History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Our Jerry Koosman put stamp on baseball history

Morris had no Prairie Pioneer Days when I was a kid. This isn't to say Motown couldn't hold a big celebration. In 1971 we had the Centennial. You might think that gala event could be parlayed into an annual summertime affair. But no. Quiet prevailed.
Two years before 1971, Morris had a huge celebration for a major league baseball pitcher. Jerry Koosman was one of our own at that time. It's the reason the Met Lounge has its name. Koosman was a pitcher not for the Minnesota Twins (at that time) but the New York Mets. Yes, the boy from the country excelled with his pitching talents under the Klieg lights of New York City.
The big city can be hard on young athletes with the attention it bestows. Roger Maris from Fargo started losing his hair. The grating effect of the media was a primary angle in the Billy Crystal movie about the 1961 baseball season. That's when the quiet and unassuming Maris hit 61 home runs.
Koosman seemed much like Maris. He didn't exude charisma. He was the big lefty in the Mets' 1969 rotation. That rotation also included Tom Seaver who seemed to take to the limelight more. It's not that Koosman recoiled from the limelight. He didn't have the conflict that Maris went through. He was just a man of few words who wanted to win. The media had no trouble accepting him that way.
Our community of Morris burst its buttons to honor "Koos" in the afterglow of the 1969 World Series. It was a World Series for the ages. Why? It was a five-game series which suggests one-sidedness. The Mets handled the Baltimore Orioles. Today such a series would come and go and I'd barely pay attention.
Remember that in 1969, the Mets seemed like a still-new franchise. They were born in 1962 as an expansion team, bringing the National League back to the Big Apple. The Dodgers and Giants had left. New York City had gone from three big league teams to one, amazingly. The American League Yankees held forth for a time as that lone big league club. They had that monopoly when Maris hit his 61 homers in 1961.
Then in 1962, the brand-new Mets came on the scene. I'm puzzled why the Mets were allowed to start out as such a bunch of stumblebums. They were bad but as time went on, they came to be seen as charmingly bad. We wax nostalgic about the likes of Marv Throneberry. Or Casey Stengel, the aging old hand as manager. Stengel and Yogi Berra gained note for being "creative" with the English language.
The Mets were all good baseball people, of course. They were just typical of all expansion teams of that era (all sports): a combination of athletes on the way up or on the way down, or complementary players who couldn't shoulder a prime burden to lead. Who could knock Richie Ashburn? But those Mets of the early 1960s could take their lumps. It went beyond 1962. The mediocrity seemed pretty well embedded.
Much to appreciate in 1969
Then in 1969, you might say Pinocchio became a real boy. I was 14 years old. I had been captivated by the Minnesota Twins of course. And, 1969 was a quite fine season for our ballclub: it was the year Billy Martin managed and we won the American League West, in the first year of the divisional format. I don't recall any special mania gripping Minnesota in 1969 over the Twins. We did like Billy. Legend has it the Twins lost much of their sheen when Martin was fired after '69.
I would suggest we had gotten spoiled. We have always been blessed having the Twins. The '69 Twins with Billy were sent to the sidelines quite unceremoniously by the Baltimore Orioles. Those were the Frank Robinson years in Baltimore. When the Twins were done, we suddenly noticed that the Mets were quite firmly in the spotlight. The Mets had emerged as a division winner. They overcame the Chicago Cubs who for much of that season seemed like a team of destiny. The Cubs with manager Leo Durocher got into a commanding position, then they crumbled. They crumbled in the face of the Mets' dramatic advance.
Jim Bouton wrote that the Cubs' clubhouse had probably become like a morgue. He argued that the Cubs might have done better if they had just stayed happy and upbeat.
Our Jerry Koosman was a cog with those surging, charming New York Mets. Today I doubt the nation could get mesmerized by any big league baseball team. Baseball today is a huge money-making enterprise that doesn't let anything happen by caprice. It's a better situation for players who don't seem to be used up and discarded like in an earlier time. The empowerment of players, going back to when Curt Flood won his legal case, has been good for them.
Bowie Kuhn wrote that the owners lost the Curt Flood case just like the South lost the Civil War. In other words, there's no equivocating. One side crushed the other. But I doubt there are any holes in the owners' shoes. They never became "dead broke" like Hillary Clinton (LOL).
From WCSA to Gotham
"Big Koos" had ties to Appleton and Holloway as well as to Motown. He graduated from our West Central School of Agriculture in Morris. That's the campus we now call UMM.
Back in 1969 we all knew the story of how Jerry got discovered by the Mets: he was discovered by the son of a Shea Stadium usher who caught Koosman when he pitched in the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss TX. The son wrote to his dad. A mere usher? Maybe so, but the connection was good enough. The Mets offered a contract after Jerry's discharge. Perhaps the military instilled a sense of discipline that enabled Jerry to rise. The military has a way of doing that.
Koosman broke into the Mets' pitching rotation in 1968. I have written about 1968 as "the year of the pitcher." Koosman was happy to ride along. He struck out Carl Yastrzemski for the final out in the 1968 All-Star game, won by the Nationals 1-0. Just one run? Yes, it was the year of the pitcher. Baseball had to make adjustments after that season, including a lowered pitching mound. Koosman was runner-up to Johnny Bench (today a TV commercial pitch man) for 1968 Rookie of the Year.
In '69 the pitching couldn't dominate quite so much. But Koosman progressed just fine. He had a 17-9 won-lost record, a 2.28 ERA and 180 strikeouts. He won eight of his last nine decisions.
The Mets had to get past Atlanta before entering the World Series. Atlanta had Hank Aaron and Orlando Cepeda, along with the knuckleballing pitcher Phil Niekro. I remember a story where Niekro's manager was asked if Phil could really pitch on two days' rest, and the manager said "We're not worried about Niekro, we're worried about Uecker (Bob Uecker who was the catching specialist for knuckleballs)." Given Uecker's reputation as a character of the first order, that's quite the funny vignette.
Koosman actually had a bad game in the National League playoffs vs. Atlanta. He pitched in game 2. Truly the Mets were buoyed by destiny, because even though Koosman gave up six runs in four and two-thirds innings, the Mets won 11-6. That playoff series is barely remembered, and that's being generous.
Koosman pitches 1969 finale
In the "big show" of the World Series, Jerry Koosman starred. Tom Seaver lost game 1. After game 1 the Mets ran the table with Koosman winning the triumphant game 5. But game 5 wasn't wholly a cakewalk. The Mets fell behind 3-0 in the third. They took the lead with two runs in the eighth. Koosman got the complete game win. It was the days before "setup men" and "closers." Pitchers would strive for complete games.
I remember watching TV and seeing Cleon Jones catch a fly ball for the final out. He positioned himself like a statue, ready to squeeze his glove around the ball. He gave Koosman the game ball.
Koosman was inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 1989. He attended the 40th anniversary reunion of the '69 team at Citi Field on August 22, 2009. He has since had some legal problems. He was a Wesley Snipes type of tax denier. He pleaded guilty in May of 2009 to misdemeanor Federal tax evasion after failing to pay up to $90,000 in Federal income taxes for 2002-04. He admitted to having been "suckered" by anti-tax rhetoric. He was sentenced to six months in prison in September of 2009. He was released from a Federal prison camp in Duluth on June 30, 2010.
Big Jerry could overcome those Baltimore Orioles with Frank Robinson, but not the Feds. Those legal problems will be a mere asterisk with his life. We'll always visualize him as that towering presence on the mound, ready to uncork an unhittable pitch.
He always looked so relaxed. It must have been his peaceful rural background. From Holloway to New York City. Amazing.
Koosman is reported to enjoy joking about the value of his rookie baseball card. It's a 1968 card. Yes it's valuable, but keep in mind it also includes Nolan Ryan! Oh, I'm sure Koosman adds a little to the value. My generation of Morris kids bought cards at the old Stark's Grocery which is now a cemetery monument business. Times change.
Koosman would still be a great pitcher today. No PEDs needed.
We salute Jerry Koosman the "hayseed" out of West Central Minnesota, a cog with the baseball powerhouse representing the world's most important city. Only in America?
I played in the band for the big celebration in 1969 for Koosman, here in Morris. I was also a musician two years later for the big Morris Centennial. Those events have seemed to fade rather significantly in our collective memory. That's too bad because they were most gala. Our museum could develop an exhibit acknowledging both.
Halsey Hall was here for the Koosman celebration. He was the iconic "color man" for broadcasts in the Twins' early years. Those where the days.
Jerry Koosman was eventually able to pitch for the Twins, and when he was still in his prime. Those memories are quite fine, I'm sure, but in my mind his fantastical 1969 campaign was unmatched, still etched in the memories of boomers. The Mets win the World Series! We should hardly be surprised given the home base of New York City. But the Mets had been so forlorn just a few years earlier. Pinocchio, you're a real boy now!
Eventually us boomers would mature just like the New York Mets did, or at least I think we did.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

All writing is product of the writer's world view

Tony Horwitz
Jim Bouton
A UMM faculty member recently spoke at our Morris Public Library on "biographical fiction." It seems like a contradiction in terms. I would expect a biography to be factually accurate by definition.
"Biographical fiction," by definition, involves taking some liberties. Is there serious confusion here needing to be ironed out? No, I don't think so. Here let's allow a dirty little secret to hop out. "Journalists" who purportedly deal only in fact take liberties all the time.
Do you remember reading a journalistic piece with lots of direct quotes? Don't you assume that lots of those quotes are actually paraphrases? Did the writer always have a notebook ready and scribble notes while in conversation? If he did, wouldn't this inhibit the source? A more pertinent question, perhaps, is whether a writer could scribble notes fast enough to record everything word by word. Then there's the option of having a tape recording device. Wear a wire (as for the FBI)?
I know Jim Bouton narrated his daily diary into a tape recorder when at work for the history-making sports tome, "Ball Four."
There was a time when sports biographies were written by having the sports star/celebrity answer questions into a tape recorder. Those tapes would go to the professional writer. This was the approach that Bouton and his editor would have pooh-poohed. It had an assembly line quality to it. The traditional books were sanitized. They catered to our desire to see sports stars as role models with their basic character.
Bouton's book was a shot across the bow in more ways than one. He and his editor decided that our icons of sport should be shown as human beings with human failings. The book was anything but sanitized. "Ball Four" burst forth like a bright shining meteor. It filled a need for its time. Its year of 1970 was when society had turned a page and decided to throw off lots of inhibitions.
Bouton quoted lots of conversations in the book. Avant garde intentions aside, I have to believe he followed pretty conventional procedure for quoting conversations. We strive to capture the essence. Our paraphrases shouldn't upset the source. I think the writers of reality (not to be confused with the swill of reality TV) do this all the time. Don't let those quote marks fool you.
Which brings us to the subject of Tony Horwitz. He is a journalist/author I admire greatly. He writes about real things and real people. He does so in a storytelling way. He projects a real fascination with it all, as when he tells us the story of Civil War memory in the South. Horwitz's goal is to capture the essence and reveal truth about all of his subject matter. But, I'll assert such writers take more liberties than we think. It's a testament to their skill that we can turn page after page and feel convinced every word was spoken as such, and that every scene developed just as described. Sometimes the skill breaks down, as with Twin Cities scribe Jim Klobuchar who was humiliated when it was revealed he had gone off base paraphrasing a Minnesota Vikings official. It was bad enough to justify tossing him from the writers fraternity. Apparently he had cultivated enough good will to keep going. I think he's still going today with the Minnpost website. Any writer can keep going online. Today Jim is not the most famous Klobuchar.
To the roots of writing
Writing is nuanced. Fact is, all journalism is a product of the writer's feelings, philosophy and world view. We are vain enough to feel others should simply adopt our world view.
A dirty little secret is that all journalists, all true journalists anyway, are motivated by wanting to convince others of a particular attitude about things, or set of facts. We are quite sincere. We are not propagandistic. It's just that we evaluate things in a manner common to all, and because of the writing gift (we feel) God has given us, we dispense those insights. It's not a stealth proposition for us. We are quite zealous.
Jim Bouton wanted to rip the pretense away from big-time sports. He felt it was proper for us to see the vices and mistakes that our sports heroes are prone to. Of course, did we ever doubt they were real human beings? I don't think so. An anti-Bouton would say traditional sports book served the purpose of presenting healthy examples, especially for our youth. Hero worship meant we were going to aspire to the best, most uplifting standards. We were never going to know these sports heroes personally. We might as well believe they reside on Mount Olympus or something like that. Same with movie stars.
"Biographical fiction" would seem to go beyond paraphrasing for quotes. It would seem to be a step beyond what has been called "interpretative journalism." It's not as bad as "advocacy journalism" where a political type of zeal possesses the writer. I've had it with ideologically tainted journalism, especially after having seen Fox News become the behemoth it is. It's about as annoying as a moth. 
Advocacy journalism gained currency when the young writing community thought liberal views were the only answer. We'd think "what the heck, this isn't really bias, it's the way things have to be." There was some justification for this. Liberals were the ones taking the initiative to attack the Jim Crow South. Liberals rose up to despise the Viet Nam War. The nation had gotten involved in a tragic war under false pretenses (the need to fight Communism). We'd never allow that to happen again, would we? Let's see, what are the headlines from Iraq today?
The Viet Nam War became more of a lightning rod than Iraq, because we had the draft. Chris Matthews always emphasizes this. Of course, we compelled National Guardsmen to go into Iraq. We have a "voluntary military" with many members drawn to that life because of a lack of options (i.e. from challenged socioeconomic circumstances).
Viet Nam was a reason why advocacy journalism, a practice we might reject in a knee-jerk way, gained respect or currency. We read about it in college like we should at least respect or understand it. Today? I doubt it. We saw the movie "All the President's Men" about reporters who were good guys in the classic "good guys and bad guys" dichotomy. So it was like a western in Washington D.C. It was also a horribly poor example for young writers like me looking for inspiration. Watergate, Washington D.C. and "Maximum John" Sirica (the judge) were all components in the anomalous world around the U.S. power corridor, as anomalous as artist Jackson Pollock was to the art world.
P.J. O'Rourke laughed once about how college art students all started "splashing paint around" because of Pollock. O'Rourke talked about how Hunter Thompson could similarly inspire young writers. He said a young reporter beginning his first job might show up at a sewage commission meeting wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. Thigh-slappingly funny. And yet, many young writers were in fact inspired by quite atypical writers and/or situations. Maybe there really is greater wisdom out in America's heartland!
Remember that Hunter Thompson did his best work and made his permanent mark while his lifestyle was conventional and responsible.
Professor Lackey gives background
"Biographical fiction" which is the focus for UMM Professor Michael Lackey, is a cousin of the schools of writing I've been alluding to here. Surely the genre is a blood brother of "historical fiction." The best book I have ever read is "The Killer Angels" set in the U.S. Civil War. As I read, I know full well the author is filling in lots of blanks. There's a clear understanding of this. That's vital, having the reader understand the speculative nature of the writing.
A Civil War general wonders that if he dies and goes to the afterlife to see his comrades, family and friends, what age will they be? It's so believable that someone courting death would have such a thought. Author of the book, the late Michael Shaara, says in his preface that "I have not deliberately changed any fact." Of course, given the obsessive nature of Civil War research and study, critics were going to find lapses in the historical reliability of the book. And they did. But Shaara was sincere.
I feel sorry for Civil War artists who have to try to get everything right, down to the last belt buckle. An exasperated critic of this once said: "We must understand the difference between art and illustration. Illustration shows things the way they are, or were, while art is judged by the emotional impact on the viewer." (Hey, I'm paraphrasing!) 
The newspaper model
Newspaper writers developed this thing called "objective journalism" which has a shorter history than you'd expect. It's also not a slam-dunk principle with merit. Oh, but "objectivity" is the ideal, right? Not so fast. Objective writing was really developed as a way to keep advertisers from getting nervous. It coincided with the consolidation of newspapers into these big enterprises benefiting from monopoly distribution systems.
"Objectivity" is an artificial middle ground which writers carefully identify after pinpointing the two sides of a particular issue. There is nothing magical or noble about that middle ground. It's a defensive position, one designed to pacify or to ensure quiet.
The new media have pulled journalists out of their shackles. Ironically we have gone back to an older model of journalism, one in which writers are quite uninhibited and write from a point of view.
Professor Lackey notes that biographical fiction has expanded greatly. We then wonder why. Perhaps the development parallels the unleashing of opinion journalism. The New York Times doesn't have the primacy it once did. Nor the Washington Post. The Washington Post took down Richard Nixon, thanks to the power owned by those two reporters who worked for a company buoyed by monopoly advertising.
The undaunted Watergate investigation wasn't due so much to principle or to the Post's desire to boost profit - news has little to do with profit - rather the zeal was attributable, I feel, to the Post's desire to protect Washington D.C. as a "company town" (with government). Government needed to groom a reasonably good reputation. I know, that's hard.
Academic, refined perspective
Professor Lackey of UMM shared from his quite academic perspective at our library.*
I think this "Professor" could actually get the gang off Gilligan's Island!
As it sank in what an academic Lackey is, I got a little intimidated and fearful about asking any questions. I'm scared to death of coming across as a hayseed. But he's quite the mind. His children asked questions! He'll tell you all about biographical fiction. He's a pillar with his research. He's associate professor of English at our local esteemed institution, and English discipline coordinator. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky.
Me? All I do is compose online essays, trying to follow the example of Tony Horwitz, who might find it necessary to write that a person with whom he's speaking uses safety pins instead of buttons on his jacket!
I get out pen and notepad most mornings at about 5:30 a.m. with a steaming mug of instant coffee in front of me, and "Morning Joe" on TV as soft background. I might have been a better writer when our dog Sandy was alive.
I remember when the University of Minnesota-Morris decided to offer a course on the poetry of Robert Browning. My father said "I wonder if Robert Browning could get accepted to UMM." A little cynical humor can spice one's day, to be sure - better than that steaming coffee, but not as good as a loyal canine.
* I wrote the first draft for this post before the travail that has befallen our precious Morris Public Library. Melissa Yauk must be beside herself. I doubt the library can rebound as if nothing happened. Is this cause for feeling skepticism about government? The library is a government-sponsored institution. Would a private sector asset like this be made so vulnerable to a simple heavy rainfall? A Republican might say we should "privatize" the library. Republicans say we should "privatize" everything. Maybe the library needs to sell memberships or something. Of course, that contradicts everything I feel the library stands for. We must cling to public institutions that serve all. "It takes a village," or something like that.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, June 9, 2014

Floyd Lange gave last full measure of devotion in WWII

A 1944 photo of the USS Luce, "in camouflage"
You look at a photo of Floyd Lange and you know you could easily engage him in conversation. How wonderful if we could have shared his company through the years. There's no doubt he had the approachable qualities of his sisters.
I covered the Morris Memorial Day program for many years when Joyce Kramer and Lola Michaelson were present. They were honored as Gold Star Sisters. Irene Monroe often did the honoring with help from the Girls Stater. Joyce and Lola were sisters of Floyd Lange. Lola is now deceased. Joyce was present for the 2014 Memorial Day program.
Years from now when I reflect on Memorial Day, I'll instantly remember the sound of Eleanor Killoran playing "It's a Grand Old Flag" on piano. Those programs were held at the old elementary auditorium. That structure has been razed. Today the site is the National Guard Armory.
Floyd is the reason we have a Memorial Day. He and so many of his comrades didn't make it through World War II. He served in the Pacific Theater as did my late father Ralph E. Williams. Both were gunnery specialists.
Floyd came from a lively family that had seven children, Floyd the oldest. It was a nomadic type of farm family. Nomadic they were but they stayed in Stevens County. Lola and Joyce were among five girls in the family. Floyd's face is remindful of the sisters we know. Therefore we just know, as if he were literally with us, that he was winning with his personality. I'm inclined to say he looks like "the Kramer boys" too!
The loss of Floyd in combat makes us realize, lest we need reminding, the utter tragedy of war. In Floyd's case the tragedy seems larger because war's end was so close. So staggered were the Japanese, they were resorting to the last-gasp tactic of kamikaze planes. It was just such a tactic, from the most depraved depths of warmaking, that sank the ship on which Floyd served. He went down with the ship. He was announced as "a Donnelly boy" in the headlines that followed.
The family lived in Chokio when the kids were little. They made a move to the country which required the kids to walk two miles to school. There was a time when the older generation was known to embellish a little about the hardships in getting to and from school. We teased them good-naturedly about it. Ah, but there was no embellishing re. the Lange family. "On the place we had a house, barn and outhouse," Lola wrote for the Stevens County Historical Society book "The '40s: a time for war and a time for peace."
The Lange family pulled up stakes and moved to Donnelly. Floyd completed his education through the eighth grade. He surprised the family one day: he announced he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The family wasn't inclined to believe him right away. A friend of Floyd supplied confirmation. I remember my father saying that he too enlisted and chose the Navy. Was there really a preferred branch of the service? Oh, in the Viet Nam War there certainly was: "the National Guard." Ironically it was the National Guard that was called to duty for the Iraq War (or police action or whatever it was).
Floyd's sisters remembered that he was accurate with a gun when hunting. Therefore they saw it as most apt he became a gunner on the USS Luce. He was assigned "S2C." Floyd's birthday was January 29, one day later than mine.
Floyd was 19 years old when the Luce went down and he perished. "Because he was a gunner, he probably manned his post to the end," Lola wrote. She noted that "sometimes it was hard to believe it really happened, since we never saw his body." A memorial service was held.
Ship did lots of work
The Langes could be proud that Floyd served on a vessel of distinction. It dealt out much punishment to the Japanese (or "Japs" or "Nips" as they were called by American patriots of the time). The USS Luce was a Fletcher-class destroyer. It was commissioned on June 21, 1943, Commdr. D.C. Varian in charge. It sailed out of New York on September 5 of 1943. It arrived in Bremerton WA on October 28, then it was on to Pearl Harbor where it would be assigned as plane guard for "Enterprise."
The Luce conducted gunnery training exercises in the Hawaiian Islands until November 24. Then it was on to Adak Island, AK, and from 11/30 of 1943 to 8/8 of 1944, the ship patrolled off Attu Island. They sailed from Attu on February 3-4 of 1944, and participated in the bombardment of Paramushiru in the Kurile Islands. They were attached with Task Force 94 of the Northern Pacific Force. They surprised the enemy. Floyd and his mates destroyed a 2000-ton enemy freighter.
The Luce sailed back to Attu to continue with patrol duties. In June the ship bombarded Matsuwa in the Kurile chain, and pounded Paramushiru a second time. The Luce sailed back to Pearl Harbor on August 31. Then it sortied from Manus in the Admiralty Islands on October 11.
Allied forces assaulted the Leyte Islands on October 20-23. During that engagement, the Luce patrolled outside of the LST (landing ship/tank) areas, providing cover.
The next destination for this most intrepid craft/crew was New Guinea. There it supported the Huon Gulf landing operations. Next was the job of supporting the Lingayen Gulf attack and landings. 
The calendar moves on to the year 1945, the last year of the war, and could the Luce make it through? We're used to happy endings in war movies. The reality is that "war is hell," as General Wm. Sherman once said (at the Ohio State Fair, and actually it was a paraphrase). Or, as the National Guard commander said to the delusional young man in the movie "Taps": "War is just one thing, and that's bad."
The Luce arrived on January 9, 1945, to an operating area for screening LSTs and transports. With Lange's sharp shooting eye employed, it fended off enemy attackers and shot one down on January 11. On that day the Luce departed for San Pedro Bay, engaging in combat en route. The empire of Japan was sliding to its catastrophic fate, but wasn't going to surrender until the Allies unleashed new tech with those two bombs.
Axis powers on their last legs
You might say the Japanese were delusional. Ditto the Nazis. Many of their high-ranking officers did in fact see reality and some were amenable to a peace pact, especially on the German side, as I have read. The Nazi SS was staunch vs. such inclinations. Defeat was never accepted on anything approaching civil terms. Mussolini's body was hung up on meat hooks to be abused. Hitler's inner circle were willing to kill their own family members in suicidal capitulation. What a time in which mankind showed its most base, sin-filled inclinations. Are we really programmed so much differently today? We must be vigilant.
The Luce patrolled San Pedro Bay until January 25, 1945, at which time she departed for the assault on an area of Luzon called "San Antonio/San Felipe." There the ship was unopposed. It sailed on, reaching Mindoro on January 30. There the Luce escorted resupply convoys between Subic Bay and San Pedro Bay. The Luce and its gallant crew were headed for an appointment with fate.
March 24 saw the ship depart Leyte escorting and screening units of "TF51" which landed heavy artillery on Kelse Shima, for support of the main landings on Okinawa. The Luce performed radar picket duty. The ship was now in peril vs. the reeling empire of Japan. On May 4, Japanese suicide planes were intercepted by the combat air patrol in the vicinity of Luce. Two of the kamikaze planes avoided the interceptors. They attacked the Luce from portside. Luce gunners shot down one, but the explosion of the bomb on that plane caused a power failure on the ship. The Luce was unable to bring her guns to bear in time. It was struck in the aft section by the second kamikaze.
The port engine was disabled. Engineering spaces were flooded. The rudder jammed. The grand but exhausted ship took a heavy list to starboard. The order came down to abandon ship. The account reminds me of how the "Sullivan boys" of Waterloo IA perished in the Solomon Islands. "Abandon ship." Moments later the Luce slid beneath the surface in a violent explosion. Going down with the ship were 126 of her 312 officers and crew members.
Floyd Lange had given "the last full measure of devotion." He had contributed to a naval campaign that brought five battle stars for the USS Luce. We feel thankful for such gallant men as Floyd Lange who answered the call. But it's sobering to realize that man's inclination toward conflict can reach such levels. It hardly ended with the end to WWII. Korea followed and then Viet Nam.
A Gold Star Mother who was honored on the 2014 Memorial Day was Vicki Day, mother of David Day, casualty in Iraq. The Iraq conflict had a questionable foundation unlike WWII. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Saddam Hussein was a standard "strongman" of the Middle East, a part of the world we have a hard time understanding. Perhaps he was caricatured by the media. It seemed Iraqi troops couldn't surrender fast enough. That's a night-and-day contrast to the crazed devotion of the Japanese to their cause near the end of WWII.
Let's be frank: We had to dehumanize the enemy. A WWII vet once told me that the Japanese were described by some as "slant-eyed sons of bitches." Such is the intensity or insanity of war.
Ironic term: "divine wind"
"Kamikaze" means "divine wind." This tactic was more successful than conventional attacks vs. Allied warships. At least 47 Allied vessels, from PT boats to escort carriers, were sunk by kamikazes, and about 300 were damaged.
The TV series "McHale's Navy" was about a PT boat crew. A friend tells me that the reason we don't see re-runs anymore is political correctness, as the crew members used those denigrating terms for the Japanese that I have included in this post. I always worry that the old western movies will disappear because of the portrayal of Native Americans (screaming from horseback, "lining up on the hill" etc.).
The movie "PT 109" was about the PT boat of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy said he would only go along with the movie if it was totally historically accurate, and if he could choose the leading actor. He chose Cliff Robertson over Warren Beatty! I remember seeing the movie at our Morris Theater. Us kids were reverential toward the memory of JFK.
About 3,860 kamikaze pilots were killed, and 18.6 per cent of kamikaze attacks managed to hit a ship. Just think of the extent of that: 3,860 pilots giving their own "last full measure." What an epidemic of delusion to think such a commitment was justified. How tragic we in the U.S. had to go to such great lengths to snuff all that out. Floyd Lange is in a grave at Fort Snelling because of this. "Floyd Roland Lange."
We pay homage on Memorial Day, perhaps the most quiet day of the year. Peace. Contemplation. So contrary to the explosive atmosphere of war. Just imagine the Luce's last day. Or, the Sullivans going down. If only Floyd could have returned to join his wonderful farm family and to shoot game, not at an "enemy." Stevens County was where he belonged. If only we could talk to him today, to see those same lively eyes and energetic persona that he shared with his siblings.
"A tradition of death"
The kamikaze planes were laden with explosives, bombs, torpedoes and full fuel tanks. A kamikaze could sustain damage that would disable a conventional attacker, and still achieve its objective.
It's not widely known but the Nazis formed their own group of suicide pilots, called the "Leonidas Squadron." Ah, it must have been named for those warriors of Sparta, Greece. The Nazis ended up reluctant to use the tactic. As for the Japanese, a tradition of death instead of defeat was embedded in their military culture. It was a tradition in Samurai life: "loyalty and honor until death."
What would Floyd Lange say to that kamikaze pilot if he were to encounter him in the afterlife? A Christian would say that forgiveness prevails. The young men of war are only doing what their governments demand of them. Wars are fought between governments, or at least they were through the 20th Century. Today we worry about detached terrorists. It's hard to come up with tactics vs. them. We hope the "solutions" don't hurt more people than the actual perceived menace.
The terrorists "got us" on 9/11. Maybe we should have just acknowledged defeat, albeit temporary, at that time. Maybe we should have taken a deep breath before going into Iraq.
Wouldn't it be a blessing for both Floyd Lange and David Day to still be among us. God bless their memory and their surviving family members. God bless the service organizations and their auxiliaries who ensure each Memorial Day that proper recognition is given. God bless those who decorate veterans graves at our cemeteries.
Life at home disrupted too
The civilian "home front" in WWII was a story in itself. One of the biggest audiences to be attracted for a book event at our Morris Public Library was for an author who wrote about this. I was there and heard him talk a lot about the Brainerd National Guard and what it experienced. Had I known this would be a focus, I would have had my mother Martha accompany me. She was a 1942 graduate of Brainerd High School. She played in the band for the send-off and the somber welcome-back for the troops. The Brainerd Guardsmen were captured in the Philippines.
The late Jack Watzke in the Historical Society book wrote that "the civilian war years were filled with anguish, concern, heartbreak, giving, sacrifice and always support."
Watzke wrote about how General MacArthur had to abandon the Philippines at war's start. I found this very interesting, because Jack said the escape was made by PT boat, but in the WWII documentary currently airing on a cable TV channel, it shows him on a plane. I trust that Watzke's account is accurate. The documentary creators must have been assuming.
"The remaining years of the war were involved with taking and retaking islands, sea areas and land areas, slowly and methodically," Watzke wrote. 
We pray such a burden will never land on our young men and women again. Floyd Lange, RIP.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

1982's "My Favorite Year" is a movie I can gush over

"Miss America" aired for the first time on national TV in 1954. It was the year before I was born. The pageant drew 27 million TV watchers. Lee Ann Meriwether got the crown. TV was fully in color by the time she starred with Buddy Ebsen in "Barnaby Jones" in the disco '70s.
A lot of dreck appeared on television in the 1970s. It made us pine for the so-called "golden age" of television. No wonder, then, that a comedy writer might look back on 1954 as "my favorite year."
I would argue it's impossible not to like the movie "My Favorite Year." We don't typically think of it as a Mel Brooks movie. But Brooks was executive producer of the film. He knew of what he was presenting. The young comedy writer character in the movie might have been Brooks himself. That character guides us into the story.
Mark Linn-Baker plays the narrator, "Benjy Stone." He might as well have been Brooks who was a writer for the Sid Caesar variety program "Your Show of Shows." Whenever we see a retrospective on "Your Show of Shows," it seems the same highlight clip is pulled from the archives: the characters playing roles on that giant decorative clock. It's a little frustrating for me because 1) it gets old, and 2) I think they did a lot funnier stuff than that.
Performers then didn't have to degrade themselves to try to be funny. No potty mouth needed. Censors were on the alert anyway. The entertainment was classy in a way we can only dream about today. I'm going to sound awfully snooty here, but I think TV in those seminal times was more classy because TV was still limited to the more affluent segment of our population. By the time of "Barnaby Jones" in the '70s, that problem had sure been solved. The '70s brought what Newton Minow referred to as that "vast wasteland." The problem was that TV entertainment had to try to cater to everyone.
This isn't to say creativity was snuffed out. I recently wrote a post saying we should take a fresh look at "Gilligan's Island." I suggested that those seven performers might join the pantheon of classic comedy. On the whole, though, we cannot ascribe a lot of high art in connection with stuff like "Laverne and Shirley." That stuff was crafted to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
In the 1950s, TV comedy was impulsive and slapstick. The 1982 movie "My Favorite Year" is a marvelous and authentic lens into a world that was still fresh and beloved in Mel Brooks' memory. How can we not love those memories?
I have a DVD of a Jack Benny New Year's Eve TV special from the mid-1950s. I watch it every New Year's Eve. Don Wilson plays the tuba for a little sketch promoting the show's sponsor, State Farm Insurance. Oh, and Dennis Day sings! The men were mature and classy, wearing suits.
Obvious inspiration for character
Peter O'Toole was nominated for Best Actor for his role in "My Favorite Year." His character was based totally on the real-life Errol Flynn, who was the embodiment of the "big screen" prime of Hollywood entertainment. The terms "big screen" and "small screen" were tossed around a lot, as if the distinction was important. "Big screen" suggested higher status, still.
In the back of everyone's mind, though, the power of TV was obvious. I had a book about Shirley Temple once with a caption that suggested we should be fascinated, sort of, by the "big screen" Shirley appearing with the "small screen" Red Skelton on TV. The author noted Shirley seemed a little stiff in this appearance. She never really did cut it as an adult actress, did she.
Shirley Temple and Errol Flynn impressed themselves as "movie stars" when that term suggested an awe that was almost other-worldly. A movie star!
"Benjy Stone" in "My Favorite Year" befriends "Alan Swann," the Errol Flynn clone. Benjy is a junior comedy writer for a variety show starring Stan "King" Kaiser, played by Joseph Bologna. Swann seems past his prime but still exudes fame. Kaiser's show is called "Comedy Cavalcade" which is the perfect name for a comedy show of the era. Such shows were live. This absolutely shocks Mr. Swann, accustomed to multiple "takes" for a scene. We get the impression his movies consisted almost entirely of swordfighting! His movies were set in exotic places. Is there really a "Tortuga?"
The Errol Flynn movie I remember best is "They Died With Their Boots On." It's a highly fictionalized account of George Armstrong Custer's life. Imagine embellishing the life of a war figure! In fact, Custer and his Confederate foe George Pickett both ascended to post-Civil War fame largely because of the efforts of their widows. Custer was sympathetic as a Union officer. He was pugnacious, a quality usually associated with the South. We all know the kind of infamy that came his way later, out West.
Olivia de Havilland starred with Flynn in "They Died With Their Boots On." The golden age of Hollywood, to be sure. Is de Havilland really about to turn age 98? Our best wishes to the actress.
The plot develops
Peter O'Toole as Swann shows up as a roaring drunk for his 1954 TV appearance. Benjy Stone is a long-time admirer of the man. Kaiser wants to dump Swann but Benjy intervenes. Benjy will do what he can to keep Swann stable, sober and capable of performing.
But, Swann is simply aghast at the thought of "going on live." This veteran entertainer has the kind of panic attack that might befall an amateur. Meanwhile, Kaiser is threatened by a corrupt union boss who doesn't like being parodied on the show. The "Boss Hijack" sketches are the bone of contention.
Swann becomes reluctant and consumes alcohol. He's in a mood to simply bolt but he's "rescued" by an exasperated Benjy Stone who in effect gives him a pep talk. Stone doesn't want to be let down by the iconic "big screen" Swann. Stone implores Swann to realize he really does have the heroic qualities of the swashbuckling character we saw in the movies. A poignant line is "Nobody's that good an actor," meaning that Swann deep down is the true hero.
The TV cameras go on. The studio audience enthusiastically pours in, and they're in the mood for comedy. The glorious spontaneous quality of 1950s television unfolds. Mel Brooks must have been consumed with nostalgia. We don't blame him. We drift back as if in some sort of time machine. Television was like an infant with the same charming qualities. Everyone was learning.
King Kaiser gives the thumbs-up for the "Boss Hijack" gag. That doesn't sit well with certain shady parties. The gangster minions of the corrupt union boss show up backstage. They're thugs and behave accordingly. A fight starts and spills onto the stage, perceived as part of the act. The audience laughs thigh-slappingly.
Alan Swann and Benjy Stone are up in a balcony. The audience becomes aware of Swann and erupts in vocal acclamation. They're unaware that everything is developing unscripted.
Swann, at first frozen and panicked by the "live TV" demands imposed on him, has his instincts take over, proving Benjy right with that pronouncement that he's a genuine hero. Swann grabs a rope or fire hose. (Earlier in the movie he used a hose to go from one apartment to another outside a building.)
Dressed as a musketeer for a later sketch, Swann looks every bit the Errol Flynn-type character. The audience is captivated and loves it. Swann swings heroically from the balcony, arriving on stage to save the day for the "good guys." He saves King Kaiser!
There are sub-plots about family challenges facing both the Swann and Stone characters. Benjy narrates the epilogue, explaining that Swann, his confidence bolstered by his marvelous improvised performance on the "Cavalcade," works up the courage to get to know his daughter better - a girl who lives separate from him with one of his several ex-wives.
Meanwhile Benjy overcomes his own inhibitions. Is this biographical, relating to Mel Brooks? Benjy has a "thing" for the TV show's assistant producer, "K.C. Downing." He "can't get to first base." Swann gives encouragement based on his romantic insights, never mind that his marriages don't stick. He uses the fire hose to try to make a dramatic entrance to the Downing apartment. It's probably set up as a precursor scene, just like "Happy Gilmore" playing miniature golf as a precursor to his final dramatic putt in the movie "Happy Gilmore" (Adam Sandler). 
Stone takes Swann to his Jewish mom's Brooklyn apartment where awkwardness prevails. The mom fawns over the star while uncouth "Uncle Morty" crudely asks Swann about a paternity suit. Didn't Errol Flynn have to deal with some messy personal details like this?
The "odd couple" friendship of Swann and Stone brings dividends for both - they overcome their inhibitions. The ending seems triumphant for all. The nostalgia is thus enhanced. We have overwhelmingly warm feelings at movie's end.
Swann acknowledges the admiring audience at the show's conclusion. He's right at home on TV after all! His instincts took over just like Benjy Stone said they would. A signature line from the movie is Swann saying "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" We realize he's a flawed human being who can be dauntless when prompted.
Richard Benjamin: Wasn't he "Quark?"
"My Favorite Year" was the directorial debut of Richard Benjamin. Immediately I think of the late-1970s TV show "Quark" starring Benjamin. It's not a well-remembered show. Its lifespan was short. A shame, because the show had great potential as a sci-fi parody. It was created by Buck Henry who gave us "Get Smart" with Don Adams.
"Quark" is set on a United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol Cruiser. Three of the episodes were direct satires of "Star Trek" episodes. Satire can be a delicate thing. It's sophisticated. The watered-down nature of 1970s television made it largely impractical. You had to hit people on the head with what you were doing.
Buddy Ebsen as "Barnaby Jones" was an old geezer out chasing crooks. Ridiculous. "McCloud" was a western guy on his horse doing good in the big city. Implausible. Hollywood can be a "dream factory." It would also give us that "vast wasteland" (Newton Minow).
Today, TV is incredibly fragmented. There's something for everyone. We are tremendously spoiled. We are spared the likes of "Laverne and Shirley." Or at least, we can turn away from it.
That intriguing "Quark" show had navigator characters: "the Bettys," cute young women one of whom was a clone (although they both denied being the clone). Benjamin's "Adam Quark" says he's in love with Betty but isn't sure which one. The likes of "Star Trek" were ripe for satire. "Quark" just didn't break through.
Predicting success was very difficult. Remember, Jerry Van Dyke passed on the role of "Gilligan" because he saw more potential in "My Mother the Car." Didn't Dennis Weaver leave "Gunsmoke" for a short-lived comedy? But he re-appeared as "McCloud."
How we all wasted time watching TV. We vicariously attached ourselves to the characters, I guess. I read that psychological depression resulted from this. In 1954 the TV universe was fresh and unpretentious, in comparison to the '70s contrived dreck. One negative was the unabashed cigarette commercials.
"Seeing" the big news
In '54 television gave us, live, the broadcast of the Army/McCarthy hearings. And, Lee Ann Meriwether getting the crown of Miss America. We would be "subjected to" years of Miss America being hosted by Burt Parks. Mad Magazine had a satire where you could buy "Having to watch Burt Parks on TV insurance," and there was an illustration of a guy who had tried to change channels but the knob came off the TV. Ah, comedy!
All hail "My Favorite Year"
"My Favorite Year" is my favorite movie. It has sentiment without being maudlin. It balances a serious side with the madcap comedy.
Knowing it's a Mel Brooks movie, you can look for signs of the Brooks sense of humor, and it's there. Like, in the scene where Swann asks Stone to create a diversion at a nightclub so Swann can make a play on a certain young, admiring woman who's present with a dweeb-ish male companion. The tactic works, whereupon the jilted man, prone on the floor, says "somebody took my girl!" The lounge musicians take that as a request and instantly break into the song of that name. I laughed out loud.
I laughed out loud several times before movie's end. It's rare I can kick back and just describe a movie as totally wonderful from beginning to end. "My Favorite Year" is such a gem. The Mel Brooks touch continued with this historical flourish. 
The early TV was endearing because it came right into our homes, adding a new dimension there, whereas movies had been a detached experience. (The movies didn't work out too good for John Dillinger.)
The idea of creating a character like Errol Flynn without actually being Errol Flynn, made me try to remember other such characters. Andy Griffith in "A Face in the Crowd" could have been Arthur Godfrey. The movies were trying to warn us about the dangers of TV, i.e. its potentially mesmerizing influence on a too-gullible public. Griffith might also be Glenn Beck, I might suggest!
Joe Don Baker played the best Babe Ruth ever. Except, that he wasn't really Babe Ruth, he was a character called "the Whammer" in Robert Redford's "The Natural."
Tina Louise on "Gilligan's Island" could have been Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield.
Was Orson Welles really William Randolph Hearst in "Citizen Kane?" Hearst didn't like FDR because FDR helped start long, cruel World War II. Hearst for his part only started short, funny wars like the Spanish-American War.
Hollywood is wonderful when it isn't pretentious. "My Favorite Year" pays homage to an earlier time with total sincerity. Congratulations, Mel Brooks - sometimes you make me wish I was Jewish. (I had a first cousin, RIP, who converted to Judaism late in life.)
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com