Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Blog Takes a Break

             We'll be back Oct. 18.  In the meantime, feel free to scroll down or click on such gems as After Mad Men; Dickie and Darlene have breakfast  In Praise of the Belleville MidgetsThe Midgets of Belleville. Part II  Truth in Grass: a Kansas adventure The Story of the Larned Eagle Optic Hollywood Calls, You Pick up the Phone
Hollywood Calls, you pick up the phone part 2 maybe my favorite My Short Happy War in Afghanistan or no, wait, wait, Fangio and the Maserati 250 F for the priceless video of Fangio in a polo shirt and helmet, absolutely relaxed driving a Maserati 250F around a beat up old race track with no run off, no barriers, no safety nothing.  My lunch with Rob Walker is a good one even though it leaves out the Betty Grable stories. Then there's Erno Goldfingers house-and-mine- which throws in Ian Flemming, no extra charge. Riding around Laguna Seca with Jackie Stewart was picked up by Or my favorite of all How You Look at the Sky Or just cruise through, maybe come upon some unexpected little gem like an excerpt from The Candle 
              Or Uncle John's Prayer
             And, of course, the one that started it all, Truck Story 
             Or go visit Vanessa Carlisle, see what she has to say on the way to her PHD and dancer's pole in Hollywood on her blog, Gorgeous Curiousity
              Then there's Elif Batumen, San Francisco's brightest and funniest writer, a fine lady to curl up with for a good read.  Here's.Elif's homepage.
             Enjoy, Have a ball.  Bob

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

John Logan's Prayer

John Logan just outside of Fairbanks in 1939 on his way to Seattle.  Most of that equipment was dumped before the end of the week

Years ago, my Uncle John sent me his favorite prayer.  I'm sure he said a lot of prayers when he and Slim Williams rode, pushed, pulled and carried their motor cycles from Fairbanks to Seattle in 1939.  This may have been one of them. I keep it up on my bulletin board.

Here's how it goes.

Dear Lord,

           So far today, Lord, I've done alright.  I haven't gossiped, haven't lost my temper, haven't been greedy, nasty, selfish, or over-indulgent.  I'm very thankful for that.  But in a few minutes, Lord, I'm going to get out of bed.  And from then on, I'm probably going to need a lot more help.


"The dog is on the right."  John Logan's note on the back  of this photo taken after a couple of months on the trail from Fairbanks to Seattle in 1939. Compared to the softie on the motorcycle at the  top of the page, he looks like a wolf.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Gorrilla and The Butterfly: a guide to good villains Part 2

                     He ran one of Europe's biggest car companies.  His round, pock-marked face would be so close you could see what he'd had for lunch. He would scream, at you, his thoughts incoming from all directions, his face getting redder and redder.  He was a client, a gorilla with the flight path of a butterfly. And god help you and all the people who worked for the agency if you lost track of his tirade.  He suffered from terrible indigestion. And was kind to his invalid wife.
                      The best villains are full of contradictions.  From their point of view they are the only truly fair and balanced voice in the room.  Here's part two of Dickie Laffer, a character from my novel, The Candle.
                     (Part three of Dickie Laffer-- as played by Dustin Hoffman or Danny Devito, and the Judd guide to good villains, tomorrow.)

 from chapter 34:

  Dickie picked up his white porcelain coffee cup, thought better of it and carefully put it back down.  “You’re right there, Darlin. Atonement has a nice sound to it.  Biblical. Daniel lying down with the lions.  But I gotta tell you if I did unto others as they would like to do unto me, I’d need a bazooka and a machete.  What kinda grace are you talking about, giving money away?”
                           “Oh, Dickie.  It’s not about money.  I see you drinking that awful pink Pepto Dismal for breakfast, and I know you are suffering.  Why should you suffer?”
                            “Well, I’ve got a lot to deal with this week.”
                            There was a thump on the glass door behind Darlene as a small wren flew into it and fell to the flagstones. “You’ve always got a lot to deal with, Dickie. That’s what makes you the big guy.”  Darlene turned to watch the tiny bird shake itself, take two hops and launch into a dizzy flutter across the yard and into the dark green camouflage of trees.
                       “This is different, Darlin’. I was counting on that goddamn creative agency in New York, Fararly, Faucett, and so on, to turn us around. But that bastard Josh Fararly, after I had lunch with him in New York, calls up yesterday and says they are gonna bail.” 
                         Dickie Laffer pushed back his tall oak chair and started pacing the room.  A strikingly short man, his head was just above the table top.  “He says he’s worried he if he takes on Beefalo he might lose all their Quaker accounts because Quaker owns Burger King.  So the hot agency is gone and If I don’t have something that’s got the horsepower to  turn us around our whole deal is going to gonna nosedive.  We go belly up, you and I  won’t be donating to charity, we’ll be asking for it.   I’ve already got a bunch of franchise guys saying they want to re-negotiate or get out.  They get out, they’ll go to McDonalds  and the current Mrs. Kroc is gonna have a lot more money to give away.”
                    “Oh, fooey, you’ll sort it out, Dickie.  You always do.  I’m trying to tell you, it’s your being so hard on everybody else that’s so hard on you.  Surprise somebody.  Be nice to them.”
                 “Somebody  bring me a new idea, Darlin, I’ll love em to death.”      
                   She bent forward for her coffee, her robe gaping open the way it did sometimes and it just thrilled him. “Be nice to someone, Dickie,” she said, picking up her cup and sipping.  “See if it doesn’t take the edge off your diarrhea.”

Friday, September 24, 2010

After Mad Men: Dickie and Darlene Have Breakfast

The Devil always has the best lines.  And real villains will steal the show.   Dickie Laffer showed up on the page and took over the show in my book, The Candle, about advertising in the 1970s.  Everybody thought Danny Devito would be perfect in the role.  But I always pictured a bald Dustin Hoffman with Dickie's eyebrows.  His first wife, Anne Byrne Hoffman authored a coffee table book on the beauty of basketball players, shortly before their divorce.  An especially cruel joke on her famously short husband.

chapter thirty five

               “Joan Kroc is giving away five million dollars to an alcoholic treatment center.” Darlene looked up from her Omaha World Herald. “Drink all of it.  The doctor said, drink all of it.”
                           Dickie Laffer looked at the half empty glass of chalky pink goo with distaste.  “Well, what the hell,  I’m going to need it.”  Dickie raised the glass of pink fluid and drained it.  Thinking, as he always did, of the irony it, that the CEO and owner of 29.8 % of the world’s third largest rapid service restaurant chain had to drink the dismal Pepto Bismol for breakfast.  To soothe the tightly coiled dragon of his inflamed digestive tract.  For, as the label said, rapid relief from heartburn, upset stomach, indigestion, and diarrhea.  Dickie’s world class eyebrows rose and fell.  A noticeable event.  Dickie was bald and it looked like all the hair on top of his head had migrated to his eyebrows. 
                    “You have a pink mustache.  Don’t you think it’s a good idea?”
                     Dickie wiped the pink bismuth subsalicylate frosting from his upper lip.  Stuff didn’t work very well, but it worked better than anything else he’d tried.  Dickie’s round, owl like face frowned and his long thick and wirey eyebrows joined in the middle of his forehead to make one long unbroken line of coiled wire as he conjured up a Laffer alcoholic clinic in some corn field outside Omaha: wooden benches against concrete walls, prisoners in grey pajamas drinking water from a ladle and a wooden bucket. “We don’t need an alcoholic clinic in Omaha, Darlin.”
                      The Laffer breakfast room was paneled in oak, and the table was a fine cherry  antique that some ancestor of Darlene’s had left behind  rather than try to stuff it into a Conestoga and carry further west.  The table, with its worn and rounded edges made a calm background for the white Wedgwood china plates and cups and saucers, for the solid silver knives and forks and spoons.  Among the many things Dickie admired in Darlene was her elegant taste.  The early morning sun streaming in from the tall glass doors leading to the garden washed the room with honey.  Tall oak and maple trees ringed their half acre of lawn bordered by red, yellow and pink roses, zinnias, geraniums and hopeful bunches of daisies.  The garden was serene in the early warm gold of the morning.  You had to look twice to see the stumps of oak limbs that had been twisted and fractured by the great tornado that had turned a wide swath of Omaha into a bombed ruin last May.   
               “I don’t mean for an alcohol clinic, Dickie. I mean for atonement.”
               “That bastard Kroc has a lot to atone for.”
               “Atonement for us.”
               “For us?  What the hell have we got to atone for?  It’s 6:15 AM, most folks in this neighborhood are still sound asleep. I’m about to put in my usual ball breaker day, kicking ass and chewing butt, and at the end of it, I’m still going to be number three.”
                     “Say the word.”
                      “Atonement,” he said. 
                      “Doesn’t it have a nice round sound?”
                     “Last week Ray Kroc said that if he heard I was drowning he would turn on his garden hose full blast and stuff it down my throat.  Kroc is the guy that should be making those nice round atonement sounds, Darlene.  I am just trying to make a living.”
                         Darlene was blonde and going grey.  She didn’t mind.  She wore her hair the same way she wore it when she was eight years old, in a page boy, when she first met Dickie.  She was a large, soft looking woman and Dickie would be the first to tell you she was the brains of the Laffers.  She wore her blue silk robe that she had worn for years.  It suited her in the morning in this sunny room.  The robe was cornflower blue, the same color as her eyes. “Your kids and my Lily are all grown up.  We have the nicest house in Fairacres. There isn’t a nicer house or a better place to live in Omaha.  We don’t need more money.  We need more grace,” she said.
                   Dickie and Darlene  had gone to the same grade school in Lincoln, Nebraska where Darlene’s dad taught geology at the University.  Dickie’s dad worked on the railroad.  They knew each other but they never dated.  She was way out of his league, too pretty, too smart.  He was short, and suffered from volcanic acne. She dated the quarterback.
                    Dickie married a short, curly haired bundle of nerves who loved small dogs.    They met in St. Louis when he started out as a salesman for Proctor and Gamble and she was the assistant to the marketing manager on Pampers.   The night they were married she said she “wanted it all.”  All, it turned out, did not include sex except at verbal gunpoint.  They had two kids which she kept when she left him for the Clairol marketing manager. 
                  When Dickie met Darlene ten years later, he was the Chief of Operations for Beefalo.  Darlene was recently divorced from her first husband, Rupert, a wide, blonde, mid-western stockbroker who did not value a wife who was smarter than he was.  The stockbroker had affairs with his secretaries.  Darlene just let him go, took little Lily age 9, and left for Omaha because she knew she could work in any insurance company she wanted because she could speed read actuarial tables.  Her Country Squire wagon was stuck on an icy patch in the Bakers Supermarket just off Cornhusker. Dickie had come down to Belleville to check out the Beefalo across the street, see if it was as spotless and friendly as every Beefalo Franchise had to be.  Dickie was going to park in the Bakers lot so the Beefalo manager wouldn’t see him coming.  And there was this Ford station wagon “waggin its damn tail on the ice,” as he liked to tell the story. Dickie bounced out of his rolling Greek temple, a white, gold vinyl-top, Lincoln (tasteful gold DL initials, and a red and yellow Beefalo decal centered under the door window)  to help.
                    Darlene stuck her head out her window, her nose rose red and drooling with a cold.  Dickie recognized her in that first instant and said, “Darlin.”
                   “It’s Darlene,” she said. 
                  “You’ll always be Darlin to me.”  Dickie answered.  Truest words he ever spoke.

                        (to be continued)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mad Men before Mad Men. Chapter 23

      Here's another excerpt from The Candle, a novel I wrote about advertising in the 1970s.  You could call it a sequel to Mad Men, which takes place in the 1960's.

except The Candle was written before the series appeared on TV.

              chapter twenty three

                     Johnny Reynolds in the back of his black Lincoln limo, 6:15 AM, 75 MPH on the Hutchison River Parkway, passing through Pelham Manor on his way to get a jump on the day.  Get some work done before the shit river overflowed its banks onto his desk. 
                 In 1776 600 tough Boston insurgents hid behind the stone walls of the original Pelham Manor’s estate and picked off enough of the 4,000 English and Hessian troops to send them back to the beaches.  The town likes to claim the Battle of Pelham was the turning point of the revolutionary war because it saved Washington’s army and gave him time to retreat to the safety of White Plains. 

                The CEO of Johnathan Reynolds, great grandson of the founder of the world’s largest advertising agency learned all about Pelham in grade school.  Sometimes he even thought about those tough seamen and farmers, outnumbered 66 to one, fighting for their turf against the invaders.  Breaking all the rules of warfare.  Sometimes he felt like he had been given the Hessians to command as the younger, slicker, more creative agencies took pot shots at his great ship of state.  But he was not thinking of Hessians and revolutionaries now. 

             Now, sleek, showered,  in the back of the limo, his mind was elsewhere.   He was reading the N Y Times, saying, “Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  We are fucked.”    


        By Thomas Feeley
Free Burgers Anyone?

                                       Dickie Laffer, CEO and marketing force of nature at Beefalo Burgers blew into town yesterday to huddle with BBDO, Y&R and Creative Hotshop, Fararly, Faucett, Majestic.   So how come the guys at Johnathan Reynolds, BB’s agency of record ,didn’t even know Mr. Laffer was in the neighborhood?
                    “We’ve already talked to them until I’m blue in the face,” Laffer said when I tracked him down at the Cloud Club on top of the Chrysler Building.  Ironically Reynold’s NY headquarters are just across the street.  But the canyon that separates America’s biggest agency and Laffer’s Beefalos is wide and deep.  “They just don’t seem to understand what we need to do.  Or if they do, they don’t seem to be able to get a first down. We’re tired of playing in third place when we have a first place product.”
                    Has BB fired JR?  “It’s not official.  I guess I keep putting it off because I hate going to funerals,” Laffer said.  “I’ve told them they can show us their hail mary before we kick off our sales conference in a couple of weeks.  But between you, me and the man in the moon, it’s strictly a courtesy.  I’ll tell you this,” Laffer said in that voice that got its power from his years as a company commander in the Marines; “We’re not going to be disappointed by Johnathan Reynolds, whatever they show us.  We are not going to be disappointed  because our expectations, based on our experience, are lower than a crab’s ass.”
                 Nobody ever said Fast Food was easy.  Beefalo has been lagging behind McDonalds and Burger King and the gap is growing with Beefalo’s market share dropping close to single digits.  Laffer says Beefalo’s overall ad spend will be in the range of  75 million next year which would be, if our rumours can be believed, less than half of what McDonalds puts on the table.  OK going up against the Golden Arches and the King of Burgers is an uphill battle. But isn’t that when the tough get going?  Plus there’s more than enough gold in Beefalo’s  pot  to attract those wizards who say they know how to build a rainbow. 
                   Looking out across Lexington Avenue  to JR,’s offices, I think I smell something burning.  Or is it just smoke?  

                    “Shit. Fuck. Fuck. Shit.” Johnny said.  Once the market opened Johnathan Reynolds stock would drop like a stone.  And then the real sharks would come gliding through the front doors.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Beast and Beauty of Belleville. Report from the middle of America, Part 2

Rare photo of a midget in mid air.  This one by Michael Harders  is of Keith Hutton who did not survive.
           Photographs don't give you the sudden silence, the intake of air when the car is in the air, the powerful hope that it will all be OK.  That the kid will come out of it waving and smiling.  

             And the photos of the cars on the track racing wheel to wheel are so tame compared to the spectacle, the barely controlled violence, the graceful curves of the cars forced to turn left, the left inside wheel a foot off the ground, waving playfully to the infield. 

             Even the videos don't begin to make the spectacle come alive.  The little cars seem so safe and so distant in the rectangle of your screen. Video makes you look down the tube where the camera points when it's all happening everywhere at once.  Video doesn't give you the rumble in the ground, the heat and passion of the beasts and the naked danger of the wheels that act like gears, flinging the cars into the sky if they touch.  

             Let's give words a chance:

            The sun is down, there’s a full moon rising over Rocky Pond, and 25 cars go by the front stands behind the pace car in rows four wide, and the fans are standing, cheering. Now the cars are two by two and the pace call pulls off. Fireworks boom in the night sky, the green flag waves and the cars explode with fury.  It’s a swarm of Super Size Killer Bees on Wheels; trying to keep your eye on any one car is almost impossible.  Chaos, thunder, clouds of smoke, and one car, Bobby East, starting fourth, slingshots up high and takes the lead going into the first turn. They come through the turn one again, arms working, spewing up rooster tails of dirt, inside front wheels off the ground, waving back and forth helplessly.  You know how they say in road racing, you have to commit to a turn.  Here you are always in a turn.  You are always committed.  Always out there on the edge.  And always on the throttle. Cars are diving high, low, and they are all flat out, sliding, inches from each other, a fury and a catastrophe about to happen. There is more passing in the first two laps than in a season of Formula One.  Two laps go by before you have time to take a breath.
Ron Gregory, right side up.

         Lap 28, Ron Gregory, 21, (good looking blonde kid from Noblesville, Indiana, 2002 Midget Rookie of the year, got his first USAC National Midget Car feature victory last week in Indianapolis,) is running mid pack when Car #2 got out of shape in front of him and Gregory had nowhere to go.  They touch wheels and Gregory’s  yellow car vaults into the air, ten feet over the rail, end over end and disappears.  

         Amazingly the car landed on its wheels in the soft grass at the bottom of the ten foot high banking before rolling one more time and stopping against a chain link fence. And Gregory said, “what a hell of a ride.” 

           It was Bobby East’s night.  Where the other cars were scrabbling around the turns, he was smooth and too fast to catch.  East who won Friday night too, was as smooth and relaxed on the podium (on the right with
Shawna, Miss National Midget Racing) as he was on the track.  His $12,500 check was signed by the ‘Fair Amusement Committee.’  

Stephanie and her proud Dad at Belleville 2004

            That was the night 16 year old Stephanie Mockler (who won the Ford Focus Feature the week before at the Indianapolis Speedrome, making her youngest woman ever to win a USAC race) gave as good as she got, read the short Ford Focus track like an open book and stayed calm while other drivers were going nuts all around her.  She finished third and you thought she could be the next Maria Andretti.  A long shot, sure. But if you want a fresh look at what racing is really about, and see the stars before they get too big to get next to, go on down to your local friendly Midget race real soon. Better yet, go to Belleville.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Monaco, Spa, LeMans, Indy, and Belleville. Yes, Belleville, Kansas is one of the world's greatest race tracks

                  Saturday night, the sun is sinking into the prairie and a full moon is coming up behind the trees around Rocky Pond. Race time. Belleville, a sleepy Kansas farm town of 3,000 has grown to 30,000 for the Belleville Midget Nationals. (click on link for video)

          The cars circle slowly around the track and park in front of the stands, leaving the engines running, thumping on idle like drum beats, raising the pulse and the expectation of racing.  All these guys, their owners and crews are all doing it for the love of racing.  Nobody makes any money at it.  “Maybe some new guy thinks he can make money doin’ this,” an old-timer says. “You better get to him quick before he learns better.”

This is not about money, this is about racing.  Pay attention.

Belleville Cuisine 2004

              Mario Andretti drove Midgets.  So did AJ.  Tony Stewart drives Midgets. Jeff Gordon was the 1990 USAC Midget champ.  Ryan Newman, Bobby Unser, Roger Ward, Jimmy Vasser, Parnelli Jones, Kasey Kahne, they all drove Midgets

              53 Cars show up for Saturday night, the best Midget racers in the country. And they all tell you this is the track; the fastest, the trickiest and the best to win

               The fans have come from all over the country, but most are from the middle of America, states like Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas.  Around 30 Australians came over with Ozzie Midget drivers, Adam Clarke and Nathan Smee. 

Adam Clarke (couldn't find a pic of his pit crew in Spandex)

The crowd awards Clarke best looking driver because Adam lines up with four gorgeous Australian blondes in skimpy orange spandex. The drivers toss autographed Frisbees into the crowd and the fans dive for them.
                     Speaking of fans, here’s a tip.  Hang onto the lid of your cup of soda or beer; it’s handy for keeping out the flying mud and grit.  (Drink your beer, sweetie, before it gets dirty.) Here’s another tip I picked up in the stands when a cell phone went off.  “I got a remedy for that,” a Kansas farmer said, “just a couple drops of Bud and that phone won’t rang (sic) again tonight.”
                The Belleville Jazz Ensemble (aka The Belleville high school band) cranks up a weird and wonderful combo of rah rah football music mixed with saxophone jazz, and you know good stuff is about to happen.

                   What you do when you race a midget (you can win this one)is wrap your knees around 350 horsepower and stomp the throttle.  While all around you a whole bunch of other crazy, fearless racers with their knees wrapped around 350 horsepower stomp on their throttles. This is pure, raw, butt to the wall, grass roots racing

                    Belleville is the world’s oldest and fastest banked half mile dirt oval. 
The clay is so sticky it’ll pull your shoes off. Except for a 30 yard straight, it’s a perfect circle. Midgets, with no wings and the aerodynamics of a buffalo can take the high 5/8s of a mile flat and they are almost always sliding, back end hanging out, pedal squashed to the metal.
                 Here’s how pure the racing is. There are no pit stops. No test drivers.  No mirrors. No media centers. No Press Officers. No fins.  No wings. No clutch. No Transmission. No starter motor. No marketing plan. No independent suspensions.  No carbon fiber chassis or brakes. No push to pass buttons. No on-board computers. No turbos. No pit to car radios. No traction control.  No aerodynamic devices. If these cars were pared down any more they wouldn’t have wheels

               You sit bolt upright.  And mostly you look down the track over your right shoulder. The right pedal is go, the left is stop.  The strategy is pass everybody and don’t hit anything.  

                 The cars weigh a minimum 900 lbs. without the driver.  The chassis is tubular aircraft steel and the driver sits inside a roll cage.  Most engines are 166 cu in. 4 cylinder,  325 to 350 horsepower.  The cars are about ten feet long with the wheelbase running from a wee 66 to 76 inches and width limited to 65 inches.  Which is how they fit three and four wide in the banked turns
              Longevity counts.  Two crew guys, looking old as crocodiles, watch qualifying from inside turn two.  About halfway into the session they jump back from the fence, pick up wrenches with 5 foot long handles and swap the rear tires on their Midget. Something they saw out there made them go for a harder compound, but they won’t say what.  Because the cars haven’t changed much for the past 80 years there are several Grandfather, father and son teams, passing down the secrets from generation to generation. 

   Ask Mario Andretti about his Midget days, and he just grins like the kid he was.  “I was so fortunate.  I learned everything I needed to know in Midgets to launch me in my career." 

"I mean everybody who was anybody was at Belleville, and they had their best cars ready to go there. It was a great race for me to win. I was on a tear there, running wide open and jumping the cushion and never lifting. I never stopped racing like that until the checkered flag flew." - Jeff Gordon

(to be continued tomorrow)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Truth in Grass, a Kansas Adventure

        Our previous blog, drew a nice mash note from Cheryl Unruh in Kansas.  (Cheryl and her brother used to work on the Larned, Kansas Tiller & Toiler. Now she writes a blog Flyover People, Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State.)
       Her note brought back a glorious afternoon in the tall grass. 
       I'd done a piece on the Belleville Midget Nationals  for Road & Track ("The Edge of the Track is in the Sky"), and we thought, let's see what there is to see in Kansas.  My parents grew up in Kansas and I've always felt at home under those spacious skies. Let's see what's left of the tallgrass prairie. (click on pictures to enlarge)
click to enlarge to see the form of the prairie.  The landscape is very dark, but also,very beautiful.

"Tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America. Within a generation the vast majority was developed and plowed under. Today less than 4% remains, mostly here in the Kansas Flint Hills. The preserve protects a nationally significant remnant of the once vast tallgrass prairie and its cultural resources. Here the tallgrass prairie takes its last stand.

We stayed in Cottowood Falls, at the Grand Central Hotel where they served martinis the size of goldfish bowls.
Kathryn talked to Jane Kroger who runs a 4,000 acre ranch off the grid.  Jane calls her ranch The Republic of Grass.

Not all adventures are about speed and risk.  Go stand in that remnant of the prairie that was an ocean of grass from Texas to Sasketchuan. Watch the wind roll across the prairie in waves, the swallows skitter through the sky, and feel time slow down bit by bit until you can feel the centuries that have come before.  This is time travel.  You can go forward or back.  You can feel the grandeur of the curve of the earth and the passage of your moment in time.  Fasten your seatbelt.  You could lose your sense of importance.

We'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. (click on pictures to enlarge)

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Larned Eagle Optic Flies Again.

               My Dad's first job was as an intern for a Republican Senator from Kansas in Washington, D.C.
               When Clarence came back to Kansas his first paying job was the editor of the Larned, Kansas Eagle Optic newspaper.  A newspaper known for it's eagle eye, that view from the sky under a Kansas sun.  Where you could depict the scurrying of political rodents in detail.  That cold, distant, ferocioius view.  Truth above all. 

               Larned is the county seat of Pawnee County.  The town of 4,000 sits on the banks of the Arkansas River, pronounced "Our Kansas" in Kansas.  Fort Larned was one of the forts built to protect the settlers travelling along the Santa Fe trail.  Great Bend, Cheyenne and Dodge all had forts.
                Some of that fortress mentality survives in Kansas.  Those oceans of grass could make you weep with wind and heat and cold.

  That merciless open space where unlimited hail, wind, buffalo and Indians could all of a sudden,  emerge out of nowhere.  That thought would haunt you day and night. Union soldiers built tall flagpoles for the settlers to see from miles away and know there was a safe place to sleep behind the fort's walls, water the oxen and get a fix on where they were headed.
              Their fears were exaggerated.  No Indian ever attacked any of the forts or the settlers along the Arkansas River. But when you see one of those old Connestoga Wagons, how small and frail a vessel to cross the endless unknown with all your family, food and belongings, you can't help but admire the settlers courage.
               A few stayed in Kansas.  Most moved on.
               That migration, from Missouri to California was the Great American Adventure.  Going into the unknown. Leaving security behind.
                 If this blog is about anything it is about adventure.  And leaving security behind. Like my Uncle John Logan, 26  years old, all set to be the CEO of his family's business.  Jobs were tough to find in 1939.  Unemployment close to 20%. His name was on a 9 story granite building in downtown Pittsburgh.  All he had to do was say yes and he'd be set for a life of country clubs and a pile of money in the bank.
                  He said,  "I have to ride a motorcycle from Fairbanks to Seatlle."
                  His parents were appalled.  "There's no road," they cried.
                  "That's the point," he said.



Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hollywood calls again. You Pick Up The Phone. The Second Great Law of Hollywood Part 2

A month later the phone rings again.  This time from the Chelsea home of  Bigtime Financial Titan.

"Hello Bob?  Bigtime Financial Titan here.  Very good to talk to you, Bob.  Forgive me if I get straight to the point.  May I call you Bob?  Thank you Bob.  Bob, I just came back from the Grand Prix at Silverstone and, Bob, I was very impressed, Bob.  And Bob, I asked around for the best writer in Formula One and I was given your name.  Well I've read your book, Bob, and I just have one question for you.  How'd you like to make a movie of your book, Bob?

    "Depends, Bigtime" you say because you have learned hold back on the leap in until you know if it is a flaming pit or a black hole.

    "Call me Big.  Why don't you come down to my little place in Chelsea tomorrow, say at eleven Bob and we'll discuss it.  Is that all right Bob?  It won't take too long because I have a meeting with Rupert at two.  I do a lot of business with Mr. Murdoch.  See you at eleven then, Bob."

    You walk in his front door into a large open and airy room.  Tall palms rise from porcelain pots up to the two story high skylight and eight heads sitting around a conference table all turn to face you and they all say, "it's going to be a great movie, Bob"  There’s a famous ex-Formula One racing driver, a former Formula One team owner, a couple of assistant producers, a very glamorous lady who watches you like a hawk.  After small talk about big movies, a matched pair of limousines pull up to his front door and drive our party of ten sixty yards to lunch at a chic restaurant on The Kings Road.  We sit down at a round table.  Our host does not sit down but leans over the table, his hands on the back of my chair like a benevolent father.  And he says, "sorry I can't join you for lunch.  I've got a meeting with Murdoch. But after my meeting with Rupert I am going to draw up a company with you all on the board of directors to make this movie. Have a good lunch."

And you never ever see or hear from him again.

Which is the second great Law of Hollywood.  The first Law is from the great screenwriter William Goldman (who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Harper, All The President's Men, etc. etc.)  It goes:  Nobody ever knows anything.
The second great Law of Hollywood, if you haven't heard it before, comes from me and it goes: No answer means no.  And nobody ever knows why.

So six months later the phone rings again and a producer from New York has the money together, the director is hot to do it, wants you to write the screenplay and he wants to go straight into production as soon as he talks to your agent. Is that OK with you?

"Sure," you say.  "Yes, absolutely."

He never calls your agent. And you never ever hear from him again and you never know why.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hollywood calls, you pick up the phone: The Second Great Law of Hollywood

True story.

You come in the door in your house on Hampstead Heath in London and the phone is ringing and the voice has the authentic Hollywood rasp of sincerity and cocaine.

      "Hey man, I am so glad I caught you in I don't believe it.  I just flew in to LA, from this feature we're doing in Senegal.  Like Gorillas In the Mist only this is like Silverback's side of the story.  Anyway I was up all night reading your book on the plane,  Jesus, it is amazing, I mean I just could not put it down.  I mean forget dinner.  OK, First Class Virgin, dinner is not all that great, but you really caught it man, the whole scene, I mean I was there in the cockpit of a Formula One car turning left, the front end a little light, I mean fantastic.  Like I drove straight home to pick up the phone, like gotta call you.   Who you thinking of to play your guy, you know, the lead?  I"m thinking Cruise."

    The raspy voice pauses to suck in another lungful and you say, "Brad Pitt?"

    "Hey, what a great book, man.  I think we can get Julia for the female lead but listen Sandra Bullock's hot now and she owes me.  What a great book, man, I did a  Oceans I did Crash and this is gonna be bigger than all of that combined."

    You are thinking this is definitely not Soderberg.  Not Paul Haggis. You are thinking "did" could mean anything, like he saw them or went for coffee, but this is no time to interrupt.

    "Yeah, humongous.   Maybe the cars are the star, know what I mean?  Like we could tell the whole story from the car's point of view.  I'm just throwing that out.  Don't pay any attention if it don't ring bells.  So listen,  this is your baby and I don't want to screw around with options. I mean I don't want to be dicking around with the lawyers for the next six months  What I want is I want to go straight into production.  You got a script?"

    "Uh, not with me at the moment.  No."

    "Well I want you to do the script.  I'll work it out with your agent, what's his name. . .

    "Ralph Vincinanza."

    "Right, Ralph.  Bernie is gonna love this."

    "Bernie Ecclestone is gonna love this if you give him a piece of the gross."

    "Don't worry about Bernie.  I can handle him.  Listen, great talking to you, kid.  Start thinking about that script and I'll get back to you."

    And he hangs up and you never hear from him again.  And you will never know why.

(To be continued tomorrow)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Great Teachers #2: Jim Clark's Team Mate Peter Arundell

Peter Arundell in the Lotus 16 cylinder  BRM (credit: Autosport)
There's a scene in John Frankenheimer's movie Grand Prix when Scott Stoddard (played by Brian Bedford) after a long recovery from a ferocious crash, puts his crutches down and climbs slowly and painfully into his racing car. That would have to be Peter Arundel,  Jim Clark's Lotus F-1 team mate.
                  I was at Brands Hatch, going to racing driver school in the days when the instructors took you around the track in Lotus Elans.  There was a buzz among my fellow wannabe racers, "wow, that's Peter Arundel.  I didn't know he could walk."
                   He could barely walk.  He had crashed in a Formula 2 Race at Reims the year before, t-boned by Richie Ginther, smashing into a dirt bank and thrown out of his car.  He was at the very beginning of what looked like a brilliant career in Formula One.  But it took Arundell over a year to recover from a broken arm, thigh and collar bone, and a severe concussion.  In the meantime he was making ends meet by teaching mickey mouse drivers like me. 
                     He asked me to drive the Lotus around the race track, "take your time," he said, "I just want to see how you drive, not how fast you are."  So I did a couple of laps and he said, "would it be alright if I took the wheel for a bit?" 
                      I had never been in a car with a racing driver before.  Let alone a Formula One driver who had beaten Jim Clark.  The Lotus was transformed from a decent little car into a low flying object, engine screaming and tires squealing.  At some point the car became still and the race track came to us, fluid, rushing, as if we were sitting still and the landscape was rising and falling, tilting.  For a while I forgot to breathe.
                    I got back behind the wheel, and kindly, patiently Arundell showed me the braking points, where to turn in and how to take the car to its limits.  Or rather, my limits.  How to get on the brake pedal in a hurry, really use the brakes and lift off smoothly as we turned it.  He was patient, insightful.  From time to time, I thought I might be a racing driver.  (If you are not seriously delusional you will never be a racing driver.)
                      Arundell went back to Lotus in 1966, but he never made it back to the front of the grid.  Part of it seemed to be that he was driving  the clumsy, heavy and complex BRM H-16.  While Clark was driving the lighter, faster Cosworth V-8. But then Jimmy Clark qualified the H16 third on the grid at Monza while Peter was 13th in the Cosworth.  Clark won Watkins Glen in the BRM and Arundell finished last in the Cosworth. Chapman signed Graham Hill to partner Clark in 1967 and Arundell moved the the US to run a software company.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Bow Waves on the Road to Happiness. Our Honeymoon Barge.

Our little baby Toro coupe was alive and well and living in Florida

                Width was good.

                Length was even better.

                Yes, once upon a time size mattered in America and whoppers ruled the road.  In 1969 Easy Rider was at the drive-in, and Neil Armstrong was on the moon. ‘69 was Woodstock, LBJ’s last hurrah and Nixon’s inauguration. 1969 was the year  my 4,505 lb, 455 cu in, 375 hp. 510 lbs of torque, honeymoon barge was born.

1936 Cord
             The first generation Oldsmobile Toronado was the car of the year in ‘66.  Won Pikes Peak in ‘68 & ‘70. It was a technological breakthrough, a gentleman’s hot rod, a muscle car in a dinner jacket. It was the  first American, full-sized, front wheel drive car since the 1936 Cord. Indeed, its long nose, slotted wheels and disappearing headlights all pay homage to the Cord.

               “You bought a what?”   

                Well, it was late Friday night. I was just fooling around and, OK, things got out of control.  I threw a low ball bid on eBay and Sunday, when I came home from the weekend, the little two ton Toro was mine. 

              One wee snag. The car was retired and living in Miami.  Never mind we’ll have it trucked  to California in time to drive to Montana for the wedding and back.  It’ll be huge.

             Really huge. After decades of downsizing, it’s difficult to appreciate the  hugeness of American  cars when they had the roads to themselves.  A ‘69 Cadillac 75 sedan was over 20 ft long.  The Toro is 18 ft. long, a mere 4 inches short of a Suburban.  And the Toro is a coupe. A coupe  as huge as Asia. A coupe so heavy you can see a bow wave in the concrete as you roll down the highway.
               And look darling, there’s no hump on the floor, no lump in the middle for a transmission, no center console to prevent front seat canoodling.  Just wide open, immoral spaces.  According to the  FBI, center consoles were invented by hostile puritanical alien nations to bomb our birth rate and snuff out American teenage romance.  Yes, there’s  room to stretch out. Fool around. And the gear shift is on the steering column.  So four-on-the-floor would be consenting adults.  Plenty of room.  Oh, yes, Virginia size matters.

                 The day the car arrives, we snuggle in the back seat surrounded by an acre of blue vinyl.  Kathryn bursts into giggles.  “It’s like being a kid again.”

                 On our way to Montana for our wedding, we play a game when we come up on cars of lesser hulk.  When our front bumpers were even, a Ford Galaxie would come to the end the door.    (The doors are longer than most barns.) Lesser BMWs only reach the door lock button which is about half way down the door.  (‘66 & ‘67 Toros had two inside handles on the door.  One for back seat passengers, and one for folks up front.) Buckled in the front seat, a passenger  with less than Orangutang arms cannot reach the driver’s door handle.  Just too far away, my little rutabaga.

               We cruise the Nevada desert in our own baby blue living room. For all it size, it’s a peach to drive.  A setting sun outlines the car’s silhouette on the sand alongside the road.  We are two tiny heads inside a giant toy car rushing painlessly through cactus and mesquite.

             Now lets talk about hood length.  The Toro’s hood is longer than yours.  Longer than a Duesenberg’s.  The whole design flows back from the massive front end to emphasize the power up front. Oldsmobile designed and built their own engines, back then, with a high nickel content iron.  They pre-stretched the drive chain that transfers the power to the Hydramatic snuggled along-side the engine.  And built the car on it’s own assembly line.  The engineers wanted to be sure that there were no weak points in their revolutionary design.  Their aim was an American GT that would equal the best from Europe.  But on a larger, more American scale.  It was a time, as Joe Rusz wrote in Road & Track, “when every American felt he had the right to drive fast, kick ass and waste gas.”

               We swoop past a tiny Mercedes Fuel Cell Vehicle on a cross country run. A scientist and 4 journalists sit bolt upright inside, shoulder to shoulder.  They are the future: we are long gone.

              We reach Kathryn’s ranch in Montana (where she grew up on the river that runs through the movie) in one long zoom with a few hundred stops for gas plus one for a motel. Her old buddies tell me she was so wild and wooly climbing up and down the buffalo jump that she was 12 before they could tell her from the sheep.  It is also revealed, two days before the wedding, that ball joints would be required. 

             So the Toro missed the wedding.  Never mind.  Its role was to bring us home via a grand cruise through the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.  And when the day came, the Toro was ready to roll.

Friday, September 10, 2010

My short happy war in Afghanistan

           On the way back home to NY City from London, my wife Karen drove our 2CV into a ditch just before the Czech border.  The car was scattered for 25 yards in the bottom of  the ditch with our luggage. It began to rain.
       We were headed back to America by way of Iran, India and Japan.  After a week of healing in a little railroad hotel in Amberg, Germany I took a train to Cologne and bought a lovely little used VW Karmann Ghia and we headed east for Istanbul, and Bombay.
The Blue Mosque in Herat, built 1200 AD

   It took two days to cross the border from Iran to Afghanistan.
The 2 lane black top built by America & Russia
Some of their guns were flintlocks
                     Driving into the sun out of Herat,  to Kandahar, two lane blacktop snaking across a vacuum of sand and lumps of  villages abandoned a thousand years ago, something. . .  Something black across the road.  Hard on the brakes, sliding back and forth to scrub off speed we bang a welded gate.  The windshield pops and a dozen men arise over a sand ridge in white robes waving rifles, screaming.  Ululating.  Surrounding us.  Pointing their guns at us.  “Our gate, our gate,” one of them yelled, “you have broken our gate. You must pay.”
           I was so pissed off.  If this were Afghanistan now, I would be terrified.
          But this was 1969.   “I didn’t break your fucking gate.”  The black steel bars of their gate was a mass of welds but it wasn’t broken.  “Your fucking gate broke my windshield.”
           “Your windshield is not broken.  We will help you put it back.”  And they did.
             We were driving from London  through Paris, Athens, and Istanbul on our way to India, and back home to New York.  I was a Creative Director at  JWT London.  A little like Don Draper with a corner office overlooking Berkeley, Square. They offered me a seat on the board.  and my wife said, “let’s take a trip around the world instead.”
              I thought that was a great idea. Still do. One day, maybe we’d be rich enough to go around the world in style.  But we’d be cranky old farts.  We were only 30, and this was the time to see what we could see.  We saw Teheran, drove over the Khyber Pass and down the length of India. Swam in the rainbow aquarium ocean in Ceylon, bicycled around the Angor Wat.
               When we got to San Francisco just before Christmas, the TV showed demonstrators in Phnom Penn chanting and waving posters, DOWN WITH SIHANOUK, GET THE REDS OUT OF CAMBODIA.  We had just been to Phnom Penh and in 1969 people spoke Khmer and/or French, but virtually  nobody there spoke or read English.