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Actor Charles Durning died last month. Durning was a well-known character actor in Hollywood and on Broadway whose career lasted 50 years.

Durning had plenty of memorable acting roles, but when I think of him, his service in World War II comes first to mind.

In 1944, 21-year-old Private Charles Durning was in the first wave of soldiers to land on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy.

He was the only man in his unit to survive a machine-gun ambush. Although seriously wounded by machine gun fire and shrapnel, Durning survived and killed seven enemy soldiers.

After several months of medical care, Durning returned to the fighting in Belgium, where he faced a bayonet-wielding German soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Although badly wounded, he overpowered and killed the German.

Durning was released from the hospital just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was taken prisoner. He was one of only three Americans who escaped during the infamous Malmedy Massacre, in which 80 POWs were executed by German soldiers.

Several months later, he was wounded in the chest and was sent back to the United States. He was discharged from the Army in 1946, one month before his 23rd birthday.

For his service, Durning was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action and three Purple Hearts for his wounds.

Like many men of his generation, my father among them, Durning preferred not to talk about his war experiences. He told an interviewer in 1997, “Too many bad memories. I don’t want you to see me crying.”

But later in life, he began to open up. In an 2008 interview, he talked about the bayonet incident.

“I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”

As the two of them grappled, Durning was bayoneted eight times. Finally, using a rock, he struck and killed the young soldier.

Durning said that for a long time afterward, he sat on the ground, held the soldier in his arms, and wept.

In 1994, Durning said, “There is no nobility in war. If you really knew what it was like for an hour, you wouldn’t want anyone to go through it.

“They train you to do awful things, then they release you and wonder why you are so bitter and angry. The physical injuries heal first. It’s your mind that’s hard to heal.”

Durning said the memories of war never left him, but acting gave him a safety valve. He said performing allowed him to become someone else, however briefly.

“I forget a lot of stuff now,” he said. “But I still wake up once in a while, and it’s still there. I can’t count how many of my buddies are in the cemetery at Normandy.”

“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about,” he said. “There is terror and repulsion in us — the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret.”

Since 2005, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan intensified, the suicide rate among American soldiers has risen sharply. Last year, more American troops committed suicide than were killed in battle.

By the grace of God, I was not sent into combat during my time in uniform. Others were not so fortunate. What horrors they endured, and continue to endure, I can’t begin to understand.

Charles Durning, may he rest in peace, could.

Durning

 

 

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Welcome to 2013

Welcome to 2013, the Year of the Snake.

2012, the Year of the Dragon, failed to deliver a whole lot. Let’s hope the Snake does better.

The Year of the Snake rolls around every 12 years. The Japanese say people born in a snake year are profound thinkers. Chinese wisdom says snake people are good with money. In Vietnam, the snake is a symbol of good luck. All of which is promising.

Permit me to point out that the month of January is…

National Oatmeal Month
National Bath Safety Month
National Tubers and Dried Fruit Month
National Be Kind to Food Servers Month
National Polka Music Month

05CpolkaE

Furthermore…

January 2-8 is National Someday We’ll Laugh About This Week
January 11-17 is National Cuckoo Dancing Week (to celebrate Laurel & Hardy)
January 17-23 is National Fresh-Squeezed Juice Week
January 20-26 is National Clean Out Your Inbox Week
January 21-25 is National No Name Calling Week

Cuckoo Dancing

And on top of that…

January 2 is Happy Mew Year for Cats Day
January 9 is National Static Electricity Day
January 14 is National Caesarian Section Day
January 21 is National Squirrel Appreciation Day
January 28 is National Kazoo Day

Squirrel

2013, here we come!

 

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The pun, according to wordsmith Samuel Johnson, is “the lowest form of humour.” Johnson asserted that puns had “some malignant power” over Shakespeare’s mind.

Johnson probably wouldn’t react well to this pun from Douglas Adams: “You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.”

Or this groaner from Groucho Marx: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

If puns are, indeed, a low form of art, the following list should make Dr. Johnson roll over in his grave.

————

A girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I’d never met herbivore.

A soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.

Energizer bunny arrested, charged with battery.

How do you make holy water? Boil the hell out of it.

That earthquake in Washington obviously was the government’s fault.

You feel stuck with your debt if you can’t budge it.

In democracy, it’s your vote that counts. In feudalism, it’s your count that votes.

The man who fell into an upholstery machine is fully recovered.

When cannibals ate a missionary, they got a taste of religion.

Fintastic

A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart.

Be kind to your dentist. He has fillings, too.

Show me a piano falling down a mineshaft, and I’ll show you A-flat minor.

When chemists die, they barium.

Jokes about German sausage are the wurst.

I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. He says he can stop any time.

How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it.

I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.

I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I just can’t put it down.

I did a theatrical performance about puns. It was a play on words.

A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.

Have you ever heard of an honest cheetah?

The butcher backed into the meat grinder and got a little behind in his work.

Gillian

She was only a whisky maker, but he loved her still.

A dyslexic man walks into a bra.

I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.

They told me I had type-A blood, but it was a type-O.

PMS jokes aren’t funny, period.

If you hear it from the horse’s mouth, you’re listening to a neigh sayer.

A successful diet is the triumph of mind over platter.

No matter how much you push the envelope, it will remain stationery.

Don’t justify sin, just defy sin.

Why were the Indians here first? Because they had reservations.

We’re going on a class trip to the Coca-Cola factory. I hope there’s no pop quiz.

I didn’t like my beard at first, but it grew on me.

Did you hear about the cross-eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils?

Alpaca

When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.

Broken pencils are pointless.

I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.

England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.

I used to be a banker, but I lost interest.

I dropped out of communism class because of lousy Marx.

All the toilets in New York’s police stations have been stolen. The police have nothing to go on.

A cartoonist was found dead in his home. Details are sketchy.

Venison for dinner again? Oh, deer!

Corduroy pillows are making headlines.

Manatee

Sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center: ‘Keep off the Grass.’

Two silkworms had a race. They ended up in a tie.

A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat.

A plateau is a high form of flattery.

Camping is usually intense.

Poor fellow. He ran into a screen door and strained himself.

After Noah sent Ham into the desert, his descendants mustered and bred.

Immanuel doesn’t pun. He Kant.

A Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but mean your mother.

I got a job at a bakery because I kneaded dough.

Haunted French pancakes give me the crêpes.

Velcro — what a rip-off!

Carrot

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The German word for a protruding stone, e.g., an uneven cobblestone, is stolperstein. Translation: stumblestone or stumbling block.

Before the Holocaust, if someone in Germany stumbled, it was common to say, “There must be a Jew buried there.”

If the deceased were saying that, you might call it gallows humor. Instead, it’s merely callous.

In 1993, German artist Gunter Demnig took that unfortunate expression and stood it on its head, changing it from a negative to a positive.

Demnig decided to use the plural term der stolpersteine as the name of a project that honors individuals who were killed or persecuted by the Nazis.

The idea is brilliant. Demnig locates the former residence of a Nazi victim, gets the permission of local authorities, and installs a small commemorative cobblestone, topped by a brass plaque, in front of the residence.

Each plaque begins with the words Hier wohnte — “Here lived” — and records the individual’s name, dates of birth and death, and fate.

Simple and effective. One victim, one stone.

“A person is forgotten only when his or her name is forgotten,” said Demnig.

Ermordet — murdered.

Tot — dead.

Verhaftet — arrested. Enthauptet — beheaded.

Uberlebt — survived.

In the two decades since he began, Demnig has placed more than 32,000 Stolpersteine in Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway. The project is ongoing.

Demnig gets the information for a stone from the honoree’s relatives or from the Holocaust database in Jerusalem.

Then he creates a four-inch concrete cube and covers it with a brass sheet. Details about the person are stamped into the brass, and the cube is laid flush with the sidewalk or pavement.

Most stones are installed in front of the person’s last residence of choice. Some are placed where the individual worked.

Most Stolpersteine commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but many honor members of other victimized groups — gypsies, blacks, homosexuals, communists, the physically and mentally disabled, and Christians who opposed the Nazis.

The cost of a single Stolperstein is about $120, which is covered by donations, mostly from individuals, schools, and communities.

Not everyone is happy with the Stolpersteine project. Some current homeowners claim the stones open old wounds and depress property values.

Others say the stones desecrate the memories of the victims. In Munich, they were banned because city officials said the names were being trampled on for a second time.

But in most places, the Stolpersteine have been welcomed.

“Six million Jews were killed — murdered,” said one of Demnig’s project coordinators. “The stumbling blocks make clear that it was one, plus one, plus one, plus one. It makes clear they were all individuals.”

The bitter truth is that we humans are a ruthless and merciless bunch, capable of appalling cruelty. We’ve proved it again and again throughout our history.

And just when you think we are beyond redemption, something like the Stolpersteine project comes along.

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Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan, the late astronomer, cosmologist, and enthusiastic champion of science, had the credentials for the job.

Sagan, who died in 1996, held BA and MA degrees in physics and a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics. He lectured at Harvard and Cornell, was a long-time advisor to NASA, and was part of the briefing team for the Apollo astronauts.

In the early 70s, Sagan helped design the plaques on Pioneer 10 and 11, which featured a pictorial message describing Earth and its human inhabitants.

In 1977, he helped create the two gold phonograph records aboard Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which contain sounds and images portraying life and culture on Earth.

In addition, Sagan worked on the Mariner, Viking, and Galileo missions. And he helped create the SETI Institute, which listens for possible signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

On top of all that, Sagan wrote 20 books, 600-odd scientific papers, and gave us the TV series Cosmos, the most widely-viewed program in PBS history.

Sagan was passionate and committed, not only to his work, but also to important societal issues.

I loved to hear him rail against Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the arms race and the sheer stupidity of the “Star Wars” missile shield program, which Republican boneheads still tout today.

I applauded him in the late 1980s when he was arrested, twice, for climbing over a chain link fence during anti-nuclear protests at the Nevada Test Site.

I cheered when he stepped forward, using the tenets of real science and critical thinking, to debunk another tin-foil-hat idea from the world of pseudoscience.

Most of his colleagues simply ignored the loony claims and non-scientific nonsense, but Sagan chose to confront and rebut.

Sagan believed in science and logic. In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, he presented a set of tools he called a “baloney-detection kit.” It was a method of constructing a reasoned argument that exposes and rejects false, fraudulent, and biased ideas.

Among the examples he gave of the nutty ideas floating around: ghosts, UFOs, ESP, fortune-telling, faith-healing, witchcraft, and the many manifestations of pseudoscience — often fed to a gullible public for political or economic gain.

I occasionally disagreed with Sagan (he used marijuana and advocated its legalization, and I don’t), but I always regarded him highly.

Some people thought he was a bit of a prima donna, too fond of the public eye. I never got that sense about him. I considered him to be a brilliant guy who effectively used his considerable intellect for good purposes.

And he was brilliant, no question. Isaac Asimov, a long-time member of Mensa (the organization of certified brainiacs), once said he knew only two people who were more intelligent than himself: mathematician Marvin Minsky of MIT and Carl Sagan.

A clear case of unfettered honesty.

If you met me on the street, and you asked, “Rocky, when you think about the late, great Carl Sagan, what about him comes first to mind?”

That’s easy. It’s the wonderful concept he put forth that man invented books and libraries because we needed “external hard drives” to supplement our brains.

Sagan explained that in the beginning, when life forms were simple, they were able to store the necessary survival information in their genes.

But as life became more complex, so did the data needed to survive. To accommodate that growing volume of information, the brain evolved.

In time, the human brain emerged as the most advanced, most efficient organic storehouse of information ever.

But life and life forms continued to grow in complexity, taxing the ability of all those individual brains to keep up.

Sagan described it this way:

————

When our genes could not store all the information necessary for survival, we slowly invented brains. But then the time came, perhaps ten thousand years ago, when we needed to know more than could conveniently be contained in brains.

So we learned to stockpile enormous quantities of information outside our bodies.

We are the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains. The warehouse of that memory is called the library.

One glance at [a book] and you hear the voice of another person — perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you.

Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.

————

Books and libraries, then, are the elements of a collective intelligence.

So, what is the next stage?  The answer, clearly, is in information technology — computing devices, internet access, cloud storage, and knowledge bases yet to come. Modern IT allows any one of us to store vast amounts of information and retrieve it in seconds.

But key questions exist about what we store online and inside our millions of individual computing machines. How permanent is the data?

A well-tended book can last for centuries. But hardware and software programs become obsolete regularly. When they do, the information they contain may well be lost.

If someone like me elects to stop maintaining a personal website, that information, too, may disappear. Perhaps not immediately, but soon.

It’s a genuine concern, but not unsolvable. Sagan probably would be confident science will figure it out.

To the public, Carl Sagan often is remembered for the dramatic use of the term, “billions and billions.” The fact is, he never used that phrase publicly.

In the Cosmos TV series, Sagan was careful to emphasize the “b” when he used the word “billions.”  He did it to make sure the viewers knew he meant billions, not millions.

During a Tonight Show skit, Johnny Carson picked up on Sagan’s emphasis of the letter b and, imitating Sagan’s delivery, quipped “billions and billions.”

The joke was a hit, so Carson regularly repeated it.

Privately, Sagan was not amused. He probably didn’t like being ridiculed before a national audience on a continuing basis.

But he mellowed over time. The title of his last book, published the year after his death, was Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium.

In 1990, 13 years after the its launch, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was 3.7 billion miles from Earth, at the edge of the Solar System. At Sagan’s request, Voyager turned its camera around and took a photograph of Earth across deep space.

The photograph became known as the Pale Blue Dot photo. In it, Earth appears as a tiny, blueish-white speck.

A few years later, Sagan published Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, in which he eloquently explained the significance of Voyager’s final photograph:

————

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

————

After the Pale Blue Dot photo was taken in 1990, NASA instructed Voyager to power off its camera.

Voyager’s journey is still underway. But it won’t encounter anything worth photographing for at least 75,000 years.

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Before planned obsolescence was invented, common products sometimes lasted a very long time. A case in point…

Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb in 1879. By the late 1890s, among the companies manufacturing hand-blown, carbon-filament, electric bulbs was the Shelby Electric Co. of Shelby, Ohio.

In 1901, in Livermore, California, a generous citizen donated several new four-watt Shelby bulbs to the Livermore Fire Department. One of the bulbs was placed in a garage to serve as a night light, replacing a kerosene lamp. As a night light, the bulb was left “on” continuously, 24/7.

Livermore is located on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay area, and the bulb survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Around 1910, it was moved to another building owned by the city and again was used as a night light. There it remained, in continuous operation as the years passed.

By 1976, the longevity of the bulb had finally attracted the city’s attention. The bulb was relocated — very, very carefully — to one of the city fire stations, where it could be monitored and protected.

During that move in 1976, the bulb was without power for 22 minutes. It has not been “off” since.

So, the bulb burning today in Livermore Fire Station No. 6 has been in near-continuous operation for 111 years and counting. It is considered the world record-holder — the longest-lasting light bulb ever.

Officially known as the Livermore Centennial Light Bulb, it now operates with the security of a surge protector, and it boasts two backup systems, one powered by batteries, the other by diesel.

Except for a few rare power interruptions, the Livermore Bulb has been shining around the clock for nearly one million hours. And it continues to operate as steadily as ever.

According to the experts, three factors account for the bulb’s longevity.

First, the low wattage. At a mere four watts, the bulb has a relatively low operating temperature, which promotes longer life.

Second, the constant operation. The bulb is never turned off, which protects the filament from damage caused by repetitive heating and cooling.

Third, the quality of construction. Some anonymous worker at Shelby Electric Co. sealed the bulb perfectly, which maintains the vacuum and protects the filament from stress and deterioration.

In short, it is a simple, well-built product operating under optimum conditions, and it continues to soldier on.

Think about the Livermore Bulb the next time you read about the cutting-edge, much-ballyhooed electric bulbs of today…

… such as the new Bright From the Start ™ compact fluorescent bulbs from General Electric — the 15-watt model of which is priced at only $9.99, is estimated to save you $1.85 per year in energy costs, and is expected to last a whopping 7.3 years!

The Livermore Bulb.

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When the major claim to fame of your local school board is burning books, you have a self-righteous-moralistic-toad problem.

In 1973, a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School in Drake, North Dakota, gave his sophomore students a reading assignment — Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughter-House Five.

Slaughter-House Five is an admittedly odd duck. It is an anti-war black comedy, more or less based on the horrific World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, which Vonnegut lived through as a POW of the Germans.

As the story unfolds, Vonnegut’s protagonist becomes “unstuck in time,” encounters multi-dimensional aliens, and lives his life out of sequence. The book is classic, fiery-eyed satire from Vonnegut.

An odd duck, yes, but the novel shouldn’t be underestimated. It is ranked by Modern Library as number 18 among the greatest English novels of the 20th Century.

Bruce Severy, the Drake high school teacher, reported that most of his sophomore students immediately related to the book and were enthusiastic about the assignment.

“C and D students were suddenly writing A papers,” Severy told The Minot Daily News.

One student, however, complained to her mother about obscene language in the book. The mother complained to the Drake Public School Board.

The students were about one-third of the way through the novel when the school board ordered all copies of the books confiscated and fed into the school’s coal burner.

“We didn’t approve of its obscene language,” said school board president Charles McCarthy. “It might pass in a college, but not in this school.”

Another board member said the book “should not be read by anyone.”

A local minister called the novel “garbage.” A local priest said he didn’t like its “barnyard scenes.”

When the confiscation order went out, some students claimed they had lost their copies; the school board promptly ordered their lockers searched and telephoned their parents.

The students made their displeasure known. The novel, one of them said, “is respectable and interesting, and better than what we’ve been reading.” They presented a letter of protest to the school board.

Slaughter-House Five wasn’t the only book burned that year in the Drake High School coal burner. The school board also ordered the burning of 60 copies of Deliverance by James Dickey.

Also into the burner went the school’s copies of Short Story Masterpieces, a 1966 collection with works by 35 distinguished authors — James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Sinclair Lewis, James Thurber, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Carson McCullers, to drop just a few of the names.

Severy, to his credit, remained civil about the incident. He gave this long and eloquent statement to the Minot newspaper.

————

I chose the book for its immediacy, its modern style, its brevity. It is a book which addresses itself to current problems in an honest and straightforward manner. I believe the theme, or message of the book is a question: why are we killing each other still?

The book deals with other concerns as well. The lack of dignity and respect with which we treat each other in increasing doses. The dissatisfaction that Billy Pilgrim, the hero of the book, feels with his life of obvious material success. The emptiness of his marriage. The matter of man’s own free will, that seems to be no longer functioning. The resulting apathy.

It is this apathy towards an increasing state of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man that the author is crying out against in protest, through Billy Pilgrim. This is a moral book. It deals with a moral question that we as humans have been trying to deal with for time immemorial. The book begs the reader to come up with a workable answer.

Most of the criticism so far focuses on the language the author uses, specifically some four-letter words commonly referred to as slang, swearing, whatever. All I can say is that the author is trying to tell his story like it is, using the language as it is being used today, out there in the real world.

I would also like to say that no one who objects to the book that I have talked to has read the book. Another told me that he hadn’t read any of the book. I say that no one can make judgment about an entire book without reading the entire book and taking it as such. Anything less is academically dishonest, anti-intellectual, and irrational.

I would also like to say that only one student in my two classes objected to the book after reading two chapters. This is fine. I have never forced a student to read any book if that student objected or if the parents objected.

————

The teacher’s union joined the students in condemning the book-burnings. The ACLU threatened a lawsuit. Ultimately, a settlement was reached out of court, in which high school juniors and seniors were permitted to read Slaughter-House Five, and Severy received the sum of $5,000.

To my knowledge, the Drake Public School Board has fed no more books into the coal burner. In the years since the settlement, the incident has surfaced only occasionally, as an example of crude behavior by narrow-minded people who get into positions of power.

Then, a few months ago, came interesting news. A letter surfaced that Vonnegut reportedly wrote to board president McCarthy, one week after the copies of Slaughter-House Five were burned.

This is the letter.

————

November 16, 1973

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else.

You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers.

I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes — but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

————

According to news accounts, Vonnegut never received a reply.

You have to question the authenticity of a letter like this, surfacing after nearly 40 years. It’s the kind of thing that triggers a person’s baloney detector.

The letter’s statement, you now hold the only copy in your hands certainly doesn’t bolster its credibility.

On the other hand, nothing had popped up to indicate that the letter is a phony. It does, in fact, sound a heck of a lot like Vonnegut.

And if Kurt Vonnegut didn’t write this letter, then dammit, he should have.

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Make It Cry

Diner slang, the colorful lingo used by cooks and waitresses to communicate orders, dates back to the mid-1800s.

You would expect cultures everywhere to dream up clever ways to describe food orders — to say “pin a rose on it” instead of “add a slice of onion.” But no, diner slang is strictly an American thing. Apparently, we’re the only ones zany enough to appreciate this particular art form.

Some of the lingo, such as “mayo,” “BLT,” and “cup of Java,” has crossed over into popular use. Other terms are more obscure and still confined to use in countless diners and lunch counters across the country.

Below, for your amusement and edification, is a list of slang terms commonly used in such facilities. Order up!

——————

Adam & Eve — Two poached eggs
Adam & Eve on a log — Two poached eggs with link sausage
Adam & Eve on a raft — Two poached eggs on toast


Arnold Palmer — Mixture of sweet tea and lemonade
Atlanta Special — Coca-Cola
Axle grease — Butter
B & B — Bread and butter
Baby juice — Milk
Baled hay — Shredded Wheat
Battle Creek — Corn Flakes (From Battle Creek, Michigan, home of Kellogg)
Belch water — Soda water
Bird — Chicken
Bird in a nest — Fried egg on toast with a hole cut in the center
Birdseed — Cereal
Black and blue — Rare steak seared on the outside
Black cow — Chocolate milk
Blowout patches — Pancakes
Boil some leaves — Tea
Bossy in a bowl — Beef stew
Bowl of red — Bowl of chili
Bow-wow  — Hot dog
Break it and shake it — Add a raw egg to a drink
Bridge party — Four of anything
Bucket of hail — Glass of ice
Burn it — Well done
Burn one — Put a hamburger on the grill
Burn the British — Toasted English muffin
C-board — Take-out order (cardboard)
Cackleberries — Eggs
Cackleberries out west — Western omelet
Cat heads — Biscuits
Check the ice — Look at the pretty girl who just came in
Checkerboards — Waffles
Chicago — Pineapple sundae
Chicks on a raft — Eggs on toast
China — Rice pudding
Coney Island — Hot dog
Cops and robbers — Donuts and coffee

Cowboy — Western omelet
Cowboy with spurs — Western omelet with French fries
Cow feed — Salad
Crowd — Three of anything (Three’s a crowd)
Deadeye — Poached egg
Dog biscuits — Crackers
Don’t cry over it — Omit the onions
Dough well done with cow to cover — Buttered toast
Drag one through the garden — Add lettuce and tomato
Drag one through Wisconsin — Add cheese
Draw one — Cup of coffee
Draw one, blonde — Coffee with cream
Draw one, blonde with sand — Coffee with cream and sugar
Draw one in the dark — Black coffee
Drown the kids — Boiled eggs
Dry stack — Pancakes, no butter
Eve with a lid on — Apple pie (Refers to the biblical Eve & apple and the pie crust)
First lady — Spareribs (Refers to Eve being created from one of Adam’s ribs)
Fish eyes — Tapioca pudding
Flop two — Two fried eggs over easy
Fly cake — Raisin cake
Frog sticks — French fries
Georgia pie — Peach pie
Gentleman will take a chance — Hash
Going for a walk — Take-out order
Halitosis — Garlic
Hemorrhage — Ketchup
High and dry — Plain sandwich with no condiments
Hockey puck — Hamburger well-done
Hold the grass — No lettuce
Hold the hail — No ice
Houseboat — Banana split

In the alley — Serve as a side dish
Irish turkey — Corned beef
Jack — Grilled American cheese sandwich (GAC = Jack)
Jack Benny — Grilled cheese sandwich with bacon
Jack Tommy — Grilled cheese sandwich with tomato
Keep off the grass — Hold the lettuce
Let him chew it — Rare steak
Life preserver — Donut
Looseners — Prunes
Love apples — Tomatoes
Lumber — Toothpicks
M.D. — Dr. Pepper
Machine oil — Syrup
Make it cry — Add onion
Mike and Ike — Salt and pepper shakers
Moo juice — Milk
Mousetrap — Grilled cheese sandwich
Mud — Black coffee
Murphy — Potatoes
Nervous pudding — Jell-O
Noah’s boy — Slice of ham (Ham was Noah’s son)
No cow — Without milk
Number 5 — Milk
Number 41 — Lemonade
Number 51 — Hot chocolate
Number 55 — A root beer
Number 86 — Cancel the order or don’t serve that customer
On the hoof — Meat served rare
On wheels —  Take-out order
One on the city — Glass of water
One from the Alps — Swiss cheese sandwich
Paint it red — Add ketchup

Pin a rose on it — Add onion
Put a hat on it — Add a scoop of ice cream
Pittsburgh — Something is burning (Lots of smokestacks in Pittsburgh)
Put out the lights and cry — Liver and onions
Rabbit food — Lettuce
Radio — Tuna salad (Tuner — get it?)
Sand — Sugar
Sea dust — salt
Shake one in the hay — Strawberry milkshake
Shingle with a shimmy and a shake — Order of toast with butter and jelly
Sinkers and suds — Donuts and coffee
SOS (sh*t on a shingle) — Chipped beef on toast
Squeeze one — Glass of orange juice
Sunny side up — Fried egg with runny yolk, cooked without turning
Sweet Alice — Milk
Throw it in the mud — Add chocolate syrup
Two dots and a dash — Two fried eggs and a strip of bacon
Vermont — Maple syrup
Warts –Olives
Whiskey — Rye bread (Used because “rye” and “white” sound too similar)
Whiskey down — Rye toast
Whistleberries — Baked beans (A reference to flatulence)
White cow — Vanilla milkshake
Why bother — Decaf with skim milk
Wreck ‘em — Scrambled eggs
Yellow paint — Mustard
Yum-yum — Sugar
Zeppelin — Sausage

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Life on the Treadmill

Being retired, I am free to range far and wide at leisure, often on errands of little importance. I’ve been known to drive 20 miles merely to drop off my recycling, eat lunch, and purchase dog treats.

My life of indolence is well-earned, mind you. I paid my dues — all those years as a wage slave, commuter, taxpayer, husband, and father. Today, as I go through life piddling around and enjoying the scenery, I feel no remorse.

Of course, I do sympathize with folks who are still on the treadmill. Both of my sons, for example, work very hard at life. Ah, yes, I remember it well.

When you think about it, life on the treadmill is the norm everywhere, for all creatures. A minor percentage of lucky humans can “retire,” but the rest of creation works hard every day to survive. They do it all their lives.

Consider the example of a certain hawk I see each time I drive to Athens.

The main road from my fair city, Jefferson, to the nearest metropolis, Athens, is U.S. 129. It is a divided four-lane highway, fine and scenic, lightly traveled, always a pleasant drive.

About halfway between Jefferson and Athens is the unincorporated community of Redstone. In that area, on the west side of the highway, the pine/hardwood forest gives way to vast open fields that go on for several miles.

This is where the hawk perches on a powerline, the perfect vantage point to scan the open fields for prey.

I see the hawk virtually every time I drive through Redstone. He is always perched somewhere along the powerline. He is, I assume, focused intently on the field below, alert for movement in the grass.

This is the hawk’s treadmill. He has done this, and will continue to do it, for as long as he lives.

About six months ago, after the presence of the hawk in hunting mode got my attention, I began to look for him. Spotting the hawk became a routine part of my trips to Athens.

On the rare days when I didn’t see him, I was deeply disappointed. But on most trips, there he was, perched motionless on the wire, on duty.

Eventually, it occurred to me that I had seen the hawk in that familiar pose dozens of times, but I had never seen him in pursuit of prey. In truth, I only see him for about 20 seconds at a time. The odds of being able to watch the hunter go hunting are against me.

But last week, the odds broke in my favor.

On my way to Athens one morning, I spotted the hawk up ahead in his customary pose on the powerline. Suddenly, as I drew alongside, he took flight.

He launched himself from the powerline — more accurately, he dropped from the line — and soared in a straight, graceful trajectory toward a spot in the field.

Like an airplane coming in for a landing, he approached the target. Based on his glide path, I could identify the location of the prey ahead of time.

Then, with delicate precision, he extended his talons and picked up a small grayish something from the floor of the meadow.

With the prey secured, the hawk rose into the air again, wings flapping powerfully.

Before I rounded a curve and lost sight of him, he was flying toward a bank of trees in the distance, his lunch dangling from one talon.

 

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The Odd Gecko

Back in 2007, I was shopping for a piece of southwestern furniture. Specifically, a small side cabinet. Southwestern furniture is an alien commodity in my part of the country, so I went online.

Before long, I found a promising website — a furniture manufacturer in El Paso. The prices were good, and the designs were just right. They offered cabinets of several sizes. The rep emailed me this photo to show examples of their work.

I selected the model on the left, in a whitewash color.

One further option was to have the doors inlaid with 4×4 Mexican tiles, which was a cool idea. They sent me this selection of available designs.

I chose the stylized blue waves — middle row, left side.

My cabinet arrived a few weeks later, and it was great.

Except for one thing: the waves had been placed in the door vertically instead of horizontally.

In other words, they were facing up and down instead of sideways. They were not, like, in the natural position of, like, actual water.

Sending the cabinet back wasn’t practical. The thing only cost about $150, and a big chunk of that was the shipping. So, even though water doesn’t flow uphill, I sighed, made my peace with it, and kept it.

Fast forward to 2011. After four years of being irritated every time I looked at those accursed, unnatural waves, I decided to do something about it.

First, I read up on how to set 4×4 Mexican tiles. Apparently, all I needed was Liquid Nails and some colored grout.

Next, I went online to find suitable replacement tiles. I couldn’t find a wave pattern I liked, but I found a festive blue gecko on a yellow background. I ordered 10 gecko tiles and 10 plain tiles in matching yellow.

While awaiting shipment, I removed the doors from the cabinet and chiseled out the offending wave tiles. They came out cleanly. In pieces, but cleanly.

The 20 new squares arrived intact. The yellow was a bit more piercing than I expected, but the geckos were cheery. And, unlike the waves, I could orient the geckos however I pleased.

Orientation, in fact, was the first order of business. I had to figure out how the 20 tiles would look best on the doors. I’m not sure about the math, but there are a heck of a lot of possible combinations.

Then, as I was arranging and rearranging the tiles, I became aware of a problem: one of the 10 geckos didn’t match the other nine. It was similar, but not identical.

Thanks, warehouse.

For a few minutes I sat there, drumming my fingers and thinking about my options. I concluded that I could (1) demand a free replacement tile, (2) order and pay for a replacement tile, or (3) somehow cleverly conceal the error.

It made sense to at least attempt option three. If I failed, I still had two remaining.

Happily, I did not fail. And I’m rather proud of the solution I settled on.

The project went quickly and without mishap. The Liquid Nails worked great. The grout was easy to apply. All in all, a good outcome.

Here is the finished piece.

Can you spot the odd gecko?

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