When Generalship Had Its Limits

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By Ken Zurski

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Gen. Douglas MacArthur

In the new book The General vs the President, author H.W. Brands examines the often tenuous but respectful relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman. Besides their differing personalities, in the public eye, the two men drew widely opposite impressions. Truman had unexpectedly assumed the presidency amidst doubts about his leadership and foreign policy experience while MacArthur was the beloved general of the Allied forces in the Pacific.

Preconceived notions, however, good or bad, don’t win wars. After World War II ended and when North Korea threatened South Korea, both men had vastly different views on how America should proceed. Truman gave MacArthur leverage, but when China was drawn into the conflict and the two world powers were nearly brought to the brink of a nuclear war, Truman relieved the popular general of his duties. “With deep regret I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government and of the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties,” Truman announced at a press conference. That explosive missive is the basis of Brand’s book.

But Truman, as important as he was to ending the war, was just a senator from Missouri when President Franklin Roosevelt crossed ways with MacArthur. That relationship nearly reached the boiling point in 1941, shortly after Japan attacked Pear Harbor.

It’s worth a closer look.

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President Franklin Roosevelt

MacArthur who is in the Philippines at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked feared the American bases on the island would be next. He was right. The next day, December 8, Japan hit hard. MacArthur asked Roosevelt to immediately strike back. Force Russia to attack Japan, he pressed, before Japan can do more damage in the Philippines. Roosevelt ignored MacArthur’s plea and set his sights on Germany instead.

MacArthur’s rebuttal was shocking. He supported a plan by Philippine President Manuel Quezon to broker a peace deal with Japan. It was the only way, MacArthur agreed, to avoid a “disastrous debacle.”

In retrospect, Brands assumes, MacArthur was abandoning the Philippines. But there were lives at stake. A defiant Roosevelt dismissed the peace deal. “American forces will continue to fly our flag in the Philippines,” the president commanded, “so long as there remains any possibility of resistance.”

Back home, MacArthur was being criticized for poor decision making. Brands points out the there was a nine-hour window after the first dispatches were received that Japanese bombers were in the air. There was nothing anyone could do about the battleships in the Harbor; but in the Philippines, why didn’t MacArthur order the planes moved out of the way? MacArthur subsequently blamed his subordinates and miscommunication. Nevertheless, half of the MacArthur’s forces were decimated in the attack and the Philippine’s line of defense was greatly diminished.

It would get worse. The conquest of the Philippines by Japan is still considered one of the worst military defeats in U.S. history.

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Bombing of the Philippine Islands on Dec 8, 1941

MacArthur endured attacks from Japan forces by hunkering down on the Bataan peninsula and Corregidor Island. “Help is on the way,” MacArthur told the men, although he knew it was a lie. “Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched ,” he continued, hoping to boost morale. None of it was even being considered.

The only order coming from Roosevelt was getting his four-star general out of the islands before all hell broke loose. MacArthur had no recourse. It was an order, not a choice. He took the next plane out and flew to Australia where he was to organize the counter offense against Japan and pave the way to his own interminable place in American history. Roosevelt would later praise his departure, but MacArthur felt like he was abandoning his post.

Before boarding he told the troops, “I shall return.”

When MacArthur did return three years later he was hailed as a hero. “Though not by American soldiers he left behind [in the Philippines],” Brands writes in the book.

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A Seasick Crocodile: The Overlooked Songbook of Dr. Seuss

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By Ken Zurski

scTheodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote dozens of children’s books that still today reach bestseller’s lists and thrill a new generation of fans each and every year. However, his work as a songwriter is often overlooked, due in part to the success of his books. But when reminded, the songs penned by Seuss, are just as enduring and whimsical.

Seuss wrote the songs mostly for television animated specials. And if you know the shows, you know the songs.  For instance, in  The Cat in the Hat, a television short released in 1970, and based on his first children’s book of the same name, Geisel wrote several original songs including the bouncy, “The Gradunza”  (The old, moss-covered, three-handled family gradunza), the catchy “Cat, Hat” (Cat, hat, in French, chat, chapeau. In Spanish, el gato in a sombrero.),” and the playfully teasing, “Calculatus Eliminatus” (Calculatus eliminatus always helps an awful lot. The way to find a missing something is to find out where it’s not), all with Seuss’s clever wordplay and sing-song rhyme pattern .

4One song in particular, “I’m a Punk,” introduced such ridiculously pleasing locutions as crontunculous, gropulous, poobler, and schnunk. ” While everyone understands the meaning of punk, being a “schnunk” needed some explanation.  But when the Cat sings, “nobody, likes me, not one tiny hunk,” everyone gets the idea.

Some credit the Seuss writing style to a Life magazine article in 1956 that criticized children’s reading levels, specifically “primers” or textbooks with simplified words and phrases like “See Spot run” from the book series Fun with Dick and Jane.  Geisel was asked to write a story using a vocabulary list of just over 200 words.  He picked the first two words that rhymed, cat and hat, and went from there. It certainly wasn’t like any story in a textbook, that’s for sure, and critics praised “The Cat in the Hat” for its originality.

Several years later when Seuss wrote the lyrics for songs in his television specials, he seemed to relish the opportunity to ratchet up the silliness even more. Seuss’s words just seemed to work with music, oftentimes using traditional melodies, sometimes with an original score. The man credited with composing or arranging most of the music for Seuss is Dean Elliott, a Midwesterner from Wisconsin, who conducted orchestras for the Tom and Jerry shorts before hooking up with Seuss. Later Elliott worked with Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones.

4Seuss’s most popular song is one we hear every year around the holidays. In it, an unmissable deep voice groans about the Grinch,  a Seuss original, who has a “heart full of unwashed socks” and a “soul full of gunk.”

Written in 1966 for the TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Seuss enlisted a voice actor named Thurl Ravenscroft to sing the lead on the song even though Boris Karloff was the voice of the Grinch in the special. Karloff reportedly could not sing and Ravenscroft was hired . But Ravencroft’s name was never listed among the credits and Karloff mistakenly got most of the acclaim.  Seuss was reportedly furious and apologized for the oversight. Ravenscroft was also the voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger (They’re Great!).

“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” is an unconventional Christmastime staple.  The song never mentions Christmas, but rather teases with crafty metaphors, comparisons and contradictions all designed to point out what an awful crank the Grinch – now a symbol of holiday grumpiness – can be.

You’re a mean one Mr. Grinch

You really are a heel.

You’re as cuddly as a cactus,

And as charming as an eel,

Mr. Grinch!

The song is instantly recognizable, charming and unmistakably Dr. Seuss.

The songwriter.

Canned Heat and The Chipmunks: A Christmas Story

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By Ken Zurski

In 1968, the LA based boogie/blues band Canned Heat released a Christmas single, The Chipmunk Song, which paired the band with their Liberty Records label mates, the animated – literally – and very fictional group of singing rodents called the Chipmunks. 

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Canned Heat’s version of “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” wasn’t exactly the same as the Chipmunks’ similarly titled chart-topper in 1958. It was a bluesy number containing humorous dialogue between Canned Heat singer Bob Hite and the voices of the Chipmunks: Simon, Theodore and Alvin, who were named after executives at Liberty.

The song was released the year before Canned Heat was asked to appear at a massive music festival in southeastern New York  where the band covered Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and performed their harmonica infused hit “On The Road Again” as an encore. “On the Road Again” became the unofficial theme of the 1970 documentary movie “Woodstock.”

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In 2000, the band’s producer and drummer Fito de la Parra wrote a revealing tell-all book titled Living the Blues: Canned Heat’s Story of Music, Drugs, Death, Sex and Survival. In it, Parra covers a lot of heavy themes, including the death of several band members, but nothing about the Chipmunks.

The Chipmunk Song’s only appearance on a Canned Heat album was in 2005. It  was added as a bonus track to the reissue of the band’s second album “Boogie with Canned Heat.” By that time the Chipmunks had received iconic pop culture status and their version of The Christmas Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) was already a holiday season staple:

Christmas, Christmas time is near
Time for toys and time for cheer
We’ve been good, but we can’t last
Hurry Christmas, hurry fast

Typical of the boozy, drug-filled lifestyle of the 60’s & 70’s, Canned Heat would go through various lineup changes and tragic circumstances throughout the years. In 1981 after a show at the Palomino Club in Hollywood, lead singer Bob Hite died from an apparent heroin overdose.

Canned Heat are still touring today, but without any original band members. Despite the The Chipmunk Song, their legacy is solid.

A biographer on Canned Heat’s official website calls the recording of “The Chipmunk Song” an “incongruous move” in the band’s history.

(Source: www.cannedheatmusic.com)

“The Greatest Gift” is a Christmas Story You Know Well

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zzz6By Ken Zurski

In November 1939 Philip Van Doren Stern, an American author, editor and Civil War historian wrote an original story titled “The Greatest Gift,” a heartwarming Christmas tale about a man named George Pratt who gets a dying wish granted by a guardian angel that literally changes his life.

The story begins at an iron bridge as a despondent George leans over the rail:

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice beside him
said.

George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen
before. He was stout, well past middle age, and his round
cheeks were pink in the winter air as though they had just been
shaved. 
“Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly.

“What you were thinking of doing.”

“How do you know what I was thinking?”

“Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the
stranger said easily.

Stern desperately tried to get his little story published, but it never sold. So in 1943, he made it into a Christmas card book and mailed 200 copies to family and friends.

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The story caught the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant’s agent. In April 1944, RKO bought the rights but failed to create a satisfactory script. Grant went on to make “The Bishop’s Wife.”

Hollywood director Frank Capra, however, liked the idea and RKO was happy to unload the rights. Capra bought it and brought in a slew of writers to polish the story.

The screenplay and resulting film was renamed “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

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“The Most Magical Two Minutes” Almost Never Aired

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Charles Schulz

By Ken Zurski

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was produced for television in 1965, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had one specific, but important directive.  That the program be about something. Namely, he insisted, it be about the true spirit of Christmas. Otherwise, he said, “Why bother?

Of course, as we know now, Schulz had his way. Mostly lighthearted and inspirational, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is punctuated by its infectious original music, a catchy tunes, and the now iconic symbol of recognition and hopefulness: a seemingly lifeless little tree.

The highlight of the special , however, is a moving scene in which the Linus character, blanket in hand, stands on a spotlighted stage and explains the true meaning of Christmas. It includes a biblical passage from the Book of Luke.

As Linus recites:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Then like magic, Linus addresses someone specifically: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Linus’s words, like the special itself, has been charming audiences ever since.

4Charming, however, was not the word CBS executives used when they first viewed the completed special. They hated it -– or just didn’t get it.  The pacing was off, they thought, and the music was different: classical in parts, jazzy in others.

They considered scraping it altogether, but were committed to the time slot and soft drink giant Coca-Cola, the sponsor of the program. “This is probably going to be the last [Peanuts special],” one executive chirped. “But we got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it.”

The producers of the special were deflated by the network’s initial reaction. “We thought we’d ruined Charlie Brown,”one exclaimed. Until then, the only controversy among the writers was whether or not to include the use of an actual biblical verse in an animated special.  Schulz again insisted. “If we don’t do it,” he said “who will.” Coca-Cola gave their blessing too.

Linus’s effective speech is also credited to the child actor who provided the voice. Before the special, Peanuts characters had only been heard in a Ford Commercial.  The producers wanted them all to be voiced by children.  Christopher Shea was only 8 years old at the time. He had the most innocent sounded voice and was tapped for the Linus character. His measured, straightforward reading is considered legendary. “It’s one of the most amazing moments ever in animation,” raved Peter Robbins, the original voice for Charlie Brown. Robbin’s voice was picked for Charlie Brown because it sounded “blah.”

Even though CBS thought it would only run for a year and be forgotten, once it was in the public consciousness, attitudes changed. Instantly, people began talking about it. The next year, the special won a Peabody award and an Emmy for Outstanding Christmas Programming. A lasting tribute to Charles Schulz original vision that it be about something – – something with a message.

One scene in particular is still considered, as a producer described it later, as “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation.”

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When “Black Friday” Meant Something Else Entirely

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By Ken Zurski

Before Americans began rushing to stores the day after Thanksgiving and calling the shopping frenzy, “Black Friday,” meaning “black” as in ink, or retail profits, the term itself was used to describe a dark and devious part of our nation’s history.

“When Black Friday comes
I stand down by the door
And catch the grey men when they
Dive from the fourteenth floor”

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Jay Gould

It all starts with a man named Jay Gould.

A leather maker turned New York railroad owner, Gould was the youngest of six children, the only boy, and a scrawny one at that; growing up to be barely five feet tall.

What he lacked in size, however, he made up for in ambition.

A financial whiz even as a young man, Gould started surveying and plotting maps for land in rural New York, where he grew up. It was tough work, but not much pay, at least not enough for the ambitious Gould.  In 1856 he met a successful tanner – good work at the time – who taught Gould how to make leather from animal skins and tree bark. Gould found making money just as easy as fashioning belts and bridles. He found a few rich backers, hired a few good men and started his own tanning company by literally building a town from scratch in the middle of a vacant but abundant woodland. When the money started to flow, the backers balked, accusing Gould of deception. Their suspicions led to a takeover of the plant forcing Gould out.  The workers, who all lived quite comfortably in the new town they built and named Gouldsborough, rallied around Gould and took the plant back by force, in a shootout no less, although no one was seriously hurt.

Gould won the day, but the business was ruined. By sheer luck, another promising venture opened up. A friend and fellow leather partner had some stock in a small upstate New York railroad line. The line was dying and the stock price plummeted. So Gould bought up the stock, all of it in fact, with what little earnings he had left, and began improving the line. Eventually the rusty trail hooked up with a larger line and Gould was back in business. He now owned the quite lucrative Erie Railroad.

Ten years later, in 1869, Gould got greedy and turned his attentions to gold.

Gold was being used exclusively by European markets to pay American farmers for exports since the U.S currency, greenbacks, were not legal tender overseas. Since it would take weeks, sometime months for a transaction to occur, the price would fluctuate with the unstable gold/greenback exchange rate. If gold went down or the greenback price went up, merchants would be liable -often at a substantial loss – to cover the cost of the fluctuations. To protect merchants against risk, the New York Stock Exchange was created so gold could be borrowed at current rates and merchants could pay suppliers immediately and make the gold payment when it came due. Since it was gold for gold – exchange rates were irrelevant.

Gould watched the markets closely always looking for a way to trade up. He reasoned that if traders, like himself, bought gold then lent it using cash as collateral, large collections could be acquired without using much cash at all. And if gold bought more greenback, then products shipped overseas would look cheaper and buyers would spend more. He had a plan but needed a partner.

He found that person in “Gentleman Jim Fisk.”

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Jim Fisk

Jim Fisk was a larger than life figure in New York both physically and socially. A farm boy from New England, Fisk worked as a laborer in a circus troupe before becoming a two-bit peddler selling worthless trinkets and tools door to door to struggling farmers. The townsfolk were duped into calling him “Santa Claus” not only for his physical traits but his apparent generosity as well. When the Civil War came, Fisk made a fortune smuggling cotton from southern plantations to northern mills.

So by the time he reached New York, Fisk was a wealthy man. He was also a buffoon; spending money as fast as he could make it; openly cavorting with pretty young girls; and lavishing those he admired with expensive gifts and nights on the town. Fisk never hid behind his actions even if they were corrupt. He would chortle at his own genius and openly embarrass those he was cheating. He earned the dubious nickname “Gentleman” for being polite and loyal to his friends.

Fisk and Gould were already in the business of slippery finance. Besides manipulating railroad stock (Fisk was on the board of the Erie Railroad), they dabbled in livestock and bought up cattle futures when prices dropped to a penny a head. Convinced they could outsmart, out con and outlast anyone, it was time to go after a bigger prize: gold. There was only $20 million in gold available in New York City and nationally $100 million in reserves. The market was ripe for the taking and both men beamed at the prospects.

But the government stood in the way. President Grant was trying to figure out a way to unravel the gold mess, increase shipments overseas and pay off war debts. If gold prices suddenly skyrocketed, as Gould and Fisk had intended, Grant might consider a proposed plan for the government to sell its gold reserves and stabilize the markets; a plan that would leave the two clever traders in a quandary.

Through acquaintances, including Grant’s own brother-in-law, Gould and Fisk met with the president.  In June of 1869, they pitched their idea posing as two concerned (a lie) but wealthy (true) citizens who could save the gold markets and raise exports, thus doing the country a favor. They insisted the president let the markets stand and keep the government at bay. Fisk even treated the president to an evening at the opera – in Gould’s private box. The wily general may have been impressed by the opera, but he was also a practical man. He told the two estimable gentlemen that he had no plans to intervene, at least not initially. But Grant really had no idea what the two shysters were up to.

A few months later, when Fisk sent a letter to Grant to confirm the president’s steadfast support, a message erroneously arrived back that Grant had received the letter and there would be no reply. The lack of a response was as good as a “yes” for Fisk. Grant was clearly on board, he thought.

He was wrong.

“When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it ’til
I satisfy my soul”

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On September 20th, a Monday, Fisk’s broker started to buy and the markets subsequently panicked. Gold held steady at first at $130 for every $100 in greenback, but the next day Fisk worked his magic. He showed up in person and went on the offensive. Using threats and lies, including where he thought the president stood on the matter, Fisk spooked the floor.

The Bulls slaughtered the Bears.

Gold was bought, borrowed and sold. And Fisk and Gould, through various brokers, did all the buying. On Wednesday, gold closed slightly over 141, the highest price ever. In his typical showy style, Fisk couldn’t help but rub it in. He brazenly offered bets of 50-thousand dollars that the number would reach 145 by the end of the week. If someone took that sucker proposition, they lost. By Thursday, gold prices hit an astounding 150. The next day it would reach 160.

Then the bottom fell out.

At the White House, Grant was tipped off and furious. On September 24, a Friday, he put the government gold reserve up for sale and Gould and Fisk were effectively out of business. Thanks to the government sell off, almost immediately, gold prices plummeted back to the 130’s. Many investors lost a bundle, but the two schemers got out mostly unscathed.

The whole affair became famously known as “Black Friday.”

When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna stake my claim
I guess I’ll change my name

(“Black Friday” written by Donald Jay Fagen, Walter Carl Becker • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group)

When the President Ordered Thanksgiving One Week Earlier

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114976_148_lgBy Ken Zurski

In September of 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation to move Thanksgiving one week earlier, to November 23, the fourth Thursday of the month, rather than the traditional last Thursday of the month, where it had been observed since the Civil War.

Roosevelt was being pressured to make the change by the National Retail Dry Goods Association. The NRDGA was reeling from the Great Depression and sensed a disaster in holiday sales since Thursday of that year fell on the 30th, the fifth week and final day of November, and late for the start of the Christmas shopping season.

The business owners went to Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins who went to the President. Help out the retailers, Hopkins pleaded. Roosevelt listened. He was trying to save the economy not break it. Thanksgiving would be celebrated one week earlier, he announced.

Apparently, the move was within his presidential powers to suggest since no precedent was set. Thanksgiving, the day, was not federally mandated and the actual date had been moved before. Many states, however, balked at Roosevelt’s plan.  Schools had a scheduled day off for the last Thursday of the month and a host of other events like football games, both at the local and college level, would have to be cancelled or moved. One irate coach threatened to vote “Republican” if Roosevelt interfered with his team’s schedule.

Others at the government level were similarly upset. “Merchants or no merchants, I see no reason for changing it,” chirped an official from the opposing state of Massachusetts. In jest, Atlantic City Mayor Thomas Taggart, a Republican, dubbed the early date, “Franksgiving.”

However, Illinois Governor Henry Horner echoed the sentiments of those who may not have agreed with the switch, but dutifully followed orders. “I shall issue a formal proclamation fixing the date of Thanksgiving hoping there will be uniformity in the observance of that important day,” he declared. Horner was a Democrat and across the country opinions about the change were similarly split down party lines: 22 states were for it; 23 against and 3 went with both dates.

It didn’t matter to Roosevelt at first. He made the change official for the succeeding two years, since Thursday would fall late in the calendar both times. But in 1941, The Wall Street Journal released data that showed there was little to no significant change in retail sales.

Roosevelt admitted he was wrong, but in hindsight, on the right track. Thanks to the uproar, later that year, Congress approved a joint resolution making Thanksgiving a federal holiday to be held on the fourth Thursday of the month, regardless of how many weeks were in November.

Roosevelt signed it into law.

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