Oct 19

Spanning the generations

Here are a few more student productions:

These are from last night. They’re starting to get the hang of this. They’d probably be even better if I didn’t manage to get in the way here or there.

I could show you other videos that other people have made, some truly stellar work is floating around. But, instead, I’m going to go back to the 1930s. I’m reading (still) Frederick Lewis Allen’s Since Yesterday. It’s a good book, but it is like that bit of steak that just won’t get chewed up to a size that’s safe to swallow. The 1930s, which is the focus of this story, just … keeps … going. Imagine how it must have felt to live through that decade.

But the Kindle says I’m 70-some percent through the book, and we’ve got to a happy subject for a change, the big boom of radio.

Allen cites a Depression-era Harper’s Magazine story which recorded there were 17 symphony orchestras in the United States in 1915. By 1939, Allen tells us, there were over 270. This surge was brought on because of the huge boom in radio. (In 2014, Wikipedia tells me, there were 1,224 symphony orchestras in the U.S. not including our many modern youth orchestras.) Music programming was a popular choice and radio helped contribute to a successful, nationwide musical education, that is, perhaps, peerless.

Part of that success is owed to a program called The NBC Music Appreciation Hour. This show, conducted by Walter Damrosch (a famed composer), was broadcast from 1928 to 1942. During the thirties, an estimated seven million children heard the show weekly, in some 70,000 schools nationwide.

The show also aired on Saturdays in Nashville. It was the lead in for WSM’s weekly barn dance. Once, in 1928, Damrosch said ‘there’s no room in the classics for realism.’ George Hay, who was on his way to becoming a legend in country music and the host of the barn dance, came on right after and said his show was full of realism.

“The program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Dr. Damrosch told us there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy’.”

That’s how the Grand Ole Opry it’s name. DeFord Bailey, a Tennessee-native and the grandson of slaves, played the first song after Hay’s speech, a song that would soon become a classic, Pan American Blues:

Bailey was a multi-instrumentalist, and they say he was impressive on most everything he played. He was an Opry Star for about 13 years, and he toured the country. They fired him in 1941, ostensibly over some licensing issue, but if you read about it you get the sense there was a lot more, and a lot less, to the story, which wouldn’t surprise anyone. Bailey stayed in Tennessee, but didn’t play much publicly after that. He did come back much later for an Old Timer’s Special. Here’s a clip, two full generations after he kicked off the Opry:

Watch him. He doesn’t move. There’s no fanfare. There’s just that sound.

Sound defined everything.

Last week I reviewed a paper on the “Forgotten history of South Carolina radio.” It was about the 1920s and the stations that came and went, mostly in the low country. I loved the paper. I wanted it to do more, even as it did enough. It’s papers like that which sometimes make me wish I’d been a historian. But, then, I realize if there’s ever anything I want to learn about, I can just open someone else’s book and they’ve already uncovered the mysteries. Do you want to know about the first football game broadcast in South Carolina? This paper has it:

On October 7, 1923, the Charleston News and Courier reported that WSAC had carried live, play-by-play coverage of the September 29 Clemson-Auburn football game from Clemson’s Riggs Field. Since there is no record of any previous, live broadcast of a sporting event in South Carolina, the distinction of being the first plausibly belongs to WSAC. W.E. Godfrey termed the broadcast a success (the game’s final score was 0-0) and said that WSAC would provide play-by-play coverage of other Clemson home football games that season. The professor added that it was likely that WSAC would soon become a “popular station.”

The Clemson student paper, which at one point wrote about their team as “The Jungaleers” wrote about the game extensively. It’s a slow load, but if you’re into this sort of thing, you should give it a try.

Anyway, the mystery in this particularly scholarly paper that I was reviewing for a conference was how those early local Carolina stations later gave way to colonial programming from out of state. The answer, as ever, is economics. That station that started in a furniture store, or the one that was just a front to sell radios and a few other examples, are remembered as brief fly-by-night operations. None of them seemed to last more than two or three years. There were signal problems to contend with, as was the case in much of the country back then since the government wildly underestimated the booming growth of radio in every sense. And even the towns of South Carolina were rural enough that they didn’t get linked into the growing national networks until much later. By then the local stations were gone, the big signals were coming in from cities out of state and that’s your colonial broadcast. Without reading a complete history, I’m guessing it probably didn’t start stabilizing for local broadcasters until the early 1940s, or perhaps the 1950s. That’s just the story of broadcasting in the South.

But the 1930s in South Carolina radio would be intriguing too. A couple of quick searches showed me that some key names from some of those early 1920s stations wound up running other projects, creating and building stations that would ultimately become broadcasting staples in the palmetto state.

Maybe the 1920s and 1930s radio is an interesting tale in any state. Maybe I should look that up and pretend to be a historian.

Or I could make these connections:

Maybe in ninety years or so someone will look at podcasts the same way. Maybe someone midway through the 22nd century will figure out how to power up, convert and encode YouTube videos and start stumbling on some of these things we are doing today. Maybe they’ll think highly of us.

Sep 19

Ancient Greek Wikipedia, not as accurate as today’s

I have a late-ish night in the studio, which means there was time for a bike ride this morning. So I set out on a casual 20-miler that featured my first dropped chain in quite some time.

It was no problem. Cruise to a safe stop, hop off, slip a finger inside the chain to move it off the drive train and then line it all back up on the gearing. It meant maybe 30 seconds to stop, a greasy finger or two and a nice little, funny embarrassment. How do you drop a chain going downhill, anyway?

Who cares? No one cares. I don’t either. It was a bike ride. You get quiet little moments like this:

And you get … not exactly the sunrise, but that moment after the inevitability of planetary rotation when the sun says “No, really, I mean it.” The part that’s more about the tree line than a primal miracle.

Some Hellenistic astronomer, Eratosthenes maybe, figured this stuff out 2,260 years ago. He calculated the planet’s circumference based on shadows. He figured out the earth’s axis and had some early Leap Day ideas. He created the first map of the known world. He was a mathematician, a geographer, a poet and music theorist. He was the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria and pretty much invented geography.

You wonder what he would have done if he had the Internet.

We have this simplistic image in our heads about people who didn’t know about the earth orbiting the sun and the rotation of the planet finding the sun chasing the moon across the sky, and the terror of each night: What if it doesn’t come back? And you can find out all about the Greeks and the scholars who followed them refining and revising the data. Today you just accept what your favorite weather app tells you will be the precise sun up and sun down moments. (Time is a construct.)

But spare a thought for those first regular people, after Erathosthenes and his math friends figured this stuff out. Imagine how they felt, what they must have thought, when they heard the “news.”

And that’s just the Greeks. There’s another 93 gods and goddesses related to the sun on Wikipedia alone.

We have this simplistic image in our heads about people who don’t know that Wikipedia is still incomplete and the terror of actual research: What if I have to go to a non-crowd sourced site? You wonder what Erathothenes would have done with Wikipedia. He died in his 80s. A common version of the story is that he’d gone blind, so he couldn’t read and see the world behind him and so he starved himself to death in his depression. But we don’t really know. Wikipedia is quite certain about it. So maybe its a good thing he didn’t have a dial up modem.

Jul 19

On the anniversary of the completion of Apollo 11, and other things

Today is the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Apollo 11 mission. And somewhere in the comments of this NASA stream of the capsule recovery someone writes “Is this happening now?” And that’s what you’re going up against in the world. Maybe Buzz Aldrin is right, about this too.

Anyway. I put this picture on Instagram over the weekend, while I was watching the CBS special marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

I took that photo Thanksgiving weekend in 2006 at the Space and Rocket Center. A whole bunch of family decided we’d all go look at all the sites in between turkey and barbecue and it was a great day. I’m not related to the people in that photograph, but I did listen in to the conversation enough to figure out what was going on.

There’s three generations of a family in that photograph. The younger man brought his son and father to see the museum to show his son what Grandpa did.

Grandpa worked on the Apollo missions, as an engineer. This was a trip down memory lane for him and he played the moment very cool. The grandson was too young to really appreciate this yet, but the father that middle generation man, was very proud of this moment.

The little boy, he probably just wants to go flip and toggle things in the museum’s displays. It might not have mattered to the old man, who, along with a lot of other people were taking part in A Great Thing.

It mattered, though, to his son, who carries this sense of pride about it.

Attitudes are curious. They can attach, morph and bind themselves to a single moment or ideal or action and carry us through a generation. That older gentleman had the war, and then space and the moon. His son has the memory of the moon, the echoes of the 1970s and the information age.

What’s that little boy going to have? Of course, he’s not so little anymore. That photo is almost 13 years old now. But this was the part of their conversation that I recorded at these displays.

“Ask Granddad about which one he worked on.”

“Which one did you work on?” the six-year-old asked.

“Apollo 17,” the grandfather replied, a little quiet and sheepish that others might hear.

What’s an Apollo 17 to a 21st century babe? Maybe dad, or grandpa, was teaching him how to throw a football. He surely was showing him his gramps was a big man. “Grandad helped send people to the moon … ”

Yes he did young man, yes he did. Your grandfather helped do that. Tell everyone you meet.

We watched an IMAX about the lunar landings and, afterward, my mother asked me if that was something that is impressive to my generation. She was in middle school when NASA first kicked moon dust around. She probably remembers what dress she had on the day those crackling little words made it back into the atmosphere.

The moon landings had come and gone before I was born, a historical inevitability. I have the sense of wonder of the achievement, but not the drama of the attempt. It has always been a magical thing to think Someone’s been there, but I’ve never had the notion that it couldn’t be done, only only the question of why we haven’t gone back. Budgets, interests, war, different rhetoric and other causes dragged us away, and but for robotic exploration the interim has been full of wasted moments in that respect. We had moonmen on MTV and conspiracy theorists.

To think it was only a few years before I was born that we reached up and grasped at something we’ve feared and marveled at for all of time … that carries a weight.

That we’re on Mars, that’s impressive. That we have tourists in space, that’s already become passe. That I shared a room for a brief moment with a man — and in a NASA facility the number might still be “several” — who helped put us there, that people a generation younger than I am will remember him, that’s special in a very important way.

Haha. I’d forgotten about this. That same day, at the Space and Rocket Center, someone suggested we ride something they now call the Moon Shot. Through the magic of science, you are flung 140-feet straight up in 2.5 seconds, achieving 4Gs on launch, and a few seconds of weightlessness in the descent. I started talking smack. My grandmother, who delighted in showing me up, agreed to a ride. Again, the conversation as I recorded it:

The Yankee: Arrrrrgh!

Mom: Arrrrrgh!

GrandBonnie: When does the ride start?


When we were doing this in 2006 NASA was still working on the hardware and software for the Mars Science Laboratory. Launched in 2011, of course, it landed on Mars in August of 2012. I have a dim recollection of watching live footage of the control room when it landed, and I wondered how that felt next to the moon.

Robots! On Mars! (And still operational, years after the initial goals!)

It is never happening now, as grandparents always know. The ride always started a long time ago.

Jun 19

The 75th anniversary of D-Day

A good friend of ours is a US Army officer, a paratrooper. Five years ago, he had the opportunity to jump into France as a part of the 70th anniversary ceremonies commemorating D-Day.

He jumped with this flag, which hangs in my office.

Here’s a video of his jump. He went out the door of a German plane on a beautiful day over Normandy.

That view makes it difficult to imagine jumping into the dark, knowing the enemy you’ve been training for is waiting below.

Ernie Pyle came ashore soon after and helped people back home understand what the men and boys in Europe were up against:

And then, of course, Ronald Reagan talked about some of those famous exploits at the 40th anniversary:

May 19

On water on the ground and in the river

Mid-late May is far, faaaaar too early for the first fallen Maple leaf of the year. It hasn’t even been warm yet!

It’s been damp a lot, though. You can tell because the creek is threatening the banks. Of course it could do that if there’s an abundance of humidity.

The maple leaf was in our driveway this morning. The little stream is on campus, winding through the beech and maple. They call it the River Jordan, named after a 19th century university president. He said, when he left IU for Stanford, that he didn’t want a building named after him, but he liked that waterway. It was a hugely prominent geographical feature, especially before the continued campus development. And so it was, but the River Jordan returned to the old name, Spanker’s Branch, when it left campus. (No, really, Spanker’s Branch. There’s a plaque and everything.)

Jordan got a building named after him later, anyway, and the whole waterway now bears his name, as well. That’s our loss. Spanker’s Branch is a great name, but I haven’t yet found the historical origins of the ancient name. My best guess, though, is that it was a name, rather than a verb. But! I have found a 1922 book of local stories that includes an anecdote by an octogenarian about her father playing at Spanker’s Branch as a child. If she was 80, that name would have good way back.

So the search will continue.