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Emergency! Calling On All Train Lovers




May 10, 2017

In the Sunday, May 7, Denver Post was this alarming article by Forrest Whitman. It begins with these jolting words: “If you see a train, better get on it. The California Zephyr, the Coast Starlight, the Empire Builder, the Southwest Chief, may soon be heading west for one last ride. . . . Of course, it is all about money. The budget Donald Trump submitted to Congress looks like it was written by the Heritage Foundation, a group that thinks the government has no business subsidizing anything, except for the military. Amtrak may cover 94 percent of its budget almost entirely from ticket sales, but still, that’s not enough for those purists.

“What a loss to the West these iconic trains will be. They are not only part of our Western history, but they are also symbols that somebody still cares about the rural West. Trains say you can still get out of town even when a blizzard is moving in. Trains say to the handicapped person that she can have mobility. Trains say to a senior that he doesn’t have to beg a ride from family or a friend but can get down to the station and make his own way. It’s the train that stops downtown that says to a little Western community: ‘You have value beyond what any Harvard Business School teacher would assign.’”

Whitman also points out that “many people living across America’s vast heartland voted for Trump, believing his promise that a trillion dollars would be poured into infrastructure. Now those trillion dollars have evaporated.”

Whitman also notes how ironic it would be for Colorado to have poured millions of dollars into the reconstruction of Denver’s Union Station, then lose its trains! Because of its congestion, the Northeast trains don’t need to be subsidized. But of the 31 million Amtrak riders last year, 19 million never set foot in the Northeast. . . . “The sad fact is that this new budget leaves 144.6 million Americans with no train.”

For a further irony, note that 600 billion dollars have been poured into highways since 1947—141 billion just since 2008!

Whitman concludes with these somber words: “Losing our trains cuts the heart out of the West. I hope we’ll call, write letters, and let Congress know what it means to us if our Western trains are forced to catch the last westbound.”

* * * * *

I am personally enraged by this Federal shortsightedness. Mark my words: For reasons akin to this, rarely do the American people entrust all three branches of government to one party. Whenever an exception occurs, arrogance and over-reach invariably takes place, regardless of which party takes control. I’m personally all but certain that unless the GOP lives up to its promises to all those who believed its promises to the millions who don’t live in Northeast cities—that the Republican Party will lose control of at least the Senate, and most likely the House as well in the 2018 elections. And, if so, it will have only itself to blame.

* * *

But for right now, we have no time to lose. Let’s each respond to Whitman’s call to action: Bombard the White House, Senate, and House with missiles of outrage. Do it today!

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P. R. Reid’s “The Colditz Story”






May 3, 2017

Some of the greatest escape stories ever written come out of World War II. I first read this many years ago, and have never been able to get it out of my head.


Reviewers of this gripping First-Person British book have been extremely positive. Note clips from some of them:

Tremendously exciting! The Colditz story challenges comparison with any of the escape stories of World War 2. It is men who think (and write) like this who do what these men did.” —Guy Ramsey, The Daily Telegraph

A true but fantastic record. . . . utterly intoxicating and completely entertaining. . . . Not since Sherlock Holmes have I had such pleasure in reading a thriller. It is seldom that I have read a book at a single sitting, but this story defies interruption. —Sterling North, New York World Telegraph and Sun

Full of skill and enjoyment. . . . The book is an astonishing record of what human ingenuity can accomplish. —Basil Davenport, Saturday Review

Just about the best of many escape books of World War II.Time Magazine

The Colditz Story became a movie, starring John Mills and Eric Portman; produced by Ivan Foxwell.

Sketch of the interior of the castle [Berkeley Edition]

This book is unique in a number of respects: It is not just the story of one escape but rather the story of many escapes (precious few of them proving successful).

The fortress was the ancient palace of the Archbishop of Salzburg, sentimentally revered as the place where Mozart composed and played many of his works. It was considered to be impregnable as well as escape-proof, as the Castle’s garrison outnumbered the prisoners at all times. At night the fortress was floodlit from every angle; there were clear drops of a hundred feet from the barred windows, there were sentries just outside the barbed wire; then further precipices and more sentries.

This German prison camp was reserved for enemy officers who had escaped from other camps. Here were gathered together the most desperate and daring men of half a dozen Allied nations—their single thought: ESCAPE!

When you begin reading the book, note that it’s not until the fourth chapter that Colditz comes into the narrative; that’s where the real action begins.

* * * * *

As I re-read the book, I couldn’t help but note how times have changed. Back then, all sides respected the Geneva Convention Agreement. You will note that Captain Reid references how grateful he was for the agreement. Americans have–as long as we elected presidents who were themselves veterans–generally respected the Geneva Convention Agreement. Now, with veteran presidents becoming a thing of the past, we see something ominous taking place: a willingness to violate it.

We are so used to seeing Germans demonized by the Holocaust that we fail to realize their humanity. In this book, we see exhibited their willingness to permit their prisoners to play musical instruments, put on concerts and plays, participate in sports, and even laugh at themselves when they are duped by their prisoners. In some respect, in its lighter moments, the book reminds me of a synthesis of Keystone Cops, F Troop, and MASH.

You will note that there are no American prisoners in the book, reason being that the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1942 (December of 1941’s Pearl Harbor attack precipitating our involvement).But if there is one thing I predict you will be fascinated by, it will be the ingenuity of the prisoners, the endless chain of trying out every possible method of escape the human mind could conceive.

So, take Agatha Christie’s advice: “If you want real excitement, buy The Colditz Story.”

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“I Actually Thanked a Teacher”





April 26, 2017

The Wall Street Journal carried this column in their April 13 edition.

Greene’s opening words hooked me:

“Amid the endless torrent of angry and violent events, I switched off the television set, shut down the computer, and turned to something I hoped would provide welcome respite: a slender book of photographs illustrating the history of the small Ohio community where I grew up.”

In that book, Greene noticed a photograph of three children taking a tap-dancing class in 1934. One of them was identified as Patricia Ruoff. Might it be his first-grade teacher? The one who helped him learn the first word he ever read? He decided to find out.

Greene continues: “I tried to explain to her why I was calling. I said that if I’ve ever written a graceful sentence, if I’ve ever appreciated a turn of phrase in a good book, if I’ve ever found comfort in a beautifully told story, it all began with her.”

He then asked her if lots of her former students had told her what a difference she’d made in their lives. Her answer was succinct: “No one ever has.”

* * * * *

This column caused me to think about those occasional day-brightening letters I’ve received from former students–and how very much they’ve meant to me. Especially today, when letter-writing appears to be almost a lost art. Indeed, we’ve come to the point where the ultimate in value is a personally written letter on actual stationery and mailed in an actual envelope. One such heartfelt letter can validate an entire lifetime of selfless service.

So here is my suggestion: Why don’t you stop everything, this very day, and take the time to write, phone, or personally speak with someone who once made a significant impact on your life. Most likely it may have been merely a moment of kindness—but such moments are in increasingly short supply in this hectic world we live in. If you should do this, I’d love to hear back from you about what kind of response you received.

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Poems I’ve Loved in Life – Rowing in Emily Dickinson





April 19, 2017

I count the year I finally read through all of Emily Dickinson’s 1775 poems as one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. Fortunately, famed Dickinson scholar, Thomas H. Johnson has organized the collection: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960) in sequence as to when Dickinson actually wrote each one. No small feat given that she was a recluse and never intended to publish her poems at all. Fortunately for posterity, her sister Lavinia disregarded her instructions and set about to have her poems published.

If you too want to secure an education into life like no other, all you have to do is track down a copy of this book and dedicate a large portion of time to slowly digesting each poem, stopping for the day when you stall out on one of them. Dickinson is viewed today as one of the greatest, most original, and most quotable poets our world has ever known. It will prove to be one of the greatest educational experiences of your lifetime.

You need your own book so that you can thoroughly mark up or illustrate your favorite poems. It has often been postulated that the least structured thought can be found in a novel, the next most in a short story, the second most in a poem, and the ultimate compressed thought is in a quotation (aphorism, folk-saying, etc.). Where Dickinson is unique is that her poems are also considered quotations. Note the following:


Soft as the massacre of Suns

By Evening’s sabers slain.


. . . Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –


If I can stop one Heart from breaking

I shall not live in vain

 If I can ease one Life the Aching

Or cool one Pain.

 Or help one fainting Robin

 Unto his Nest again

I shall not live in Vain.


I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – Too?

Then there’s a pair of us?

Don’t tell! They’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one’s name – the live long June –

To an admiring Bog!


To lose one’s faith – surpass

The loss of an Estate

Because Estates can be

Replenished – faith cannot –


To fill a Gap

Insert the thing that caused it –

Block it up

With other – and ‘twill yawn the more –

You cannot solder an Abyss

With Air.


To wait an Hour – is long –

If Love be just beyond –

To wait Eternity – is short –

If Love reward the end –


Some Wretched creature, savior take

Who would exult to die

And leave for thy sweet mercy’s sake

Another Hour to me.


A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.


Where Roses would not dare to go,

What Heart would risk the way –

And so I send my

Crimson Scouts

To sound the Enemy –


God is indeed a jealous God –

He cannot bear to see

That we had rather not with Him

But with each other play.


My life closed twice before its close –

It yet remains to see

If Immortality unveil

A third event to me.

So huge, so hopeless to conceive

As these that twice befell.

Parting is all we know of heaven

And all we need of hell.


Fame is a bee.

It has a song –

It has a sting –

Ah, too, it has a wing.


That Love is all there is,

Is all we know of Love,

It is enough, the freight should be

Proportioned to the groove.


Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Were I with thee

Wild Nights would be

Our luxury!

Futile – the Winds –

To a Heart in port –

Done with the Compass –

Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the Sea!

Might I but moor – Tonight –

In Thee!

* * * * *

If these lines don’t hook you – I have no hope for you.

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Beauty and the Beast – A Timeless Take Two





April 12, 2017

The most magical week of myy life? It would have to be the time Disney Studios invited me to be their guest for a week. In 1981-1982, on the occasion of a joint venture between The Humanities Classic Film Series in Keene, Texas, and Walt Disney Films, I was given free rein at the entire Disney film archives. Name the film, a projectionist would set up a private film-showing for me. What a heady feeling that was! Talk about a boy locked up in a candy store!

My genial host was Art Stevens, who was then directing and filming The Fox and the Hound (he would later become Disney’s director of animation). Thanks to him, I was even shown the current state of The Fox and the Hound – part black and white sketches and already filmed cell-based animation. Stevens would later fly out to Texas and host one of the earliest premiers of the film for our series.

Serendipitously, on my last day there in Anaheim, the entire staff was invited to the auditorium to see the first glimpses into EPCOT (then half way between dream and reality).

After I descended from Mount Olympus to resume normal life in Texas, I spent many months writing and then publishing the film history of each of the Disney films chosen for the series attendees.

* * * * *

But the original animated Beauty and the Beast did not even exist back in 1981-82. It did not become reality until 1991, and almost immediately became a cult classic. As is clear in Ann Hornaday’s March 17, 2017 Washington Post review, “‘Beauty’ Remake Expands on the Magic”: “How indeed to take a cartoon loved to the point of obsession, flesh it out with actors who can’t be expected to live up to the two-dimensional protagonists of fans’ imaginations, and open it up to lived-in realism, without losing the pure fantasy of the original? How does a movie last forever, even as it’s deconstructed and reinvented over time.”

“The answer is: with a mixture of careful deliberation and boldness, both of which are on full display in this pleasingly all-out but reassuringly familiar take on story that might not have started with Disney’s movie but, for many, seemed to end there. Emma Watson delivers an alert, solemn turn as Belle, the French country girl with a penchant for reading and inventing. Although Dan Stevens—best known for his recurring role on ‘Downton Abbey’ –is heard more than seen, he lends the Beast just the right ratio of soul to raffish misanthropy.”

Joe Morgenstern, in his March 17, 2017 Wall Street Journal review titled, “‘Beauty’: Live Actors, Dead Wrong,” begins with this observation: “More is less in Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ –so much less that this crazily cluttered venture in industrial entertainment betrays the essence of what made the 1991 animated feature a beloved classic.”

Stephanie Zacharek’s lead for her March 27 review for Time reads, “Beauty and the Beast is wonderfully out of step with the times,” and continues with “The key to Bill Condon’s wondrous live-action musical . . . is that it’s not a movie of its time. It’s not even a movie of 1991, the year Disney released the animated film that provides its framework. In its going-for-broke exuberance and wedding-cake lavishness, this new Beauty most resembles the musicals of the mid-to-late 1960’s, like Carol Reed’s Oliver! And a new version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein made-for-TV Cinderella.”

Zacharek concluded with, “You could accuse Beauty and the Beast of being too generous in doling out sensory overload. But then, it did spring from a movie that featured a motherly singing teapot, Maurice Chevalier-esque candelabra and a persnickety clock who does everything by the rules…. The grand musical number, ‘Be Our Guest,’ in which all these characters–plus plates, silverware and more–bounce and jump and sing in majestically syncopated madness, is probably too much. But how about those napkins, undulating and writhing in the air like enthusiastic Martha Graham understudies? Somebody dreamed this up. The human mind is a miracle.”

“The human heart is too, and Beauty and the Beast doesn’t fail us on that score. It’s explicit about the unpredictability of love, the way it sneaks up on us unbidden. When Belle’s Beast looks at us with anguished eyes, he speaks a wordless truth about this most adult of all romantic fairytales.”

The movie made the cover of the March 4 Parade. The banner words surrounding images of the stars, Dan Stevens and Emma Watson: THE ENCHANTED WORLD OF BEAUTY AND THE BEAST…” Inside the lavishly illustrated review is headlined with “A TALE AS OLD AS TIME,” and Lambeth Hochwald begins with these words: “There’s something about Beauty and the Beast and its story of true love and courage that’s made it beloved for generations, especially since Disney brought the 1700’s French fairy tale to the big screen as a sweepiing animated movie musical in 1991.”


First of all, we had trouble even getting into a showing. And that was in spite of so many theaters devoting two or three of their screens to the film rather than the usual single-showings. It was reminiscent of the Golden Age of Family Films to see so many multi-generational families (grandparents, parents, children) coming in together.

We loved the film. The cast is great: Luke Evans as the detestable villain (without any redeeming qualities whatsoever); Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, is superb in his role; Dan Stevens we already knew well, having watched him break hearts around the world by his shocking premature death at the inception of Downton Abbey’s long run; Emma Watson gained a worldwide following due to her starring role as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies.

Both Stevens and Watson were nigh perfect in their portrayals of the Beast and Beauty. The voices were also most memorable; Josh Gad as the aide-de-camp to the loathsome villain; Ewan McGregor as the gilded candelabra [once Lumiere, the Prince’s valet]; Emma Thopson as housekeeper-turned-teapot; Audra Mcdonald as the opera diva who becomes an enormous wardrobe; Gugu Mbatha Raw as the saucy housemaid who got turned into a feather-duster; and Stanley Tucci plays a new character, a human turned into a harpsichord.

But unquestionably, Stevens and Watson steal the show. The essence of the show has to do with the Prince’s initial arrogance and total lack of kindness. In true fairy-tale tradition, he is turned into a repulsive Beast tied to a rose that loses its petals as the Beast deteriorates. Only true love can stop the inexerable process of petal-loss. But who could possibly fall in love with a beast?

No small thanks to Stevens and Watson, the miracle takes place. There are two moments in the film that more than made up for the price we paid for our tickets: The anguish in the Beast’s eyes as he realizes how preposterous it is to even imagine that a vision of beauty called Belle could possibly ever love him; and the second: that incredible moment following the Beast’s rescuing her from almost certain death in the ferocious wolf attack–when, somehow, some way, the cameras catch that all-too-rare glow in Belle’s eyes when she falls in love with the Beast. In my entire lifetime, I’ve seen it in a bride but once: even across the church, the love-light in the bride’s eyes almost blinded me. That glowing sense of wonder in a set of eyes I rarely see in children’s eyes any more. And when I have, invariably it’s in the eyes of homeschooled children whose parents have protected them from an increasingly amoral media. As for the intense love revealed in a bride’s eyes, I strongly suspect its scarcity today is directly tied to the high percentage of brides who have already been living with their grooms. Because of that sad reality in today’s hook-up generation, honeymoons don’t mean what they used to.

So, in summation, I urge each of you to see Beauty and the Beast, if possible in 3-D.

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David Wyss’s “The Swiss Family Robinson”





April 5, 2017

Book woodcut by Louis Rhead

Had it not been for the survival narrative of Alexander Selkirk, chances are Robinson Crusoe would never have been written and published.

Johann David Wyss was born in 1748 in Berne, Switzerland. In 1766, he became a military chaplain. Since Robinson Crusoe was the rage during that era, Wyss invented a somewhat similar tale of a Swiss family to amuse his four children. It wasn’t all fiction for it was based on a Russian sea-captain’s report of the discovery of a Swiss pastor and his family that had been shipwrecked on an island near New Guinea. After hearing the story told, Wyss wrote it down in narrative form, but shared it only with members of his own family.

Wyss’s son, Johann Rudolph Wyss, many years later, delivered the manuscript (slightly revised) to a publisher; the first part was published in 1812. For many years, most readers mistakenly assumed that Johann Rudolph Wyss was the writer, but in recent years the correct authorship has been attributed.

Cover illustration of Harper & Brothers Edition of 1909

But that was not the end of it. As the story was originally written, the Swiss family were discovered by a European sailing ship after ten years of being marooned on the island, and were then taken home to Switzerland. But after the first publication, the tale attracted the attention of the Baroness de Montolieu (1751-1832), a French woman of literary inclinations, who translated it into French. After reading the story, she suggested to Johann Rudolph that since the story ended too abruptly, it ought to be developed further. Since he was unable (or unwilling) to tackle that revision himself, he gave the Baroness permission to do so; it was then published in 1824 in French, and in 1826, in German.

Book woodcut by Louis Rhead

And from that point on, the revised edition has been taken to the hearts of millions of readers all over the world. William Dean Howells pointed out that part of the charm of the book for young readers is that the author tells something “fresh on every page. No day passes without its difficulty overcome, its danger escaped, its adventure happily ended. . . . Almost every animal that can be tamed, or that ought to be killed, is found in it; that every beautiful or eatable or companionable bird nests there; that every strange or familiar fruit and vegetable grows on the trees or under the ground.”

I’d read the book when I was young—it was just as much a delight to revisit it. Here are some of my random thoughts:

A powerful book. Very religious. Swiss castaway parents of four boys, somewhere in area of New Guinea several hundred years ago. Builds on the persona of Robinson Crusoe., In every chapter, family shows its inventiveness, versatility, ability to make do. Of course it helps mightily that they can keep returning to the wrecked ship and retrieve more of all the stuff on board (that was originally intended to help a new colony of settlers survive somewhere). Another castaway, Jenny, comes into the story at the very end of the book. To youth who are fascinated by inventiveness and creativity, this book ought to prove an excellent and unforgettable read.A great combination for any bookworm would be to read the trilogy in sequence: Robinson Crusoe, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and The Swiss Family Robinson. By all means pick up an unabridged copy. My hardback copy of this 1909 Harper edition is lavishly illustrated by Louis Rhead. Besides the original (almost impossible to find) dust-jacket, this edition sports the same wonderful cover illustration tipped-in (hand-glued) on the front of the book. Pages: 602.