Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Day Of Thanksgiving (1951) Thankful for Freedom

Thanksgiving 1951 style. Some things never change. Some things change a great deal. Do we still value the same things that we did a generation ago? What are you thankful for?


Monday, November 23, 2015

The Price of Vengeance

The Battle of Point Pleasant, October 10, 1774
This was personal. Captain James Ward sighted down the barrel of his flintlock musket at the Shawnee warrior making a dash for better cover behind a fallen chestnut. He fired his musket. The Shawnee brave lurched forward, clutching his chest. He fell short of the relative safety of the toppled chestnut tree never to rise again.

Captain Ward wasn't satisfied though. The death of one Shawnee brave was not going to atone for twenty two years of hate and a longing for vengeance. He would not be appeased until every Indian north of the Ohio was dead. This was personal.

The date was October 10, 1774. The place was Point Pleasant in, what is today, West Virginia, at the confluence of the Ohio and Great Kanawha Rivers. In 1774, this was all part of a wilderness frontier people referred to as the "Middle Ground" - a mysterious land west of Fort Pitt along the Ohio, where few white men ever went and returned to tell about it. Men like Daniel Boone, David Duncan, and Simon Butler were exceptions though, and were largely responsible for opening up the Ohio for settlement. Soon, wilderness settlements started springing up between the Cumberland and Ohio Rivers in the sacred hunting grounds the Indians called "Can-tuc-kee". Here, anyone could come to hunt, but no one, red or white, could take up permanent residence.

As more and more settlers pushed deeper into the sacred hunting grounds, establishing wilderness outposts like Harodsburg, Boonesboro, and Logan's Fort, hostilities escalated between the Indians and the whites. Eventually, a frontier militia was formed to deal decisively with the problem. It is this militia, composed of approximately eight hundred men under the command of Colonel Andrew Lewis, that, on October 10, 1774 is now engaged in a point blank confrontation with about one thousand Shawnee warriors led by Cornstalk, the principal chief of all of the Shawnees.

But our story is not so much about the battle of Point Pleasant as it is about two of it's participants. So, let's get back to Captain Ward.

As I said, this was personal. With each flash of powder in his flash pan, fifty four year old James Ward thought about that terrible day twenty two years ago when Indians raided his homestead, burning it to the ground, killing his wife and stealing his young son John. The memory of his lost family is probably what motivated Captain Ward to distinguish himself so well during the battle, as he exacted his revenge against one Shawnee brave after another. It was probably also the memory of their faces that was the last to float across his consciousness. Poking his head up over the log behind which he was concealed, a well aimed rifle ball caught him right between the eyes. Two days later, Captain James Ward departed this life with his vengeance unfulfilled.

Not far away, White Wolf, a thirty three year old Shawnee brave, reloaded his musket. He had built up a reputation among his people as being deadly accurate with a flintlock, preferring that particular weapon over his tomahawk or bow and arrows. He was very calm in battle. Every action was precise and deliberate, and every shot either killed or wounded an enemy. He would patiently wait until one got careless and exposed himself, sticking his head out from behind cover. Then White Wolf would shoot and that would be the end of the careless white man.

For White Wolf, this was also a personal battle. For as long as he could remember, the white man had been stealing the land, killing off the game, breaking treaties, and pushing the red man farther and farther west.

"No more", thought White Wolf, as he aimed his musket and fired again. Too many bad memories, and for White Wolf, memories are what bothered him the most. Particularly, vague memories of his childhood. Memories that were more like a dream than anything else, and a bad dream at that. Foggy. Unclear. Uncertain. A dream of people with no faces. A dream of names and places that meant nothing to him, but which he felt must somehow be important to him. A dream of a time when he was very young. A time before he was a warrior. A time even before he was a Shawnee. A time, long ago, before he was called White Wolf. A dream of a time when he was called by another name - John Ward.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Every Man Plays Many Parts

B-24 Liberator
These kinds of decisions were always difficult to make. A man’s career was on the line and it was up to him, Colonel James, to make the final decision. As commander of the eighth Army Air Force bomber squadron, he had been called upon to make quite a few difficult decisions. You do not become command pilot, flying combat missions over Europe, without having to call some tough ones, and this was a tough one.

Walter, a young Sergeant under Colonel James’s command, was not really a bad soldier; he was just a bit of a discipline problem. His latest infraction, however, could get him a dishonorable discharge. The other officers wanted the Sergeant shot, but that was probably a bit drastic. Colonel James wasn't sure what to do. Maybe there was another answer.

Colonel James had never considered the command aspect of Army life. When he was a boy growing up in his hometown of Indiana, PA, where he was born on May 20, 1908, he dreamt of flying someday. He even constructed a homemade plane in which he nearly broke his neck. But he hadn't planned on a career in the Army Air Corp. He was leaning toward a career as an architect, having graduated Princeton University with a degree in architecture in 1932. He pursued various interests for the next few years, spending time in New York and in California.

Then along comes W.W.II. With his interest in flying, the Army Air Corps was a natural choice. He enlisted in 1941 as a private. After learning to fly, and being commissioned as an officer, he began flying combat missions.

But here he was now, holding the fate of a man in the palm of his hands. Sending a good man home wouldn’t help the war effort at all. But keeping a bad man in the Army could put a lot of other men in danger.

Colonel James made his decision. He issued the order. Sergeant Walter would not be sent home. He would be given detached duty instead. Perhaps the rigors and discipline necessary for detached duty would do the young Sergeant some good. Colonel James believed that there was a lot of potential in the young man, and hoped that by putting his trust in him, Sergeant Walter would someday soon discover his real calling in life.

Colonel James never regretted that decision. It's for certain that Sergeant Walter never regretted it either. The Sergeant managed to make it through the rest of the war without getting shot - by either side. He even earned a number of commendations and decorations, including six Battle Stars.

After being discharged at the end of the war, Walter even manage to find his true calling, and he found it in a place called "Hollywood".

You know Sergeant Walter, although you probably never knew about his close call with a dishonorable discharge. You have seen him in such hits as "The Odd Couple", "The Bad News Bears", and "Grumpy Old Men". That's right - Sergeant Walter Matthou.

You might also be interested in knowing what happened to Colonel James. He flew a total of 25 combat missions as command pilot. He earned a number of medals of recognition for his service to his country, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he spent 20 years in the Air Force Reserve, retiring as a brigadier general.

If you are wondering if Colonel James ever ran into sergeant Matthou after the war, the answer is "yes". They actually became good friends.

You see, it's funny the way things work out. It seems that the army wasn't Colonel James true calling either. He made a few movies himself. Actually, he made more than 75 of them. He won one Academy Award and was nominated for three others. But don't look for "Colonel" anywhere in the movie credits. You will find him listed under James - James Stewart.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Contemplating the Great Mysteries of the Universe

People often ask me, “Mike, how does a person with your tremendous intellect and verbal prowess keep his mind sharp and focused?” I always respond with, “Huh?” After having them repeat the question several times, I finally begin to understand what it is that they are trying to ask me, and… where was I going with this? Oh yeah… sharp and focused…

Like Plato, Descartes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, I have found that the best way to exercise the brain is to ponder some of the great mysteries of life. To aid you in your own quest for knowledge, I have listed below some of the weightier matters that have occupied my own intellectual pursuit. I have, in the past, come very close to solving some of these perplexing inquiries, but invariably, my wife will start pounding on the bathroom door and I will lose my train of thought. (Note: each generation of great thinkers must suffer the inquisition of the anti-intellectuals.)

At any rate, this list is not exhaustive. It is merely a sampling of the mysteries to be found in the universe. If anyone can think of any others that deserve our attention, Feel free to leave it in the comment section below.

  1. Why do we have interstate highways in Hawaii?
  2. Where do forest rangers go to “get away from it all”?
  3. Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?
  4. Why aren’t “hemorrhoids” called “asteroids”?
  5. When they ship Styrofoam peanuts, what do they pack them in?
  6. When you throw out your back, where does it go?
  7. What is the speed of dark?
  8. Why are there Braille signs on drive-up ATM's?
  9. If women wear a pair of pants and a pair of glasses, why don't they wear a pair of bras?
  10. How come you never hear about “gruntled” employees?
  11. If someone with multiple personalities threatens to kill himself, is it considered a hostage situation?
  12. Why does sour cream have an expiration date?
  13. If people from Poland are called “Poles”, why aren’t people from Holland called “Holes”?
  14. If we are here on earth to help others, what are they here for?
  15. Why isn't there mouse-flavored cat food?
  16. Why do you need a driver's license to buy liquor when you can't drink and drive?
  17. Where are Preparations A through G?
  18. Why do we play in recitals and recite in plays?
  19. Why isn't “phonetic” spelled the way it sounds?
  20. If a cow laughed, would milk come out her nose?
  21. Why is it that when you transport something by car, it’s called a “shipment”, but when you transport something by ship, it’s called “cargo”?
  22. If olive oil comes from olives, and peanut oil comes from peanuts, where does baby oil come from?
  23. Are there seeing-eye humans for blind dogs?
  24. Why is it when a man talks dirty to a woman, its sexual harassment; but when a woman talks dirty to a man, its $3.95 per minute? (Don’t ask me how I know.)
  25. Why are they called “apartments” when they are all stuck together?
  26. If this is a country of free speech, why are there phone bills?
  27. How much deeper would the ocean be if sponges didn't live there?
  28. If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?
  29. If Superman can stop bullets with his chest, why does he always duck when someone throws a gun at him?
  30. What happened to the first 6 "ups"?
  31. If an orange is orange, why isn't a lime called a green or a lemon called a yellow?
  32. Why does your nose run, and your feet smell?
  33. Why do we put suits in a garment bag and put garments in a suitcase?
  34. Why do we wash bath towels? Aren’t we clean when we use them?
  35. Why do we wait until a pig is dead before we “cure” it?
  36. Why doesn't glue stick to the inside of the bottle?
  37. Do Lipton employees take coffee breaks?
  38. Why do they sterilize the needles for lethal injections?
  39. Why do kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
  40. What do sheep count when they can't get to sleep?
  41. When you choke a smurf, what color does it turn?
  42. Do they have reserved parking for non handicap people at the Special Olympics?
  43. Why do they call it a TV set when you only get 1?
  44. If it's tourist season, why can't we shoot them?
  45. If nothing sticks to Teflon, how do they stick Teflon on the pan?
  46. If you throw a cat out a car window, does it become kitty litter?
  47. If you shoot a mime, should you use a silencer?
  48. Why do women wear evening gowns to nightclubs? Shouldn’t they be wearing nightgowns
  49. Why do “overlook” and “oversee” mean the opposite?
  50. If lawyers are disbarred and the clergy are defrocked, then doesn’t it follow that electricians are delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?

I hope that this provides fodder for thought, and that your pursuit of knowledge brings you enlightenment and a really buff cerebral cortex.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Tale of the Lion and the Fox

It was the 1930's and everything had changed. Hollywood was not the same town it had been only a few short years earlier. The reason for all of the changes was the advent of "talkies" - motion pictures with sound. What a difference it made! Sound stages were going up all over studio production lots, and actors and actresses who previously had only to concern themselves with how they looked on film, were now taking elocution lessons, trying to rid themselves of an accent or a nasal tone. Many new people appeared on the Hollywood scene in the thirties, making the natural transition from Broadway to the talkies.

Sound productions not only made it possible for the fans to hear their favorite stars speak their lines, but now they could hear them sing their favorite songs as well, so the musical  developed into the most popular movie genre. The first all music, all dance talkie was the 1929 Academy award winner Broadway Melody. Musicals soon became so popular, that some of the movie veterans, who otherwise would have never even considered singing and dancing, were persuaded (by virtue of their contracts with the major studios) to hop on the musical band wagon.

The undisputed ruler of the musical was Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, who produced somewhere in excess of 200 musicals during their first fifty years. Although no other studio came close, there was competition.

A rival studio - 20th Century Fox - had a young star named Shirley Temple who was becoming America's sweetheart, and MGM was obsessed with her! Oh, to be sure, MGM had its own child actors, but none of them had achieved the type of popularity, nor brought the studio the notoriety, that Miss Temple and Fox were enjoying.

MGM was obsessed. They desperately wanted her contract. They approached Fox executives. MGM had an idea for a movie that would be just right for little "Curly Top". Could an arrangement be made?

"No deal", said Fox.

MGM tried again. "How about if we throw a couple of our actors into the deal - two of ours for one of yours?"

"No deal", said Fox.

"Fine", said MGM, stomping off.

"Fine", said Fox.

They went their separate ways and there were no more negotiations.

Well, MGM went ahead and made the movie anyway - without Shirley Temple. They gave the part to one of their own actresses, Frances Gumm, a sixteen year old that they had had under contract now for about four years. She had played in a couple of bit parts. Nothing big. Could she handle the lead role in a new musical? That was the question that they were asking themselves at MGM back in 1939.

For over seventy-five years now, generations of movie goers have answered that question with a resounding "YES". You know the movie. You have seen it time after time. The movie that MGM originally planned for Shirley Temple. The movie about a little girl from Kansas and her dog Toto. The Wizard of OZ, staring Frances Gumm - whom you know better as Judy Garland.

But wait. There's more...

Remember the two actors that MGM was willing to trade to Fox for Shirley Temple? The first one was actually another actress - the beautiful and talented Jean Harlow, who stared in such films as Hell's Angels, Platinum Blonde, and Red Dust. In 1937, she became the first actress to appear on the cover of LIFE magazine.

The second was an actor you may have heard of as well. He also made a movie for MGM in 1939. His name was Clark Gable. The movie was the 1939 Academy Award winning best picture - Gone With the Wind.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Poetry and Faith: A Match Made In Heaven (Part Two - Why I Write Poetry)

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering - these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love - these are what we stay alive for.” - Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society

I have always loved that quote by Robin Williams, ever since seeing the movie The Dead Poets Society a number of years ago. It does a pretty good job of expressing in a nut shell what many poets feel is the impetus behind their writing. Poetry takes us beyond mere existence into the realm of living; into the experience of the stuff of life. Poetry is an expression of that experience, and poets, like writers of prose, have an innate need to express themselves. Where does this driving desire come from…this sometimes overwhelming passion, for writers of poetry and prose alike, to place their thoughts and feelings down on paper?

As a writer who is also a person of faith, I believe that this desire to express ourselves creatively through the written word comes from God. The answer to the question, “Why do we write?” can be found by looking at the nature of God.

GOD IS A CREATOR GOD… In Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, in the very first sentence of the first chapter we learn an important lesson about God. The verse starts out, “In the beginning, God created…” God could have started the Bible in any way that He wanted to, but it would seem as though his desire was to teach us from the very beginning of His special revelation that He is a “creator” God. In the rest of the first two chapters of Genesis we are introduced to God’s creative process as He brings the heavens and the earth, with all of its varied life forms into existence.

WE ARE CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE… In Genesis chapter one, we are made privy to an ancient conversation between the three members of the godhead as they discuss the creation of man. In verse twenty-six God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” We are created in the image of a creator. The desire to be creative and productive is hard-wired into who we are. Look at the verbs that are used in verse twenty-eight. After God created man (and woman) and blessed them, He told them to be fruitful, multiply, replenish, subdue, have dominion – all commands which require man to exercise a degree of creativity.

GOD IS A WRITER… Aside from the theological and historical value of the scriptures, the Bible is considered one of the greatest literary works of all time. Great literature expresses universal human experiences, and the Bible communicates these experiences in a variety of literary forms and genres including poetry, narratives, epistles, proverbs, parables, satire, and visionary writing. God, as the ultimate author of the Bible – through the instrument of his apostles and prophets – is arguably the bestselling author of all time. The Internet Public Library estimates that there have been over six billion copies of the Bible in print in over two thousand languages and dialects.

GOD IS A POET… From the book of Job to the Song of Solomon can be found some of the most beautiful poetry ever penned. It is in the book of Psalms that we get the clearest and most intimate picture of the heart of God. John Calvin, in commenting on the Psalms, said, “…all grief’s, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, anxieties - in short, all those tumultuous agitations wherewith the minds of men are wont to be tossed - the Holy Ghost hath here represented to the life."

It is in the book of Ephesians, however, where we find the most profound and intimate example of God’s poetic nature. In verse ten of the second chapter of Ephesians we read, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works…” The word that we translate “workmanship” is the Greek word “poiema” from which we get the word “poem”. Scripture tells us that we are Gods’ poems! Anyone who has ever written a poem can tell you that you don’t just throw a bunch of random words together and call it a poem. Poems are painstakingly and lovingly crafted. Each element is carefully chosen and fitted together in order to best represent the heart of the poet. 


Why do I write? I write because I am created in the image of a creator God…because the passion to create is inherent within me. Why do I write poetry? I write poetry because my heavenly father is a poet, and I delight in being one of his poems.


By Michael R. Ritt
I am a very special poem,
My maker said it’s true.
Each word was chosen carefully,
Each rhyme and meter too.
With loving hands and careful thought,
With heavens ink and quill,
Each stanza written of my life,
Was ordered by his will.
I’m not a poem that all can read,
Or even understand.
But every line of every verse,
Was crafted by His hand.
And when the enemy tries hard
To tell me it’s not true,
I just remember I’m Gods poem,
And my friend, so are you.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Poetry and Faith: A Match Made In Heaven (Part One - What Is Poetry)

In high school, I was an introspective, pensive person and a bit of a loner. I remember one day being in the school library. I pulled a volume of Robert Frost off of the shelf and started paging through it. I had never read him before, but now I couldn’t put it down. I planted myself in the middle of the isle, between the rows of book shelves, and read. I missed my last class while I was transported back to New England. I climbed birches and chopped wood; I went out into the meadow to bring in the cows and I cried over the death of the hired hand. It was that day that I learned the power of words to move people; not only emotionally, but to move them in their imaginations to other places and times…into experiences that were new and exciting. From that day forward, it was impossible for me not to be a poet.

Language is said to be arbitrary. That is, there is no natural relationship between words and the concepts that they represent. So any discussion about poetry must first start with a definition of what we mean when we talk about poems and poetry. Poetry seems to have about as many different definitions as there are poets. Kahlil Gibran said, “Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.” Percy Shelley said, “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” And my favorite poet, Robert Frost, had this to say about poetry, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” 

Poetry is a lot of things to a lot of people, and trying to answer the question, “What is poetry?” is like trying to answer the broader question, “What is art?” We know it when we see it…when it comes shooting out of the gate; but it is kind of hard for us to toss a loop around it so we can wrestle it to the ground.

I remember seeing a photograph once of people in an art gallery staring intently at a painting that hung on the wall in front of them. The “painting” was nothing more than a blank canvas. There was no way of telling from the photograph just what all of those people thought about that “painting”, but I know what I would have thought. I will be the first to admit to a level of unsophistication equaled by none – except perhaps Larry the cable guy - but I just don’t get it! I feel that way when I read some poems too. I just don’t get them! But that’s ok. Even Carl Sandburg said, “I've written some poetry I don't understand myself.”

So what exactly is poetry? As they say, "If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it must be a duck.” What “they” don’t tell you is that there are between 150 and 200 different species of “ducks” in the world. Some of them look nothing like others of them. The same is true of poetry. There are numerous different poetic forms: sonnet, acrostic, blank verse, ballad, haiku, limericks and on and on… A sonnet looks nothing like a limerick which looks nothing like blank verse.

You should begin to see the difficulty in coming to a concise definition of “poetry”.

One way to define poetry is along the lines of its technical characteristics. That said, a definition I like to use is, “words arranged in a rhythmic pattern with regular accents (like beats in music), words which are carefully selected for sound, accent and meaning to express imaginatively ideas and emotions.”

But why do we write poetry? And what does poetry have to do with the one whom Robert Browning called “the perfect poet,” our heavenly father?  For that discussion, come back Thursday to read part two - Why I Write Poetry.