The Shipwreck Spectacle

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm (photo by Sally Reeder)

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm (photo by Sally Reeder)

If I had been a parent in Stockholm back then, I would have taken my kids down to the harbor to see the big event of August 10, 1628.  As a parent, though, I’m not sure how I would have explained to my kids what actually happened that day.

The Vasa had been commissioned by King Gustav II Adolph of Sweden to be a mighty war machine of a ship with not one but two gun decks and a high-above-the-water profile.  Presumably the heavily-decorated hull was intended to inspire awe among allies, and to intimidate enemies.

It had been under construction for a couple of years, and the king was eager to rush it into service.  The Vasa had been moved from the shipyard and anchored at a dock directly below the Royal Palace.  After all of the ceremonial blah-blah that day, it was finally time for the ship to take its maiden voyage.  For the occasion, the crew was allowed to bring their wives and children aboard.  A band probably played; thousands cheered and waved from shore.

Dock workers used cables to tow the ship to the place where the current would then take Vasa east.  They finally released her, the crew set four sails… and within minutes, a gust of wind pushed the ship over onto its port side.  Water gushed in through the gun ports and the ship began to sink, right there in Stockholm Harbor.  People on deck were hurled into the water, while others clung desperately to the masts.

There was a lot of confusion and panic, as you might imagine, but since there was a substantial spectator fleet of small boats surrounding Vasa, most of its crew and guests were saved.  The exact number who lost their lives is not known for certain, but is believed to be about thirty.

A subsequent inquest confirmed what several of the king’s subordinates had privately feared:  The “improvements” to the ship’s design, insisted on by the king, had made it dangerously top-heavy.  The ship remained at the bottom of the harbor, taking on mud for centuries.

Then, in 1956, a Swedish naval engineer named Anders Franzén located the sunken ship.  He’d been searching for it a long time, and when he finally found it, he had a big idea:  Let’s try to raise it and turn it into a museum!  To its credit, the Swedish government said “Ja.”

Stockholm residents and their children crowded around the site as crews successfully brought Vasa back to the surface on April 24, 1961 — it was a much happier outcome than what had transpired there 333 years earlier.

The ship was in good condition, considering that it had been underwater for three centuries, but painstaking restoration began immediately and is still going on.  The Vasa is now the centerpiece of a museum that has been built around it.

There are wonderful exhibits in the museum: facial reconstructions of some of the victims, based on skeletal remains, a meticulous 1:10 scale model of Vasa adorned as it was in 1628, cannons and tools that demonstrate how war at sea was waged back then.

There’s also an exhibit called “Life at Sea”, which in the case of Vasa is sort of hypothetical.  No one lived aboard her; the ship had traveled less than a mile of horizontal distance before it headed straight down.

Save the Last Dance for Me

A song starting to hatch

A song starting to hatch

If someone mentions the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what is the first name that pops into your head:  Elvis Presley?  the Beatles?  Chuck Berry?  ABBA?  OK, not ABBA — and probably not Doc Pomus, either.

My guess is that there are a lot of devoted rock fans who have never heard of Doc Pomus.  He’s not exactly famous, but he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1992 along with The Isley Brothers, Johnny Cash, The Yardbirds and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others.

So who was Doc Pomus?  He was actually named Jerome Felder; he adopted the pseudonym when he was trying to become a rhythm-and-blues singer, and thought Doc Pomus sounded more authentic.

His career as a performer never took off, perhaps partly for a reason we’ll get to shortly.  He did, however, find success as a songwriter.  Collaborating with composer Mort Shuman, he wrote hits for Elvis (“Marie’s the Name of His Latest Flame”, “Surrender”, “Little Sister”, “Viva Las Vegas”).  Unless you’re currently on Social Security, you may not remember other songs they wrote, like “A Teenager in Love” (Dion and the Belmonts), “Hushabye” (the Mystics), or “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” (Andy Williams).

The best-known songs by Doc Pomus were performed by The Drifters, though, and one in particular has been recorded by many other artists in the decades since it was a number-one hit in 1960.

There are different versions of the story about how “Save the Last Dance for Me” came to be written, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland has evidence that Pomus jotted down some preliminary ideas for lyrics on the printed invitation to his wedding reception (see photo).

One account has him making those notes while at the party, but that seems unlikely for several reasons, not least of which is the three-year gap between the wedding reception and the release of the record.  Other sources state that he came across the invitation while going through some old stuff in a hatbox, and that finding the invitation triggered a bittersweet memory of that night years earlier, causing him to jot down some phrases on it.

In any event, this fact isn’t in dispute:  As a child, Jerome Felder had contracted polio.  He couldn’t walk without the aid of crutches, let alone dance.  His bride was a Broadway actress and dancer named Willi Burke.

At the post-wedding party, she danced with Doc’s brother Raoul Felder, and perhaps other guests as well.  Because of his disability, Doc could only sit and watch.  It’s not difficult to see how that melancholy recollection could have inspired him to write:

You can dance/Every dance with the guy/Who gave you the eye/Let him hold you tight.  You can smile/Every smile for the man who held your hand/’Neath the pale moonlight.  But don’t forget who’s taking you home/And in whose arms you’re gonna be/ So darlin’/Save the last dance for me.

By the way, the invitation with those lyric fragments scrawled on it is just one of thousands of keepsakes in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.  It’s sort of like exploring the contents of your grandmother’s attic, if Grandma was best friends with Mick Jagger, the Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson… and Doc Pomus, too.

 

Pencil Pusher

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Back in January of 1988 I purchased my first computer.  It had a 10-megabyte hard drive; the salesman assured me, “That’s all you’ll ever need.”  It was not inexpensive, and neither was the printer that I got that day, but I was able to rationalize the extravagance because as a professional writer, I needed to upgrade my tools.

As I soon learned, though, it was very difficult for me to do the actual writing of scripts on a computer.  While I stared at the screen, hoping to get an idea for repartee among characters, the cursor just kept blinking at me, as if to say “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.”

So I went back to writing the way I’d been doing it for over a decade at that point, with a lined yellow tablet and a pencil.  That allowed me to work through a scene as the words came to me — sometimes quickly, and at other times glacially.  There are inevitably those periods when inspiration is elusive, so while trying to come up with the next amusing bit of dialogue, I’d stare at the ceiling, or glance out the window, or study my pencil.

Before long I’d be wondering why pencils have that hexagon shape, and why are so many of them yellow… and how the heck do they get the lead to stay inside there!?  In other words, the writer part of my brain would be given a little time off by the lobe that generates idle speculation.

I have since learned that the six-sided pencil has a couple of virtues:  supposedly it is easier to grip than a round pencil, and it won’t roll off your desk.  Round pencils are more common as souvenirs because, according to Pencils.com, they are easier to print on.

The majority of them are yellow because the premium pencil of the late 19th century, called the Koh-I-Noor, was yellow.  Other manufacturers followed suit to convey that their products were high-quality, too.

The precursors of the pencils we use today go back to the 1500s, but it was a man named Joseph Dixon (along with his son-in-law) who mechanized pencil manufacturing in the middle of the nineteenth century.  So, you’re wondering, how did they get the lead to stay in there?

OK, as you probably know, even though we call it lead, it really isn’t — it’s graphite mixed with clay.  Anyway, while workers in one part of the pencil factory are making those skinny rods of graphite, other workers are cutting cedar blocks into slats, and grooves are then carved into the slats.

The graphite rods (called “writing cores” by pencil professionals) are glued into the grooves.  Another grooved slat is glued onto the slat that has the writing cores, creating a pencil sandwich.  That sandwich is sliced into individual strips, which are sanded and painted.  The ferrule — that’s what the metal ring is called — is crimped into place on the end of the pencil, and an eraser is glued into it.

This process is repeated with impressive frequency:  Around fourteen billion pencils are made worldwide every year.  That suggests I’m not the only person on the planet staring at my pencil and hoping for inspiration to strike.

Before the Parade Passed By

Years later, I scored seats in the grandstand at the Rose Parade.

Years later, I scored seats in the grandstand at the Rose Parade.

It was an accident.  I didn’t mean to set my best friend’s head on fire.

OK, let me just back up a little so I can explain how it happened.  The Tournament of Roses Parade is a New Year’s Day tradition, and there’s nothing quite like it.  Lots of parades have marching bands and equestrian units, but this one has elaborate floats, all decorated with flowers and plants and rose petals. For many of us who grew up in Southern California, it’s like a pilgrimage to go to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade in person at least once in our lifetime.

To secure a spot on the parade route from which to get a good view, we’d celebrate in the street on New Year’s Eve, and then spend the wee hours of New Year’s Day sitting or sleeping on the curb, huddled against the cold until the parade started at 8 a.m.

On this particular New Year’s Eve, my friend Bob Owen and I were among the thousands of people saying goodbye to whatever year it was.  We were either in high school or recent graduates, I forget which.  The point is, we were young — young enough that we enthusiastically said “Sure!” when the old guy next to us on Colorado Boulevard asked, “Would you boys like a flare to play with?”

Yeah, a flare.  Those fire sticks that you see on the highway when there’s been an accident.  It turned out that this man worked for some law-enforcement agency and every year he was issued a new vehicle that had flares in it.  When it came time to swap out his old car, he kept the flares, so over the course of his career he had accumulated quite an inventory of these devices.  And he gave one of them to us.

My excuse for poor judgment is that I was young and stupid.  In retrospect, I have no idea why that guy thought it made sense to give a fire stick to kids in a crowd.

Anyway, Bob and I activated the flare and took turns trying to find ways to entertain the throngs who, by now, were mutating from celebratory to sullen.  For instance, he’d wave the flare as if it was a flashlight and he was directing traffic, hollering “Let’s go, bring those floats down here!”

Then Bob passed the torch to me.  I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I think I may have been striking a Statue-of-Liberty pose.  Bob was closer than I thought, or one of us turned suddenly or something — and the flare wound up inches from the back of his head.

I didn’t realize it at first; as he ran away slapping at his scalp, I thought he was doing a comedy bit.  What had actually happened was that patches of hair had been burned off clear to the skin, which was blistered.

We probably should have gotten medical attention for him, but we didn’t.  Bob suffered through the rest of the night; we watched the parade and then we drove home.  Eventually the burns healed, his hair grew back and most importantly, Bob’s still speaking to me.  But I still shudder at the thought of how much worse it could have been.

So if you’ll accept a word of advice from a kid who has somehow become an old man:  If someone offers you a flare to celebrate with, just say no.  We want you around for this new year, and the next one, and the one after that, and…

Sometimes You Get Lucky

Mapamundi (1526), Hispanic Society of America, New York

Mapamundi (1526), Hispanic Society of America

“Did you come to see the map?”

Actually, until the moment he asked us that question, we hadn’t been aware of the existence of this particular map.  Truth be told, it hadn’t been all that long that we’d even been aware of the existence of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City, which is where we were.

But when the librarian there asked us that question, Sally and I exchanged a quick glance and then responded, “Yes, please.”

The real reason we had taken the subway up to the Washington Heights neighborhood on the northern end of Manhattan was to see some large-format paintings by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla.  Somehow I had stumbled onto the information that the Hispanic Society had commissioned Sorolla to produce these works early in the twentieth century.  We like Sorolla’s paintings, so we thought we’d go check them out.

By the way, the Hispanic Society of America was the brainchild, if that’s the word, of a man named Archer Huntington, the heir to a railroad fortune.  He had envisioned this project as a museum and reference library devoted to the arts and culture of Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

“All right, if you’ll follow me,” the librarian said, and took us into a reading room.  It was occupied by two or three researchers sitting at wooden tables; they were studying historical documents and stealing an occasional glance at us, trying to figure out, I suppose, what the heck these two tourists were doing there.

The librarian indicated where we should stand.  He then raised a cloth curtain that was protecting the map.  One thing we could tell right away was that the map was very, very old.

In fact, it had been made in 1526 by Juan Vespucci, the nephew of Amerigo Vespucci, and depicted the known world at a time when a lot of the world still wasn’t known.  For instance, North America (Amerigo’s namesake), ended at about the Mississippi River, and Vespucci had depicted a giant Spanish galleon in the middle of an imaginary ocean which we now know is the left side of the South American continent.

Still, it was pretty cool to be standing in front of a map that is almost five hundred years old.  There’s a vivid splash of red in the map; I leaned in to see what it was.  Evidently Vespucci was a cartographer with a sense of humor: the red streak was the Red Sea.

We took our time looking at the map, thanked the librarian, and wandered into other rooms.  We found the Sorolla murals that had drawn us here, and all by themselves they would have been worth the trip from midtown up to Broadway and 155th.

But the Hispanic Society of America also has a gallery with paintings by Goya, El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán and other notables.  There were literally millions of dollars’ worth of paintings being displayed rather casually, I thought.  But they probably aren’t at much risk, since it seems that hardly anyone knows they’re there.

That’s the fun of taking these little off-the-beaten-path adventures.  They don’t always reward you, but sometimes — as in this case — you get lucky.

 

On the Other Hand…

Evidence that birds of a feather do flock together -- Barcelona

Evidence that birds of a feather do flock together — Barcelona

Human beings can live for about forty days without food.  They can live for three or four days without water.  There is no statistical proof of this, but I’m inclined to believe that humans can’t exist more than a few hours without rationalizations:  “OK, maybe technically I don’t need another garden gnome, but it was 70% off, so I had to buy it.”

Our need to rationalize — to ascribe our behavior to causes that seem reasonable, even if they aren’t — is often supported by folk wisdom.  There’s a proverb that’s been passed down for generations that can justify almost anything.

For instance, if I want to engage in some activity that you might consider risky, my logic is, “Hey, you only live once.”  However, if you’re trying to persuade me to do something that’s outside of my comfort zone, I explain my refusal with the adage “Better safe than sorry.”

Your retort to that is the maxim, “You’re never too old to learn.”  I shrug and remind you that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  “Mm-hm, there’s no fool like an old fool,” you mutter, and then our conversation turns to an uncomfortable silence — which is golden, by the way.  Except when the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

If an acquaintance shares the details of some romantic difficulty he or she is having, you could offer this sage advice:  “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Or, depending how you feel about their loved one, you could go with “Out of sight, out of mind.”  Part of that same conversation might also include the folk wisdom that “Opposites attract,” or depending on context, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

There are contradictory proverbs that can be applied in many other situations as well.  I probably don’t have to remind you that “Many hands make light work,” although I must point out that “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”  But wait — haven’t we always been told “The more , the merrier”?  True, except that “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.”

Sometimes “Patience is a virtue,” but don’t forget that “He who hesitates is lost.”  Similarly, it’s important to “Strike while the iron is hot”; just bear in mind that “All good things come to him who waits,” and maybe “Haste makes waste” is the tiebreaker.

At the end of the last century, a psychologist named Robert Epstein examined the validity of some folk-wisdom statements in the context of then-current scientific studies.  In other words, is there proof that “confession is good for the soul”, or should we “let sleeping dogs lie”?

In general, there seemed to be some validity to some of the adages.  Confession does seem to be good for the soul, and apparently practice does make perfect (or at least, brings about improvement).  There is also evidence supporting the notion that “Old habits die hard.”

On the other hand, misery tends to not love company, based on studies about depression, and old dogs can learn new tricks.  There were a few proverbs, however, that science doesn’t support, such as this one, succinctly swept aside by Dr. Epstein:

Cold hands, warm heart.  Cold hands, poor circulation.  See your doctor.”

It’s my speculation that the frequent application of folk wisdom gives us at least a 50-50 chance of being right.  Maybe you can even find a proverb that justifies buying a deeply discounted garden gnome.  After all, everybody knows that the best things in life are 70% off.

The College Paper That Changed the U.S. Constitution

Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom -- The National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom — The National Archives, Washington, D.C.

“Hey, look at that,” I said to myself, which was unnecessary since I was already looking at it.  We were in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., examining the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  You undoubtedly remember from your high school Civics class that the Bill of Rights was a collection of ten amendments to the Constitution.

As I stood there squinting at the original document, though, I noticed that there were twelve articles, not ten.  What we call the First Amendment was actually number three in the original lineup.  The first two didn’t make the cut — at least, they didn’t back when somebody’s quill pen enumerated the articles on this piece of parchment.

It was 1978 when I learned this, and all I did about it was say “hunh”, and then I moved on to look at other exhibits in the National Archives.

A few years later, in 1982, a sophomore at the University of Texas named Gregory Watson needed a topic for a paper in his government class.  While doing some research, he stumbled upon the two proposed Constitutional amendments that had gone unratifed since they were originally proposed by James Madison in September, 1789.  Unlike me, Watson did something with that information.

The 20-year-old student focused on the second proposed amendment, which had to do with pay increases for members of Congress.  It read, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”  In other words, any pay raise that Congress approved would not take effect during the current session, so they couldn’t directly give themselves a bump up.  Or technically, a pay cut — yeah, like that would happen.

A few states had ratified the proposed amendment back in the 1790s, but not enough for passage, so it had basically been in a coma for almost two centuries.  Realizing that there was no time limit built in, meaning that passage was still theoretically possible, Greg Watson did more research and became convinced that it was a good idea and needed to be ratified by the state legislatures and passed into law.

That’s the paper he wrote for his government class; his instructor was unimpressed — she gave him a “C”.

Undeterred, Watson started a one-man letter writing campaign to state legislatures.  Remember, this was before the internet, so he was typing letters and paying postage out of his own pocket to mail them.

Stricter controls on Congressional pay raises proved to be a popular idea, which probably doesn’t surprise you.  Maine ratified the amendment in 1983; Colorado did in 1984.  Five more states ratified it the following year.  High-profile figures ranging from Howard Jarvis to Ralph Nader started pitching in with favorable comments, but Greg Watson remained the driving force behind the campaign.

It took ten years — Watson had long since finished college — but eventually the necessary three-quarters of the 50 states (38) had ratified it, and that second article officially became the Twenty-seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on May 7, 1992 — almost 203 years after James Madison had proposed it.

By the way, the first article on that original document is still not ratified, and we can hope it stays asleep.  It’s about Congressional apportionment, spelling out a formula by which the number of Representatives would increase as the population increased.  If this proposed amendment had been ratified, we would now have way over 5,000 members in the House of Representatives.  The current 435 members seems like plenty to me.