Concord Bridge vs. Kabul, Afghanistan: Where’s Solomon When We Need Him?

Concord Bridge vs. Kabul, Afghanistan: Where’s Solomon When We Need Him

4thGradeStJohn'sWinterof1944

The 4th Grade of St. John’s Grammar School: 1946

(“X” = The Author)

          Back in the Fourth Grade, at St. John’s Grammar School in West Fitchburg, circa 1946, the nuns taught us American History. One day, someone in the class asked how the American Colonists won the Revolutionary War. We knew they were mostly farmers and merchants, and up against England, the greatest military power of that time. Sister Mary Cornelia acknowledged that was a good question, and helped us compile a list on the blackboard of all the reasons we thought that the English lost the American Revolution, and the Thirteen Colonies won and became the United States of America.

Recently,  I’ve been thinking about that list we compiled so many years ago, and comparing it to the existing situation in Afghanistan. I wondered if any of those nearly 250 year old reasons are still valid. I think enough of them are to warrant consideration today.

I’ve updated the language, but basically we Fourth Graders agreed that:

1. The English believed they were fighting for an ideal: To preserve their Empire. The Colonists believed they were fighting for their homeland.

2. The English were far from home, and it was difficult, dangerous, and expensive to resupply them.

3. The English were fighting an entirely different war than they had ever fought before. They were used to civilized gentlemen lining up on opposite sides of a field, and shooting at one another, until it was time to march forward, and close with the enemy, in formation, accompanied by bugles and drums. These American Colonists had learned to fight like the Indians, from behind trees and rocks. They were masters of camouflage and the ambush. They made no noises to alert the enemy of their arrival, and disappeared silently into the woodland when they were done.

4. The English had modern, heavy weapons, cannons and mortars and such; but they weren’t very useful against the Colonists who avoided open confrontation. The Colonists struck and fought from cover and concealment, and then faded away to fight another day.

The term “asymmetrical warfare” had not been invented yet, nor had “guerrilla warfare” or “insurgencies,” but the American Colonists understood these concepts: When the odds are lop-sided and stacked against you, make the other side fight the war the way you want to fight it: The way you think you can win.

5. The American Colonists knew the terrain. It was their land, and they could get from here to there a lot faster than organized military units could, marching down public, and dangerous, roads fraught with ambushes and traps.

6. The English couldn’t distinguish the farmers, who saluted them by day as they marched past their fields, from the armed bands that came out at night to wreak violence upon them.

7. The American Colonists could live off the land, and find support at nearly every farmhouse and village. The English got no such support unless they took it, and that just made matters worse.

8. The American Colonists were armed, experienced hunters, and comfortable in their own wild. “Marksmanship was valued,” someone once wrote, “because they had to buy their own lead and make their own bullets.”

9. The families back home in England were tired of their children being wounded and killed by this ragtag band of farmers, and at the vast amounts of money being wasted over here that could be better used at home.

10. The English Parliament, like the English citizenry, grew lukewarm to the entire action over time. They started thinking, in an expression used at the time, “The game is not worth the candle.” One historian wrote that it wasn’t so much the Colonials won the War as it was the English lost it, after becoming tired, demoralized, and worn out from fighting it.

Now, not all these points may be applicable to Afghanistan, and there are many differences between the two situations. The American Colonists, for example, did not fight for the “freedom” to go back years in time to live in comparative ignorance, with large segments of their population poor, uneducated, living in hovels, without medical care, and avoiding all kinds of central authority, except their own zealous religious governance.

The American Colonists wanted their freedom first and foremost. They wanted their own modern economy, the freedom to vote for whomever they wanted, the independence from taxes and imported laws that made little sense over here. They didn’t want religious governance, they’d govern themselves. They saw themselves competing with the English as social, economic and intellectual equals, not fighting them.

But even so, there are enough similarities, beginning with spending our blood and our treasure, and experiencing all the misery, to consider now in Afghanistan the question the English had to consider so long ago:

Is this game worth the candle? Do we belong there? Is it worth our lives, our fortune, our sacred honor? Should we force democracy upon a people who don’t understand it, don’t respect it, and don’t want it?

Can we ever succeed anyway, when we are hard pressed to even define success? Can we negotiate with corrupt religious fanatics and tribal zealots? When we leave, will the Afghans go right back to what they were before we got there – as they have always done? That’s what happened when the Russians left in 1989, and the British left in 1919, and countless others left, as far back as Alexander the Great, in 330BC.

A U.S. Marine officer who met with Afghan tribal elders recently, said he was told: “You Americans have the watches, but we Afghans have the time.”

As Sister Mary Cornelia asked that Fourth Grade class nearly seventy years ago: “Given all that, what would you do?”

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Investment Wisdom (Compiled)

Risk not thy whole wad

The Best Things Ever Said About Money

(Market Advice for the Needy)

Sixty-plus years ago, I heard my father, Leo F. McManus, Sr., jokingly tell a friend that the secret of making money in the stock market was “The Wall Street Lullaby: ‘Buy Low, Sell High’.”

It took a few decades for the wisdom of that to sink in. In fact, I didn’t really understand it until I started investing myself. Then I realized that playing with the big kids on Wall Street is a cross between tip-toeing through a mine field, and walking on thin ice; or, as Johnny Carson liked to say: “Spanking sharks.”

And so, I became a stock market philosopher. You may have heard the old joke: “How do you get a philosopher off your back porch?” The answer is, “Pay him for the pizza.”

However, I only got humbled and reminded of my mortality, not kilt (lucky me). As I began to rebuild, I remembered Dad’s “Wall Street Lullaby.” I started collecting comments and aphorisms about investing in general, and the stock market in particular. Some I saw in print, and I have credited those. More were told to me by friends and colleagues, also credited where remembered. Others, I just wrote down, hoping they would be as new to you as they were to me.

You can find investment tips everywhere. Shakespeare  for example, said: “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets (“As You Like It”).”

You can even find investment advice in the Bible: Proverbs 21:5 says The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty”.

Interpretation: You couldn’t get rich overnight even way back then.

And King Solomon, the wisest and richest man of all time, had guidelines too: In his book, “Money: A User’s Manual,” Bob Russell quotes several of King Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. For example, Solomon’s guiding investment principles included:

1. Diversify: “Divide your portions into seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur upon the earth.”

2. Invest Ethically: Paraphrased in modern terms, Solomon said to stick with investments that are socially responsible, and that reflect your moral values.

3. Seek Good Counsel: Again paraphrased, nobody has all the answers; Read, listen, find a trusted adviser, ask lots of questions.

Finally, in the New Testament (both Matthew and Luke), we find the parable of the talents. A master gave three servants some gold coins to invest for him while he was traveling. The first two servants invested and doubled their master’s money. They received much praise and reward. The third servant buried his coin and, alas for him, although he didn’t lose anything, he didn’t gain anything either. The master called him evil and lazy, took back the coin, and chucked this failure as an investor out into the darkness.

The master clearly appreciated initiative and some sensible risk taking.

My collection of aphorisms can’t stand up to Shakespeare, let alone King Solomon, or the New Testament parables, but here are anyway; my:

 

        Top One Hundred & Twenty-Five “Best Things Ever Said About Money.”

A Warning: Some of these thoughts are wise, funny, and insightful. Others are incredibly stupid. I leave it up to you to decide which is which. Good luck and happy landings!

 

1. Your first loss is always your least loss.

2. No matter how low a stock goes, it can never be less than zero. -Jake Dias

3. When a stock splits it can go down twice as fast. -Jake Dias

4. Bulls make money, Bears make money, Pigs get roasted.

5. You can love a stock, but a stock can never love you back.

6. The market abhors uncertainty.

7. The market always repeats itself: It goes up and down.

8. 1% of something is better than 10% of nothing. –Joe Grammel

9. Patience is an investor’s greatest asset.

10. There’s no such thing as a sure thing.

11. Markets are efficient – just incomprehensible.

12. Buy on the bad news, sell on the good.

13. There’s a big difference between losing money and not making as much as you planned.

14. Heaven helps the Needy, not the Greedy.

15. Nobody ever went broke taking profits.  –Frank Keaney

16. Enjoy the party but dance near the door.

17. There are always more buyers than sellers, unless there are more sellers than buyers.

18. By the time you hear about it, it’s too late.

19. Profits will be offset by earlier losses and higher expenses.

20. Markets are unpredictable, but seldom illogical.

21. Judge the company by what it does, not what it says.

22. The market is about money. It is always and only about money.

23. The only one who really cares about your investment is you. -Johnny Keaveny

24. The market responds to world news, government policy, business developments, and how the traders feel that day.

25. It is hard to tell the truly competent from the truly lucky.

26. Don’t confuse a bull market with management genius.

27. Insider information is always illegal – and often incorrect.

28. Futures and other sophisticated instruments are attractive only if you can’t get to Las Vegas.

29. When the market rises, your stock will not participate. When the market falls, you will be ruined.

30. When the insiders sell some, you should sell some too.

31. The good stuff always comes back.

32. The market keeps a lot of incompetent people busy and out of politics.

33. Any outcome that can be predicted with a dartboard does not warrant serious study.

34. The stock market is a racetrack complete with fast action, touts, and tired old nags.

35. The market reacts to reality – but perception is reality.

36. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it. –Will Rogers

37. There’s no such thing as a “one decision” stock.

38. There are only two kinds of publicly traded stock: Those that have been humbled, and those that have not yet been humbled.

39. Blue Chips are forever.

40. Buy what you understand.

41. Don’t play with borrowed money.

42. Markets reflect current emotions.

43. The long-term trend favors the upside.

46. The market swings between fear and greed.

44. You can’t fight the Fed.

45. You only pay a lot of taxes if you make a lot of money. –Joe Grammel

46. Take the money and run. –Woody Allen

47. When the time comes to sell stock, investors act perversely – unloading winners and keeping losers. –Mark Hulbert.

48. Walk the malls and buy stock in the crowded stores.

49. No amount of expertise will ever match dumb luck.

50. Players are sometimes Flummoxed by the Fickle Finger of Fate, Screwed by the Screaming Scorpion of Skepticism, and Reamed by the Wretched Ramrod of Reality. -Ed McManus

51. If you want to sleep nights, buy CD’s and Savings Bonds.

52. Charting is much like Astrology – but less accurate.

53. Investors vacillate between anxiety and confidence.

54. A dartboard has the same long term hit rate as an expensive advisor.

55. When in doubt – do nothing.

56. The market always goes back up – otherwise nobody would be in it by now.

57. Bonds have maturity, not all investors do.

58. You must speculate to appreciate.

59. Never tell anybody that you’re smart. That just tees them off. Tell them you’re lucky.  –Fred Adler, Investor

60. Ethical Advice? Sure: Cross the line, and you’ll do time.

61. Up is always better than down. Unless you go short.

62. Sell on the rally.

63. An incoming tide raises all boats.

64. No tree ever grows to the sky. – Dr. Michael Schneider

65. Some profits are created by circumstance. Others are destroyed by circumstance. If you’re lucky, it’s a wash.

66. This too shall pass.

67. More people have been ruined by hanging on when it was falling, than selling when it was rising.

68. “The tape doesn’t lie” was the sucker’s folk wisdom. In fact, the tape can be made to lie.” – Once in Golconda, A True History of Wall Street, 1920 – 1938 by John Brooks

69. “I have a general rule: Whenever anything becomes worth more than the State of California, I sell it.” -Alan Blinder on Internet Stocks.

70. The market plays the candle to every new generation of moths.

71. Scan the proxy, read the 10K.

72. I bought stock for my old age and it worked! A month later I was old.  -Henny Youngman.

73. Joe Kennedy left the market when a shoeshine boy gave him a stock tip. He knew the market was oversold.

74. Companies do unnatural things to make the stock go up.  –Dr. Mike Schneider

75. If you make money, don’t tell anyone. They will ask you for some.

76. If the bankers are busy, something is wrong.  -Walter Bagehat

77. A bear market is a bull in gestation.

78. “Buy and Hold” have replaced “I Love You” as our three most important words.

79. Mergers make a few people rich, several do okay, most are unaffected, and many are screwed.

80. Make sure there’s only one guy in charge. No company is ever big enough for two. -Leo F. McManus, Sr.

81. Most people trade on the “Greater Fool Theory”: Whatever you pay for it today, a Greater Fool will give you more for it tomorrow.

82. Take calculated risks. That is different from being rash.  –General George S. Patton

83. Never invest your money in anything that eats or needs repairing.  –Billy Rose

84. If you want to win the lottery, you’ve got to buy a ticket.

85. If to the Stock Exchange you speed/ To try with Bulls and Bears your luck/ ‘Tis odds you soon from gold are freed/ And waddle forth a limping duck. -William H. Ireland – 1807

86. I lost my money in the market even though I got in on the ground floor; it turned out everybody else got in at the basement.  -–Mark Twain

87. There are only three safe ways to make money in the market. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

88. I asked the market maker for a statement. He said, “I’m optimistic.”

89. There is no finer investment than putting milk into babies. –Winston Churchill

90. Companies pay shareholder money for investment bankers to write shareholder reports that shareholders cannot understand.

91. The Crash of ’29 Rule: It’s a bad day when the jumpers come out.

92. The trend is your friend.

93. If the people who sell advice were really good at what they do, they wouldn’t have to sell advice.

94. The four most dangerous words in stock market analysis are, “It’s different this time.”      -–Neil T. Naftalin

95. Nobody really knows what’s going on, including you, me, and them.

96. If you’re a serious investor, keep your office in a one story building. You won’t get badly hurt jumping off the roof.

97. It costs a lot to be rich.

98. “Markets are a great way to organize economic activity, but they need adult supervision.”   — Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2003, quoted by Bob Herbert

99. Wall Street never changes. The pockets change, the suckers change, the stocks change, but Wall Street never changes, because human nature never changes. – Jesse Livermore

100. If you own a lot of stock, the stock owns you.

101. “Beware of Wall Street lawyers with their legalistic tricks.  I knew an honest lawyer once; he died in Fifty-Six.” –Ed McManus, “The Oracle and the Entrepreneur”

102. A merger of two losers never made a winner. -Ed de Castro

103. Rely first on what you see;  second on what you know; and only third, on what you think.

104. Things that don’t make sense are most often not true.

105. Don’t over analyze. When all is said and all is done one dollar is as good as another.             -Angelo Guadagno

106. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen? What happens if that happens?

107. It’s okay to be a little fish, until the sharks go into a feeding frenzy.

108. Stock Price Forecasting: Stocks will rise and fall; or fall and rise, or rise and rise, or fall and fall. Guaranteed

109. Buy to the sound of cannons. -–Baron Rothschild

110. I expect the stock market to be less appealing once other forms of gambling are legalized.

111.  Mess with the Bull, you get the horns.

112. Wall Street: Where people in Rolls Royces drive to get advice from people who commute by subway. –Warren Buffet

113. Cut your losses and ride your winners.

114. “Occam’s Razor:” Things are most often what they look like.

115. Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. – Maynard Keynes, Economist

116. It’s better to be lucky than smart.

117. Don’t trust anyone with a foolproof plan. They’re wrong.

118. The winner is always the person who makes the fewest mistakes.

119. Investing is a triumph of Hope over Experience.

120. Markets never forget, unless it’s in their interest to forget.

121. Shorting is basically buying high and selling low.

122.  Never average down – Jesse Livermore

123. Men go mad in herds  -Charles MacKay

124. Profits take care of themselves; losses never do. -Jesse Livermore

125. It’s only money.

Oh, two more things. If you have a favorite investment aphorism, or guideline, of your own that I missed, please send it to me at Jokesmith1@aol.com.

And finally,  if you make a lot of money using any of these thoughts and observations to guide your investment decisions, email me for the mailing address to which you may send my check.

Thanks, good luck, and if it seems too good to be true, it isn’t true.

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Filed under Economics, Humor

1939: The Crosley Parlor Radio

The Crosley Parlor Radio

Crosley Parlor Radio Temple St. 1939 001

 The 1939  Crosley Prestotune 12 Parlor Radio (in Ed’s Office, 2011)

          In 1939, shortly after my grandfather Felix died, we moved into the house he built on Temple Street in Fitchburg. It was a handsome, eight room cape, in a neat and tidy neighborhood. It came with a shady porch in both front and back, and a large yard for kids to play in.

To commemorate the event, my father bought a parlor radio: a 1939 Crosley Prestotune 12, a floor radio with push button station selector, It had AM radio, Short Wave, and Police Scanner capabilities. It had an illuminated dial, powerful speakers, and was housed in a handsome maple cabinet. He paid over $300.00 for it at the time, which is what you’d pay, in today’s dollars, for a home entertainment center. And, of course, that’s exactly what the Crosley was at the time.

It was extremely reliable. I remember we just had to cover that illuminated dial with newspapers during air raid drills in World War II.

I grew up in front of that radio. It sat in the parlor, across from the Baldwin upright piano, and seemed to be on all day. My mother would listen to music, news, and soap operas during the morning and afternoon while she did her housework. I learned all about the travails of  “One Man’s Family,” the wisdom of “Ma Perkins,”  and “The Romances of Helen Trent: (because)..a woman is 35, or older, need not mean that romance in life is over…” My grandmother was convinced all the stories were true. My mother followed Helen’s virtuous adventures closely. I wondered why a woman of 35 would think about romance anyway. She was old enough to be my mother.

I took over in the early evening when the kids’ shows were on and faithfully followed the likes of Buck Rogers, Superman, and Tom Mix. They were often in serial format, so I dared not miss today’s installment, or I’d be lost trying to pick it all up tomorrow.

When my father came home from work, and over the dinner hour, the Crosley chattered softly in the background with both local and national news. Sports and weather were blessedly brief: Today’s scores and tomorrow’s weather.

In the evening we listened to comedies like Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Bob Burns (“The Arkansas Traveler”), and the joke telling show, “Can You Top This?” Musicals were also important in our household, and in addition to Bing Crosby and other popular singers, we listened to my father’s two favorite shows: “The Voice of Firestone,” (he really enjoyed tenors), and “Paul LaValle’s Band of America.” The latter featured a brass band of 48 pieces (“Forty-Eight Stars – Forty-Eight States!”) playing Sousa marches. My father turned it up so loud, my mother would have to close the windows and doors of a summer’s night in deference to the neighbors.

On Sundays, I never missed “The House of Mystery,” and ‘The Shadow.” The latter was my favorite and I pretended that it didn’t terrify me so my father would leave it on.

The Crosley seemed indestructible. It carried us through World War II with front line reports from Edward R. Murrow and once, on a Sunday afternoon with short wave, we heard Winston Churchill speaking live to the English people. My Uncle George, a combat veteran of World War I, said: “Imagine that. We’re hearing Churchill as he speaks from England. Back in my war, the Lord Himself could have spoken from Jerusalem and we wouldn’t have heard about it for a month.”

After World War II, we were all into phonograph records: First came the brittle and easily breakable acetate 78 rpms (revolutions per minute); then the smaller, plastic 45 rpms, and finally the larger vinyl 33 1/3 rpm albums. All we needed was a phonograph. My father solved  that problem too. He put an input jack on the backside of the big Crosley, and bought a three-speed phonograph that we could play through the radio. It was awesome. No tinny little phonograph here. When you played a record through the Crosley, you could take the roof off. My friends came over to listen afternoons after school. My mother could handle that okay; but we didn’t do it too often when my father was home. He could take just so much of Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Phil Harris patter songs, and Frank Sinatra’s crooning to the bobby-soxers who adored him. Thank Heaven this was long before we got caught up in Rock & Roll.

In 1949, we bought a television set. It was an RCA cabinet piece with radio, phonograph, and a huge 12 ½ inch black & while screen. We all clustered around the new TV, and almost ignored the Crosley. There was one exception: A baseball game. Everybody’s father did the same thing: Turned the black & white TV on to watch the game, but listened to the sound track on the radio. There was no TV sports color talk back then, you just got minimal coverage, and a stark and fuzzy picture; but the trained radio announcers gave you chapter and verse on everything that was happening.

The TV was only broadcast a few hours each day, but that was okay. In between times we sometimes watched the test patterns that the stations continually broadcast to allow tuning and adjustment before the shows came on. Admittedly, test patterns weren’t very exciting, but they were pictures coming from miles away, and that was enough to command our attention.

The TV took up a lot of space, and the Crosley eventually had to give way to the new technology. Dad let me move the Crosley parlor radio, and attached phonograph, into my bedroom. I thought that was great. I’d close the door and play all the old records the family had been collecting over the years, plus some new ones of my own. Radio was dead, critics claimed. There was an Irving Berlin love song about being home alone with “…just me and my radio.” Some performers updated that to “…just me and my video.” Traitors!

And so, the Crosley sat in the corner of my room through the end of grammar school, all of high school, and I played it on weekends when I came home from college. Then, in 1959, I graduated, got an Army commission, married Judy, and moved away from Temple Street, leaving that life, and the Crosley behind.

Now, we shoot ahead to 1992. My parents were gone by now, and we were breaking up the family home. My brother George was in charge. He asked if I wanted that old Crosley radio that was still in the same corner of my bedroom. I said yes. I had no place to put it, but I could make room in the basement of my home. First, I took it to an elderly  gentleman who used to repair such radios for a living. I asked him to go over it for me. He did. He said, “That radio is a beauty. Nothing wrong with it except for a couple of dead vacuum tubes. Replace those, and it’s good as new.” “And where does one find vacuum tubes in 1992?” I asked.

“I got a few in the backroom,” he said.

And so, the Crosley came alive once again, sounding as good and as loud as ever. I moved it into my home office, which has gone through several iterations since then, but I still listen to the news stations on it (not much music on AM anymore), and occasionally a short wave radio show from London or some other exotic locale. It brings back a hundred memories of days past.

Sometimes I even plug in a CD/MP3 player into the radio jack, and play the old time radio shows I buy on-line and at flea markets. Last week, the old Crosley once again played “The Voice of Firestone,” “Paul LaValle’s Band of America,” (both loudly) and, of course, “The Shadow.” (Still scary).

The Crosley seems happy. Maybe it thinks it is 1939 once again.

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Memoir Publishing: Advice from a Ghost


Nana Reading Aug 06 MPL

             Library Book Club Reading, “The Nana in the Chair,” 2006,

with grandchildren Jon and Julia on book selling duty (somebody has to do it)

Boo!

In my business career, I dealt with sales, executive support, events, and speech writing (among other things) for over 40 years. I ran corporate events around the world. I met lots of people and heard lots of stories. When I retired, I took with me those things that I thought I’d like to do part-time. They were both about writing: Speech writing and book writing.

I had published a couple of books of my own: “We’re Roasting Harry Tuesday Night,” (Prentice-Hall) was about writing and producing a business or social roast. I wrote and ran a lot of those.

“The Nana in the Chair” (AuthorHouse; revised edition RoofTop Publishing) is a family memoir of my Irish grandmother who told us grand stories of Ireland during World War II. I went on the promotion circuit.

I also self-published two niche joke books about Finance (“The Attack of the Killer Bean Counters”) and Human Resources (What is a Human Resource?) through my own Jokesmith Press imprint.

I  did newspaper commentary, wrote (and augmented) business speeches, published The Jokesmith (1985-2012), a speakers’ comedy newsletter, and worked with people who wanted to write and publish their own memoir. Most of these were business people.

The books and the writing helped me establish credibility  I remember a quote I read in a biography of the famed novelist Somerset Maugham. He wrote: “I am in the first rank of second rate writers.” I laughed and thought, “Okay, maybe I am in the first rank of third-rate writers. But – at least I’m in the first rank of something. I’ll use that.” And I did.

I also learned that there are two important things you must do if you wish to be regarded as an expert in your chosen field: 1. Tell everybody you are an expert. 2. Publish a book. I did both of those too.

Over the years of observing successful people in action, I learned that there are four benchmarks on the road to business and financial success: 1. Preparation (education & training) and experience. 2. Be in the right place at the right time. 3. Work hard and work smart (working smart , in my opinion, is more important than working hard), and 4. Get lucky. You need all four.

However, even that’s not enough to make a best selling memoir. A lot of people have done those four things successfully, and profited from it, but they still don’t have a story worthy of a national audience. You need something above and beyond that: Think about the genius of Bill  Gates, the unstoppable force that was Steve Jobs, the successful performance over time that is Warren Buffet. Now those are stories worthy of a national, or even world-wide, audience.

Is this a new concept? Nope. Think about Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Joe Kennedy, Roy Kroc, and the legions of successful people who stretch out across our history. Were they all nice guys? No way. But they did have a story worthy of telling and worthy of reading.

I met Emile, for example. He had escaped from one of Hitler’s death camps in the Forties, came to this country as a penniless, non-English speaking immigrant, and amassed a considerable fortune over the years. He became a philanthropist in his senior years. He liked to say: “I came here with the clothes on my back, and my ten fingers.” Emile was about seventy when I met him in New York during the Sixties. After he told me his story over dinner and a bottle of wine one night, I asked him, “Mr. E., what would happen if you lost it all tomorrow?”

Emile paused for a moment, shrugged, and then replied, “I still have my ten fingers. I would build it all up again.”

When I started working with executives who wanted to write their memoirs, I kept all these things in mind. I wasn’t just interested in making money as a ghost writer, but in getting the book published, and telling a story that was worth being read. A story that could amuse, teach, inspire. I was brutally honest with the people who interviewed me.

I met one retired executive in Boston. He lived in a penthouse apartment in one of Boston’s most fashionable buildings. We had coffee on his terrace  one spring morning, overlooking the city of Boston, the harbor, and the airport. It was like something from a travelogue. He told me his story. It was a good story. It touched all four of my key points, but that was it. There was no magic to it. He wasn’t even close to Emile. No, my client was just a good man of business who did well for himself, his family, and probably a few others..

I try to let them down easily. I said, “That’s an interesting story, and maybe you could self-publish it (and I know how to do that, by the way), but I don’t see it  being commercially published, nor as a national sales success.”

He replied, “That’s okay. I don’t really care about that. I made my grandchildren very rich, and I want them to know my side of the story.”

I thought that was a great answer, and helped him with the project. I think eventually he printed up a couple of hundred copies of his story, at his expense, passed them out to his family and close friends, and that was it. He felt vindicated.

It reminded me of a story (possible apocryphal) that  I heard about old Joe Kennedy. Someone asked him once how his grandchildren might feel about their inheritance if  they learned he was a bootlegger and a robber baron. Old Joe allegedly said: “No grandchildren are ever embarrassed about how the old man got all the money he left them.” It may not be a true story, but the premise works for me.

There are so many outlets for publishing today. There is the Vanity Press. For the right money, they can produce a professional looking book to rival anything on Barnes & Noble shelves; although the content may be sadly lacking. One publisher told me, “If you want to write a book about your cat, this is the way to go.”

Then there is P.O.D. or “Print on Demand.” I’ve used one of these presses. They do a good job, at a reasonable price, and for around a thousand bucks you can end up with a good looking paper back, 50 copies, and a listing on Amazon.com. They offer such additional services as proof reading, cover design, and merchandising – all at extra cost, of course. Few of these books are commercial successes.

Next, there are eBooks. Some of these books never appear in hard copy. They are all “in the cloud” for customers to download on their computers and electronic readers. You can publish one of these eBooks on Amazon.com or Apple’s website, for few dollars, and people can download it for a buck or two You get to keep a percentage of the sales. As usual, unless you want to pay extra, marketing and publicity are up to you.

And then, there is the Holy Grail of publishing, the commercial publishing houses  (Random, House, Knopf, Little, Brown, Inc. etc – the biggies).  You don’t have much of a chance here. They won’t even look at your manuscript unless you submit it through a literary agent. However, literary agents are almost as selective as publishers, so you have to be special to  attract even their attention. It’s  a Catch-22: You can’t be published without a record of success, and you can’t compile a record of success without being published.

Yes, there are vanity agents who will read your manuscript and offer suggestions and some help, but it seems they are more interested in the fees they charge than they are in publishing your book and earning commissions the hard way.

So, what do you do? First, you ask yourself, why would you write your memoir?  If you want fame, national recognition, money, or a guest shot on Oprah, you might want to consider gardening instead. But – if you want to write it because it needs to be written, because it has to be written, and maybe nobody else can do it but you, you have the right motivation. You know the story shouldn’t be lost. That’s why you do it. If all else fails, you write it out on your word processor, print it neatly, and then photo copy it in 25 bound copies at Office Max or Staples. Then, at Christmas, or at some other appropriate gathering, you give signed copies to the people, family and friends, most likely to care.

Will you get rich and famous? Most likely  not. But, you’ll feel good about it. And, you will hope, like I do, that  somewhere, some day, maybe 50 or 100 years from now, a bright, young, family member will find it in a trunk somewhere, read it, and say the 22d Century equivalent of “Wow! This old guy was really cool. I want to remember this story and share it with my kids and grand kids.”

And that, my friends, is both the reason why you should write your memoir, and the ultimate reward.

They say you are never gone as long as people are talking about you.

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Two Tales of Mr. Churchill, the War Rooms, Chartwell, and Me

Mr. Churchill, the War Rooms, Chartwell, and Me:

Churchill War Rooms

A contemporary picture featuring Mr. John James Evans as Winston Churchill                                                (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

Two Tales about Mr. Winston Churchill, the War Rooms, Chartwell, and Me:

1. In 1992, I was charged with running an event in London for my Fortune 500 employer. This was to be an evening dinner for the Board of Directors and the local London executives. It was meant to be special. I checked several venues around town, many of which were perfectly acceptable, elegant restaurants, but I didn’t find anything that fit the memorable category.

I took an afternoon off from my search to indulge my interest in British history, with a short tour of London that ended up in The Cabinet War Rooms, on Horse Guards Road, near Parliament and Westminster Abbey, in the heart of ceremonial London.

These underground, concrete bunkered rooms, over 20 of them, were built 10 feet underground to protect the Prime Minister and the British Government against enemy attack. They were opened in 1939 and regularly accommodated Mr. Winston Churchill, his War Cabinet, and the Chiefs of Staff, during this great peril, until peace finally came in 1945. They worked there, ate there, slept there – in short, often lived there – as necessary during Hitler’s bombing campaigns against London.

These rooms have been restored and furnished to their original World War II look and feel, and opened to the public in 1984. Naturally, I had to see them.

They are a heavily fortified, underground, office complex. The exterior is unadorned and could pass for the ground floor of any large building in the area.

Inside, the rooms are expertly furnished with every little touch. Churchill’s cigar butt is in the ashtray by his bed. The Map Room has the “latest” enemy movements identified with colored arrows showing advances, retreats, and causalities. The Transatlantic Telephone room is open to be seen. It houses the secret telephone equipment developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories which, for the first time, allowed direct voice contact between Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt. It employed the most significant scrambler of its time, in some thirty, seven foot tall cabinets, weighing 80 tons. It was never hacked. The Cabinet Room has military papers and files left on the original table, as though the meeting staff had just taken a momentary tea break in the canteen where meals were served to one and all.

On the wall is a prominently displayed plaque, engraved with Queen Victoria’s famous dictum to another staff in another war: “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.”

It was like stepping back in time. It was wonderful. I had an idea: The gentlemen attending the dinner were about my age, so they clearly remembered World War II; what if we held our dinner here? I spoke to the officials and learned, yes, it could be rented for an evening after closing hours. Yes, dinner could be served there. In fact, the wait staff could be dressed in British uniforms as the servers would have been back in the day. It could be a perfect recreation of a Churchill Staff dinner during the early 1940’s.

I pushed the envelope: “What about Mr. Churchill?” They smiled, and told me about Mr. John James Evans, the character actor who specializes in Mr. Churchill recreations. He had appeared as Mr. Churchill on stage, in the movies, and on several BBC television specials. I made the arrangements, and then went forth to find Mr. Evans.

It wasn’t hard to do. He lives just outside London. I reached him by phone, told him my plan, and asked him to participate. We negotiated the deal and agreed that we would meet and work on updating one of Mr. Churchill’s speeches to be relevant to a modern business community. Everything was settled.

On the evening, our guests arrived, filled with a sort of personal wonder. The guards at the blast proof doors were in uniform, passes were checked, and our guests were escorted into the main corridor for a guided tour. Big Band music played softly in the background. We saw first hand the locale and detail of England’s war planning during the darkest days of the war. Then, we had cocktails in the canteen, complete with contemporary dinner service, uniformed attendants, and lantern lit tables. Occasionally, a faint siren could be heard in the background. A marvelous dinner followed, centered on an English roast beef.

The evening was shaping up to be a great success; but the best was yet to come. After dinner, our CEO stood up, struck his glass with a spoon to gain attention, and said simply, “Gentlemen, the Prime Minister.”

Through the side door, huffing and puffing on his cigar, as he leaned on his cane and made his way to the front along the narrow aisle between tables, came Mr. Churchill himself. He was perfect. His homburg was perched atop his head; he wore a long black suit jacket with a boutonnière, over the waistcoat, which displayed the heavy gold watch chain across his considerable girth. He looked and acted the part. No, he was Winston Churchill for that moment in time. One of the guests had his feet stretched out into the aisle as he gazed in wonder at this approaching apparition. Churchill came up to him, leaned over and snarled, “Move your bloody feet.” The man replied, “Yes, sir,” and did so promptly.

Mr. Churchill took the lectern and delivered his perfect Churchillian speech, modified to the business interests of the people in the room. It took about 10 minutes, but seemed much shorter. He then made as to go, but the diners stopped him with their applause. They asked him to take a few questions. He muttered about that, and then agreed to do so. He was very knowledgeable, and answered their questions well and in character. At the end, someone asked him what other parts he played. Mr. Churchill smiled and replied, “Never strip away an actor’s character. You might be distressed to find nothing significant underneath.” He received another round of applause for that.

Then he was gone. Nightcaps were served, cigars were smoked, as the guests relived the experience, and then they were bussed back to their hotel.

It was probably the most memorable event I have ever run. I still occasionally hear back from the attendees via cards and emails remembering their memorable evening in London, in the War Rooms, with the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

2. I have always admired Mr. Churchill, and so I decided to do the “hat trick” and visit all three of Churchill’s memorable haunts: The War Rooms, the BlenheimCastle of his youth, and the Chartwell Estate of his later years. I visited Chartwell next.

Chartwell and Ed 1992

           The Churchill Estate at Chartwell (and me)

Chartwell is a wonderful, bucolic spot in the country where Churchill wrote, painted, erected his famous hand made stone wall, and tried to live mainly in peace. It is on a hillside above a small village. We toured the grounds, his art studios, looked inside the estate, and tried to get a feel of the great man in retirement.

After a few hours, we drove down the hill again into the village where I had decided to check out its pub and its bookstore, in that order.

The pub was fun, and we shared an ale or two with fellow tourists and a few locals. The bookstore was better yet. In the bookstore on High Street, I met the owner: Major Alan Taylor-Smith (Ret’d).  Major Taylor-Swift was a “townie” and proud both of his professions (soldier and bookseller), and of his lifelong association with Chartwell. He was extremely knowledgeable of Mr. Churchill, and also full of the local history and the local Churchill stories – the little stories, the ones that don’t make the history books. He loved to share them. This was my favorite:

“The road from the village to the Chartwell estate back then was a rugged, uphill country road that passed by a Gypsy camp in a roadside open field. Whenever Churchill’s car labored up the hill, the Gypsies could hear it coming, and an old woman would come to the edge of the road and yell something to him as he slowly drove past. With the windows up to keep out the road dust, he could never make out what she said – but she said it every time he passed by.

“Finally, one warm afternoon, his curiosity could take it no longer. When she came to the side of the road, he instructed his driver to stop. Churchill rolled down the window and asked, ‘Madam, what is it you say to me each time I pass?’

She replied, ‘Why don’t you get off your fat arse and walk?’

Churchill thanked her, and drove on.”

Major Taylor-Swift told me he was planning a book of these local stories, which most of us had never heard before. I thought that was a wonderful idea, said I’d like to buy the first copy, shook hands and left Chartwell with many happy memories.

That was 1992. I have since retired, and spent my time reading and writing and working on a few book projects of my own. In January, 2013, I was getting my papers in order, and I found the business card given me by Major Taylor-Swift. The whole story came back to me in a flash. I went on-line, found the village, contacted the local chamber of commerce, and learned that Major Taylor-Swift was retired, and living quietly with his family. They put me in touch and, within hours, I heard from his daughter-in-law. She was amused, I think, that I had remembered the event, the story, and the possibility of a book. It turns out the book was never written, although notes and recordings were made. The family felt sad that these stories had never been published, but that’s the way of it.

I had another idea: Would they entrust me with the project? Would they grant me access to the notes and recordings and see if I could mold and edit them into book form? It would be the Major’s book of course, with perhaps an “as told to”, or “with”, credit for me. They agreed to discuss the matter and let me know. I’m waiting to hear.

So – there are my two Churchill stories. I have not yet visited BleinheimPalace, the third leg of Mr. Churchill’s lifelong residence stool, but I still intend to. I haven’t received a decision yet on the Major’s book, but I’m sure I will hear.

I’ll keep you posted on both stories.

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1940’s Christmas, Nana, and the Miser of Lixnaw

A Christmas Story

Poisson Christmas Tree 1950 The Christmas Tree at the Temple Street Homestead  

(Circa 1949; Photo by Francis Poisson)

            The Christmas holiday at the White House on Temple Street during the Forties looms very large in my memory. It was an old fashioned family Christmas with lights and trees, indoors and out, and presents and excitement and the smell of good food cooking. There was plenty of snow, Christmas carols, and it all built to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at Sacred Heart Church, just up the hill. It was an annual tradition.

It was a great honor to be picked as an altar boy to assist at Midnight Mass. Since I lived close to the church, and was frequently called on short notice as a substitute for kids who didn’t show up, I usually got the nod from Father O’Brien for Midnight Mass. Besides, everyone remembered the debacle at last year’s Midnight Mass downstairs, in the lower chapel. This Mass was intended to accommodate the overflow crowd that filled the decorated main church,  and where the music played and the congregation sang, and the incense wafted through the aisles.

The downstairs chapel was pretty Spartan. A few candles and poinsettias, but not much else. Last year, the priest had asked altar boy Roy Flynn if he had an ideas to liven it up a bit. Roy did. He had a portable phonograph and some 78 RPM records, along the lines of Bing Crosby singing “Silent Night,” and other such Christmas hits. It was a bit profane for the time, but the good priest agreed it would do, and Roy Flynn set up his phonograph and made ready for play. Alas for Roy, be brought several mixed albums and in the excitement, he placed the wrong record on the turn table. When Father entered the altar in all his glory, the phonograph played “Cocktails for Two” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Henceforth, phonographs (and Roy) were banned from Midnight Mass.

In every series of life events there comes a payback time, and this year Midnight Mass was mine. Uncle George told me once, “We send and receive our own letters.” Most of mine worked out to my advantage, and this year’s downstairs Midnight Mass had a little appropriate music from an old pump organ, and all went to everyone’s satisfaction.

After Midnight Mass, we returned home for hot chocolate and gathered around the tree with great excitement as my father distributed the presents that my mother had selected, shopped for, and wrapped. My father had the lead: he distributed the presents. Most importantly of all, the family was all together and around me.

            The holiday season would officially start just after Thanksgiving when Santa Claus made his first appearance, waving his way down Main Street, on the back of a fire truck with its lights flashing and siren howling. My sister Mary’s husband, Paul Morin, took his two sisters, Judy and Bunny, and me to see the event each year. The firemen threw candy and small toys from the truck. Santa Clause waved hello. We all shouted and sang. And we ended the evening at Murnik’s Cafeteria for hot chocolate and doughnuts.

 The holiday season, however, didn’t come to our house until the week before Christmas. My father believed you could wear the holiday out by excessive celebration, so he kept it to as few days as possible. We went out and bought our tree, for example, just a day or two before Christmas. By then all the good ones were gone and we ended up with some of the scraggliest looking excuses for a tree that you can imagine. Once, after my brother Leo got his license to drive, Dad sent us three boys (Leo, George, and I) down to Levi Lashua’s lot near Central Fire Station in Fitchburg to pick out our tree. He gave us a dollar to pay for it and another fifty cents to celebrate with hot chocolates at Brook’s Drug Store next door to Levi’s. It was a cold and snowy night. Levi had little interest in leaving the shack where he sat with his wood burning stove, getting maximum heat from all the pieces of birch and pine trees he had trimmed off his customers’ purchases. “You can have any tree that’s still out there for seventy-five cents,” he said. “Except the ones with the red tags on the top. Those are sold and awaiting pick-up.” We went out to look for our prize. There wasn’t much to choose from. The trees left on the lot were small, bent, skinny, and generally pathetic looking. The only one we saw and really liked was the nice, big, full spruce tree – with a red tag on top. We knew it was sold to someone else, but we decided to take it anyway. We removed the tag, told Levi we had found one that would do, loaded it in the car, and took it home.

            My father took one look at it and said, “How did you find such a nice tree as that this late in the season?” That did it. We broke down and told him the whole nefarious story. He wasn’t mad, just disappointed. Perhaps that was worse. “Now go take it back,” he said. “Tell Levi what you did and bring home an honest tree for the holiday.” We took it back. Leo told Levi the story and Levi was neither mad nor disappointed. He said he understood. He came out of the shack and helped us find a tree in the back that was only a little bit away from being acceptable. We brought it home. My father was pleased. The funny part of it was that when we got it up in the living room and decorated it with lights and tinsel and icicles, put Dad’s illuminated five pointed glass star on the top, and Mother’s celluloid Santa and sleigh on the branches, it was one of the best Christmas trees we ever had.

            Nana Ware would come into the living room when we were done and join us for cocoa and cookies. She was blind, but she could hear and she could smell, and she could tell stories. She smiled as she said, “I can feel Christmas all around me.”

            We would sit there. Talking about times past and looking forward to the big day coming soon. The big Crosley parlor radio would be playing Christmas carols in the background., as we talked. We would then ask Nana to tell us a story about one of her Christmas memories of when she was a girl, back home in Ireland. One time, she told us the story of Danny Mack, the Miser of Lixnaw:

 

The Miser of Lixnaw 

Nana illustration Miser of Lixnaw

            “Quite the meanest man in Lixnaw was the wealthy landlord and farmer, Daniel McMahon. We called him Danny Mack behind his back. He was Irish enough, to be sure, but it was the English swells he catered to. He knew rightly enough where the money and power was. He couldn’t do enough for them. He treated all of us in the village like dirt beneath his heels. My father used to say, ‘He’s one of us, but he acts like one of them. That’s the worst of all.’ We all knew what he meant, and nobody went near Danny Mack unless, God forbid, they had to.

            Mr. McMahon loaned out money at very high rates. If you borrowed a shilling today, you’d owe him two shillings next week. God forbid you couldn’t pay that back or he’d have the constable on you. Your furniture and kit would be in his barn within a fortnight. ‘The law is always the law,’ my father said, ‘but it’s not always fair and not always just. It’s not always the right thing to do.’ My mother said you can only hate someone you fear, and not everyone feared Danny Mack. My father said amen to that, but added, ‘it’s small consolation to be only hated by a few when the rest of the village despises you as well.’

            Mr. McMahon lived like a miser too. His cottage was one of the most miserable in the village and he always looked unkempt and in need of a good wash. He had no wife or family to care for him. He was quite alone with his money, and though he had quite a lot if it too, they say he’d still jump right down a rabbit hole after a penny. Sometimes the children would bend down and hide behind the stonewalls when he passed along the village roads. Then they would call out their cruel rhyme:

            ‘Dan, Dan, the dirty old man.

Washed his face in the frying pan.

Combed his hair with the leg of the chair.

Dan, Dan the dirty old man.’

Then they’d scurry away laughing before he could recognize who they were. Most often he’d grab a rock or stick and fling it after them with a curse.

            Of course, I didn’t know much of all this at the time. I was just a little girl of nine or ten in the parish school; this would have been around 1870. Mr. McMahon was just one more poor soul I’d see winding his way through the streets on my way to church or school.

            One day near Christmas, the parish priest gave us a special assignment. We were to come next time with a story from one of our family or friends about their favorite color. What was it and why did they like it? It was a good question, and could have been a lot of fun, but I was small and busy. I forgot about it altogether in the holiday preparations going on. It wasn’t until I was on my way to parish school with my friends that I remembered the homework task. I had not done my assignment. I had not asked anyone my question. Fr. Kavanaugh would not like that, and it would go hard for me at home as well.

            I was walking along the road, wondering what would become of me, when I looked up and walking toward me was Mr. McMahon himself. I had an idea.

            ‘Good morning, Mr. McMahon,’ I said cheerfully. ‘Tis a fine day. And would ye have a moment for a question?’

            He looked at me warily. ‘And what question would the likes of ye be having for the likes of me?’ he asked.

            ‘It’s for school, Mr. McMahon. I was supposed to ask a family member or friend to tell me their favorite color and why they like it. I was hoping I could ask ye my question.’

            ‘Oh,’ he said, looking at me suspiciously, ‘am I your friend then?’

            ‘No sir,’ I told him. ‘I forgot to ask my family and friends and I’ll get into trouble if I go there without my lesson. I thought I would ask ye.’

            He laughed at that. ‘All right, child,’ he said, ‘I’ll be answering your question. My favorite color is … orange.’

            Now I thought he was joking me. Orange was the color of the British, and the Irish who supported them. The Orangemen called themselves The Ascendancy, and had little to do with the likes of us. But it was an answer, and the only answer I had to carry with me. I said, ‘Oh, like the fruit!’

            ‘And what would you know about the fruit, child? Have you ever tasted an orange?’

            ‘No sir, but I have heard about them and they are soft and juicy and sweet.’

            ‘Aye, they are that,’ he said, falling into step beside me. ‘I go to Dublin now and again on my business, and I’ll have one there. They grow them on the islands near Italy, you know’ he continued, and they have them there for sale in the city markets well into the winter months. I like them for their taste and their rarity. It is a special treat for me to have an orange when I’m in one of the big cities.’

            By this time we were near the school. I thanked Mr. McMahon for his time and for talking with me. I was happy that I could now make my report. Mr. McMahon waved me goodbye and into the class I went. I made a good report in class that day. The priest was shocked that I had interviewed Mr. Mack. He said it was unusual – but a good thing to have the views of different people. Mr. Mack, he commented, half under his breath, was certainly a different person.

            Well, I told my parents what I had done. My father was amused. My mother warned me against talking to people I didn’t know very well. She added, ‘It does show that there is a little good in everyone.’ My father harrumphed at that. He said, ‘Well, maybe Mr. Mack will get a bit of time out of the sulfur pit that awaits him in the next life.’

            The story doesn’t end there,’’ Nana said. “It was a while later, on Christmas morning, when there was a knock on our cottage door. My mother opened it and found no one there. On the doorstep was a bright cloth tied with a bit of twine. ‘What is this?’ she said, bringing it inside and undoing the knots. ‘Mary, child,’ she said, ‘I believe Father Christmas has brought ye this from your new friend.’

            And there, inside the cloth, was my very first orange.”

Above is an excerpt from Ed McManus’ book, “The Nana in the Chair and the Tales She Told” (AuthorHouse 2003, Red Roof Press 2006)

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Christmas Eve, 1945: The Midnight Mass Express

The Midnight Mass Express

Monsignor Meehan Kerry c 1975

 Monsignor Francis X. Meehan (1910-1994) and Kerry McManus, Circa 1975

Back in the early Seventies, Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough was assigned a new pastor: Monsignor Francis Xavier Meehan.

Monsignor Meehan was an intellectual, theologian, and an educator At St. John’s Seminary in Boston  for many years. Now, toward the end of his career, he was returning to parish work as a local pastor. It was a role he had requested, and truly relished. He was my pastor, mentor, and friend.

Monsignor Meehan was known for his willingness to help everyone, his good nature, and long, intellectual sermons (that most of us didn’t entirely understand, but which always contained at least one useful thought);  and his dry sense of humor. I appreciated all of his gifts and talents, but naturally, his warmth and humor drew me closer.

We young, family parishioners would get together in little home groups from time to time, discussing church teachings, policies, ethics, and church experiences (good and bad). Nothing was off limits. Sometimes we discussed personal matters. Once he admitted he was named “Francis X. Meehan” for the famous Hollywood silent movie idol, “Francis X. Bushman,” after whom so many admiring mothers named their firstborn sons  early in the 20th Century. His mother, like many mothers of her time, always insisted that she had named her son after the great St. Francis Xavier; but that one mother’s tale was suspect, and the great silent movie star, Francis X. Bushman, was believed to be the source of most of those young boys’ name.

That opened the door, and I asked Msgr. Meehan to tell us a light-hearted story from his own personal experience. One Christmas Season, after a glass or two of Jamison’s around my fire place, he told us of his first Christmas parish experience:

“At Christmas time in the 1940’s, just after World War II, the churches were packed with people during the Christmas holidays. The pastors would contact the seminary to recruit young priests, teachers, and even senior seminarians to come and help out at the churches. My first Christmas assignment was helping out at an old world Italian Parish in the North End of Boston.

“The parish was old world in every way. The senior congregation was first generation Italian-Americans. They had built the church, and their children and grandchildren filled it. They also had several traditions they followed without fail. One of these was irreverently called ‘The Jesus Express.’ You never dared call it that in front of the old pastor, but occasionally he did tolerate use of the alternate term, ‘The Midnight Mass Express.’

“The premise was simple: Before Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, there would be a choir festival. They would surround the stable scene and empty crèche at the foot of the altar, then step aside for the final hymn (“Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night,” were local favorites) . While they sang, the Baby Jesus was majestically lowered, sliding slowly along an almost invisible wire, that led from the choir loft to the empty crèche on the altar. It was rehearsed and perfectly timed. The little statue landed in the straw almost at the exact final note of the hymn. Then the pastor, his curates, deacons, and altar boys, all splendidly attired, would say a few prayers, bless the entire diorama, and proceed with Midnight Mass.

“The year I was on duty, naturally, there was an issue. The committee had allowed two of the altar boys to string the wire from the choir loft to the crèche and, as young boys will, they were more interested in getting the job done quickly than properly. They didn’t understand, for example, that the higher the choir loft end of the wire was raised, the faster the Infant Jesus would proceed down it when they released him from the loft. They hung the wire very high indeed. And, alas, no one checked their work.

“Came Christmas Eve, and the choir concert, a full church, and the clerical presence.  The pastor gave the signal to the boys in the choir loft: “Release the Infant Jesus.” They did just that.. As clerics and congregants alike looked on in horror, the little statue of Jesus hurtled down the wire at a high and ever increasing rate of speed. One of the curates, who had been an Army chaplain during the war, reverted to his military training. He yelled, “Incoming!” and dove into the first pew for cover. The pastor stood his ground. The little statue hit the crèche at top speed, knocked it over, which in turn knocked over Joseph and Mary along with the shepherds and the animals, which in turn knocked down the entire stable.

“In less time than it takes to describe it, the Christmas manger scene was a shambles, flattened, and apparently destroyed.

“The pastor never blinked. He proceeded to say the prayers over the wreckage, blessed it with holy water, and walked triumphantly away to begin the Midnight Mass.

“After Mass, the pastor got all the participants together for a review of the disaster. The responsible altar boys received a talking-to and lecture that they probably carry with them to this very day. The pastor asked for a damage report. The custodian replied: “The shepherds and the angels are broken but fixable; The Holy Family landed in the straw and they are okay. I can set up the crèche easily enough, clean up the mess, and with a little help, we can hammer the stable back together in time for tomorrow morning’s first Mass.’

“For the first time, the pastor smiled: ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are all well? That will be our little Christmas miracle. As for the rest of it, fix the crèche and have the stable set up around the Holy Family before anyone goes home tonight.’ He walked happily away.

“And it was done just that way. By the 7am Christmas Mass, the Infant Jesus was safely back in his crèche, in the stable, and surrounded by his loving parents and attendant shepherds and angels.

“God was in his place and all was right with the world.

“And – after all – isn’t that a great message for Christmas?”

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