Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack

Charles Osgood, Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack: A Boyhood Year During World War II (New York: Hyperion, 2004), 139 pages, a few photos.

Charlie Osgood Wood was just shy of nine when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor.  He and his sister were at an afternoon Christmas program at church when a nun came onstage and told them Pearl Harbor had been attacked and they needed to go home and tell their parents (this was before news became ubiquitous ).  Walking home with his sister, the two discussed the events, assuming Pearl Harbor's value was in its pearls and wondering if Japan didn't have enough pearls already.  He soon learned the truth as the horrors of war became known to the people of America.  Yet, it was a good time to be a child and Baltimore was far from the front lines. 

 Osgood (he later dropped "Wood" and used "Charles Osgood" as his professional name) spent a life in media.  He suggests that the manual labor of the liberty garden led him to seek an easier occupation.  At 83, he finally retired from CBS this past year.  In tributes to him, I learned of this book and sought out a copy to read.  In this memoir of a year of his childhood, we learn how the seeds of a lifelong career were nourished in a boy who loved baseball but also played the piano and organ and wrote poetry.

This is a touching memoir set in the first year of America’s involvement in World War II.  Although just a kid, Charlie begins to follow the world action by placing flags on a world map in his bedroom.  He does what he can for the war effort but sees a "victory garden" as questionable as it grows everything he hates.  He also wondered if the Japanese are planting "loser gardens."  When his father tells him about Japanese rock gardens, he is really confused.  There is a wonderful chapter about being mesmerized by the radio, which would later become his profession.  He speaks highly of radio as the place where he learned creativity and developed an imagination that would help him succeed in radio and later in television.  As a boy, he's also caught up with baseball.  He has portraits of his two heroes on his wall, Babe Ruth and Franklin Roosevelt.  Ruth’s portrait is in the prominent position because Roosevelt wasn't from Baltimore.  In a day without television, he writes about the movies and movie stars.  This is a look back at what America was like for a middle class boy who was close to my father's age.

Although we learn a lot about Osgood, this book is also a tribute for his sister, as the two of them shared the experience of being children as the nation when to war.   In his acknowledgments, he credits his sister for helping him remember as he created this delightful book.   I highly recommend this as a quick and enjoyable read. 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

 Merry Christmas everyone.  It is now late on Christmas Day and I'm tired.  After Christmas Eve Candlelight services last night, I went over to a party at friends where I stayed way too late drinking some of the smoothest bourbon I've had in a while as I sampled two new bottles, one from Utah and another from Texas.  After two drinks and a lot of talking about world events, I came home and took the photo to the left.  Today started with opening presents, going to church, a quick lunch and heading out for a long walk on the beach, before coming back to eat dinner (pork loin glazed with apricot preserves) and watching the end of the Steelers/Ravens game (and the Steelers' won).

I have maybe an hours worth of work before the New Year, otherwise I'm off.  I'm heading to North Carolina later this week and then will come home and on January 2nd, he into the Okefenokee Swamp for a couple of nights.  Maybe there'll be pictures.  Enjoy the rest of 2016.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Making Tracks

Terry Pindell, Making Tracks: An American Rail Odyssey (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1990), 399 pages, a few maps.

            A few weeks ago, ironically just before Castro's death, I attended a poetry reading at the Savannah’s delightful Book LadyBookstore.  Featured that evening was Virgil Suarez, a Cuban poet who lives and teaches in Florida.  The reading was enjoyable and I purchased and read through his collection of poetry, 90 Miles: Selected and New Poems But my real find that evening, in the book store was a used copy of Making Tracks.  As I am drawn to travel stories and especially train one.  I purchased this book and quickly devoured it.  Years ago, I had read Pindell's book, Last Train to Toronto (I don't know what happened to that book and it may have been a library one).  In it, he tells the story of the Canadian rail system as he rides over much of the lines (some of which were being discontinued).  Now, a quarter century later, I have come across another of his books (and after some research, learn that he has yet another rail book about Mexico). 
            In 1985, Pindell took a train from his home in New England to Florida, to visit Disney World.  That trip sparked an interest in traveling by train.  After the death of his father, Pindell decided to make his dream a reality and in 1988, he spent the year riding Amtrak around the nation.  In four trips, mostly loops covering large sections of the country, he rode approximately 30,000 miles on iron rails, riding all the major Amtrak lines (including a couple of lines that longer exist such as the Desert Wind (Los Angeles to Salt Lake) and the Pioneer (Salt Lake to Portland and on to Seattle).  Having ridden almost all these lines (I have two major missing links: the Sunset Limited from San Antonio to New Orleans and the Southern crescent from Atlanta to New Orleans), I found myself reliving, while reading, many miles and days I've spent on the train.
            As he shares his experiences of riding the trains, Pindell weaves in the history of various rail lines and their signature passenger services.  He also provides some of the history of towns around the tracks as well as the politics that went into the track’s development.  The building of the transcontinental lines are especially interesting.  A southern route would have been the easiest to build but the upcoming Civil War stopped that.  Some of the railroads fought with Native Americas while others (such as the Sante Fe) hired natives to help build and maintain the lines.  One of the last line built, the Great Northern, who originally operated the luxury "Empire Builder," runs just south of the Canadian Border.  While riding this line, he stops at Essex, Montana where he stays at a lodge next to the tracks for a few days.  As he explores part of Glacier National Park, we learn about a passenger train caught in these mountains in an avalanche for a week and how they survived.  Another story is of a derailment of corn cars on this line.  The corn spilled out on the ground and what couldn't be salvaged was buried.  A few months later, train crews began to notice strange behavior of bears in the area and they learn that the bears have been digging up fermented corn and were essentially becoming drunks.  One also learns where phrases like "wrong side of the tracks" came from (Dodge City, Kansas), and about the railroad robbery industry that developed in the 19th Century. 
            In addition to stories on the rail lines, Pindell tells about the people he meets traveling.  There are those looking to see America and who want to slow down.  Others are in search for sexual encounters or appear to be running drugsIn riding the rails so frequently, he often reunites with crew members from one train on another train a few months later.  One of the running theme through much of the book is his grandfather, who was an engineer.  He stops in his home town along the railroad in Illinois. 
            There is a political element to this book which was written at the end of the Reagan era.  There is no doubt he has a liberal lean in his politics.  He jokingly referred to the old Pullman cars which Amtrak received from the railroads as Republican cars as most were only stainless on the outside and had rusted so badly underneath that they were no longer safe and had to be rebuilt or replaced.  However, the Budd cars (which he suggested were Democrats) had stainless insides and were still rolling strong 30 and 40 years after they were manufactured.

            If you like trains, I'd recommend this book.  Unfortunately, it is no longer in print, but used copies are available on Amazon.  Pindell entertains us with great stories.  There are a few places where he has his facts mixed.  He speaks of the Southern Railroad buying North Carolina Railroad (this they wanted to do, but didn't and the line is still owned by the state even though it leases the right to run over the line to Southern Railroad).  I also questioned his interpretation of the Mormons being run out of Illinois based on Joseph Smith's revelation of polygamy.  Although polygamy was practiced in Illinois and led to their departure, the "revelation" didn't become public knowledge until the 1850s, long after they'd settled in the Salt Lake Valley.  But these were small mistakes and didn't distract my enjoyment of his stories.  

Friday, December 16, 2016

Remembering Grandma

Grandma in 2009
          I lost my grandmother this week.  For a guy who's been bald up top for longer than he'd like to remember, it was a blessing to have a grandmother for so long.  I just got back from the funeral.  I hope there is no prohibition against telling humorous stories about grandmothers, but I’m pretty sure she’d approve.  When I was young and we’d visit, she’d force her youngest son, my Uncle Larry, to share his comic books.  I would lie on the couch in the living room and read Archie, and Dennis the Menace, and Mad Magazine.  I’d laugh till I cried.  Fifty years later, my grandmother could still recall my laugh.
Fry and Prickett Funeral Home
          We gathered yesterday at Fry & Prickett Funeral home in Carthage, North Carolina to say our goodbyes before going to the graveyard next to Culdee Presbyterian Church.  I remember my first visit to that big old house with a wraparound porch that would look, if it hadn’t been recently painted, haunted. I was seven years old.  My great-grandma McKenzie, my grandmother's mother, had died.  It was in the summer and the men of the family were mostly out on the porch smoking, as many were in the habit of doing back then.  No one was smoking yesterday.  Few do anymore, most of those who did are no longer with us.   My grandmother could have been a poster child for an anti-smoking campaign as she was the only grandparent that I had who didn’t smoked, and she outlived the three others by forty or more years. 
Entry way (viewing rooms on either side)
          But back to that first visit to the funeral home, when I was seven.  My mother ushered us kids inside and into a dark room accented with heart-pine paneling.  We went up to the casket.  Everyone said my great-grandma looked natural, as if she was sleeping.  She looked dead.  Mom pointed out her hands, freckled with liver spots, and asked, rhetorically, how many apples she'd peeled? And how many pies she’d baked?  Yesterday, I looked at my grandma's hands, the liver spots having been cosmetically covered, and thought about her peeling peaches.  She made the best peach ice cream.
          From the time I was eleven until I started working at sixteen, I spent a couple weeks every summer with my grandparents.  One evening, the summer between my seventh and eighth grade, I went with my grandparents to J. B. Cole's orchard in West End to pick peaches.  We were after big juicy peaches known as “Redskins.”  They’ve probably have changed the name to be politically correct.  But these were the best peaches.  They grew to the size of a soft ball.  When you bite into a ripe one, juice would run down your chin.  They made delicious peach ice cream and look beautiful, canned in jars, where they waited to be baked into a pie during the winter. 
          J. B. Coles was a “pick-and-pay” orchard.  My grandmother wanted to get a couple bushels to can in Mason jars for winter.  A few overly ripe peaches would be saved to enhance a bowl of cereal in the morning or to toss into the ice cream freezer for a Sunday afternoon treat. We were hard at work, finding ripe peaches and softly placing them in baskets, so as not to bruise them.
          My grandparents were working one side of a tree and I was on the other when my grandmother asked: "Jeff, did you cut one?"
          "Did I cut one?" I couldn't believe my ears.  My stomach was a little upset and I had released some gas.  But I couldn't believe my grandmother was asking about it?  Asking, “if I’d cut one,” made her sound like one of my crude classmates.  How could she even tell?  She was on the other side of the tree.  I’d worked hard to release it slowly, without making a sound.
          "What?  I asked, hoping I was mistaken about her question.
          "Did you cut one?"  This time her tone was harsh and accusatory. 
          I began to sweat and wondered if I was about to be disowned by my own grandma for farting.  Finally, I confessed, "Yes, a small one."
          "You put that knife away,” she yelled.  “These aren't our peaches until we pay for them." 
          I had just confessed to a sin I had not committed.  

          My grandma was a saint.  It's too bad she was a Presbyterian and not a Catholic. All Presbyterians are considered saints once dead, so it’s nothing special.  But the Catholics have a special category for those who over-achieve in goodness and have performed a miracle in life.  My grandma was always good and she had her miracle.  She’d sobered up her brother Dunk, who was a drunk, and mostly kept him that way the last twenty years of his life.
          But my grandma wasn't Catholic.  In a way that would have made John Knox proud, she always cast a skeptical eye toward the papists.  I learned this the summer before confessing the uncommitted sin against a peach. 
          My grandparents were visiting.  We had spent the afternoon on Wrightsville Beach. I was in love that summer with Cathy Nucci, my first real girlfriend.  She and I would later consummate our relationship with a kiss out by the baseball field at Roland Grice Jr. High. On this day, at the beach, we were out in front of the Lumina, the same spot where we always went.  This was also the same area the Nucci family would set up camp when they were at the beach.  This made it convenient for seeing Cathy in the summer as I was four years away from a driver’s license.
          I loved that dark hair, dark eyed girl with olive skin.  We held hands while lying in the sand and played in the surf.   We were an idyllic couple, Think of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in that classic beach scene in the movie, From Here to Eternity.  The only difference was that Lancaster had to fight off the Japanese.  But then, I had to fight off Cathy’s older brothers as they attempted to drown me.   
           My grandmother was born a McKenzie.  You can't get much more Scottish and Presbyterian than that.  The Nucci's were Italian and Catholic.  Maybe that was why her brothers were always trying to drown me. 
          Later that afternoon, as I was drying myself after having showered the salt from my body, I overheard a rather heated conversation between my mom and my grandma.  They were in the hall and either didn’t know or didn’t care that I was right next door in the bathroom.  My grandmother chided her daughter-in-law, my mom, for letting me hang out with a Catholic girl.  "What if they marry? she asked.  I assumed we were destined to wed.  We were almost teenagers and were in love.  So it felt as if my own mother stabbed me in the back when she responded, "Helen, they’re going into the seventh grade.  I don't think we have to worry about a wedding anytime soon."  It turned out my mother was more concerned about me drowning at the hands of the Nucci boys than me living a blissful life with Cathy.
Couldn’t my own mom see that we were in love? 
          Of course, Cathy and I didn’t make as a couple out of the seventh grade.  As for my grandmother, my granddaddy died in my sophomore year of college.  A few years later my grandmother married Earl.  He was Catholic...  Of course, he later converted and a Presbyterian minister officiated at his funeral. 

          Goodbye Grandma.  Thank you for encouraging me to laugh.