Saturday, September 2, 2017

Elementary School Books

At St. Vincent de Paul elementary school in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, and later at Immaculate Conception in Tucson, and still later at St. Mary's elementary in Chandler (my family moved a lot), we spent the last couple of days of the school year erasing our pencil marks and repairing the pages of our textbooks with transparent tape. Then we spent the first day of the next school year making book covers from brown paper bags for the erased and repaired books given to us by the class we'd moved up into. Those books I used in the forties, recycled from year to year, sometimes had copyright dates from the twenties. For English we wouldn't have been reading anything more recent than "In Flanders Fields" anyway, and arithmetic didn't change that much from year to year before the New Math and other teaching fads. Even geography's changes could be easily dealt with by coloring everything from mid-Germany to China red. Those schools were run on a shoestring and taught by nuns who were essentially doing missionary work, whether they had taken vows of poverty or not. But we learned stuff.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Getting Past the ABCs

            “Eddyville Ground, this is Cessna Four Niner Romeo Papa with Information Lima at the terminal, ready for taxi.”
            “Niner Romeo Papa, taxi to Runway Six Right, left on Delta, right on Charlie, left on Foxtrot, hold short of Runway Tree Tree.”
            When an Air Traffic Controller talks to a pilot on the radio, he uses a pronunciation of several numerals—tree (3), fife (5), and niner (9)—designed to cut through static and poor transmission, rendering confusion—between five and nine, for example—less likely. And this conversation uses the communications alphabet, also called the phonetic or radio alphabet, for clear and unambiguous radio exchanges.


Hundreds of such exchanges occur every day, and aviation traffic is safer because of this universally understood ABC.  But as businesslike and matter-of-fact as the radio alphabet seems, a closer look shows it is packed with history, romance, mythology, literature, and the lure of faraway places.
            The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations, adopted the communications alphabet in 1952.  Soon NATO, our own armed forces, and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) also adopted the alphabet.  For the U. S. Army and Navy, it replaced the Able Baker Charlie Dog Easy alphabet familiar from WWII movies.  The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) specifies in Chapter 4-2-7 that the ICAO phonetic alphabet be used by pilots.  The version printed there is actually the ITU alphabet, which uses Alfa instead of Alpha (Spanish pilots might be tempted to say Al-pa) and Juliett instead of Juliet (so French pilots won’t say Jool-ee-ay).
            Although there seems to be a solid American base to the alphabet, with homely names like Charlie and Mike as well as the patriotic Yankee, we also get hints of the more cosmopolitan.  You may be figuring weights and balance in pounds, but Kilo is a reminder that there are other measures—in Lima, for instance, or Quebec, or all over India.
            As for history, Alpha and Delta are taken straight from the Greek alphabet, only a step removed from an earlier form of writing using stylized pictures, or pictographs.  Alpha, for example, derives ultimately from the Hebrew aleph, which meant ox.  Just turn the capital A upside down to see the ox’s head.
            Romeo and Juliet, of course, are Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, children of two feuding families in the Italian city of Verona.  In the Greek myth, Echo was the nymph who loved the self-absorbed youth Narcissus, pining away until only her voice remained.  And could Papa be Hemingway?
            There’s a whiff of the getaway vacation in Hotel and Golf, and the alphabet suggests a taste of nightlife: have a Whiskey and dance the Foxtrot.  If you can manage the more exotic Tango, you might prompt a “Bravo!” from the spectators. 
            So the next time you use the familiar letters of the radio alphabet, think of its cosmopolitan cultural background.  From its Greek beginnings in Alpha to the African zest of Zulu, this bunch of letters gets past the simple ABCs!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dorothy Parker Made Me Do It

            In her 1927 New Yorker review of Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women, Dorothy Parker gave the highest praise to one of the included short stories, ”The Killers,” saying it was one of the four great American short stories, and adding that the others were Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Blue Murder,” Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool,” and Ring Lardner’s “Some Like Them Cold.” When I read the Parker review in a collection of her Constant Reader pieces, I felt I had to see how these stories held up.
The Hemingway entry was the only one I had read before this project. Generations of anthologists have seconded Parker’s opinion by including “The Killers” in their collections, but I tried reading it again with a fresh eye. Hemingway’s story was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and collected in Men Without Women that same year.
            The two scenes of “The Killers” are constructed to show not only the situation of two hired killers who’ve come to a small town outside Chicago to kill an ex-prizefighter, but also a contrast in the way the characters react to it: the cook who wants nothing to do with it and Nick Adams who wants to alert the intended victim, notify the police, do something. Hemingway makes his killers comic, a pair dressed up alike in overcoats that are too tight, “like a vaudeville team.” But their intentions are not comic, and, although they fail, everyone in the story knows they will eventually succeed. This inevitability and the fatalism that meets it—except for Nick Adams—is the main impact of the story.
            Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” was published in The Dial in 1922 and collected the next year in Horses and Men. With irony that recalls Henry James, but very much in the American vernacular, Anderson lets his nineteen-year-old narrator make a fool of himself indeed, not for the reasons he states, but for much deeper reasons of self-loathing. The boy, who doesn’t know how to do anything but groom horses because of the choices he’s made, says it’s an honest and worthwhile endeavor, but his actions show how much he would rather be among the college kids and the horse-owners he affects to despise. William Faulkner confirms Parker’s judgment about this one: “next to Heart of Darkness…the best short story I ever read.”
Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Blue Murder” was published in Harper’s in 1925 and collected in The Man Who Saw Through Heaven in 1927. “Blue Murder” is a mystery story; Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler included it in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century in 2000. Blue Murder is the name of a horse who is the only sympathetic character in the story aside from the man who brings him home, who is also the first victim. Three brothers named Bluedge—the blood and bludgeon suggestion is apt if obvious—a simple farmer, an avaricious merchant, and a vindictive, jealous simpleton, are the main characters, along with a nymphette named Blossom who had been courted by all three brothers and married the wrong one for the wrong reason.
Ring Lardner’s “Some Like Them Cold” was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1921 and collected in How to Write Short Stories in 1924. Lardner’s story is the only one of the four that doesn’t stand up very well to the passage of almost a century since it was written. Charlie Lewis, Lardner’s swaggering Chicagoan, convinced he’ll conquer New York, already spending the twenty-five grand he’s convinced he’ll be paid for his first song, ends up settling for a $60 piano-playing gig and the girl even her brother describes as cold. Lewis is corresponding with a girl he met as he left Chicago—Mabelle Lewis, the frugal, pie-making, ingenuous and natural girl he left behind. Lardner could create characters out of the vernacular, but here those characters amount to no more than the clichés they use.
            So what do these choices say about Parker herself and her critical chops? Except for the Lardner, these stories are still delighting readers and reappearing in anthologies. Something about the Mabelle character in the Lardner may have appealed to her, and in fact Mabelle has a little in common with Parker’s “Big Blonde.” The other three stories constitute a clinic in the use of language to construct character, and in Hemingway’s case the restraint of language to the point of a minimalist limit. Each of these stories moves with an inevitability: in Hemingway’s story it comes from the threat of the mob that has been enabled by Prohibition America, which then seems powerless to undo its enabling. In the other stories the inevitability comes from character. The appeal for Parker, I’m guessing, is this darkness, with only the slight glimmers of Mabelle’s decency, the fact that Sherwood Anderson’s character can make choices, and Nick Adams’s naïve resistance.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

An Evening with Vincent Price

            When I was a freshman at the University of Arizona, I persuaded my roommate Pat Kent to hitchhike with me to San Diego to see my sister, who was a Navy wife. “We can stay with her a couple of days and then hitchhike back,” I said. Pat was always game for an adventure. It’s about a six-hour drive from Tucson to San Diego, but it took us all day. We kept getting left at crossroads, progressing in 50-mile jumps. At one crossroads there was rain. Finally, though, as the sun was going down, we made it into downtown San Diego. I had my sister’s number, so I found a pay phone and dialed it. The first hint that something might be wrong came when the operator said “Deposit $1.25 in change, please.” Between us we scrounged the five quarters and I put them in, the phone at the other end rang, and a voice unmistakably my sister’s answered. “Hi, Judy,” I said. “I hitchhiked here to San Diego with a friend. We’re going to freeload on you for a day or two. Where do you live?”
            There was a pause of perhaps three beats before Judy answered.
“I live in San Francisco,” she said in an even voice.
“What!” I said. “You’ve lived in San Diego for years.”
“Yes, Marty,” she said. “But Dennis’s ship has been in San Francisco for the last year.”
            This conversation went on for several more minutes, but I was too stunned to listen to much of it. We were in San Diego with no place to stay and not enough money for a hotel room. We were too tired to just start hitch-hiking back—not a good prospect at night, anyway.
Our immediate solution was an all-night movie. Maybe not the best choice for some shuteye; it was Vincent Price in The Fall of the House of Usher. Every time I managed to doze off came one of those screams usually described as “blood-curdling.” For me, “sleep-shattering” would have been more accurate.
            In the morning Pat remembered he had a second cousin who lived in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego. He managed to find the cousin’s number and called. “Oh, sure,” said the cousin. “Come on over. There’s an empty guest house you can stay in just outside the walls of the asylum.”
The asylum?
Pat’s cousin, it turned out, ran a private asylum. But he gave us a meal, and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep in the guest house, which was very comfortable.
But then in the wee hours, lights glared through the ample windows of my bedroom, and there came the sound of people shouting at each other. I looked out to see several blue-bathrobed inmates clumsily trying to climb the wall toward us, while white-clad attendants urged them to “come back down now, be calm, everything will be all right.”
            Pat’s cousin kindly bought us bus tickets back to Tucson. I was never so glad to see my dorm room bunk.