This posting is reprinted from my contributions to the Writer's Collection
- a collaborative blog featuring writings on common subjects by myself and nine great authors. The challenge was to write about "Henry VIII." Surely a student of history such as myself should have no problem with that subject (funny, thinking of Henry VIII as a "subject" - think about it). However, a song got stuck in my head as soon as I saw it...
“I'm 'enry the Eighth, I am,
'enery the Eighth, I am, I am.
I got married to the widow next door,
She's been married seven times before.
And, every one's been a 'enery...”
I CAN'T GET that damn song out of my head ever since they announced this week's topic – Henry VIII – on the Writer's Collection. I'm a student of history. My head should be full of historical images. But no, I'm stuck in the land of doggerel. You know where this is going to end up, don't you?
No? Maybe you don't, not unless you lived through the 50s. Those of us of advanced years complain bitterly about today's music, especially rap. However, you haven't heard anything until you get an earful of the novelty songs of my youth, doggerel set to music.
They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Haaa – Monster Mash – The Purple People Eater. These are not the titles of serious art. Disco Duck – Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport – Beep Beep. Dear God, I still remember many of the lyrics. At the very least I could sing along without hesitation. In fact, I typed the lyrics to Henry the Eighth without looking them up and am absolutely certain that they are correct, although I cannot remember what I ate for dinner last night.
Who came up with this stuff? Surely, not a talented artist. I suspect that novelty numbers are the brainchild of some music producer. I can see it now...
Imagine the offices of a major record label in Los Angeles. Surely, no one in Nashville or Motown would have done the deed. A gaggle of lithesome twenty-something fillies wearing mini-skirts (remember, this is the 1950s) with hemlines rising well to the north of Modesty are smoking dope and dancing in the aisles between their desks. (Did I mention that I visited a few record labels during my ad biz days?) The recording engineers are getting wasted at the corner bar or snorting lines of coke in the break room.
The boss is getting so desperate he might even call an agent (the bottom feeders of the music industry). All his talent, including the one-hit wonders so prevalent in those days, are touring, and the scouts haven't sent anyone new by for several days. Payola payments to the DJ's are coming due (you couldn't get airtime in the 50s without paying it, and without airtime you can't sell records) and he needs inventory, something new to sell.
Our music producer goes for a walk on Hollywood Boulevard, a tourist mecca like no other. Forget the glitz and glamor, this thoroughfare is the stalking grounds of peddlers, pimps, and prostitutes. Forget Julia Roberts, most of the women are men in drag or diseased rejects from tawdry strip clubs. Tourists weave their way through the idling degenerates, distracting their children with the stars embedded in the sidewalk to honor stars that most of them never heard of.
Outside the Hollywood Magic Shop, our record executive is almost knocked off his feet by a beatnik (Google it) landing after a bad trip. Our man is about to kick the reprobate aside when he notices the pendant the man is wearing on a leather thong (not that kind of thong) around his neck. It looks like a purple monster with one eye and one horn swallowing Adlai Stevenson (again, Google it). He rips it from the beatnik's neck and tosses some coins to the man as he turns to charge back to his office.
With a few calls he finds a down-on-his-luck songwriter and gives him twenty minutes to come up with the lyrics. A few more calls is all it takes to assemble a group of session men – musicians who are hired temporarily to back up the regular talent at recording sessions – and he creates a fictional band.
Now it's his turn to be creative. Naming singing groups is the prerogative of the record executive. What will it be? Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs? Boris Pickett and the Crypt Kickers? Dweezil and Moon Unit Zappa? No wait, can't use that. They're the children of Frank Zappa. Chuck Wagon and the Wheels? Damn, he's good at this.
If you must know, it was Sheb Wooley who recorded Flying Purple People Eater, and I'm sure it was a serious effort, in no way resembling the sophomoric fantasy that I have spun here.
Really, I should have been able to come up with something serious befitting the theme. I wonder... how would Henry VIII have reacted if a group of minstrels known as Herman's Hermits had shown up in his court performing I'm Henry the Eighth I Am?
This posting is reprinted from my contributions to the Writer's Collection
- a collaborative blog featuring writings on common subjects by myself and nine great authors. "Brazil" was a real challenge for me to write about. I'm not really all that creative. My stories are about history, mostly people, places, and events I've experienced. I've never "experienced" Brazil...
I'M NOT FUNNY. Seriously, not funny. I once had to write a speech for a PR client who wanted to open with a good joke. That assignment was agony for me, but I did it. I popped a corker for him. Funny thing is that his speech was preempted by someone more important who showed up at the last minute. So, my client booked a cocktail party and invited the whole audience. His replacement ended up speaking to an empty room while my client went from person to person telling the
joke. I guess the point is that even I can be funny once.
Now, let's talk about someone who is seriously funny most of the time, Peter Gilliam of Monty Python
fame. He can make almost anything seem funny. Almost, but not quite when he tried to make bureaucracy seem funny in Brazil
, a 1985 film about a retro futuristic technocrat who becomes a public enemy while attempting to correct a bureaucratic mistake. (You were wondering how I was going to connect this to the subject of “Brazil”, weren't you? Don't worry, I wander off in the next paragraph.)
What could possibly be funny about bureaucracy? Nothing. That's probably why the film bombed – less than $10 million earned on a film that cost $15 million to make. I know. I once was a bureaucrat. I worked for the Social Security Administration as a Post Entitlement Adjudicator – you have to love that job title – while attending law school at night. I was sucked into civil service by John Kennedy's inspiring “Ask not...” speech. What could I do for my country? Little, actually, while working as a civil servant.
I worked at the Baltimore Payment Center on the sprawling Social Security campus at Woodlawn, Maryland. Sprawling? Teeming might be a better word. More than seventeen thousand bureaucrats worked at that one facility at that time. My job encompassed changes in disability benefit payments after the initial award had been made.
During my tenure at this post the Administration made the change from manual to automated processing of disability benefit checks. The project went south quickly and after six months, many of the disability beneficiaries and their families stopped receiving their monthly stipends because of a failure to encode benefit changes in a manner that the computer understood. Sometime during the third month of this circus I had the temerity to suggest that we get together with the computer programmers to discuss what was going wrong and how we might correct the problem. Unfortunately, bureaucrats are more concerned with doing things according to fixed regulations rather than accomplishing anything. If there is an error in a regulation, the bureaucrats must wait until Congress fixes it, and we all know how efficient that process is. Thus, this problem persisted until I escaped to the relative sanity of the Army and the war in Vietnam more than six months later. I don't know when they ever got it fixed.
I am reminded of this experience every time I listen to my more socially conscious friends advocating another government entitlement program or to expand an existing one, all efforts to make it more intrusive into our lives. I am sorry that life has fashioned me into such a curmudgeon that I rail against every attempt to grow our government. Every visit to the U.S. Debt Clock
makes me even more curmudgeony
Incidentally, Peter Gilliam's film had no more to do with Brazil than does this posting. The hero of the story, Sam, hums the song Brazil
by Geoff Muldaur, at the end of the film as he is being diagnosed catatonic. I can relate. I almost became catatonic – an alcoholic at the very least – working as a bureaucrat.
The Alamo. The Maine. Pearl Harbor. Great defeats have often led to great victories won by a people who are spurred on by their memories of the reason they are fighting. Unfortunately, memories of 9/11 are fading long before the fight against terrorists will be won.
Indeed, our President has forbidden any mention of “the war on terror” in his Administration, and his agents outside the halls of power have voluntarily joined in the prohibition. It appears that he has chosen another fight to give meaning to his tenure in office, and hopes to be reelected to lead a class war.
Meanwhile, the terrorists continue to lurk on the fringes of our awareness, waiting for new opportunities to kill the unbelievers. I guess that we are destined to suffer other defeats at their hands until a new crop of leaders appear to help us remember.
THERE IS NO branch of the Armed Services that has a broader mission than the U.S. Army. The range of skills known as Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) in the Army probably equals that of all of the other branches combined. Thus, it is not surprising to learn than the Army employes as diverse a sampling of humanity as you will find anywhere.
The recruitment process, even during the time of the draft, included a testing process to qualify men and women for service in the Army, and to place them in an occupation for which they are either qualified or have the potential to learn. Now, I know that there have been many epic errors in the system. For example, while in school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, before deploying to Vietnam, I heard of a trainee in the class for postal clerks who had been a test pilot for Boeing. When asked how he ended up there he was reputed to have said that he was told by friends that he should never volunteer for anything and to keep his mouth shut at all times. Thus, it is fair to say that the system didn't fail him – it had, insofar as possible, identify that he was brighter than the average draftee and should be placed in a role that required more intelligence than that required for a grunt. However, he had failed to speak up for himself and almost wasted his mandatory two-year enlistment. Fortunately, his value was recognized, and he was awarded an immediate Honorable Discharge and returned to his civilian occupation where he most likely contributed more to the defense effort.
Part of the Army battery of tests appraised basic intelligence. Even a rifleman needs some native ability to maintain his weapon, follow orders, and engage in battle without harming his buddies. Surprisingly, I met at least two enlisted men during my time in service who seemed to have a lower IQ than one might think that the Army considered as minimal, however, they provided valuable service. I mentioned one in an earlier posting – Letters of Condolence
– about my assignment as the Casualty Reporting Officer for the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam.
There is another enlisted man that I met while serving as the Operations Officer for the Strategic Communications Center for Headquarters, United States Army, Pacific, who I would like to weave into my tale of Korea – Behind Every Mountain. He held the rank of Specialist E5 – equivalent of a three-stripe sergeant – with twenty-seven years of service. Inasmuch as I met him in 1967, it is safe to assume that he was a soldier during time time of the Korean War as well as World War II. However, I do not have any recollection of his service during those periods and, fortunately, that is not important to my tale here.
I can't remember his name, though I would easily recognize him if I passed him on the street today. He was not handsome nor remarkably un-handsome. I don't believe he was ever married. He lived in the barracks with much younger enlisted men. We never engaged in a direct conversation beyond a brief salutation in passing or a brief exchange for me to inquire after how he was doing, to which he may have lied as is usual in such things – who really asks such a thing and wants to know beyond “fine, sir.”
He was a minor cog in my machine. I was commanding/managing more than one hundred-fifty men and women at the time, about half civilian employees and half military. Their jobs ranged from highly technical communications equipment operation and maintenance, to clerical staff, and the commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and civilian supervisors who helped me oversee them in a 24/7 operation. This man pitched messages into bins for distribution to the headquarters offices that we supported.
He did his job well. The tedious nature of his work might distract a more intelligent person, and cause them to make mistakes. His supervisors assured me that he never did. Granted, a change in personnel might throw him off his game for a day or two, but once learned, he never forgot.
The reason this man sticks in my memory is the remarkable story that I learned about him from my first sergeant. We had stopped in the hallway outside the room where this man was at work and paused a moment to watch him. I caught my sergeant smiling and asked him why.
The man in question had just returned from leave and my sergeant began by explaining that he had a very lucrative vacation on a cruise ship. Apparently, it was just one of many such trips he took each year – we received 30 days vacation each year in those days. He played cribbage with wealthy passengers and beat them regularly. I learned to play cribbage in Vietnam and know that the difference between winning and losing is very subtle. It is a game of intuition as well as intelligence and my man seemed to have a gift for it. Using it, he had accumulated a substantial savings account and could always be counted on by the younger enlisted men, for a loan. No one dared to stiff him. The other men living in the barracks took pains to make sure that he was never cheated.
The tour of duty in Hawaii at that time was three-years. This E5 came to me with a request for reassignment to Korea when his tour was about to end and I was glad to endorse it. However, Army regulations required each person to return to a duty station somewhere in the United States periodically and this man hadn't for many years. Thus, his request was denied. I apologized that I couldn't do more for him, but he assured me that I needn't worry. He simply asked for a short leave and disappeared.
He returned a week later wearing the insignia of a master sergeant E7 – an impossible jump in rank – and orders for Korea. My first sergeant explained that this man had visited the Pentagon during his leave and looked up some old “friends” there. Surprised that he was still just an E5, they arranged for his “non-standard” promotion and his assignment to Korea. They were some powerful “friends.”
As he left the tunnel where our facility was housed for the last time, my sergeant explained. This man had lived off-base at an orphanage run by Catholic nuns while stationed in Korea sometime in the 1950s. He returned on every other assignment. He had worked as a handyman there while off duty. Later, during a tour of duty in Panama, he had won the national lottery there and placed his winnings in a trust to support the orphanage. It had become his home. After leaving my command, it was his dream to return there to retire and live out his days taking care of the place.
I pray that his dream came true.