately, his health gave out. He began experiencing dizzy spells and nausea, which he thought at first he might keep to himself. Why let NASA worry about something like that? But then it occurred to him that dizzy spells and nausea in outer space could be fatal, and he 'fessed up to his superiors. A doctor checked him out, and found he had Menier's disease, in which fluid builds up in the inner ear. Shepard was grounded. In the meantime, the Space Program went on. Gemini soon gave way to Apollo. A horrible accident left three astronauts dead in an initial launch pad accident, but, despite that tragedy, two men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren, eventually walked on the moon in what became a worldwide media event (though I'm not sure the Russians watched it; they may have had their sets tuned to the Bolshoi Ballet instead.) Shepard may have seemed like an astrohas-been at that point. 

Medical science to the rescue! By 1969, a doctor had come up with a surgical cure for Menier's disease. Shepard checked into a hospital under an assumed name, had a hole or something drilled in his ear, and the dizziness was no more. He was back on active duty. But how soon could he go to the moon?

Alan Shepard was a character. It's said that I Dream of Jeannie producer Sidney Sheldon based  Roger Healey (played by Bill Daily) after him. But Shepard didn't some sitcom scribe to come up with lines for him.  When an unmanned rocket that was supposed to be the prototype of one that would take him and other members of the Mercury 7 into the cosmos blew up in the sky during a test run, Shepard turned to a stunned John Glenn and said, "Well, I'm glad they got that one out of the way." After his historic first flight into space, Shepard was asked what he was thinking about when he sat upon the giant rocket waiting to blast off. His reply: "The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder." Funny guy, but there were some things about Shepard that others, particularly Glenn, didn't find so funny. Sidney Sheldon might have. Sheldon eventually put sitcoms behind him and became a best-selling author of racy novels, and Alan Shepard would have fit right in one of those books as he was a notorious party animal and womanizer. In fact, Shepard, who had a wife waiting for him at home, almost lost the first-American-in-space gig to the straight-laced Glenn because NASA officials feared a sex scandal. That scandal never happened, but having this playboy once again represent the space program must have given those officials pause. And then there was the little problem of experience. Shepard, grounded at the time, was not among the 32 astronauts originally tapped for the Apollo program and had spent no time training for it. Yet he was eventually chosen to command what everyone thought would be the fourth manned trip to the moon. I suspect public relations had something to do with it.

The first manned moon landing, Apollo 11, had the rapt attention of the American public. The second manned landing, Apollo 12, the attention was a bit less rapt. Unlike Neil Armstrong's black-and-white walk on the moon, this one was supposed to be broadcast back to Earth in color, but the camera went on the blink after it was accidentally pointed to the sun, and so it became a monochromatic rerun. What would have been the third manned landing, Apollo 13, did indeed have the rapt attention of the American public, but for the wrong reason. An oxygen tank exploded, raising the prospect of the three astronauts dying in space. Fortunately, they didn't, as they skedaddled back to Earth in time but without having visited the moon (at least they got a good Ron Howard movie out of it.) In the meantime, the Nixon Administration and Congress had started thinking about scaling back the expensive space program soon after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldren, and Micheal Collins splashed down in the Pacific. Now, there were plenty of valid scientific reasons to keep returning to the moon, and it's not like NASA could easily (or cheaply) go anywhere else, but how do you convey that to taxpayers? By entertaining them, which was right up inveterate cutup Alan Shepard's alley.

On February 6, 1971, 47 years ago today, Apollo 14 Commander Alan Shepard conducted the following scientific experiment on the moon, to the rapt attention of the American public:

 You might have heard Shepard say the ball went "miles and miles".

Not quite. It was actually about 200 meters, or 219 yards. What looks like a stick right near the golf ball is actually a metal rod that fellow astronaut Ed Mitchell, trying to get in on the fun, threw as a javelin.

Nevertheless, I, for one, am impressed by Alan Shepard's achievement. After all...

...I can't even get the ball to go through the damn windmill!

Monday, January 29, 2018

In Memoriam: Mort Walker 1923-2018

"Seven days without laughter makes one weak"

Believe it or not, I've spent years debating with myself whether to eulogize Walker or not. That's not a typo, I said YEARS, even though he just died the day before yesterday. I knew how old he was (for a while now the oldest cartoonist with a comic strip produced daily), and that his passing would come sooner or later...but it's been so long I've been debating this, it now seems more later than sooner! What was my problem, exactly? Though I liked his work a great deal growing up, I've come to see him in recent years, nay, recent decades, as the Anti-Charles Schulz. He didn't seem the artist Schulz was, but instead more of  a goddamn media mogul with an army of writers and artists (some of them his children) working under him.  Who knows when he last wrote or drew something on his own? 1993? 1985? 1971? Why not just eulogize the president of King Features instead?

Nevertheless, after reexamining his life work, my original enthusiasm for the man returned. Other people may have had their hands on it lately, but it's all based on Walker's original and quite wonderful style. So let the eulogizing begin...

 Walker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri...

 ...where he was a cartoonist prodigy of sorts.

 At age 11, Walker first cartoon, (top left) was published in Open Road for Boys magazine after he won second prize in a contest. A few years later, he had his own newspaper strip, The Lime Juicers, in the weekly Kansas City Journal, before he was even old enough to drive.

 Upon graduating high school, Walker attended the University of Missouri, where he had this cartoon published in a campus newspaper. 


  Little did I know when I was drafted that I was going to get almost four years of free research.” 

After the war, Walker began contributing cartoons to this magazine, which at the time had the highest circulation in America. Charles Schulz also had his early cartoons published there around the same time, though it would be a few years before the two men actually met.

As you can see Walker covered a wide variety of topics...

...but he seemed most interested in the misadventures of a lazy college kid named Spider. Walker eventually decided that he could make more money if his new star appeared in a multi-paneled newspaper strip.

William Randolph Hearst. He's known for many things. Yellow journalism. A humongous newspaper chain. Dozens of magazines. The Spanish-American War. The model for the title character in Citizen Kane (which Orson Welles always denied, though nobody, including myself, ever believed him.) A granddaughter kidnapped by a bunch of Marxist revolutionaries who ended up joining the Marxist revolutionaries herself. But it is in his capacity as the head of  the King Features Syndicate that he interests us. Walker's new comic strip about that lazy college kid...

 ...Beetle Bailey (Spider was dropped because there was another character with that name somewhere else in the funny pages) is said to have been the last one Hearst personally approved before he died in 1950.

Here's a rare look at Beetle's eyes:

It was rejected by the syndicate. Apparently they felt the same way that professor did in that final panel.

Beetle Bailey was a nicely drawn comic strip, and if you're willing to squint to read them, the gags are funny enough, but it its first year it was picked up by only 25 newspapers, and King Features considered dropping it.


I don't know that General MacArthur was all that happy about it, but thanks to the change of locale, Beetle Bailey quickly became one of the highest circulated comic strips in America, which it remains today. Let's look at some of the reasons why:

First off, there's Walker's drawing style. He was a superb cartoonist, it's as simple as that. Speaking of  "simple", the drawing became more so as the years went by.

Along with Charles Schulz and Johnny Hart, Walker was one of the comic strip medium's great minimalists.

Let's look at some of the denizens of Camp Swampy:

There's the title character, who never met a nap he didn't like.

 Skirt-chaser Killer. Whenever he sees a pretty girl, those oval things on each side of his cap start shaking, the closest a mainstream comic strip has ever come to depicting arousal. 

Country bumpkin Zero. With all the money that's spent on the military, can't they find this guy a good dentist?

 Plato. Like his namesake a bit of a philosopher, but Banksy he's not.

 Rocky, a comic strip version of James Dean. 

 God watches over orphans and drunks, but he sent Chaplain Stained Glass to watch over Camp Swampy.

Several years before Milo Minderbinder, Walker beat Joseph Heller to the punch with the entrepreneurial Cosmo.  

Gung-ho junior officer Lt. Fuzz, who's always trying, and always failing, to impress his superiors.

 Mess sergeant Cookie. If he prepares your food, you might want to keep a bottle of syrup of ipecac on hand.

Obese Sergeant Snorkle is one of Beetle Bailey's more multifaceted personalities. That's not saying much in a strip built on comic stereotypes, but whereas most of the characters has a single shtick they stick to, Snorkle has several:

There's the beat-the-hell-out-of-Beetle shtick.

There's the eat-every-thing-in-sight shtick.

There's the hanging-onto-the-branch shtick.

And my personal favorite, the eternal-war-of-nerves-with-Lt. Fuzz shtick.

 General Halftrack, the elderly commander of Camp Swampy, is another multifaceted character with several shticks of his own.

There's the drowning-himself-in-alcohol shtick.

 There's the can't-get-enough-golf shtick. 

 There's the stuck-in-a-lousy-marriage shtick.

 But my favorite is the shtick we see most often: the ineffectual leader.

The sexual revolution saw the arrival of Miss Buxley, Halftrack's scantily-clad civilian secretary

Over the years feminists have complained that Halftrack's behavior toward Miss Buxley bordered on sexual harassment (though she never seemed to notice.) Walker for years dismissed such criticisms...

 Until a real life military sex scandal made headlines in the 1990s.

 Halftrack was told to shape up.

These days Miss Buxley dates Beetle. After all, it's HIS strip.

I can't say for sure what effect the turbulent 1960s had on Walker, but in 1970 the normally noncontroversial cartoonist took a socioeconomic walk on the wild side with the introduction of Lt. Flap. In recent years he's been a much more subdued character, but there was a time when his every appearance made the strip every bit as edgy as Doonesbury.

Every comedy needs a straight man. That role was ably performed by Captain Scabbard.

Other characters include Private Blips, the plain-Jane counterpart to Miss Buxley: Otto, Sergeant Snorkle's lookalike dog; Major Greenbrass, another straight man; Martha, Halftrack's bossy wife; Julius, Halftrack's anal chauffeur; Dr. Bonkus, Camp Swampy's loopy psychiatrist; agressive Sergeant Louise Lugg, who's out to win Snorkle's heart; Bella, Lugg's cat; Corporal Ho, an Asian; Specialist Gizmo, a computer nerd. In it's own way, Beetle Bailey was every bit as multicultural as Wee Pals

Before I leave the Beetle Bailey strip completely I want to temporarily jump back in time...

Though there's no evidence Beetle actually served overseas,the Korean Was the impetus that took the young slacker out of college and into the army. Once that war ended, so did Beetle's hitch. He moved back home with his  family, which included his sister Lois and brother-in-law Hiram. That's them there on the couch. The change in locale didn't suit readers, and he soon re-enlisted. Except Walker had grown fond of Beetle's family, and proved the impetus for Walker's next great strip. Of course, two comic features was quite a bit of work, so he looked for someone else to do the artwork.

The 1940s logo for Chiquita bananas. You may think I'm a bit bananas for showing you this when I'm supposed to be talking about Mort Walker. But it's who designed that logo that interests me.

That's Dik Browne, the guy who designed the logo, on the right, talking to Walker about their new venture:

Hi and Lois (she changed her hair) Flagston, their older (soon-to-be teenage) son Chip, boy-and-girl twins dot and Ditto, and baby Trixie. See how Browne managed to get Walker's drawing style down pat. So much so, that as a kid, when I saw the "by Mort Walker and Dik Browne" credit, I assumed it was Browne that did the writing! )Of course, Browne eventually came up with a winning style of his own with Hagar the Horrible, and even doing Hi and Lois, his work tended to be more detailed than Walker's.)

It may be more Brady Bunch than Rosanne, but it was funny.

As you can see, the strip's origins weren't forgotten about, either.

In 1968, Walker came up with another strip. If Noah's story were only that funny. The strip was credited to someone named Addison. That's because Walker's full name was Addison Morton Walker.

How in the world did Walker find time for three strips. Well, he had some help from this guy, Jerry Dumas, who worked on all three. As well as a forth that some comic historians believe to be Walker's masterpiece.

The metafictional Sam's Strip premiered in 1961. If you're a longtime comics fan like me, you gotta love this stuff.

Unfortunately, there may not have been enough long-time comics fans out there. the strip only lasted two years. Here the two principal characters, Sam and Silo, make a cameo in Beetle Bailey.

Other strips created or co-created by Mort Walker include Gamin and Patches, Mrs. Fitz's Flats, The Evermores, and Sam and Silo (featuring the two characters from Sam's Strip.)

In 1974, Walker founded the International Museum of Art, currently located in Boca Raton Florida. I've never been there, but I'm sure when I do go, the guards will have a hard time getting me to leave.

Here's three cartoonist Morts for you: Drucker (Mad), Gerber (The New Yorker, Playboy) and Walker.

Since I think they were friends, I looked mightily for a picture of Walker and Charles Schulz. Instead, I found this one. That's Walker in the middle, his son Brian on the left, and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau on his right. During his long career, Mort Walker received many awards and honors, and, as this picture illustrates, had the respect of a very important peer. That's good enough for me.