Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Screaming Agony of a Century’s Most Famous Painting

A very large painting arrived in London on September 30, 1938, the very day British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with the Axis Powers.  It had previously been exhibited at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition (World’s Fair) in the exhibit of the Spanish Republic.  It had created a sensation and was soon sent on a world tour to raise support for the Republican cause in the devastating Civil War wracking that country.  This is the story of that painting which became perhaps the artistic symbol of an entire bloody century.
On April 26, 1937 aircraft of the German Condor Legion and supporting Italian forces unleashed a two hour aerial bombardment of the Spanish Basque market town of Guernica.  The Nazi and Fascist “volunteers” were supporting the so-called Loyalist forces of General Fredrico Franco against the Republicans, a loose alliance of anarcho-syndicalist unionists, Social Democrats, Communists, democrats, and Basque Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. 
In addition to supporting a fellow Fascist, the Germans and Italians viewed the war as a laboratory to test new weapons and tactics.  Guernica, a civilian population center without direct military value, was targeted because it was a cultural center of the Basque region, which was firmly on the Republican side of the war.  The aim was to terrorize and demoralize the population that supported troops in the field. 
The bombing commenced about 4:30 PM on a Monday.  The first wave of planes hit bridges and roads leading in and out of the city.  General Wolfram von Richthofen, commander of the Condors, reported heavy smoke shrouded the city when flights of heavy Junker bombers came over obscuring targets so the planes simply dumped their bombs on the center of the city, destroying most of the homes and building there.  Subsequent waves dropped incendiaries creating an inferno, which he officially reported “resulted in complete annihilation,” of anyone below. 
He claimed, however that most residents were out of town because of a holiday or had time to flee.  Reports on the ground contradict that claim.  Many residents were in the center of town for a market day when the attack began and were unable to flee because the bridges were destroyed and the roads blocked with rubble. 
The attack was the first systematic aerial attack in force on a civilian population center.  Similar attacks behind the lines of opposing armies would become a standard tactic of the Nazi blitzkrieg of World War II. 
The fate of the town became an international cause célèbre.  Spanish born painter Pablo Picasso was working in Paris on a commission from the Republican government for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. He scrapped original plans and began sketching a mammoth mural commemorating the raid on Guernica.  The 11 foot by 25½ foot painting in stark black, white, gray and muted blue captured the horror of the raid in a Cubist style—a screaming woman leans from a window with an oil lamp, an injured horse whinnies  in pain, a mother clasps her dead infant. 
After the victory of Franco’s forces, the painting was sent to the United States at Picasso’s request.  It formed the centerpiece of a Picasso exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA.)  During and after the war it was shown across the U.S., in Latin America, Europe before returning to the MoMA for another Picasso retrospective, where it stayed until 1981. 
Picasso’s will had stipulated that the painting could not return to Spain until it was rid of the fascist dictatorship and restored to a Republic.  He also stipulated that once returned it must be exhibited in the national art gallery, the Museo del Prado in Madrid.  After Franco died in 1978, ten years after Picasso, the reluctant MoMA finally allowed the painting to be sent to the Prado in 1981. 
In 1992 it was moved to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía along with most of the rest of the Prado’s Twentieth Century collection.  It can be seen there yet today. 
Guernica, the town and the painting, remain potent symbols of modern war’s brutality.  The painting was often used by Vietnam protestors.  A tapestry reproduction hung for years at the United Nations in New York at the entrance of the Security Council Room. 
In February 2003, as the United States was about to launch its Shock and Awe air bombardment of Bagdad, the tapestry was covered by a curtain to prevent embarrassment to Secretary of State Colin Powell as he laid out the case for war against Iraq.  In 2009 the tapestry was permanently removed from display at the United Nations and sent to London’s Whitechapel Galley occupying the same space where the painting was displayed in 1939.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Army Beats Navy—“The First Around the World”

One of the U.S. Army Air Service Douglas World Cruiser's on the Around the World Flight.

On September 28, 1924 three U.S. Army Air Service crews flying Douglas World Cruisers landed in Seattle, Washington.  Two of the planes and crews completed the entire first round-the-world air flight.  It took them 175 days—95 days longer than the fictional Phineas Fogg took in Jules Verne’s 1875 novel and 92 days longer than the real reporter Nellie Bly had accomplished it by railroad and steamship in 1890.
In the early 1920’s the Army was in a not-so-friendly rivalry with the Navy for aviation laurels.  As stake were appropriations from Congress for their respective air arms just when Calvin Coolidge’s flinty eyed frugality and dreams of worldwide disarmament were making new money hard to come by.  The Navy had been dominating the headlines with several daring long distant flights and speed records.  Despite the success of its air service over France in 1917-18, Army brass worried that their air arm might whither to observational aircraft and the already obsolete—and banged-up—World War I era fighters.
Thinking big, the Army hit on a plan to send a squadron around the world by air.  It was a daunting project.  No aircraft had successfully flown non-stop across either great ocean and none in production could be expected to.  So the trip would have to be made aircraft that could be adapted to floats as well as wheels to allow for the frequent landings necessary to take on fuel.  The Army did not even have such an aircraft.  It made a special order of five planes adapted from the Navy’s DT-2 torpedo bombers.
The Douglas World Cruiser was single engine bi-plane with a crew of two.  Stripped of armaments, it had an enhanced fuel capacity for greater range and the separate cockpits for pilot and mechanic were moved closer to each other for better communication.  Floats and conventional wheels were easily interchangeable.
One of the planes was used in testing and training and would be used as an auxiliary for the mission.  The remaining four planes were named for American cities representing the four cardinal points of the compass—Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, and Seattle.
The expedition required significant logistical and organizational support.  An extra 30 Liberty V-12 engines and other critical parts and supplies were dispatched to points around the globe.  The British Royal Navy and even the rival U.S. Navy cooperated by stationing picket ships at intervals with fuel, oil, and supplies.  A total of 28 nations supplied fuel along the route, with touch downs scheduled in most of them.
The expedition took off flying west over the Pacific from Seattle on April 6, 1924.  Flight commander Maj. Frederick Martin and SSgt. Alva Harvey, a flight mechanic were in Boston. Chicago was crewed by pilot Lt. Lowell H. Smith and Lt. Leslie Arnold, auxiliary pilot; Boston, with pilot Lt. Leigh P. Wade and SSgt. Henry H. Ogden; and New Orleans, with pilot Lt. Erik Nelson (pilot) and Lt. Jack Harding, auxiliary pilot.
Despite the most modern navigational equipment, keeping bearings and keeping together in rough weather and fog was a problem.   On April 30, Seattle crashed in dense fog on a mountainside near Port Moller on the Alaska Peninsula. The two man crew survived, but had to hike out of the wilderness. The remaining crews continued, flying on to Japan, where the Imperial Navy took special note on the possible military significance of long reaching air power.  Then it was on to China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East (where the crews battled blinding sandstorms that damaged engines), Europe, England, Ireland and Nova Scotia.
Boston was forced down in bad weather on August 30 in the North Atlantic.  The crew was rescued but the aircraft was lost as the Navy light cruiser USS Richmond attempted to bring it on board. The test prototype was dispatched to Nova Scotia, where Lieutenant Wade and Sergeant Ogden renamed the aircraft Boston II and rejoined the flight.
On their way across the U.S., the crews made highly publicized stops in several cities before they were welcomed back to their home field on September 28.  They had covered 27,553 miles, with stops in 61 cities, with a total 371 hours, 11 minutes actually in the air.
The production of the aircraft marked the beginning of the Douglas Aircraft Company as a major defense contractor and aircraft manufacturer.  The company adopted a logo featuring three aircraft orbiting the globe and the motto, First Around the World.  The army would order armed versions of the World Cruisers for use as observation planes designated first the DOS and later O-5.
Chicago is now in the collection of National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. New Orleans is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.  The wreckage of Seattle was recovered and is now on display in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Day they Gave a Game and Almost No One Came

Most of the members of the 1880 Squad were back for another Pennant Run the next year.

On September 27, 1881 the Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Chicago Cubs) played a game before the smallest “crowd” in their long history—12.  It may also be the lowest attendance in Major League history, although there are other contenders.  Which was strange.  Under legendary player/coach Cap Anson the Chicago Nine had been the top professional team for some time and dominated the early seasons of the National League.  On that Tuesday afternoon in Troy, New York, the team was coasting to another pennant with an eight game lead.
Perhaps it was because the Troy Trojans—you didn’t expect any other nick name did you—were a lousy team.  They struggled in 5th place and finished the season 39-45, 17 games behind Chicago.  But the White Stockings were so laden with talent that they were a draw everywhere, even when the host teams were certified mopes. The Trojans would be disbanded after the next losing season.  More than half of their players jumped to a brand new franchise in New York City, the Gothams—later known as the Giants.
Perhaps the low attendance was due to the weather.  My attempts to ascertain conditions that day in Troy have been unsuccessful.  But it can get a mite nippy and/or rainy and raw in Upstate New York in late September.  My guess is that is what kept the crowd below the combined number of players on the field.
The Cubs would go on to have their own attendance problems, even in beautiful Wriggly Field when they seemed mired in particular futility in the early 1950’s.  But they have gone on to become one of the most successful teams in baseball in terms of selling tickets. 
At least in contention for several years running they continued to pack the house for home games until the wheels started coming off the squad in 2010. Promises that new ownership and rock star baseball execs imported from the Boston Red Sox turnaround have so called failed to turn the ship around.  The Boys in Blue are crawling to a 100 loss season, which would make them proportionally a much more miserable failure than the hapless
Trojans of old.   
Naturally, attendance is down.  But not by a whole lot.  Despite hand wringing dipping attendance usually meant that a few scattered seats here and there and in the upper deck corners were unfilled.  Compared to the nearly empty stadiums you see on television for some teams, they are still the envy of baseball.  With an enormous national fan base, they draw just as well on the road.  Mean while on the South Side, the team that has been in first place most of the season but seems to be trying to blow it at the end still often plays to half empty stands and is still giving away or discounting tickets.
But back to 1881 the White Stockings won that game in Troy 10-8.  Bet the 2012 squad wishes they could play them.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Goyish Unitarian Take on Yom Kippur

When I posted a version of the following poem last year on Yom Kippur it was one of the least read entries of the season.  Which is understandable.  My poetry posts are as attractive as fish guts rotting in the sun.  And this one didn’t even have the virtue of being short enough to fit on a business card.  To top it all off my Jewish friends and readers, who might theoretically have the greatest interest were busy, well, atoning, on the High Holy Day.  The least likely day out of the entire year to find them reading blogs or skimming Facebook for links.

This entry was inspired not only by my genuine admiration for the tradition, but by an ongoing controversy in my own Unitarian Universalist faith.  For many years UUs have gone blithely on incorporating snatches of prayers, ritual, and tradition from other religions into our own worship.  We do it mostly in good faith claiming “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources…”

But lately we have taken grief from Native Americans for adopting willy-nilly rituals and prayers which we don’t fully understand and take out of context, many of which, frankly, turned out to be New Age touchy-feely faux traditions.  Or from the fact that maybe one of the last places where Kwanza is widely celebrated is in almost all-white UU Sunday Schools.

Being UU’s, many of us were stung that our well meaning gestures were not gratefully accepted as a sort of homage.  But others busily set themselves up to the task of scouring the scourge of cultural appropriation from our midst, preferably with a judicious dollop of self-flagellation with knotted whips—oops! Stole that one from 4th Century monks…No, what they did was form committees and commissions to issue long, high minded reports to be translated into deep retreats,  seminary training amended for proper sensitivity, and scolding’s by monitors who detect insufficient rigor in rooting out the offense at Assemblies and meetings.

In that spirit I offer you my poem.  Angry denunciations and heresy trial to follow…

Cultural Appropriation

See, the Jews have this thing.

Yahweh, or whatever they call their Sky God,
            keeps a list like Santa Claus.

You know, who’s been naughty and nice.

But before He puts it in your Permanent Record
            and doles out the lumps of coal
            He gives you one more chance
            to set things straight.

So to get ready for this one day each—
            they call it Yom Kippur
            but it’s hard to pin down because
            it wanders around the fall calendar
            like an orphan pup looking for its ma—
the Jews run around saying they are sorry 
            to everyone they screwed over last year
            and even to those whose toes
they stepped on by accident.

The trick is, they gotta really mean it.
None of this “I’m sorry if my words offended” crap,
            that won’t cut no ice with the Great Jehovah.
            And they gotta, you know, make amends,
            do something, anything, to make things right
            even if it’s kind of a pain in the ass.

Then the Jews all go to Temple—
             even the ones who never set foot in it
             the whole rest of the year
             and those who think that,
             when you get right down to it,
             that this Yahweh business is pretty iffy—
             and they tell Him all about it.

First a guy with a big voice sings something.
And then they pray—man do they ever pray,
              for hours in a language that sounds
              like gargling nails
              that most of ‘em don’t even savvy.

A guy blows an old ram’s horn,         
 maybe to celebrate, I don’t know

When it’s all over, they get up and go home
             feeling kind of fresh and new. 

If they did it right that old list
was run through the celestial shredder.

Then next week, they can go out
            and start screwing up again.

It sounds like a sweet deal to me.

Look, I’m not much of one for hours in the Temple—
            an hour on Sunday morning
when the choir sings sweet
is more than enough for me, thank you.

And I have my serious doubts about this
            Old Man in the Sky crap.

But this idea of being sorry and meaning it
of fixing things up that I broke
            and starting fresh
            has legs.

I think I’ll swipe it.

I’ll start right now.

To my wife Kathy—
            I’m sorry for being such
            a crabby dickhead most of the time…

Anybody got a horn?

—Patrick Murfin