Category Archives: Life

My Life in Toys

Do one’s toys say anything about a person?  I think so — in fact, your toy stories may reveal more than you might imagine.  Here are some notable toys and games that I grew up with and the stories behind them.

FIREBIRD 99 (Remco).  This is one of the earliest toys I remember.  The activities on this yellow car dashboard included: turning the wheel right and left (which made the speedometer rise and fall); beeping the horn; running the windshield wiper; opening the glove compartment; pretend-lighting a cigarette; and losing the key.  As I recall, the batteries for the toy ran down quickly and were not replaced often, which made the Firebird 99 a lot less fun to drive.

COOTIE (Schaper).  Many of my childhood toys and games were hand-me-downs from my sister and Cootie was one of those.  It was probably the first dice-based game I learned.  You know the drill: rolling a (1) gets you the body, (2) the head, (3) one of the antennae, (4) one of the eyes, (5) the proboscis — my favorite — and (6) one of the legs.  My sister was my usual opponent and, even though Cootie is all luck, it seemed to me she usually won.  I must have remembered my defeats more vividly than I did my victories.

PARCHEESI (Selchow & Righter).  Luck was also the main ingredient in the board game Parcheesi, another hand-me-down which I played with my (Great) Aunt Pearl on nights she looked after me.  Aunt Pearl had a kind heart and a frisky sense of humor — and the patience to spend hours upon hours playing simple games with me.

In all the times we played Parcheesi, I’m not sure Aunt Pearl ever set up a blockade to impede my progress or used any strategy whatsoever.  In fact, I would not be surprised if she used her knowledge of the rules to ignore them in my favor and help me win. 

The same was true in our dumbed-down version of Monopoly.  Aunt Pearl and I played Monopoly without money: properties were simply awarded to the player who landed on them first, and the Chance/Community Chest cards with dollar amounts were ignored.  When all the deeds had been handed out, the game ended and the player with the most properties won.  Aunt Pearl would complain how terrible it was when she was sent to jail; her laments only delighted me more as I hopped around the board and she languished.

Later, when I grew old enough to play Monopoly by the rules, I was disappointed to learn how complicated the game was when money, mortgages, houses and hotels were involved.  Aunt Pearl’s version was more fun.

LIFE (Milton Bradley).  If I remember correctly, I convinced my mom to buy me this game on one of our many visits to the local department store.  She would browse the (boring) sewing patterns on the mezzanine, while I headed downstairs to the (interesting) toy department.  Life appealed to me because it had cars, roads and mountains.  The money part was secondary.

I played Life mostly with my best friend Bill.  At our age, we didn’t understand insurance or bankruptcy and we never used the numbered betting strip either.  Instead we turned the game into a race to the finish line.  We counted our money at the end as a formality, but the real winner was whoever finished first.

Today I remember Life mostly for the fact that I left the game on our picnic table one day after we played, and it rained that night, and the next morning I learned that cardboard is not waterproof.  The game was ruined.  Mom gave me a lecture about taking care of things — and bought a replacement.  Life lesson learned.

MARBLES!  I inherited my sister’s glass marbles and later on was given a bag of steel marbles by my Uncle Rudy, who was actually the husband of the sister of the wife of my mother’s brother.  And that is pretty much all I recall about Uncle Rudy.  But I do remember the names I gave to various marbles. For example, the one marked P (see photo at left) was Peppermint, M was Marvel and F was Fenwick.

Marvel was my favorite.  She/it was slightly bigger than the other marbles, the Babe Ruth of the bag.  She/it also excelled in the marble race game I invented.  In that game, I would select a pair of marbles, put both in my hand and then toss them toward the baseboard at the other end of my bedroom.  The marble that bounced back the farthest won that race and was then matched against another opponent.

There were a couple of fateful developments in the marble race game.  One was the race when Marvel lost a big chip from her/its side and could no longer roll straight.  The other was the day I noticed all the pockmarks in the baseboard and started to contemplate what Mom would do when she noticed.  The marble race game ended thereabouts, with Mom never saying anything about the noise in my room or the baseboard.

MATCHBOX JAGUAR (Lesney).  My friend Bill had different toys than I did and he also seemed to have discretionary income.  One year, Bill was into buying Matchbox cars.  He and I would take the bus downtown and visit Majestic Wallpaper and Paint which, strangely, also sold model cars and these miniatures.  Matchbox cars cost about 59¢ each but for me they may as well have been $59.  I did find enough money one day to buy a red Jaguar E-Type with real windows and a functioning door.  It was the only car that looked like something James Bond might drive.  Today this toy, in good condition, would go for $30, a 50x increase in value.  Not bad, considering that a real Jaguar E-Type that cost $6,000 in 1963 is now worth about $200,000, or only 33x appreciation.

The Jaguar wasn’t my only toy car. I collected a few others from Alpha-Bits cereal boxes.

BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE FLASH CARDS (Grolier).  Some of my books, toys and games weren’t handed down or pleaded for but doled out by Santa.  One Christmas, I was given a set of “Famous People” flash cards with illustrations on the front and short biographies on the back.  Among the cards in the box were George Washington (of course), Charlemagne, Helen Keller and Joan of Arc.  The one I remember best is Mohandas Gandhi, the only brown-skinned person in the 54-card set. (The other Asian was Genghis Khan; there were no African-Americans.)  The cards were often laid out end-to-end as roadways around my bedroom, where I drove my Jaguar over the likeness of Mohandas Gandhi.

DOMINOES and LINCOLN LOGS were other hand-me-downs that I generally used for purposes other than intended.  I played Dominoes with Aunt Pearl a few times, but I doubt that we ever followed the rules (which I still don’t know).  The best thing to do with Dominoes was stack them in a line and then tip them over.  Same deal with Lincoln Logs — the main reason I built things with Lincoln Logs was to crash my cars into them. 

Both Dominoes and Lincoln Logs served long and honorably as guard rails for the road network in my bedroom.  When I ran out of flash cards for “paved” roads, I used Lincoln Logs to stake out a few more miles of “dirt” (i.e., carpeted) roads.

CAREERS (Parker Brothers). Scorecard for Careers game.  Credit: owlworksllc.comThis was my favorite game and I’m not quite sure why.  Each player began the game by writing down a (secret) success goal comprised of money, fame and happiness in arbitrary proportions.  The paths (careers) that a player selected during the game helped him accumulate the money, love and fame points he needed to reach his goal.  As a result, I did a ton of uranium mining and sea travel by the time I reached sixth grade.

Although the game was 90% luck, it did illustrate the value of an education as well as the link between risk and reward. There were many decisions to make, which made Careers feel more strategic than it was. Most decisions, in retrospect, were as meaningful as picking ice cream flavors.  In the end, a player either felt vindicated for having concocted a winning formula, or frustrated by his inability to meet the points-and-money objective.  The message to losers: it was your fault for choosing a bad goal!

HARDBALL / SOFTBALL.  I grew up in a baseball neighborhood.  Guys might toss a football around for a couple of hours each fall, but we played baseball from when the springtime mud was still squishy to when you had to wear gloves on both hands.  Maybe it was because our beloved Pittsburgh Pirates had won a World Series whereas the Pittsburgh Steelers stunk.  (How times change…)

We usually played softball — as opposed to hardball, i.e., baseball — because a softball was easier to pitch, easier to hit, and less dangerous to try to catch.  Softballs also held up to mud and water better than hardballs did.

My dad started me off with a Richie Ashburn infielder’s glove (above).  It was okay for a couple of years, but when we started to play hardball more often, it became clear that this glove was not only useless but a liability.  It hurt to catch a ball in the thinly lined pocket; but if you tried to snare it in the web, the ball threatened to slip right through.

I coveted the first-base mitt that our “gang leader” Ralph used.  It seemed like Ralph was able to catch anything in its huge web, even if he threw his glove at it (which he would do).  But as mentioned earlier, I had no discretionary income — until Mom agreed to let me use the spare pennies my parents had always tossed into the giant glass jug in the living room.  I bought a new first-base mitt with those pennies, and it didn’t matter that I hardly ever played first base.  That glove could catch anything I could reach wherever I played.  It was worth every penny.

TAPE RECORDER (Panasonic).  Reel-to-reel tape recorders seemed to be a thing in the 1960s — two of my friends had one so I had to have one too.  What do boys do with tape recorders?  We get creative.  Bill and I pretended we had a radio show and made up silly skits.  If we got bored with that, we would make crank calls and record them.  One day we came up with the idea to call random people in the phone book and ask them to spell rhinoceros, supposedly for some school assignment. Better yet, we (Bill or I) claimed to be Tom Tardio, vice-president of our student council.  The results were hilarious.  We could hardly contain our giggles at the mangled spellings offered by our surprisingly cooperative targets.

In what would be our final call that day, the woman who answered the phone and heard my pitch said, “Tommy?!  How are you!  You sound different!”  Somehow, out of 25,000 numbers in the book, we had managed to call one of Tom Tardio’s relatives.  In a panic, I said I had a sore throat but avoided the subject of how she knew Tommy/me.  The woman went ahead and spelled rhinoceros for us, and as I recall her spelling was just as bad and hilarious as the rest.

Sorry, Tom, for having borrowed your identity to generate some good junior-high laughs.  I don’t think we hurt your reputation, much.

SUBARU WRX was the midlife crisis car.  It was yellow.  It was sporty.  It had a turbo and a spoiler and a leather shift knob.  What it did not have, as I would learn after a few thousand miles, was a decent clutch.  When shifting from first to second, your choice was a shuddering lurch or a clutch-cooking engine surge.  Nothing in between.  This was hardly midlife-crisis performance.

I threatened to install a new clutch but never followed through.  I drove it for seven years without finding the sweet spot, at times resorting to starting out in second gear.  I wanted to sell the WRX but my spouse wasn’t ready, so it became her winter car.  Crisis resolved.

Photo by Bas Fransen from www.basfransen.comJAGUAR 2016 F-TYPE.  I end with an imaginary toy. Oh, the car is real all right.  Someone somewhere in the world owns and drives this car.  In fact, it is probably one of many exotic sports cars this person has in his collection.  But I can only imagine how it drives, as I would never spend what it would take to find out.

I will get along just fine never driving a Jaguar.  The important toys are not the ones that cost a lot but the ones that encourage us to explore ourselves, each other and the world.  Some of my most valuable toys in that regard were: blocks; blank paper; crayons; sand; and even dry leaves floating on rainwater heading to the storm drain.  And not to get all Wonder Years about it, but a day at the creek with a friend, a sandwich and a fishing rod instills a sense of personhood in a ten-year-old boy that he does not get by playing with cars by himself in his room.  I do know that I wouldn’t be me without all of that.

______

Jaguar F-Type photo by automotive photographer Bas Fransen (basfransen.com).
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Don’t Fence Me In

December 21, 1934.  Montana families continue their struggle against the one-two punch of prolonged drought and the Great Depression.  The headlines of the Helena Independent capture the concerns of the day: “BUSINESS RECOVERY PROGRAM ATTACKED“; “RELIEF BOSS OPPOSED TO DOLE PLANS“; and “NEEDY PULL PARADE IN NEW YORK IN BARRELS“.

Also, “VIGILANTES ARE TO CURB MOBS IN SHELBYVILLE.”

The Shelbyville of this headline is not in Montana but Tennessee.  The county courthouse in Shelbyville had been destroyed by a fire, set by members of a 500-person lynch mob, and local businessmen formed an armed vigilante group to help the national guardsmen maintain order.  There had been “three unsuccessful attempts to take [Ernest] K. Harris, young negro, on trial for attacking a 14-year-old white girl, from the courthouse,” the AP reported.  The judge halted the trial as the guardsmen resorted to riot guns and bayonets to fend off the mob, and the defendant — dressed in “trooper attire” — was rushed away to Nashville.  The mob set fire to the courthouse hours later.

• • • 

That same day, in the basement of the Masonic Temple at Jackson and Broadway, just a short walk from the South Main Street offices of the Helena Independent, a book of poetry is published by The State Publishing Company.  Its title is Corral Dust and its author is 49-year-old Montana surveyor, highway engineer and poet Robert “Bob” Fletcher.

Corral Dust consists of 38 western-themed poems with titles such as “Across the Divide” and “Open Range”, the latter of which closes with this verse:

Just give me country big and wide
With benchland, hills and breaks,
With coulees, cactus, buttes and range,
With creeks, and mountain lakes,
Until I cross the Great Divide,
Then, God, forgive each sin
And turn me loose on my cayuse
But please don’t fence me in.

Film producer Lou Brock obtains an advance copy of this poem and decides that a song called “Don’t Fence Me In” would be aces for Adiós, Argentina, his next Fox musical.  Brock contacts Fletcher and asks him to compose a cowboy song based on “Open Range.”  Fletcher knocks out a song and sends his effort to Brock, who shares it with Cole Porter,  the Broadway songwriter he has signed for the musical.  Brock urges Porter to buy the rights to “Don’t Fence Me In” from Fletcher.  A deal is struck faster than a scalded cat.

• • • 

Monday, January 7, 1935.  Cole Porter writes Bob Fletcher to thank him for his gift (a copy of Corral Dust) and to share with Fletcher his reworked version of “Don’t Fence Me In.”  Porter spruced up Fletcher’s original lyrics and set them to new music.  The two versions are shown below — placeholder symbols are used to align similar phrases.

Fletcher’s Original

Don’t fence me in.
Give me land, lots of land,
Stretching miles across the West,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride where it’s wide,
For somehow I like it best.

I want to see the stars,
I want to feel the breeze,
I want to smell the sage,
And hear the cottonwood trees.



 
Just turn me loose,
Let me straddle my old saddle
Where the shining mountains rise.
On my cayuse
I’ll go siftin’: I’ll go driftin’
Underneath those Western skies.
 
I’ve got to get where
The West commences


I can’t stand hobbles
I can’t stand fences,
Don’t fence me in.

Porter’s Version


Oh, give me land, lots of land
under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide
open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself
in the evenin’ breeze
Listen to the murmur of
the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever
but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in
  
Just turn me loose,
let me straddle my old saddle
underneath the western skies
On my cayuse,
let me wander over yonder
till I see the mountains rise
 
I want to ride to the ridge
where the west commences
Gaze at the moon
till I lose my senses
Can’t look at hobbles
and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in

 

A cayuse is a range-bred horse and hobbles are leg restraints for horses, mules and cattle.  The line Can’t look at hobbles may make for good meter but is an odd way to express the singer’s disdain for them.  Perhaps Porter meant to say Slip off the hobbles / Let me jump the fences but was in a hurry to finish the song before his upcoming world cruise.

• • • 

Earlier that mild January morning, the New York Times was delivered to Cole Porter’s 41st-floor suite in the Waldorf Astoria.  An article on the back page (“COSTIGAN DEMANDS ANTI-LYNCHING LAW“) gave an account of an 800-person rally held the previous day at the Broadway Tabernacle Church, a twenty-minute walk from the Waldorf.  At the rally, Colorado Senator Edward Costigan and five other speakers urged Congress to pass the Costigan-Wagner Act, which would make lynching a Federal offense.

The tabernacle’s pastor, Dr. Allan Knight Chalmers, read the text of a telegram to be sent to Franklin D. Roosevelt, soon to enter the third year of his presidency.  The telegram said, in part, “We sincerely trust that your omission of specific reference to lynching in your opening address to the Congress … does not mean any lessening of interest on your part.”

The “many Negroes” at the rally had likely read the latest New York Age, the influential African-American news weekly, especially the article “NAACP REPORTS ONLY 16 LYNCHINGS FOR ’34“.  Though a decrease from the 28 lynchings in 1933, this number was still double the figure for 1932, the year Roosevelt was elected.

• • • 

“Don’t Fence Me In” may sing like a lazy trail-ride ballad, but its folksy style belies the songwriting skill behind it.  The Fletcher/Porter rhyme scheme is playful yet elegant:

(AA)BC (DD)BC EEEC
K(LL)M K(NN)M OOOC

where (XX) denotes internal (same-line) rhymes and C is the refrain Don’t fence me in.  Arguably, the internal rhymes (e.g., saddle/straddle, wander/yonder) are what gives this song its character and makes it fun to sing.  That, and cayuse, of course.

While Porter’s melody is cowhand-friendly, his chords are more show-tune than saloon.  For starters, the song is written in F, one of the less popular keys for guitar-based music. (One doubts he wrote it for ukulele.)  And Porter bedecks it with a panoply of chords:

I (and variants)
ii
IV
iv
V
v
VI

F  F6  F7  F7aug  Fma7  F9
Gm7
B♭ B♭6
B♭m
C7  C9  C9aug 
Cm  Cdim
D7
Porter was assuredly not your “three chords and the truth” kind of composer.  He grew up with money, education and social standing, and he ran with the elites throughout his life.  His songs were far more likely to revel in the adventures of the heart (“Let’s Misbehave”, “Let’s Do It”, “Anything Goes”) than heartland themes.

So, we may conclude that “Don’t Fence Me In” gave scant expression to the passions and personal circumstances of the urbane Cole Porter… or did it?

• • • 

Adiós, Argentina was never finished.  By the spring of 1936, Lou Brock had signed on with Universal, and his ailing project hobbled from Fox to Paramount, where it eventually died. The last mention of Argentina in the trade press was a March 24, 1936 item in Film Daily, which noted that Waldorf Astoria’s house orchestra, led by Xavier Cugat, was invited to Hollywood to appear in the film.

This meant that “Don’t Fence Me In” would be not be recorded for commercial release for nearly ten years, when Warner Brothers (who now owned the rights) featured the song in its 1944 musical revue, Hollywood Canteen.  Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were the first to record it, but six other artists — The Three Suns, Kate Smith, Hal McIntyre, Sammy Kaye, Gene Autry, and Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights — would scramble to release their own renditions before year-end. (Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy who famously performed the song in the film, did not record his version until 1948.)

The swoony Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters recording would be the biggest hit — it reached #1 on the singles chart on December 23, bumping “I’m Making Believe” by Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots from the top spot.  It remained the best-selling record in the U.S. well into February 1945.

• • • 

November 21, 1934.  As Bob Fletcher prepares to send his song to Cole Porter in New York, 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald takes her spot on the Apollo Theater stage and gazes toward the restless audience.  It is “Amateur Night in Harlem” and Fitzgerald, by the luck of her draw and by dint of her talent, has earned her first opportunity to perform on stage — and for a live radio broadcast no less.  She sings two numbers in the style of well-known jazz vocalist Connee Boswell, and Ella wins the contest by audience acclaim.  [Boswell, who was white, was in turn inspired by blues singer Mamie Smith, who was black.]

By February 1935, Fitzgerald would score her first week-long engagement as a vocalist.  Soon, with the help of other band members, she would manage to move off the streets, give up dancing for spare change, start to bathe regularly, and buy new clothes.  By June, she would cut her first record with the Chick Webb Orchestra.

• • • 

February 7, 1956.  Ella Fitzgerald walks into the Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles to begin work on her Cole Porter Song Book project.  She is the first black artist to record “Don’t Fence Me In”, eleven years after the song made its debut.  Her rendition favors cabaret and cabernet over cowhide and trail rides.

That same day, the headline “NEGRO CO-ED IS SUSPENDED TO CURB ALABAMA CLASHES” appears on the front page of the New York Times.  Readers learn that “the University of Alabama’s first Negro student”, 26-year-old Autherine Lucy, was barred from campus “after showers of eggs, rocks and mud had marked her third day of classes.”  Lucy was “spirited off campus” by Tuscaloosa police in mid-afternoon and she returned home to Birmingham.  Violence continued into the night, as the mob smashed windows, burned trash, stoned the house of the university president, and pelted the police chief with eggs.

• • • 

The 1935 Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill was blocked by Senate filibusters and died.  The NAACP observed: “Roosevelt refused to speak out in favor of the bill.  He argued that the white voters in the South would never forgive him … and he would therefore lose the next election.”  In the 21 years from the 1934 rescue of Ernest K. Harris to the 1956 rescue of Autherine J. Lucy, 78 blacks were lynched in the U.S. — the 78th being 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till — and federal law was silent on all.

Dwight Eisenhower was as disinclined as Franklin Roosevelt to get involved in civil rights. Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, sent the following telegram to the president the day Till’s mutilated body was returned to his mother in Chicago:

THE PRESIDENT
THE WHITE HOUSE

I THE MOTHER OF EMMETT LOUIS TILL AM PLEADING THAT YOU PERSONALLY SEE THAT JUSTICE IS METED OUT TO ALL PERSONS INVOLVED IN THE BEASTLY LYNCHING OF MY SON IN MONEY MISS.  AWAITING A DIRECT REPLY FROM YOU.

MAMIE E BRADLEY

Bradley would wait in vain, on both counts.  Eisenhower never replied, and the defendants were acquitted at trial less than a month later.

• • •

“Don’t Fence Me In” was a very white song from a very white place.  Of the 546,000 people living in Montana in 1934, just 1,200 were black.  In rural parts of the state (i.e., almost all of it), the chances of meeting a black person were less than one in a thousand.  Only 0.9% of the land — not quite lots of land — was tended by “colored” farmers, a census category that included “Indians, Japanese, Chinese and all other nonwhite races” as well as blacks.  Fences, then, were mainly a white rancher’s concern.

The Fletcher/Porter composition would become a white standard — Mitch Miller recorded it in 1956, Patti Page and Perry Como in 1959, Ray Conniff Singers in 1961, Steve Lawrence in 1963 — and it remained popular well into my childhood.  I grew up with Miller’s album. My all-white classmates and I sang “Don’t Fence Me In” alongside “traditional” songs like “Oh! Susanna” and “Dixie.”  Nebraska author Lisa Knopp remembers tap-dancing to it.  Minnesota-born climber/entrepreneur Majka Burhardt recalls singing it, when she was 8, at her father’s second wedding.

Eventually, like most cherished items of popular culture, Don’t Fence Me In would become metaphorical.  Holocaust and internment camp survivors included it in the titles of their memoirs.  Libertarians adopted it as a rallying cry.  BMW retooled it to sell Mini Coopers.  TravelNevada appropriated it for a promotional campaign.  LGBT activists painted it on protest signs.  (That, Cole Porter would have appreciated.)

Schoolchildren may still sing it, but “Don’t Fence Me In” isn’t Roy Rogers’ song anymore. 

• • •

This is a map of North Carolina’s 10th and 11th US Congressional Districts, whose present boundaries date to 2013.  That year, the Republican-controlled state legislature carved the heavily-Democratic city of Asheville into two slices — the eastern slice (in red) was tacked onto a newly-extended tongue of the 10th District, while the western fragments (in blue) remained in the 11th.  This had the predictable effect of diluting the city vote and assuring that both districts would elect Republican congressmen.

Many people moved here because Asheville is a liberal oasis in a warm state.  They didn’t count on giving up their political voices in the bargain.  The boundaries of these districts were drawn explicitly to deny urban voters a fair say, and that isn’t fair play.

• • •

May 3, 2019.  Autherine Lucy Foster, now 89 years old, is assisted onto the stage of the Coleman Coliseum at the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa.  Before a cheering crowd of students and faculty, she is awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.  Foster’s suspension from the university had been reversed in 1988 and she returned there to earn a master’s degree in elementary education in 1991.  “When I walked in this room,” Foster recounts at the ceremony, “people were joyful and looking at me peaceful-like — and that’s much better than seeing someone frowning as if they don’t want you here.”

That same day, in People Magazine: “BLACK MISSISSIPPI STUDENT CLAIMS A WHITE MALE WAS NAMED SALUTATORIAN DESPITE HER HIGHER GPA.”  Olecia James, 18, filed a lawsuit in federal court vs. the Cleveland (Mississippi) School District, alleging that school officials adjusted her grade-point-average downward because she attended the “black” high school. If her “quality points” had not been discounted, James would have been class salutatorian (student with the second-highest GPA) and would have qualified for a $6,000 scholarship at the University of Mississippi.

Cleveland, a small town halfway between Jackson and Memphis, did not desegregate its high schools until 2017.  James is now attending Alcorn State University, a historically black institution whose African-American demographic (92.2%) approaches that of her former high school (99.7%) prior to its closing.

• • •

Causing injury to a person based on his race became a federal crime, unconditionally, on October 28, 2009, when Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.  Shepard was a white, openly-gay Wyoming student who was robbed, tied to a fence, and beaten to death by two assailants on October 8, 1998.  Byrd was a 49-year-old black resident of Jasper, Texas, who was chained to a pickup truck by his ankles and then dragged along the road for miles, by a group of white supremacists on June 7, 1998.

The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2019, introduced by Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tim Scott, would expand the scope of existing hate crime law to include conspiracy to commit such acts.  It passed the Senate by voice vote on February 14 and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it awaits further action.

Regrettably, federal law will continue to treat crimes based on a victim’s gender identity, sexual orientation or disability less harshly than those related to race.  One will still be able to harm a gay person because he is gay without committing a federal crime, as long as one does not cross state lines, or transport the victim across state lines, or use a weapon that crossed state lines, or otherwise interfere with interstate commerce.  The reason such limitations exist is because some lawmakers — as they did in 1935 — want them to exist.

• • •

Americans have variously been fence builders, fence cutters, fence sitters, fence climbers and fenced in.  But Bob Fletcher was right: we can’t stand fences.  Fences deny freedom, the ultimate good we want.  Though western skies and cottonwood trees are certainly worthy of song, less fear and less hate are what freedom-loving folks could use right now.

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Sources and Notes

Origins of the song: The Complete Lyrics Of Cole Porter edited by Robert Kimball was the primary source, supplemented by articles from 1934-1935 issues of Film Daily, accessed via archive.org.  I was not able to determine, even speculatively, how producer Lou Brock became acquainted with Bob Fletcher.  Fletcher’s son has passed away and his daughter is over 90 years old, so that part of the story is likely lost.

Montana backstory: Sources included the Helena Independent (now the Independent Record), accessed via newspaperarchive.com, and U.S. Census Bureau reports from www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html.  The 54 S. Main Street home of the Helena Independent no longer exists.  It is now a pedestrian mall called Last Chance Gulch.  The Masonic Temple where Corral Dust was published still stands.

New York backstory: Back issues of The New York Age, accessed via fultonhistory.com, and The New York Times, accessed via TimesMachine (subscription required), helped with dates, times and places.  Details of Ella Fitzgerald’s early years came largely from Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography Of The First Lady Of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson.  The first mention of an Ella Fitzgerald performance that I found (in The New York Age) was a January 19, 1933, benefit at the Woman’s Institute in Yonkers, when Ella was 15.

Music and recording:  Original chords are from a copy of sheet music for sale on etsy.com.  Cover version information is available at secondhandsongs.com and discogs.com.  1940s chart data is from back issues of Billboard Magazine, accessed via americanradiohistory.com.

Federal hate crime law: U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 249, accessed at law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/249.  For House Judiciary Committee schedules, see judiciary.house.gov/committee-activity/weekly-schedules.

 

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