Oct. 5, 2010

Graduates of Western Military Academy

by George Bilgere

One day, as this friend of my father, Paul,
was flying over Asia,
he vaporized a major Japanese city.

True story. They'd been chums
at a military academy in Illinois
back in the thirties.

My father was the star: best in Latin,
best in riflery and history,
best in something called "recitation,"

and best at looking serious.
In the old yearbooks he has exactly the look
you were supposed to have back then:
about fifty-two percent duty, forty-eight percent integrity.
Zero percent irony.

But somehow, all my father got to do later on
was run his own car dealership. A big one,
but still. While Paul
got to blow up Japan. My father
ushered in the latest models.
Paul ushered in the Atomic Age.
It seems unfair, but there you are.

Paul had been an indifferent Latin scholar. Weak
in history and recitation. For these and other reasons
My father took a refreshing swim
across a large, inviting lake of gin,
complete with strange boats and exotic shore birds,

which resulted in his internment
under some shady acres I occasionally visit.

While Paul went on for decades,
always giving the same old speech. Yes,
he'd done the right thing. No doubt about it.

He improved his skills at recitation
and developed a taste for banquet food.
To this day he struggles with his weight.

"Graduates of Western Military Academy" by George Bilgere, from The White Museum. © Autumn House Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the avant-garde novelist who wrote under the name Flann O'Brien, (books by this author) born Brian O'Nolan in Strabane, Ireland (1911). He worked as a civil servant, and he was always impeccably dressed and was a very productive worker, so no one guessed that he was working on one of the strangest novels of the 20th century. That novel was At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). It has three beginnings and three endings and the three different strands run alongside each other for the length of the book. It only sold about 200 copies when it first came out, but some of the most prestigious writers in Europe got their hands on those first 200 copies, and it's believed that At Swim-Two-Birds was the last novel that James Joyce ever read. The book has since come to be regarded as a masterpiece of experimental fiction.

It was on this day in 1970, that the Public Broadcasting Service was founded in America. The model for "public service broadcasting" was established in Britain in 1922 with the creation of the British Broadcasting Company, which a few years later became the BBC we know today, the British Broadcasting Corporation. The stated mission of the BBC was to "to inform, educate, and entertain." It had lofty ideals for how it would serve the country, and adopted a coat of arms whose motto was "Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation." At the same time in the United States, radio was being set up in a way that encouraged commercial-driven, decentralized programming.

So in 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Public Broadcasting Act, with similar goals — the Act stated that the new media would be "for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes." Johnson said: "It announces to the world that our Nation wants more than just material wealth; our Nation wants more than a 'chicken in every pot.' We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit. That is the purpose of this act." The Act established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and out of that, PBS and NPR.

It was on this day that the 1921 World Series began, the first ever to be broadcast on radio. Even without the new radio technology, this Series was a big deal — the competition was between the New York teams, the Yankees and the Giants, and the Yankees were in their second season with their new slugger Babe Ruth. The Series was the first to be played entirely at one ballpark, the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. Fans knew it would be an exciting game and tickets were selling for a lot of money (for those days), up to $15 a ticket. Bookies claimed that the betting for the Series was the most they had ever seen for a sporting event. The New York police deployed 300 policemen to the Polo Grounds to act as riot control.

Three stations covered the Series on the radio, including WJZ from Newark. They didn't have the technology to broadcast directly from the Polo Grounds. So Harry Nash, a reporter for Newark's Sunday Call, watched the game and reported every play into a telephone. At the other end of the phone was the radio announcer Thomas H. Cowan. He was reporting for WJZ, which had just started broadcasting a few days earlier, timed to coincide with the World Series.

WJZ was the first New York station officially licensed for broadcasting, and it became a landmark station — the first to broadcast a full-length opera, the first to use a live audience, and the first to broadcast from aboard a moving train and airplane. And Thomas Cowan did a lot for the station single-handedly. Over the next few years, he made it his mission to convince celebrities that they should come from New York to Newark to talk to him (which seemed like a long way). His strategy was to pamper his guests — he decorated the WJZ office (which was a converted women's restroom) as luxuriously as possible and he frequently put on a tuxedo to greet a celebrity guest.

But for this World Series, Cowan was anything but comfortable himself. WJZ didn't even have a building yet — they were transmitting from a shack on the roof of the Westinghouse plant in Newark. During the first game, Cowan pressed the telephone so hard to his ear that his hand lost all feeling and he rubbed the skin of his ear raw. After that, he switched to a headset, but he continued to report from the shack on the roof.

The Series was full of ups and downs, and plenty of antics by Babe Ruth, but the Giants won in the end. In an article for the Detroit News, one reporter wrote: "Never before have two teams as colorful as the contending clubs in this Series met for the title. Never has personality and individuality entered so strongly into a clash for baseball supremacy."

And it was on this day in 1969 that the first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circusappeared, on the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation. It was a collaboration among six comedians: Terry Jones and Michael Palin, who had met at Oxford; John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Graham Chapman, who had met at Cambridge; and the American animator Terry Gilliam. They created, wrote, and acted the whole show themselves, which meant that they got to do whatever they wanted creatively, a first in television.

The first episode was all over the place, in true Monty Python style. There was a skit about famous deaths in history, and a chance for people to send in death requests; a piece about Picasso, Kandinsky, and other abstract painters riding bicycles across the country and getting injured; and a skit about the funniest joke in the world, which was so lethal it was used by the Allied Powers to win World War II. Throughout the whole show, there was a series of pigs dying.

The audience ratings were terrible, and only 3 percent of the TV audience at the time tuned in at all. The BBC considered pulling it, but decided just to leave it as a low-priority late-night show. It got moved around whenever it interfered with another program, and sometimes the BBC just wouldn't show it at all. And even so, BBC executives had second thoughts about whether they should pull it. Partway into the season, they had a "crisis management meeting" to discuss Monty Python's Flying Circus, which various people described as "nihilistic and cruel" and "in appalling taste." Just one BBC executive defended the show, by demanding to know what was wrong with cruel humor, anyway. But in the end they kept the show on the air, and it slowly gained a following. When the season ended, the BBC conceded that it had improved, and asked them to do another season of shows.

John Cleese said: "If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge its truth."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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