Democrats Eat Their Own

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  John 8:7

It seems impossible that it was just eight days ago that a firestorm of political “scandal” broke out in the tinder-dry undergrowth of sanctimony in Richmond, Virginia.  Governor Ralph Northam (D) was revealed to have included a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page (Northam is an M. D. with a practice in pediatric neurology) showing two costumed people, one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood: the ultimate Odd Couple.  There were also pix of a young Northam in a cowboy hat, and another in front of a “Dukes of Hazard” style muscle car. Not too surprising for one raised and educated in east Virginia.  The revelation was made on a far-right political website related to Breitbart, the organization to which former Trump advisor Steve Bannon is connected.

big 3

Virginia Democrats in Deep Trouble: (l to r) Fairfax, Herring, Northam     Photo by USA Today.

Instantly the calls began for the governor to resign on the spot.  Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Virginia Senators Kaine and Warner, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Representatives from many districts, including veteran Gerry Connolly (11th District) and newbie Jennifer Wexton (10th District), the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and countless others.  All of them progressive, nearly all of them Democrats.  It was an avalanche.  My pastor had to wait until Sunday morning to add to the list, but made it very clear that while working with Northam in the cause of social justice had been most constructive, we’d need to move on to work with his successor once he was gone.  The rationale always came down to the “good of the party” or the “good of the state.”  In the mighty cacophony of righteous moral indignation, barely a Republican voice was heard.  The progressives drowned them out.

But as we all know, what the “good of the party” is became much more complicated less than 48 hours later, when the same hyper-conservative website revealed that Lieutenant Governor, and now Governor-in-waiting, Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by a woman stating she was the victim.  Vanessa Tyson said he forced her to perform a non-consensual sex act in 2004.  Interestingly, the cacophony this time was less loud.  The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which had called for Northam’s ouster in about three nanoseconds, hemmed and hawed for several days about Fairfax (an African American) and finally said there should be a complete investigation of the charge made by Tyson.  Jennifer Wexton stated that she believed Tyson, evidently based not on an investigation of any kind but solely on the fact that Tyson is female.

It seemed inevitable that Governor Northam would have to resign, once every active Democratic voice in the nation had demanded that he needed to do so for the party’s good, since he had lost the ability to rule effectively.  Now the first man in the line of succession, Justin Fairfax, was also a good way toward being DQ’d.  The far-right website had played the Democrats like a fine violin.  They used the same tactic that football teams use against an overly-aggressive defensive opponent.  The offense fakes a play to create the illusion that the ball is going to a certain spot.  When all the charging defenders converge on that spot, the offense runs the real play in the areas vacated by the fooled defenders.  In this case, the far right got universal Democratic condemnation of Northam based on a tasteless and degrading image generated a third of a century ago.  (When Connolly was asked if that one episode erased an adult lifetime of excellent public service he said “no” and went on to explain in detail why Northam need to resign anyway.)  Then the far right implicated Justin Fairfax not in a tasteless and insensitive image, but in a criminal act.  How could anybody who had insisted that Northam go not insist even more strongly that Fairfax also resign?

As if that weren’t enough, Mark Herring, the same State Attorney General who proclaimed Northam had to resign, admitted two days after the Fairfax accusation that he too had put on blackface as a college undergrad in 1980 to imitate a rapper in a dance contest (Northam confessed to using blackface to imitate Michael Jackson while “moonwalking.”  At least he didn’t need a very heavy layer.)  Herring is the second in the line of succession, behind Fairfax.  The next in line after Herring is a Republican.  The situation is still very fluid.  Governor Northam has apparently concluded he will not resign any time soon.  A second woman, Meredith Watson, has accused Fairfax of rape while both were undergraduates at Duke in 2000.  Fairfax has denied both allegations.  After the second accusation, the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus for the first time has called for Fairfax to resign.  The logic escapes me.  So there’s some chance that the Commonwealth of Virginia will be governed by a Republican until 2021.  There’s also some chance Northam will hang in there.  So far only one Republican outside the state that I know of has called for Northam to resign, namely moderate Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland.  Joe Lieberman (D?, CT) has stated that Northam need not resign, which in my mind is the strongest argument why he should do so.

So what do we conclude from this fiasco?  I think the Democrats need to recalibrate their responses and standards in matters of ethical conduct.  The original response to Northam was so shrill and so absolute, just as Breitbart thought it would be, that it risks a far greater calamity than one Democratic governor resigning; it risks losing dominant Democratic influence in Virginia now and in the future.  The degree of self-righteous sanctimoniousness in judging others needs review.  People who should know a whole lot better came off sounding like the foul-tempered, furious Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.  “Off with his head” cannot be the first and only judgment, regardless of the offense.  There needs to be perspective and most importantly a way forward, a process of reconciliation and healing, in cases of insensitivity.  Also, Democrats need to reflect on what being a “party” means.  It surely should include the idea of elected leaders supporting one another, of having one another’s backs, of assuming that investigation, evaluation, reflection, and sound judgment should be practiced in all instances of apparent malfeasance.  Governor Northam must be thinking “with friends like this, who need enemies”?  And in fact, those who wish Northam no good have been able simply to keep silent while the delusional “circular firing squad” of friends did its work.

As a Democrat, I am disgusted with the state party’s moral arrogance in this fiasco.  I made a pledge to contribute to the state party, which I will rescind.  I will not vote for state-level Democrats in the next two election cycles, instead saving my contributions and votes for promising Independent and third-party causes.  I don’t want either my money or my electoral support going to people who behave this way.  If they had been present when the woman was taken in adultery (John 8), they’d have stoned her to death despite Jesus’ admonition, because they believe they have no sin.  At least the scholars and Pharisees who were there had consciences.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019.

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Frank Robinson

The great baseball player and manager Frank Robinson died yesterday.  He was a Hall-of-Famer twice over, having been Rookie of the Year in 1956, Most Valuable Player in both leagues (Cincinnati in 1961 when the Reds won the NL flag, and Baltimore in 1966), a twelve-time All Star, with a tidy 107.3 WAR in a 21-year career.  One stat that jumps out at me is his 198 career hit-by-pitches, which means he did not back off the plate, and was an aggressive hitter.  Robinson was also the first African American MLB manager, and the manager of the Washington Nationals in their first two seasons, 2005-2006.  In all his roles he was hard-driving, assertive, and successful.

Frank Robinson as a Cincinnati Red in 1962.

For years I thought my favorite Frank Robinson story came from the excellent Jim Brosnan book on the 1961 Cincinnati pennant-winning season, Pennant Race.  Turns out I was wrong, though.  It’s actually from the March 21, 1960 Sports Illustrated story “The Private World of the Negro Ballplayer,” by Robert Boyle (see URL below).  The article itself is something from another era, 59 years ago, when persons of color were called “Negro” with no insult intended, when racial stereotyping and classifying was taken for granted, when there were all of 57 African Americans in MLB, and when callow politicians-to-be put on blackface to enter dance contests.  Needless to say, these 57 big-league players of 1960 would have had something of a world of their own; it was only 13 years after Jackie Robinson became the first big-leaguer of color.

The story in the article is about Robinson’s advice to Vada Pinson, then a young player hustling to make good.  Robinson was a four-year veteran in 1959, while it was Pinson’s first full year.  A couple of years later when the Reds won the pennant race, Pinson was the other half of a “dynamic duo” with Robinson:  Pinson batted .343, got 208 hits, 87 RBIs, and 16 homers, while Robinson batted .323, got 176 hits, 124 RBIs, and 37 homers.  As the story is told, it seems that Boyle wants to cast Robinson as the savvy veteran who gets by with minimum effort, while Pinson is the gullible youngster who tries very hard, almost too hard, given the innate laziness of his race.  The whole article has that feel.  But I always thought, from the time I first read the piece in 1960, that what it really shows is how much Robinson enjoyed playing the game, and how he reveled in his role as slugger—big, powerful, menacing and yet playful, attuned to the sense of the moment.  Some players went barnstorming after the regular season, and

they take it so easy barnstorming that they refused to allow Pinson, a youngster who doesn’t know how to stop hustling, to make a trip. Pinson was told, “It’s best you don’t go. You wouldn’t know how to play it. You wouldn’t know how to slow down.” Poor Pinson doesn’t know how to slow down when he hits a homer. Once last year he sprinted all the way home even though he saw the ball clear the fence as he was rounding second. When he got back to the bench Frank Robinson, Cincinnati’s Negro first baseman, said, “Listen, kid, you’d better just stick to singles and leave those long balls to us cats who can act them out.”

Few players ever enjoyed acting them out, while at the same time playing the game for all he was worth, as much as Frank Robinson.

https://www.si.com/vault/1960/03/21/583790/the-private-world-of-the-negro-ballplayer

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019.

Feeding Foxes

Our community web discussion site, Nextdoor Dunn Loring, has been having an interesting discussion about foxes and coyotes in our larger neighborhood.  Some motion-sensor security systems lately have been triggered by canine creatures, and the discussion began as a quest to verify if said canines were coyotes or foxes.  Everybody weighed in, and everybody had their two cents’ worth of opinion, some better informed than others.  Some posted pictures they’d taken in their backyards, others described encounters on the bike trail, and one provided a fine shot of a “hunted coyote,” which is to say a dead animal posed as if at rest in front of the gleeful hunter, proud that he had used his hundreds of dollars of equipment and his constitutional right to take life from a wild creature for the sheer fun of it.  At least that image of a coyote was less blurry than any of the photos of living ones.

Discussion tangents sprouted:  what were their habits, where do they live, what do they eat, so many foxes have mange.  Turns out that a number of folks in our area feed foxes, and at least one does so in an effort to medicate mange.  I checked fox mange out on the internet months ago.  Mange is indeed common in foxes, and there’s a sure and easy medication for it.  But it has to be administered twice, at intervals, which as I recall is about two weeks apart.  And wildlife management folks are understandably unable logistically to trap, medicate, hold, re-medicate, and release individual animals.  The deadly problem is that mangy foxes can’t regulate their body temperature because they lose too much hair, so they’re apt to succumb to heat or especially cold.

fox on patio

Immature fox on our patio, 2017

The discussion evolved into whether it was a good idea to feed wild animals like foxes and coyotes; those who do medicate lure their local foxes by leaving out meat laced with the med.  They assume that individual foxes will get the medication at good intervals because the same ones inhabit the local territory and feed at the same places.  Some people think it’s utterly wrong, bordering on illegal, to feed them, while others see no harm in helping “their” foxes thrive in a crowded suburban environment.

We never put food out for our foxes.  Frankly, we prefer to encourage them to keep down the local squirrel and chipmunk (and I’m sure mouse and vole) populations.  And I call them “ours” because we see them on their daily rounds going diagonally across the backyard of the property behind us, and using both our east and west property lines to get to Academy Street, where they often walk right down the middle of the street in early morning or late evening.  When it snows, they invariably leave tracks that show they often walk behind our foundation plantings to the driveway, and then use it to go straight to the street. And in cold, snowy winter the hunting gets more difficult for them, surely.  We always root for them, and the local red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, to get enough kills to make it to springtime.

The other day, though, we got to help the foxes out actively.  Sometime between 7:10, when we fetched to morning paper from the sidewalk, and 9:30, when we were getting ready to go to Adult Study at church, a dying squirrel appeared on our front walk.  How it got there and why it was dying remain a mystery.  As Jane said, it looked like it had fallen from a great height; it was splayed out, its eyes wide open, gasping for breath.  It would take a big, deep breath of air, and then in another couple of seconds, another one.  When I approached it, it looked at me directly with bright black eye, but it did not move its body.  It was too far from the road and too bloodless to have been hit by a car; it didn’t have the erratic jerking moves that I associate with poison or illness; it was not mangled as though it had been hunted, taken, and then dropped by some larger animal or bird.

A couple of hours later, when we got back after Adult Study, it had died.  It lay there, its beady eye now mostly closed and dim, its only motion when a gust of freezing wind shook its tail.  I got the long-handled shovel, put the gray body out back right where the fox trail runs along our line, and said goodbye.  An hour later, the squirrel had vanished without a trace.  It could have been another animal or a raptor of course, but I’m pretty certain we helped one fox just a little bit to get the nourishment and calories it needs to make it through the bleak days of January.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019.

“Tiny” and Tuukka

Cecil “Tiny” Thompson played goalie for the Boston Bruins for 10 seasons, from 1928-29 through 1937-38.  Five games into the next season, he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, where he tended the twine for two seasons before retiring.  During most of his career he started every game of the season for the Bruins, 468 in all, and he won 252 of them.

Tiny thompson

“Tiny” Thompson, Bruins goalie 1928-1938, 252 wins

Tuukka Rask has been a Boston Bruins goaltender since 2007-08.  He is into his 6th season as top goalie and has never played for another NHL team.  In his career he has played in 474 games and won 252 of them.  His next victory will make him the winningest goalie in Bruins history.

Tuukka

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins Goalie, 2007-present. 252 wins.

Today, they stand together at the pinnacle, ahead of such notables as Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek, Gerry “Cheesey” Cheevers, Tim Thomas, and even Terry Sawchuk, a career Red Wing, who spent a couple of years in Beantown during which time he saw more rubber than he probably did during his entire Detroit career and suffered a nervous breakdown.  But Thompson and Rask could not have had more different careers, and gotten to their 252-win pinnacles by more diverse routes, if they’d tried.

When Thompson played each team carried one goaltender.  So that man started every game.  The league schedules during his career in Boston were 44 games per season (8 teams), and then 48 games per season (7 teams).  If a goalie was injured during a game, the home team was obliged to have a spare goalie on hand to fill in for either side.  (No word on how they handled it if both goalies were too injured to continue; perhaps that never happened.)  That person was usually a team trainer or other staffer.  Rask has played in the era of a grueling 82-game schedule in a league of 30 teams, until Las Vegas made it 31 last season.  In that environment each team absolutely needs two goalies, though Rask has made as many as 67 starts in a season.  Luckily, the Bruins’ current alternate goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, is also highly skilled.  In the current system Rask can rest and recover from minor injuries while remaining on the roster.

Thompson was born in Canada, as was practically every NHL player then.  He hailed from Sandon, British Columbia, now a ghost town in a mining district in the southeastern corner of the province.  His name reflects his Anglo heritage.  There were also, of course, myriad French Canadians in the league (the Montreal Canadiens, by league agreement, had the first choice of prospects from Quebec province, giving them a major advantage).  And there were many players of European descent, mostly East European, whose ancestors had immigrated to Canada, often as farmers.  Rask comes from Savonlinna, a charming town in a lake district in southeastern Finland, with 33,000 people and a castle.  He typifies the influx of European players who are drawn to the NHL by the salaries, and who are needed to fill the rosters of the 31 league teams.  Many are from northern and eastern Europe, where there is natural ice in the winter.  There are now many players from the United States in the NHL as well, so the whole feel of the league is more international.  Coincidentally or not, no team representing a Canadian city has won the Stanley Cup since the Canadiens did it in 1993, a quarter century ago.

But the most telling contrast is revealed in the attached photos.  Thompson may have been nicknamed “Tiny,” but he stood 5’ 10” tall, and weighed 160.  Rask, though, stands 6’ 3” and weighs 176, so he’s even skinnier.  Nevertheless, Thompson had a much trickier task in blocking the puck than Rask does because of his primitive equipment.  Just look at it!  His right hand, that holds the stick, is not guarded by a blocker pad.  His left hand has a glove that’s more like a standard hockey glove than the glorified catch glove, like a first baseman’s mitt in baseball, sported by Rask.  And look at the leg pads.  Thompson’s are OK, but Rask’s are enormous, heavier, and squared-off.  They extend much farther down over his skates.  Rask’s equipment might weigh almost as much as Thompson himself did.

The most obvious and stunning difference, of course, is that Thompson has no mask.  He and all goalies of the era were expected to stop pucks with their faces and still not miss a game.  That extended right up through the era when I was first a fan.  I saw Al Rollins, the Blackhawks goalie, get a stick cut near the end of the 2nd period one night.  It opened up one whole cheek; there was blood all over the ice.  They ended the period early, adding the time to the last period.  That allowed Rollins time to get 28 stitches in his face and come back to finish the game.  They were tough dudes.  Tuukka’s biggest worries, on the other hand, are peripheral vision, which must be an issue sometimes, and what the artwork on his mask should look like.  The change, by the way, came through the legendary Jacques Plante of Montreal, the first to wear a mask in a league game.  Cheevers used a molded white mask, and every time it was hit with a puck he painted stitches on the spot that was hit.  By the end of his career his mask, rather than his face, was a network of scars.

On the other hand, Rask faces rival forwards who are significantly bigger and faster overall than players of the 1930s.  They are better trained, and are in better shape.  They skate on ice surfaces that are more uniformly hard and smooth than those in the old rinks.  They use carbon fiber sticks that flex more than the old wooden ones, and thus launch pucks at enhanced speeds.  And those sticks have curved blades, that allow better puck control and harder shots on the forehand, though they challenge puck control on backhand shots.  The rules have changed as well, so that now forwards can get breakaways through long lead passes, and odd-man rushes are easier to facilitate.  Consequently, it’s hard to read too much into comparative save percentages and numbers of shutouts over the two eras.  They didn’t keep shots against stats in Thompson’s time, but odds are that those numbers were lower in his defense-oriented game.

Rask could surpass Thompson by grabbing his 253rd win as early as tomorrow night against the Rangers in the Gahden.  And whenever it happens, he will have surpassed a great player from an earlier NHL epoch, who will retain his distinct identity even as Rask exemplifies excellence in the new NHL of 31 teams, carbon fiber sticks, and massive catch gloves.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019.

DANGER: May Result in Injuries or Death

One of the great gifts I got this Christmas was a step stool.  We really need one in our kitchen, where the top shelves are beyond the grasp even of my 6’3” frame.  The gift is especially cherished because thoughtful relatives noticed at Thanksgiving that we were resorting on occasion to standing on the seats of kitchen chairs to grab stuff.  They saw a genuine need, and met it splendidly.

step stool

Our new step stool in its functioning environment

The two-step stool has a bottom step 7” off the ground and 3” wide.  The top step is 7 ½” above the bottom step and thus is about 16” off the ground, including the thickness of the step.  The top step is a comfy 7 ¾” deep; the bottom a narrower 3”.  It stores inconspicuously next to the fridge, and we use it daily.

It is easy to use; how could it not be?  You open it up in front of the cabinet you need to access; you separate the front and the rear legs.  You step up two steps to get what you need, and reverse the process to get off.

But this diminutive, convenient piece of equipment comes with seven stickers on its five members (four legs and a crossbar).  They identify, they warn, they caution, they advise.  And when they’re finished, they repeat it all in Spanish.  You can barely see the finish on the steel because the surfaces are so plastered.  Here is the complete text that comes with this device.  From the length and complexity, one could barely guess that the thing is just one notch more complex than a milking stool.

Lower left rear leg: [barcode and number] 11024PBL Unit / 2 Step Steel Step Stool

Upper left rear leg:  [red oval, white letters] Danger / Electrocution Hazard / [circle with black background, white up arrow] WATCH FOR WIRES / [lightning bolt with downward arrow] THIS LADDER CONDUCTS ELECTRICITY

Left front leg: [blue rectangle, white letters] NOTICE / Step Stool Size: 2 ft, ¼ in (67 cm) / Highest Standing Level: 17 ¼ in (43.5 cm) / Light-Duty Household Rating Working Load: 200 lb / Model 11-024-PBL  Cosco® / Home and Office Products / 2525 State Street / Columbus, IN 47201 /1-800-263-1996 / Made in China / MFG. Date 13 MAR 2018 / MANUFACTURED TO / [oval logo] TYPE III DUTY RATING PER ANSI STANDARD / ANSI SPECIFICATIONS / 10-YEAR LIMITED WARRANTY / 4360-3226B

Crossbar left: NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE

Crossbar right: [black rectangle, yellow letters] CAUTION / KEEP BODY CENTERED BETWEEN SIDE RAILS. / DO NOT OVER-REACH. / SET ALL FOUR FEET ON FIRM LEVEL SURFACE. / WEAR SLIP-RESISTANT SHOES. / BEFORE USE, BE SURE ALL LOCKS ARE ENGAGED AND STEPS ARE COMPLETELY UNFOLDED. / [drawing of a male standing in the middle of the bottom step of a two-step ladder, reaching up]

labels

Step stool, showing labels galore

Right front leg: [green rectangle with white letters] SAFETY FIRST / STEP STOOL – FOR YOUR SAFETY READ CAREFULLY / INSPECTION / 1. Inspect upon receipt and before each use; never climb a damaged, bent or broken step stool. / 2. Make sure all rivets and joints, nuts and bolts are tight; steps, spreaders, and braces are secure; spreaders function properly. / 3. Keep step stool clean, free from grease, oil, mud, snow, wet paint and other slippery material.  Keep your shoes clean; leather soles should not be used. / 4. Never make temporary repairs of damaged or missing parts. / 5. Destroy step stool is broken, worn, or if exposed to fire or chemical corrosion. /  PROPER SET-UP / 1.  DANGER! METAL CONDUCTS ELECTRICITY! Do not let step stools of any material come in contact with live electrical wires. / 2.  Make sure step stool is fully open and spreaders secure. / 3. Place on firm surface and a secure footing. Do not use on slippery surfaces.  Do not place on boxes, unstable bases, or scaffolds to gain additional height.  Do not place in front of door opening toward step stool. / PROPER CLIMBING AND USE / 1.  DO NOT USE STEP STOOLS if you tire easily, are subject to fainting spells, are using medicine or alcohol, or are physically impaired. / 2. To protect children do not leave step stool set up and unattended. / 3. Face step stool when climbing up or down. Keep body centered between side rails. / 4. Do not overreach, move step stool when needed. / 5. Do not “walk” or “jog” step stool when standing on it. / 6. Do not overload.  Step stools are made for one person.  Do not use as brace, platform, or plank. / 7. Keep step stool close to work; avoid pushing or pulling off to the side of step stool. / PROPER CARE AND STORAGE / 1. Store step stool in safe and dry place. / 2. Properly secure and support step stool when in transit. / 3. Never store materials on step stool. / 4. Keep step stool clean and free of all foreign materials. / MAINTENANCE / 1. Clean step surface only with soapy water. / 2. Do not use products that degrade the plastic material such as acetone and trychlorethlene.

Right rear leg: [red oval with white letters] DANGER / Failure to read and follow all instructions on this ladder, including those under the steps, may result in injuries or death.

At first I thought that these over 550 words were a perverse manifestation of the “nanny state,” a society that assumes we lack the wit to use low step stools without proper instructions.  But I think it’s instead the “litigious state,” a society in which every manufacturer knows they have to preclude any possible claim that users didn’t understand that electricity is dangerous, or that it’s better not to lean way over on one side, or that it’s not good to get on a step stool with somebody else.  I am surprised that they don’t warn ballet dancers not to assume the arabesque position on the upper step, or that newlyweds should not use it as a place to consummate their union, or that a ballplayer should not take batting practice while standing atop the device.  After all, there’s a fool born every minute, and with that comes potential corporate liability.  Because it’s a corporation’s responsibility to prevent people from doing dumb things involving their products.  Freedom from individual responsibility: isn’t that in the Bill of Rights?

I at least appreciate the advice “do not overreach.”  Keep all things within the limits of reason, indeed!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019

The Christmas My Mother Pranked Me

As a young adolescent kid in the early 1950s, I was a nut about aircraft and aviation.  I subscribed to Air Progress and even the industry’s journal, Aviation Week.  I had files of pictures clipped from those and other magazines.  I went to airports and air bases whenever I could, in an era when going to airports was not a common thing to do.  On my 50-mile bike ride for by Boy Scout Cycling merit badge, I journeyed from my home in Arlington, Massachusetts to the Naval Air Station in South Weymouth, just to get a long-distance glimpse of a few dark blue radar planes.

Me and models '53

Me and some of my airplane models, May, 1953.

But above all, I made scale model aircraft.  I spent many hours with my balsa wood, Xacto knives, Duco cement, Testors dope, and decals of all kinds.  They were solid models, not for flying but for display.  I especially liked military aircraft, the new fast jets and the plethora of prop-driven planes created over the prior two decades to fight World War Two.  Magazines like Air Progress featured three-view drawings from which one could fashion splendidly accurate models simply by transforming them on graph paper to the desired size, and rendering them in balsa wood.  By checking my file photos, I could refine details and markings.  There were also some pretty good kits by Guillow and Strombecker (Monogram and Revell made plastic kits, of no interest to true scale modelers), but especially Dyna-Model, which featured die-cast metal parts for things like the wheels, propellers, engine nacelles, and the rockets attached to underwings of some fighter aircraft.  The latter models were wonderful fun to make, but quite expensive.  Sometimes I saved up my allowance and walked to the hobby shop about a mile away, in Belmont Center, to buy a kit.  But they were also great gifts for birthdays and Christmas.

I think the Christmas my mother pranked me was 1953.  I would have been 14, and I was in my model-making heyday.  Old enough to have some serious model-making skills, and young enough to enjoy using them, just before girls, driver’s licenses, and (in my case) cool jazz jumbled my priorities.  Our home family Christmas morning routine was well-established.  My younger brother Jim and I shared a bedroom for most of those years, and we’d keep ourselves up as late as we could, listening to Christmas music at low volume on the big short-wave and standard broadcast radio my dad had re-installed in a hand-made modern case that also served as a table between twin beds.  We’d always fall asleep eventually, but we’d somehow wake up by 6:00 a.m. in the midwinter dark.  That was the statutory limit on how early we could wake Mom and Dad to go see what “Santa” left, check whether he’d consumed all his milk and Christmas cookies, and open family gifts, including the ones that arrived in a big box mailed from Kalamazoo.

P38

Lockheed P-38 “Lightning”

This particular Christmas I had asked for a model plane; I’m pretty sure it was the Dyna-Model P-38, the Lockheed “Lightning,” a slick twin-engine WW 2 fighter that looked super-cool because of its twin-boom construction, and was a difficult model to make for the same reason.  I was playing “Santa” that Christmas morning, distributing gifts.  Thus I could assess my different gifts based on their size, shape, and weight.  Like most boys of 14, I was far less passionate about the clothes and other “practical” gifts that were part of our giving and getting.  Even though my mother could and did pick out great shirts for me, a skill she practiced all her life.  So I set aside one soft, flattish rectangular gift for me, that felt for all the world like a heavy winter shirt, with a gift tag written in her inimitable hand.  But where was that P-38?  One gift after the next was too narrow, too heavy, too small.  At last everybody had gotten their gifts, and though I had opened some nice things, no new scale model project.  Finally the shirt was all that was left.  Though I knew what it was, I had a pro forma requirement to open it.  It felt like a shirt, it looked like a shirt, it was a shirt.  Off came the wrapper, but it was no shirt.  It was a big padded mailing envelope instead.  And inside the padding was, of course, the Dyna-Model P-38.

Mom had me dead to rights!  She knew me too well.  She was not known for her sense of humor; one of her tag lines was a disapproving “’Taint funny, McGee,” taken from an old radio show featuring a wife (Molly) much put upon by her feckless husband (Fibber McGee).  The phrase was the midcentury, mid-American version of Victoria’s “we are not amused.”  But that morning she gave us all a good laugh—even me, once I got over the embarrassment of being so cleverly skewered by my own mother.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Part IV

The weather of North Wales turns nasty again before New Year’s dawn, the sleet and snow reflecting Gawain’s emotional turmoil.  “Raw” is the word I learned for it.  There’s a briefer dressing and arming scene, including his wrapping the magic girdle twice around him.  Then he leaves with a prayer-blessing for his host and hostess: “May Christ this house maintain / And guard it from mischance.”  This tone may seem odd, but it is as if Gawain subconsciously recognizes that, despite the magic and temptation, the intentions of the lord and lady revealed in the events of his visit will work to his good.  Gawain travels over hills, slopes, moors, steep banks, and waterfalls before the sun even dawns.

gawain travels

Gawain travels to the Green Chapel in full “Victorian Gothic” mode

The guide who is leading him gets Gawain near the Green Chapel and warns him of the “villain” who lives there, a giant who will easily dispatch any foe.  He urges Gawain to go home quickly, by another route.  Gawain of course rejects the easy way out.  He, like every questing hero since Gilgamesh ignored Siduri’s common-sense advice, is determined to see it through and keep his word.  Readers of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces will have recognized all the steps of the quest thus far; the confrontation of the father-figure is about to occur.

But when he gets to the Green Chapel it is not what he’s been expecting.  It looks rather like a barrow, a Celtic burial mound, a hollow pile made out of stones and rough turf, nothing like the elegant castle at which he’s just been a guest.  “Can this be the Chapel Green,” he muses, and likens it to the hell-like residence of the arch-Fiend.  In fact, it turns out to represent the elemental essence of material existence, where all our essential conflicts must be resolved.  Our hero hears the Green Knight before he sees him; the din is the edge of a huge Danish battle-axe being sharpened.  None of this is reassuring or comforting in the least.

green knight

“Green Knight” © Malcolm Brown, accessed at his deviantArt page here

Gawain wins the reader’s respect just by having the strength to remain calm and “scorn[ing] to seem afraid.”  The two men acknowledge matter-of-factly what their business is, the Green Knight praises Gawain for showing up, and Gawain bares his neck.  The axe is raised, the blade starts downward, and . . . Gawain flinches!  The Green Knight, with what must have been very powerful wrists, stops the axe’s descent in mid-stroke, and sneers “You are not Gawain the glorious!”  Exactly what the lady of the castle had been telling him for the previous three mornings.  He’s failed as a lover; now he’s failed as a knight.

Gawain gets a mulligan after he beseechingly promises “I shall stand to the stroke and stir not an inch / . . . on my honor I swear it!”  He desperately wants to prove his honor as a knight, even if it means sure death.  Then the Green Knight feints a blow to test Gawain, who does not move, and follows with a full swing that intentionally misses, or almost.  The blade’s edge just nicks his skin, and a few drops of blood fall on the snow.

With angry words Gawain leaps up, asserts that he’s fulfilled his side of the bargain, and admonishes his adversary to desist.  But the Green Knight is completely congenial. He reveals that he was the host in the castle, that is was his wife that Gawain had kissed, and his belt that he is still wearing.  It was all a test, he said.  They knew Gawain was the most faultless of all men, “as pearls to white peas.”  Gawain “lacked a little loyalty” to him by taking his wife’s love token, but was “less . . . to blame” because his motive was self-preservation, not deceit or lust.

Gawain, however, is enraged and devastated at his own imperfect behavior.  He curses his own heart as cowardly and covetous, with “virtue laid low.”  He rips off the belt and returns it, contrasting his fear of death and desire to live with the true knightly virtues of generosity and loyalty.  The relaxed Knight, acting as a kind of secular confessor, declares him free of sin because he has understood his own faults and repented them.  To him Gawain is “polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright / As you had lived free of fault since first you were born.”  Gawain, somewhat emotionally recovered, wishes his host and his lady well, receives the girdle as a gift, and excuses himself with a misogynous litany of men deceived by women, from Adam to Solomon, Samson, and David.  He declares he will wear the girdle ever after to remind him of his moral frailty resulting in sins of the flesh and excessive pride.  Finally they get around to introductions!  The Green Knight and host is called Bercilak de Hautdesert, and yes, that was Morgan le Fay, who lives at his castle.  She gave Bercilak his magic look and power.

Gawain declines an invitation to stay on as a guest.  He’s obviously still enraged at himself, humiliated by his moral failings, and he wears the girdle as a badge of disgrace diagonally across his front.  Back at Arthur’s court he tells them his story and makes it abundantly clear that he is morally devastated.  Arthur and the others laugh it off, recognizing instead the elemental humanity Sir Gawain has manifested in his behavior, and they all wear the green sashes as a gesture of unity and affirmation.

In the structure of Campbell’s archetypal hero quest, Bercilak acts as Gawain’s spiritual father, judge, and model.  What Gawain is taught is that he is mortal, and in that mortality he cannot behave honorably to all people at all times.  It is human to covet one’s own life, and even when that distorts one’s honorable intentions to others, it’s a forgivable failing.  Gawain still must forgive himself as the poem ends; there’s a dissonance between the ideals he holds and the more human standards of Arthur’s court.  That unresolved tension remains at the heart of the human condition.  The girdle is the “boon” Gawain brings back to his community, but the character of that boon is neither simple nor clear.

The poem also manifests the late medieval realization that the feudal code and the courtly love code are at odds.  Gawain cannot be entirely truthful to Bercilak about his relationship with his lady.  But at the same time he cannot respond to her desires as he should do in the innately adulterous courtly code because of his pledge to Bercilak.  Both of these codes were on the wane in the fourteenth century; the feudal code disappeared with the onset of mercantilism, and the courtly code changed at the inception of Puritanism, fragments of it remaining as an idealized expression of chastity.

Why the Christmas / New Year context for the action of the poem?  In the Christian liturgical year, Christmas is the time of incarnation, the “Word made flesh.”  There’s much to do with spirit and with flesh in this story.  Gawain encounters challenges to his moral idealism and has to understand that the Holy Spirit in us humans is a perfect presence in a flawed being, a “treasure in earthen vessels.”  But we are at our best when we aspire to what lies beyond our grasp, exactly as Gawain does.  The New Year brings new resolve to pursue ideals.  We are born again.  Our failure is our success.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019