Friday, July 22, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Tony “Champagne” Lema, July 24 1966

On July 24, 1966, Pro Golfer Tony “Champagne” Lema’s Beechcraft H50 crashed into a pond on the seventh hole of the golf course in Munster, Indiana and Lansing, Illinois (the course straddled the state line).  The crash killed all four aboard including his wife Betty.  Lima,on a promotional tour for Buick,  was headed for Chicago when his aircraft ran out of fuel.  The veteran pilot of the Beechcraft had nearly 2,000 hours of flight time.  In a minor irony, Lema was supposed to play a one-day tournament on the course the next day.
            Among older hard-core golf fans, Lema’s early death at 32 is a recurring topic of “what could have been” conversations.  Raised in poor circumstances, he had enlisted in the Marines in 1951 and served in Korea.  He went to work as an assistant pro and earned his PGA tour card at age 23.  From 1962 to 1966, Lema won a dozen PGA tour events including the 1964 British Open at Saint Andrews and came within a stroke of  catching Jack Nicklaus at the 1963 Masters.  Lema played for two Ryder Cup teams and when he died ranked only behind Arnold Palmer in terms of fan popularity. Lema’s last tour victory was in May 1966, when he won the Oklahoma City Open.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Art of the Happy Meal: A Photo Op Discourse

Staged photo ops are common to campaign politics. Sometimes, the giveaway of the staging is subtle. Let's look at an example, from Donald Trump's Instagram account, on the day he clinched his critical delegates for nomination.

Sinclair Lewis On The Brain

Kim and I are abroad for the month.  So, we're missing the accompanying hoopla  and hyperbole that surrounds the quadrennial meeting of the simmering Kool Aid factories that are the party conventions.  But, I'm getting texts and emails from former students (mainly from the 1990s and early 2000s), bringing up one book I had them read in college: Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here. 

It Can't Happen Here is science fiction, an alt-history novel written in the early 1930s by Sinclair Lewis. It is the story of Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor from Vermont with an outsized national voice (imagine HoddingCarter in Mississippi), and his observations and struggles in watching a Fascist takeover of the Democratic Party in advance of the 1936 election. FDR's New Deal has failed, the Republicans are still in disarray, and a spellbinding, plain-talking strongman, Buzz Windrip, takes the party, the election, and eventually the nation by storm. The result is a totalitarian state that seemed unimaginable at the time, but which in fact unfolded in Nazi Germany at the very same time. 

It's a fascinating read. The argument for strong-man government is made by the antagonist Windrip. It is a simple argument, long on benefits and restoring prestige to 'the forgotten man' in America -- America needs to be redeemed, taken back to a better time. It is an agenda deeply invested in xenophobia, covert racism, and restoring women to a formal, secondary status in society.   Sinclair shows how nicely a thin veneer of Americanism can be applied to a Fascist agenda -- because ultimately, Windrip's ascendancy is about profits for the corporate few. 

Is it a cautionary tale? Of course it is. Lewis's target at the time was leftist-populist Louisiana politician Huey P. Long. But, as is often the case in the United States, cautionary tales about the fragile nature of the Republic are set aside because of the resiliency of the American institutions. And, Lewis's "Corpos" are less Fascists, and more like shallow carnival-barking manipulators who lack any ideological depth.  It is not as good as Lewis's earlier works, but it still offers sound commentary on even our modern times. 

Lewis is mainly remembered for other works. Arrowsmith, the study of an idealistic doctor and his challenges as he rises in the scientific medical community, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926  (Lewis refused the prize). A satirical treatment of American commercialism in Babbitt and his sendup of evangelical hucksterism in Elmer Gantry are more widely known. Babbitt in particular shaped Lewis's winning nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1930. Elmer Gantry was vilified by many American religious leaders and banned in many communities -- but it later (1960) became an acclaimed motion picture starring Burt Lancaster. 

The book is still available for sale, and, in some countries such as Australia, it has fallen into the public domain. If you need something different, to show you that there's nothing new under the American sun, this might just be your read.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Jimmie Wedell, June 28, 1934

June 28 1934: Jimmie Wedell

And they lay to rest Jimmy Wedell. He died as a soldier in the discharge of his duty, for he was teaching somebody how to fly. Aviation is the greatest advancement in our times and America is spending the most money on it, yet our whole  government, whole army, whole navy, had to wait to see how fast they could fly till Jimmy Wedell (through his own personality and personal honesty got financial backing from generous and public-spirited Mr. Williams) made the plane.  Who knows but what aviation might not be permanently set back 100 miles an hour through the loss of this fellow, with the knowledge that was buried with him.  Such men should be grabbed up at once and put into our government service.  He had kept one thing that was in keeping with all great aviators and that was his modest.

Will Rogers
Beverly Hills, Calif., June 28 1934

So who was this man Jimmy Wedell, of whom Will Rogers was so moved to write? Wedell blazed into the headlines in 1926, a barnstormer who had a need for speed and a heart turned to good works.  Like Wiley Post, he had one eye, but that didn’t prevent him from being one of the top racing plane designers and top racers of the romantic interwar aviation era. Together with his partner Harry Williams, he crafted the legendary Wedell Williams Specials, the stubby-winged all-engine monoplane racers that set speed records and thrilled aviation enthusiasts with their blunt, cartoonish appearance.

Friday, June 17, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: United Airlines Flight 624, June 17, 1948

June 17, 1948: Earl Carroll, Henry L. Jackson, Venita Varden, Berryl Wallace

Flight 624 “Mainliner Utah,” had originated out of San Diego with stops in Los Angeles and Chicago.  The DC-6 was one of a new generation of pressurized passenger aircraft developed by the aviation industry in the 1940s. The flight was a “red-eye;” it departed California in the evening of June 16, and had flown across the continent, headed for LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
As was the case in the glamour-days of air-travel, the flight was carrying glamorous people. Earl Carroll was a Broadway original.  A songwriter, producer, and director, he had helped originate the Broadway “review” musical show complete with scantily clad dancing girls, and he also produced the first ever-Broadway show featuring totally-nude female dancers. Some of the most popular Broadway standards and scores of Broadways Golden Era also came from his pen. Carroll’s shows displayed the talents of Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle and Jack Benny.

Monday, June 6, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Jessica Kaplan, June 6, 2003

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, act II, Scene 7

Jessica Kaplan was nothing less than a creative prodigy. She sold her first screenplay when she was just sixteen, and had her first writing credit at 21. The first story she sold, “The Powers that Be,” was picked up by New Line Cinema in 1995 for $150,000.  It was a decade before it made it to the screen, as “Havoc,” directed by Barbara Kopple and starring Anne Hathaway in the role of the rich poseur who along with her frinds gets involved in the dark side of the Latino “gangsta” culture of Los Angeles.  She had also worked on a film adaptation of the Daniel Handler novel The Basic Eight and had sold a pilot, Telegraph Hill, to CBS. According to Variety, Kaplan and her then-writing partner Jamie Hawkins were developing further projects for television, while Kaplan also pursued poetry and short story development.  Hawkins told Variety that “She just wanted to tackle everything … I'm sure she would have. She was a visionary herself and was always able to inspire her friends.”
            On June 6, 2003, the 24-year-old screenwriter was a passenger on a Beechcraft Bonanza (registry N1856P), flown by her uncle Jeffrey Siegel.  Siegel was flying from Santa Monica to Sun Valley, Idaho, and was giving his niece a lift to Las Vegas.  Two other passengers were flying along to view some property of Siegel’s in Idaho. The flight left Santa Monica at 3:45PM Pacific Daylight Time.  Ten minutes later, the airplane crashed into an apartment house in the Fairfax district of L.A., killing all four persons on the aircraft plus one person in the building.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Leslie Howard, June 1 1943

The world still knows Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, the thoughtful, angst-ridden object of Scarlett O’Hara’s affections in the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind.  In many ways, Howard was Ashley Wilkes – a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, a patriot in support of his country in time of war during World War II.  He had also played The Scarlett Pimpernel on screen (1934) and it is this latter role --acting as a rescuer of those terrorized by the French Revolution-- that parallels his other career as spy in defense of freedom: Leslie Howard was an agent of Allied efforts in neutral countries during the second war.  Did these activities lead to his assassination by the Luftwaffe as he flew from Portugal to London on June 1 1943?

Friday, May 20, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Bruce Geller & Steve Gentry, May 21, 1978

Bruce Geller and Stephen Gentry were on the move in Hollywood in the 1970s.  Gentry had made his mark producing eight TV series including two hits– the iconic Mission: Impossible, and the police drama Mannix. He also earned a couple of Emmys along the way. Geller had been influences to enter the creative arts by his writing professor at Yale, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Robert Penn Warren (author of All the King’s Men). He had started his career in entertainment on Broadway, penning critically acclaimed lyrics for popular musicals. He moved to film in the early 1960s, including writing comedian Ernie Kovacs’ last film Sail a Crooked Ship, and winning praise as a feature director for 1973’s Harry in Your Pocket starring James Coburn. Gentry, 37, was a vice-president for west coast programming at ABC. A graduate of Syracuse’s influencial and pioneering broadcast program, he was credited in helping revive ABC’s fortunes by bringing such hits as Charlie’s Angels to what had once been described as “a fourth-place network in a three-network market.”
At 9:15 AM on May 14 1978, Geller and Gentry were flying in Geller’s Cessna 337D from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara and were on final approach in foggy conditions where Geller crashed in Buena Vista Canyon.  The NTSB investigation attributed the accident to a misreading of instruments by the pilot on approach, resulting in the crash.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: ValuJet Flight 592, May 11 1996

Rodney Culver & Walter Hyatt

On May 11, 1996, a ValuJet flight departed from Miami International Airport, bound for Atlanta.  The flight, 592, took off at 2:04PM and sought to abort flight almost immediately.  The flight crew radioed at 2:10PM. Captain Candi Kubeck, a veteran Eastern Airlines pilot, requested to return to Miami due to smoke in the cockpit and cabin. Smoke entered the cockpit when the flight crew opened the door to report fire, on the failure of the intercom system.  Given permission to return, Flight 592 turned and disappeared from radarscopes at 2:14PM. The 27-year-old DC-9 crashed in the Everglades’ Browns Farm Wildlife Management area, killing all five members of the flight crew and 105 passengers aboard.

Two witnesses fishing from a boat in the Everglades when flight 592 crashed stated that they saw a low-flying airplane in a steep right bank. According to these witnesses, as the right bank angle increased, the nose of the airplane dropped and continued downward. The airplane struck the ground in a nearly vertical attitude. The witnesses described a great explosion, vibration, and a huge cloud of water and smoke. One of them observed, ‘the landing gear was up, all the airplane’s parts appeared to be intact, and that aside from the engine smoke, no signs of fire were visible.’ Two other witnesses who were sightseeing in a private airplane [piloted by Daniel Muelhaup] in the area at the time of the accident provided similar accounts of the accident. These two witnesses and the witnesses in the boat, who approached the accident site, described seeing only part of an engine, paper, and other debris scattered around the impact area. One of the witnesses remarked that the airplane seemed to have disappeared upon crashing into the Everglades.

Monday, May 2, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Edward Cole, The Rebel Engineer

I love problems.

Edward Cole, then-president of General Motors

Edward Cole had an outstanding career at GM, where he spent his entire adult life.  In 1949 he was co-head of the engineering team that redesigned the Cadillac V-8 engine, which was used in Cadillacs for the next 14 years. In 1952 he took over as chief engineer at Chevy, introducing the small-block V-8 that became the main powerplant for the legendary Chevys of the 1950s and early 1960s and revitalizing the Corvette.  Taking over Chevy in 1956, Cole is mainly remembered for an amazing engineering failure, the Corvair.  The sporty rear-engine coupe was aimed at the emerging market of young buyers in the early 1960s. The rear suspension was poorly designed, and the Corvair  proved to be an exceptionally dangerous vehicle that was prone to rollover accidents.  This vehicle was a featured product in consumer watchdog Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed.  Cole continued his career at GM as head of the car and truck group and eventually became president of the corporation before retiring in 1974.
                  Termed “the Rebel Engineer” by the New York Times, by 1977 Cole had bought a controlling interest in the Checker Cab company, producers of the classic-looking taxis that

Monday, April 18, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Brooks Berringer, April 18 1996

Brooks Berringer had one of the toughest jobs in college football in the 1990s, that of backup quarterback for Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Berringer had rode the pine for most of three seasons behind Tommy Frazier, who won two National Titles for the Huskers and also was three-times MVP of the national title game.  In 1994 he had started eight games due to Frazier’s struggles Crohn’s diseasebut he never displaced Frazier from the starting role.  Together, they had fueled the triple-option offense to three trips to the national title game (against Florida State, Miami, and Florida) and back-to-back Cornhusker titles (for the 1994 and 1995 seasons). 

Monday, April 11, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: The Price of Small Celebrity, Jessica Dubroff, April 11 1996

We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb
and clap as they go by.
Will Rogers

Seven-year-old Jessica Dubroff achieved fame for her attempt to be the youngest person to pilot a plane across the United States.   Departing California on April 10 1996, she and her father Lloyd Dubroff, and flight-instructor and pilot-in-commend Joe Reid headed east, on an eight-day itinerary that was heavy on media interview commitments (including ongoing coverage by cable news). On April 11 the team, with Reid at the controls, left Cheyenne, Wyoming aboard their Cessna 177B.  The craft crashed after take-off when it stalled during a thunderstorm. All three persons on board the aircraft were killed.
            Whether this accident belongs in a book about celebrity crashes is subject to question.  The flight itself was a publicity stunt, framed as a child piloting across America, that was made for television.  The infamy of the pilot arises from the event, rather than the event being infamous because of the fame of those involved.  Nonetheless we included this case because of these very circumstances, and, because like so many of the unfortunate, high-profile accidents we describe, this one led to a change in aviation policy.

Friday, April 1, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: NASCAR’s Horrible Season

April 1, 1993: Alan Kulwicki
July 12, 1993: Davey Allison

He was a small, quiet, polished, Polish-American Yankee walking through boisterous garage areas, wearing his driving uniform but carrying a briefcase. The good ol' boys snickered, but he was unobtrusive, so they let him alone. Then they began to watch him work. The big-name drivers, who rarely dirtied their hands, had a dozen crewmen swarming around their cars; Kulwicki was doing the same amount of work by himself with maybe two or three partially skilled volunteers. The briefcase was for his business papers . . . he had no agent, no business manager, no contract-negotiating team. He did it all himself..
Ed Hinton, Sports Illustrated

Alan Kulwicki was not a conventional NASCAR driver.  Born in Milwaukee, his father was racing engine designer Gary Kulwicki. Alan had a very different upbringing from the Souther-dominated bootleggers and dirt-track racer tradition that defined NASCAR through the 1980s. He grew up racing go karts and designing and building engines. He was an engineer by training and temperament, and in his career he always raced for his own team, creating the model of the briefly popular owner-driver in the 1990s. and also recreating the professional, scientifically-informed NASCAR crew that now dominates the sport.
            Kulwicki raced for over a decade on short tracks and dirt tracks before breaking in to NASCAR in 1985-86 as an owner-driver with no sponsor.  He finished 23 of 29 races and had three top ten finishes to win NASCAR Rookie of the Year.  After outstanding seasons in 1988 and 1989, Kulwicki was approached to drive for legendary owner Junior Johnson; he declined, preferring to run his own operation and drive for himself. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Knute Rocke, March 31 1931

Knute Rockne’s influence over college football is widely known.  In thirteen years as head coach at Notre Dame, his teams went 105-12-5 with five undefeated, untied seasons and won mythical college National Championships in 1919, 1920, 1924, 1927, 1929, and 1930. Rockne’s untimely death at 43 in an airplane crash is often forgotten.  In the spring of 1931, Rockne was traveling west from Kansas City to Los Angeles on TWA flight 599, a Fokker F-10A Tri-motor produced by the innovative Dutch designer Anthony Fokker.  Despite legend that the plane went down in a storm near Bazaar, Kansas, subsequent investigation revealed that the wood-laminate construction led to one of the wings separating in flight, leading directly to the crash.  The unfavorable publicity very nearly drove TWA out of business and compelled the Department of Commerce to order all Fokker tri-motors removed from service in the US.  Fokker never fully recovered from the unfavorable publicity.   Knute Rockne crash doomed the craft’s commercial future.

Friday, March 25, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Cold Warriors Yuri Gagarin and Francis Gary Powers

March 27 1968: Yuri Gagarin

Pleasant, easy-going and of a humble birth, Yuri Gagarin was chosen over the more polished Gherman Titov to be the first man launched into space.  On April 12, 1961, Gagarin was the first human being to leave the planet, flying in Vostok 3KA-2. On his return he was briefly a deputy in the Supreme Soviet before
  On March 27 1968, Gagarin and a flight instructor returning to the Soviet space program to work on a reusable space craft – a space shuttle.  He would eventually become deputy training director of the Soviet space program.  boarded a MiG-15UTI for a training flight—Gagarin was requalifying as a fighter pilot.  The subsequent events are unclear. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Reba McEntire Band (“The Crazy Eight”), March 16, 1991

Before Reba McEntire made name in movies and television, she had shaken up country music.  Coming out of a celebrated ranching and rodeo family from near Chockie, Oklahoma, Reba got her start in music singing with her siblings.  In 1974 she dropped out of Southeastern Oklahoma State to pursue a solo career in Nashville after country singer Red Steagall heard her sing the national anthem at a rodeo.  Over the next fifteen years she charged the gates of Nashville, stepping out of the bouffant and beehives of old Nashville while not fully aligning with the outlaw country sound of Waylon and Willie.  By 1990 her effort to fuse R&B and rock into country was criticized by traditionalists, but also pointed the way for the next generation of country stars.
            On March 15 1991, Reba McEntire and her band were in San Diego to play a private concert for a group of IBM executives at the San Diego Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel.  After the concert the group would briefly part ways before a planned meet-up in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Reba and her husband, Narvel Blackstock, were to stay in San Diego for the night and then fly to Indiana the next day.  Reba had been suffering bronchitis and Blackstock had insisted that she rest and recover.  The rest of the band and crew will fly on to Fort Wayne after the show in two craft, departing from San Diego’s Brown Field. 
            On the first flight, leaving at about 1:41 AM, were road manager Jim Hammon and band members Kirk Cappello, Paula Kaye Evans, Michael Thomas, Terry Jackson, Anthony Saputo, Chris Austin, and Joey Cigainero.  At the controls of the Hawker Siddeley DH.125-1A/522  were pilots Donald Holms and Chris Hollinger. Two minutes later the craft struck Otay Mountain, killing all onboard. A review of the flight history reveals a breakdown in communication.

Friday, February 26, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Eliott See & Art Bassett, February 28, 1966

The T-38 Talon first went into production in 1961; it is the most-produced jet fighter aircraft in the world and continues in service as of 2007. The craft is memorable to NASA fans as the “commuter aircraft” of the astronauts when they would travel to Cape Canaveral for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space missions.  Manufactured by Northrup, it is a very successful and safe airframe, unlike the F-16 and F-104  with their high accident rates.  On February 28, 1966, Gemini IX astronauts Elliott See and Art Bassett were flying to Lambert Field outside Saint Louis when their T-38 crashed into a hanger, killing both astronauts.  A NASA investigation revealed that pilot See made too low approach, and that pilot error combined with poor weather conditions contributed to their fatal crash.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: The U.S. Navy Band, February 25 1960

The U.S. Navy Band was as much of a source of pride for the Navy as the sea-bearing military force is for America, which is why both the Navy and America suffered a tragic loss from a plane crash in 1960.
At the time, Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower was making an official visit to Brazil and was a guest for Brazilian president Jascelino Kubitschek. The band was to perform that evening at a dinner where both presidents would be in attendance.
According to Naval archives, the chief of naval operations, Adm. Arleigh Burke, wanted to schedule the band for several appearances on the South American trip. Upon leaving from Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Navy transport plane collided in air with a Brazilian airliner near Rio de Janerio. Sixty-one people on board were killed, including 19 members of the band, specifically the strings section. Only three sailors survived the crash. They had been playing cards near the back of the plane.

Friday, February 19, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Sir Frederick Grant Banting, February 21 1941

Canadian-born British subject, Sir Frederick Grant Banting was a skilled medical researcher who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his role in the discovery of insulin (he was knighted in 1934). He was killed en route to England on a medical war mission. Banting was  a liaison between American and British medical services with the coming of war.  He was flying from Gander, Newfoundland, to England on when both engines failed on his plane, which crashed into a stand of trees.   Of the four persons on the aircraft, three died, including Banting who lingered for a few days before succumbing to his injuries.