Category Archives: Pop Culture/Nostalgia

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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Mommy, Mummy, and Me

Mommy, Mummy, and Me

For: Kathryn R. McManus

1904 – 1989

mummy's ghost Original Mummy Movie Poster (StockPhoto)

          It was a warm August night in 1945. We usually had meals together as a family but this particular night everybody was out, and it was just Mother and I – home alone for the evening. About mid-afternoon, she  said, “Let’s have an early supper and catch the bus into town to see that new Disney movie at the Fitchburg Theater.” It was music to my eight year old ears. “Let’s do it!” I yelled, and the plan shifted into implementation mode. We tidied up the house, had a light supper, dressed for the movies, walked down the Church Hill to the bus stop, and caught the F&L trolley into downtown Fitchburg, nearly three miles away.

The bus stopped in front of the Fitchburg Theater, and my joy turned to gloom. The movie had changed, and the Disney film was no longer playing. In its place was something called, “The Mummy’s Ghost” starring Lon Cheney, Jr. Mother didn’t know what it was either, but she said, “Well, we’re here. Let’s go see it.” I immediately agreed and bought popcorn and candy at the Carmel Corn Store, while she purchased the tickets for herself  ($.25 cents) and me (“Under Twelve, 12 cents”). We went into the darkened movie theater and took our seats.

I always liked to look around movie theater interiors before the lights went down. I hoped to see a movie star, or at least someone rich and famous. They called these theaters “movie palaces,” and they lived up to that name. The stage had rich, heavy drapes that concealed the screen and dramatically opened just as the movie began. There were huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and beautiful pictures and murals painted all along the walls. The ceiling was dark, like the sky, but there were little lights set way up there that twinkled like stars. I used to wonder how they ever replaced the bulbs when they burnt out. It was so high.

The people who worked in theaters all wore military type uniforms and carried flashlights. The ticket taker had wide shoulder boards on his long Navy coat and wore a nautical cap with gold braid that made him look like an admiral. I thought he had the best job in the world.

We were just in time. The lights went down and the movie began.

I learned later that the first Mummy movie was made in 1932. It was a horror classic starring Boris Karloff. It was a great success on the “B Movie” circuit. The film we saw was a sequel, starring Lon Cheney, Jr., made in 1944. Mr. Cheney went on to later fame as The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein, and other such characters as you would not like to find hiding in your bedroom closet or under your bed.

The plot was simple: An American museum swiped the mummy of the lovely Princess Ananka from her Egyptian tomb – and Lon the Mummy was determined to get her back at any cost. Lon was ready and able to kill half the town if he had to, usually at night, and by sneaking up behind them with his one good arm outstretched and reaching for their throat. He could only drag his bandaged, aching body about six feet every minute but, fortunately for him, no intended victim ever looked behind them as they roamed their remote family grounds, alone in the middle of the night, for whatever obscure reason compels people to do that.

Then there was the dummy college professor (Sir John Whemple) and the Tana leaves. Tana leaves only grow in sacred Egyptian gardens. They are like tea leaves, and if you brew six of them at midnight, it summons the Mummy who kills you, drinks the Tana tea, which empowers him, and then he goes off looking for more trouble. Sir Whemple didn’t believe this and brewed the leaves in his home at midnight. He did this, naturally, with his back to the open French doors, while he laughed at the curse, and the you-know-who is creeping up behind him. Everybody in the Fitchburg Theater was yelling, “Turn around and look, stupid!” He didn’t, and Sir Whemple soon chuckled his last chuckle.

A sidebar, if I may: A Mummy’s speed is measured in “MMPH.” That’s “Mummy Miles per Hour.” Mummys are slow, and they smell moldy. They are also old, sore, and drag loose bandages behind them that you’re sure they’re going to trip over like I did on my sneaker’s shoelaces. Mummys are not even particularly quiet. They groan a little bit as they move, but not enough so that anyone would turn and look to see what smelly, moany thing was creeping up behind them. The victims were all early proponents of the Satchel Page philosophy of Life: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

Now – this speed thing all changes in some Einstein’s Relativity way when the camera is off them. One townie character, for example, sees the creature coming for him. He jumps into his 1941 hopped up Ford coupe, and takes off down the road at high speed, for several minutes, taking corners on two squealing wheels and all. Then, for some reason, he stops to rest. The Mummy’s arm immediately comes through the driver’s window, grabs him by the throat, and you know the rest. It’s never clear how old Lon, the turtle-paced Mummy, got there so fast. Did he hitchhike (and who would have picked him up)? Had he a Mummy scooter? It was never explained.

Anyway, the Mummy gets the princess, they either escape or jump into a bog (I forget which; actually, there were about five of these films in the series and, in later years, I saw them all – and got most of the plot details mixed up). In the film’s happy ending, life in the little township goes back to normal, if with a seriously reduced population.

I was terrified. My mother was embarrassed for bringing me to such a film, but, like me, she was enthralled, eyes glued to the screen, and determined not to leave until the movie ended. I was under the seat most of the time anyway, so that wasn’t an issue at the time. To this day that Mummy movie is my definitive horror film, and that includes The Exorcist and all those slice & dice sequels too. And – you didn’t even see any blood and gore in the Mummy series. The camera always showed a treetop swaying in the wind or something like that just as the Mummy sprang on his next victim. You had to imagine what happened. That was the worst of all.

I spent that night in my bedroom with the light on, and the hall light on, and the closet light on. I had my father’s flashlight. He came in and lay down beside me for a while. He told me how his father and friends used to tell Irish ghost stories on Christmas eve, and how one time he was so afraid that he couldn’t go to bed even though he knew Santa Claus wouldn’t come until he did. I laughed at that. We talked for a while and then I fell asleep.

My parents came in several times to check on me and Penny, our Irish Setter, slept on the foot of my bed. I got through the night okay. That was my last horror film for a while, and I’ve been a bit twitchy ever since.

I read in later years that the Mummy movie was very Freudian. I didn’t know what that meant then and I’m not sure now. I also read it’s a condemnation of Godless science. Maybe that’s true too. There was also a thought about not taking away the history of another culture just because you can. That’s still an issue today. I think the moral is much simpler: If you smell some moldy, groaning thing dragging behind you through the woods late at night, at least look back and then start running. And don’t jump into a car. You might outdistance them on foot, but in a fast car you’re going to end up as road kill

The Mummy franchise was so good they remade it a couple of times: First in 1959 with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I saw those in college and they were pretty good. Then again in 1999 with Brendan Frazer. He was pretty good too, although the special effects and graphic violence never lived up to what Lon Cheney, Jr. made me see in my head.

I give the original Mummy series a “thumbs up.” The whole series is now available on DVD. Rent them some night and see for yourself.

Three tips: (1) Don’t watch them alone. (2) Don’t brew any Tana leaves at midnight with the doors open, and (3) every so often – look behind you, just in case.

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Reflections on Our Natural Enemies: Birds

Thoughts on Birds as Our Natural Enemies

Birds attackingClip Art: Birds in the Attack

This essay will not be popular with animal lovers in general, and PETA members in particular, but I have never been all that fond of birds. I will tell you why:

It all began back in my home town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, a paper mill town, in the 1940’s. We lived near one of the mills, and the place was lousy with pigeons. I still don’t know why. Maybe they ate some of the excess paper coating, or something, but anyway they were there: hundreds of them. Our neighbor, Francis, raised homing pigeons, and the food and the water attracted the mill pigeons like a giant bird magnet. They were all over our yards. They were loud and dirty. Francis and my father called them “flying rats,” and thought up a variety of methods to keep them away. None of which really worked that well, and I would wake up each morning to see the “things”, perched on the roof outside my window, staring in at me. It was unnerving.

My second encounter with evil birds came at the swan pond in CoggshallPark, near our home, when I was about 6. There was a bevy of swans that glided majestically across the pond and then rested in a shady nook near where I sailed my boat. I decided to scare them away. I put on my early war face, screamed fierce screams, and ran towards them, waving my arms like a mad boy. I immediately noticed three things:

1. The swans were not running away.

2. The swans weren’t intimidated at all.

3. The swans were counter attacking.

Those beautiful and graceful birds were as tall and as heavy as I was, with huge wing spans, and a loud scream. When I realized what was happening, I came to a comic book, screeching halt, turned tail, and ran. The birds pursued me, yelling fierce battle cries of their own, flapping their large wings, and nipping at my heels. I only escaped because I ran through the brush where they could not easily follow.

When I got home, I told my live-in, Irish, philosopher, seanachi, grandmother, Nana Ware, what had happened. “Ah boy,” she said, hugging me, “don’t start fights that ye can’t finish.” She then told me about the roc, a giant bird of Persian mythology whom, it was said, could carry away an elephant. That helped.

My third confrontation was with pink flamingos. I was in Florida, running a sales meeting, and the hotel had a magnificent garden filled with beautiful plants and flowers and…pink flamingos. Not the plastic kind, the real kind. A group of our sales people, probably under the influence of Demon Rum, thought it would be hilarious to capture a few of these birds and to release them in the sales vice president’s suite. They did so. Later that night, my boss returned to find his suite a shambles, and he himself under attack. It seems that pink flamingos, when nervous, first become grievously incontinent, and then attack anything or anybody in sight. My boss called me for help. Remembering my boyhood swan incident, I didn’t attempt to scare these birds away. I called the groundskeepers and they came and rounded them up, giving us a stern lecture, a suggestion of legal action if it happened again, and a rather large clean-up bill.

My fourth bird trauma was in Hawaii, with peacocks. Wife Judy and I had a second floor balcony room over looking another magnificent garden wherein strutting peacocks lived. I had only seen them strutting and preening on NBC commercials. I never realized they were such noisy birds. They screamed all day, and all night too. One early evening, I could take it no more. I went out on the balcony, and screamed back at them. They went silent. Vindicated, I turned back into my room only to hear a new screech behind me; there was a peacock on my balcony. I never knew they could fly. I thought they were like ostriches and emus and could run like the wind; but peacocks can do that and fly too. And this guy was furious. I slammed the screen door shut, but he smashed into it, trying to tear it apart with his talons. I closed the glass door and called Security. Once again, the bird people came and carted the offending bird away. They told me that an attack like this was most unusual. I didn’t mention that I may have initiated the encounter by saying something uncomplimentary about the peacock’s lineage.

My fifth trauma was with pigeons again, this time in London. I walked through Trafalgar Square at lunchtime, munching on a sandwich. I was set upon by a flock of the most aggressive pigeons I have ever seen. They were fearless. They swarmed all over me, and my food, until I just dropped it and beat a hasty retreat. A police constable watched all this in bemusement. “Don’t you know that Trafalgar Square is famous for its pigeons?” he asked. “People come here each day by the thousands just to see and feed the pigeons.”

I wanted to ask why they just didn’t go to the dump to see and feed the rats too. I didn’t bother. I had already toured the Tower of London and it was not pleasant.

And so it goes unto this very day. I have a crazy woodpecker trying to drill a hole through my roof; crows that wake me at dawn with their loud and unnerving “caws,”; seagulls that redecorate my house, car, and sidewalks as they fly over; and several Canada Goose that desperately need to be deported.

On the bright side, I like song birds (in moderation: no encores), but the rest of them I can do without. They have scarred me emotionally. As part of a fraternity initiation back in the 1950’s, we had to sit alone in the dark, listening to Basil Rathbone recite Poe’s “The Raven.” Our class officers told us that after the 6th reading, most people go mad. That didn’t happen, but it was too close for comfort.

And – then there’s the “Ancient Mariner,” and his accursed albatross that they hung around his neck; and I’ll never forgive those black starlings for what they did to Tippi Heyden in Alfred Hitchcock’s, “The Birds.”

Birds: Don’t go away mad; just go away.

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