December 11, 1969: The Naked Cold War

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were generally confrontational through most of the second half of the last century.  In the United States, Communist plots were everywhere, and the Soviet Union blamed American capitalists for most of the ills of the world. calcuttaOn December 11, 1969, a noted Russian author lashed out against western decadence in one of the more unusual cold war recriminations.

On December 11, 1969, Sergei Mikhailkov, secretary of the Moscow writer’s union, known for his books for children, weighed in against the production of “Oh! Calcutta!” that was currently an off-Broadway hit. Performers in their “birthday suits,” he fumed, were proof of the decadence and “bourgeois” thinking in Western culture.  American nudity was an assault on Soviet innocence.

Oddly enough, those Americans throughout the Midwest who didn’t think the play was about India were convinced it was a Communist plot.

More disturbing, Mikhailkov raged on, was the fact that this American abomination was affecting Russian youth. These vulgar exhibitions were “a general striptease that is one of the slogans of modern bourgeois art.” Soviet teens were more familiar with “the theater of the absurd and the novel without a hero and all kinds of modern bourgeois reactionary tendencies in the literature and art of the West” than with “the past and present of the literature of their fatherland.”

Mikhailkov’s outburst came at the end of a conference of Russian intellectuals, who applauded his remarks without visible enthusiasm before returning to their clandestine copies of Fanny Hill.

 

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December 9, 1958: Taking Down the Names of Everybody Turning Left

Initially founded with only 11 lonely crackpots, the organization had by the early 1960s grown to nearly 100,000, each and every one of them searching nearby haystacks for concealed Communists.  Joseph McCarthy had gone away, but that didn’t mean his nemesis was gone. No fluorideindeed; the Red Menace was everywhere – Red Skelton, Red Buttons, Red Ryder – and Commie wanna-bes such as Rosie Clooney and Pinky Lee.   Only the witch-hunters of the John Birch Society stood between Evil and Armageddon.

The John Birch Society had its coming out party on December 9, 1958, under the tutelage of Robert H. W. Welch, Jr., a candy man who made caramel lollipops, marketed under the name Sugar Daddies. He also gave the world Sugar Babies, Junior Mints and Pom Poms before turning his attention to weightier matters.

The John Birch Society’s mission was the revival of the flagging spirit of McCarthyism; its tools, unsubstantiated accusations and innuendo; its cause celebré, the vast communist conspiracy existing within the U.S. government, particularly that nest of vipers at the State Department. According to its credo, the American people consisted of four groups: “Communists, communist dupes or sympathizers (fellow travelers), the uninformed who have yet to be awakened to the communist danger, and the (hopelessly) ignorant.”

Fortunately, by this time, Americans had tired somewhat of McCarthyism and had moved on to the menace of rock and roll under its Pied Piper of Prurience, Elvis Presley. As a result, few of the society’s sensational charges were taken seriously by mainstream American society. Oh, a few people got worked up by the Communist plot to poison us with fluoride in our drinking water, but for the most part, it was ho-hum as usual.

 

November 2, 1886: Brother, Can You Spare a Vote

Robert Love Taylor, “Bob,” the Democratic candidate for governor of Tennessee, defeated his Republican opponent, Alfred Alexander Taylor, “Alf,” on November 2, 1886. One might guess that two candidates with the same last name would confuse voters at the polls, especially since they looked a lot alike, they both played the fiddle and they called the same two people mom and pop. Bob bested Alf, his older brother, 125,151 to 109, 837, in what would be called the “War of the Roses” because Bob’s fans all carried white roses and Alf’s carried red.  (Or was it the other way around?”) Their pappy, when asked to run as the Prohibition Party candidate, chose not to, evidently deciding that he would be one Taylor too many.

The brothers were born in Happy Valley, Tennessee, Alf in 1848, Bob in 1850. Their father, a Methodist minister, was a Whig; their mother, a gifted pianist was a Democrat. Bob and Alf both found their way into politics, lecturing and writing. They fiddled together, and collaborated on  a fairly successful play. Their gubernatorial campaign was nothing like the typical rough and tumble political contest. They campaigned together, lacing their political banter with humorous stories, then fiddling while their audiences danced.  It is rumored that a good portion of the electorate tossed coins to choose a candidate.

Bob served as governor from 1887 to 1991 and again from 1897 to 1899. He also served as U.S. senator from 1907 until his death in 1916. Alf was elected governor in the 1920’s. He died in 1931.

 

September 3, 1993: Infinite Monkeys

In Stockholm, Sweden, the newspaper Expressen gave five stock analysts and a chimpanzee the equivalent of $1,250 each to make as much money as they could on the stock market in one month.

Mats Jonnerhag, publisher of the newsletter Bourse Insight, turned in a nice performance. His stock portfolio gained $130. Not good enough. The stock-picking chimp (who went by the name Ola) saw the value of his portfolio climb by $190 for an easy victory.

While the stock experts carefully assembled their portfolios using a variety of analytical tools, Ola put aside such things as price/earnings ratios, volatility measures and technical factors in favor of darts, which he tossed at the Stockholm Stock Exchange listings.

Naysayers will no doubt bring up the infinite monkey theorem: that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time could eventually write the works of Shakespeare. Or the lesser quoted corollary that seven monkeys with seven typewriters in seven weeks could write the Republican Party Platform.

In a reported real-life attempt to prove either of these theories, two chimpanzees and an orangutan were put in a room with three typewriters. By the end of just 24 hours, they had written “jid;lwer fivcjfdoske flfjwlsjfpos p3mzds[sk,43l;cv kdid,ewodkdjss;djelldsd kdjhdps ddodlsps psvvspap39djk3^jh& jfioermcjd,ud3$m kidelqqwerty” Even more amazing: They had used exactly 140 characters which they tweeted (using the orangutan’s twitter account). It went viral.

Getting a Buzz On

Parade-goers lined the streets of Flint, Michigan, on September 3, 1900, the first Labor Day of the new century to witness tbuzzhe debut of a new automobile, the first ever made in that city. It was not created by General Motors as practically every car to follow was. This car was designed and built by Charles Wisner, a county judge by day and an automotive visionary by weekends.

Wisner’s Buzz-Wagon, as his unusual vehicle was lovingly called, was the first of three he designed and built. None ever went into mass production. That was left for the Chevrolets and Buicks that would arrive later. The Chevrolets and Buicks would offer a smoother ride with a lot less noise, and in an unusual departure from the Buzz-Wagon, they would have brakes. The Buzz-Wagon, it seemed, required a sturdy immovable object such as a lamppost or a large building for it to bump into in order to stop.

Fortunately at the Flint Labor Day parade, the immovable object was unnecessary. Much to the amusement of several thousand spectators, the Buzz-Wagon stalled and had to be pushed out of the parade.

 

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August 25, 1913: We Have Met the Enemy

Starting his career as an anonymous young storyboard artist for Walt Disney Productions on Donald Duck cartoons and other shorts, the cartoonist who would later be compared to everyone from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce to Aesop and Uncle Remus moved to the animation department in 1939. There, during the next five years he contributed to such Disney classics as Pinocchio (Gepetto in the whale), Fantasia (a drunk Bacchus riding a donkey), and Dumbo (the crow sequence).  Walt Kelly was doing pretty well at $100 a week.

During the 40s, Kelly devoted himself more and more to comic book art at Dell. The little possum with whom he is now most closely associated came on the scene in 1943 in Dell’s Animal Comics. Pogo would go on to star in 16 issues of his own comic book and 26 years as a syndicated newspaper comic strip.  Along with Pogo, there were  Albert the Alligator, Churchy LaFemme (a turtle), Howland Owl, Beauregard (Houndog), Porkypine, and Miz Mamzelle Hepzibah (a skunk).

Kelly’s liberal political and social views were rarely disguised as he used the strip to champion the powerless and the oppressed and to satirize political dogmas and figures such as Senator Joseph McCarthy (Simple J. Malarkey, a gun-toting bobcat), Vice President Spiro Agnew, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Many newspapers dropped Pogo, and others moved it to the editorial page. Walt and Pogo were probably most remembered for their campaign on behalf of the environment and the battle cry: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Walt Kelly died in 1973.

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August 15, 1935: Will Power

Cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, social commentator and motion picture actor, Will Rogers was one of the world’s best-known celebrities in the 1920s and 1930s and adored by the Will-Rogers-StampAmerican people. Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers was born in 1879 to a prominent Cherokee Nation family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma). During his amazing career, he traveled around the world three times, wrote more than 4,000 nationally-syndicated newspaper columns, and starred in 71 movies (a majority of them silent ) and several Broadway productions. He was the top-paid Hollywood movie star at the time, and in 1934, was voted the most popular male actor in Hollywood.

     As a radio broadcaster and political commentator, he was the leading political wit of the Progressive Era.  He called politics “the best show in the world” and described Congress as the “national joke factory.”

     Rogers died on August 15, 1935, with aviator Wiley Post, when their small airplane crashed in Alaska.

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

 

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There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.

 

We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.

 

When I die, I want to die like my grandfather who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.

 

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Ten men in our country could buy the whole world and ten million can’t buy enough to eat.

 

The best way to make a fire with two sticks is to make sure one of them is a match.

August 14, 1619: Thou Shalt Not

Those folks who think they have it pretty rough in Virginia these days should thank their reactionary stars things are not as they were back in 1619. The very first general assembly got together in Jamestown that year to pass laws that pretty much told everyone how they could and could not behave. The burgesses, as members of the assembly were called, were 30 old white men determined to dictate morality to everybody else, a tradition that hasn’t changed much over the years.

     Nor has the politics. The burgesses passed laws requiring all colonists to attend two religious services every Sunday and to bear arms (pieces, swords, powder and shot) while doing so – just in case religious fervor pushed someone over the edge.  Even those bearing arms were forbidden from gambling, drinking, idleness and “excesses in apparel,” (which probably didn’t mean too much clothing).  Not wishing to overlook any sin they hadn’t thought of, the burgesses also approved a stern enactment against immorality in general. In the eyes of the burgesses, one can imagine, that might cover a lot of territory (and the colonies had lots of territory). The planting of mulberry trees, grapes and hemp was also proscribed, for we all know that that seemingly innocuous flora is the first step on the road to degradation (spelled with a ‘d’ and that rhymes with ‘p’).

     The burgesses had only nice things to say about tobacco however. Colonists were urged to dedicate the times they were not in church to the growing of said crop. The colonists responded with enthusiasm, even to the point of growing tobacco in the streets of Jamestown – 20,000 pounds a year – despite His Royal Stick in the Mud King James calling it “dangerous to the lungs.”

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” ― Mark Twain

July 27, 1793: Off With Their Heads

On July 27, 1793, Maximilien Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, whose function was to oversee the government of France and protect it against its enemies, foreign and domestic. Exactly one year later, he was removed from office. One day later, his head was removed.

During his year as committee member and president of the National Convention, he came to exercise virtual dictatorial control over the French government and proved himself a bit of a black hat. Faced with the threat of real or imagined civil war and foreign invasion, he inaugurated what was lovingly referred to as the Reign of Terror. He compiled himself a rather lengthy enemies list – some 300,000 suspected enemies made the list and were arrested. At least 10,000 died in prison. Robespierre proved himself mighty handy with a guillotine, executing 17,000 of them as “enemies of France”.

But just as he was getting the guillotine really smoking, the threat of a foreign invasion just up and disappeared, and those who still had their heads formed a coalition to oppose Robespierre and his followers.

And on July 27, 1794, Robespierre and his allies were placed under arrest by the National Assembly. When he received word that the National Convention had declared him an hors-la-loi, he shot himself in la tete but only succeeded in wounding his jaw. Nevertheless troops of the National Convention helped him finish the job the very next day – as French sages often say, live by the guillotine, die by the guillotine.

Fast forward a couple of centuries: Richard M. Nixon had himself an enemies list, though not nearly as long as Robespierre’s.  And his Saturday Night massacre pales by comparison. But on July 27, 1974, didn’t they vote to impeach him anyway. At least, there was no guillotine.

There is only one cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine. − P.G. Wodehouse

July 14, 1789, 1973: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Every écolier and écolière knows that the breakup of France – Révolution française – began in 1789, its defining moment the storming of the Bastille on the morning of July 14. 1789. This storming_the_bastille[1]medieval fortress in the center of Paris represented royal authority. That the Bastille housed only seven inmates – all with good reason to be there – was unimportant. It was a symbol of the abuses of the absolute monarchy, and the French had had it with monarchs, aristocrats, and pretty much anyone in power. Bring on liberté, égalité, fraternité.   King Louis XVI, exit stage right.

Another momentous breakup took place on the evening of the same day, nearly 200 years later, in 1973, at Knott’s Berry Farm in California (Knott’s Berry Farm was America’s first theme park and probably the only one devoted to grapes and strawberries and such things). Every schoolgirl and schoolboy knows that the Everly Brothers were one of America’s most successful pop duos, lending their sibling harmony to such hits as “Bye Bye Love”, “All I Have To Do is Dream” and “Wake Up Little Susie”, a franchise that would seemingly go on forever. Well, forever is a long time, and brothers Don and Phil had, by the end of the 1960s pretty much had it with liberté, égalité, fraternité and most definitely with each other.

The defining moment of their breakup came in the middle of their set when the stage manager told the audience that the rest of the show had been canceled because brother Don was “too emotional” to play.  In reality, Brother Don was too drunk to play. His skipped guitar notes and bungled lyrics sent brother Phil into a real snit. Phil smashed his guitar and stormed off stage into a solo career, promising he would “never get on stage with that man again.”

Phil and Don reached a sort of detente a decade later.  Louis XVI, on the other hand, was beheaded.

(Phil Everly died in January 2014).

I have no intention of sharing my authority. — King Louis XVI
I grew up as a Roy Rogers fan, of course.  — Phil Everly

July 12, 1960: Mr. Potatohead Was Not Amused

Two knobs in the lower corners on the front of a plastic cube-like structure, when rotated clockwise or counterclockwise, move a stylus that displaces a metallic powder on the back of a screen, leaving horizontal and vertical lineographic images – in layman’s terms, magic. In the Romneywords of the French inventor, L’ecran Magique. Or in the words of the marketers who made it one of the 100 most memorable and most creative toys of the 20th century, Etch-a-Sketch.

The mechanical drawing toy, which was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998, was first marketed on July 12, 1960, by the Ohio Art Company, timed perfectly to catch the big wave of the Baby Boom. In England, it was known as the DoodleMaster Magic Screen. (There was also the Magna Doodle and the Mystic Writing Pad.)

Although it remained popular throughout the fifty plus years of its existence, the Etch-A-Sketch reached a new notoriety in 2012, when it became a part of the demise of a presidential campaign. The simple plastic rectangular box may have contributed as much to the 2012 election – in influence –  as all the SuperPACs put together. It happened when candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, asked if Romney was boxing himself into ultra-conservative opinions during the primary, answered: “I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

Trying to contain the brouhaha, the Romney campaign only added to its woes by saying that since the mention of Etch-A-Sketch caused its maker’s stock price to triple, they would next mention Mr. Potatohead.

 

On the other hand, you have different fingers. ~ Jack Handey