Category: History

Critic’s choice

Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s probably watched, at some point, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on Chicago public TV’s “Sneak Previews” and then the syndicated “At the Movies” and “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.”

The huge irony here is that Ebert wrote scrips for nine movies.

Ebert wrote about the first in 1980, 10 years after the movie was released, and five years before Ebert won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism:

Remembered after 10 years, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” seems more and more like a movie that got made by accident when the lunatics took over the asylum. At the time Russ Meyer and I were working on “BVD” I didn’t really understand how unusual the project was. But in hindsight I can recognize that the conditions of its making were almost miraculous. An independent X-rated filmmaker and an inexperienced screenwriter were brought into a major studio and given carte blanche to turn out a satire of one of the studio’s own hits. And “BVC” was made at a time when the studio’s own fortunes were so low that the movie was seen almost fatalistically, as a gamble that none of the studio executives really wanted to think about, so that there was a minimum of supervision (or even cognizance) from the Front Office.

We wrote the screenplay in six weeks flat, laughing maniacally from time to time, and then the movie was made. Whatever its faults or virtues, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is an original — a satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn’t know whether the movie “knew” it was a comedy.

Although Meyer had been signed to a three-picture deal by 20th Century-Fox, I wonder whether at some level he didn’t suspect that “BVD” would be his best shot at employing all the resources of a big studio at the service of his own highly personal vision, his world of libidinous, simplistic creatures who inhabit a pop universe. Meyer wanted everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink. The movie, he theorized, should simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose (so soon after the Sharon Tate murders) of what the opening crawl called “the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.”

What was the correct acting style for such a hybrid? Meyer directed his actors with a poker face, solemnly, discussing the motivations behind each scene. Some of the actors asked me whether their dialogue wasn’t supposed to be humorous, but Meyer discussed it so seriously with them that they hesitated to risk offending him by voicing such a suggestion. The result is that “BVD” has a curious tone all of its own. There have been movies in which the actors played straight knowing they were in satires, and movies which were unintentionally funny because they were so bad or camp. But the tone of “BVD” comes from actors directed at right angles to the material. “If the actors perform as if they know they have funny lines, it won’t work,” Meyer said, and he was right.

The movie was inspired only incidentally by Valley of the Dolls. Neither Meyer nor I ever read Jacqueline Susann’s book, but we did screen the Mark Robson film, and we took the same formula: Three young girls come to Hollywood, find fame and fortune, are threatened by sex, violence and drugs, and either do or not do win redemption.

The original book was a roman a clef, and so was “BVD,” with an important difference: We wanted the movie to seem like a fictionalized expose of real people, but we personally possessed no real information to use as inspiration for the characters. The character of teenage rock tycoon Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, for example, was supposed to be “inspired” by Phil Spector — but neither Meyer nor I had ever met Spector.

The movie’s story was made up as we went along, which makes subsequent analysis a little tricky. Not long ago, for example, I was invited up to Syracuse University to discuss Meyer’s work, and the subject of Z-Man came up. (Readers who have seen “BVD” will know that Z-Man is a rock Svengali who seems to be a gay man for most of the movie, but is finally revealed to be a woman in drag.) Some of the questions at Syracuse dealt with the “meaning” of Z-Man’s earlier scenes, in light of what is later discovered about the character. But in fact those earlier scenes were written before either Meyer or I knew Z-Man was a transvestite: that plot development came on the spur of the moment. So, too, did such inspirations as quoting a “Citizen Kane” camera movement from a stage below to a catwalk above, or the use of the Fox musical fanfare during the beheading sequence.

They asked at Syracuse if Meyer’s use of the Fox trademark music was a put-down of the studio system. Meyer’s motive was much more basic: By using the music, he hoped to establish a satiric tone to the scene that would moderate the effect of the beheading and help protect against an X rating.

In the event, of course, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was rated X anyway. There is a story about that. If the movie were to be rated today, it would probably get an R rating with a few small cuts. It was a very mild X. That was because Meyer and the studio were aiming for the R rating. When they didn’t get it, Meyer believed the ratings board had felt obligated to give the “King of the Nudies” an X rating, lest it seem to endorse his movie to the Majors.

Because the movie was stuck with the X, Meyer wanted to re-edit certain scenes in order to include more nudity (he shot many scenes in both X and R versions). But the studio, still in the middle of a cash-flow crisis, wanted to rush the film into release. Meyer still waxes nostalgic for the “real” X version of BVD, which exists only in his memory but includes many much steamier scenes starring the movie’s many astonishingly beautiful heroines and villianesses.

The visit to Syracuse was a chance for me to see BVD again for the first time in a few years. The movie still seems to play for audiences; it hasn’t dated, apart from the rather old-fashioned narrative quality it had even at the time of its release. It begins rather slowly, because so many characters have to be established and such an ungainly plot has to be set in motion. (The story is such a labyrinthine juggling act that resolving it took a quadruple murder, a narrative summary, a triple wedding and an epilogue.) But the last hour has a real kinetic energy, and the scenes beginning with Z-Man’s psychedelic orgy and ending with his death are, I must say on Meyer’s behalf, as exciting, terrifying and dynamic as any such sequence I can remember. That stretch of “BVD” is pure cinema, combining shameless melodrama, highly charged images of violence, sledge-hammer editing and musical overkill. It works.

And the movie as a whole? I think of it as an essay on our generic expectations. It’s an anthology of stock situations, characters, dialogue, clichés and stereotypes, set to music and manipulated to work as exposition and satire at the same time; it’s cause and effect, a wind-up machine to generate emotions, pure movie without message. The strange thing about the movie is that it continues to play successfully to completely different audiences for different reasons. When Meyer and I were hired a few years later to work on an ill-fated Sex Pistols movie called “Who Killed Bambi?” we were both a little nonplussed, I think, to hear Johnny Rotten explain that he liked “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” because it was so true to life.

 

50 years ago tonight

Doug Collette:

The stories behind Chicago’s vaunted appearance at Tanglewood is almost (but not quite) as fascinating as the performance itself. The original headliner for this date of the late Bill Graham’s Fillmore At Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts was purportedly Joe Cocker, but neither he nor alternate choice Jimi Hendrix was unable to make the date. Now, it’s not a given the latter’s refusal of the booking led to Chicago’s, but it is known the guitar icon admired the guitar work of the late Terry Kath, so…

Adding further mystique to this piece of rock and roll history is its ready availability via the web: even though it’s never been formally sanctioned for release by Chicago itself, perhaps due to licensing issues with the estate of the aforementioned rock impresario. Such minutiae, however, turn trivial in the context of the group’s stellar performance this July night at the summer home of the Boston Symphony: even with the band on the cusp of widespread fame, based on singles culled from their sophomore album released earlier in the year, members of their burgeoning fanbase probably couldn’t expect anything so visceral or complex.

This venue’s flat sight-lines notwithstanding, as the ninety-minutes plus show progressed, the audience inside the open-air shed, as well as those further populating the lawn, no doubt found it increasingly riveting. Before too long, virtually all the attendees knew they were watching and listening to a band that was not only firing in all cylinders but also well aware of the elevated level of its musicianship. July 21, 1970, was one of those transcendent experiences music-loving concertgoers dream of.

Spurred on by Kath (who would die in 1978 in a tragic firearms accident), Chicago was equally tight and versatile as they traversed material from their debut album, Chicago Transit Authority, as well as Chicago II. And while “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” had not yet fully catapulted the band into the mainstream, the group’s dawning realization of their combined power and its effect on the attendees only added atmosphere to the event.

Chicago ran the gamut of composition and style during the course of this comfortably warm, crystal-clear night. Near-perpetual touring since the release of their debut album the previous spring had honed the ensemble’s musicianship, without leaving it rote or mechanical, so the dynamic shifts taking place in this single extended set ran the gamut: from near fifteen minutes of “It Better End Soon” to the comparatively short but sweet “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” hard-driving horns of “25 or 6 to 4” gave way to “Free Form Piano” and only then did the septet transition smoothly into the rousing suite titled  “Ballet For A Girl In Buchanan.” including the aforementioned future hits.

The unified power in the playing had its corollary in the personal camaraderie among the band members. Taking the form of verbal acclamation of each other as well as regular rounds of delighted smiles, Chicago may have been surprising itself with the splendor of its playing here in the Berkshires, but that only heightened its infectious impact on the attendees and to a great degree helped elicit (and no doubt increase the volume of) the thunderous ovation(s) and call(s) for encore(s). Judging by the wan sound of promoter Graham’s farewell to the audience (readily available to hear on the various aforementioned internet versions, there’s little doubt everyone present was fully satiated and thoroughly drained by the time this evening concluded.

244 years ago

Declaration_Pg1of1_AC

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:

Column 1
Georgia:
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton

Column 2
North Carolina:
William Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn
South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton

Column 3
Massachusetts:
John Hancock
Maryland:
Samuel Chase
William Paca
Thomas Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Virginia:
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton

Column 4
Pennsylvania:
Robert Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Franklin
John Morton
George Clymer
James Smith
George Taylor
James Wilson
George Ross
Delaware:
Caesar Rodney
George Read
Thomas McKean

Column 5
New York:
William Floyd
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
Lewis Morris
New Jersey:
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkinson
John Hart
Abraham Clark

Column 6
New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett
William Whipple
Massachusetts:
Samuel Adams
John Adams
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery
Connecticut:
Roger Sherman
Samuel Huntington
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott
New Hampshire:
Matthew Thornton

Today in history

There is a specific event of note today. See if you can find it in this list of today in …

350 A.D.: Nepotianus proclaims himself emperor of Rome, backed up by the parade of gladiators who accompany him into Rome.

713: Byzantine emperor Philippicus is blinded, deposed and sent into exile by conspirators within the Opsikion Army in Thrace. Think of it as similar to the finish of …

1083: Henry IV of Germany storms Rome, capturing St. Peter’s Cathedral.

1326: The Treaty of Novgorod determines the borders between Russia and the portion of Finnmark known as Norway.

1509: Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, his first (but not last) wife.

1539: Hernando de Soto lands at Ucita, Fla., and claims Florida for Spain.

1540: Having taken a year to get there, de Soto is the first European to cross the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina — a trip that now takes about 11½ hours by car.

1621: The Dutch West India Company receives a charter for New Netherlands, known today as New York City.

1781: Jack Jouett, not Paul Revere, begins his midnight ride to warn Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson and legislature, not Boston, and Thomas Jefferson of an impending raid by British Gen. Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton.

1800: President John Adams moves to Washington, D.C., and lives in a tavern, because the White House isn’t finished yet. Adams moved in later in 1800, only to move out after he lost the 1800 presidential election to Thomas Jefferson.

1804: Richard Cobden, British economist and statesman known as the Apostle of Free Trade, is born.

1808: Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, is born.

1839: In Humen, China, Lin Tse-hsü destroys 1.2 million kilograms of opium taken away from British merchants, starting the First Opium War.

1851: The New York Knickerbockers baseball team wears a straw hat, white shirt and long blue trousers — the first recognized baseball uniform. (Presumably previous teams wore clothes, but not uniform clothes.)

1861: Stephen A. Douglas, who defeated Abraham Lincoln for the U.S. Senate in 1858 after the Lincoln–Douglas debates, but was defeated for president by Lincoln in 1860, dies. (Here’s a historical what-if for you: Douglas, the Northern Democratic candidate for president, received just 12 electoral votes, finishing fourth. But what if Douglas had won, and then died three months after taking office, in the midst of tensions that led to the Civil War? The Civil War began before Douglas’ death, but one wonders if an insurrection wasn’t inevitable regardless of who was elected president, given that Southern Democrats bolted both Democratic conventions — the first one was adjourned after 57 ballots for the presidential nomination — and nominated their own candidate, Vice President John Breckinridge. The 1860 northern Democrats’ vice presidential candidate was Georgia Gov. Herschel Vespasian Johnson, chosen to balance the ticket.)

1864: On Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ 56th birthday, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wins his last victory of the Civil War at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Va., where more than 6,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded in one hour. (Perhaps that’s why June 3 is Confederate Memorial Day in Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee.) That same day, Ransom Eli Olds, who created the Oldsmobile car and REO truck (for which the rock group REO Speedwagon) was born.

1876: Harper’s Weekly publishes a front-page cartoon by Thomas Nast about Congress’ attempt to impeach President Ulysses Grant. Congress had just impeached Grant’s war secretary, William Belknap, despite the fact that Belknap resigned before the impeachment vote. Other Congressional attempts to impeach Grant focused around an accusation that Grant had used public funds for his 1872 reelection campaign, an accusation that foundered when the accuser was discovered to be an escapee from an insane asylum, and a complaint that Grant had been out of Washington an excessive number of times. (You cannot make these things up.) A century later, Richard Nixon was impeached in committee, an impeachment attempt was made against Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton was impeached, and impeachment attempts were  made against George W. Bush.

1880: Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the first wireless phone message from the top of the Franklin School in Washington, D.C.,  on his new “photophone,” which transmits sound via light beams.

1881: A 55-year-old Japanese giant salamander, believed to have been the oldest amphibian, dies in a Dutch zoo.

1886: Charles Lwanga, a Catholic catechist, 11 other Catholic men and boys and nine Anglicans are burned alive by the orders of King Mwanga II of Uganda. Pope Paul VI canonized Lwanga and the other Catholics in 1964 and named June 3 the Feast Day of Charles Lwanga and Companions.

1888: Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” is published in the San Francisco Examiner.

1904: Charles Richard Drew, who pioneered blood plasma research, is born.

1906: Singer Josephine Baker is born.

1911: Actress Ellen Corby, Grandma of The Waltons, is born in Racine.

1925: Actor Tony Curtis is born, presumably not wearing women’s clothes.

1929: Producer Chuck Barris, creator of The Gong Show, is born. (If you’ve never heard of The Gong Show, or you think TV is bizarre now, watch this and this.)

1932: In Shibe Park in Philadelphia, New York Yankee Lou Gehrig hits four home runs in a game, while Tony Lazzeri hits for the natural cycle — in order, single, double, triple and home run. The Yankees beat the Philadelphia (later Kansas City and Oakland) A’s 20–13. (No, that’s not preseason football.) One of the pitchers in this pitching non-duel was Lew Krausse, father of former Brewers pitcher Lew Krausse.

1937: Edward VIII marries American Wallis Warfield Simpson.  Negro Leagues baseball player Josh Gibson celebrates by hitting a 580-foot home run at Yankee Stadium.

1939: Steve Dalkowski, on whom the Nuke LaLoosh character in “Bull Durham” and the Steve Nebraska character in “The Scout,” is born. In an era before radar guns, the left-handed Dalkowski could regularly throw over 100 mph, but not necessarily over the plate, which is why Dalkowski never pitched in the majors. He did have the reported distinction of having the highest number of strikeouts and walks per nine innings of any pitcher in pro baseball history.

1940: While the German Luftwaffe bombs Paris, Allied forces exit Dunkirk, France, saving their troops but losing all their equipment.

1943: In Los Angeles, Navy sailors and Marines fight Latino youths in the Zoot Suit riots.

1944: Italians say “Arrivederci” as German forces exit Rome.

1946: Members of three iconic classic rock groups are born today — Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople, bassist John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and drummer Michael Clarke of The Byrds.

1949: “Dragnet” premieres on radio in Los Angeles, the start of a franchise that included four TV series and two movies, and those are just the facts.

1954: Dan Hill, who foisted the horrifyingly bad “Sometimes When We Touch” on radio listeners, is born.

1957: Howard Cosell’s first TV show premieres. Complaints about Cosell begin approximately 12 seconds after the show begins.

1963: Pope John XXIII dies, taking one pope off St. Malachy’s list. (Four more have been taken off the list since then. Pope Francis is the last pope on Malachy’s list.)

1964: The Rolling Stones begin their first U.S. tour with Johnny Rivers and Bobby Goldsboro. (Putting the Stones and Goldsboro in the same concert would be like putting Korn and Michael Bolton in the same concert today.)

1965: Body-builder Suzan Kaminga, actor and singer Jeff Blumenkranz, actor Daniel Selby and Phish bass player Mike Gordon are born. American astronaut Edward White, having flown into space on Gemini 4 earlier in the day, makes the first U.S. spacewalk.

In a hospital room in Madison, a nun shoos the people watching the spacewalk out of the only room on the nursery floor with a TV, so that the new mother inside can get some rest before her constantly hungry newborn son wants to eat again.

1967: Anderson Cooper of CNN is born.

1969: The last, and arguably worst, episode of “Star Trek” airs on NBC. It is certainly the worst episode in TV history that does not have the words “Brain and brain! What is brain?” in it. During an exercise in the South China Sea the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne collides with the Navy destroyer USS Frank E. Evans, cutting the Evans in half and killing 74 of its crew. That crash came five years after the Melbourne cut the destroyer HMAS Voyager in two, killing 82 of the Voyager’s crew.

1973: The Soviet supersonic jet era ends shortly after it begins when the Tupolev TU-144 crashes at an air show in Paris:

1980: Seven tornadoes hit the Grand Island, Neb., area, killing five, injuring 357 and causing $300 million in damages. A movie, “Night of the Twisters,” is made based on the tornado outbreak.

1989: Chinese troops kill hundreds of pro-democracy students in Beijing. The same day, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran dies.

1990: The first WIAA state track meet at UW–La Crosse, where state moved after decades at Madison’s Mansfield Stadium, is interrupted, for the first time in decades, by rain. WIAA officials are not happy, with the face of one of them looking as foreboding as the skies.

1992: A newspaper geek celebrates his 27th birthday by buying half of the Tri-County Press in Cuba City.

1997: Dennis James, the host of TV’s first game show and TV’s first telethon, dies.

2000: The editor of a business magazine goes for a 150-mph ride in a NASCAR race truck at Road America in Elkhart Lake.

2001: Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” wins a record 12 Tony Awards. CBS-TV, which carries the Tony Awards, anticipates the big day for “Springtime for Hitler” by having Bialystock & Bloom (actually, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick) emcee the awards. That same day, actor Anthony Quinn dies.

2009: “Kung Fu” actor David Carradine dies.

2011: Actor James Arness, the older (and taller) brother of actor Peter Graves, dies …

… on the same day that singer Andrew Gold, formerly Linda Ronstadt’s guitar player, dies.

2014: I announce the first game I have ever announced on June 3, possibly ironically in my mother’s hometown.

And let me be the first to wish you a Happy Opium Suppression Movement Day. (See June 3, 1839.)

Everyone my age should be dead

If those who were born in the ’60s and grew up in the ’70s seem a little blasé about COVID-19, maybe MeTV explains why:

If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, then you know how relaxed everything used to be. Our parents never forced us to wear seatbelts, we pretty much ate whatever we wanted, and were given way more responsibiity than we should have been given. It’s a little sad kids today won’t get to experience half the things we did, but looking back, there’s a good reason why they won’t.

Were these 12 things we did as kids kind of dangerous? Yeah, maybe some of it was.

1. Playing with dangerous toys

Parents were a lot more liberal with what they would let us play with. Forget about choking hazards, we’re talking hot plates, noxious odors and sharp metal objects. It’s a wonder how we made it out of the decade intact.

Not only were there lawn darts in the neighborhood, but we used to have a waterslide (a plastic sheet into which a water hose was plugged in, with holes on the sides squirting out water) that supposedly caused paralysis when someone hit a dry spot, or something.

2. No seatbelts

We never had to buckle up back in the day, which meant we could sit wherever. That includes stretching out across the seats, lying against the back windshield, or, if your parents had a station wagon, rolling around in the cargo area.

What was better than all of that was hitching a ride in a flatbed pickup. No cushioned seats, no roof and nothing but the wind in your hair and sun in your face.

Our first second car was a 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air, whose rear seat had no seat belts. So my brother and I had to share the front-seat lap belt, because the possibility of our faces slamming into the metal dashboard was certainly preferable.

3. No helmets

Just like seat belts, people didn’t really see the value in this piece of life saving gear. Kids popped wheelies and raced each other without helmets, let alone knee and elbow pads. Falling was an art form too because you had to land without splitting your head open or breaking any bones.

At one point we set up a bike ramp on the sidewalk. Heading into a jump our dog started to walk out in front of my bike. I hit the brakes hard and suddenly found myself looking up at the sky, having flipped the bike. No helmet. No concussion … I think.

4. Running after DDT trucks

This one is probably the biggest “what were we thinking” moments of the ’60s and ’70s. We would run after these suckers when they rolled into our neighborhood and sprayed the air with a chemical fog. If your street had some traffic, it was just the risk you had to take to have a little fun.

I don’t remember this, though I’ve read about it, possibly in Monona but not in Madison.

5. Unsafe playgrounds

Anyone remember swinging so hard that one part of the swing set would come off the ground? Or what about the burns we suffered sliding down scorching metal slides during the summer? And there wasn’t a cushy rubber foundation back then, just asphalt.

The grade school playground and the neighborhood park playground all had metal equipment on asphalt and dirt, respectively. Over at school, a kid running in fog soundly connected with an iron basketball hoop post, resulting in a concussion.

6. Latchkey kids

If your mom or dad worked late, then chances are they gave you the keys to the house so you could let yourself in after school. For those couple hours, you might as well have been a full-fledged adult.

Sure, your parents expected you to do homework while you were alone, but you secretly watched an episode or two of The Brady Bunch before they got home.

7. Leaving 12-year-olds in charge

If you had a younger sibling, then you best bet you would be watching after them at some point during the day (especially if you were a latchkey kid).

You didn’t need any certifications to babysit either. If you were at least 12 and able to dial 9-1-1, then you got some pretty sweet babysitting gigs. It was perfectly acceptable too.

I started babysitting in middle school. It was next door, for the princely sum of $1 an hour.

8. Diets

There was no such thing as “health foods” like kale and quinoa back when we were kids. If it was sold at the store, then it went in our stomachs. Plus, the less preparation that went into a school lunch, the better. Shout out to the Wonder Bread sandwiches, chips and Twinkies that probably stunted our growth as kids.

I’m 6-foot-4. I thought my growth was being stunted by the coffee I started drinking when I was 4.

9. Sitting in the front seat

The lack of seatbelts meant you could sit wherever you wanted, and no seat was more coveted than the middle seat in the front, back when front seats were benches. If there were six people in your family, then you fought your siblings for that position. If you sat there, you got to control which radio station the family listened to, and got the extra protection of your mother’s arm when your father stopped too hard.

10. Secondhand smoke

There was no escaping the haze of cigarette smoke in the 1970s. From airplanes to automobiles, we probably inhaled more secondhand smoke as children than some people do in a lifetime today. Looking back, we’re happy to leave this one in the ’70s.

I had a few relatives, and more coworkers, who smoked at work. I don’t think it caused (cough, cough) any problems.

11. Explosive cars

It’s basically a fact that cars were death traps back in the ’70s, and the Ford Pinto is the prime example. Not only did we not wear seatbelts and sit wherever we pleased, we were driving in cars that could explode because the fuel tank wasn’t designed properly. Luckily, the cars were discontinued in 1980, but only after we had risked our lives riding in them.

Our Boy Scouts carpool included a Pinto. It didn’t kill us, but the back seat required flexibility to get in and out. (Particularly because the rear-seat cushions were like falling into a toilet when the seat wasn’t up.)

12. Summer

Come to think of it, the three months between the school year were the most dangerous times growing up. We would leave the house for hours at a time, run around without shoes, and come home with more scrapes and bruises than we could count.

There was no structured playtime and no cell phones, just long days of sunshine and absolute fun. Yeah, being a kid in the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t all that bad.

The meaning of this Memorial Day

David French:

I joined the military later in life. I was 37 years old when I went to my Officer Basic Course at Fort Lee, Virginia. I was 38 when I climbed into the back of a C-130 Hercules to fly into Iraq to begin my deployment with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment at the height of the surge in 2007. I started that deployment with the conventional rhythms of civilian life thoroughly imprinted in my mind and heart.

Service in a war zone  was a jolting experience in countless ways, but nothing prepared me for the shock of death. It’s not just the sheer extent of the casualties—one man, then another, then another, and three more—all cut down in the prime of life. It’s the unnatural inability to truly mourn their loss.

Back home, when a family member or friend dies—or even a friend of a friend—there’s a collective and often community-wide pause. Depending on your relationship to the deceased, you’re able to simply stop, to grieve or to share in the grief of others, to try to help bear another person’s burden. There’s a ritual that matters, and it’s a ritual that—ideally—helps a person begin to heal.

At war, however, there is the shock of loss and the immediate and overriding need to focus, to do your job. In fact, the shock of loss typically occurs exactly when the need to focus is at its greatest. At the point of the explosion—or the site of the ambush—there’s a fight for life itself. On the ground and in the air, there’s the symphony of rescue and response. In the relative safety of the TOC (tactical operations center), there’s an urgent need not just to understand but also to direct the fight.

And then, even when that fight’s over, no one stops. The only pause is for the “hero flight”—the helicopter mission that takes your fallen brother home. You stand, you salute in silence, and then you focus again.

Yes, there are short memorial services, often days later, but nothing about it feels right. Your soul screams for the need to grieve, but your mind answers: Grief is a distraction, and if you’re distracted then your mistakes can cause only more grief. So the cycle moves on, remorselessly. Death, shock, focus. Death, shock, focus.

It’s a cliché of course to say it, but I never appreciated Memorial Day until I had brothers to remember. I was home on a midtour leave on Memorial Day Weekend in 2008. We’d already taken too many casualties, and I’d had no time to grieve. I was still pushing the grief back. I still had to focus. I wanted to enjoy my time with my wife and kids, and to truly treasure that time, I had to hold back. They couldn’t see what I truly felt.

Then, the dam broke. My son was watching a NASCAR race and before the race started, they played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, and I just lost it. I had to leave the room. It was too much. But that’s also when I saw the value of this day. It gives us back that pause that we lost. It gives us back that ritual we need. Memorial Day, properly understood, helps us heal.

As much as it’s a holiday reserved for remembering those lost in war, Memorial Day has lessons for the crisis of the moment.  Memorial Day in 2020 is a day of grief happening in the midst of a season of grief. Today, in all likelihood, COVID-19 will claim its 100,000th American life. That’s 100,000 souls in roughly 10 short weeks. Even worse, for families and communities, there has been something deeply unnatural about the cycle of loss and mourning.

Sick family members have been whisked away, never to be seen again. Countless thousands have died alone, rather than surrounded by the people they love. Without true wakes, visitations, and funerals, communities have been unable to come together to lift each other’s burdens. There’s an old proverb (the internet says it’s of Swedish origin) that goes like this—“Shared joy is double joy. Shared sorrow is half-sorrow.” In our season of grief, all too many Americans haven’t been able to share their sorrow.

As the country slowly begins to confront the sheer enormity of its loss, we should learn from the power of Memorial Day. When we can gather again—when we can comfort our neighbors in person—remember not just who they lost but what they lost. They lost a ritual of grief that can never be restored. In the months and years to come, however, we can pause for them—we can pause with them—and give them the moments they need to help them heal.

Two views of our future

Robert E. Wright starts with a classic pop culture reference:

The phrase “to jump the shark” at first referenced the point at which a television program started to lose its moorings, and its audience. Specifically, it referred to the episode of Happy Days (1974-84, ABC) when “the Fonz” (played by Henry Winkler, now better known for his role as an acting teacher on HBO’s Barry) jumped over a shark tank on water skis. Ratings for the show did stay up after the episode because there were only 3 or 4 channels available back then. Many fans, including this then eight-year-old, however, became mere viewers after that episode.

Today, though, the phrase has expanded to include any turning point eventually ending in disaster.

Lots of folks, from politicians to used car salesmen, are trying to calm fears associated with the COVID-19 pandemic by harkening back to America’s glorious past. “We” can get through this, they say, because “we” successfully traversed worse travails. The problem with that analysis is the “we” has changed. Yes, America suffered invasion and the destruction of the national capital in 1814, a long, bloody Civil War, and so forth. But the Americans who preserved or prevailed then are all long gone, as are many of the nation’s most important institutions.

Yes, some people who lived through the Great Depression and World War II are still alive but they are hardly the same people they once were. And right now they should all be indoors wearing gloves and N95s, or those gas masks that we all bought after 9-11, a terrorist attack that most of those alive today survived. But did we really do a good job responding to 9-11? We lost a lot of civil liberties and treasure fighting unnecessary wars and still suffer through ridiculous rituals at airports that protect no one.

America’s currency and debt are in a similar position to post-shark Happy Days. Nobody really likes it anymore but decent alternatives hardly abound. Solid currencies like the Swiss franc are too small, leaving only the currencies of a deeply divided Europe or authoritarian China as serious competitors.

The level of the national debt in absolute, per capita, and percentage of GDP terms, which can be tracked here, frightens many. In round figures, the national debt is $24 trillion, or $72,000 per person (man, woman, child) or $192,000 per taxpayer. That is 110 percent of GDP, the highest since the World War II era. And that is just the money borrowed to fund operations. Other liabilities, like Social Security and Medicare, are estimated at $77 trillion.

But the real problem is the loss of what Bill White called America’s Fiscal Constitution, a set of borrowing and budget rules first developed by Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Treasury Secretary. The idea was that the federal government should keep a lot of “dry powder” so that it could borrow to fight wars, purchase territory, and respond to shocks. To do that, it had to run budget surpluses when peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice, and hence prosperity, prevailed. But basically since World War II, America has remained at war, some shooting, some cold, some necessary, but many, like the “wars” on drugs and poverty, concocted and counterproductive. Chronic deficits resulted.

Instead of imbibing the lessons of Richard Salsman’s The Political Economy of Public Debt, America’s policymakers and pundits ignore the national debt, or dismiss it with facile, and long since exploded, myths like “we owe it to ourselves” or “we can’t default on it because we can always print money to pay it.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many held that America might muddle along for decades more, unloved but the only serious TV show left on air. But the only thing more disappointing than the irrational response of many American governments to the pandemic has been the way that Americans have acquiesced to the suspension of their civil and economic liberties on very flimsy grounds.

At 40:30 of this video, leading epidemiologist Knut Wittkowski puts it clearly: “I think, people in the United States … are more docile than they should be. People should talk with their politicians and ask them to explain” the rationale for business shutdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and other medieval responses to what he, and many other epidemiologists not on the government payroll, believe is just another annual “pandemic” that kills those with weak immune systems. The government’s response is actually making matters worse by slowing herd immunity.

As I recently argued elsewhere, America’s educational system has not prepared us for the government power grab because it does not create enough Emersonian independent thinkers or, frankly, even adult thinkers. Due to the extreme Left bias of higher education, many of America’s college graduates remain intellectually infantilized to the point that they can do little more than Tweet ignorant hate at any idea that does not accord with Progressive mantras.

While some older Democrats, like the aforementioned Bill White, and Peter Schuck, author of Why Government Fails So Often, are rational beings worthy of the attention and respect of all thinking beings, many young progressives appear completely rigid between the ears. They want less economic activity to “save the planet” but cannot cheer death or the pain that lockdowns inflict upon the poor. While fewer miles traveled by automobile must warm their hearts by presumably cooling the planet, the thought of all the extra hot water needed to wash hands a dozen times a day must sting a bit, along with the fact that plastic straws and grocery bags are far safer during pandemics than purportedly “green” alternatives.

Strangest of all have been progressive calls for their archenemy, President Trump, to behave in a more authoritarian manner! The statist assumption that “only government can save us” is so deeply ingrained on the Left and Right that rational calls to vitiate the economic crisis with voluntarism have not gained traction.

And don’t even get me started on the Right’s economic nationalism. Pure lunacy, like calls for AUTARKY (no international flows, like pre-Perry Japan!), now attracts serious attention. And why not? Didn’t we all “learn” in college that some French and German philosophers were right about there being no truth, just power and rhetoric? Strangely, though, the descendants of the apostles of postmodernism have no trouble seeing the truth in destroying the economic lives of most Americans because some unrealistic models claimed between 10,000 and 100 million people would otherwise die.

Is America about to jump the shark? Maybe it already has. Or maybe, unlike the Fonz, it won’t even clear the tank, the victim of the weight of its own inane policies. All that is clear is that somebody is going to have to pay for this fiasco, and that somebody is “us.”

A more optimistic view (maybe) comes from Walter Scheider:

Inequality is the price we pay for civilization. Property rights, inheritance customs and unequal gains from technological innovation have long divided us into haves and have-nots. Because stability favors such disparities, it usually took powerful shocks to flatten them. The collapse of states wiped out elites. The World Wars slashed returns on capital and imposed heavy-handed regulation and confiscatory taxation. Communist regimes equalized by force and fiat.

The greatest plagues also turned into levelers, by killing so many that labor became dear and land cheap. For a while, the rich became less rich and the poor less poor: Europe after the Black Death is the best-known example. Catastrophic pandemics joined systemic collapse, total war and transformative revolution — the four great horsemen of apocalyptic leveling.

Will the coronavirus crisis be such a leveler? It won’t act as a Malthusian check: mortality will mercifully be far too low to drive up wages. But progressives will seize on this crisis to push for redistributive reform, perhaps all the way to a Green New Deal. Failing that, misery and discontent might foment enough unrest to upend the status quo.

But not quite yet. Four great stabilizers stand in the way of democratic socialism or social collapse.

The most basic one is affluence: no society with a per capita GDP of more than a few thousand dollars has ever descended into breakdown or civil war. At some point, it seems, even the dispossessed have too much to lose, and well-endowed authorities are hard to dislodge.

The social safety net comes a close second. A century ago, shaken by the mobilizations and mutinies of World War One and the sudden threat of Bolshevism, European states ramped up investment in welfare schemes. America soon followed suit in order to survive the Great Depression. Revolution dropped off the menu. It turns out that welfare schemes don’t need to be Scandinavian-sized to keep the radicals at bay.

The torrent of seemingly free money created by central banks adds a third great stabilizer. By promising to bail out businesses and keep the unemployed afloat without reviving inflation, aggressive quantitative easing takes the shine off calls for punitive wealth taxes to foot the bill. This particular genie would seem hard to put back into the bottle: the Great Recession taught policymakers what was possible and at what low cost, just as the Great Depression had taught them what to avoid. We are now able to choose which bits of history to repeat.

Finally, science will act as a conservative force. This might seem odd, given our inclination to view it as a relentless driver of open-ended change. Yet technology is already widening existing inequalities, by separating the work-from-home crowd from exposed essential workers, and remotely taught students with reliable internet access from those without.

What is more, science has the potential to bail out the plutocracy even more reliably than any government or central bank could hope to do. The sooner labs and Big Pharma deliver effective treatments and vaccines, the sooner we can revert to some version of business as usual — with all the entrenched inequalities it entails. The odds are good. The SARS-CoV-2 genome was sequenced and made available just a month after the first reported cases in Wuhan. More than 1,000 drug trials are already underway. Nothing like this would have been possible even a decade ago.

This is not a coincidence. The great stabilizers have been creeping up on the great levelers. When pre-modern states fell, their elites were doomed. The United States is infinitely more resilient, and even if it wasn’t its richest would have other places to go. In the West, plausible revolutionary movements have gone the way of the dodo; and even if they hadn’t they would be blunted by mass affluence.

Nor are we in any meaningful way united against a shared threat. Notwithstanding the current surge in martial rhetoric — with Donald Trump posing as a ‘wartime president’ — our lived experiences are exactly the opposite of those fostered by total war. We are asked to stay home, not to venture out; we work less, not more; we are distancing, not thrown together in fox holes or armaments factories. The solidarity that shaped the Greatest Generation will remain a distant memory. And unlike in the aftermath of much more lethal pandemics, labor will be cheap: 30 million unemployment benefit claims will make sure of that. The four horsemen of leveling are set to continue their deep slumber.

In the past, the rich weathered a series of storms. The War of Independence was hard on wealthy loyalists. Slaveowners’ fortunes evaporated during the Civil War. The Great Depression delivered a double blow, first by wiping out investments and then through the ascent of unions and high taxes during the New Deal. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, capitalists were trapped, compelled to submit to unprecedented levels of regulation and taxation. Decades of relative equality followed.

Much has changed since. Deregulation, tax reform, financialization, globalization and automation have created potent means of both creating and concentrating wealth. As a result, the Great Recession failed to leave a lasting mark on the One Percent, and inequality stubbornly clung to the heights it had scaled. By acting in concert, the four great stabilizers promise more of the same.

The current crisis would have to spiral out of control to sap their strength — if, say the virus somehow foiled the efforts of the scientific community, or the economy slid into a drawn-out depression. If history is any guide, it would take a worst-case scenario for COVID-19 to bring about genuine leveling.

Another -30-

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association:

William “Bill” Hale, former owner of the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster and several other community newspapers, died April 1, in Florida, following a long battle with cancer. He was 78.

A Missouri native, Hale was born Feb. 16, 1942. He came to Wisconsin from Pleasant Hill, Mo., where he ran The Times, which won state and national awards during his tenure.

Hale owned and published the Herald Independent for 18 years before selling his newspaper group to Morris Newspapers in 2002. At the time of the sale, he also owned The Boscobel Dial, (Gays Mills)Crawford County Independent, Fennimore TImes, and the Tri-County Press in Cuba City.
In a story published today by the Herald Independent, former employees and colleagues remembered Hale as a great publisher, community supporter and friend. These qualities were reflected in an editorial Hale wrote for his first issue of the Herald Independent. The editorial stated that while a newspaper is a business, it also must earn the public’s trust by providing the news, both good and bad.

Hale’s full obituary will be published at a later date. The pre-written obit was stored in a safe in Hale’s apartment in his senior living community, which is under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I got my full-time start in journalism at the Herald Independent, because Bill hired me before I graduated from UW–Madison in 1988. At the time of the interview, I had worked at the Monona Community Herald (whose owner also has passed on, as well as the owner of the newspaper where I worked next), part-time for almost three years, and had a reasonably impressive set of clips with my name on them to prove that I could do the job.

(Side note: On the other hand, I almost backed out of the job. I had also applied to be the editor of the Chilton Times–Journal, and got turned down. And then whoever got hired backed out or quit early, so the owner called and asked if I wanted the job. Two of my Herald coworkers thought I could do the job, and I scheduled an interview. And then, for some reason, I decided to do some pre-interview research, and I called the previous editor, who passed on a detail that immediately made me decide to not pursue that job.)

Read “Adventures in rural ink” (which was written before my current rural employer, where I have now worked longer than my 1980s and 1990s Grant County experiences), and you’ll see the sorts of things my first full-time job and my first editor job got me into doing. There was the night I stood up in front of a school board and a crowd of around 200 people and told them they were violating the state Open Meetings Law, which brought the disapproval of the school board president, not that I cared. (That turned out to be good experience for my future encounter with Bishop Morlino.) There was my first murder trial.

Bill was an interesting guy. As the obituary reported, he had come to Wisconsin from Missouri (pronounced “miz-zur-UH”) to buy the Herald Independent, and he injected a large amount of modern newspaper into a newspaper that was stuck in a previous decade. He had a very distinctive voice, which I found out (and he later found out) I was pretty good at imitating. He (and some of his employees) smoked like a chimney, a feature of past and future coworkers as well. He also locked neither his house nor his car, and he always left his keys in the ignition switch of his cars. (Which prompted me one night, coming back from a date with the future Mrs. Presteblog, to move his car in the parking lot of the restaurant he was at, from one end to the other. I never found out if he noticed.)

It is safe to say that my life would have gone a different direction had I not started at the Herald Independent. I knew what I was doing (though one must improve with experience, perhaps contrary to what I thought at the time.) I also showed up, to be honest about it, somewhat immature, perhaps his most high-maintenance employee with, for lack of a better term, a roller-coaster attitude about my work, which, lacking much else, I probably took too personally, something that took a while to grow out of. (You’re sure about that? readers ask.)

I suspect that when my work started showing up in the Herald Independent (which was after my first appearance in the newspaper — the speeding ticket I got coming home after a stop at my grandmother’s following the interview), I was not exactly what Herald Independent readers were expecting to read. I gathered that he got a lot of feedback about my work from some people that was less than glowing, not because of lack of quality, but because I pushed some people’s buttons in the process.

I wrote a story about a hair salon that had purchased an exercise machine on which the user could lay there while the machine exercised the customer. The added touch was that they would smear upon your torso a formula that included animal placenta (I forget which animal) and then wrap you up in an Ace bandage so that you could sweat out your fat. The salon marketed at it as “The workout that won’t wear you out.” I went through the whole “workout,” and suffice to say it wasn’t the story the salon owner was expecting, though neither Bill nor the editor changed very much about the story. (To be fair, the salon’s target demographic was not a 23-year-old recent college graduate who had yet to put on the 15 pounds I gained within the first three months of graduation. More on that later.)

Not long after I started, I spent an afternoon in the courthouse during misdemeanor intake, and wrote about what the judge and the defendants did over two hours. When I was the last person there the judge asked if I had business in front of the court, and I said I didn’t. (My ticket was a couple of months earlier.)  I never heard what the judge felt about my quoting a former journalism instructor of mine who observed that judges have a “God complex” while on the bench.

One year later, lacking a feature story for that week, I threw out an idea that intrigued me from National Geographic magazine, where a writer would do an in-depth piece about a community, or a road from end to end. Thus begat The Wanderer, where I tried to take that kind of approach — describe an area as if I’d never been there before — for communities within our circulation area, beginning with Cassville.

The day the newspaper reached subscribers, I got an anonymous phone call (those are the best kinds) from a reader who accused me of bias, by mentioning one of the village’s power plants, but not the other. I pointed out the only reason I mentioned the one was because it was on one end of the village, with the other end being the airport. Then she said I mentioned only one church and not the others. To which I said that was incorrect; I didn’t mention any church.

“Well, you did between the lines!” And then she hung up. Which made me reread the article to see what she was referring to. She was referring to my mention of the view of the village from the cemetery on St. Charles Road.

A few weeks later I went to Bloomington. That story didn’t go over so well among the 11 people in Bloomington who jointly signed a letter to the editor, claiming, among other things, that my mentioning the fire department’s yellow trucks was making fun of their yellow trucks. Another story about Beetown prompted the accusation I made the unincorporated community appear as if it was dumpy with nothing to do there. (If the shoe fits …)

Then there was my special relationship with the high school principal. (Who was Mrs. Presteblog’s high school principal.) I first got his attention by trying to find out the identity of the new high school boys basketball coach before his hiring was approved by the school board. Then I wrote, as part of our fall sports previews, an interview with the new high school volleyball coach in which I asked what was different between herself and her predecessor. She didn’t have an answer and suggested I talk to one of her players. I did, and got the answer that the new coach was more open and the players communicated better with her. Which I reported.

Then I got called into the principal’s office and was told that that was an inappropriate question that made himself and both coaches unhappy. He further asserted that we were supposed to only report positive news about the high school in the newspaper. I had yet to learn my defense mechanism against mandates I wasn’t going to follow — mumble something that sounded like assent and then do exactly what I was intending to do — so we had some words and went on our way for my next meeting in the principal’s office.

There was a weird aspect to this. (In my life that always seems to be the case.) At the time I had just started announcing sports for the local radio station. (Which I am still doing more than three decades later, but you knew that.) And he complimented me several times on my work, possibly because he may have confused me with someone else. (He called me “Dave” a few times.)

I wouldn’t say that I was left alone to do my own thing at the Herald Independent, but in retrospect that’s pretty much what happened. Bill would do some editing on the layout table, which never made me happy, only partly because it screwed up the page layouts. But on the other hand it is possible that doing a story about Potosi and quoting my father on the poor quality of Potosi beer toward the demise of the brand wasn’t a good idea. (The brewery and the beer returned 25 years later, and both are now doing quite well.) I wasn’t told to, for instance, cool it with the high school principal.

For three years the newspaper was most of my life, not because I was working obscenely long hours, but because I didn’t have much of a life outside of work. Being a college graduate and a former resident of comparatively cosmopolitan Madison, I had very little in common with anyone in the area besides my coworkers. So much of my social life was tied to work — dinner with Bill and his wife or Bill and the editor, adult beverages at the soon-to-be-demolished hotel, softball on the newspaper softball team (where we battled a team made up of high school students or recent graduates for last place every season), getting golf lessons (which evidently didn’t take) with Bill’s visiting son, etc.

Every election night, for instance, I called in county results to the Associated Press, for which I got extra money. We would go out to dinner beforehand. Bill’s son, who lived during the school year with his mother, visited every summer because he liked the things he could do in Southwest Wisconsin, including, I think, hanging around with the equivalent of someone’s cool relatives. Bill’s mother visited every so often. She was a fantastic cook. Then there was lunch at the Arrow Inn, which had bacon cheeseburgers and desserts. During five years at UW–Madison I gained 10 pounds. Four months after moving to Lancaster, there was 15 more pounds of Steve.

Working in Lancaster considerably changed my worldview, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Had you asked me at the time I probably would have said that I planned on being there maybe a year and before I intended to find a larger-market job and put Lancaster in the rear-view mirror. I wasn’t going to be there forever because I didn’t have anywhere I could be promoted to (say, editor, since the editor was a Lancaster native), but I was there for three years, doing some award-winning work in the process. I discovered that, unlike what surrounded me in Madison, these were people who had real lives centered on their families and their communities, and, though they may have lacked college degrees, they were smarter and certainly more wise than some people I knew with multiple degrees back in Madison. Three decades later, there is not enough money to pay me to move back to Madison, and I am not the least interested in living in any urban area.

This story would not be complete without mention of my interview with a Lancaster High School graduate who after graduation from Ripon College went to Guatemala with the Peace Corps. (Who was, though I didn’t know it at the time, friends with Bill’s stepdaughter, with whom I went to Bill’s wedding reception.) I was assigned to interview her when she came back halfway through her two-year term, and then again when she came back to stay. Upon returning to the office Bill asked me if I had asked her out. (Possibly because he was tired of hearing me bitch about my lack of social life involving women.) I thought that was ridiculous, if for no other reason than the last line of the story, that she was leaving in the fall for Washington, D.C. to find a federal government job. To make a long story short, this is the result. (Along with three children, four dogs and four cats.)

If you read “Adventures in rural ink” you know I returned for a year and a half to be a weekly newspaper co-publisher and editor. Bill was the business partner in the mention of “business partner problems.” We parted, less than happily on my end, and I didn’t see him for a decade, until on vacation I wandered back to the old newspaper office, and there he was, a year after having sold the Herald Independent to my future employer. We had a nice chat, I expressed my sympathy for the death of his wife some time earlier, and that was that.

Almost a decade later was return number two to Southwest Wisconsin. Bill came to the office a few months after I started, and he said that when my boss mentioned that he was going to hire me that Bill knew I’d do a good job. He even subscribed to the newspaper from Florida. That was the last time I saw him.

Bill’s story ends sadly, though if you consider death sad everyone’s story ends sadly. Bill’s son, my former golf (lesson) partner and softball teammate, died at 40. I am looking forward to reading Bill’s obituary, which as you noticed at the beginning he wrote himself. (Note to self …)

The sands of time tend to erode bad memories that don’t reach the level of trauma, and might polish how things used to be more than you felt at the time. There are, I believe, five of us hired by Bill who still work for the company. (Four of them are quoted here.) The new guys are now the old guys, and there is one who still might be higher-than-average-maintenance and take his work too personally, who insists on doing things correctly (as defined by himself), though he might communicate better now.

Bill hired well, and I don’t say that because he hired me. He hired a lot of local people, many of whom had no background in journalism, and trained them in quality (small-town) community journalism. He also brought in people who weren’t from the area to improve on what was already there. (Ahem.) There are a lot of awards on the walls of the newspapers he once owned as proof. He knew what a quality community newspaper was supposed to do, even if readers and advertisers sometimes didn’t grasp that.

Thanks to changes in the newspaper industry, there are fewer people like Bill in it. (The Lyke family, which ran the Ripon Commonwealth Press more like a community treasure than a newspaper, recently sold to new owners.) In addition to Bill, seven families owned newspapers in the area. One family now remains; the other newspapers are owned by my employer.

Were it not for the fact that the restaurants I used to go to are now closed (including the one with the Friday fish buffet that served as our rehearsal dinner location), it would be a good night for a few drinks and dinner in Bill’s memory.

 

A basketball game, and life

Tonight, Ripon College opens the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament at St. John’s of Minnesota.

This game is taking place 20 years after St. John’s and Ripon faced off in the D3 tournament at Ripon College — the last time RC hosted (and probably will host given changes in the tournament format) an NCAA playoff game. Ripon and St. John’s freshmen and sophomores were not alive yet during the story I’m about to relate.

This was the first year that my friend Frank and I announced Ripon games. I had been a fill-in announcer the previous season, when I learned about what Midwest Conference road trips were like. Then the radio station made a broadcaster change and brought in Frank (who had announced for the station previously and was the long-time timekeeper at RC games) and myself. We hit it off immediately because we had similar interests in cars and sports, in addition to a similarly warped sense of humor. Frank tried to be helpful to opposing referees, yelling “WHERE’S THE FOUL?” during key offensive possessions.

(Cases in point: We did two games at Carroll University’s Van Male Center, where the heat had gone out. I heard a vacuum cleaner running that sounded to me like a Zamboni machine, so I cracked up Frank by saying coming out of commercial, “Back at Van Male Ice Arena.” Later that season before a game I helped Mrs. Presteblog, then pregnant with our first child, up the bleachers to our broadcast position on the top row. Frank, who was already setting up our equipment, said, “Is this man molesting you, ma’am?” My response: “Too late, Frank.”)

The previous two seasons Ripon had won the Midwest Conference regular-season and tournament titles, the latter of which, then as now, gave the winner the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. That didn’t happen in the 1999–2000 season, because Lake Forest College went undefeated in the MWC season, giving them the right to host the tournament.

The Sunday before the conference tournament, we decided to make a baby-furniture run to Ikea in suburban Chicago, in search specifically of a crib and a changing table, preceded by brunch at Cracker Barrel (whose Appleton location was known as the “Pig Trough” by my business magazine coworkers) in Menomonee Falls. Plans immediately went awry because other diners had the same thought we had, and the excessive wait prompted us to go to a nearby Country Kitchen. (That should have been foreshadowing for what was about to happen.)

I was driving the first of our two Subaru Outbacks, an all-wheel-drive station wagon with such equipment as heated seats and a five-speed manual transmission. On our way to Ikea we stopped at a bowling alley not far from the Gurnee Mills outlet mall. While I was a business magazine editor, I was also applying for a job at Mercury Marine, owned by Brunswick Corp., which had a bowling alley that was a test facility for the latest bowling equipment.

I spent about a minute at the bowling alley, then drove off to Ikea, stopping at an intersection to make a right turn to get to the Tri-State Tollway. I shifted into first … or tried to. Nothing happened other than horrible grinding noises whenever I tried to shift to any gear other than neutral.

I had owned manual-transmission cars before the Outback. I had never blown a clutch on the previous cars. (It turns out that if the manufacturer upgrades the engine but not the clutch, the clutch might last only 68,000 miles.)

So here we were in north suburban Chicago, a husband and pregnant wife and disabled vehicle, knowing no one in the north suburbs to call for help, and, back in the days when cellphone service was more dependent on carriers than today, without a working cellphone. Fortunately a man in a minivan saw our plight and let me use his phone to call the Amoco Motor Club, of which Mrs. Presteblog was a member through her employer, Ripon College.

The club sent a flatbed truck and driver to take us to the nearest Subaru dealership, Libertyville Subaru. (He also charged us $4 because the tow was $4 more than the $50 allowance of club membership.) I filled out a form at the dealership, threw my keys in the envelope, and stuck it in the box.

Libertyville is about 140 miles south of Ripon. So we were 140 miles south of home without a way to get home. Across the street from the dealership was an Amoco station with a police car. We walked across the street and explained our plight to the officers, and they gave us a ride in the back of their squad (featuring a plastic shield separating us from the officers and a plastic-covered seat, and interestingly no seat belts) to the police station.

Mrs. Presteblog also had a membership through work for Enterprise Car Rental, which had facilities at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. Enterprise rented cars with no mileage charge, which was good since I had an 80-mile round trip for work. Since we were trying to go north back to Ripon, it seemed logical to go to Mitchell Field for the rental car, but that required getting to Mitchell Field.

It turned out that Libertyville is right in between O’Hare and Mitchell Field. Perhaps because of that, the phone directory was full of airport limousine services. We selected the least expensive appearing one, and were driven in a Lincoln Continental limousine to Mitchell Field. (Which was at least my first limousine experience, because for our wedding we were chauffeured by Mrs. Presteblog’s sister and husband, who owned a camper.) Cost including tip: $85.

We got to Mitchell Field and rented a Pontiac Grand Am for me for the week. The cost was more than $200, but it would have been worse with a mileage charge. We found dinner (Edwardo’s pizza) and went home, without our car, more than $300, and the intended baby furniture.

Five days later, the conference tournament began at Lake Forest. We started the weekend by eating lunch at the previously mentioned Cracker Barrel with Frank, and then announced the semifinal, which Ripon won over Knox College to move to the tournament final against archrival Lawrence or host Lake Forest. Dinner was at a restaurant called Flatlanders in Lincolnshire, Ill., managed by a Ripon native. We went to the hotel and called Lake Forest’s sports phone line to find out the score of the other semifinal and found out that Lake Forest had been upset at home by Lawrence, setting up two archrivals, the third and fourth seeds of the tournament, for the title and NCAA berth.

On Saturday, we drove to the Subaru dealership to retrieve the Outback. In the days of $74-per-hour service, replacing basically the entire clutch assembly cost $937.50. We did not have time to go to Ikea, so we returned to Lake Forest, announced Ripon’s win over the Larrys to clinch their third consecutive NCAA berth, celebrated the tournament win at Mars Cheese Castle with the players, their parents and the coaches, and after returning the rental car returned home, having spent $1,300 or so without buying one piece of baby furniture.

This is where our story takes a sad turn. We had no children at the time, but we had two dogs, Puzzle and Nick the Welsh springer spaniels, along with Fatcat. Puzzle was a few months older than Nick, and had dealt with hip dysplasia her entire life. This didn’t stop her from being a goofball, doing such things as jumping not up, but out at people (toward a particular spot of the male anatomy), playing fetch about three-fourths of the way, and tacking like a yacht on walks while Nick, using his dog show experience, resolutely walked forward.

A Ripon women’s basketball player had watched the house and dogs while we were gone. We noticed on our return that Puzzle seemed quite sick as she had never been before then. The first thing I did Monday morning was to take her to our veterinarian, where she was diagnosed with an infection and given IVs and antibiotics. She seemed to perk up on her return home.

The Ripon–St. John’s game was Thursday night. Ripon was coached by Bob Gillespie, the son of Gordie Gillespie, college baseball’s all-time winningest coach. Bob was also the athletic director, which made him Gordie’s boss, though Bob was also Gordie’s assistant coach. Bob’s youngest son, Scott, would be a four-year varsity player for Ripon High School and Ripon College, which made me, as a TV announcer by then, sort of the Gillespie family’s personal announcer. (That’s a different story.)

The game started poorly for Ripon, which trailed 8–0 at one point, trailed at the half, and trailed by seven after a three-pointer relatively late in the game. Then came Josh Glocke, a shooting guard who proceeded to score 15 consecutive points and gave the Red Hawks a 54–53 lead with 3:43 left.

Ripon led 57–55 in the last minute, with, according to Mrs. Presteblog, the next generation of Prestegard jumping around in her womb. Then the Red Hawks committed a nine-second violation. Yes, the replay showed the inbounds pass, the referee counted to nine, and blew his whistle for what he claimed was a 10-second violation, while Frank yelled, “Oh, no! Where is the foul?” (While, by the way, the St. John’s announcers next to us were bitterly complaining about how the Johnnies were getting homered by the same officials.)

St. John’s, perhaps hampered by their leading scorer having fouled out, tried to get the ball inside but succeeded only in air-mailing the ball over the intended receiver. (“Kareem on a ladder couldn’t have gotten that!” said Frank.) One free throw and a missed three-point shot later, and the Red Hawks had the win and a date in Chicago for the second round at the University of Chicago.

Our celebration was brief. Back home, Puzzle was in worse shape. I figured she would have to go back to the vet Friday morning, and dreaded the decision we might have to make about her.

Puzzle saved us that decision. She died overnight. I took her to the vet to have her cremated. And then I had work and game prep for the next game. There was really no time for grief over Puzzle, and I’ve noticed since then that death that is not unexpected doesn’t get the same reaction as unexpected death. You get reminded in later moments, when, in this case, you’re only feeding or walking one dog, or that no dog in the house is frantic during a thunderstorm.

(We also discovered as a result of Puzzle’s death that Nick was deaf. We had always thought Puzzle had selective hearing, and she did. It turned out, though, that Nick couldn’t hear our calling for him to come inside, making me resort to waving at him, after which he would then trot in.)

Earlier in our pre-child days we would take the dogs to work with us. As bad as her hips were, Puzzle was always very curious whenever anyone brought in a baby in a baby seat and would get up on her bad back legs to sniff all those wonderful baby smells. We called her “Aunt Puzz,” but she died before she had a chance to live with a baby brother. (Nick didn’t have the same interest. He lived, however, until two weeks after our daughter was born.)

On Saturday, we (with an added guest, the radio high school analyst who doubled as former fire chief and father of the aforementioned restaurant manager) headed to Chicago, stopping again at Flatlanders, then to Loyola University for the game against the University of Chicago, hoping that Ripon might do what it had never done — advance past the NCAA second round. Unfortunately Chicago won, but it was a great experience anyway. (In part because when you announce college basketball, sports information staffs do much of your work for you.)

I remember a pleasant drive coming home, with Mrs. Presteblog snoozing, and Frank and Bob and I discussing Ripon and Ripon College things, with Bob occasionally suggesting that Jannan not listen.

A lot has gone on in our lives and elsewhere over the past two decades. We’re on a different set of pets now (two of each), with one, our Siamese cat Mocha, having died five years ago. (Also the night before a basketball game I was announcing.) The succeeding dogs also like to ride like Puzzle and Nick did.

Many other things have changed. (No kidding, the reader thinks.) Ripon College games are no longer on the radio, though they are streamed live, with announcers from The Ripon Channel, for which I formerly broadcasted Ripon High School and Ripon College games. (I stopped doing Ripon games following the next season because I got a job with another college, though a few years later I got back into Ripon games despite also doing hockey games for the college at which I was employed.)

 

Ryan on Bobby

One of the great early-generation players in UW hockey history was Bobby Suter, a small yet fierce defenseman who played on the Badgers’ 1977 national championship team and the 1978 Frozen Four team.

That’s how Badger fans know Suter, the second most penalized player in UW history, and the most penalized defenseman in UW history. (He also set a record by getting five points in a period in one game.)

Everyone else in the hockey world knows Suter as a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, which is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice.

Ryan Suter (who is second place in UW freshman-season penalties) knew Bobby Suter as Dad: