Monday, October 20, 2014

A Sad Anniversary and a Sadder Update

String and Estelle
We talked about this about a year ago; November of 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the murder of Grand Ole Opry favorite David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife Estelle.  John Brown and his cousin were convicted of the murders; his cousin died in prison while John Brown continued to serve his 198-year sentence.

It was a surprise this past week that the Tennessee Parole Board ignored the entreaties of country stars such as Bill Anderson and Jan Howard and granted parole to Brown, 40 years into his sentence.

This is a program from the Opry show, the last one ever for Stringbean, who went home and was killed afterward.  The notations are from backup musician Lester Wilburn, showing his salary from the Friday and Saturday shows.

One of the things that allow me to oppose the death penalty is my belief that life in prison would be much worse than a quick death, although what the afterlife holds for killers might be interesting, at that.  But, anyway, what do I know, I'm just a guy who doesn't kill people.

Here's the story from this week in Nashville and here is what we wrote a year ago about the murders.

A Sad Anniversary

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the murders of David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife Estelle, and I remember it very clearly.  It was one of those moments when two cultures came into violent collision, and, like when a warm front meets a cold front, bad things happened in Nashville that day in 1973.

Stringbean was a featured player on the Grand Ole Opry...a star, but not among the big stars such as Ernest Tubb or Hank Snow, back in the days when country music still sounded like country music.  His shtick was wearing a goofy getup made from an old pair of "Little" Jimmy Dickens's jeans and an elongated shirt, making comic use of his lanky frame.  And he played a banjo in the old style, strumming it in the fashion of those who invented the only purely American instrument. Here's an old clip that shows what he did so well.

He made a nice living on the Opry and playing concerts, and he and his wife lived outside Nashville on a farm where, as a sideline, he grew ginseng to sell to the Chinese.  He did not drive, but bought a new Cadillac every year so Estelle could drive him to concerts and the radio show and his appearances on TV's "Hee Haw," which brought him to living rooms across the world. Stringbean was as country as country could be.  He hung hams to smoke in a cave on his farm, but would not touch beef or any dairy product.  According to a fascinating article in the Nashville Tennessean newspaper,  String used apple cider vinegar as after shave and rubbing alcohol as deodorant.  This was 40 years ago, and yet, in the ways that matter, he lived as others did 400 years ago.

One other thing about String - like many who lived through the Depression, he did not trust banks.  The Opry and his concert bookers paid him in cash, and Estelle sewed a pocket inside his bib overalls where he hid his hundreds.  She carried money in her bra.

I guess a guy who grew up on a dirt farm and then made a good living playing a "banjer" had reason to be proud, and Stringbean was known to flash his wad of bills around Nashville, a fact that came to the attention of  23-year-old cousins Marvin and John Brown, who, that Saturday night, went to the Akeman home and listened to the Opry on String's radio to hear his last performance at 10:18 PM.  The songs were “Going To The Grand Ole Opry (To Make Myself A Name)” and “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.”

Then, with $3,182 in his overalls, and $2,150 in her bra, the Akemans went home to their fate. The Brown cousins waited in the house, String tried to fight them off, but he and Estelle were killed by their own shotgun - a gift from fellow Opry star Grandpa Jones, who went to pick them up for a planned hunting trip the next morning and found their bodies.

The Browns, predictably, blamed each other for the murders. One of them died in prison and the other is still locked up.

Two simple, country, plain people, who lived their lives as they wished and bothered no one, were killed by two young men who planned to steal their money rather than working for their own.

It's a story as old as time itself and as new as tomorrow.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Rerun: Eenie Meenie Emo

Because I like to keep in touch with all aspects of our national culture, I became aware of the "emo" movement in music and said, what is this, now?  It would appear that to listen to this sort of music, defined by Wikipedia as "a style of rock music influenced by punk rock and featuring introspective and emotionally fraught lyrics," one needs to develop an elaborate hairdid featuring all the shades of the emo rainbow (pitch black, dark black, jet black, shiny black, purple, pink and blond) and really trowel on the mascara and eyeliner in the same shades, except blond.   And then, from what I can observe seeing youths sauntering around the mall or handing me food at Panera, it's key to maintain a stony silence, as if building a wall of no sound to keep the world at bay.

So, listen.  I can relate to the angst, the sturm and drang, of the Emo youth. I was for years an honorary member of the Bratwurst pack. It's tough, finding yourself at the crossroads of boy and man, girl and woman, and you find yourself in high school, a microcosm of life at large if ever there was one, and it can be sad. I filled my high school years with trips to the principal's office and off-campus jaunts to historical sites such as the Gayety Burlesk and the Glass Slipper Show Bar, and of course my after-school activities in the Detention Club filled many an afternoon with healthful exercise of placing chairs atop desks and washing blackboards.  But beside the worry about grades and part time jobs and parental disapproval of piercings and opprobrium from friends, high school is that time for many of the first real stirrings of love, and love's bastard cousin from Milwaukee, heartache.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of getting thrown over during a five-minute break between classes.  I saw this happen to people!  You're sitting in Algebra, and for all you know you have a steady sigoth* and then the bell rings in more ways than one. Class ends, and she sidles up to you on the way to US History, and banishes you to Dumpville USA, and then you sit down in Miss O'Hoolahan's class and she asks you for six reasons that led up to the Spanish-American War.  And you answer, "X=5.25" because your heart and mind are still in Algebra**. And as the class hoots and hollers with scorn, that's when you really start thinking about wearing six more chains on your black jeans.  And you go home and listen to your Emo bands, such as Weezer (named after the bandleader's bout with childhood asthma) and Death Cab For Cutie (named after a song done by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band that came out when I was suffering through a bout of algebra myself).  

But wait!  There's more!  I understand that music hath charms to sooth a savage breast, which was a line written by Wm. Congreve in 1697.  In 1698, music teachers stopped quoting it to high-school students for the same reason that English teachers never say "There is no frigate like a book" out loud. Music is helpful when you're down and out, got the blues, feelin' lonesome.  Sad songs by people wearing studded clothing seem to help.

Such as Little Jimmy Dickens!  That's the stage name of Grand Ole Opry legend James Cecil Dickens, who, at 4'11" towers over no man, and yet, he towers over them all when it comes to singing from the heart.  I urge you to listen to him sing "Twice The Fool" or "The Whole World Seems Different" and make this simple comparison: if these songs, recorded in the turbulent 1960's, don't help you to understand that we've all had heartache at one time, so no one is all alone in that valley, then please go back and listen again.  Little Jimmy is that good.

*significant other
 ** something you will never, ever, use again in your life.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Saturday Picture Show, October 18, 2014

I found this on a Facebook page called "The Queen's English."  Of course, the Queen's English!  What else could she be, Chilean?
This was on that same page.  It's a "novelization," from 1911, of the play "Peter Pan," which came seven years earlier.  I don't like the made-up word "novelization," though.  If the novel came out first, I don't think they would called "Peter Pan" a "playization," but I'm just philosophizing.  I read that the name "Wendy," short for "Gwendolyn," was very rarely used until this childrens' story came out, and now look at all the wonderful Wendys and Wendis we know.
This picture from Palestine ought to serve as a reminder of how sad it is that there are wars and bombs, and also as an ad for Audi automobiles, which just keep going like that car Steve Martin and John Candy drove in "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles."
Cats of all sizes and breeds are fearless and have a great sense of balance, as demonstrated by this cougar in a tree.
Until the last leaf falls from the last tree, I'll keep sharing autumn pictures!  The prettiest time of the year!
Sure, it's no problem to store your alkali atop your acid, but if that shelf collapses, your acid's gonna be in trouble, I'll tell you that right now.
We look down the path of life.  Sometimes, it's clearly marked and laid out for us, but sometimes we wonder about veering off into the uncharted area.  Go ahead if you want, but be careful!
Again, there simply cannot be enough pictures of rusted 1936 Ford pickups out in snowy woods to suit us! A little work on the engine, some wax, and you've got a nice ride here!

Friday, October 17, 2014

We're all here because we're not all there

You know that old gag "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!"?  Well, here comes one Kevin Dutton, author of “The Wisdom Of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success,” and he put together a list of the ten most common jobs to be held by psychopaths.

It's all so easy to go around saying, "Oh, (he) (she) (Dick Cheney)(that guy down the street who sits on the porch hollering at passing kids)  is a psychopath."   But we should be sure to define the term before we enjoy reading the list.

Whatever dictionary it is that Google consults says that a psychopath is "a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior."

So, the similarity between a psychopath and a wooded path leading to a gingerbread castle is that you don't want to cross either one. Good advice there from Hansel and Gretel.

(By the way, who was it who decided that stories about little kids being tossed into ovens or babies falling out of trees when the bough breaks were good for little kids and babies to hear?)

Back to Mr Dutton's list: in which jobs are we likely to be working with a psychopath or two? He's careful to point out that not everyone in these fields is a madman, but he wants you to know that these are the likely places for a lunatic to draw a paycheck. And if you'll visit his website, he provides a handy test right there online so you can determine if you are, in fact, a psychotic.  Many of you will be aghast at learning that my score was low - 5 out of a possible 33!

Here are the jobs in which Dutton figures you will likely be working with psychopaths:

TV/radio personality
Police Officer
Civil Servant

And here are the jobs to have if you don't care to work among the loonies, raving or otherwise:

Care aide
Charity worker

Now here's where it gets a little sticky.  I've had two jobs on the first list and one on the second.  So what does that tell you?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bring me the files on Sonny Bono!

I wondered what the purpose of the FBI is, so, with J Edgar Hoover being unavailable to ask, I Googled "Why do we have a Federal Bureau of Investigation?"

Here's what I was told...

The mission of the FBI is to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.
And then, when you go to the FBI website, you find this link to the online FBI files  - at least, the ones that they want you to see. (A photo of J Edgar in a slinky kimono is not online.)  They call this "the reading room," and that's supposed to make you feel as if you're in a nice leather easy chair with nice soft lighting overhead, sipping a cup of Mocha Java and idly glancing through the documents that document our documented fight against international terrorist threats, and those who would dare to break the criminal laws of the United States, and so forth, on and on.

You won't see much about the government's efforts to curb narcotics addiction in these files.  The FBI was too busy running surveillance on Dr Martin Luther King to fret about drug kingpins importing tons of heroin destined for the street of urban America. And here is another way they spent their time.

In 1964, responding to hand-wringing complaints from some mom or dad in New York's suburbs, the full attention of the USFBI was turned to finding out whether the lyrics to the rock standard "Louie Louie" were obscene.

This is a real picture of
the real J. Edgar Hoover
This is what Hoover and his pals were doing while you thought they were fighting real crime.  So, while you got clocked and mugged for your wallet so that a junkie could score enough to settle his jones, at least you knew, while you sat in the ER waiting for stitches, that you wouldn't hear any dirty lyrics in a song on the radio...a song that was as innocuous as a nursery rhyme.  Read the lyrics as they were reported to the FBI (page 14 of the documents) by a student at Sarasota Junior High School, hear the record here, and read the real lyrics here.

Take some time to read some of the other files.  From Biggie Smalls to Eleanor Roosevelt, whoever you are, the FBI has a file on you, you terrorist, you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Honestly, it's the best policy

When you're 19, the first thing on your mind is what you're doing that evening, and the last thing on your mind is what you're going to do when you're 59...69...109.
This is not Mr Happe,
but he did sing "Happy."
Mr Happe looked younger
than this at 95.

But having lived through the Depression, and not really being sure it was over, my parents were prudent people, perpetually planning for provident possibilities (in case they didn't have a pot to 'p' in.) So it was that after six or seven months of urging me to do so, I finally relented and met with Mr Hermann Happe of the New York Life Insurance company.  Again, I'm 19 here, and not really thinking very far beyond the next six pack or large 16" pie with anchovies and extra cheese, but Mr Happe promised that he would come over at 7 pm and make it short so I could join my ne'er-do-well companions for our usual debauchery.

Mr Happe lived to be a very old happy man, so what he said to me was important, and I have remembered it since.  Life insurance gets more expensive every day you're still standing, so get it while you're young! I bought a policy that night that would pay a hefty pile to my survivor(s) and ran off to blow my paycheck on the finer things in life, probably a quart of beer and a crab fluff.

As the years went by, Peggy became not only my best friend and the woman I love, but also, less romantic but still worthy of mentioning, the beneficiary of the jumbo insurance payout.  The rates went down when I quit smoking, and thirty years ago, I met with a NYL agent who switched the policy to something that I could cash in if I wanted, or roll over into something else.  But that was 30 years ago, and who thinks 30 years ahead?  (If I did that now, I'd be thinking of gossamer wings and what type of harp I want to play.) 

30 years went by and recently I was contacted by a man named Danny Miller, who is Mr Happe's successor at NYL. He and his coworker, the equally remarkable Terry LeGar, came over and showed me how to set up an account to take care of me in case I wind up lin a long-term care situation and also provide enough for Peggy to have diamonds and pearls all over the place once I shuffle off to Buffalo, or wherever the next stop is.  Danny and Terry are in the business of helping people plan for retirement and those seemingly inevitable next steps that lead up to moving into a one-person bungalow with six handles and six pallbearers. I feel better knowing that Peggy will be all right, and that some lucky caretaker will draw the enviable task of helping old Mr Clark put on his slippers and pad down to the dining hall. 

I'm certain that's what Mr Happe had in mind for me all those years ago! If you're planning your own golden future, you could do a whole lot worse than to talk to Danny or Terry.   They didn't ask me for this plug, but the way I figure, if they take care of my friends like they take care of me, we'll all wind up in the "cool" old folks home someday and we'll talk about the good old days.  Keith Richards will be there too, long after we're gone.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce."

I don't know why, but sometimes I get to thinking about Lenny Bruce, the comedian/philosopher of the 50's and 60's.  As children back then, any time we asked an adult, "Who is Lenny Bruce?" the answer was always, "He's a dirty comedian, he tells dirty jokes, now sit down and watch 'Leave It To Beaver'!"

Lenny, born Leonard Alfred Schneider (1925 - 1966) was many things, but calling him a dirty comedian would be like calling Babe Ruth a right fielder.  He served in the Navy in World War II and then scrabbled around New York City, becoming a nightclub comic ("I won't say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner") with the mother-in-law jokes and Edward G. Robinson impersonations that were the standard of the time.  In Baltimore, he performed at the long-gone Club Charles and met a stripper named Honey Harlow, who became his wife and mother of his only child, Kitty.

But as the Eisenhower era ended, people woke up from the long postwar sleep and began taking a long look around at things such as racial discrimination, wars undertaken for the sake of war, sexual repression, and hypocrisy.  And, friends, if you went out hunting for those topics in those days, you had more targets than you had arrows, believe me.  Lenny saw his niche and went for it - humor with a point!

So Lenny prospered among the hip and was condemned by the staid and sobersided.  He was, by the time of the early 60's, a radically relevant social satirist, and he used the real language and spoke the real truth, which made some people really uncomfortable.

"The 'what should be' never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no 'what should be,' there is only what is."
So he used the vernacular of people everywhere to talk about the things that people everywhere talked about!  Big deal, in those days, and now, when mainstream comedians such as Mindy Kaling turn an alternative bedroom practice into a half-hour sitcom, you wonder if they know that Lenny paved the road for them away from the "I'm not saying he's old, but his Social Security number is 14" routines of Bob Hope types.  Over and over, he reminded us that four-letter words were only words...

I've watched with amusement as one of his remarks came true a thousand times for friends of mine: "One generation works and saves to buy their kids rubber boots, and the next generation digs running barefoot in the rain."  George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and every other "hip" comic owed huge debts to Lenny, and so does anyone else, no matter what they did for a living, who woke up one day and realized that the horrors of the day were greed, repression, and hypocrisy, not four-letter words and sexual references.  Sad to say, people couldn't see past the four-letter words their ears heard.

He even presaged his own early demise: "There's nothing sadder than an aging hipster. I'm 33, and already, I can't relate to Fabian."

Hounded by the police who were called to nightclubs to arrest him for saying "dirty words," Lenny grew despondent and fell deeply into a morass of narcotics abuse, which claimed his life in August, 1966.   That was a year after he published his autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, and only a couple of years before people began to realize that hiding the truth doesn't do away with the truth, it just moves it around a little.  In the last line of the book, Lenny replies to those who ask him what inspired him, and he says, “I am influenced by every second of my waking hour. ”

Dick Schaap wrote a eulogy which concluded:

One last four-letter word for Lenny.
At 40.
That’s obscene.

But don't forget this...if not for Lenny, Mindy Kaling would be doing jokes about the roast burning or the dishwasher breaking, there would be no "Family Guy," and we might not think twice before damning someone for their race, creed, or origin.