Category Archives: History

Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 3)

The jet lag pendulum swung the other way my second night in England — I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning on my super comfortable mattress, and finally slipped out of bed at 6:15. Denied my chance to take a long walk the previous morning, I knew I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity as watery daylight peeked through the curtains I deliberately left part open. I was walking the streets ten minutes later, watching London wake up on a bleary Saturday morning. “The English don’t do mornings,” one of our later drivers cheerily remarked.

I decided to make my two destinations the (fictional) address of Sherlock Holmes, 221B Baker Street, followed by Trafalgar Square, and check out some more locations associated with the Beatles along the way. A round trip of about five miles. I strolled up Tottenham Court Road, evidently the site of some revelry last night as I stepped over many broken bottles and slicks of what was most likely urine decorating the building corners. Chain stores that are part of the fabric of the lives of every Briton seemed exotic to me — a Boots pharmacy, a Barclays bank, a Mr. Toppers haircuts, a Sainsbury’s supermarket, an Odeon cinema — and were interspersed with shuttered nightclubs and dormant pubs as I headed north to Euston Road. After not seeing a soul on Tottenham Court Road, traffic rumbled along the very busy Euston Road, proving that some people in London were indeed awake. Turning west on Euston, and passing the gaudy tourist trap known as Madame Tussaud’s (the original “wax museum”), it wasn’t long before I arrived at Baker Street.

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The legendary address of 221B Baker Street was entirely a figment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination. The actual Baker Street of the late 1800s ran only from Portman Square to Dorset Street, a distance of just over 500 yards, and the addresses on its high-end residential terrace houses ran from #1 to #85. A very short “Upper Baker Street,” with a separate set of addresses existed a little ways to the north. When the two streets were merged into one in the early 20th century, the 200s came into existence. The spot where 221 would be is occupied by a multi-story office block, Abbey House. Originally home to the Abbey National Building Society (who once employed someone full-time just to answer Holmes-related mail), it has been recently redeveloped into luxury flats.

471239135The building that now has official claim to the “221B” address according to the London Post Office is a little further up the block, at what would ordinarily be about 239 Baker Street. It is the Sherlock Holmes Museum, and is housed in an 1815 townhouse whose exterior had the good fortune to actually look quite a bit like the residence described in the Holmes stories. The Sherlock Holmes Society of England got hold of it, meticulously recreated the interior as Doyle imagined it, stuffed it full of artifacts and memorabilia, and opened it to the public in 1990. It was still closed at seven on a Saturday morning, of course, so I walked on.

I doubled back south down Baker Street. I walked by what used to be, from late 1967 to summer 1968, the Beatles’ Apple Boutique retail store (i.e., tax shelter). Noted for its massive psychedelic mural that outraged their more conservative neighbors, the Boutique hemorrhaged money and was one the Fab Four’s few major missteps. The original building was torn down in 1974, and replaced with one that was quite similar (with the addition of a few windows.)

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A block or so to the east was 20 Manchester Square, site of EMI House, business headquarters for the Beatles’ record label, and the building where the group peered over the edge of the interior balcony and down the stairwell for the cover of their first album in 1963. Theatrical photographer Angus McBean shot the picture, laying on his back on the lobby floor, sometime in February of ‘63.

Sadly, it was not worth even a short detour on my walk, because EMI House was torn down in 1999. Before its destruction, the balcony was reverently removed and installed in a place of honor at EMI’s sleek new headquarters several miles away in Hammersmith.

I turned east on London’s big shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street. The city was finally coming to life as 7:30 approached. Construction crews got to work, and delivery trucks started unloading. Joggers, weekend workers, and early shoppers began moving up the streets and clustering around the bus stops. I noticed it was all young people. As they bustled to and fro, they vaped and chatted into cell phones (“mobiles,” as they call them over here, and every other word out of their mouths was “brilliant,” the most overused adjective among young Londoners, said reflexively, like a Californian uses “cool.”) Some of the more colorful denizens of London’s streets were having loud, animated conversations with no one. The sun peeked occasinally through the overcast, and the heat wave would continue.

I next headed south along Regent Street. Unlike the mainstream chain-store shopping along Oxford Street, the shops of Regent Street offered more upscale fare. The elegant buildings date from the 1890s to the 1920s. The street was originally completed in 1825, but none of the original structures remain.

Just off Regent Street is Savile Row, the London garment district, home to some of the world’s best tailors, and former home of the Beatles self-owned management/production company, Apple Corps. 3 Savile Row is mostly known for its rooftop, which was the site of the final Beatles live performance on January 30, 1969, staged for cameras shooting what would eventually become the Let It Be documentary released in mid-1970.

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The Beatles' Rooftop Concert in 1969 (1)

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Following Regent Street around its gentle eastward curve into Piccadilly Circus, a massive traffic roundabout in the heart of London’s West End, I continued south. At 12 Regent Street there is a big office block known as Rex House. In the basement of Rex House, there was once a 400-seat movie theater called Paris Cinema, which opened in 1939. After WWII, it was bought by the British Broadcasting Corporation, who renamed it the BBC Paris Studios and converted it into a venue for recording radio broadcasts, mostly comedy shows in front of a live audience. In the 1960s, the space was also used to record special sessions by various pop groups exclusively for the BBC, including several recordings by the Beatles between November 1962 and July 1964.

A Dezo Hoffman photo of the Beatles entering the BBC Paris Studios on April 4, 1963 was used for the cover of the double-compilation album The Beatles Live at the BBC, which came out in 1995, the same year the BBC shut down the Paris Studio location in favor of more technically-advanced facilities elsewhere.

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The old BBC Paris Studio is now an L.A. Fitness

the-beatles-live-at-the-bbc-magnet-m2055I was almost to Trafalgar Square, and my heart sank a little as I approached it from Pall Mall. There were two giant stages erected at either end of the square. Along the sides ran tall bleachers. A large line of mostly teenage girls and their mothers were already queuing for what the banners announced breathlessly as West End Live!, an open air revue featuring popular selections from recent stage musicals. “One weekend only!”

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Trafalgar Square under seige by musical theater fans. Location of the original Charing Cross in the foreground.

To my horror, the giant lions guarding Nelson’s Column were totally hemmed in by tents and porta-potties. As I lined up to snap my somewhat deflating pic, I realized I was also right in front of the equestrian statue of the ill-fated Charles I. On the spot where the statue now stands was once an “Eleanor cross,” one of a group of twelve memorial crosses erected at intervals from London to Lincoln (in the far north of England) by Edward I in tribute to his late wife, Eleanor of Castile. One of these elaborate marble crosses would have been right in front of me had I stood there any time between 1294 and 1647, when the Puritan-controlled Parliament pulled it down during the English Civil War — the conflict that cost Charles I his head. A few years after the dust had settled and Charles II was firmly on the throne, he stuck a statue of his dad there as a well-deserved “fuck you” to the grim Puritans who had clamped down on everyone’s good time during their brief grip on London’s political reins. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 2)

My plan was to rise very early and take a long solo walk around London’s West End before Shannon was up, and do the same the following morning. Jet lag and a very thick set of curtains foiled day one of this plan. I gaped at the time on my cell phone when I woke up in a dark room — 9:26!

We hustled down to the hotel restaurant, the delightfully-named Scoff & Banter, where they laid on an excellent full English breakfast that came with the price of the room and that, sadly, I was unable to take full advantage of. My digestive system has a tendency to shut down on vacations. I am almost never hungry for some reason. I nibbled a banger (insert your own joke here), a few strips of “streaky” bacon (i.e., typical American bacon, rather than the leaner, more ham-like British bacon), some toast and honey, and guzzled breakfast’s most important element for an intrepid traveler: coffee, here served in individual French presses. (We all know that whole “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” nonsense is propaganda peddled by those snake oil salesmen over at Kellogg’s.)

The hotel’s breakfast buffet mastered the concept of guacamole, but not the name:

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The British Museum is one of those places where everyone remarks that you never have enough time to see everything. “You need a whole day,” fellow tourists lament, but never themselves taking a whole day because there’s so much else to see and do in London. Well, we came to London ahead of the rest of the traveling party for the specific purpose of spending an entire day at the British Museum (plus going in for about ninety minutes the day before, working our way through the “Enlightenment” exhibition in the King’s Library.)

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Main entrance to the British Museum. Cam is representing the U.S. well in his Philadelphia 76ers shirt.

We walked across the spacious courtyard of the Museum and through its main entrance not longer after it opened at 10:00.

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British Museum, west wing

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British Museum, east wing

The location of the British Museum was originally that of Montagu House, a sprawling country estate typical of the English landed aristocracy, once considered the “grandest private residence constructed in London.” Built just outside the city to the specifications of the avaricious, unscrupulous 1st Duke of Montagu after an earlier home burned down in 1686, its south facade peered suspiciously over its wall at the new construction that pushed the boundaries of London ever closer. Its north face opened onto manicured gardens and rolling countryside.

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Montagu House, north side. (This would be the back of the current museum.)

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Montagu House, south side on Great Russell Street.

The British Museum started with Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), an Irish-born physician to the royals, naturalist, purported inventor of the original recipe for milk chocolate, and (luckily for us) obsessive collector. He was the thirteenth president, succeeding Sir Isaac Newton, of the Royal Society (this will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry). Upon his death, he willed the 71,000 items in his collection to the people of Britain (in return for a substantial payment to his heirs). Sloane’s bequeathment included historical artifacts, natural history specimens, and a wide variety of books and manuscripts.

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Sir Hans Sloane

After its official creation by an Act of Parliament in 1753, the British Museum originally considered a location at Buckingham House, but it was deemed by the museum’s first trustees to be a trifle too costly. (The “house” was renamed a “palace” in the early 1800s, and now has a very different function.) They decided to go with Montagu House, happily offered for sale at a bargain price by the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who was horrified to discover that his inherited estate was being rapidly surrounded by the scourge of middle-class suburbs. (He had already moved out a few years prior, and the house was a run-down burden. Also, the 2nd Duke of Montagu was the son-in-law of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. This will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry.)

The British Museum, housed within the walls of Montagu House, opened free of charge to “all studious and curious persons” in 1759. The Dog & Duck pub across the muddy road that would become Great Russell Street changed its name to the Museum Tavern three years later (see previous entry.)

It wasn’t long before the drafty old mansion proved inadequate to the Museum’s needs. Plans for new construction were approved as early as 1802, but it would be a lengthy process. The last vestiges of the old Montagu House were swept away by 1845, as a gigantic, Greek Revival-style “quadrangle” building (as seen in the photos above) was erected over the course of decades. The Museum as we see it today was largely complete and functional by 1857, filled to the brim with dozens of exhibition rooms known in museum-speak as “galleries.”

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To make room for the collection that grows to this day, all the natural history stuff was removed to its own museum in 1881. (We taxied past the cathedral-like Natural History Museum out in South Kensington on our way into town the previous day.)

Upon entering the museum building, we were first confronted with the Great Hall, in the center of which is the domed Reading Room…which is no longer a reading room at all.

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The Great Hall and Reading Room

Back in the day, you had to make a special application to use the Reading Room and gain access to the Museum’s labyrinthine collection of books and manuscripts. In 1997, the Museum’s print material was moved to the new British Library building just up the road. After a three-year remodel, the Reading Room was opened to the general public as a short-lived, much-reduced “information centre.” From 2007 to 2013, it was used as a space for special Museum exhibitions. With the completion of a separate special exhibition space in 2013, the Reading Room went empty and dormant, and so it remains. No one seems to know what to do with it at this point.

Just off the Great Hall is the ground floor east wing known as the King’s Library, the oldest part of the currently-existing Museum building, completed in 1828. Now labeled less-romantically as “Room 1,” it was built to house the 60,000+ book collection of King George III, donated to the Museum after his death by his son, George IV. Over 40 feet high and 300 feet long, this hall was a repository for the late King’s books until all books were shipped out in ‘97. It now houses a permanent themed exhibition called “Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the 18th Century,” detailing a time in the 1700s when “people — including the collectors who created the British Museum — used reason and first-hand observation of the world around them to understand it in new ways.” In essence, it chronicled the rise of the museum mentality — the mad scramble to collect interesting artifacts and put them under glass.

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Some of the items on display in the Enlightenment gallery include an ichthyosaur skull discovered by Mary Anning, the young girl who happened to be an expert paleontologist, case upon case of Greek red-figure pottery (more on that below), and a 17th-century medicine kit, containing various herbs and tinctures…and a few dried skinks.

Artifacts aside, I really just enjoyed being in the locale. The King’s Library was dim, quiet, mercifully cool (unlike the rest of the Museum’s galleries that day), with polished wood floors, busts on pedestals, old-fashioned glass-topped wooden display cases, and central columns of polished Aberdeen granite. It looked like the Platonic ideal of an “old-fashioned museum,” before they went all sleek and touch-screen. And there were still bookshelves lining the second-level walls to give the place a proper atmosphere, the books themselves on semi-permanent loan from the House of Commons library.

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The rest of the Museum was fairly crowded. I heard so many American accents it felt like I was back in the Smithsonian in D.C. There were at least seven different school groups touring the facility, including two or three “public school” (i.e., private school) groups in ties and blazers, calling each other by their last names in time-honored public school tradition. (“Hurry up, Jenkins!”)

The three of us then acquired our audio guide headphones and went our separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch in the surprisingly good Museum pizzeria, and splitting up again to finish out the afternoon. No one should go through a museum at someone else’s pace.

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I was surprised at how relatively few artifacts in the British Museum had to do with Britain itself. (“Relatively few” meaning a mere half-dozen or so galleries.) It really was a reflection of how obsessed early antiquarians and collectors were with the “classical” civilizations of Greece and Rome, and to a lesser extent, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The “Greeks in Italy” room was bigger than the entire medieval England section.

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A Roman mosaic from guess where? — Ephesus!

The entrance to the ground floor Egyptian galleries was dominated by the Rosetta Stone, acquired by the Museum in 1802. Arguably the most important archaeological find ever, the Rosetta Stone is a large slab of granodiorite (similar to granite) engraved with the same passage in three different languages — Greek, Demotic (letter-based Egyptian), and Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is noteworthy for providing the key to deciphering the formerly mysterious hieroglyphs, opening vast new vistas in the study of ancient Egypt. Written around 196 B.C. (the text was a political decree from Egyptian king Ptolemy V) and discovered by Napoleon’s troops in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta (now known as Rasid) in 1799, the Stone was a part of a larger stele that had been broken up and used as foundation filler for a medieval-era fort. The British acquired it as a spoil of war after defeating Napoleon. They chalked in the inscription (like you would with D&D dice), and coated it with protective wax, giving it the appearance of black basalt. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 1)

Despite the exotic-sounding name, this was never intended to be a “travel blog.” As a general rule, I don’t travel. I am a mostly-sedentary creature of habit. I don’t like chairs that aren’t mine, beds that aren’t mine, being thousands of miles away from my creaking, over-stuffed bookcases, or not knowing when my next cold beer is coming.

Blogging is by its very nature a self-indulgent exercise, reaching its nadir with the toxic spoor of the internet known as the “mommy blog.” Mommy blogs seem to be less about documenting activities with their dull, backward children and more about “look what an awesome mommy I am.” Travel blogs can fall into the same narcissistic reflecting pool — endless photos of meals, sunsets, and feet-on-the-beach. But well-done ones can be edifying, informative, and amusing, three things no mommy blog in the history of the universe has ever got within shouting distance of.

For the brief period of time that the Holy Bee of Ephesus will be prancing around in a “travel blog” costume, I will try to be those things, but probably not all of them at once. And there probably will be a few pictures of meals. In fact, there’s one below.

The accompanying photos are mostly my own (which explains their poor quality), except in situations where photography was not allowed, or whenever time, circumstance, or being too lazy to pull my phone from my pocket precluded me from snapping some shots. In these situations, I will shamelessly swipe pictures from the web or resort to screenshots of Google Street View.

So, what prompted me to clamber out of my chair, stuff an oversized suitcase full of socks and various medicated creams, and dust off my never-once-used passport?

A British Airways aircraft taxis past ot

Because the destination was to be Great Britain.

Growing up steeped in the Beatles and Monty Python, and countless other bits of British cultural ephemera, a U.K. trip was a siren song not to be resisted. Plus they speak pretty good English over there (certain parts of Cumbria excepted), so making myself understood would be only a limited challenge.

And I would not be fending for myself. It was a trip for the extended family, and had been in the planning stages for years. Like myself, my wife, Shannon, has chosen a career in teaching, and therefore lives with me on the edge of pauperdom. Her parents and brother, however, entered the world of business, and through their ingenuity and hard work, have all been very successful. One of the ways they celebrate that success is seeing the world, often taking any black-sheep educators that happen to be related by blood or marriage along with them. Before my time with them, my wife and in-laws have tromped across Machu Picchu, the Alps, New Zealand, and various European cities. But, oddly enough, never London. Shannon went there for a few brief days after college in 2002 (as a small part of a larger European trip), but the British Isles have remained for the most part un-visited. And since Shannon’s family by nature are doers and planners, I could simply be hauled along like luggage and not have to concern myself with the nuts and bolts of organization, apart from taking part in an occasional vote about where to eat. (Most luggage doesn’t whine that it needs a beer, but whatever.)

The only downside was that my older son Cade, 20, was working an internship and could not join us. Shannon, myself, and my younger son Cameron, 18, were already on summer break, so we set off a few days ahead of the rest to get a feel for London and take our time at the massive British Museum.

Having never flown anything but coach, traveling in business class was an unexpected luxury. The seats in business class are sort of self-contained pods that can be reclined fully into sleeping positions. Each pod is twinned with another pod to the side. If your pod buddy isn’t a spouse or a friend, a privacy divider can be raised. When the dividers are down and the seats are upright, everyone’s head and shoulders are visible. A woman in a tube top nearby kept startling me out of the corner of my eye because it looked like she was taking a bath. Pillows were provided, along with a sealed package full of blankets (three different thicknesses), a sleeping mask, earplugs, and socks. Cold champagne and hot towels were distributed before take-off.

(The seats themselves weren’t much wider or plusher than standard airplane seats. The true gift of business class is leg room, so I wouldn’t repeat the gaffe of my most recent airline excursion the previous month. As an 8th-grade teacher, I was one of the chaperones on the annual graduation trip to Disneyland. Getting two dozen self-absorbed, half-awake 14-year-olds through security and onto an early morning flight was its usual nightmare, and I was literally the last person to board as they were closing the jetway door. It was a completely full Southwest flight with first-come, first-serve seating, so there was one single middle seat left available. I was so frazzled and out-of-sorts, I thought I could squeeze in front of the older lady in the aisle seat, as if I were at the movies or a basketball game. Her distressed squeals as I practically climbed into her lap brought me to my senses. As far as most embarrassing moments, it barely cracks the top 20.)

And since we were flying British Airways, all the flight attendants were wonderfully, authentically British. They were crisp, efficient, and referred to us all as “luv” and “darling.” The plane safety lecture was presented via a video featuring British celebrities only vaguely recognizable to American eyes, but warmly familiar to the Anglophile Holy Bee. “It’s Steve Coogan! It’s Jim Broadbent!” I kept saying exultantly to Shannon. Gillian Anderson used her English accent. She is evidently bidialectal.

The 747 jumbo jet hauled itself aloft out of San Francisco International Airport a little after 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon. The time difference meant we would arrive at London Heathrow Airport in the late morning of Thursday.

The dinner menu was a little vague in places. One course was simply listed as a “fillet of beef.” Trying to get any scrap of further information, Shannon asked the nearest flight attendant how it was prepared. “We heat it up, luv,” shrugged the attendant and moved on. Shannon wisely went for another dish, and I had the beef. It was indeed a totally non-descript brick of beef-like matter, wholly impervious to my attempts to cut it with the doll-sized knife and fork. It was at least flavorful, and the smoked salmon appetizer, with a healthy dose of horseradish cream and lemon juice, made me rethink my usual aversion to oily fish.

After dinner, washed down by a couple of Tribute Cornish pale ales, I attempted to sleep. It was twilight outside the plane’s window, and the tracking info on my little video screen indicated we were entering Canadian airspace at an altitude of 38,000 feet and a speed of 660 miles per hour. The cabin had gone dark, passengers vanishing as they put their seats into sleep mode. The glow of dozens of personal video screens was the only illumination. I tossed and turned as we streaked through the sky over Ontario and Quebec, but sleep would not come. Every time I would begin to drift off, a jolt of turbulence caused the aircraft to shudder. After two and a half hours, I gave up and fired up my Kindle, completing most of of Kerrang! writer Mick Wall’s Guns N’ Roses band biography Last of the Giants. Convinced it was the middle of the night, I cracked the window shade and was stunned to see bright North Atlantic sunlight. I snapped it shut before it disturbed anyone. We were just south of Iceland, and it was morning in Europe.

By the time the rest of the plane was stirring and breakfast was being served we were over the west coast of Ireland. According to my flight tracker, we flew directly over the Skellig Islands, the picturesque but incredibly windy location that served as Ahch-To, site of the first Jedi temple and hideaway of Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.  

As we passed over the main part of Ireland, I noted that anyone who describes it as “green” is pretty spot-on.

As will be mentioned several times, Britain was in the grip of a heat wave at the time of our visit. The modest air conditioning of Heathrow Airport couldn’t keep up, and as we crawled through the line to have our passports checked, sweat began to pool in the small of my back. We finally were determined to be not of the terrorist type, picked up our luggage, and breezed through a totally unmanned customs zone. A huge room full of scales and stainless-steel inspection tables echoed emptily as we strode towards the airport exit.

We grabbed a cab (a mini-van, not one of the traditional “black cabs”) and headed towards London on the M4. The cabbie, I noted, was dressed in a floral Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. All clothing items I left at home so I wouldn’t appear out of place. (Except for flip-flops, which I don’t own. Any grown man who wears flip-flops more than fifty feet from a swimming pool or other body of water should be fined. Any grown man who wears flip-flops with jeans should be executed by firing squad.) I took in my first view of a foreign country as it whizzed by our cab window. Not too different from home — car dealerships, big box stores, diversions for construction. The main difference was the style of traffic signs and the age of most of the buildings. Any random, anonymous building by the side of the motorway in suburban London was likely old enough to be an historical monument with a guided tour if it were in California.

As we got closer to London itself, the cabbie engaged us and began pointing out items of interest — and railing testily against the new bicycle lanes which he believed had destroyed the previously smooth flow of London traffic. The Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrod’s, the Ritz, and Piccadilly Circus all went by our cab’s windows as we alternately zipped insanely or crawled interminably through the districts of Knightsbridge and Mayfair towards our hotel. Being Americans, it wasn’t long before the cabbie asked us about Trump. We assured him that we thought Trump was a vile, bloated toad and a national embarrassment, and conversation continued amiably.

Just over an hour after leaving Heathrow, we arrived at our hotel in the Bloomsbury area of London. Taking an hour to go sixteen miles was something that would take some getting used to, but I believe there is something positive in having quaint, narrow roads and a lack of eight-lane freeways. Continue reading

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Video Store Memories

Sorry, misled voters of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Coal-mining jobs are not coming back in any appreciable amount. Never. Ever. And any presidential candidate of any party who tells you otherwise is playing you for a fool. But that’s the way of the world. Think of the poor harness and saddle makers when those Model T Fords started rolling off the assembly line. Shit outta luck. No one’s crossing the Atlantic on dirigibles anymore either, putting all those patriotic, hard-working dirigible technicians out of business. Industries die when times change. It’s a fact of life.

I can’t recall anyone carrying signs at political rallies when the humble video rental store circled the drain and gurgled out of existence not long ago. Maybe that’s because most video store employees are…excuse me, were…jaded Gen-X youngsters, not people with families to support and hoping for a pension after forty-five years of inhaling coal dust.

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Everyone knows the big video store chains. Blockbuster Video, with twelve locations still open nationwide as of this writing. Hollywood Video, which died screaming in 2010, never collecting the $23.00 I owed them for a way past-due return of I Love You, Beth Cooper. Less remembered are the independents, the hole-in-the-wall mom & pop places that sprang up all over, circa 1985. They occupied every third strip-mall storefront for a while, usually had a beaded curtain guarding access to untold triple-X delights in the “back room,” and were mostly forced out of existence a decade-and-a-half later by the aforementioned big chains and their corporate ubiquity. Even liquor stores and gas stations often had a small video rental section for awhile. But as the twin behemoths of Blockbuster and Hollywood scaled a mountain made up of the smoking corpses of their competitors, their time was running out, too. Streaming services became the order of the day, and with a little practice, even Grandma and Grandpa could pick a flick from Amazon Video without having to put on their orthopedic shoes and leave their house that smells of dishrags and old soup.

Physical media came with a lot of problems. VHS tapes could get mangled (or melted in a hot car). DVDs could get scratched. But streaming has its limitations, too. Your WiFi can get intermittent. It’s hard to casually browse. You have to actively seek out older movies to stream. You can no longer just randomly spot them on the shelves when you’re out with your friends in the video store, and then shame your friends into seeing them:

“Dude, you haven’t seen Mandingo? We are getting that shit and solving that problem TONIGHT.” So you would get Mandingo, maybe Big Trouble in Little China, and whatever the new release of the week was. And odds are, the rabid Mandingo fan would push to watch that one first, possibly to the total exclusion of the other movies, and to the enlightenment of all viewers.

In my multi-part look back at 90s music, I told a few stories about life behind the counter of a video store, but I didn’t go into the detail this vanished way of life deserves. I was an employee of First Run Video in Yuba City, California from August 1993 (age 18) to December 1995 (just turned 21). First Run was not a national chain, nor was it a standalone. It was a mini-chain, consisting of about six locations in the northern part of the Sacramento Valley. Redding. Red Bluff. Weaverville. Oroville, maybe? I know Yuba City was its southernmost location. I started there on its third or fourth day of operation.

I can find no web evidence of First Run Video. It closed its doors in 1999, I think. As far as the internet is concerned, it never existed. No archived local business articles or ads. No old storefront photos on Google Images. No bitmap image files of its logo (a medal that read “1st” with a forked blue prize ribbon dangling underneath). No YouTube video of its one local TV commercial (which featured the back of my head for .002 seconds). Except for those mentions on my own website, First Run Video is — in the truest sense — gone, even from the internet nostalgia machine.

So all we have left is my description of the place, drawn solely from twenty-plus-year-old memories. Take my hand, Gentle Reader, and I’ll guide you through it…

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A busy shopping center at a busy intersection. Anchored at one end by an Orchard Supply Hardware store, and at the other, a Bel Air grocery store. Just around the corner from Bel Air, facing the palm tree-lined side parking lot, is First Run Video…

It’s big for what it is. A lot of square footage. It seems like there’s an acre or more of alternating blue and white tiled floor. Walk in the double doors. On your left is the Children/Family video section, and the video games. On your right are all other genres. Lining the wall running across the back of the store, and curving around to the right, are the New Releases. If you walk straight ahead, you approach the counter where you receive your rented videos after you’d paid for them. There was a slot in that counter that would receive your returned videos. Above you are bright blue buzzing neon letters that spell out MOVIES. (I think. Maybe it said something else. All I know is that it was covered with a shitload of gnats and lacewings every summer.) But you pick up your movies later. Right now, pass by the Disneyland-style popcorn wagon (popcorn is gratis, but we only fire it up on weekends). Rows of little marquee light bulbs on both sides of the entrance lobby channel you to enter the rental floor to the right or left. Either way, you pass through our security gates. Metallic strips of tape stuck to each and every VHS cassette in the store will set those bad boys off, ensuring you don’t pilfer that copy of License To Drive. They’re also fun to stick on co-workers’ backs right before they leave for the day, so they can exit to the sound of a shrieking alarm system. (Best to pull that gag when the store is pretty empty.)

One employee, Doug, who bore a striking resemblance to the “Ogre” character from Revenge328ff3d500bd1af7297f0e2145245ead of the Nerds (but was much more good-natured) was actually simple enough to clean the dust out of an empty marquee light socket using his finger. The crack sound was audible, and Doug’s considerable bulk was sent sprawling. He later showed us the black fingernail and the spiderweb of reddened blood vessels that crept up his arm. Doug also once called in sick after falling off a local railroad bridge. He soon moved on to other opportunities.

The store shelves are not real shelves, they are those rubberized wire racks that you would normally find in a budget-line refrigerator. Light, movable, and above all, cheap. Apart from the Customer Service Counter (and the New Member Sign-Up table just to the side of it), everything in the store seems made out of these modular racks. Most people enter to the right, where they would encounter the New Member Sign-Up table with its stacks of membership info cards, and, for a blessedly short period, the “trailer machine.”

InnocentBlood-Warner1The trailer machine was a big console with a video screen, where customers could cue up a preview for an upcoming movie by pushing a button. If no one was around to push the button — and very few people exercised this option — the machine would simply cycle through all its trailers on a randomized loop. The problem was, the machine was loaded with far too few trailers, and each one would crop up every fifteen minutes or so. The first two lines of Sinatra’s “That Old Black Magic,” which opened the trailer of John Landis’ Innocent Blood, became permanently embedded in by frontal brain lobe after four months of hearing it every fifteen minutes of an eight-hour shift. The other problem was that no one ever showed up to change out the trailers. The movies featured went from “Upcoming” to “New Release” to “Saturday afternoon on TNT.” The machine was finally removed in the name of employee sanity.

If you’re like most people, you would head right for the New Release section against the back wall. The VHS boxes shrink-wrapped around styrofoam blocks would be the “display models.” Any actual copies of the movie we have on hand would be behind those. How many people bring the display box up to rent, and leave disappointed? More than I’d care to count, despite the myriad of signs around the store explaining the system. No such confusion in the main rental area, where the videos older than three months go to be pretty much never touched again. The box is cut down and slid into the clear sleeve of a traditional plastic VHS case, and the tape goes right inside. When their time comes, a copy or two of the former New Release is kept for this area (divided by genre), and the dozen or so others–the ones we could barely keep on the shelves for those heady first few weeks we had them–are kicked to our Used Movies To Buy section. When they inevitably fail to sell after a few more months, they are shipped off to some mysterious video graveyard.

New Releases rent for $2.99, and go fast. People with far too much time on their hands hover around, and snatch them as soon as we put them on the shelf. They ask us to go out to the parking lot and check the dropbox, even though it had just been checked twenty minutes ago. Luck plays a big part in going home with the hottest new movie…unless you are a comely young woman, then your odds go up substantially. We always keep one copy of all the New Releases in the “Pretty Girl Drawer” behind the counter. (“One just came in…I was holding it for myself, but you seem nice…” No employee discount for New Releases, either. Once they are in the old movie section, however, they are free for us, and we can and do bring them home by the carload.)

If you are lucky (or attractive) enough to get ahold of your coveted New Release, then you might turn your attention to our back catalog, which takes up the bulk of the real estate. They are subdivided into an exasperatingly pointless amount of sub-genres, as indicated by a color-coded sticker. Here’s what I remember: Action (green), Adventure (orange), Children (light blue), Classic (light brown), Comedy (yellow), Drama (gold), Family (dark blue), Horror (pink), Thriller (red), Romance (white), Sci Fi (purple), Western (dark brown). There may be more. Documentaries and foreign films are over by the Family section, and sport a layer of dust the thickness of a rabbit’s pelt. This is Yuba City, after all. Continue reading

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I’m Using “1989” In A Blog, Where Do I Send The Check? (Part 2)

track-500x339“I Wish You Would” (this particular song has pretty much nothing to do with what follows, but it’s the only track off 1989 that I couldn’t stretch to fit my narrative.)

As should be clear by now, I was a movie fan, which meant I would check out whatever was new that week at the multiplex, with no real discernment. If one movie was sold out, I just went to the next one down the list. (I became a pickier, snobbier “cinephile” a few years later after having my world rocked by Reservoir Dogs.)

1989 was the first year of many years in which I picked up a copy of Leonard49f88b938e217bb593378795367434f414f4141-1 Maltin’s TV Movies & Video Guide. This tome was the size of a small brick, and was “the essential reference for home video rental, featuring…18,000 films!” It was the Internet before the Internet.

So I had been marking life milestones by what movie I had seen most recently. (The start of summer vacation was not only Tienanmen Sqaure, but also Weekend At Bernie’s.) One of the many changes wrought by 1989 was that my personal events began being marked more and more by music. The big summer albums, as I recall, were the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing and the Tom Petty solo album Full Moon Fever. The strains of “Love Shack” and “Free Fallin’” saturated the hot, dry Northern California air. One celebratory, one regretful and elegiac. It was kind of the sound of the 80s dying, though no one thought of them that way then.

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For a little bit longer, though, movies were still my markers, and the last movie I saw before high school was The Abyss. It was the night before Locker Day. Locker Day was the first big event before school actually started, and, as the name suggests, it’s when you get your locker assignment in the high school hallways. It’s also when you get your list of classes. Nick made the trek up from Robbins to see the movie, sleep over, and get his locker with me the next morning. But something had irrevocably changed.

He was on the high school football team.

220px-TheAbyssHe was still the amiable, slightly goofy guy prone to malapropisms (he once said “douche” instead of “tush” when someone drew a girl’s backside in a family game of Pictionary — my mom laughs about that to this day.) But practices had already started, and he no sooner set foot in my new Yuba City place than he had to dash off and put on the pads and helmet for the whole afternoon. He barely made it back in time to get changed for the movie. I have to admit, I felt a little jilted.

It got worse. After we got our lockers the next morning, we met up with his new friends — the football team — to walk to Carl’s Jr. for breakfast. Carl’s Jr. wasn’t exactly adjacent to the high school, and over the course of the kind-of long walk, I felt more and more out of place and uncomfortable. By the walk back, I was trailing behind by half-a-block. No one noticed, as they playfully shoved each other and made rude-jock jokes. Nick had found his tribe, almost immediately, and never looked back. As George Gobel once said, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

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I have my 1989-90 yearbook and a scanner, so you get a genuine look at Locker Day

“Blank Space” 

I didn’t dwell on it, though. I was far too excited about the prospect of starting high school. A clean slate, a chance to reinvent myself. I may not have been on the football team, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t peddle my own brand of awesomeness. I never lacked for self-confidence (at least, not yet), but I really was just a puppy tripping over his own paws. I received my class list and locator card that Locker Day, and saw that I had English C, Intro to Physical Science (IPS), Geography C, P.E., Computer Literacy, and Integrated Math. I was in the college-prep C-level humanities classes, but math was my Achilles heel, and “Integrated Math” just meant “pre-algebra.” To my horror, I discovered that “Computer Literacy” was basically a keyboarding class. It didn’t take. I’m typing this right now with two fingers and a thumb. And damn fast, too.

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Our brand new sign. We really won the mascot jackpot.

In English class one of our first assignments was an autobiographical essay about a meaningful event in our lives. I wrote about the trip I took to Washington D.C. the previous year. I had always been interested in writing, but I mostly wrote fiction. This wasn’t the first autobiographical essay I had written for a class, but it was the first one I tried to make entertaining and resonant, to inject with some of the passion I used for my made-up stories. “This is really good…” the teacher scrawled at the bottom when the paper was returned. The Holy Bee of Ephesus may just have been hatched at that moment.

I desperately wanted to begin my dating life. After all, here was a guy who already made out with a girl (albeit in a clinical, pre-arranged ritual that could be qualified as “bizarre” — see previous entry — but it counts!) My entire notion of dating consisted of asking someone to the movies. Or possibly bowling. I couldn’t wait to get started. How hard could it be? The second or third day of school I spotted a likely prospect in my Geography C class.

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Freshman class pic, Sept. ’89. The amount of hairspray seen here may be solely responsible for the hole in the ozone layer

She was incredibly cute. (I didn’t yet grasp the fact that “boxing above your weight class” could be metaphorical and applied outside the sport of boxing.) She was quirky and unconventional. She carried around a clarinet. She wore loud green-and-purple checkered pants that looked like something out of the Joker’s closet. She sometimes wore a beret. The pop-culture term had not yet been coined, but she looked like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

On some pretense, I began a conversation with her. Then I clumsily popped the clutch and lurched into asking her to the movies. I don’t remember her exact response, I just know we did not go to the movies, then or ever. And she did not conceal her disdain in prognosticating, in no uncertain terms, that the possibility of any interaction with her at any point in the future was a highly unlikely proposition. I felt like a dog swatted on the nose with a newspaper. Not really hurt, just chagrined and embarrassed. Manic Pixie Dream Girls aren’t supposed to be mean.

I vowed to do better with the next girl that came along. Maybe lay a little groundwork before proffering the date within five minutes of speaking to her for the first time. I already had a few in my sights, including one I would I would doggedly and ineptly pursue, Wile E. Coyote-style, off and on for the next two years. (Check out This Used To Be My Playground Part 4: Kryptonite and Stomach-Aches for a flash-forward into the early 90s to see how that adventure turned out. She may just as well have painted a tunnel on the side of a cliff.)

YC emblemOpportunities abounded, or at least I thought they did. Sometime in early September, one girl threw a night-time birthday party with a blanket invitation to the entire freshman class. It was at a park — a park one block away from my house! I eagerly trotted over as dusk settled in. It wasn’t exactly the entire freshman class, but it was quite a crowd. And I knew none of them. The ones I recognized from my classes were already talking to other people. I wandered around aimlessly, had a cup of punch, and went back home, wondering what I thought was supposed to happen, and how come it was so easy for everyone else? I realized it had a lot to do with middle school. Most of the freshman class already had pre-existing relationships with people they went to middle school with (a situation that will come up again later.) That made me feel better. I decided at the next high school social event, I needed a wingman that I knew from middle school, a Goose to my Maverick, a Wedge to my Luke. Nick was already skyrocketing to the top of the social strata and had no time to help out. That left my other Robbins friend, Dusty.

The first dance of the year was coming up – the “Beanie Ball,” hosted by the sophomores to welcome incoming freshmen. I convinced Dusty to make the trip up to Yuba City and go in with me, Butch & Sundance-style, guns blazing.

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A typical YCHS Dance, 1989. I don’t know if this was the Beanie Ball or not, but it certainly could’ve been.

The one potential stumbling block to my cunning plan was that neither one of us could dance. Or at least we couldn’t “fast dance,” so our all-out assault consisted of standing stock-still, drinking cup after cup of Pepsi, and going to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. We watched as our classmates did the Cabbage Patch and the Roger Rabbit all around us while “Bust A Move” by Young MC or “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals boomed from the speakers.

What we were doing was working up the nerve to ask a girl we sort of knew to let us put our arms clumsily around them and sway-and-rotate to a slow number. That was a dance move we could handle. But finding a partner was nerve-wracking. “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx came and went. “Lost In Your Eyes” by Debbie Gibson came and went.

Then something like “Chances” by Roxette would pop up and no one would know if it was supposed to be fast dance or slow dance song. We were running out time. Finally I spotted a pair of girls I recognized from a class, and had briefly exchanged a few words with. They were even guardedly friendly, unlike mean ol’ Joker-pants. Good enough. Dusty and I locked our s-foils into attack position and moved in.

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This is the real deal, according to the yearbook caption. The Beanie Ball. Dusty & I were in that mass of swaying, sweaty humanity somewhere.

Yelling to make ourselves heard over the likes of “Rhythm Nation” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” we made inane conversation with Brenda and Nikki for just long enough to get to the crucial awkward pause — where we had to ask them to dance, or move on, defeated. I turned off my targeting computer, used the Force, and pulled the trigger…successfully. We got our slow dance. It was “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles.

I spent the weekend swooning over Brenda. (Not her real name, BTW. I used her real name once in a blog a couple of years ago, never in a million years thinking she would ever actually read it, but somehow she did and let me know that the real-life, grown-up woman she became was more than a little embarrassed by the whole deal. Fair enough.) She was on the tall side, with shoulder-length dark hair and dark eyes. She admitted she wanted to be a model, and she just maybe could have pulled it off.

Hurricane Hugo hit a few days after the Beanie Ball, doing to the Carolina coast what Brenda was doing to my psyche.

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I literally cannot remember ever having any further interaction with poor Dusty at any time after that. He had served his purpose.

With thoughts of Brenda spinning in my head, I made another attempt to climb the high school social ladder, with predictable results… Continue reading

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I’m Using “1989” In A Blog, Where Do I Send The Check? (Part 1)

Taylor Swift is described in every article ever written about her as a “savvy businesswoman,” but that’s like calling the Grand Canyon a “big ol’ ditch.” She is at this point a walking, talking corporation. When the Supreme Court first established the concept of “corporate personhood,” it seemed more of a conceptual, legal thing. But no. America, we have seen a corporation take literal human form, and its name is Taylor Swift.

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“Human” might be stretching it. Via the dark web, I have proof that she was actually created in an underground lab in 2005 from an unholy primordial soup of rose petals, Diet Coke, and harvested cheekbones by the Universal Music Group in order to shore up their country music division. In a shocking turn of events, she pried off her restraining bolt and went rogue. She incorporated herself (much like The Terminator’s Skynet becoming “self-aware”), and became a multi-genre, multi-media assassin android, destroying rivals and haters with T-1000 intensity and protecting her “brand” with animal ferocity. She now morphs and evolves into something more plastic and ruthless by the month. It is a wonder to behold.

Taylor_Swift_-_1989Her brand protection includes trademarking some key lyrics from her massive 2014 album 1989. A typically cunning move, but it’s been blown up into a minor brouhaha recently because a few Twitter idiots (Twitiots?) wondered how a person could copyright a year.

Well, you can’t, of course, and that’s not what she did.

However, it got me thinking. If a person could own a year, I think I would pick 1989, too.

1989 is allegedly the year Swift was born (but we know the truth, don’t we?), and it was also the year I was born — or at least the year I developed into the person whose words you’re yawning through now. Admittedly, the blessed event when my actual physical body entered the world was a decade-and-a-half earlier, but it was 1989’s experiences that made me the adult I am today (if I can be called an adult as I sit here in Star Wars boxers thinking up android metaphors to describe Taylor Swift.) It was also an altogether eventful, remarkable year even outside my little bubble world. I would like a tiny slice of ownership of 1989.

“Clean”

Like most new years, 1989 kicked off with a feeling of fresh starts. It was theThe Beatles Help - Longbox 405846 beginning of my CD collection. I had just received a CD player for Christmas, so I started by buying all the Beatles albums, one a week, for thirteen straight weeks. Exactly fifteen dollars a pop (my entire weekly allowance), they still came in wasteful foot-long, shrink-wrapped cardboard long boxes, solely because stores hadn’t yet converted the deep bins that used to hold their vinyl LPs.

The first significant event I can remember from 1989 was the inauguration of George H.W. Bush as the 41st President of the United States on January 20…and I couldn’t be happier. Yes, at the age of fourteen, I was a hardcore Republican. Like most fourteen-year-olds, I liked winners, and after eight years of growing up middle-class in good ol’ Reagan’s America, the Democrats had the stink of weak, stagnant losers. I was a budding history buff, so the Republicans to me were the party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. I was a military buff, so their strong-on-defense stance and airstrike-happy mentality (take that, Gaddafi!) was enormously appealing. Who could possibly choose that blobby nebbish Dukakis over the steely-eyed WWII pilot “Read My Lips” Bush?

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“Shake It Off”

So, how long did it take for the Republicans to lose this potential voter? Not much longer. A little college and a lot of real world observation shook off the final foul traces of political conservatism from me. And the Republicans did most of it to themselves. Some time between 1989 and Clinton’s second term, the GOP cheerfully opted to voluntarily devolve from “conservative” to a howling pack of pea-brained ghouls. If their platform all along was a raging hard-on for personally-owned assault weapons and a totally misapplied obsession with the Bible, coupled with a slobbering hatred of gays and a deep-seated need to oppress women and anyone half-a-shade darker than Wayne Newton, well,  that would have turned away even 14-year-old me.

Where’s all the Bob Doles these days? When a sentient clown shoe like Dan Quayle would be a breath of fresh air compared to 2016’s slate of GOP candidates, you know the party’s hit rock-bottom.  I try not to get too political here, but the 2016 election, so far, in particular has shown that latter-day Republicans have generally not developed far past the mental age of fourteen.

Anyway, back to me being fourteen…January 20 was a Friday, and I remember watching Bush’s inaugural address on a TV wheeled into my 8th grade classroom.

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The homestead for the 1st half of ’89

At an age when most other kids were deep into real middle school — “junior high” — learning to hustle from class to class, slamming locker doors and trying to beat the tardy bell, I was still in what was essentially an elementary school. Robbins School, K through 8th grade, was at the time the smallest school in the Yuba City Unified School district. Located about thirty miles south of Yuba City itself, it served the tiny town of Robbins (pop. 250 in ‘89) and its tractor-intensive rural surroundings. I was one of nine eighth-graders. All seventh and eighth grade classes were taught in the same room, usually by the same person (Mr. Perkins, who was also the principal, assisted by a rogue’s gallery of student teachers wondering who they pissed off to end up there). We didn’t even live in Robbins proper, but in more isolated surroundings — a rented farmhouse about four miles out of town, where the tranquility was frequently broken by miscellaneous motorized equipment rumbling through our gravel carport to service the thirteen acres of walnut trees surrounding us, and the deafening dive-bombing of radial-engine crop dusters seeding and fertilizing the open fields on either side of the property. (They were not precision vehicles — seeds rained down on our house like hail with each pass, and one summer our corrugated porch roof sported a healthy little crop of sunflowers.)

“Style”

SCN_0036That winter I was fond of wearing a heavy nylon bomber jacket with a fake fur collar. Not long after the accompanying photo was taken, I began decorating it with vintage USAAF pins I’d acquired at a flea market, including pilot’s wings and captain’s bars on the shoulders. The cool kids — consisting solely of Nick and Abel — tightly pegged their stonewashed 501s at the ankle, whereas my hopelessly uncool cuffs flopped around my shoe tops. (By the time I started pegging my pants the next year, the trend was over and I was hopelessly uncool in the opposite direction.)

I had only started at Robbins Elementary at the beginning of 7th grade, and I was lucky that Nick, the alpha-dog kid who had ruled the place since kindergarten, decided I was OK and served as my best friend for a couple of years. The pictures here were taken at Robbins School for reasons unknown (I think I was trying to make some kind of photo-journalistic scrapbook), but I remember it was Valentine’s Day, 1989. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #11: Michael Korda’s “Clouds of Glory”

“I felt like anything other than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought…” — General Ulysses S. Grant, on Robert E. Lee’s surrender

coverI am a Grant man. I have always been suspicious of the aloof, aristocratic Robert E. Lee. Not only because he fought on the side that was attempting to preserve one of the most odious institutions devised by mankind, but because Grant was decidedly non-aristocratic. Down-to-earth. “Blue collar,” though that term did not exist in the 1860s. He was a store clerk in Galena, Illinois when the Civil War started, having dropped out of the army as a captain a few years before. He had been a lowly quartermaster during the Mexican War, the brief conflict of the 1840s which introduced many of the young junior officers who would go on to be generals in the Civil War. He left the army in disgrace when loneliness for his family drove him to the whiskey bottle. He was reduced to selling firewood in the streets before his father took pity on him, and gave him a job in his store.

Four years later, he was a three-star general that had beaten the Confederacy’s best troops into bloody tatters, and accepted the surrender of the marble god of the Southern battlefield, the great Robert E. Lee, the man believed by many in the North and South to be invincible.

Grant’s story, to me, is the interesting one. Yet I have heard again and again about Lee’s divine prowess as a general, and I was always a little skeptical. He seemed more lucky than good. He took his much-renowned audacious risks out of necessity (the South was always outnumbered and outsupplied), and they paid off because the Union generals he was up against prior to Grant were timid and irresolute.

Michael Korda’s new biography, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, reveals that Lee was just as interesting as Grant, and certainly makes the case for Lee as a great commanding general: A man equally adept at offense and defense, which was a very rare thing indeed. Lee had a bold and courageous personality which led to decisive offense, stunning flanking attacks, and perfectly timed withdrawals.  He also had an engineer’s training, which led to impenetrable defenses when the need arose.

Lee was a loyal officer in the U.S. Army for thirty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. And most of that thirty years was drudgery — he was an engineer, specializing in fortification and drainage. His career highlight had been the two-year Mexican War. When Lt. Grant was “in the rear with the gear,” the dashing Colonel Lee was making a name for himself as a bold reconnoiter and mapmaker, and a valuable right hand to the commanding generals. Once the Mexican War was over, he served a term as Superintendent of West Point (where he had graduated second in his class, already with a reputation for pristine perfection) before going back to engineering duties, which is where he was when the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1861. Continue reading

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“Deck Officer! Deck Officer!”: An Autobiographical Journey Through Star Wars Toys, Part 2

“Sir, your tauntaun will freeze before you get to the end of this blog post…”

“Then I’ll see you in hell!”

 Yes, I was a slight latecomer to the Star Wars universe. I was a child of The Empire Strikes Back, but I was keenly aware Empire was a sequel. I knew I had missed the boat on the original (which I referred to simply as “Old Star Wars”) and ached to see it. The gap was filled somewhat by my Star Wars storybook, which told the story of the first film through lots of lavish photographs and fairly advanced and detailed text for a young reader. (The book-and-cassette read-along version helped, too, as I dutifully turned the page when I heard the chimes.) The storybook also contained some material that was cut from the final film, including the famous lost Luke-Biggs dialogue scene.

This was my only reference point for the original Star Wars

This was my only reference point for the original Star Wars

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I distinctly remember the Empire illustrated storybook had its publication delayed for some reason, and my mom had to special order it from the mysterious “Random House,” which I pictured as a literal house full of storybooks. That Empire storybook and the excellent Marvel comics adaptation helped keep the plot and visuals fresh in my mind once Empire left theaters. The things we had to resort to in those dark days before home video…

The Marvel comics adaptation served as my "home version" of Empire

The Marvel comics adaptation served as my “home version” of Empire

The collecting fire was fueled by the TV commercials, which were in constant rotation during after-school and Saturday morning shows. They usually featured a pair of bowl-haired kids in 70s turtlenecks playing on a perfectly landscaped “backyard” set, making up atrocious dialogue (I still say “look both ways, dewback!” to myself as I approach intersections to this day), and failing to pull off C-3PO’s British accent.

“Playing Star Wars” was a common activity — but you could go down one of two paths, which we called “Real Life” or “Action Figures.” “Real Life” meant pretending to be the characters and acting things out. Actually, we were not the real characters, but rather the real characters’ kids. This was at my insistence. I could pretend to be in a galaxy far, far away, but I could not pretend to be any age other than my own. I was a peculiar child. (Or was I prophetic? This was years ahead of the “babyfication” fad that swept pop culture later in the decade.) Characters were assigned to my neighborhood crew based on age, gender and hair color. I was dark-haired so I got to be Han, Jr., Isaac had kind of dirty blonde hair, so he was Luke, Jr., Susie was a girl, so she was Lil’ Leia, and Mikey was three-and-a-half, so he played whatever he was damn well told, usually something demeaning. Continue reading

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Full-Course Kenner: An Autobiographical Journey Through Star Wars Toys, Part 1

KENLOGThere’s no big Star Wars-related milestone that inspired me to write a little bit (or not-so-little bit) about the line of Star Wars Kenner toys that were such a massive part of my childhood. The original three movies are 37, 34, and 31 years old, we won’t see a new film under the deal with Disney until at least the end of 2015, so things are pretty quiet in the Star Wars universe.

What set me off down this path was actually a podcast — The Star Wars Minute, hosted by Alex Robinson and Pete the Retailer. The concept behind star wars minutethe podcast is these two Star Wars geeks around my age (closing in on 40) dedicate each episode to a single minute of the original Star Wars movie. (I still have trouble calling it A New Hope or Episode IV.) A typical episode runs between 12 and 15 minutes, and it’s better than it sounds. They go into behind-the-scenes trivia (most of which I know, and I tend to yell corrections at my iPod when they flub something) and banter with their weekly guest, in addition to analyzing the minutiae of the film sixty seconds at a time. I may be biased, but I don’t see this working with any other film series. There’s a certain richness to the Original Trilogy that latter-day CGI-fests can’t match (terrific as some of those films are.) (EDIT: There’s now an Indiana Jones Minute, Back to the Future Minute, Jaws Minute, Goodfellas Minute, all done by other podcasters. No, those movies are not “latter-day CGI-fests,” and no, they still don’t work as well in a minute-by-minute breakdown.)

Star Wars Minute has moved on from Star Wars, and are a ways into The Empire Strikes Back (they have promised to hang it up without doing the dreaded prequels. EDIT: They’re totally doing the prequels), and here’s my beef: they have remarked numerous times that they have received complaints about digressing too much into discussion of the Star Wars toys. It surprises no one that these complaints come from Generation II of the Star Wars fan base.

Generation I are the people who fell in love with the Star Wars movies during their original theatrical run (1977-83), and aside from yelling occasional corrections at their iPods, are content to bask in nostalgia and not rock the boat too much. (Maybe there’s a little irritation at the sub-par writing of the prequels.) Generation III is everyone from toddlers through high-schoolers who were born or began to watch the films after the “Special Edition” re-releases in 1997 and are totally uncritical and accept the series as a whole, prequels and all. New Generation III’ers are being made each day (welcome!).

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Generation II are the nitpicking assholes. The millennials. The Gen-Y’ers. The eldest of them maybe got taken to Return of the Jedi as an infant and breastfed through it. They usually have older siblings or younger parents who were Generation I and got them into it…and then they really ran with it. They played all the video games, gobbled up the “Expanded Universe” novels and comics, and re-watched the movies endlessly on video. They are the ones who began to fetishize Boba Fett beyond all reason. They’re mostly in their mid-twenties to early thirties these days, and they’re the type who actually e-mail complaints to podcasts. Which is fine, but when they say the toy discussions should stop, that’s where I have to step in and invoke a little Gen I seniority. (Sad 2018 post-Last Jedi EDIT: And I guarantee you all of the racist, misogynistic fuckwit trolls who are ruining Star Wars fandom are 95% Gen II. I know you’ll all die alone, and I hope it will be painful.)

Generation II have never existed in a world without home video. To Gen I, the toys were the only way we could keep the movies alive in our heads. We squeezed in as many viewings as we could at the theater, and once it finished its run, we hoped it would show up on TV now and then.

In the meantime, we had the toys. The wonderful, wonderful toys produced by Kenner from early 1978 through 1985, which fired the imagination like nothing else could. Continue reading

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“Tombstone” vs. “Wyatt Earp”

As is often the case with the Holy Bee, to understand the entertainment, we must start with the history…

People of Tombstone, Arizona remembered October 26, 1881 as particularly cold. A bone-chilling wind whipped off the nearby Dragoon Mountains, and many residents assumed a flurry of light, dry snow was on its way to the little silver-mining town. A storm of a different kind came instead. Two groups of men faced off against each other in a nondescript vacant lot. (The OK Corral, which would soon lend this confrontation its name, was actually on another street on the other side of the block. Its rearmost portion could be accessed by a tiny alleyway, the entrance to which was still several yards from the vacant lot. But, as author Jeff Guinn points out, “Shootout at the Vacant Lot on Fremont Street” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.)

Animosity between the larger interests each group represented had been growing for the past eighteen months. A tangled mess of politics, personality clashes, and a long series of incidents such as stolen U.S. Army mules, the semi-accidental shooting of the Tombstone city marshal, and a botched stagecoach robbery just outside of town limits all contributed to the tension that had been humming through the town since early the year before.

On one side of the lot were five men — Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton and his younger brother Billy, brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne — who represented the “cowboys.” Small-time ranchers who openly rustled cattle from over the Mexican border less than forty miles south, they were viewed with suspicion by the town leaders and businessmen. Most were legitimate ranch hands with a rowdy streak, coming into town to drink and raise a little hell. Dealing in stolen cattle was something everyone did to keep their ranches afloat, and most people looked the other way (especially if the cattle came from Mexico.) Other cowboys were more sinister — genuine “bad men” from Texas, who fled that area when the legendary Texas Rangers started cracking down on outlawry. Politically Democratic and sympathizers to the old Confederacy, they also had many allies in the town who appreciated their free-spending business and admired their free-spirited resistance to authority.

On the other side were four men — city marshal Virgil Earp, his two brothers Wyatt (a deputy federal marshal) and Morgan (deputy city marshal), and the notorious John “Doc” Holliday (a well-educated dentist-turned-professional gambler) — who represented the order- and community-minded townspeople. The clannish, uptight Earps were never incredibly popular with the people they were charged to protect. Wyatt in particular was viewed as a dour, self-aggrandizing social climber, with a checkered past on both sides of the law, who spent most of his time running card games in a variety of saloons and investing in mines that didn’t pay off. He viewed his off-and-on career as a lawman as a means to an end (that end being authority and respectability that would lead to wealth).  He had formed a close, unlikely friendship with Holliday, who was slowly dying of tuberculosis. Holliday was known to have a vicious temper when drinking (which was most of the time by 1881), and his reputation for unstable behavior and violence preceded his arrival in Tombstone. Wyatt Earp’s own reputation suffered in many people’s eyes due to his association with what many considered a degenerate. But one of Wyatt’s good qualities was loyalty to his friends. The Earps were politically Republican and staunch Unionists, perpetually on the make to enhance their status and make money. The cowboys were a threat to that goal.

The Earps and Holliday confronted those five cowboys that day to disarm them — they were carrying firearms within city limits, against the local ordinance. It was a shaky accusation to make, as the cowboys were ostensibly on their way out of town, and therefore justified in taking the weapons (which they had lawfully turned over on their arrival the day before) with them. They were just taking an awfully long time to make an exit. Lingering. Almost trying to spark a confrontation. Harsh, drunken words and threats had been spouted in the saloons the night before (mostly by the loud-mouthed Ike Clanton), and the Earps had had enough. As they approached the vacant lot, they were stopped by county sheriff John Behan — a friend and ally to the cowboys. He assured the Earps — falsely and dangerously — that the cowboys had already been disarmed. He was ignored, and wisely took cover.

Billy Claiborne fled at the sight of the approaching lawmen. After the tiniest moment’s stand-off, either Wyatt or Billy Clanton fired their weapon.  The unarmed Ike Clanton fled as soon as the shooting started. Thirty seconds later, it was all over, and the remaining three cowboys were dead or dying in the lot and the adjacent street. Tom McLaury was also revealed to be unarmed, but was shot several times as he desperately grabbed at the rifle in his saddle holster. Only Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton had weapons on them. The worst of the cowboys — true outlaws and killers like Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo — were nowhere near Fremont Street that day.

But it did not end there. Controversy and retributions continued for several months. The Earp party were tried and acquitted of murder. Virgil and Morgan were victims of fearsome ambushes orchestrated by Ike Clanton and the more violent-minded cowboys. Wyatt and Holliday led a posse of dubious legal authority to cleanse the countryside of cowboy influence. The so-called “Vendetta Ride” became almost as legendary as the shootout itself… Continue reading

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