Monday, January 31, 2011

How to win friends...

Calling a constituent a dumba--. Hmm, maybe somebody should send a copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" to Fentress County...

Look at the video from WBIR here.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A song for Sunday

Here is a song for Sunday, sent by a friend.

"I think I saw him walking on the hill...with Abraham, Martin and John."

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Saturday, January 29, 2011

'Flying for me'

As one last salute to the Challenger 7, here is an Associated Press story highlighting NASA's 25th anniversary memorial to the fallen crew.

And here is a video recording of John Denver with the Boston Pops performing "Flying For Me," the song he wrote about the Challenger 7. Denver initially lobbied to be the citizen chosen to participate in the Challenger mission.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Remembering the Challenger 7, 25 years later

Michael J. Smith. Dick Scobee. Ronald McNair. Ellison Onizuka. Gregory Jarvis. Judith Resnik.

These six astronauts, and teacher Christa McAuliffe, were killed 25 years ago, Jan. 28, 1986, when NASA Mission STS-51-L went horribly wrong 73 seconds into its flight. The space shuttle Challenger broke apart. Its crew perished. A nation reeled in shock.

High school social studies teacher Dean Harned, 33, will never forget it. Knox County Schools were closed that day -- it had snowed -- and Harned was one of the relatively few people who actually saw the shuttle break up while watching the launch live on television. (CNN was the only network to carry it live. Many children around the country were able to watch the launch because NASA provided a broadcast feed on its TV network to schools because of McAuliffe's participation in the flight as part of the Teacher in Space program).

"I thought it was neat that a teacher was going up," Harned says. "My mom is a teacher and I thought it was really cool. I remember hearing that the shuttle had exploded and going out in the garage to tell my father. He had a look of disbelief on his face and said, 'No, no...'

"No doubt, it's our generation's Titanic moment."

The news spread quickly by 1986 standards. Within an hour, more than 86 percent of the country had heard about the accident, which occurred just after 11:39 a.m. (EST). CBS News was reporting the incident by 11:45.

An extensive investigation later determined that a faulty O-ring seal on the right solid rocket booster was responsible for the breakup of the space shuttle (it actually did not explode in the common usage of the term). An investigation by the Rogers Commission later determined that NASA had known about the potential problem with the O-rings since the late 1970s. Bitterly cold temperatures the morning of the flight also contributed to the disaster. Read about the entire incident here.

And here are a few horrifying facts you may not know. After an extensive recovery operation, NASA later learned that Challenger's flight cabin survived the initial breakup. At least two -- and likely all -- of the crew members were still alive and could have survived until the flight cabin crashed into the ocean at 204 mph about three minutes after the breakup. Three of the four Personal Egress Air Packs on the flight deck had been activated. A History Channel video provides further details.

NASA was heavily criticized for both its initial response to the disaster (officials all but avoided the press the day of the accident) and for its fatal decision to launch the shuttle under less than desirable conditions, despite warnings about the O-ring problem and other issues from engineers and others at both NASA and contractor Morton Thiokol.

The U.S. space program grounded to a halt for almost three years until Discovery launched on Sept. 29, 1988. Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup who trained with her for the Challenger flight and watched the launch from Kennedy Space Center, flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavor as a mission specialist in August 2007.

Harned says the Challenger disaster was a game changer.

"That episode put to rest for generations the possibility that we would see a manned mission to Mars. After Challenger, NASA's timidity, the way it addressed the situation, they decided those dreams needed to be put on hold for awhile."

And, for a young boy, the Challenger disaster was Harned's initial brush with mortality.

"It was my first realization that we are fallible. There was something special about the first teacher in space. Christa McAuliffe represented the link to the future -- that ordinary Americans would one day go to space.

"Watching the reactions of her parents and her students, it was horrifying. Those mental images are burned in my head. It was very traumatizing."

The unedited CNN broadcast of the Challenger disaster can be seen here.

President Ronald Reagan's address to the nation on the disaster can be seen here.

CBS News's coverage following the disaster can be viewed in several parts beginning here.

An in-depth report on the disaster by NBC reporter Jay Barbree can be found here.

As President Reagan said in his memorable address, we will never forget the Challenger 7, nor the last time we saw them, moments before they "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

Please feel free to leave your memories of that awful Tuesday by clicking on the comment link below.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Gatlinburg school subject of new novel

Retired Knox County librarian Loletta Clouse jokes that her latest novel is a huge departure from her three other novels.

"It has three words in the title."

"Rainbow by Moonlight" is the fictional story of a young educator who comes to teach at the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School (now the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts) in 1920s Gatlinburg. Clouse told the Open Door Book Review Club at the Fountain City branch library this morning that the idea for the novel came to her after reading a newspaper article highlighting a grant UT had secured to digitize Arrowmont's records online.

When she looked at the website, Clouse discovered letters that the teachers had sent home to families, along with journals and Kodak photos.

"It was amazing and fascinating."

Clouse says she wanted to show "the poverty and the isolation that the teachers ran into as well as the middle class, complicated culture that also existed in Gatlinburg at the time."

Her previous novels "Wilder," "The Homesteads" and "Mallie," are all set in East Tennessee. Clouse worked in the Knox County Public Library system for 25 years.

"Rainbow by Moonlight" is available at, at Hastings book store in Maryville, at any of the Smoky Mountain visitor centers or through the Knox County Public Library.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

RIP Charlie Louvin

Godspeed, Charlie Louvin, who passed away today at age 83.

Louvin, along with his brother Ira, recorded some of country music's most enduring recordings in the 1950s and 1960s, including "When I Stop Dreaming," "Knoxville Girl," "If I Could Only Win Your Love" (later covered by Emmylou Harris) and "The Family Who Prays." Their close harmony would influence generations of country music and bluegrass singers.

Ira died on June 20, 1965, when a drunk driver hit his car in Williamsburg, Mo. Charlie continued with a solo career and lived in Manchester, Tenn.

Here is an audio recording of their hit, "When I Stop Dreaming."

The Louvins were also known for what has become an iconic cover for their gospel album, "Satan is Real." It is often featured on websites under "Worst Album Covers" lists.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Vintage CBS interview debunks Kennedy/Vietnam myth

Here is vintage footage of Walter Cronkite's famous interview with President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on Sept. 2, 1963, for the CBS Evening News.

This debunks the myth that arose after Kennedy's tragic assassination that he favored withdrawal from Vietnam. The segment is particularly poignant when viewed today, given what we know would happen on Nov. 22.

Also, compare this with "interviews" that air these days on various "news programs."

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Black Lillies triumphant at Bijou

Every now and then, if you're blessed or just plain lucky, you'll find yourself in a theater filled to capacity. The atmosphere? Electric. The music? Magic.

It happened last night at the Bijou with the Black Lillies. Sold out. Super.

I was in the Old City nearly two years ago when I first heard Cruz Contreras (nee of the CCStringband fame) open up his mouth and sing. Having only heard his picking from his years leading the band for Robinella, my jaw dropped and my butt nearly hit the floor when he began his unique country crooning.

Oh, it's country, and then again, it isn't. This is Americana at its finest, music that needs no label, songs that stand alone.

You can read elsewhere about the band's history and personnel changes. Here, I will talk about last night, which will last with me for a long, long time.

It was a concert and a celebration, a release party, in fact, for the band's new CD, "100 Miles of Wreckage." Oh, how they jammed, Cruz and Jamie Cook and Robert Richards and Trisha Gene Brady and the terrific Tom Pryor, who plucks that pedal steel like nobody else. Cruz's brother, Billy, stopped by, too, to rosin up his bow.

Cruz and Halls High grad Trisha Gene weaved their harmony into a tapestry of tunes, Appalachian in its honesty. Jill Andrews (nee of the Everybodyfields) popped up, too, to sing her duet "The Arrow" with Cruz, from the new album. Awesome.

The showstopper slipped up on us, as the Lillies made their way to the lip of the stage to accentuate the Bijou's acoustics on "unplugged" renditions of "Go to Sleep" and the band's best single to date, "Whiskey Angel." You know you've made it when the entire audience sings along, even on the verses, no less.

And make it this band will. They must. It would give those who remember what roots music really sounds like a reason to believe in quality amid the crap.

We danced, we pranced and we pined for more. And the band obliged, coming back along with members of the opening act, the New Familiars, to jam on jumpin' versions of The Marshall Tucker Band's "Fire on the Mountain" and Townes Van Zandt's"White Freight Liner Blues."

It was a moment -- and it worked. Nearly religious. Neat.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Life's real heroes, somewhere 'On the Road'

My dream is to one day travel from sea to shining sea, notepad and camera in tow, finding and telling the stories that really matter, those about so-called ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Charles Kuralt, the reporter who told such tales better than anyone else, once said that "it does no harm, just once in awhile, to acknowledge that the whole country isn't in flames, that there are people in this country besides politicians, entertainers and criminals." He made a career -- a rather good one -- doing just that for CBS News, both "On the Road" and as host of TV's best news program, "CBS Sunday Morning."

Kuralt, and Ernie Pyle -- who in his wonderful way also wrote about such folks during World War II -- are two of the few journalists who deserve to be called heroes. They are mine.

I have tried, in my feeble fashion in my little corner of the country, to share such stories about such people. I do not have one-tenth of Kuralt's talent, but I keep trying. His is a fine example.

I found a clip containing several of Kuralt's best "On the Road" dispatches on YouTube. It can be found here. The entire program, aired on "CBS Sunday Morning" a few days after Kuralt's 1997 death -- on Independence Day, no less -- is worth a look.

Have to share this personal aside: The day Charles Kuralt died I was vacationing with family in Jackson Hole, Wyo. They planned to hang out with friends that afternoon. I didn't feel too terrific. By then I already had rumblings I wanted to be a writer and had spent many Sunday mornings before church in awe of Kuralt's poetry.

So I stayed behind and decided to walk to a little bookstore -- it's no longer there -- to hunt something to read. Lo and behold, on the shelf sat a paperback copy of Kuralt's memoir, "A Life on the Road." I spent the afternoon alone, reading and remembering.

I don't know if I will ever get the opportunity to file dispatches from Walla Walla, Wash., or Beaufort, S.C., or a million ports in between. Meantime I will keep plugging away here in Halls, telling tales and swapping stories, knowing deep in my heart that the true heroes aren't in Washington, New York or Hollywood. They are out there, in the big expanse known as the heartland, somewhere "On the Road."

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Remembering MLK

Here is the CBS newscast from the night that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (April 4, 1968). Includes clips from two MLK speeches.

Also, compare this with what passes for "newscasts" today. And notice how parts of President Lyndon Baines Johnson's speech are eerily relevant to our current era.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Finch is still a hero

MARYVILLE, Tenn. -- Here it was, the perfect film ("To Kill A Mockingbird"), shown the perfect way (on the big screen), in a perfect venue (the historic Palace Theater). Perfect, right?

Well, almost.

I walked into the theater about 6:40 last night and started looking for the projection room. My heart fell a bit when I realized the film was going to be shown via digital projection. Movies on the big screen should ALWAYS be shown via a 35 millimeter print.

Prior to the picture, organizers felt the need to have a law professor from UT deliver a bit-too-long essay on the film and its themes. The movie was being shown as part of Blount County's Martin Luther King Jr. Week festivities.

Her talk ended up OK, but she brought up an infamous 2009 New Yorker article by UK-born Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell that attacks the notion that the beloved Atticus Finch of the novel and film is a Civil Rights pioneer.

I read the piece when it was published and did so again this morning. What the writer does is one of the biggest sins of the politically-correct era -- he uses modern-day values to judge an earlier time. He also has no sense of historical perspective. He's also just plain wrong.

Gladwell says that Finch isn't a Civil Rights hero because he doesn't do enough to shake things up in Maycomb during and after Tom Robinson's trial. (For those unfamiliar with the novel and film, Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman; Finch is his lawyer.)

Well, let's think about it. The novel is set in 1932 Alabama. A prominent white lawyer vigorously defending a black man of such a crime at that time in that place would have been nothing short of bold and revolutionary. Period.

The writer also claims that Finch asks the jury to exchange one prejudice (about a black man) for another (about a poor white family). Wrong. What he does is ask the jury to believe the word of an honest man over the word of a liar.

Gladwell also unconvincingly compares Finch with populist Alabama Gov. James "Big Jim" Folsom. The problem with the comparison is that Finch as a character hails from the Depression-era South. Folsom was governor of Alabama following World War II.

After my blood pressure shot up thinking about this article, I calmed down and enjoyed the only movie I've ever seen that is just as good (if not better) than the fine novel on which it's based. Screenwriter Horton Foote deservedly won an Oscar for his excellent adaptation.

It's all here -- Gregory Peck's Academy Award-winning turn as Atticus, Elmer Bernstein's haunting musical score, Robert Duvall's screen debut as Boo Radley, Mary Badham's scene-stealing turn as the spunky Scout. It's a perfect picture, pure and simple.

"To Kill A Mockingbird," both Harper Lee's novel and the Robert Mulligan film, has done much to win over the hearts and minds of at least three generations of Americans -- and it's still doing so. Sheri Webber, one of my beloved high school English teachers, told me in 2007 that the novel continues to cause a vigorous debate in her 9th grade classroom over race relations and prejudice. And, yes, she says, the racism is still very much alive.

I don't know whether the New Yorker staff writer was trying to be cute, condescending or just plain controversial. Whatever the case, his thesis stinks, his piece smacks of shameless revisionism at best and regional prejudice at worst.

As for "To Kill A Mockingbird," it stands as an appeal to the better angels of our nature, a heartwarming tribute to the human spirit, a nod to the power of a young girl's honest innocence, a sober reminder of the danger of ignorance.

And, yes, my friends, Atticus Finch still stands too, as tall and heroic as he ever was.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

The show that changed it all

Television -- and American society -- changed forever 40 years ago this week.

A groundbreaking new comedy, "All in the Family," debuted on CBS Jan. 12, 1971. It is not a cliche nor hyperbole to say that viewers had never seen anything like it.

No doubt you all know about it, but just in case, "All in the Family" centered around the home life of blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (played to perfection by Carroll O'Connor). With him at his Queens abode (704 Houser Street) were his dim-witted but goodhearted wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), his "with it" daughter Gloria (Sally Strothers) and her liberal Democrat husband Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner).

Archie regularly railed against virtually every ethnic group, religion and idea that was different from his own. He called his wife a dingbat and his son-in-law a meathead. He regularly dropped racial epithets and four-letter words previously taboo on TV.

"Brady Bunch" it ain't.

CBS was so nervous that the network brass insisted a "warning" air before the first few episodes, telling viewers that what they were about to see was comedic satire. It went on to become the No. 1 TV show in America for five straight years (which may still be a record).

Topical to the point of irritation, the program delved right in the middle of controversial current events -- everything from wage and price controls to the war in Vietnam. It hit racism head on (Archie was the butt of virtually every episode) and dealt with previously forbidden subjects such as rape, homosexuality, menopause and marital infidelity -- all in prime time. It helped open up a national discussion on all things controversial and never failed to pack a punch.

The show was Norman Lear's first big hit. At one point, nine of the most popular shows on television were Norman Lear programs. They included "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "One Day at a Time," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and "Sanford and Son."

I watched the pilot episode of "All in the Family" earlier tonight. Laughed as hard as I always have. Even clapped a time or two in all the right spots.

I told somebody the other night that this was the first show I ever watched that made me think I was looking at real people -- warts and all -- belching, blathering, arguing, agreeing, disagreeing, yelling, laughing and crying. Archie even used the GD word and audibly flushed the toilet. It felt a whole lot more relevant than talking cars, monsters-as-families and rural rubes. I daresay the original 1971 viewers couldn't believe what they were seeing.

Television briefly entered a Renaissance period filled with real and relevant programming such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (which debuted the September prior to "All in the Family"), "M*A*S*H," and virtually all of Lear's hits.

The other thing that strikes me about the show when watching it now is the realization that we've almost somehow reverted to the Dark Ages. Network TV wouldn't dare allow anything like "All in the Family" on the air today. Topics that became wide open in the 1970s are once again considered too controversial. Most of the shows on the tube today are total crap.

We're a worse nation for it.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Must have been a fire somewhere...

So I'm standing in line at the Halls Branch Library yesterday when the woman walked up beside me. I knew what was going to happen before it did.

I was waiting to ask the librarians about a book that the library's website told me was ready for pickup. ("The Seven Per Cent Solution" by Nicholas Meyer, in case you're wondering.) I had it shipped in from another branch. But, it wasn't on the holds shelf.

The woman in front of me was from out of town. She was asking about the cost of purchasing a library card if you're not a Knox County resident.

"Oh, my God," said her husband when he heard the price of what is in reality a reasonable fee.

"That's actually not a bad deal," the woman said. "Do you have the form?"

Up comes the whirling dervish, arms filled with books. She didn't even look around.

Nope, she marched herself right in front of me when the other librarian arrived from the back office and asked if anybody needed any help.

I just smiled.

Wasn't in too much of a hurry. Plus, I'm used to this kind of rude and solipsistic behavior. It's sadly all but become the norm.

Anyway, it gave me a chance to chat with the librarians and muse a minute on the death of manners.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you -- the woman pulled out in front of me while leaving the parking lot, too. Talk about being on a roll.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


So it's 2011 and, so far, the day-old new year has been a mixed bag.

On the upside, we rang it in the way we always do, in Shelton's basement, at our grand little Dec. 31 party.

Not near as much fun is a bad cold, sore throat and a dawn this morning that brought with it the realization that my HVAC unit has malfunctioned.

Que sera sera. It could always be worse.

I hesitate to make resolutions. I never keep them. But here are a few.

I resolve to be a good and loving husband to my fiancee, Jennifer VanOver, whom I will marry in either May or September. (We'll let you know the date sometime this week.)

I downloaded "War and Peace" (for free) to my Kindle. I'm going to give it yet another go. Everyone who makes it through says it's worth it.

I resolve to make yet another stab at that elusive book I've been meaning to write. Here are good, honest plans to give it a go this year.

What else?

Well, I resolve to be a better citizen, a better employee, a better friend, a better man. I hope to keep an open mind, most of the time, and continue my life-long education, even if that just means reading something with which I don't agree.

Here's to good intentions, new starts, the exciting promise of a clean slate and the optimistic adventures that await in 2011.

Happy New Year!