Happy New Year!

Yet Another Year...

Yet Another Year…

Okay, so we’re all poised to dive off this Fiscal Cliff. And now I hear that Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned FLDS leader is saying that the world will end before the New Year. Is he plotting some kind of remote control Jim Jones type of Götterdammerung to astonish and sicken us all with tomorrow morning’s coffee?

Yes, both craziness and sanity exist side by side in this most imperfect of all worlds. Some are preparing for the worst, others are calmly trying to get on with their lives while alarms are ringing all around them. House Speaker John Boehner and his Tea Party minions are pretending that nothing bad will happen if they jerk our chains so bad that we are strangled by them. And Barack Obama is laughing as if he knew something we didn’t.

The earth is heating up rapidly, and the land is ravaged by superstorms of increasing intensity. We continue to assume that peak gasoline will never arrive: After all, can’t we just ramp up the fracking?

In 2013, life will continue to change at a frumious [sic] pace. Little by little, some of us will fall off the jet-powered skateboards we are on and refuse to get back on. Suddenly, we will start remembering things—little things—that are no more, even if they are as innocuous as Twinkies or a favorite brand of hair shampoo or spicy cookies shaped like Dutch windmills or bookstores or Westerns or Moderate Republicans. Inevitably, they are replaced with new things, some of which are worthy replacements, others of which are strictly blow lunch, to use an old Dartmouth expression.

We will struggle on. Some of us will fall by the wayside, only to replaced by new people, people who are different but undoubtedly have many things to recommend them.

In the New Year, some horrible things will happen. Crazy people will shoot up innocents and turn their guns on themselves, thinking they will go to hell with plenty of company. Sports teams will break records. Individual athletes will break records, sometimes without the help of performing-enhancing drugs.

How will we keep our sanity? In the novel I am reading, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, there is a quote I particularly like: “The world has progressed no further than the truth spoken by a sixth-century Christian: ‘Condemn the sin and forgive the sinner.’”



It’s the Shortest Month of the Year

It’s the Shortest Month of the Year

We’ve been hearing a lot about the Mayan Calendar lately, mostly in connection with The End of the World last week. Well, it didn’t end; and the Mayan Calendar goes on into a new baktun.

In the Haab’, or Mayan Solar Calendar, there are eighteen months of twenty days each. Where does that leave the other 5.25 days? To account for the difference, the Mayans created an intercalary five-day month referred to as the uayeb. Unlike other days in the Solar Calendar, the five days of the uayeb are thought to be a dangerous time (and so they are with the so called “Fiscal Cliff” looming).

According to Lynn Foster in Handbook to Life in the Ancient Mayan World, “During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters.” It was a time of fasting with abstention from sex and all celebrations. People avoided washing their hair or even leaving their huts during this time.

As we in the United States come to the end of another uayeb, I hope we are ready for what 2013 brings. Because, ready or not, here it comes….



I Guess He Didn’t Like Cheltenham

RRCoverSThe Warwickshire Avon falls into the Severn here, and on the sides of both, for many miles back, there are the finest meadows that ever were seen. In looking over them, and beholding the endless flocks and herds, one wonders what can become of all the meat! By riding on about eight or nine miles farther, however, this wonder is a little diminished; for here we come to one of the devouring Wens; namely, Cheltenham, which is what they call a “watering place;” that is to say, a place, to which East India plunderers, West India floggers, English tax-gorgers, together with gluttons, drunkards, and debauchees of all descriptions, female as well as male, resort, at the suggestion of silently laughing quacks, in the hope of getting rid of the bodily consequences of their manifold sins and iniquities. When I enter a place like this, I always feel disposed to squeeze up my nose with my fingers. It is nonsense, to be sure; but I conceit that every two-legged creature, that I see coming near me, is about to cover me with the poisonous proceeds of its impurities. To places like this come all that is knavish and all that is foolish and all that is base; gamesters, pickpockets, and harlots; young wife-hunters in search of rich and ugly and old women, and young husband-hunters in search of rich and wrinkled or half-rotten men, the former resolutely bent, be the means what they may, to give the latter heirs to their lands and tenements. These things are notorious; and Sir William Scott, in his speech of 1802, in favour of the non-residence of the Clergy, expressly said, that they and their families ought to appear at watering places, and that this was amongst the means of making them respected by their flocks! Memorandum: he was a member for Oxford when he said this!—William Cobbett, Rural Rides


Disney and the Gipper

Mock-Up Costume Upon Which the Dress of Snow White Was Modeled

Mock-Up Costume Upon Which the Dress of Snow White Was Modeled

When we were at the Grier Musser Museum yesterday, its curator, Susan Tejada, told us about a large Walt Disney exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the Simi Valley. It didn’t take much convincing for Martine, who likes the library at Christmastime because of their Christmas Trees of Other Nations exhibit.

Well, things didn’t turn out as we expected. To begin with, the parking lot was filled to overflowing, so we had to park a mile down the hill. Fortunately, the crowds had been anticipated; and there was a shuttle bus service that plied up and down the hill all day. Even then, we had to wait in a line for almost half an hour just to get inside. And when we did, the exhibits were a mob scene.

You see, Southern California is full of tourists who have come to see the Rose Bowl and its Tournament of Roses Parade. While they are here, they take bus tours to such locales as Hollywood (why?), the Reagan Library, and the Santa Monica Pier. We ran into several hundred Wisconsin Badgers fans sporting name tags hung around their necks.

What Martine and I did was to force our way through the crowds to the Disney exhibit, which was put on by D23, the Official Disney Fan Club, and then we split up. Martine went to see as much of the standard exhibits as she could, while I repaired to the Ronald Reagan Country Café and read W. Baring Pendleton’s excellent biography of English journalist and reformer, William Cobbett.

It was worth seeing the Disney exhibit—despite the crowds—but I think I had the better idea of sitting in the café with some green tea and reading a good book. I was already familiar with most of the regular exhibits. Oh, and the Christmas Trees of Other Nations? The Reagan Library stopped doing that three years ago. Tant pis!


A Glance Back at Christmas

Christmas at the Grier Musser Museum

Christmas at the Grier Musser Museum

Today, Martine and I finished up our Christmas by seeing the holiday-oriented antiques and special collections on view at the Grier Musser Museum near downtown Los Angeles. Susan and Ray Tejada have the most incredible collection of memorabilia related to the different holiday seasons. We have seen their displays for Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day—and I understand they have other displays for Chinese New Year, Presidents Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Independence Day—to name just a few. Below, for instance, is Susan Tejada holding a recently purchased George Washington commemorative plate:

Susan Tejada of the Gier Musser Museum

Susan Tejada of the Gier Musser Museum

At a time when so many of our Christmas observances have been nipped in the bud by recession-related budget cuts, it’s nice to know that one can get a real feeling for the Yuletide season by seeing a collection of music boxes, dolls and statues, old Christmas cards and wrapping paper—all relating to the season.

Although Huell Howser has done two shows that I know of featuring the museum, I feel that more people should know about it. Most spectacular are the occasional Sunday openings preceding the major holidays, with such extras as punch and cookies and an occasional film or slide show in the basement theater. If you are interested in visiting, you have to make a reservation by calling toward the end of the week at (213) 413-1814. The museum is open on Saturday afternoons, by appointment, and on selected Sundays.

The building in which the museum is located used to be a maternity hospital connected with Susan’s family. Her father, Martin L. Krieger, was not only a physician, but the author of several stories about the sea which he co-authored with Fleming MacLeish.


Phoenix dactylifera

Deglet Noor Dates

Deglet Noor Dates

During the relatively fruitless months that stretch between October and February (when the first fresh strawberries become available) is a good time to appreciate the fruit of the date palm, or Phoenix dactylifera.

Approximately 95% of the dates sold in the United States are grown in California’s Coachella Valley near Indio. While we were in the Palm Springs area, Martine and I spent the afternoon preceding Christmas Eve visiting two date gardens, the Oasis Date Gardens in Thermal and the Shields Date Gardens in Indio.

There are a number of different varieties of dates, ranging from the large and hypersweet Medjools to the Deglet Noors (my favorites), Zahidis, Barhis, and Khadrawies, to name just a few. When one buys relatively recently harvested dates in the Coachella Valley, they tend to be more moist. Supermarket dates just don’t cut it. Sometimes I will buy dates from our local farmer’s market in Santa Monica, because the dealer there drives in all the way from Mecca near the Salton Sea.

Below is a photo I took at the Shields Date Gardens:

Date Palms at Indio’s Shields Date Gardens

Date Palms at Indio’s Shields Date Gardens

Note the ladders dangling from the top of some of the trees. During the harvest, they are joined to other ladders so that the dates could be hand-picked. There is, insofar as I know, no mechanization possible that would maintain the quality of the crop. The trees are relatively bare now: As October approaches, the bunches of dates are covered with a cone-shaped paper wrap to prevent rain and predators from damaging the crop.

Most Americans tend to be relatively unfamiliar with dates, which comes as something of a surprise to me because they are sweet, loaded with vitamins and minerals, and relatively inexpensive. But then, I have been buying them from the Coachella Valley for over forty years.


A B-17 Collision

B-17 in the Air

B-17 in the Air

This B-17 met a head-on attack by three Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighters. The gunners exploded two of them, and the top turret poured a stream of shells into the cockpit of the third. With a dead man at the controls, the fighter screamed in, and at a closing speed of 550 miles per hour smashed head-on into the number-three engine.

The tremendous impact of the crash tore off the propeller. It knocked the heavy bomber completely out of formation as though a giant hand has swatted a fly. The fighter cartwheeled crazily over the B-17.

It cut halfway through the wing, and then sliced a third of the way through the horizontal stabilizer. The top and ball turrets immediately jammed, the radio equipment was smashed to wreckage, and all the instruments “went crazy.” Pieces of metal from the exploding, disintegrating Focke Wulf tore through the fuselage, and a German gun barrel buried itself in the wall between the radio room and the bomb bay.

Crews of nearby bombers watched the collision. They saw a tremendous explosion, and the bomber hurtling helplessly out of control, tumbling as she fell. They reported when they returned to base that the Flying Fortress had blown up, and that the crew must be considered dead.

The old Queen hadn’t blown up, and the crew was far from dead. The pilots struggled wildly in the cockpit, and somehow between them, managed to bring their careening bomber back under control. The gunners shot down a fourth fighter that had closed in to watch the proceedings.

And then they brought her all the way back to England, and scraped her down for a belly landing on the runway.

Postscript: not a man was injured.—Martin Caidin, Black Thursday

B-17 Walkthrough

Martine with Boeing B-17 in Background

Martine with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in Background

Aviation museums run the gamut from “gearhead” airplane body shops to extensive collections of aircraft and exhibits. In this latter category is the Palm Springs Air Museum, adjacent to the Palm Springs Airport on Gene Autry Trail. We allotted four hours to seeing this museum, and—to Martine’s point of view anyway—it was about four hours too short.

Apparently, the Coachella Valley is home to many aviation veterans of the Second World War. The museum was crowded with volunteers who knew the planes intimately and were willing to answer questions.

Near the little café in one of the hangars was a huge Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress that was being restored by aficionados. For a five dollar donation, we could walk through the plane from the cockpit to the rear door. It was a tempting challenge, though I knew it would be a tight squeeze for my portly frame. So we ponied up the ten bucks and did it.

B-17 Cockpit

B-17 Cockpit

For starters, the highly analog cockpit controls (see above) were a revelation to a digital denizen such as myself. We barely managed to make it up the ladder to squeeze in the space behind the cockpit. The B-17’s crew of ten must have been immune to claustrophobia, especially the tail gunner and the gunner in the 360-degree rotating gun position under the aircraft. The former was totally cut off from the rest of the aircraft by the rear bomb bay.

The B-17 was featured in a number of war films including Memphis Belle (both versions: 1944 and 1990), Flying Fortress (1942), Air Force (1943), 12 O’Clock High (1949), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

If you ever find yourself in Palm Springs, and if you are as much of a history nut as I am, you could do worse than spend a whole day at the Palm Springs Air Museum. (I had to promise Martine that we would return so that she could finish viewing all the exhibits.)



Hugging the Enemy

General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad

General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad

We know a whole lot more about Field Marshal Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Paulus, who commanded the German 6th Army besieging Stalingrad, than we know about General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, who fought the German war machine to a draw by his creative leadership of the Soviet 62nd Army. Part of the reason is that we have letters from Paulus and his staff describing the horrors of the siege of Stalingrad, letters that were to give Hitler and Goebbels fits as they tried to devise their own myth as to what really happened on the banks of the Volga.

What really happened was one of Stalin’s generals, who lived in a society where candid comments in private letters were used by the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) as evidence of disloyalty to Stalin. Whatever Chuikov may have thought, it was what he did that made him one of Stalin’s favorite generals.

Both Hitler and Stalin had issued contradictory clear-cut orders regarding Stalingrad. Hitler insisted that the Wehrmacht capture the city at all cost, and that surrender was not an option. Stalin, on the other hand, issued equally clear-cut orders that the city must be held at all costs, and that surrender was not an option.

For almost six months, Chuikov invented a new kind of urban warfare in which the idea was to “hug the enemy.” By staying close to the Germans, Chuikov prevented the aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe in that it turned out to be as dangerous to the Nazis as to the Red Army. By this time, much of the city was rubble. Chuikov ingeniously hid artillery and tanks in the ruins, and used small squads of six to eight men, supplemented by sharpshooters, to attack pockets of Wehrmacht troops. Extensive use was made of hand grenades and Molotov Cocktails.

Frequently, burnt-out tanks became bases for these squads, as the men were protected by the wrecked tank above their heads. The following is a quote from Chuikov:

The Germans underestimated our artillery. And they underestimated the effectiveness of our infantry against their tanks. This battle showed that tanks forced to operate in narrow quarters are of limited value; they’re just guns without mobility. In such conditions nothing can take the place of small groups of infantry, properly armed, and fighting with utmost determination. I don’t mean barricade street fighting—there was little of that—but groups converting every building into a fortress and fighting for it floor by floor and even room by room. Such defenders cannot be driven out either by tanks or planes. The Germans dropped over a million bombs on us but they did not dislodge our infantry from its decisive positions. On the other hand, tanks can be destroyed from buildings used as fortresses.

For five months, Chuikov fought the Germans to a draw. During this time, Marshal Georgi Zhukov formulated his Operation Uranus, which led to the encirclement and surrender of Paulus’s 6th Army.

Even as his men were out of ammunition and close to starving to death and being eaten alive by lice and other vermin, Hitler prevented them from surrendering. As it became obvious to the Fuehrer that Stalingrad was lost to him, he preferred the German people to think that the 6th Army committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Russians. In the end, the 90,000 men who remained did surrender. Total German casualties were between 500,000 and 850,000 killed, wounded or captured.

Chuikov later led one of the armies converging on Berlin, where he accepted surrender of the city from General Helmuth Weidling. After the war, in 1955, he was made a Field Marshal by Khrushchev and eventually served as a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Even under a tyrant such as Stalin, it is possible to find heroism and innovation such as Chuikov’s. Because we tend to see World War Two as mostly a Anglo-American alliance, we have suppressed any knowledge of the awful 3,000-mile front that was the war in Russia, called by them the Great Patriotic War. They earned their victory … the hard way.

A Family Christmas

Lori, Hilary, Danny, Jennifer, and Dan

Lori, Hilary, Danny, Jennifer, and Dan

I just returned from Palm Springs about an hour or two ago after spending one of the best Christmases in my adult life. My brother and sister-in-law rented a house in PS’s “Movie Colony” neighborhood.

Present were Dan and Lori, my brother and sister-in-law; Hilary, just returned from Guatemala by way of her home in Seattle; Danny, from L.A.’s South Bay; Jennifer, from San Diego; and Martine and me from West Los Angeles.

As you know, I tend to be something of a Grinch; but the events of the last five days have melted the residual ice that encased my heart. It was great fun talking with my nephew and nieces, and spending the days touring the Coachella Valley with Martine while the kids were involved in hiking, swimming in hot pools, and such like.

Martine and I got to visit the Living Desert Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Palm Desert, which we’ve seen two or three times before; the Palm Springs Air Museum, a labor of love by WW2 veterans; the Oasis Date Gardens in Thermal, California; and the Shields Date Gardens in Indio, California. (Yes, I guess I really do enjoy eating dates.)

In the days to come, I will post blogs about the first two places above, which I think are world-class tourist destinations. And I will try to write something about the Coachella Valley’s date palms.

In the meantime, I hope all of you had a Merry Christmas!