News of the Week: Words, Welles, and Why Celebrities Apologize in Advance

New Words (Merriam-Webster Division)


OMG you won’t BELIEVE what new words have been added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary!

That line is an example of “clickbait,” those incredible, excitable, over-the-top headlines that make you click on something to find out more, and it’s one of the 1,700 new words added to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.

What’s odd is that most of these words are ones we would never actually use, unless we’re talking specifically about the words or in a story like this. When was the last time you were talking to your friends and used “jeggings,” “NSFW” or “WTF?” Those last two you’d probably just use the entire phrase. Some words, like “eggcorn,” are ones I’ve never even heard of before (it’s a word or phrase that you use by mistake but it sounds like the correct word or phrase, like when you don’t hear song lyrics correctly). The definition of “slendro” is “a pentatonic tuning employed for Javanese gamelans that divides the octave into five roughly similar internals.” Is there a dictionary that will translate what that sentence even means?

I hope that when you look up “emoji” in the dictionary there’s no text just little pictures.

New Words (Scrabble Division)

1,700 words? That’s nothing! Collins Official Scrabble Words has added 6,500 new words to their rulebook. One of the words is “cazh.” Try to guess what that means. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Other new words added include “blech,” “thanx,” “newb,” “bezzy,” and “yeesh.” And I’ll stop listing the new words now because language doesn’t seem to make sense anymore. The inclusion of new slang is irritating veteran Scrabble players. I would guess that most people who play the game don’t use this official guide to the words, they use a traditional dictionary and many of these words wouldn’t be in there (yet). I haven’t played Scrabble in a long time, so maybe people use the Web now for disputes?

Oh, “cazh”? It’s short for “casual.” So you’ll get to use that the next time you play Scrabble (a good word since it has a C, a Z, and an H), and your opponent will say, “That’s not a word!” and you’ll get online and prove that it is and he or she will be really upset.

Can You Use Those Words in a Sentence?

Perhaps one day the words above will be used at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The finals were held last night on ESPN. Here are the results.

It’s interesting how a spelling bee is aired on the top sports network every year. I’m not sure how this got into the realm of sports (see also: poker). Shouldn’t they also cover events like Monopoly tournaments and chess matches too?

Lost Orson Welles Memoir Found

Orson Welles
Portrait of Orson Welles in 1937 (Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress)

Someone needs to start a blog that just keeps track of “lost” or “missing” manuscripts and other items that people find years later. We’ve had a lot of them lately, from Harper Lee’s lost To Kill A Mockingbird sequel to the lost Dr. Seuss story to a lost Sherlock Holmes story that actually might not have been written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at all.

Now comes word that an unfinished memoir by actor/director/writer Orson Welles has been found. The pages were discovered in eight boxes that were shipped from Croatia by Oja Kodar, who was Welles’s partner when he passed away in 1985. It’s titled Confessions of a One-Man Band, and in it he talks about people like Ernest Hemingway and Rita Hayworth, and what it was like to navigate Hollywood (and why he couldn’t complete a lot of the projects he wanted to make).

This is a big year for Orson Welles fans. Besides this memoir, his unfinished last film, The Other Side of the Wind, will be completed if $2 million can be raised in a crowdfunding campaign.

Introducing the Pre-Apology

Chris Pratt Jaguar PS /
Chris Pratt

Jaguar PS /

A lot of celebrities say dumb things. Of course, a lot of people in general say dumb things, but when you’re a celebrity it’s reported by every single website in the world. Add social media to the mix and it seems like every celebrity is just 140 characters away from saying something that would seriously hurt their career. Then they argue with people on social media about it, which just makes everything worse, and that leads to the inevitable heartfelt apology, either on that same social media page or Access Hollywood or maybe Dr. Phil.

One celebrity is trying to head that off at the pass. Chris Pratt, one of the stars of Parks and Recreation and Guardians of the Galaxy, has already released an apology. It’s not for something he said or did, it’s for something he might say or do. Pratt has a post on his Facebook page where he apologizes for all of the dumb things he might say on the upcoming press tour for Jurassic World. He was probably inspired by the controversy-which-really-shouldn’t-have-been-a-controversy sparked by the interviews Robert Downey, Jr., Jeremy Renner, and Chris Evans gave several weeks ago promoting Avengers: Age of Ultron. Downey actually walked out in the middle of an interview, while Renner and Evans apologized for calling Black Widow a “slut.” At the same time, Renner released a statement apologizing for a tasteless joke about “a fictional character,” which seemed like a little dig at the people getting oh-so-upset by a sarcastic joke about someone who doesn’t really exist.

Kudos to Pratt. It’s refreshing to see a Hollywood star who not only has a sense of humor about this stuff but is actually Web-savvy too.

National Mint Julep Day


The Kentucky Derby is always held the first Saturday in May, so you would think that National Mint Julep Day would be held on that day since the famous drink is synonymous with the famous horse race. But it’s actually tomorrow. Food Network has a mint julep recipe that it calls “perfect”. Martha Stewart has a recipe too, and something tells me that she considers hers to be even more perfect. You don’t argue with Martha Stewart.

Seriously, don’t argue with Martha Stewart.

Upcoming Anniversaries and Events

Walt Whitman born (May 31, 1819)
The Walt Whitman Archive has everything you need to know about the life and work of the American poet.

Marilyn Monroe born (June 1, 1926)
Here’s a 1956 interview in The Saturday Evening Post with the blonde movie star.

End of the Civil War (June 2, 1865)
The Saturday Evening Post had extensive coverage of the war. Here’s what we had to say about The Battle of Gettysburg, a “half-time” report from 1863, and here are some little known facts about the war.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee season 6 premiere (June 3)
This season of the comics-get-coffee show starts off with Jerry Seinfeld’s Seinfeld costar Julia Louis-Dreyfus, then the following weeks we’ll see Jim Carrey, Bill Maher, Steve Harvey, new Daily Show host Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert.

Robert F. Kennedy assassinated (June 5, 1968)
The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum site has a biography of the Massachusetts senator, along with transcripts of many of his speeches.

D-Day (June 6, 1944)
SEP Archive Director Jeff Nilsson writes about “The Century’s Best-Kept Secret,” the planned invasion of Nazi-held Europe.

King of Chains

A Harry Houdini poster. Its message reads, "Do Spirits Return?"

Chain, chain, chain, chain, chain, chain
Chain, chain chain, chain of fools.
— sung by Aretha Franklin

The showy, greased handlebar mustache and flashy biceps were unusual on a milkman, but otherwise everything looked kosher: the creaky black wagon with the word Cream painted in white script on the side, the large silver can jostling in the back. The horse was reined in at the service entrance to the Winchester Spirit House. The man shaded his eyes against the bright central California day and looked up and up and up at the never-ending mansion. He said later that it reminded him of an enormous gingerbread house from that fairy tale, gaily painted and vaguely Swiss-looking like that. He recollected the milk can, leapt off the seat, set his knees, and hefted the large silver canister onto the doorstep, mumble-swearing as he eased it down. Flourishing his cap theatrically, revealing a shiny bald head and a gold hoop in his left ear, he asked the servant who answered the door if she wanted him to haul the can into the house for her. She shook her head, said, “Nobody gets in here.” The man climbed back into the wagon, clicked his tongue at the horse. He said later that the place had given him the creepy-crawlies, and he was glad to see the back of it.

The can sat for several minutes in the late afternoon sun. Then servants came out, heaved it up, grumbling to each other, and hauled it into the house. Inside the can, up to his neck in milk, was Harry Houdini.

Please, I’ll explain. That year, 1915, I was covering the San Francisco World’s Fair for The Examiner, my first full-time job as a reporter. We’d been rocked and almost wrecked in 1906, so this celebration showed the world that everything in Frisco was copacetic again. I covered the fair right from the beginning, with headlines like “Wonder of Wonders” and “Heady Times These.” Alexander Graham Bell placed a cross-country phone call; Thomas Edison showed off his storage battery; Henry Ford created an automobile extravaganza. General Electric covered the exhibition in tiny lights; even the boats in the harbor twinkled. The centerpiece of the whole shebang was the Tower of Jewels. One of my stories detailed the 102,000 pieces of glittering multicolored cut Bohemian glass used in its construction.

The World’s Fair was the bee’s knees, as we used to say, but by November, as the fair was winding down, I was having to do a little digging to make my weekly deadline.

I reread the official brochure, and the last paragraph caught my eye: “Do you realize what this exposition means to you? This is the first time in the history of man the entire world is known and in intercommunication. In speaking of the earth, the qualification ‘the known world’ is no longer necessary.”

I was a man of knowledge myself, a member of the socialist party, voted for Eugene Debs, read Upton Sinclair. We believed the truth would set us free. But all the world could not be known quite yet — why then pursue knowledge? Plus, I’d be out of a job. Although so far I’d only written about the exposition, I wanted to be a muckraker like Fremont Older, eradicating humbug and skullduggery. I searched about for some unexplored murky corner of the Great Exposition to shine my light on. And then Houdini came to town.

The King of Chains, the World Famous Self-Liberator, the Elusive American, the Prince of the Air, the Handcuff King, the Jail Breaker. He was a foreigner, and everyone loved him as if he were Yankee Doodle. First he had escaped Hungary, and then, perhaps even harder, he had escaped Appleton, Wisconsin. His father was a rabbi, but he seemed to have liberated himself from his religion, too. And even though he himself was a master of illusion, he worked to unmask the quacksters. He’d even written a book exposing the flimflam of the underworld. Why, he was our national inspiration.

I went to his show at the Orpheum. His dark hair was greased down and parted in the middle, his eyes made up like Sarah Bernhardt’s. He never smiled on stage, so he appeared to be glowering, in possession of mysteries the audience could not fathom. “Welcome, friends,” he began. His voice was deep and his accent slightly British. He hit those fricatives hard. His accent was just another thing he’d escaped.

He performed his world-famous Chinese Water Torture Cell Escape. It was a doozy, fully copyrighted, though I’m not sure what was Chinese about it. His feet were locked into what appeared to be a lid for a great tank of water. The sides of the tank were glass-plated, and inside was a metal cage. They lowered him upside down into the cage inside the tank. Then they locked the lid. His assistant, a bald, burly man with a gold hoop in his ear and a handlebar mustache, stood by with a sledgehammer in case he had to break in to save him from drowning. The curtains closed.

The seconds ticked by. The audience murmured nervously. While Houdini slowly ran out of air, I sat in my velvet-covered seat, holding my own breath and thinking about how I was like Houdini — like him, I’d erased my foreign accent, stopped going to Hebrew school, never went to shul, was taken for a real American. But I was also not like Houdini. I was 25 and still lived with my mother and sister. I had wanted to ride a motorbike across America that next summer, send articles from the road, but my mother had forbidden it — too dangerous, she’d said. I couldn’t hold my breath like Houdini, either. I had to take a gasp of air. I imagined the Great Escape from the Mother Embrace. A mother standing behind the King of Chains, her arms straitjacketing him, Houdini dislocating his own shoulders to free himself. And then I heard the applause start, looked up, and there he was — Houdini, bouncing around in front of the curtain, a free man.

At that very moment the idea came to me, like one of Mr. Ford’s motorcars straight off the assembly line, audacious and gleaming.

When I went backstage to interview Houdini, he was in a heavy floor-length maroon satin robe, untied. Underneath, he still wore his black bathing costume. His legs were hairless and extraordinarily developed. His muscular chest was also shaved, but his forearms gave him away as one of us — covered in wiry black hair just like my own. He was wiping off his eye makeup, which appeared to be greasepaint from the circus. His springy hair was already curling out of the brilliantine. He was a good-looking fellow, if you like the foreigner type, and I hope you do. He sort of hopped on his toes all the time, as if he had so much energy wound up in there he needed to continually let it out in those little hops. Some say the secret to his success was that he was double-jointed, but I think it was that energy — he was a 20th-century dynamo.

When he finished cleaning his face, he pulled an apple out of the pocket of his dressing gown, and began tossing it from hand to hand. His eyes crinkled, and he gave me an easy, pleased-with-himself grin — he had a space between his front teeth. “What can I do you for, bub?” he asked.
And then I heard the applause start, looked up, and there he was - Houdini, bouncing around in front of the curtain, a free man.
My own hands were clenched inside my pockets, something I’d trained myself to do so I didn’t gesture so much. After telling him his show was hunky-dory, I got straight down to business. I pulled him aside and unfolded my scheme. “Say, Mr. Houdini,” I began. In a town called San Jose, just a few hours’ distance from San Francisco, lived the old widow of the Winchester fortune. For 29 years she had been constantly building a house of crazy proportions, supposedly directed by ghosts.

Even from the outside you could tell something was strange. There were 13 stained-glass windows that had 13 panels fashioned in the shapes of spiderwebs. But no one except the servants could get into that house. They say the front door had never been unlocked. This house was the ultimate unknown. No one but the great Houdini could break in and shine a bright light on the hokum that surrounded it.

At first when I told him the scheme, he grinned his amused grin, said in his radio voice, “I’m an escapologist, bub, not a thief. It wouldn’t do for me to be caught breaking into someone’s home, especially a swank widow’s place. Why, I’ve written a book exposing the tricks of thieves. How would it do if I were marked as one myself? Why don’t I just call?” He hopped a bit on his toes, tossed his apple. “I’m sure the old bird would be amused by a call from Harry Houdini.”

I nixed that. I told him that Teddy Roosevelt himself had come to call and was sent away in a huff. While I talked he caught his apple in his mouth and began eating it. I told him I thought we could get worldwide coverage with a story like this. I knew publicity was Houdini’s bread and butter. In my enthusiasm I let my hands fly, outlining the headlines in the air: “‘The King of Chains Reveals Spirit House Is a Sham!’ The world needs to know,” I added.

He seemed to consider, munching thoughtfully. He said, “You say she is in communication with the dead?”

“That’s what they say,” I winked.

He tossed me the skinny core of the apple, sloughed off his dressing gown, and flipped into a handstand right in front of me. I looked down at him grinning up at me. “Is that a yes?” I asked, and he nodded. I slipped the core into my pocket, a souvenir. Two days later, there was Houdini, up to his neck in dairy inside the Winchester mansion. I’d suggested we use water, but Houdini had said milk was a more commodious solution. Sounds echoed strangely in the can. But finally, for seven minutes after he had been carried into the house, he heard nothing at all. Houdini was an expert at keeping time, an essential element of his act, as he later told me.

He popped the locked lid off, don’t ask me how. It fell onto the floor with a clang. He peeped up over the metal lip, his hair dripping milk.

A screech startled him.

A red-faced woman in a big, food-splattered apron, brandishing a wooden spoon, locked her predatory eyes with his for six seconds. Houdini was certain she had done the same with many hapless rats before him. Then she bum-rushed him. She sat down on the top of the can, trapping Houdini inside.

He heard the woman, who had an Irish accent, yell, “I’ve scared up a bogey in the milk.” Then there were a lot of voices. Someone clanged the side of the can, which hurt Houdini’s ears. She ordered some so-and-so named Lacy to fetch Mrs. Winchester. The cook announced loudly that the bogey was a dark devil from the Negro or Arab races. A male voice said, “Could be a genie that grants wishes.” The cook repeated that Lacy had gone to alert Mrs. Winchester. “I’m sure she already knows,” someone else said, and they all quieted down.

I must admit that at this juncture the great Houdini wanted out of the adventure. He was chilled and tired of being wet. He was hungry, as usual. Even more so, he sensed this scheme turning south — he knew what happened to intruders of the so-called darker races. “Meshuganah cup, shyster, donkey’s ass,” he cursed me in both Yiddish and English.

“It’s speaking!” someone said. “What language is that?”

“Arabian.” And there were general knockings on the can. For some reason, this tickled Houdini’s funny bone. He laughed and knocked back, then philosophically lapped up some of the milk he was bathing in.

Finally, after six more minutes, Houdini had enough. He positioned his palms on the considerable bottom. “It’s pinching me, it is!” the cook squealed. Houdini began to lift. There were some appreciative oohs and aahs as Houdini stood, shaking just a little, milk cascading off him, the squealing cook raised above his head. Even while she battered him about the head and shoulders with the wooden spoon, he said, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Harry Houdini.”

The pummeling ceased. He was surrounded by a group of servants: the young woman Lacy, pointing a broom at him; two gardeners, one with a rake and another with a trowel; and a well-dressed old butler hefting a paperweight with a scene of the Alps as his weapon.

“That is the great magician himself. I’ve seen pictures,” said Lacy, lowering her broom.

“Ask him if he grants wishes,” said the man with the rake. “If we was to rub his tummy like.”

Then an ancient voice like chipped china said from behind them, “Kindly lower my cook, Mr. Houdini.”

Houdini brought the beefy woman back to earth. She straightened out her dress and apron, her cheeks aflame.

Free of the weight of the cook, Houdini bowed to an extremely short, veiled woman in a dark hobble dress. She looked like a well-appointed dwarf, thick like that, which made Houdini feel at home, as he’d had several dwarf colleagues when he worked at the Welsh Brothers Circus.

“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” the Widow Winchester asked.

“I’ve come to offer my assistance in your battle with the spirits, madam.”

“Please escort Mr. Houdini out.” And the snooty, miniature widow turned away.

The old butler holding the paperweight stepped forward. “Mr. Houdini, it would be my privilege —”

“Please, wait, Madam Winchester, I implore you,” cried Houdini. “Perhaps it is not you that needs help, but I. I am desperate to contact my dear, darling mother. I am dying with missing her. I never got to say goodbye.”

When Houdini told me this story, he was sitting on a green settee in front of a fire in his hotel room on the afternoon after the incident. He was in white silk pajamas eating a Jewish dish he’d asked the kitchen to prepare specially — sour cream with raw vegetables — Farmer’s Chop Suey. I was perched on an arm of the settee, taking notes. When he told me what he’d said about his mother, I grinned, remarked, “Quick thinking, Mr. Houdini. Did the widow buy it?”

He ignored me, continued to narrate in his deep radio voice between bites. I figured he did not care for interruption, and I tried to keep my mouth shut after that.

Mrs. Winchester looked up at him carefully through the veil. Then she had the butler take him away to be cleaned up in her indoor shower.

For some reason, the only attire they offered him was a Japanese kimono, obviously Mrs. Winchester’s — pink silk with a red dragon, very wide, but only reaching to his knees and elbows. He did not like to complain.

Then he was fed. Houdini sat in the kitchen in his kimono, Lacy and the cook waiting on him. He said that besides the roast, there was crab soup, caviar, and shrimps, which he declined due to his Jewish persuasion, then celery flan and orange fool for dessert. He praised each dish lavishly, and by the orange fool, the cook forgave him for hoisting her by her generous petard. She brought over a pot and three cups, and she, Lacy, and the great Houdini took tea together.

Lacy remarked that she was going to search out other employment. The money wasn’t worth it, she said, if her nerves were to be ruined. She couldn’t go about her job expecting a devil to pop out of a milk can or a phantom foot to emerge from the toilet and kick her in the arse or maybe a ghostly hand might pop out from under a chicken-fried steak.

“Don’t be a fool,” the cook said. “That warn’t no devil, it were Mr. Harry Houdini himself, and you’ll be telling your grandchildren you met him. And you make double the money here cash every day, so lamp along with you.”

Houdini inquired about the origin of the spirit problem in the house. The cook leaned in, whispered, “She’s most likely listening, she is; but since she let you stay, she wouldn’t mind me telling you that way back when she were a girl in New England, she married the Winchester heir, had a baby girl, and then husband and wee babe both upped and died on her. All mysterious it was. A spiritualist told her that her family be cursed by all the dead of the Winchester rifle, and if she didn’t commence to building a house right away, she were done for. In short, if she stops building, the spirits will kill her. And that’s all I’ll say on that subject.”

On they chatted cheerfully, Lacy and the cook trying to get Houdini to reveal the secrets of his escapes, and he trying to get them to reveal the secrets of the spirits, until at midnight a bell sounded all over the house. The two women grew silent. The veiled lady appeared at the door of the kitchen. She beckoned Houdini with a gloved hand.

At this point in the telling of the story, Houdini became agitated. He pushed aside his food, ran his hand through his thick, frizzy hair so that it stood on end. He hopped up from the settee and jumped onto his hands, walked around the hotel room on them, leapt back up. Finally he faced the fireplace, his back to me. “I spent two hours with Mrs. Winchester, and then she returned my bathing costume, freshly laundered, and my milk can emptied and cleaned as well. She graciously ordered round her car to take me back to my hotel. Unfortunately, I had to walk through the lobby in my bathing costume carrying the milk can at dawn. But no one seemed to mind.”

He picked up an iron poker and fenced with it. “The end.”

“The end?” I said.

“More or less.” He continued to vigorously fence his invisible opponent.

“But. You haven’t even described the house. What did you do with her for two long hours?” I shook the writing tablet that I’d been furiously taking notes in. “Finish the story, sir. I implore you.”

He dropped the poker and went back to standing on his hands. “I prefer not to.”

“Please, Mr. Houdini. I need to know.” I didn’t add that I had a deadline to make.

He was still upside down. “If I tell you, you must swear not to write about it.” He balanced on one arm and held his hand out for my notebook.

I had a decision to make, and fast, because I surmised that if he stood up, our conversation would be at an end. Here I must admit I decided that if the story were really good, I would publish it anyway. I had a memory for details. He was balancing on both hands again, so I gently pressed the notebook between his teeth.

He righted himself, spit the little notebook into the fire, reseated himself on the settee, scraped up the last of the sour cream, cleared his throat, and continued. “The house. Labyrinthine. Outrageous. Stairs ending at the ceiling. A stairwell leading to a door that opened onto a wall. A window to another part of the house. An entire wing seemed to be blocked off.” He said there must have been hundreds of rooms, all with the finest decorations, all eerily empty of inhabitants.

Strangest to him was the stairwell that Mrs. Winchester slowly led him up. It was narrow, wound round and round, and had a rise between each stair of no more than an inch and a half, with a railing just a couple feet off the stairs. Perfect for a miniature widow with joint pain.

At what seemed to be the very center of the house, Mrs. Winchester stopped in front of a pale green door. She gave Houdini the once-over again, and then she knocked her cane against his shin, smartly, twice. Making sure he was solid, most likely, he said, and not a spirit got up to look like him. I laughed when he told me that, but he was not in a laughing mood. He’d thrown himself across his bed by this point, flung his arm over his eyes.

Mrs. Winchester nodded and turned and he followed her in. She sat herself down in the small room that contained a table with two chairs, nothing more. The chairs were regular sized, and her feet did not touch the floor, but she had a small velvet-covered stool to rest her feet on. She unveiled herself.

She had a round, jowly face, a lot of gray hair piled on top of her head, a large bosom for one so small, and, Houdini said, very small eyes. She had in front of her one of those children’s novelties, a Ouija board.

Houdini sat down in the other chair.

“You may quietly observe,” she said. “I have most important business to attend.”

“May I inquire about the nature of this business, madam?”

“I must consult the spirits about an addition to the house they lately specified.”

“But why do they insist on this endless production?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I suppose they are bored. Maybe they like to see their plans come to fruition. I know it comforts them.”

“But do you not long to be free of them? I am, forgoing modesty, the greatest escapologist in the world. Perhaps I can assist in your release.”

“And then what should I do?”

Mr. Houdini was a bit at a loss, not being an expert in how rich old ladies spent their time. “Go to the theater?” he ventured. “Give money to charitable institutions? Paint teacups?”

Mrs. Winchester rolled her eyes. “I must begin. It is a laborious process of communication, and I only have two hours.”

“Madness,” I remarked to Houdini.

“Didn’t you demand to know the point of all this useless construction?”

“How could I, when I have dedicated my life to locking myself up and freeing myself for people’s amusement?”

“Can you help me first?” Houdini asked Mrs. Winchester. “I want to speak to my dearest Mamala.”

“Was she killed by a Winchester rifle?” Mrs. Winchester asked.

“She died of a stomach problem, they say, while I was abroad. I never got to say goodbye. But can’t you ask your friends to rummage around for her?”

“They are not my friends,” Mrs. Winchester said. But she asked out loud, “Can you locate Mr. Houdini’s mother?” Then she sat patiently, her fingers lightly touching the planchette, which was wooden and shaped like a heart with a hole at its center. The planchette moved slowly over the board to the word yes.

“How is she?” Houdini said eagerly. “Tell her I love her. Tell her I miss her.”

“Slow down, slow down,” Mrs. Winchester grumbled. She asked, “How is she?”

The planchette was still, then moved over the no, then spelled out english.

“What does that mean?” Houdini asked.

“They can’t understand her. She’s speaking in a foreign tongue.”

“Hasn’t any Jew ever been killed by a Winchester rifle? Tell them to tell her to speak English.”

She said, “Tell her to speak English.” Mrs. Winchester slowly spelled out: what with the shmate?

“Oh.” Houdini looked down at his kimono. “A shmate is a rag.”

“That’s imported Japanese silk,” Mrs. Winchester said. “I need to get to work. They only convene between midnight and 2 a.m. When I’m done, if there’s time, you can speak to your impertinent mother again.”

Mrs. Winchester asked architectural questions aloud, then the Ouija board spelled out the answers. She took notes on a gray tablet with a pencil. Sometimes she argued or asked the Ouija board to be more specific.

Houdini observed politely for 37 minutes. Then he began to crack his neck and fingers, later his toes. He amused himself by doing stretches and calisthenics. Push-ups, sit-ups. He practiced his handstands, then his handstands on one arm. He stretched his head between his legs. He managed a one-armed handstand on the chair.

The Widow Winchester was completely absorbed, not interested in the slightest that the great Harry Houdini was giving her a one-man show. For his part, he declared that watching the old woman work the Ouija board for an hour and 15 minutes was the most boring performance he had ever witnessed.

Finally, he put his head down on the table. Did he fall asleep? He wasn’t sure. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them the room was crowded with the dead. He was absolutely sure they were dead, right away — not because they were vaporous, which they were not; and not even because they floated a little off the ground, just enough so that you could have slid a piece of paper underneath, which they did; and not because they moved about by exhaling a cold, dank breath that propelled them this way and that, according to the way they angled their chins, which they also did — but because they all had terrible gunshot wounds.

Half a face shattered to the bone, the back of the head blasted away, a burst of red on a waistcoat, an arm dangling, useless. They were not active wounds, there was no blood leakage, but they were forever unhealed and disconcerting nonetheless. It was loud in there, too, because they were all arguing with each other and with Mrs. Winchester about their joint building project.

And then, pressed into a corner, Houdini spied a bony-faced old lady with a wisp of a gray topknot wearing a long white nightgown. It was his darling Mama Weisz. Houdini shouldered his way through the busy, grisly group until he reached his little mama. They embraced, held hands; he wept; she stroked his face. By his calculation, factoring in his possible nap, they only had approximately 33 minutes together.

She inquired about his health and about his wife, Bess, but mostly she wanted to talk about food. She told him that was what she missed most — eating. They reminisced about shmaltz herring, kreplach, borscht, fried chicken hearts, pupiks. He grinned at me. “She had such a yen for Farmer’s Chop Suey, it was infectious.

“How I miss her cooking,” he said. “Which is funny, because she really wasn’t a very good cook. Her matzo balls were rocks. Her chicken soup tasted like maybe some hot water that a chicken had rested in for a minute or two before flying on to more important matters.”

They were pressed close by the animated, arguing crowd, whispering to each other. Mama Weisz said Houdini’s breath smelled sweetly of orange zest with a fresh hint of celery. She said the breath of everyone where she was smelled like nothing, or like mud, and anyway breath was used exclusively for locomotion on the other side.

“But Mama, how is it? This afterlife? Is it paradise?”

“It could be worse,” Mama Weisz replied, “but there’s high unemployment, about 100 percent. That’s why these schmucks are so excited.”

“That was when she asked me to breathe on her face,” Houdini said, his voice no longer sounding so British. “We held our hands together, and I breathed, and she closed her papery eyelids and opened her mouth to take in my breath, and she said things like ‘ah’ and ‘warm’ and ‘salty’ and ‘tart’ and then the next thing I knew the bell rang, and I was standing in that corner by myself.” Mr. Houdini lay on the bed with his hands covering his eyes, quiet and still.

“But what then?” I asked.

“Mrs. Winchester slid off her chair and unlocked the door of her séance room. The butler was standing there. ‘Please show Mr. Houdini out,’ she said.” The last thing she’d said to Houdini was “I will make sure my milk is inspected from now on.”

“I was so overcome with my experience, I said nothing,” Houdini whispered. “I didn’t thank her. I didn’t ask to return.”

I felt overcome myself. I sat down on the side of the bed. “But, Mr. Houdini, what do you think really happened? Do you think you were drugged? Do you think she mesmerized you in some manner?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but it was the most important experience of my life.”

To be honest, the whole narrative unnerved me. There seemed no way to uncover the truth. I don’t remember our leave-taking. That week I turned in a piece about the elaborate plans to ship the Liberty Bell back to Philadel- phia after the exposition. I never told Houdini’s story, and for years I put it out of my mind.

The headline for the next 40 years of my life could have been “Heady Times These.” I got married, had three little girls, and my sister and mother lived with us, too. I never rode a motorbike cross-country, but in the ’20s I investigated corruption in the San Francisco mayor’s office and in railroad regulation. In the ’30s I uncovered the plight of the Dust Bowl immigrants; in the ’40s I wrote about imprisoned conscientious objectors; and in the ’50s about the 31 University of California professors fired for not signing anticommunist loyalty oaths.

My mother died in ’38, my sister in ’45. One daughter lives in Paris now with the grandchildren, the other two are singletons in LA. When my wife passed away of the cancer in 1960, I retired to Delray Beach, Florida. Eight years I’ve been here now.

In my senior residence we have the shuffleboard, we have B’nai B’rith. The big sport is playing bumper cars in our Lincoln Continentals to nab the spot closest to the entrance of the restaurant in time for the early-bird special. I like watching The Smothers Brothers; I listen to Aretha Franklin on my record player; and I send money to plant trees in Israel in the names of all my dead relatives. But mostly, I finally have time to look back, turn it all over in my mind — cogitate, so to speak.

For example, I wonder what Houdini would have thought about World War II, about the 6 million of our people who never escaped. Or what Mrs. Winchester would have to say about the millions killed by the M1 produced by the very same Winchester corporation. Imagine how crowded that séance room would be now, how endless that mansion.

As far as I know, Houdini only returned to the Winchester Spirit House one more time, after Sarah Winchester died in her sleep. In 1924 Houdini got himself invited on a tour of the mansion at midnight, but nothing happened — at least that’s what he told the newspapers. In the article he sounded bitter. Houdini himself died in 1926 of a burst appendix. His last request, so they say, was to order out for Farmer’s Chop Suey.

That last request makes me wonder about my own mother, and the mysteries of mothers in general. How did she conjure that endless love for me? What would it be like to be in that séance room, so the Widow Winchester could bring my mother to me, and my sister, and my darling wife, even if just for 33 minutes.

But so far I’ve had no ghostly visitations from my beloveds. Even Houdini and Mrs. Winchester have been silent.

Still, no one was silent back then. What energy we had! What verve! I thought we were so different — I searching for the truth, they trying to escape it. But the truth is, we’re all the same: me, Houdini, Mrs. Winchester — even these young people I see on television, burning their draft cards and their bras and dancing like meshugas to that meshuga music.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 20th century! Take a seat. You will observe such wonders! Mercurial escapes, absurd and endless construction, utopian dreams, outrageous savagery! Wait, we still have some tricks up our sleeve.

Please, don’t go.

Young Valedictorian

I recently was going through our family computer files and found this arresting painting of a little girl that my grandfather did circa 1922 that I had never seen before. It took my breath away. I couldn’t find this image in Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue by Laurie Norton Moffatt. I posted it on my Facebook page on January 1, 2015, not knowing its title, date, or story. From those who commented, I found out that it is titled Young Valedictorian and was most likely painted for the remarkable Edison Mazda series (1920–1927). I believe it was rejected by Edison Mazda, a division of General Electric, because it does not show the source of the ethereal and dramatic light. It illuminates the little girl in such a way that it recalls Rembrandt, one of my grandfather’s guiding beacons.

It reveals a young girl at her graduation — an initiation, a passage — a Holy Communion of sorts. The elders behind her appear somewhat pleased but are not quite present, a bit distracted. She, on the other hand, is very much present and standing in her newfound power, on the cusp of the next unknown chapter in her life. She stands at the edge of the stage. She holds the symbol of her knowledge in her hands, but she is much more than her diploma. My grandfather painted this around the time that women won the right to vote. She seems to stand for this new, exciting chapter in every girl’s and woman’s life. Note the extraordinary care Rockwell took with the individual ruffles in her dress, the diffused light on her face, the glorious light shining down on her expansive bow, turning it into a crown … the light gently hitting the top of the globe beside her. The world of possibility is hers.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Young Valedictorian c. 1922. National Museum of American Illustration collection. © Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Young Valedictorian c. 1922.
National Museum of American Illustration collection.
© Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.

This painting is on display at the National Museum of American Illustration, run by Judy and Lawrence Cutler, a wonderful museum in one those classic mansions from another era in Newport, Rhode Island. You will find Parrish, Leyendecker, Rockwell, Pyle, among others there. I spoke with Ms. Cutler in my quest to find out more about the mysterious painting. It may be titled Young Valedictorian, but my grandfather never titled his paintings, the titles came later, thought up by editors, etc. It is one of the few works of Rockwell’s to apparently remain unpublished; that is why it is so unknown. A spring drive down to Rhode Island may be in order.

Warmest wishes. As always.


Summer Vacation

When planning your summer vacation, you could use a complicated algorithm based on affordability, weather, and entertainment options to find the best destination. But when we put this cover collection together, we started to think that maybe our 20th-century cover artists were onto something. Rarely is the best summer vacation memory about the destination, rather it’s about the people you chose to share that destination with.

Celebrating the summer vacation with these covers of The Saturday Evening Post (click on the covers to see larger image):

The Making of an Athlete

Whenever I mention kayaking in Hawaii, or whitewater rafting in West Virginia or hiking in Death Valley, people ask if I have always been athletic.

My husband Wayne, a very patient person, always lets me respond with whatever half truth pops into my mind – phrases like “dawn workouts” and “endorphin rush” pepper such statements — before he interrupts and I can graciously end by adding “but it’s important to ease into it.”

See, I was athletic at one time. Okay, maybe until age 12. Then there was a bit of a, well, gap. A 17-year gap, give or take a few years. So, yeah, I eased in. A lot.

The idea of restarting my athletic engine surfaced when I met Wayne at the University of Rochester where I worked and he attended graduate school. He spent downtime playing softball, rock climbing, canoeing, biking, running, and whitewater rafting.

My idea of athletics was speed walking to the neighborhood pizzeria – owned by a mother and daughter who gave customers a free cookie with each slice — so I could grab dinner and return to my apartment to watch a DVD of All About Eve, or another classic movie. Suffice to say we knew going in that we had our differences.

But we fell in love fast and were married three months after we met. In our haze of love, Wayne and I brushed away the concerns of others. We jibed on major things — kids (no interest), money (a grad student and an under employed writer? Uh, yeah, interest), politics (He was very involved; I was agnostic), religion (I was fairly involved; he was agnostic), lifestyle (casual but trendy).

We both loved old movies, wine tastings, literature and dinner parties with our easy-to-merge group of friends. And the different interests — especially his athleticism — intrigued me. It was like thinking I should make time to study French whenever I heard a friend speak it. Plus I was 31 and he was 29. We weren’t children. We could work out everything else.

Sure, we hit some bumps. But as Wayne and I kept reminding ourselves, patience was important. I tried to overlook the throat-clogging dust in his home office. He tried to understand that I always run late. We were easing into the whole marriage thing.

It was going so well, in fact, that I was ready to bump things up a level, to show Wayne we had more in common than even he knew. For our first anniversary, I had happily suggested we indulge in some sports fun in Virginia Beach.

“Are you sure? Are you really sure?” he asked several times, as I passed him hotel brochures, shopped for swimwear and scoped out activities. “I know that you’re really not into the beach or sports.”

Hey, what kind of rube did he think I was? I had plenty of happy childhood memories water skiing, swimming and frolicking with my family at the Finger Lakes. I was ready.

My plan was to start out with a bang, so I had thoughtfully pre-booked some activities for our first morning there.

“Wow, they rent rollerblades here, too?” I said as we stood outside the bike rental tent right off the boardwalk. “Let’s reserve some of those for later!” Clearly my enthusiasm knew no bounds.

That faded after about 15 minutes of biking down the perfectly flat path not far from the ocean. I was shouting to Wayne, who was a few yards ahead, as I tried to steer with one hand while blindly grabbing the bottom of my T-shirt with the other in an effort to wipe the sweat from my eyes. He didn’t hear me. I just stopped. My guess is that when my locomotive-like huffing faded, he realized I was finished. He circled back.

“You know, we shouldn’t overdo it the first day,” I said, running my hands through my sweat-soaked hair. “Let’s head back. I’m really anxious to try those rollerblades.”

If nothing else, Wayne got a terrific workout from the rollerblades. “No, just hold me up a bit longer,” I said as he combined cradling and pushing to move me along for a few minutes until I assured him I had my sea legs and was ready to solo.

As he skated slowly away — backward of course — I felt my feet start to go out from under me as he swooped back to steady me.

“You know what? Why don’t I just go to that bench and wait for you?” I said, noting that there was likely something wrong with the skates I had rented. “I’m sure our time is almost up anyway.”

In fact, our one-hour skate rental still had 50 minutes to go, even after Wayne took a few solo spins.

“The fellow at the store said these things happen all the time,” Wayne said after dropping off the devil blades. “Don’t worry about it. We can try it later if you want. He gave us a credit. Let’s just go back to the hotel.”

It was while walking back that I saw the sign for the jet ski rentals. “Now that is something I’ve always wanted to do!” I proclaimed, desperate to make this work. “Please, please, please?”

Mind over matter sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? I was hot and tired and my legs ached, sure, but water spraying up from a jet ski would revitalize me physically and psychologically. I had seen people of all ages and sizes enjoying jet skis. The water, the salt air, the sea gulls. What’s not to like?

“Since your wife has never ridden a jet ski, I’ll go too, just as a precaution,” said the California-tanned instructor as he led us to two separate jet skis before he climbed into a small speed boat, pulled down his mirrored sunglasses, gunned the engine, and was off.

Poor Wayne. He started his jet ski and maneuvered right behind the instructor’s boat, slowed only when he looked over his shoulder to monitor my progress.

“Just GO!” I kept yelling as fear swelled in my throat and I mumbled profanities under my breath, truly wondering if I’d drown as water slapped my calf. And just how big were those swooping sea gulls, anyway? Images of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds floated through my mind. “I’m fine! Really! Go!”

It was maybe a minute later that I heard shouting from the dock. I later realized the bellows came from the fisherman whose lines I had severed when I drove too close. I wish I could tell you that I’m joking when I mention that I also severed the lines on my return trip. By then I was so terrified, I didn’t even notice their screams.

Little did I know Wayne was facing his own terror. A few minutes after I screamed at him to “Go!” he looked back and I was the one who was gone.

He had no idea I had retreated. He began to circle the instructor’s boat, shouting that they needed to return and find me.

I was near hysteria as Wayne glided up to my jet ski and tried to help me dock. The instructor shouted for him to move back, then jumped from his boat onto a floating tire and somehow pulled me in. Details of my rescue are a bit foggy, but I recall wondering if I had been too hasty in considering death as a negative outcome. I mean, people were stopping to look. Children were pointing.

I surely looked like a toddler taking her first steps — complete with red eyes, a runny nose, and messy hair — as I awkwardly dismounted my now silenced nemesis and wobbled, arms out, toward Wayne who stood waiting, towel in hand.

As Wayne consoled me — “Poor baby. I’m so sorry” — I caught the jet ski instructor rolling his eyes.

I was mortified but whatever. I just wanted out of there.

“We need to start you out slowly,” Wayne said as he guided me back to the car. “I think walking is really your sport for now.”

It sounds crazy, I know, but Wayne wasn’t kidding. And neither was I. While my enthusiasm, at least to that point, was high, my abilities were, well, what’s way beyond low? So we started out walking, then walking faster, than hiking. As I came to enjoy exercise, I tried more things. Some were right for me (cross country skiing, whitewater rafting). Others, like rock climbing, aren’t.

You know what’s funny? While we’ll never share all interests, we try to appreciate if not enjoy them. That was all part of easing into enjoying sports, and life, together after a rapid-fire courtship.

“You know, I just love being active,” I say to those who ask. And I always see Wayne smile when I do. After all, he knows how much I mean it when I say it’s important to “ease in.”

Faith Under Fire: Solving the Mystery of a Combat Photo

Andy Vaart remembers seeing the photo of our friend and fellow Marine Lee Roy Herron as “the most unforgettable moment” of his life. It was March 1969:

“I had finished class that afternoon and returned to my apartment,” Vaart recalls. “There, I opened my latest copy of the Navy Times. As I leafed through it I happened on a photograph. … The picture showed a small group of Marines in a prayer service, men sitting on boxes before a chaplain on a denuded hilltop with a helicopter unloading ammunition in the background. I recognized Lee immediately, sitting in the picture’s foreground. As I marveled at the photograph, the telephone rang.”

On the other end was a Marine officer calling from Texas, telling Vaart that Lee Roy Herron — the friend he had just recognized in the Navy Times — was dead, killed in battle on February 22. The officer was calling on behalf of Lee’s wife, Danelle, to request that Vaart accompany Lee’s body to Lubbock for burial.

Years later Vaart would speak about the photo at a memorial ceremony honoring Herron: “In my experience, never has a photograph captured the spirituality of men at war as well as this one. That Lee should last be photographed in that way speaks more about him than I could possibly offer.”


I first saw the photograph in 2000.

Lee Roy Herron and I met in junior high school in Lubbock, Texas, and remained buddies through college. In 1966, we both attended Marine officer training in Quantico, Virginia. When we received our commissions, I chose the Marine Corps law program. Lee chose the infantry and was sent to Vietnam.

But there was something unusual about the picture. According to the Navy Times, the photograph of Lee was taken on January 26, 1969, at Fire Base Razor. But I knew Lee had been stationed at Fire Base Shiloh.

marines in prayer at Fort Base Razor

I first saw the photograph in 2000. But there was something unusual about the picture. According to the Navy Times, the photograph of Lee Roy Herron (head bowed in prayer, far right) was taken at Fire Base Razor. But I knew Lee had been stationed at Fire Base Shiloh.
Colonel Fox offered one possible explanation: Perhaps Lee Roy voluntarily traveled over 10 kilometers of enemy territory just to attend a church service. (Photo by Marine Pfc C.E. Sickler Jr. first appeared in the Navy Times March 5, 1969)

Looking for answers, I sent a copy of the photo to retired Marine Colonel and Medal of Honor recipient Wesley Fox. He had been Lee’s company commander in Vietnam and had written the citation for Lee Roy’s posthumous Navy Cross.

Like me, Colonel Fox was unable to identify the location. Also, he didn’t recognize the chaplain in the photo. Whoever was standing by the altar was not the chaplain assigned to his battalion. But he had no trouble recognizing Lee Roy. He wrote:

David, I got the picture loud and clear. That is Lee in prayer, the scene is at battalion, as that is an 81 mortar set up in the pit. The beaten area looks like the A Shau Valley and Op Dewey Canyon, but that high ground behind does not fit.I cannot place this unless it is the Khe Sanh area right after Christmas. But then, Lee didn’t let distance keep him from his touch with God.

This could be with another battalion as our 1/9 [First Battalion, Ninth Marines] chaplain quit as we stepped off in the attack. We went the entire operation without the man of God.

I found more details about the chaplain and Lt. Herron in Fox’s 2011 book, Six Essential Elements of Leadership:

As our battalion crossed the line of departure in our movement forward on Operation Dewey Canyon in the A Shau Valley, our battalion chaplain had declared himself a heat casualty. Before we left our first night position, and very convenient for him, he walked to our helicopter landing zone to catch the next bird out. He had told our battalion commander that he could not continue with the operation, that he was overcome by heat. (Maybe, it was a warm night, and sleeping does use some energy, but the days surely got hotter for the rest of us.) My rifle company was last off the hill, and we walked by that chaplain standing with his head down in the landing zone as our battalion moved into our attack.

Lee always brought up the rear of my company during our movements while I was at the front, so I wasn’t with him as he passed that chaplain on the landing zone. But I know it hit him hard to see a man of the cloth quit on us. One-nine went in the attack without our official chaplain, but we had a man of the Lord with us. Lee assumed the responsibility on his own and went above and beyond the call of duty to arrange and hold spiritual meetings. He assured that counseling was available to all Marines who wanted it.

Lee’s dedication to his Marines continued into combat, which is reflected in his Navy Cross citation:

Aware that the fire from two mutually supporting hostile machine guns was holding his Marines in place and preventing the removal of the casualties, he completely disregarded his own safety as he exposed himself to North Vietnamese fire to direct a light antitank assault round which scored a direct hit on one of the machine gun bunkers. Boldly leaping to his feet, he fearlessly charged across the fire-swept terrain to hurl hand grenades and fire his weapon against the enemy emplacement, killing nine North Vietnamese soldiers who were in the bunker. While directing his men in the assault on the remaining bunker, First Lieutenant Herron was mortally wounded.

During our conversation, Colonel Fox offered one possible explanation of the photo: Perhaps on that Sunday morning in 1969, Lee Roy flagged down a helicopter going from Shiloh to Razor and voluntarily traveled over 10 kilometers of enemy territory just to attend a church service.

For information that would confirm the colonel’s theory, I enlisted the assistance of then commandant of the Marine Corps, General James L. Jones in July 2000. Within a few weeks, Gen. Jones sent me an original copy of the photo, made from the January 26, 1969, negative in the Library of Congress.

On the back of the photo, along with a note of the location (Fire Support Base Razor) was the name of the chaplain, Salvatore Rubino, who was assigned to the Razor artillery unit, Second Battalion of the 12th Marine Regiment — not the 1/9 chaplain as I had suspected.

I was able to locate Chaplain Rubino, who had retired as a Navy captain. Rubino searched his old letters and found one he had sent to his wife on the day the photo was taken:

We landed at Fire Base Razor yesterday at 1600. This fire base is high on a mountain at approximately 2,000 feet and is located in the A Shau Valley. This fire base, as all the others, was created by an initial bombing from the air, followed by tractors (which were flown in by helicopter) which smoothed the mountain top to accommodate our 105 mm artillery pieces, mortars, ammunition, C-rations, water and personnel. As always, 2/12 supports the 9th Marine Regiment.

This morning I conducted religious services at Fire Base ‘Razor’ and offered communion to the 9th Regiment Headquarters. A photographer was there to take a picture during the service. I think the paper was The Sea Tiger, published by the Fleet Amphibious Force. I am not sure whether the pictures he took will ever be published.

In his letter to me, Chaplain Rubino provided additional background:

The picture itself speaks thousands of words. There was the utter desolation and destruction all around. There was the noise. Often, even during worship services, firepower was called in and the guns would roar. We were tired, and some were more exhausted than others. I recall that just before I served communion, a helicopter approached to deliver ammunition. The wind generated by the rotor was so strong that I had to cover the chalice with my hands to keep it from flying away. I was even afraid that the alter—made up of five C-ration boxes and four ammo-boxes — would bite the dust.

Chaplain Rubino went on to say that he did not recall Lee specifically. That made perfect sense, since Lee was not assigned to Razor. However, he did have a recollection of one Marine attending that day’s service.

That day, the men seated on those C-ration boxes with their heads bowed, transformed that place into hallowed ground — a cathedral in the middle of nowhere. As the men received communion I saw tears touching their cheeks as they worshipped God. One Marine, whose glasses I vividly remember, had dropped to the dusty ground because of the helicopter, came to me at the end of the service, shook my hand, and said from the bottom of his heart, ‘Thank you, Chaplain, for bringing God to such an ungodly place.’ If that Marine was indeed Lee Roy I am certain that God knows it.


Recently I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. While touring the section of the museum dedicated to the Vietnam War, I noticed a wall devoted to honoring Navy chaplains who served in Vietnam. The top photograph on that wall was the one taken on January 26, 1969 — the same one that includes Chaplain Rubino and my buddy Lee Roy Herron. What a fitting tribute to have that photo displayed perpetually in a prominent museum.

The Racers’ Edge

Indianapolis, Thursday May 21 — The track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is fairly quiet, until it isn’t. Drivers are doing practice runs and each time one goes by, the air is scorched by the noise. Or maybe a better word is ripped. The human reaction to the din is purely physical. One is instinctively on alert — it’s an adrenaline burst. Yet when you meet the drivers, you are struck by how calm they are — not at all like the thrill-seekers one has known. Which is a reminder that this is not a game; it’s a job. Here’s how the fastest drivers in the world go to work.

James Jakes

James Jakes (Photo by Walter Kuhn)
“The most nerve-wracking part of the race is the lead up into it.” —James Jakes
(Photo by Walter Kuhn)


James Jakes was born in Great Britain. The 27-year-old started racing in 2002 and began driving IndyCars in 2011.

The Saturday Evening Post: To an average person, it would seem thrilling, even terrifying, to ride at these speeds.

JJ: To be honest it just comes very naturally. You’re doing so much more in the car than just driving. You know, you have all your tools to play with in the car, you’re getting instructions from your team, not only about your position but about your engine, and much more, so the driving comes naturally really. You just fall into a groove.

SEP: You’re calm?

JJ: Yes, the worst part, the most nerve-wracking part of the race is the lead up into it. As soon as the green flag goes, everyone’s in their element. You just get in the car and do what you have to do. Actually, on Sunday I will be wearing a heart rate monitor, so you’ll be able to see how calm I am.

Conor Daly

Conor Daly (Photo by Mike Harding)
“You’re fully fueled by adrenaline.” —Conor Daly
(Photo by Mike Harding)


Conor Daly, 23, is the son of professional race car driver Derek Daly. He started racing go-karts as a 10-year-old, and in 2005 Kart Racers of America named him Junior Driver of the Year. In 2008, he graduated to race cars. He made his debut in IndyCars in 2013.

SEP: How important is fitness? To the average person, you’re just driving a car.

CD: Exactly! That’s the biggest thing we try to change people’s thoughts on. We train every day. It’s not just your arms or your neck, it’s also your legs, your core. You’re putting 1,500 pounds of pressure on the break pedal every lap.

SEP: Traveling that speed, do you have a sense of the adrenaline rush?

CD: You’re fully fueled by adrenaline. When you’re at that limit, you’re at the verge of life or death — because in the end it is a dangerous sport. That’s part of the reason I love racing — the adrenaline, the fear, the speed. So you definitely feel it. Especially here. The first time I raced at Indy, every lap I was thinking to myself, You know what? This is pretty fast! And I love it. I love every bit of it.

SEP: You’re from a racing family. How important is that?

CD: My dad was a racer. And I have racing in the family, racing in the blood. He was my manager for a long time. He guided me through the road to get here. And he’s a smart guy.

SEP: What specifically would he tell you after a race?

CD: He’s not intrusive, but after a race he may say, “You know what, here’s what this guy was doing.” Or “You might not have seen this line” or whatever. So it’s cool to have him on my side.

SEP: What’s the main difference between highway driving and racing?

CD: Everything. It’s literally a world of difference.

SEP: Yeah, but anyone can get in a car and drive really fast.

CD:Okay, here’s a good way to think of it. Every car does the same thing. It goes, it stops and it turns left and right. Ours do the same thing, but at a lot faster rate. I can’t even begin to describe the difference that makes.


Charlie Kimball

Charlie Kimball (Photo by Dana Garrett)“It [diabetes] does not define me, but it’s part of the description of who I am.” —Charlie Kimball
(Photo by Dana Garrett)


Charlie Kimball has been racing Indy cars since 2011. He is also the first licensed driver with diabetes in the history of IndyCar racing.

SEP: How does your diabetes affect your driving?

CK: Diabetes is not part of the conversation, because if I do my job right, it literally is just another part of me. I’m Charlie Kimball. I was born in England; I grew up in America; I’m married; I have diabetes. It does not define me, but it’s part of the description of who I am.


Ryan Briscoe

Ryan Briscoe (Photo by Chris Jones)“To get called up because of something like that sort of tames your excitement a little bit.” —Ryan Briscoe
(Photo by Chris Jones)


33-year-old Ryan Briscoe replaced James “Hinch” Hinchcliffe, who suffered a horrific crash that very nearly took his life during an Indy 500 practice on Monday, May 18, before the race. Briscoe, an Australian IndyCar driver with 129 total starts and seven victories, got a last-minute call to fill the seat. Sunday will be his 10th appearance at the 500. In previous starts, he finished fifth twice.

SEP: What’s it like to come in on such short notice?

RB: I’m excited to be the one to have been chosen to fill in for Hinch. But to get called up because of something like that sort of tames your excitement a little bit. It’s terrible for Hinch and my thoughts are with him. And fortunately he’s doing great — he’s recovering already better than anyone expected. Which is really fantastic news.

SEP: How challenging is this situation workwise? Practicing for an hour before the biggest race day in the world?

RB: At this point my mind’s on the race and hopefully I’ll go out and do a good job. I’m comfortable. There’s not a funny feeling about the car. I feel good about it. Got familiar with the buttons on the steering wheel, and you know, braking coming into the pits, and doing a couple of pit stops. I’ve just got to be really focused in next couple days so I don’t miss anything that’s important, and so I don’t find myself scratching my head about something on Sunday.

SEP: What about the suit you’re wearing? Did they make it for you on short notice?

RB: It’s Hinch’s and it fits perfect! Next time I get something made, I’ll just say, “give me Hinch’s measurements.” I’ve never measured myself for a suit and had it fit as well as this one does.

SEP: Can you talk about the physical fitness that is required of a driver?

RB: Fitness is a big part of our lives. It’s kind of like our everyday job is being in the gym and working out, and the fun part of the job is going to the racetrack and driving race cars. For these cars, probably more than for any other race car in the world, I’d say, pure strength is important. We don’t have power steering. We’ve got so much downforce coming through the steering column; it’s like driving a 5-ton truck basically. So, you need to be strong, but you also need endurance. This race is more mentally fatiguing than physically fatiguing. You have to be mentally prepared to maintain that concentration for such a long time at these speeds. Any little mistake is very costly.

News of the Week: The Real Shakespeare, Real Reporters, and the Real Thing

Is This What Shakespeare Really Looked Like?

Image of Shakespeare
Image of Shakespeare from a 17th-century book on botany

The biggest mystery about William Shakespeare used to be the theory that it was actually Sir Francis Bacon that wrote the plays the Bard is famous for. Now there’s another controversy: Has the real face of Shakespeare finally been found?

Honestly, I didn’t even know that this was a mystery. I always thought we knew what Shakespeare looked like. Of course, I’m basing this on years and years of TV shows and movies, but I had no reason to think that it wasn’t accurate. But now botanist and historian Mark Griffiths says in Country Life that the image found in a 17th-century book on botany is the “first and only known demonstrably accurate portrait” of Shakespeare.

Of course, a lot of other historians aren’t convinced. Not only is this not the first time someone has claimed to find the “real” image of Shakespeare, this image was found in a book on botany, and some people don’t know why he would have been in such a book.

Can a Machine Replace a Reporter?


One day, everything you read online and maybe even offline (if there is such a thing as offline in the future) will be written by a computer program. Well, okay, maybe not, but it’s not like news organizations aren’t trying.

There are companies creating programs and apps that actually write some of the news stories you read on Yahoo! and the Associated Press. A reporter for NPR, Scott Horsley, decided to challenge one of these programs — with the friendly, innocuous name WordSmith — to see who could write the story quicker and if anyone could tell the difference. Here are the results.

I find this a scary development. Not just the fact that real reporters could see their jobs taken away some day, but also the fact that people think the style and personality of a writer can be duplicated 100 percent. I guess it’s the speed and information they see as the important thing, and it’s only being used for certain stories right now. If this does happen, in 50 years we’ll just be a race of people that consumes news but doesn’t write any of it.

Of course, you have no idea if this very column is being written by … BUFFERING BUFFERING … a computer program. There’s really no way you can tell 01010101010101010101010101010 is there?

The ‘Mad Men’ Finale Explained

It has become commonplace to announce in a review or essay about a TV show that there are spoilers about to be revealed. I’ve never understood that, because if I’m reading a review of a TV show I’m just going to assume that, you know, what’s in the TV show is going to be revealed. Having said that, SPOILERS FOLLOW SO RUN FOR YOUR LIVES IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MAD MEN FINALE YET.

At the end of the episode, we see Don Draper, who has left everything and everyone behind, meditating on top of a hill in Northern California with several other people in an Esalen-ish retreat. Don has his legs crossed and is in the middle of an “oooooooooommmmm” chant when the camera comes in on his face and he smiles knowingly. We hear a “ding” and immediately the classic “Hilltop” Coca-Cola commercial comes on the screen. End of show.

I think it’s pretty clear what happens: Don gets the idea for the commercial, realizes who he is, and goes back to New York City and creates the ad for McCann Erickson. It’s a positive, non-cynical ending. But so many people online, both critics and casual fans, are seeing the ending as not only cynical and defeatist but also ambiguous. You mean Don learned nothing and goes back to advertising? Does Don create the ad or is it Peggy? Does Don stay at the retreat and change his life again? Is the ad just thrown on the screen because it was released around this same time and involved a hillside full of people and has nothing to do with Don?

Honestly, I think the ending we see is the ending we got. Shows like Lost have changed the way we watch television and what we expect from a series finale, and not for the better. There’s not always a “mystery” to what we see. We have to judge the ending by the information we’re given. It’s almost as if fans and critics are writing some sort of Mad Men fan fiction to “explain” the ending, envisioning what the scene really means and what happens 30 minutes, 30 hours, 30 days after Don smiles. Sure, a lot of things could have happened, but how are we to know? We have to judge it by what happened in the episode (and in the other episodes this season).

For the record, Mad Men star Jon Hamm agrees with me.

And creator/writer Matthew Weiner clarified the ending in a talk with writer A.M. Homes at the New York Public Library on Wednesday night, saying he’s “not for ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake” and (talking about Don and the Coke ad) “the idea that someone in an enlightened state and not just co-option might have created something that is very pure.”

‘Steve Jobs’ Teaser Trailer

Another highlight of the Mad Men finale was the debut of the first trailer for Steve Jobs, the biopic of the Apple Computer guru directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network). Interesting that for the trailer they’re showing latter-day Jobs with the lighter hair and not younger Jobs:

National Wine Day


I’m a red wine guy. The few times I’ve had white I’ve regretted it and I’ve run back to my Cabernet Sauvignons. But for this Monday, National Wine Day, I’ve decided I’m going to try to get into white wine. I want something light, something smooth, something that won’t scare me off, something very drinkable. Any suggestions?

And by the way, don’t confuse National Wine Day with National Drink Wine Day, which is February 18. I don’t know what the difference is (is there something else you can do with wine besides drink it?), but there you go.

Upcoming Anniversaries and Events

The Indianapolis 500 (May 24)

This is the 99th race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

First Major League Baseball night game (May 24, 1935)

There were baseball games played at night before 1935, but this was the first official Major League Baseball game played under the lights.

Brooklyn Bridge opens (May 24, 1883)

Today is the 131st anniversary of the opening of the iconic New York bridge.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula published (May 26, 1897)

You can read the classic horror novel online for free at Project Gutenberg.

Golden Gate Bridge opens (May 27, 1937)

The official site has a complete history of the bridge and information if you’re thinking making a visit.

The Humvee

Floorboards coated with desert sand, the space grows dim and tight as I climb into the passenger seat and the iron door slams shut. Then something unexpected as the Lt. Colonel turns the key and the Humvee’s engine clatters to life — the faint scent of a soldier’s sweat. Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m no clairvoyant, yet I cannot deny the spirit, or whatever you want to call it — ghost, angel, the supernatural presence — of a young soldier rattling about the cab.

I try to shake the dissonance, the vision of mine traps and explosions and young men at war. I turn around in my seat, say something to my young son as he bounces around the backseat touching gadgets and looking out the window, but my voice is lost somewhere between the bullet-stung glass and hardened steel. Unsettled, I turn my attention to the Lt. Colonel on my left. Highly decorated, the Lt. Colonel has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Lt. Colonel has survived war. And yet today he has been gracious enough to grant a 6-year-old boy’s wish to take a ride in a United States Army Humvee. Handsome he is, that Lt. Colonel.

Beyond the river and pock-marred road, the Lt. Colonel steers the Humvee down a country road where tumescent clouds and trees the color of sunlit honey stretch high above our heads — so far (we are) from deserts, so far (we are) from war. I pretend to look out the window, while my eyes really are watching him. Eyes straight ahead, hands strong on the wheel as he steers the Humvee, tires crunching down the gravel road. I have a question, too personal (I think) to ask, best (for now) it stay tangled on my tongue.

We make a turn, and behind me the gunner’s swing sways to and fro, tap-tap-tap, the swing bumps against my shoulder. A chill runs through me. I’m here, right here — try as you might, you can’t ignore me!

For just a moment we three fall silent, and then the sun shines down through a break in the clouds. The question I’m afraid to ask bobs on my lips like a walnut dropped down a wishing well. I like the Lt. Colonel. He is kind. Don’t get me wrong, he has fought wars and won battles and saved many, many lives, although he does not speak of any of this as I’d imagined he might. Indeed, I have to gently rap my knuckles against his bolted door and even then, will he answer? And yet, and yet somehow I know that if I needed to be saved, (for sure) he’d be my man. A giddy thought. For a moment, the woman in me wants to be saved by the Lt. Colonel. Not from war, but from this tender longing. God, I am such a girlie and my hair … so long and curly. I chastise myself when I realize what I’m thinking. The Lt. Colonel is a fine, fine man. And I’m a naughty … Screech. The brakes whine as we come to a halt. I stop, soon as I realize I’ve been caught twirling my hair. He raises one brow and gazes a second too long. My son’s head pops between the seats, grinning. I smile. The Lt. Colonel is a fine man. “Lt. Colonel,” I say.

“Jim,” he corrects me.

“Jim,” I begin again, and then I ask him the question that’s been on my mind ever since I met him. “How do you do it? How does a good man like you survive war?”

Too soon, my ride in the Humvee is over and like a band of squinting wombats we all clamor out of the Humvee into the sunlight. Right then and there, before I even slam shut the heavy iron door I make up my mind to remember my ride in the Humvee and the Lt. Colonel’s humble answer to my question.

Days pass. I don’t forget. Last night I had a dream about a Humvee kicking up a trail of dust across the desert, and in the morning I try not to think about turrets, or young boys who grow up to be soldiers. I try not to think about rifles and war, or how brave the heart of a man to want to serve and protect his country — our country, but that’s just not possible — not since I took a ride in a Humvee.

Honoring Our Heroes

Lest we forget: Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, Memorial Day was observed on May 30 until 1971 when Congress declared it a national holiday and moved it to the last Monday in May.
Lest we forget: Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, Memorial Day was observed on May 30 until 1971 when Congress declared it a national holiday and moved it to the last Monday in May. (Photo by Bill Shrout, © SEPS)

An excerpt of this article appeared in the May/June 2015 issue; the article was originally published as “In Memoriam” in The Saturday Evening Post on June 2, 1956.

From Arlington to remote prairie shrines to foreign fields, America provides resting place for her fallen sons. Now, on this poignant 30th day of May, we revive the memory of heroes with living blossoms.

Jimmy Collins was a long way from home when a Japanese machine gun cut him down in 1944. He died in New Guinea, at 27, then returned to lie forever in Kansas earth. Each year on Memorial Day his father and mother drive 70 miles from their farm to Fort Scott National Cemetery. With Jimmy’s parents in this photograph are three little Collinses who also came to honor the uncle they never knew.

Long after the agony of Bunker Hill, Bull Run and Bastogne, the dead lie in peace. They and their comrades have left us names the world can never forget — Shiloh, Chateau-Thierry, Iwo Jima, the Normandy beachhead and the Pusan Perimeter. We gave the ground they lie in; they hallow it. Afternoon shadows lengthen on Memorial Day, somewhere faintly a bugle blows taps, and we renew the resolve Abraham Lincoln bequeathed us — that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Memorial Day

To many U.S. citizens, Memorial Day unofficially marks the first day of summer — the pool’s open, school’s out, and the barbecue pit is ready. But before firing up the pit or diving into that pool, schedule time this Memorial Day to honor the young men and women of the U.S. military who gave their lives on the world’s battlefields and to pay tribute to those U.S. veterans who are no longer with us.

With this special cover collection, the Post honors those we’ve lost.

Commemorating Memorial Day with these covers of The Saturday Evening Post (click on the covers to see larger image):

Nature Is Trying to Kill Me

If there were a 12-step program for my particular problem, I’d introduce myself this way: “Hi, my name is Cheryl, and I’m a recovering nature-phobe. It has been 38 years since my last traumatic hiking experience.”

I was 8 years old at the time, and finally deemed mature enough to join my father, his buddy Bert, and my older sister Michele on their annual backpacking trip along the Tuolumne River. As I trudged down the foot-wide trail through a forested canyon, my dad walking ahead of me, my sister and Bert behind, I was puffed up with pride and full of questions like How long is this trail? When can I eat my snack? When do I get to sit down? When are we gonna get there?

Each question received a one-word, grunting response from Dad, which confused me until my sister hissed, “Shut up,” through gritted teeth, indicating that my chattering was a major breach of some unspoken backpacking etiquette.

So I shut up. Until I heard an unusual sound, coming from a trailside bush that my dad had just walked past. Something like a rattling sound. I stopped beside the bush and said, to my dad’s back, “What’s that sound?”

My half-deaf father turned his good ear toward me and asked, “What sound?”

I pointed to the bush, “That sound.”

I don’t remember anyone actually saying the word rattlesnake. All I remember is my dad launching into this series of slow-motion ninja moves. He swept his left arm around and placed his palm on my chest, easing me away from the bush, while his right hand reached for the holster on his hip.

Oh yeah, the holster. The gun. The fact that my dad was packing heat didn’t faze me. He carried a firearm on every family car camping trip, every daytime fishing excursion, every family vacation in a condo at Lake Tahoe. Why? Because you never know. That’s why.

So I was used to guns, but I had never actually watched my dad shoot one. When I saw him reaching for the holster, his eyes laser-beam focused on the unnamed threat coiled in that bush, my 8-year-old brain said, Something very dangerous is happening.

And I responded like any seasoned hiker would. I screamed, burst into tears, turned tail, and sprinted back up the trail toward the Pinto station wagon we had left parked on the remote dirt road up there. That is, I intended to sprint, but a fist gripped my backpack holding me in place, and my sister, to whom it belonged, hissed in my ear, “Stay here,” with such authority that I stayed.

Hands pressed to my face, I watched through splayed fingers as my dad aimed the pistol toward the bush, his face transforming into an expression that could only mean I’m gonna get you sucka, and shot two canon-loud blasts into a snake I never did see.

Then, pulling a page from the trauma manual entitled If You Pretend Nothing Happened No One Will Be Scared, my dad turned toward me — my tear-streaked face, my trembling body — and said, “What’s the problem?” He shrugged and continued walking toward camp.

Now I realize that my response to this situation was probably personality-specific. Some kids would be all “Dude! My dad’s a freakin’ hero!” I, on the other hand, thought this: “Oh my god, nature is trying to kill me.”

Enter nature-phobia. I spent the rest of the backpacking trip terrified. Every stick on the ground was a snake. Every leaf that fell from a tree was a poisonous insect flying at me. Every rustle in the bushes was a rabid badger thirsty for my blood.

That weekend I learned that nature was a dangerous threat. But I learned something else, too. At night, lying in my sleeping bag, looking up at the sky, I learned that out beyond the light pollution of the city I could see more stars than I ever knew existed. And they seemed closer somehow, like I could reach out and touch one. Seeing that made me feel both expansively large and very, very small. Under that glittering canopy, I listened to Bert, somewhere in the dark of our camp, playing his harmonica, songs I’d never heard before, their slow notes rising to the heavens, until I fell asleep.

I had no word to attach to that feeling back then, but now I do: reverence. I grew hungry for it.

And therein lies the problem: I loved nature as much as I feared it.

This conflict has played itself out in many ways throughout my life. But it really came to a head in college, when I was hanging out with a group of friends who loved to go hiking. I wanted to love to go hiking — wanted the reverence, finally, to eclipse the fear — so I tagged along.

Those hikes would start out peacefully enough. I’d have my backpack looped onto my shoulders, my snacks, my water bottle, my birding book, my binoculars — ready to love the great outdoors. I’d be chattering in my head about the crisp beauty of the fresh morning air, the hyper-blue sky, the birdsong emanating from the canopy of trees, and then WHAM! Something would startle me.

“What was that?!I’d gasp.

“A squirrel?” my friends would say.

Oh, yeah, squirrel, I’d think. Then I’d start chanting: just a squirrel, just a squirrel, just a squirrel, my heart pounding like shoes in a dryer. I’d take a few deep breaths, start to calm down and then WHAM! Something would skitter across the trail and I’d be all, “What was that?!”

“A lizard?” my friends would say.

“Oh, yeah, okay,” I’d nod. And the whole process would start all over again.

After several near misses with squirrels and lizards and butterflies and mourning doves, a half-mile into the trail, my adrenaline would be pumping so hard that my eyeballs would be pounding to the rhythm of my heartbeat, and I’d know there would be no calming myself down. So rather than twitching my way along the trail like a junky in withdrawal, I’d abort the hiking mission, choose the most patient friend in the group, and ask him or her to walk me back to the parking lot, where I would eat my bagel and sip my water in the relative peace of my Mercury Lynx.

Ugh. The frustration. So badly, I wanted to revel in my love of nature without the knee-buckling fear. So I started reflecting on the origins of said fear. One day, while hiking up near Bolinas (the town where Alfred Hitchcock filmed — ahem — The Birds?), I shared some of my thoughts with a friend, “You know what’s weird?” I asked.

“No, what?” he responded.

“When we go hiking, we don’t carry a gun,” I said.

“You know what’s weird?” he countered.

“What?” I asked.

“Your dad does.”

Revelation No. 1: Apparently, most people don’t carry guns while hiking well-marked trails in state parks. Huh. So, as logic might follow, maybe what we were doing wasn’t actually all that dangerous?

I decided to press the issue, asking, “But what would we do if we saw a rattlesnake?”

“We’d turn around and walk the other way?” my companion suggested.


Revelation No. 2: You don’t need to go storming through nature, guns a blazin’; you could just, you know, respect it.

Okay. Now I was getting somewhere.

High on my two revelations and eager to put them into play, one day I decided to try a solo hike. This wasn’t a well-thought-out plan; it was more of an impulsive, Hey, there’s a trailhead, and I have 20 minutes free sort of a thing. So yes, I was wearing flip-flops and a sundress, and I had no water or snacks, but I figured all the better. Maybe hiking didn’t need to be a big expedition? Maybe it could just be like a peaceful walk around the neighborhood?

Up the trail I went.

To my surprise, I was feeling pretty darned comfortable, enjoying the early summer breeze, hiking amongst the mountain bikers, runners, and lunch-hour walkers on this truck-wide fire trail. So comfortable, in fact, that when I noticed a shed snakeskin alongside the trail, I challenged myself to stop and take a look at it. Then, just to prove to myself how very brave I could be, I decided to crouch down for a closer look. And just as I was mustering up the courage to reach out and touch the scaly thing, out of a hole about two feet away from my left flip-flop came the skin’s former occupant.

Holy mother of …

My sister would be proud to know that this time I did not actually scream or burst into tears. I did, however, turn tail and sprint down that hill as fast as my feet could take me, kicking up more dust than a Ford F-150.

But then something interesting happened. In my state of panic, I felt myself astrally project upward, and suddenly I could see myself, this crazy young woman with wild red hair, flying down a hill in her sundress and flip-flops, and I thought, I look ridiculous.

I stopped in my tracks and realized what I was doing: I was sprinting like my hair was on fire, because I actually thought the snake was chasing me. Chasing me. Like I was what, a Looney Tunes character? Snakes don’t chase people.

Enter Revelation No. 3: Most of what I feared would happen in nature doesn’t actually happen. Squirrels don’t go for your jugular. Turkey vultures eat you only if you’re already dead. And bats don’t actually want to get tangled in your hair. That’s when I realized what I needed to combat my nature-phobia was not a Colt .45, but more information.

So I did a little research, learning things like “venomous snakes have diamond-shaped heads,” and “if you see a mountain lion, don’t turn and run,” and “if you get bitten by a black widow you have plenty of time to get to the emergency room before your leg shrivels up and falls off.” Slowly, over time, I became aware of nature’s actual dangers and released the unnecessary fears.

Like all recovery processes, the work has been challenging and often maddeningly slow, but the payoff has been gorgeous. I have hiked in bamboo forests; I have watched seals teach their pups how to swim; I have sat quietly, completely alone, on the tip of Tomales Point, listening to elk whistle into the wind. Each of these gifts has felt hard-earned and therefore so incredibly sweet.

In the past two decades, nature has become my church. To quote Paul (McCartney) and John (Lennon), “when I find myself in times of trouble,” all I need to do is head for the nearest hill, and by the time I’ve climbed to the top, I have received whatever wisdom I need. Whether it’s a metaphor like a wildflower growing out of a rock or an inner truth revealed when the physical activity of hiking pulls me down out of my endlessly whirring thoughts into the quiet home of my body, the message I need to hear finds me, every time, without fail.

I fully admit that I am still a bit of a nature-phobe. For example, when my friends announced their plans to hike across South America, my first question was “Isn’t that, like, the home of the world’s largest rodent?” When they confirmed my suspicions, I scratched “Hiking Across South America” right off my bucket list. So yeah, my name is Cheryl, and I’m still a nature-phobe, but I’m recovering. And that’s what matters the most.

Whisper Down the Lane

The old joke about the four fastest methods of communication — telegraph, telephone, television, and tell a woman — was not only sexist but inaccurate, especially at Doldrum Enterprises, where the head of HR was a gossipy man. A smarmy, mean-spirited, gossipy man, who knew when to kiss up and when to put down. An early Friday morning found him standing in front of the president’s desk, trying not to smirk as he listened to the Big Boss deliver the bad news.

Norman Rockwell March 6, 1948
Norman Rockwell
March 6, 1948

Houghton Broxley cleared his throat. “I feel terrible about having to lay off five employees, especially around Christmas time.” A pause. “But the demand for plain 10-ounce Styrofoam cups has plateaued. Next week, I’ll make a formal announcement. Until then, Bob, keep this under your hat.”

Bob Slotkin nodded. “I appreciate that, Mr. Broxley. And I can assure you …”

A faint knocking cut him off. The door to Broxley’s office opened slowly and creaked loudly. A woman’s face peeked in.

“Mr. Broxley? Do you want me to clean both the restrooms today?”

“No, Iris, not today,” Broxley replied. “You can clock out now. I hope that your grandson feels better.”

Iris Garcia smiled. She was a short, plump, 50ish lady with bright green eyes. “Thank you, Mr. Broxley. I see you later.”

Broxley waved goodbye. The door closed.

Slotkin exited the office, his arms tucked tightly at his sides as if negotiating his way through a crowd. Somehow he still managed to bump into Halligan Bryan, who worked in shipping. Slotkin gasped, then shot an indignant look at the six-foot-four Bryan.

“Woops! You okay, Bob?”

“Yes, I suppose so.” The smirk would not be suppressed this time. “I’m a little preoccupied. Just got some bad news.”

Bryan looked worried. “Does it concern anybody I know?”

“It might,” Slotkin admitted. Then he whispered, “Mr. Broxley is laying off five people. But don’t tell anyone.”

Bryan couldn’t hide his consternation. Nine people, he thought. That was almost one-third of the workforce. Alistair Cummings, the mousy, neurotic little man who printed the day’s invoices for the folks in shipping, could smell bad news, and Bryan reeked. Cummings surrendered the batch of invoices.

“What’s wrong, Hal?”

“I’m really not supposed to say, but you’ll find out next week. Broxley’s canning nine employees.”

Cummings’ blood pressure shot up. Despite his exemplary work record, he was sure that his head would be among those on the chopping block.

“Oh my God,” he stammered.

“Al,” Bryan added. “You didn’t hear it from me.”

Cummings honored the request for anonymity. But there had been no admonition regarding silence, so he quietly confided in his friend and co-worker, Boyd Boise.

“19 people?” Boise nearly yelled, and was immediately shushed by Cummings. Then Boise whispered, “Who told you that?” Cummings wouldn’t say.

When Boise was clocking out for the day, his supervisor, Kate Chaplin, asked him why he was in such a bad mood. His response alarmed her. She knew that business was slow, but such an unprecedented number of layoffs was, well, unprecedented. How could Broxley downsize 90 percent of his workforce? She knew that Boise had said 90 people, but since there were only 28 employees, he must have misspoken. This was what she related to the assistant supervisor, Chloe Bamberger.

“Ninety percent!” Bamberger gasped. “He may as well close down the whole company!”

Before she went home and shared the bad tidings with her husband, Kyle, Bamberger inadvertently shared the news with Eureka Breslin, Chaplin’s administrative assistant, who overheard Bamberger’s end of the conversation. Breslin confided with her respective husband, Stan, that Doldrum Enterprises was going out of business.

“She said, ‘He’s going to close down the whole company.’”

On Monday morning, Broxley was planning on making the dreaded announcement. But he was spared by an unexpected chain of events. The still volatile Chloe Bamberger was on the telephone with a friend, complaining about her “monster of a boss,” who was planning on shutting down the entire operation.

“Can you believe this man?” she said to her high school pal, Anna Retlick. “Seven years on this job, and what do I get for a Christmas present? A pink slip! Well, if he wants to lay off … Whatever. That’s fine. That’s just fine!”

Her voice was louder than she imagined, loud enough for Iris Garcia, who was vacuuming next door in Chaplin’s office, to overhear. But a closed door and a running vacuum can distort words. “Fine” might become “five.” Nevertheless, Garcia took it upon herself to speak to Broxley.

The boss was on the telephone when she knocked on his door.

Finishing his conversation, Broxley hung up. “Come in.”

Garcia stepped across the threshold, closing the door softly behind her.

“I am sorry to bother you, Mr. Broxley, but I heard a bad rumor that I hope is not true.”

Broxley waited for her to continue.

“Are you gonna lay off five people?”

Stunned, Broxley said nothing … at first. He folded his arms across his chest. How did she know? Of course, he concluded.

“No, Iris,” he replied cheerfully. “I’m not going to lay off five people. Only one.”

News of the Week: Food Critics, Fights, and the Final Mad Men

I Wonder What Would Have Happened If He Gave It a Bad Review?

Well, this is a new one. A food blogger that gave a really positive review to a restaurant has been banned by that restaurant for writing the review. John Golden called the Portland, Maine, restaurant The Honey Paw a “ten-star” place, but the three owners of the eating establishment told him he’s no longer welcome there or at the other two restaurants they own.

Co-owner Andrew Taylor told local press the comments about his wardrobe in Golden’s review seemed petty (under an image of Taylor in a rolled-up orange knit cap, Golden refers to him as a hat model) and that he doesn’t find the critic professional. According to Golden, co-owner Arlin Smith told him he didn’t want Golden to represent the restaurants — which is an odd stance to take because food critics don’t represent the places they critique, even if they give it a positive review. Smith gave Golden an ultimatum: He could continue to eat at their restaurants or write about his experience and never eat there again. Golden chose the latter.

I wonder how they’ll enforce the ban. Will they put his picture up at the front door like the Post Office does with most-wanted criminals? Will they tackle him and call the police? Maybe he could disguise himself, Mrs. Doubtfire-style, and try to get in.

Romney vs. Holyfield


Later today in Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney is going to box Evander Holyfield. They’re fighting to raise funds for the nonprofit CharityVision, and I can only assume that Holyfield isn’t really going to try that hard to beat the former presidential candidate and Massachusetts governor. Holyfield told the ESPN/ABC podcast Capital Games with Andy Katz and Rick Klein that he’ll try to make Romney look good, and that Romney can trust him. Romney’s son Josh says that his father has been training hard but his jab and uppercut aren’t that great. Those sound like two things a fighter should be pretty good at doing.

Maybe Romney needs a cool, menacing name to intimidate Holyfield. I was going to suggest the Mormon Mauler, but I was surprised to find out that there was already another fighter who had that nickname, Gene Fullmer. He died last month.

How Will Mad Men End?

Our "Mad Men" cover from March/April 2014.  Click to read the cast interviews.
Our “Mad Men” cover from March/April 2014. Click to read the cast interviews.

The final episode of Mad Men airs this Sunday night on AMC. Actually, the network is running a marathon of every show as we speak, so if you want to catch up on past seasons you might have missed or want to rewatch an episode, turn on your TV right now (well, after you finish reading this column).

As a big fan of the show, I don’t need everything tied up in a nice bow at the end, with every characters’ story neatly wrapped. But I do want to see some sort of closure, a feeling this is the end (even if the characters simply continue with their lives). Two endings I don’t want to see? 1) Don simply abandoning his family and his life and starting over again somewhere else under a new name. That would be depressing and a cop out. It has looked like Don was beginning to put himself together this season and this would seem like the character’s moving backward, a dark ending we don’t need. 2) Don dying. That would be odd and would come out of nowhere, considering what has happened the last few episodes (thankfully, I don’t see creator Matthew Weiner going that route for Don).

I’ve seen a lot of theories that say of course Don will die, because he falls from the building in the credits! But isn’t that taking TV show credits a little too literally? Okay, look at it this way: If you want to take the credits literally, Don lives at the end of the show because at the end of the credits he’s alive, relaxing on a sofa, smoking a cigarette.

American Idol Canceled

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Do you still watch American Idol? I know a lot of people who were completely obsessed with the show for many years but have drifted away from it for various reasons: too many similar shows on the air, the judges changed, or maybe they just got bored with it and wanted to watch something else. Those are probably some of the reasons why Fox is pulling the plug on the singing competition show after next season (which starts in January).

There are a few articles that say Fox “failed” the show, but I don’t see how any show that lasts for 15 years and has been a big hit TV-wise and music-wise could be seen as anything but a success. It was just on for a long time, and now it’s time for it to end. We really don’t need “think pieces” that try to analyze why it’s going off the air.

Here’s what Brian Dunkleman had to say about the cancellation. If you don’t remember the name, he co-hosted the show the first season until everyone realized Ryan Seacrest could handle things on his own.

It’s National Salad Month


May is the month we celebrate salads. You could make a pasta salad with tomatoes and top it with some condensed milk salad dressing. Or maybe Betty Crocker’s Friendly Dog Salad? (Note: This is a salad that looks like a dog, not one you feed to dogs.) You could even try to eat a salad a day, which sounds more like a dare than a suggestion.

Anyway, enjoy your salads! And if salads really aren’t your thing and you want to take an alternative route, please note that May is also National Hamburger Month.

Upcoming Anniversaries and Events

Armed Forces Day (May 16)
Tomorrow is the official day we “honor those who answered the call to serve.”.

Brown vs. Board of Education decision (May 17, 1954)
Here’s a detailed look at the historic case.

Mount St. Helens erupts (May 18, 1980)
The official site not only has a history of the volcano’s eruption it also has information if you’re planning a trip to the area.

David Letterman’s last show (May 20)
No word yet on what Dave has planned for his last show but it’s sure to be a must-see.

Founding of the American Red Cross (May 21, 1881)
The official site has ways that you can help.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle born (May 22, 1859)
The creator of Sherlock Holmes contributed several pieces to The Saturday Evening Post.

John Sheridan

American illustrator John “Jack” E. Sheridan(1880-1948) was a Midwesterner born in Tomah, Wisconsin, whose interests in art flourished during his college years at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He produced sports posters for the school to pay for his education and even provided posters to the school’s athletics programs after he became a successful artist. The reprints, still popular among Georgetown alums, are sold at the university today and the original prints are part of the Special Collections Department of the school’s main library. As was common at the turn of the century, Sheridan left school before earning a degree when he accepted a job offer in New York City in 1900.

Covers by John Sheridan

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Purchase prints of John Sheridan’s work at

His natural artistic talents served him well at the Manhattan office of Chicago-based clothier Hart Schaffner & Marx where he created advertisements, posters, and catalogs. He later worked for the Bosch Magneto Company. During this time, Sheridan gained much needed professional work experience before he returned to Washington, D.C., as art director for The Washington Times.

During World War I, Sheridan served on an art committee for the Federal Committee of Public Information. The art committee’s famed chairman, Charles Dana Gibson, recommended Sheridan for the position. Sheridan developed lifelong friendships while creating war posters that advertised recruitment and aid programs. One of their colleagues on the committee was James Flagg, inventor of the iconic Uncle Sam.

After completing his stint at the Times, Sheridan accepted a job editing art on the West Coast and helped produce the Sunday paper layout for The San Francisco Chronicle. While working in California, Sheridan met his future wife, Louise.

When the two married, Sheridan decided to return to academia to improve his artistic composition and technique. The couple moved to Paris, France. They lived the starving artist lifestyle for a year while Sheridan studied at the Académie Colarossi.

Upon his return from Europe, Sheridan opened a studio in Manhattan at 27 West 67th Street. He focused on producing cover art and inside illustrations for popular magazines. His first cover was for Sunset Magazine. His reputation grew. Soon he was providing cover art for The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, The American Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Sheridan’s 14 covers for The Saturday Evening Post ran from 1918 to 1939. The covers are mostly sports related. The artist chose to focus on the greatness of American institutions such as baseball and the military. He also exhibited his work privately in galleries on the East Coast in New York and Philadelphia.

The artist’s style became less and less popular on the cover as other Post artists gained national recognition. Toward the end of his career, Sheridan accepted a teaching position in New York City at the Cartoonist’s and Illustrator’s School, also known as the School of Visual Arts.

The arts community in New York City adored Sheridan. He was a member of the Society of Illustrators, the Dutch Treat Club, and the Players Club. The Players Club allowed Sheridan the opportunity to act alongside many of his contemporaries including John LaGatta, James Flagg, Jefferson Machamer, and Clarence Kelland.

Today, John Sheridan is remembered for his era-defining portrayals of sports and the U.S. military. Sheridan lived a long and fulfilling life passionately employed in his career. He died on July 3, 1948 at the age of 68.

Jan/Feb 2015 Limerick Laughs Winner and Runners-Up

Snow Skier After the Falls by Constantin Alajalov

There once was a man on two skis,
Schussing around as he pleased.
The story was told,
That he had a cold,
And fell every time that he sneezed.

—Phillip Belfiori, Bel Air, Maryland

Congratulations to Phillip Belfiori! For his limerick describing Constantin Alajálov’s illustration Snow Skier After the Falls (above), Phillip wins $25 — and our gratitude for a job well done. If you’d like to enter the Limerick Laughs Contest for our upcoming issue, submit your limerick via our online entry form.

Of course, Philip’s limerick wasn’t the only one we liked! Here are some of our favorite limericks from our runners-up, in no particular order:

There was a young athlete named Grier,
Who fancied himself quite the skier.
Well, he could be best
When put to the test —
If only he’d learned how to steer.
—Michelle Gordon, Airway Heights, Washington

On the slopes we were going our fastest
When a good-looking girl came to pass us
My buddy got lost
And paid the cost
Now I’m out a new pair of glasses
—Brite Templeton, Scottsdale, Arizona

If losing your clothes as you go
Makes skiing much faster than slow
How quickly you’ll fly
When the last pole goes by
As bare-skinned you tear through the snow
— Clarissa Jahn, Taylor Ridge, Illinois

He thought it would be such a breeze
To learn how to use his new skis.
Such delusions of youth!
He’s discovered the truth:
It requires some real expertise.
—Neal Levin, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

This wee bunny hill is a snap
I could run it while taking a nap
You can see this is so
From clear prints in the snow
The facts bear this clearly, Old Chap
—Betty Checkett, St. Louis, Missouri

A terrible skier from Wight
Filled all on lookers with fright;
But each time he fell
He declared, “Oh, well, ”
It’s not easy to be upright!
—Sally Butler, Frostburg, Maryland

I skied down a treacherous slope
Of grace I had clearly no hope!
I lost this and that-
Scarf, mittens and hat
And managed to look like a dope!
—Peggy Proud-Edwards, Aurora, Illinois

To do my personal best
Is today’s daunting test,
I’ll be able to say
I did it my way,
No keeping up with the rest!
—Marilyn Zielke, Bruce, Wisconsin