Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Gators, be gone!

The best part of the Tennessee men's basketball thumping of the No. 5 Florida Gators last night at Thompson-Boling Arena didn't happen on the court.

Oh, there were plenty of good moments. Dane Bradshaw's 3-pointer from the corner. Pat Summitt leading a round of "Rocky Top." Peyton Manning getting a standing O. Being up by as much as 27 points.

But, no, that wasn't it. My favorite moment happened with 1:30 to go in the second half, when the two classless Florida partisans sitting beside me in Section 314 stomped away to the exit. I hope they had a long, hard drive back to Gainesville.

Forgive the sour disposition. I have no respect for bad sportsmanship.

Thought these guys were going to be OK. They were quiet at first, clapping when Florida scored, shaking their heads when their team messed up.

But as the Rocky Top beating unfolded, they couldn't take it. True colors came shining through.

"The only way this team can win an SEC championship is with its women's team.""I can't believe they're whining about the P.A. announcer interrupting Lofton's free throw."

Those were two tame comments. I just smiled, content with my orange-tinged view of the scoreboard.

A friend once likened Florida to "new money" and Alabama to "old money." "Alabama fans have won before. They know how to act. It's all new to Florida. They don't have any class."

A Neyland Stadium usher told me that Bama was his favorite crowd; Florida was the worst.

Oh, well. These two ran for cover. We stayed and swayed to the strains of the "Tennessee Waltz." We watched Bradshaw jump into the students' section to celebrate. We sang "Rocky Top" again just because we could.

My 15 minute ride back to Halls was a happy one.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Babe Ruth comes to Halls

The standing joke around the office is that Halls is a lot like Mayberry.

We mean that in a good way. Folks stop by to talk. Jay Newcomb and Tud Etherton bring fresh vegetables from their gardens. It's fun.

Babe Ruth dropped by today. OK, not the real Yankee slugger. He's been dead a good many years now.

But Bill Phillips brought by a baseball autographed by the Sultan of Swat. I felt like I was touching royalty. Ain't that silly?

Bill bought the ball off a guy in upper East Tennessee. He says it's been in the family a lot of years. The ball was originally won as part of a contest and also features then-baseball commissioner Ford Frick's John Hancock.

Halls guy Doug Harned, who had dropped by to give me a t-shirt from Yellowstone National Park, says he thinks the autograph is legit.

"I'm about 70 percent certain you've got the real thing," he tells Bill.

Bill has been in touch with the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. They want to authenticate the ball. Bill doesn't want to send it through the mail. He says he might just drive up there.

I wouldn't let it out of my sight, either. The hand that signed it once hit 714 home runs.

And guess what? No steroids were involved. Just plenty of beer and hot dogs.

So that was my morning at the office. Don't even try to convince me that I don't have the best job in the world.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Good ol' boys like me

When I was a kid Uncle Remus, he put me to bed, with a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head...

Going to see George Strait the other night reminds me of a story. Gotta go back nearly 10 years (hard to believe) to tell it.

Summer of '97. I'd just completed my first year at UT, was working at the Powell telephone company. Life was easy.

My pal Drew and I jaunted up I-75 one Saturday afternoon to a little barn in Kentucky. Renfro Valley to be exact. It's a quiet little out of the way place. But Hag hangs out there. So does the Possum. And some others.

That night we had tickets to see the Voice. The country poet. Smooth-as-silk Don Williams.

My mom turned me on to him years before. I played her 33 1/3 RPM LP of Don's Greatest Hits (yeah, it was that long ago) until it cracked. One song in particular.

Amanda, light of my life, fate should have made you a gentleman's wife...

Don ain't flashy. He's worn the same old hat for years. He doesn't smile much, barely talks. Instead, he sits on a stool, and sings.

He opened with a favorite, "Good Ol' Boys Like Me," and for the next hour and a half took us through some of the best country music records ever put to vinyl.

Don and George are a dying breed. Singers talk, they swing from ropes, change costumes a hundred times, do just about everything but sing. That isn't Don's bag. The most he moved that night was when he took off his hat at a woman's request.

You don't hear Don Williams on the radio much anymore. (Unless you listen to MERLE FM, Knoxville's brand-new "real" country music station.) But that's OK. His fans know where to find his music.

It's on CD now. It's even on YouTube. Every so often he shows up in Pigeon Forge.

And on this long ago Saturday night, he brought his act to a barn in Renfro Valley. Part of me still considers it the most purely musical concert I've ever seen.

Makes me wonder what the hell has happened to my kind of country music.

I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be. So what do you do with good ol' boys like me?

Sunday, February 25, 2007


You know, it really is timeless.

One thing about baseball that makes it the greatest game in the world --- not that one needs a reason --- is the absence of a clock.

Unlike those other sports, baseball's finale is earned the old-fashioned way. Twenty-seven outs. That's what it takes. Keep hitting and you can play forever. You can't hold the ball. You can't slip into a prevent defense.

Tennessee didn't have much trouble earning wins against Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne at Lindsey Nelson Stadium yesterday. In the second game, they didn't even need 27 outs, as the nightcap was shortened to 7 innings.

James Adkins pitched a beauty in game one. He allowed only four hits and struck out 12 in eight innings of work. Too bad the bullpen blew his shutout.

But the Vols found their bats, beating the deliciously named Mastodons 12-1 and 9-1 to sweep the series. Here's hoping this is a watershed moment for this offensively-challenged squad.

Lance McClain lived dangerously in the second game, walking five and constantly getting behind in the count. But Lance has this incredible pick-off move to first. It catches two Mastodons napping and helps his cause.

I ate a hot dog midway through the first game and chatted with the usher between innings.

"The Vols found their bats today, huh?" I say.

"Yeah," he replies. "But when you're throwing junk like that, you're going to get hit."

The guy sitting next to me is bothered by walks. He kept yelling at McClain whenever he'd lose the batter, and muttered, "Those bases on balls," over and over.

I tend to dislike the inane betweeen-innings promotions that have become part of the modern game. But UT pulls out a good one today.

Two guys race to see who can unravel a frozen t-shirt, strip their shirt off and place it on their shivering torso. The winner gets a gift card from Weigel's.

"You can imagine how much fun that was last week when it was 20 degrees," somebody behind me says.

What draws me to baseball is its leisurely pace. There's time to think, to chat, to do almost anything.

The batter steps out of the box. He swings his bat a time or two. You look out to right field, where Andy Simunic stretches his back.

The guy behind you leans up to comment on the batter's tendencies. You glance down at your scorebook to make sure your pitch count is correct. Then you lean over and take a swig of Sprite.

You look back up in time to see the next pitch. It's a ball.

The other sports do not allow this. Football is marked by vicious spurts of action, "violence punctuated by committee meetings," as George Will says. Basketball is a constant blur. I still don't understand exactly what soccer is, so I won't comment there.

But the national game is another story --- literally. It unfolds much in the manner of a good novel. Maybe that's why they call it the writer's game.

Me? I just call it heaven. Or something pretty darn close.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pure 'Strait' country

After all these years, it's still his best song.

"Amarillo by mornin', up from San Antone, everything that I've got, is just what I've got on..."

I hear that opening line, wait for the twin fiddles to blend together, and suddenly I'm six years old again.

Dad and I are whiling away a lazy Saturday afternoon by the radio. We keep pestering the disc jockey at WIVK to play our favorite George Strait rodeo song.
The DJ finally comes on and says, "I'll play 'Amarillo By Morning' if those two guys from Halls will quit calling."

There's something to be said for being a jackass.

Strait packed 'em in last night at Thompson Boling Arena. Twenty-seven years after his first No. 1 hit, he's still the very best of the modern breed of country music singers. No one else comes close.

George doesn't need to swing from ropes or hide behind overblown pyrotechnics. Naw, he just comes out in his pressed cowboy jeans, blue shirt and black cowboy hat, straps on an acoustic guitar and sings.

One by one, the hits come. "The Chair." "The Fireman." "I Can Still Make Cheyenne."

He specializes in Texas songs. The best one of all is about that lonesome cowboy trying to make the next rodeo.

"I'll be lookin' for 8 when they pull that gate, and I hope that judge ain't blind. Amarillo by mornin', Amarillo's on my mind..."

Ronnie Milsap opens for him tonight. Ronnie sounds great, especially on "It Was Almost Like A Song" (he can still hit the high note!) and the crowd favorite, "Smoky Mountain Rain."

But it's George the fans have come to see; he's the one who gets the biggest hand. His newer songs aren't as good as the classics, but one or two come pretty close. All the Texas numbers are good. So is a brand spankin' new tune, "I'm Not Her Cowboy Anymore."

Special treats are the Bob Wills classic "Take Me Back To Tulsa" and a surprise rendition of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues."

Strait has managed to survive all the trends in country music. I think it's because he's stayed true to his roots, never lost his sound, is still dancin' with the one that brung him to the party.

But at the end of the night, when the lights go up and the roadies tear down the stage, his best song is still that Terry Stafford tear-jerker he started playing in the Texas honky tonks back in the late 70s.

"Amarillo by morning, Amarillo's where I'll be..."

Man, listen to those twin fiddles hum. Now that, friends, is country music.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The tragic comedy

Someone once said that life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.

I guess I fall into both camps. Certainly anybody who has paid attention to the recent Knox County Commission appointments debacle can see the humor in such absurdity, adults acting like children. But anybody who knows about the senseless murders of Halls High security guard Russell Kocur and Halls High grad Chris Newsom see only heartache.

But I'd be lying if I didn't lean more toward the latter statement. My friend Amanda Mohney has a good way of describing it. She says I'm a "Kind of Blue" kind of guy, while she's more of a "Bitches Brew" gal. Maybe preferences for Miles Davis albums aren't the best analogy, but you get the point.

Everything I love affects me emotionally. People, of course. A good song. A great movie. That great American novel.

I've made a vocation out of observing human beings. I laugh a lot. I cry a lot, too, if only figuratively. I've often thought about writing a book on it called "Still Looking." Too bad John Updike beat me to it -- at least the title anyway.

One thing I've never understood is how quickly folks pass in and out of your life. You know what I mean. Those you wine and dine with daily disappear with the morning fog. Good friends become rank strangers overnight. A little part of me dies inside whenever that happens.

Course, you gotta laugh at life, too. Take this afternoon in the newsroom. Emily busts in, tells Shannon she took a classified ad for burial plots that read "5x5" instead of "side by side." I was still chuckling on the way home.

Sometimes there's beauty in tragedy. Listen closely to George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." That three minute ball of misery is in its way the most beautiful country song ever recorded.

Guess that doesn't make sense, but you know, we humans are complicated folk. Some of us laugh through the pain. Others cry through the humor.

Oh, well. Way it goes, I guess. What is it that ol' Jimmy Buffett says about it?

"If I couldn't laugh, then I would go insane..."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Born again at Barley's

I felt like a kid.

I always do whenever I hear RobinElla. Her sweet, gentle voice speaks to my soul, takes me back to something ethereal and honest.

But I was particularly giddy last night at Barley's. After Robin's first set ended, my sister stands up from the table. She grabs her camera.

"Come on. We're going to get your picture taken with her."

I make excuses, remembering the time I couldn't think of one solitary word to say to actor Tom Selleck, when I met him in New York. But who can resist a beautiful woman wearing a necktie and a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt? More importantly, who can say no to your sister?

So up we go. Robin is talking to someone at the bar. We linger a moment. My sister taps her on the shoulder.

"Can I take your picture with my brother? He's a big fan."

"Sure," RobinElla says.

I grin like a schoolboy. "I'm a big fan," I say.

She smiles. "Well, thank you for coming out, and thanks for being such a big fan."

We mug it up for my sis. I'm floating somewhere above cloud nine.

"Thank you," I say. "You all are wonderful."

Robin thanks us again and walks away.

I somehow make it to the back of the room and wait eagerly for the second set.

Robin has the voice of an angel. I could listen to her read names out of the phone book, while CC and the band play in the background.

She doesn't sing one of my favorites tonight, Nanci Griffith's "Love at the Five and Dime." In RobinElla's hands, that song becomes something akin to a religious experience.

But I don't notice until later. I'm lost in the music.

"What's that song you want to hear?" my sis asks.


So she yells for it.

"We can do that one," Robin says. And she does.

My only disappointment comes when it's time to go. I never lose my grin, or the feeling that I'm 10 years old again, discovering life for the first time.

Because that's what listening to RobinElla is like --- being, if you'll forgive the expression, born again.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Lost in the stillness

The thin white blanket covers the ground. The birds chirp not; the squirrels make not a sound. All is quiet this morning.

I pretend to hate snow, but I really love it. Especially the kind that fell here overnight. It makes for a beautiful sight this morning, but melts quickly enough to avoid any problems.

I've always loved the stillness the snow brings. Walk outside whenever Ol' Man Winter has left his calling card. Unless some moronic motorist is trying out the four wheel drive, you won't hear much of anything.

For some reason, that stillness always makes me think of the Civil War. Sounds crazy, I know, but I can explain it.

Back in the eighth grade, Halls Middle School principal Paul Williams took us on a field trip to Gettysburg. This was in mid-March. And guess what? It snowed.

There we stood on the most hallowed ground in the Union, treated to the ethereal sight of those rolling Pennsylvania plains covered in white. It was ghostly and would have been downright haunting were it not for the idiots throwing snowballs at one another while Williams spoke of Rebels and Yankees.

I thought about that stillness this morning as I sat here sipping Coca-Cola. I also thought about Bruce Catton's book, "A Stillness At Appomattox." It won a Pulitzer back in the '60s.

The romantic in me has always hoped the stillness was there that day in Virginia when Lee handed his sword to Grant. Given that it was April, the birds were no doubt singing and the earth was very much alive.

But on those rare days when snow falls in East Tennessee, I think about the men in blue and gray, while I'm lost in the stillness.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Suffer the little children

I often start my mornings by swapping grins with the sweetest little boy I've ever known.

Jesus Christ once said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for such is the kingdom of God." I know he would have loved Connor. I sure do.

Connor belongs to my cousin Mindy and her husband, Johnny. My grandmother keeps him during the week.

As I bound down the steps to head to the office, Connor will be playing in the living room. I say hello and he stares back. I act goofy and he grins. Sometimes he laughs and I laugh back.

Other times he'll be napping, almost always clutching to his bottle and his stuffed monkey. I love to watch small children sleep. Their visage is the epitome of peace.

Connor is so smart. His vocabulary for someone who has yet to turn 2 is incredible. He likes to look at picture books. This morning he showed me the difference between a fire truck and a garbage truck. It reminded me of a 2-year-old who once could recite "Danny and the Dinosaur" back to his mother verbatim.

Connor was still here when I got home from work. I grabbed him up and we played together for a few minutes. I hopped around with him and he laughed. He would start up the steps and I would bring him back down. When we reached the bottom step, again he laughed. When he started giving me Eskimo kisses, my heart turned to mush.

Connor makes me forget all about deadlines and commitments. He also brings me a tremendous amount of joy. I can't believe I'm getting ready to type this, but he makes me wish I had a boy of my own.

I think I know why the carpenter from Nazareth loved children so much. I suspect he once held a boy much like Connor on his knee.

They're too young to hate, full of boundless energy and possess hearts that know only love and trust. We adults could learn from their example.

Blessed are the children, indeed.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Photographs and memories

In order to throw a bone that today is Valentine's Day, I thought I'd share the lyrics of a song I like very much. This, I guess, is an unusual song for today, but I woke up with it on my mind this morning and thought it somehow seemed appropriate.
Happy Valentine's Day, y'all.

(Words and music by Jim Croce)

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you

Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then

Summer skies and lullabies
Nights we couldn't say good-bye
And of all of the things that we knew
Not a dream survived

Photographs and memories
All the love you gave to me
Somehow it just can't be true
That's all I have left of you

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

'Letters' tells Japanese experience on Iwo Jima

The good films stay with you long after the lights come up. You think about it on the way home, replay certain scenes in your head, go back to it in your mind during the coming days and weeks.

So it is with "Letters from Iwo Jima," Clint Eastwood's amazing, remarkable new film. A companion piece to "Flags of our Fathers," this movie tells the story of the fighting on the Pacific island, this time from the Japanese perspective. An unlike the disappointing, cliched "Flags," the film is a masterpiece.

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives at Iwo Jima and quickly realizes the plan in place won't work. He orders a series of tunnels built to help thwart the coming American attack. In flashbacks, we learn that Kuribayashi knows all about Americans. He spent time with them before the war, and likes them very much.

Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is a baker who leaves his wife and unborn child behind when he's drafted into military service. He says he's proud to fight for his country, but he really just wants to go home.

At its core, "Letters" is Saigo and Kuribayashi's story, and it is filled with pathos and nuance, style and character development --- everything, in short, that "Flags of our Fathers" so remarkably lacked. This is Eastwood's best film since "Unforgiven."

Watching the battle unfold from this perspective is as powerful, right up to the moment when the American flame throwers send gasps of fire into the Japanese line. The battle scenes are realistic, confusing, loud and dramatic.

But the best moment happens late in the film, when a Japanese officer reads a letter found on a dead American GI to his troops. One by one, they all stand in respect. One of them realizes that the GI's mother's words are eerily similar to his own mother's letter.

What you learn from this film is that the Japanese were code-bound warriors who would just as soon commit suicide (and they do) rather than lose face. And, in a curious way, you realize that the affect of war on the average combat soldier is fairly universal, no matter the native tongue.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" is now playing at Regal CinemaArt Downtown West. It is rated R for graphic war violence. Japanese with English subtitles.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The greatest man I never knew

The greatest man I never knew turned a year older today.

He is the ripe old age of 198. And, although he's been dead for more than a hundred years, a part of him remains.

In a practical sense, he can often be found in our pockets. His mug is on the five dollar bill and on that little nuisance of a coin known as the penny.

In a very real sense, he forever gazes upon the Reflection Pool in Washington, his eyes looking toward the Washington Monument. It's my favorite spot in our nation's capital. Whenever I'm there, I'll sit on the steps in the shadow of his statue and contemplate the blessing that is living in this country.

Abraham Lincoln has become such a mythical figure --- a literal monument --- that it has become difficult to separate the Great Rail-Splitter from the flesh and blood human being who became the 16th president of the United States.

Often the man is less lofty than the myth. Not so with Lincoln.

He was a kindhearted person who loved his children and was devoted to a wife that could be difficult. He was a shrewd politician who wasn't afraid to take extra-legal steps to keep the country together during the War.

He was very much a man of his times, believing finally in Emancipation only after coming to see the fallacy of his idea to colonize the slaves in Liberia. He was a gifted lawyer and orator, possessed with a logical mind and an uncanny ability to translate even the most difficult legalism into terms anyone could understand.

He loved to laugh and tell jokes, especially about himself. But he was also plagued by what was then called melancholy, severe depressive episodes that paralyzed Lincoln on at least two occasions.

And he was the president who steered the ship through the roughest waters our country has ever known. I think often about the series of photographs that Matthew Brady took of Lincoln throughout his presidency. By 1865, he looked 20 years older than his actual age --- a walking corpse.

No president before or sense has endured what the lawyer from Springfield faced from the moment he took office in March 1861 to the day John Wilkes Booth silenced his voice forever in April 1865.

Today was Lincoln's birthday, but the country hardly noticed. It isn't a national holiday anymore. For most, it was another Monday at the office.

I'm tempted to lament that fact, but in a way, I think Lincoln would have liked it. Despite its warts, and God knows there are many, I think Abraham Lincoln would love the America of today.

He would marvel at our technology, take pride in our robust success, rejoice that our nation was able to for the most part heal the wounds of Civil War.

And one suspects he'd even be OK with the fact that we do not pause to celebrate his birthday anymore. For Abraham Lincoln, you see, gave the last full measure of devotion to help create an America that no longer needed him.

Perhaps his biographer, the poet Carl Sandburg, said it best.

"(Lincoln) was a mountain in grandeur of soul. He was a sea in a deep undervoice of mystic loneliness. He was a star in steadfast purity of purpose and service.

"And he abides."

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sunday in the sun

Sitting in Section C at Lindsey Nelson Stadium this afternoon (right behind home plate!), I began to hum an old Beatles tune.

"Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. And I say, it's alright!"

Yes, our heat source from 93 million miles away showed up today, giving off enough rays to make me forget all about Friday afternoon's bone-chilling outing. But, better than that, the Tennessee Volunteers remembered what the big aluminum bat resting on their shoulders are for and put away Eastern Michigan 5-1 to take the series.

Starting pitcher Lance McClain, from South-Doyle, turned in eight innings of fine work, allowing one run on seven hits to earn the win.

McClain looked shaky in the first, giving up the run and three hits. A longtime observer of the young pitcher from South Knoxville leaned up midway through the first to say that McClain has trouble when he finds himself in a hole.

But the Vols (2-4) took care of that early, scoring three in the lower half of the inning to go up for good. From there, McClain put it on cruise control. No, that's not quite right. He pitched his guts out.

The game is more fun when you aren't catching hypothermia. Today's outing was tailor-made for a sunny Sunday afternoon. I discarded my gloves, unbuttoned the Tigers jacket and stretched out. This was more like it.

A fan tells me that coach Rod Delmonico lit into the team after yesterday's embarassing 6-3 loss. He was quoted in the Sentinel saying "This isn't Tennessee baseball." Whatever he said worked.

Maybe there is a better game than baseball. Football is fun. Basketball is bombastic. Lefty and Tiger can often make golf worth looking into.

You do what you want. Give me this laid-back kids game.

Hey, it could be worse. At least I've never heard a voice telling me to plow under my corn...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Lockwood nails first hit as Vols win chilly home opener

Bud Ford had it right. "It's too cold for baseball."

Indeed it is. By first pitch just after 3 o'clock this afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the temperature hovered around freezing. Spring it ain't.

But that doesn't stop a decent crowd of true believers from rooting on the Tennessee Volunteers to a 7-4 home opener win against Eastern Michigan.

UT starting pitcher Craig Cobb, a Farragut High grad, was brilliant through 8 innings. Cobb racked up a career-high 9 strikeouts, allowing one run, eight hits and no walks along the way, to earn the win. It was a much better outing than his disastrous start at Florida State last week.

Best news of all for coach Rod Delmonico might be that UT found their bats --- albeit after four innings of trying --- punching out seven runs on eight hits.

The highlight was the 5th, when the Vols scored five on only one hit, left fielder Jarred Frazier's double to right. Three Eastern Michigan errors helped the Tennessee cause tremendously.

Halls guy Jeff Lockwood didn't start today. He's resting this weekend due to an injury.

But Lockwood came on in the 8th, hitting an RBI standup double to score Frazier. Chances are he'll remember forever the moment the ball plopped safely in right field. It represented his first collegiate hit.

Baseball is best played in the spring, when the weather is comfy and thoughts turn to double plays and dingers, not hot chocolate and frostbite. But even in the thick of an East Tennessee winter, there's something beautiful about sitting behind home plate, watching the scouts clock Cobb's pitches with radar guns and staring out onto the green field of dreams, even if you also can see your breath.

I guess it's a disease.

Why else would a grownup who should know better freeze his butt off for two and a half hours? Guess it's because of the national game, which always soothes the soul, even on a frosty afternoon at Rocky Top.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

'Flags' doesn't do heroes justice

You've seen it a million times. The six men stretch, bend, hurry and scramble to plant the flag atop the mount. Once it's raised, you stand in awe, full of patriotism and star-spangled optimism.

But what you may not know is that famous flag wasn't the first one raised at Iwo Jima that day. And the six men who did raise it? Nearly all of the survivors met tragedy later in life.

Director Clint Eastwood tells their story in the disjointed "Flags of our Fathers," a movie that never quite hits its stride, despite the first-rate subject matter. This film could have been a masterpiece. As it is, it's a two hour trip that doesn't stay with you after the ride is over.

The film alternates between the fighting on Iwo Jima and the story of the three soldiers—Doc (Ryan Phillippe), Rene (Jesse Bradford) and Ira (Adam Beach)—who are sent home to raise morale and money for war bonds after the famous photograph becomes a rallying symbol on the home front.

But the lesson we first learned in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is true here, too—the legend and the reality are often two different stories. One dead soldier wasn't really pictured in the photograph. He raised the first flag on the island. The Army, and at first, the participants, lie to his grieving mother.

The soldiers themselves, particularly Ira, also known as the Chief for his Native American ancestry, are uncomfortable with this "hero" moniker everyone keeps throwing at them. Ira gets drunk. He obsesses over his fallen comrades. He goes crazy when he doesn't receive service at a bar because of his ethnicity.

Ira's story, in fact, is the most moving part of "Flags" and it's too bad Eastwood didn't exploit this more, didn't play around with the whole notion of heroism and myth the way John Ford did so memorably in "Liberty Valance."

The technique of switching back and forth between the fighting and the U.S. tour is ineffective. Just when you become engrossed in one story, the narrative shifts. It becomes distracting to the point that you're finally glad when the credits roll.

"Flags of our Fathers" is the first part of Eastwood's Iwo Jima saga. The second film, "Letters from Iwo Jima," about the Japanese experience on the island, is currently playing to rave reviews. Here's hoping that film has a subtlety and a slicker editing that "Flags" lacks.

It's too bad. This story deserves a better telling.

"Flags of our Fathers" is now available on DVD. It is rated R for adult language and violence.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Adrift on the political spectrum

OK, I'll be honest. I don't like the Democrats.

They're loud, they're arrogant, they talk too much about big government and high taxes. They dismiss places like my hometown as a "flyover state" and think the only places that matter are New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. They stand for nothing except their own self-righteousness and haven't nominated a decent man for president in a half century.

(I can't say the same, incidentially, for the fictional Democrats on NBC's long-running "The West Wing." I rarely agree with the politics, but I love the show, both for its good-natured idealism and the sophisticated, sharp writing of Aaron Sorkin.)

OK, I'll be honest. I don't like the Republicans.

They're loud, they're arrogant, they throw bones to small government, but advocate for the goverment to dictate how you run your life. They take their conservative base for granted and the only decent man they've nominated for president in the last half century was a smiling former actor with great hair and an even better sense of humor.

Now is a bad time to be a political junkie in America. Neither party has any guts, the conventions are boring and the quality of the candidates are pitiful at best. The last American politician I felt certain could think and talk in complete sentences was former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and he was too chicken to run for the Oval Office. Oh, well. At least he once played professional baseball.

I tend to find my heroes buried amid the pages of my history books. Washington, certainly. And Adams. He never has received the credit he deserves for fanning the flames of the greatest revolution the world has known.

Jefferson is a god among men; Jackson gets a smile for his fighting spirit, especially the time he personally kicked the ass of a would-be assassin on the Capitol steps.

Lincoln is hands-down the best president we've ever known. If you doubt this, read David Herbert Donald's prose and Carl Sandburg's poetry. If you still disagree, you're an idiot.

Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite president for reasons that would take two or three blog posts to explain. He was a leader in the best sense of that word -- a decent man who loved his country, his wife, his children and nearly everything else in his life. ("Bully!" was a favorite exasperation.) In all the hours I've spent studying his life and administrations, I've found little in which to be disappointed.

His cousin Franklin is a bit more problematic for me to admire given my conservative roots. While I think the New Deal set the stage for the mistake that is the bloated central government, I've gained respect for the latter Roosevelt's foreign policy as well as his relationship with another hero, Winston Churchill. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham has written a great book on their friendship that I strongly recommend.

Truman was a shifty little bastard; but he had guts. Eisenhower was an extremely underrated president who gave us perhaps the most tangible legacy of any modern president -- we drive on the interstates he created nearly every day.

Kennedy didn't live long enough to provide a true assessment, Johnson was a tyrant whom I've always liked for some strange reason and Nixon was the great enigma.

Reagan is the shining star of the last five presidents; the others were petty, flawed or just plain incompetent.

The news magazines are already in full-throttle for 2008. Clinton, Obama, McCain and Rudy --- excuse me while I stifle a yawn.

The optimist in me is certain the next great leader will ride into the horizon like John Wayne in "Hondo;" the cynical reporter inside thinks we'll never again have an Eisenhower, much less a TR or a Lincoln.

So pardon me if I stayed glued to the presidents of the past, when big sticks and stovepipe hats make you forget all about the weak Southern governors who picked peanuts, bimbos or bad intelligence, depending on their persuasion.

Hail to the chief, indeed.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Baseball on Groundhog Day

TALLAHASSEE -- Phil the groundhog didn't see his shadow yesterday. That supposedly means an early spring.

I didn't see my shadow yesterday, either. But you couldn't deduce anything about an early spring, even if I'm here to watch baseball, on a chilly, overcast day at the ballpark.

The Tennessee Volunteers opened up the season here at Dick Howser Stadium against the Florida State Seminoles. It's an auspicious start to the year, as the Vols fell yesterday, 9-2, in a game that never was close.

It's warmer than home (58 degrees at game time), but with the wind and no sun, it's cool. I'm up in the press box staying warm. Dustin Mynatt and Dewayne Lawson are braving the elements. They don't get too cold, they say.

Came down here to watch Halls High grad Jeff Lockwood's collegiate debut. He goes hitless in his first outing, but says later it's all good. He's just ready to hit the field again today and win one against a team that doesn't lose much.

A press box wag tells me during the game that the Seminoles have only lost two home series and have never had a losing season in the history of the program. That's consistency.

Tallahassee is a cool college town. But the roads are terrible. It's almost as if the city has literally outgrown itself. Traffic is stalled at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon as we make our way to campus. It's about as bad after the game.

Tell ya, though, there's something rejuvinating about baseball, even on Groundhog Day. When both teams ran onto the field yesterday, I felt like a kid again, full of the hopeful expectancy that comes with opening day. It doesn't dim much despite the UT loss.

I just hope Phil is right. I'm ready for an early spring.