Speak Now

I’ve always been fascinated by politics and history; the two go hand-in-hand, and you really cannot understand one without understanding the other. (Economics are also a lot more important than is ever given credit in most histories–wars and exploration and colonization was, inevitably, always about markets and trade and thus money) I’ve maintained for years that history should be taught as the advancement of individual rights–the ups and downs of individual freedoms, rather than dates and battles and Kings and Queens and Emperors–and that study of individual rights also needs to examine prejudices and bigotry and zealotry, and how those three factors have poisoned civilization and humanity throughout much of its history. I also feel that, while the study of wars are important for their impact, the fact that the impact these wars had on the citizens of the country (countries) being invaded was also important. Putting humanity in the study of human history would not only make it more interesting, but would also further the understanding that should come with the study.

I tend to avoid books about politics, or political thrillers–the news provides enough stranger than fiction moments every day–and as a general rule, fictional films about politics rarely interest me, either. Paul and I avoided The West Wing for years, thinking a fictional show about our government couldn’t be interesting enough for us to get vested in; we were clearly wrong (but I still refuse to watch The American President.) Fletcher Knebel, a long forgotten writer of the mid-twentieth century, wrote political thrillers, and while I was aware of him when I was young, I never read any of his books; why read about fictional politics when actual history is available to read and study? But a few years ago, I read an article about one of his books, recently brought back into print, and intrigued me enough to want to read it.

It’s premise: what if a sitting American President begins to slowly lose his mind and grip on reality?

And I am sure you can imagine why that premise was intriguing.

Jim MacVeagh’s burst of laughter came so unexpectedly, his hand jiggled the stem of the wineglass, and a splash of champagne spotted the linen tablecloth. Sidney Karper, the Secretary of Defense, sitting on his right, grinned in shared appreciation and shook his head.

“Unbeatable, isn’t he, Senator? He just won’t be topped.”

“Nobody can touch him when he’s determined,” agreed MacVeagh. He wiped at his eye with a corner of his napkin and turned back toward the center of the long head table, cluttered with late debris of ashes and crumpled menus amid the sparkle of glassware.

The speaker, President Mark Hollenbach, was mock-solemn again after flashing a responsive smile for the spray of laughter which greeted his first sally. His was the honor chore of the night–the brief reply to the toast to the President of the United States which signaled the closing of another annual Gridiron dinner. The news correspondents had lampooned the Hollenbach administration and its foes in a series of musical skits, some sharp as stilettos but one belabored in its buffoonery, while the Marine Band orchestra in shining scarlet coats. played for the 550 diners.

I finally read this book while I was on vacation over Thanksgiving week, and found myself enjoying it tremendously. It’s a thriller, of course, and the main character is junior Iowa senator Jim MacVeagh. Jim’s a good guy, without too much ambition, with a wife he loves and a tween daughter he adores; he also is having an affair with the chair of the DNC’s secretary–not really a smart thing to do, but we see this self-destructive behavior from politicians all the time (although the idea that adultery is disqualifying for higher office has long since been shown up as a lie). After the Gridiron Club dinner, Jim is invited by the president to join him for a talk at Camp David–and it is there the story kicks into gear. Enormously popular President Mark Hollenbach has decided to dump his vice-president for the upcoming campaign–he’s been tainted with a whiff of scandal regarding a building project a campaign donor was awarded–and the President is interested in having Jim join him on the campaign trail.

Naturally, this is very exciting for Jim, awakening ambitions he wasn’t aware he’d even had, and realizing that, if selected, this would make him the front runner for the top of the ticket in four years–which of course is very exciting for any politician, particularly a young one–but as the conversation continues, Jim begins to become concerned, as some of the things the President wants to do in his second term are not only unconstitutional but borderline insane–for one example, he wants to wire tap every American’s phone, so as better to track and prevent crime, espionage, and foreign agents–and he also displays paranoiac tendencies. As Jim gets closer to the President and one step closer to being on the ticket, more and more evidence of the president’s instability is revealed to him….and he has to. ask himself–party or country? Patriotism or partisanship?

This is a terrific read, and certainly one any American today could identify with and get caught up in the story.

I’m now curious to read other works of Knebel’s, and then of course, Allen Drury’s terrific series of novels about Washington, beginning with Advise and Consent.

I do remember reading an Arthur Hailey novel about politics–yes, government was one of the industries he turned his research and writing to–called In High Places. (I read this during my Arthur Hailey phase; I learned alot from his books. I read The Moneychangers when I worked at a bank; he was spot on about day to day operations on the floor. I reread Airport when I worked at an airport; again, pretty spot on, despite the decades of changes to the industry since he researched and wrote the book.) And The Coyotes of Carthage, which I read earlier this year, was one of the best books I’ve read about rural politics.

I think you might enjoy Night of Camp David. I certainly did.

Causing a Commotion

Last Saturday, as you may know, the Hard Rock Hotel, currently under construction at the corner of Rampart and Canal Street in the French Quarter, collapsed. Today, they are going to set off some controlled explosions to bring down the damaged cranes, which are no longer attached to the construction and present a clear and present danger to the area. Many of the businesses in a very large radius from the construction site are closed until further notice, causing the businesses and their employees financial hardship.

Several people were also killed as a result of the collapse.

I no longer drive to and from work on Rampart Street–we moved into new offices for the day job last November; it’s much easier for me to get on the Interstate coming and going to work now–but I pretty much made that drive every day from 2005 through last November, other than the years the street was torn up in order to resurface it as well as put in the Rampart/St. Claude streetcar line. The construction site was where the Canal Street Woolworth’s was for decades; the very Woolworth’s whose lunch counter was protested during the Civil Rights era because it was segregated. I always hated that the Woolworth’s closed and was torn down, because I felt that it was of no little historic significance; particularly at a time when the Confederate monuments still polluted the city.  But Woolworth’s is no longer in existence, and what else to do with a prime real estate lot that wasn’t being used? There’s already a Hard Rock Hotel on Bourbon Street, but this complex was going to be much larger and was, I think, going to house a Hard Rock nightclub, if I’m not mistaken–because a nightclub at that corner is precisely what the city needed (eye roll).

The construction collapse also exposed some typical New Orleans corruption; the contractor is allegedly shady and has an apparently well-earned bad reputation on every level. There was also some bribery going on, and someone at City Hall, who was signing off on permits, and safety inspections that weren’t being done, was also arrested this week. I am very curious as to what that is going to mean for the future of the Hard Rock Hotel; even if they hire a reputable contractor, I would imagine everything already built will need to come down and be rebuilt; and how do you recover your reputation from that?

It will be interesting, and of course, I am thinking there’s a book or a story in this somewhere. I’ve already created a shady contractor in New Orleans, by the name of Sam Dreher, in Royal Street Reveillon; I can certainly use that character again, and who knows? French Quarter Flambeaux just might make a terrific Scotty novel.

It’s hard to imagine, though, at this point how the Hard Rock Hotel can continue to be built–I would imagine it would have to be torn down completely and started over, but what do I know? I am neither an engineer nor an architect. But I would also think it would be hard to get past the fact that several people died in a construction disaster while it was being built; here is the perfect set up for a French Quarter horror novel about a haunted hotel, don’t you think? One that is cursed with death and tragedy; similar to the Overlook in The Shining.

Interesting.

This also reminds me that Arthur Hailey’s bestselling novel Hotel, which was adapted into a television series in the 1980’s (it came on after Dynasty), was also set in New Orleans; the St. Gregory Hotel in the novel was on Common Street in the CBD, one block from the French Quarter–a grand old hotel of the city (the television show moved the setting to San Francisco; which I still think was a mistake. An anthology television series along the lines of a more serious The Love Boat, set in a hotel with guest stars every week playing out individual stories as they visit the hotel, to me, would work better in New Orleans than San Francisco; then again, I may be biased heavily) in desperate need of some financial investment.  Hailey, who is not so remembered today, was a huge bestseller of his time, and he wrote sprawling novels about industries, and the people who worked in them, and the people who got involved with said industry somehow; with the stories all intermingled. He also wrote Airport, which became one of the first disaster movies, and eventually a series of sequels about plane disasters; he also co-wrote the novel Runway Zero-Eight, also filmed–and that film was what Airplane! spoofed. He wrote about banks (The Moneychangers), hospitals (The Final Diagnosis), power companies (Overload), drug companies (Strong Medicine), car companies (Wheels), and news broadcasts (The Evening News). He also wrote a political thriller, In High Places, which was one of the most thoughtful cold war thrillers; it was written from the perspective of the Canadian government, negotiating desperately with the United States since the skies over Canada were going to be the battleground between the US and the Soviet Union.

I reread Airport after I actually went to work at an airport, and have to say, Hailey’s research was excellent; he really captured the behind-the-scenes activity of an airport impacted by a blizzard perfectly. Likewise, I read The Moneychangers when I was working at a bank–he actually researched Bank of America for the book, which is where I worked–and again, spot on.

Now I’m thinking about rereading Hotel, if only to see how it was done, and how he depicted New Orleans in the 1960’s.

Anyway. I’ll continue to follow the story of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse, and see where it goes, and maybe–just maybe–it could be the basis for something. As you can see, I’ve already had any number of ideas spring from the incident…as always.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Pink Houses

Another cold morning in New Orleans. The Saints are up in Minneapolis playing the Vikings today, with the winner going to the NFC championship game to play Philadelphia in Philadelphia, so I shouldn’t complain about how cold it is here! I am hoping to finish cleaning the kitchen this morning so I have to time to go lift weights for the first time since AUGUST before the game. And stretch, and do some cardio. I am taking this get back in shape goal for this year seriously, Constant Reader.

I also didn’t read a short story yesterday, but I started reading one of the Kinsey Millhone stories in Kinsey and Me, and it’s quite good; I look forward to finishing it today during the game, and reading another to get back on track. But I am doing much better this year on the Short Story Project than I ever have in past years, and I have so many short story collections and anthologies to choose from; which is part of the reason I decided to make 2018 the year of the short story. I was also inspired yesterday to start writing two short stories–“Sorry Wrong Email” (which is going to take a lot of work to get right) and “Neighborhood Warning”, which I think can be really really good. I also want to work on finishing the final draft of another short story today, and this week I need to start reading the submissions for Sunny Places Shady People. With no offense to my Blood on the Bayou contributors, I think this one might be even better, I also need to finish an interview for my Sisters newsletter column (basically, writing the introduction and putting the questions in the proper order for flow) and I also need to work on my two manuscripts, and of course the Scotty Bible languishes. Heavy heaving sigh, the work of a Gregalicious is never done. I also want to read a novel; another goal for the year is getting the TBR pile down to a workable size. Tomorrow I am going to Target, and probably going to make it Leg Day at the gym in the afternoon (I have a long work day on Tuesday, so I can’t do an every other day; the nice thing about Leg Day is no cardio; just stretch, do legs, and some abs).

I watched the 1970 film Airport yesterday, based on the Arthur Hailey novel, it was one of the year’s biggest hits and was nominated for lots of Academy Awards, and even got great reviews. It was also the movie that kicked off the ‘disaster movie’ trend of the 1970’s, and spawned several sequels. The opening sequence of the movie was pretty interesting, as they showed all the ticket counters for the various airlines at “Lincoln International” in Chicago; obviously a stand-in for O’Hare. What made it interesting was how none of the airlines whose counters were shown, or were mentioned in the PA announcements over the opening credits (Continental Airlines Flight 220 is now boarding) exist anymore: Northwest, Eastern, TWA, Continental, Braniff, Pan Am. It’s hard to imagine today, with our limited choices, but just twenty years ago they were a lot of options.

The movie had, as all these types of films usually did, what was called an ‘all-star cast’; Oscar winners Burt Lancaster, George Kennedy, Van Heflin, and Helen Hayes (who would win a second Oscar for her role); as well as other bankable stars as Dean Martin and Jean Seberg; newcomer Jacqueline Bisset, stunningly beautiful who would hit major stardom later in the decade in The Deep; stage actress Maureen Stapleton in one of her first roles and who would later win an Oscar of her own; and assorted others (Gary Collins, for example) in small parts early in their career. The premise of the film is simple: a major airport is in the throes of a several day long snowstorm; it was inspired by the blizzard of the winter of 1966 (which I remember), and how the airport operates in such a crisis, and the personal stories of the airport employees intercrossed with those of several people who pass through the airport. Burt Lancaster plays Mel Bakersfeld, general manager of the airport, who is married to his job and ignores his wife and family as a result. His marriage to Cindy (Dana Wynter) is in shambles, and he’s strongly attracted to the widowed Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg) who is some sort of manager for Trans Global Airlines (her job is never really defined in the movie; it certainly was in the book–Hailey was nothing if not thorough). They of course don’t act on their attraction, but it’s there–and she is considering a transfer to San Francisco and  ‘fresh start’ since they have no future. He fights with his wife several times on the phone, mostly to show how unreasonable she is–obviously his job should come before his wife and family! Dean Martin plays asshole pilot Vernon Demerest, who also happens to be Mel’s brother-in-law, married to Mel’s sister (played by Barbara Hale, best known for playing Della Street on the original Perry Mason series). He’s a great pilot, but a dick–and he and Mel disagree frequently about airport operations, etc. He’s also having an affair–the latest of many–with co-worker Gwen Meighan (Jacqueline Bisset), who tells him before they work their flight to Rome that she’s pregnant–including the icy line “You can stop twisting your wedding ring, I know you’re married”–which in turn doesn’t really either of them sympathetic. The head of Customs and Immigration’s niece is also going to be on the Rome flight…as it soon becomes apparent that this particular flight is going to be the film’s focus and everyone’s paths are going to cross in some way regarding Trans Global Flight 22, The Golden Argosy. Helen Hayes plays Ada Quonsett, an older woman who stows away on flights to try to visit her daughter and grandchildren in New York, caught and being sent back to Los Angeles, but she manages to evade her watcher and sneak aboard Flight 22. Also on the flight is D. O. Guerrero, a bankrupt failure with mental problems and lots of debts who also happens to be a demolitions expert, and his briefcase, which contains a bomb. He wants to blow up the plane so his wife (coffee shop waitress Inez, played by Maureen Stapleton) will collect on his flight insurance. (He’s played by Van Heflin.) This is before security, metal detectors, etc., and the rash of hijackings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s started the change to tighter airport security (so many New York to Florida flights were hijacked and redirected to Havana that it became a joke in the zeitgeist; “my flight was hijacked to Cuba.'” Of course, after the flight takes off it becomes apparent to those on the ground that he must have a bomb; the flight crew tries to get it from him with the end result he sets it off in the bathroom, blowing a hole in the side of the plane and causing explosive decompression. Gwen was trying to get into the bathroom to him when the bomb goes off and experiences severe injuries. The damaged plane has to return to Chicago as all other airports are closed; and of course, the issue of the big runway being blocked by a plane stuck in the snow that opens the movie now becomes crucial; the plane must be moved because the damaged aircraft needs as much room as possible to land, since its rudder, and steering are damaged which means the brakes might be as well.

Complicated, right? Of course the plane gets moved, and the flight lands safely. Mel’s wife admits she is having an affair and wants a divorce, and it looks like asshole Vern might do the right thing with Gwen after all. At least if Mel and Tanya get involved, they’ll be together at the airport all the time, although as they prepare to drive off together at the end, there’s another crisis…but this time Mel says “let him handle it” which means…what, exactly? He’s not going to be a workaholic anymore?

The acting in the movie isn’t good, but then again they aren’t really given a lot to work with. Hailey’s books probably don’t hold up, but they were huge bestsellers in their day–I read them all. He always focused on an industry or business–medicine, hotels, airports, hospitals, banks, power companies–did a lot of research, and then wrote enormous, sprawling books that not only showed how the businesses worked but told melodramatic stories about the people who worked there or were involved somehow. His novel Hotel was also filmed, and then turned into a Love Boat like weekly television series in the 1980’s; in the book and movie the St. Gregory Hotel was in New Orleans (based on the Monteleone, actually), in the TV show it was moved to San Francisco. The book, written in the 1960’s, also dealt with racial issues; I should really reread both it and Airport. The Moneychangers, which was about banking, I read when I worked for Bank of America, and I was amazed at how spot-on he got working in a bank. I should reread Airport to see how different airports were in the 1960’s than they were in the 1990’s, when I worked for Continental. But his male leads, who usually ran the business, were Ayn Rand-ian style supermen: married to their jobs, good at them, and devoted to the point there was no room in their lives for a personal life, which also kind of made them unlikable.

But back to the film–as corny and badly acted as it was, despite the terrible dialogue, they did a really great job of building up the suspense about the bomb as well as would the plane be able to land safely; and since that was the most important part of the film, it worked on that level. It was also hard to not laugh a bit from time to time, having seen the spoof Airplane! so many times I can speak the dialogue along with the movie when watching; it’s weird seeing this stuff not being played for laughs  (although Airplane! was primarily based on Zero Hour! with elements from Airplane 1975. In an interesting aside, Arthur Hailey did the novelization of Zero Hour!, which was called Runway Zero-Eight). It was also interesting seeing how much things have changed since this film was made: divorce isn’t the societal horror it was back then; people don’t stay in bad marriages “for the sake of the children” anymore; abortion wasn’t legal in the US when the film was made so Gwen’s abortion would have to be in Sweden, if she chose to have one; and of course, all the changes in airport security. The plane itself was a Boeing 707; which aren’t used anymore. Stowaways can’t really get onto planes anymore, either.

Plus, back in the day the concept that airline crews were boozing and sexing it up all the time, and that flight attendants (then stewardesses) were good time girls fucking every pilot they could lure into their clutches was such a stereotype–one the airlines actually bought into because they had age, size and looks standards for the women, and ran print and television ads playing up the sexiness of their stewardesses–that it took years for that to be changed…and it still exists to a certain extent.

It was certainly not something I learned from the Vicki Barr Stewardess mystery series for kids! I’ve always wanted to write a crime series about a flight attendant–kind of an update of Vicki Barr but not for kids–but can never really figure out how to make it work. Maybe someday.

Back to the spice mines! The kitchen ain’t going to clean itself!

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