Thursday, December 29, 2016

Our English language obscurities

Along with several previous essays on this blog, Harry saved the ones on this page in a computer file he titled “BOOK 1”. He likely collected the pieces from his speeches or articles over the years, or simply jotted stories that might fit into a book he thought about writing in the 1980s or ’90s. I continue to learn from his essays; how about you?


Some of the more obscure things in the English language involve the use of collective nouns, that is, the names used to describe a group of people or animals or things. For example, a herd, a flock, a group are all collective nouns. There are so many collective nouns that it’s sometimes confusing, not to say, on occasion, positively hilarious. A number of lions living together is called a pride of lions, for example, and we speak of a school of fish, a pod of whales, a gaggle of geese, a herd of cattle and a flock of sheep. (Why, then, is the man in charge of a flock of sheep called a shepherd?) All of which is leading up to some novel and humorous observations. 

A group of professors, walking in downtown Washington – or any big city, for that matter – saw a number of “ladies of the evening” soliciting passersby. As professors are prone to do, they began discussing the proper collective nouns to apply to the ladies. The musician among them suggested “a fanfare of strumpets.” The gourmet thought “a jam of tarts” would be more appropriate. The literary one urged “an anthology of pros,” or, as an alternative, “an essay of Trollope’s.” The lawyer among them pleaded for “a firm of solicitors.” When I told this story to some businessmen, a miner among them suggested “an outcropping of ores.” I’m sure that anyone with imagination can come up with some more suggestions.

Stories and anecdotes

To illustrate that people don’t always mean what they say, let me tell you a little story that came out of the late Joe Creason’s column in the Louisville Courier Journal. It seems that an elderly farmer in a mule-drawn wagon was involved in an accident with an automobile. He claimed that he was badly hurt and was suing the driver of the car.

“Isn’t it true,” the defendant’s lawyer asked, “that after the accident you said you never felt better in your life?”

“Well,” said the farmer, “that morning I got up, hitched up my wagon, put my dog in the wagon ...”

“Just answer the question, yes or no,” the lawyer interrupted.

“I’m coming to that,” the farmer snapped. “That morning I got up, hitched up my mule to the wagon, put my hound dog in the back of the wagon, and I just got over a rise in the road when this big car barreled into my rear end. My mule was knocked to one side of the road, my hound dog to the other, and I was pinned under the seat. Then along came the sheriff. He saw my mule had a broken leg, pulled out his gun and shot it dead. He went over to my dog, saw it was badly hurt with a broken back, and shot it in the head. Then,” the farmer continued, “he comes over to me and asks, ‘Well, and how are you feeling?’ and sure enough, I said ‘I ain’t never felt better in my life.’”


After the death of Pericles, in ancient Greece, there arose a host of “quack” professors in Athens who taught their students how to achieve success. The secret lies in how to win arguments, they taught, in politics, in business, and in the courts of law, by twisting logic around to its ultimate absurdity, with no regard for morality or integrity. Plato called these teachers “sophists”. One of the most notorious sophists was a man named Protagoras. He agreed to teach a law student who had no money, with the understanding that the student would not have to pay him until after he won his first case.

He taught his student only too well. When his studies were finished, the student came to Protagoras and said: “Suppose you sue me for non-payment. If I win, I don’t have to pay you according to the judgment of the court; if I lose, I don’t have to pay you according to our agreement.” Ever since that time, the world has called such arguments “sophistry”. It is a term of derision in all civilized societies.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A lesson in listening to the news

Harry wrote the essay on this page in 1988 and later filed it in a folder titled “BOOK 1” with others recently posted on this blog. He may have written it solely for a book he thought about writing, or for another reason, such as a magazine article or a speech to a local organization. His friends and family who read this blog are glad he did a great deal of writing through his old age, and then mastered the computer enough to save at least some of his files for posterity.


There’s an old doggerel about a boy’s relationship with a girl. I don’t know who wrote it, most likely someone named “Anonymous”, but it goes like this:  I took her to the movies, I took her to a show, I took her almost every place, A boy and girl could go. I took her out to dinner, I took her out for tea, When suddenly I realized, That she’d been taking me!

I used to wonder why the network news programs refused to take editorial positions on issues of national interest. Some local stations editorialize, usually on local issues rather than national issues. Some even provide time for listener responses to their editorials. But not the networks. At least, not formally. And then, suddenly, I realized that they’d been taking me, that they actually were editorializing.

You don’t have to label an editorial as such. There are much more subtle ways to editorialize. There are much more stealthy ways to express opinions. And the networks do that all the time, either consciously and deliberately, or subconsciously and unknowingly. They do it in their news reports and they do it in the so-called commentaries by their elder statesmen pundits. And, they do it under the guise of “objective” reporting or observations.

In that way, their support for, or their opposition to a particular policy or program slips through. Either their cheer-leading or their cursory treatment on specific issues colors the public perception and influences the public opinion. The birds do it; the bees do it; the anchormen, producers and reporters do it. How do they do it? In countless ways. They do it with a raised eyebrow, with a thin-lipped smile, with a repressed sneer, with a skeptical tone of voice, with an enthusiastic demeanor, with heightened excitement, with evident boredom, and, above all, with the selective use of prejudicial words.

Prejudicial words are especially effective in influencing the listener’s perception of events. Consider, for example, the following scenario:  An alleged criminal is on trial. The reporter notes that “today the prosecutor introduced damaging, new evidence.” The word “damaging” is itself enough to color the perception of the listener. He is immediately prejudiced against the defendant. Suppose the reporter had noted that “today the prosecutor introduced evidence that he hoped would damage the defendant’s case.” Immediately, the listener gains a different perception, that there is an element of doubt here.

The selection of words is crucial to the listener’s understanding of the reporter’s bias. The next time you listen to a network news program, pay close attention to the words the anchorman or the reporter uses, as well as to his tone of voice and his facial expressions. Then, decide for yourself if he’s trying to influence your perception of the events on which he is commenting. Decide for yourself if he’s being objective or prejudicial. Just keep an open mind about the issue at hand. Remember, the opinions you hold should be your own opinions, not someone else’s opinions foisted upon you by false pretenses or prejudicial comments.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Freedom of the press – and your private thoughts

Recent hype about fake newsand blocking the press make this essay as relevant as ever. Harry wrote it in 1991 and eventually filed it on his computer in a folder he titled “BOOK 1”. I believe he collected essays for a potential book on the media. 

Freedom of the Press

The United States is the only country in the world that grants its people freedom of the press. This freedom is specifically spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution, under which nobody – not the Congress nor the states and especially not the courts – can take that freedom away. All of them have tried from time to time with varying degrees of success, but this unique and most precious freedom of ours remains largely intact, despite the fact that it is constantly under attack. These attacks, however, do not represent the greatest threat to freedom of the press.

The greatest danger, in my view, comes from the press itself. It is the performance of the press that poses the danger. The problem is that the press is comprised of a huge variety of publications, a publishing output that is so huge, in fact, that it cannot be encompassed in one glance. The newspapers, the magazines, the newsletters, the pamphlets, the books, the studies, the circulars, etc., etc.; all the many thousands of publications that confront the reading public, are the press. And some of those publications are undoubtedly scurrilous, scandalous, abusive, vulgar, obscene, gross, insulting, malignant, libelous, and any other descriptive adjective you can think of.

In the eyes of the courts, any individual element of the press is equal to any other element. That is to say that the National Inquirer, say, and The New York Times, say, are both newspapers, subject to the same rules of conduct as can be applied to all elements of the press alike. It may be blasphemous to mention those two publications in the same breath, but they are both newspapers and every time the former gets sued, the latter also suffers. In fact, every time any newspaper loses a court case, all the other newspapers lose a piece of their freedom.

The real strength of the press lays not so much in the guarantee of freedom provided in the Constitution as it does in the credibility it enjoys in the eyes of its readers. Thus, if one newspaper prints lies and distortions which bring about lawsuits and court proceedings, the notion that all newspapers are guilty of the same kind of conduct pervades the public consciousness. There is no way to separate the performance of one newspaper from that of another in the courts or in the public mind. It doesn’t even matter if a newspaper wins or loses in court. The mere allegations of malice and lies that are aired in court impinge on the public perception of newspaper conduct. And the more that the public comes to believe that the performance of the press is not worth protecting, the less freedom the press will enjoy.

In the end, therefore, the performance of the press itself will determine the degree of freedom it has to report and comment on the news. I don’t know if there is any solution to this problem of separating the various elements of the press, but it worries me.

My dad’s musings from 1994 seem to give us permission to share his writings, however personal. What do you think? He saved this with other essays on the media.

I have mixed emotions about a journal – for myself, that is. I have, on a few occasions, kept a journal with respect to a specific event or act in which I was involved on a daily basis, or a periodic basis. I tried to record all my actions and reactions to that subject over the time that it lasted. This worked only moderately well. So long as I continued to record events as they transpired, I was okay. But then, I started to record my feelings about these events, my emotions and reactions to them, my thinking and my decision-making processes, and inevitably, I got bogged down. I found myself trying to write a book every night, and it started to overwhelm me. 

If I confined myself to what I did, what others did, and what I did in response to what they did, it worked and, in fact, became a useful resource for me. But, like I said, when I tried to record too much, it did not work.

Everybody has to work things out for himself (or herself), and a journal may very well work for you no matter how much you try to pour into it. So, consider this: Someday you’re going to be famous, and the biographers and historians will study everything you ever wrote in order to define and redefine your character. In that light, think of your journal as a public document that will disclose your most private thoughts and feelings. And act, or write, accordingly.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Harry’s scoop on newspapers, commentators

Here’s “Chapter 2” from a folder of drafts Harry filed on his computer in the 1980s and ’90s. At the time, he’d thought about writing a book on the media. We can only imagine things he would have had to say about the media today.

Chapter 2

Here’s a question I’m often asked, sometimes at cocktail parties, sometimes in serious conversations or discussions. “Harry, after reading so widely for so many years, how do you feel about the media? Are they doing a good job?”

I wish the answers could be as simple as the questions, but they’re not. My feelings about the media are somewhat ambivalent – part admiration and respect, part revulsion and contempt. I’m reminded of what Winston Churchill once said about democracy. “Democracy,” he said, “is the worst form of government imaginable – except for all the others.” Or words to that effect. He had a way of spouting nuggets like that.

Meteorologists like to say that there is no such thing as bad weather – only different kinds of weather. In a way, the same thing can be said about newspapers. None of them are all good; none of them are all bad. They are all a mixture of good and bad which, in effect, makes each one different. The National Inquirer, for example, is as different from The New York Times as the sun is from the moon. Yet, they are both newspapers, just as the sun and the moon are both heavenly bodies in our solar system. One can be described as an abomination in the media world, the other as a great purveyor of information and influence. (I leave it to you to decide which is which.) But both have their moments of greatness, and both have their moments of failure. The point is that they are very different breeds of the same cat, and the people who read them do so for different reasons. The one, perhaps, to keep up with their prejudices; the other, perhaps, to be entertained or informed. (Again, I leave it to you to decide which is which.)          

The commentator represents the top of the heap in a system that puts the ordinary reporter at the bottom. This is the “Peter Principle” at work. When a reporter displays the qualities of persistence, astuteness, acumen, etc., that make him first-rate at what he does, he is rewarded by being taken out of that field and placed in the category of pundit, or commentator. This move immediately escalates his pay schedule to astronomical proportions, and this applies both to newspapers and broadcast journalism.

But what do such pundits do to earn their high salaries? They become, in effect, parasites, feeding off the work of other journalists. They either rewrite the news that others have gathered, adding their own comments (read biases) or they have teams of writers do it for them. On a newspaper, it would be tantamount to having the rewrite man elevated to a position equal to that of the editor, with commensurate salary and prestige, and putting his own byline on all the stories.

I strongly believe that this is what has happened to many of the syndicated columnists. They have, in accordance with the Peter Principle, been elevated to the level of incompetence. Strictly as an aside, I might add, I suspect that the same sort of thing has happened in our educational system. Those who have demonstrated the highest ability as educators have been elevated to administration, the level of incompetence for them, and our educational system has suffered accordingly.

In any case, reporters must be frustrated by the so-called star system, especially in television. More often than not, a reporter – a foreign correspondent – will gather the facts of an important story from some very high-level sources overseas; but does he get to tell his story to the viewers? Usually not. Dan Rather, or Tom Brokaw, or the current reigning star (read anchorman) will tell it, on whatever network or channel you’re watching.

TV News

Television is an enormously influential medium in our country and, probably, around the world. Or so they say. Indeed, it has become somewhat of a cliché to say that the majority of the people get their news from television and, thus, television shapes the public’s perceptions of the world around them. Well, it does and it doesn’t. The problem is that there is no accurate way to measure precisely how influential it really is. In my view, its influence is a myth perpetuated by the broadcasters and the agencies that sell advertising.

To be sure, millions of people watch the news, and millions more watch major events – football games, the World Series, the Olympics, Presidential news conferences, national tragedies, etc. – and there is no better medium for conveying a sense of what is happening now, right now, live and in living color. But the day-to-day news, the nightly news programs, are watched by fewer people than watch the major event shows or the major entertainment shows. And while they get some feel for what’s going on in the world or in their local communities, anyway, the question is, do they get a real understanding of what is transpiring?

(Stay tuned for more of Harry’s media-related drafts on this blog.)

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Harry’s unweathered essays on the media

In 1987, Harry drafted the following essay about the media, one of many he eventually filed in a computer folder titled BOOK 1. Yes, he had considered the idea of writing a book on media after he retired from government. The essays could serve as a history lesson for youngsters and others who could use the background. For sure, they show us more of the knowledge that occupied Harry’s mind.

Chapter 1  Introduction

I have a great deal to say about the media, but before I start, let me define the term. The media is something like the weather – everyone talks about it but nobody ever does anything about it. And when people talk about the media, they all mean different things; that is, they are talking about different elements of the media. Media itself is an all-embracing term. It includes newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, television broadcasts, newsletters, house organs, press releases, etc.

To complicate the problem, within each element of the media there are different manifestations. In the newspaper field, for example, there are seven-day a week newspapers, five-day a week newspapers, three-day a week newspapers, weekly newspapers, biweekly newspapers, and even a few monthly newspapers. There are newspapers for sale and newspapers given away free. Even Sunday newspapers can be cast in a separate category, since they are quite different from their daily counterparts and some are even managed by separate staffs.

Within both radio and television broadcasting, there are the major networks, the independents (so-called), cable, and local stations. All are part of the same general species, but all differ from each other in many important ways. The same is true of magazines – general magazines, popular magazines, trade magazines, special interest magazines, and so on. There is, in fact, such a wild proliferation of published and broadcast material available to the public that it is very nearly impossible to catalogue and assess it all under the heading of “media”.  

Books, for example, are a very important element of the media, since they exercise considerable influence over the way their readers view the world around them. Movies, too. If anyone thinks, for example, that people in other countries derive their impressions of life in the United States from newspapers alone, he is badly mistaken. Books, movies and television entertainment programs have far more influence on foreign perceptions of American society than do newspapers or news broadcasts. I can’t prove that, but I strongly believe it.

In any case, the entire spectrum of material embraced by the “media” is too huge to be manageable in any one volume like this. On a practical level, therefore, when I talk about the media, I am talking only about a few of its more important (in my view) elements; that is, a few newspapers, a few magazines, a few broadcasts – a small fraction of the whole, and yet enough, I hope, to convey the reasons why I feel as I do about media performance and its effect on our national perceptions.  

Now a few words about where I’m coming from. For some 36 years I was intimately associated with a Pentagon publication called the Current News, a series of daily compilations of newspaper and magazine stories dealing with national security affairs. This sort of experience does not qualify me as a journalist, per se, but rather as a serious reader, or student, of journalistic efforts. I would submit that anyone of moderate intelligence who studies the products of journalism in any field of interest attentively for more than three decades will inevitably learn something – not only about the field of interest, but also about the practice of journalism itself. If he has a modicum of self-respect, he will also think about what he has learned. And if he has an ego, as I do, he will try to impart what he has learned to others, as I am in this book.  

(In the following weeks, Ill post more essays from Harry’s “BOOK 1” files.)

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Remembering Judy Garland greats

Harry, age 89, in February 2011

John Denver (an artist from my era) is quoted as saying this about music: “Music does bring people together. It allows us to experience the same emotions. People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: We are the same.” 

I believe Harry would have agreed. Here’s another music-themed article he wrote, on Aug. 14, 2011, probably for his community newsletter in Leisure World of Silver Spring, MD.    

Some musical shows have so captivated the public that they never disappear from view. Among these perennial favorites are such musicals as Showboat, Porgy and Bess, The Music Man, 42nd Street, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel, Yankee-Doodle, Gigi, and this one – Meet Me in St. Louis. Just as there is never a day in this country when there is not a gigantic sale of mattresses, so is there never a week or a month when one of these musicals is not being performed somewhere. High school and college drama and music classes, professional and semi-professional singers and actors, and many wannabe producers, directors, set designers, etc., are caught up in the magic of theater art and devote their talents to these shows. We attend such musical shows every chance we get, which brings us to one of our favorites, “Meet Me in St. Louis”.
I would surmise that most of us, if not every single one of us, have seen the 1944 movie that featured Judy Garland in the starring role. But it might surprise you to hear that Judy was very unhappy when she was chosen for it, afraid that it would be a step backward in her career. She was already 22 years old and had played an adult role before in “For Me and My Gal” in 1942. Now they wanted her to go back to playing a high-school girl with a crush on the boy next door.

She’d had enough of that with her co-star Mickey Rooney in a dozen such pictures and she did not want to be stereotyped as the perpetual teenager. She even went to Vincent Minnelli, who had been signed to direct the film, to try to persuade him that she was wrong for the role and to choose somebody else. He strongly disagreed, and the two got off to a bad start. Subsequently, throughout the filming, they simply did not get along together, arguing and fighting about many aspects of the film. He kept repeating takes and re-shooting scenes over and over again till she wound up screaming at him. (As everybody knows now, they eventually married. Go figure.)

Judy needn’t have worried. She was a smash hit and that role confirmed her as one of the greatest singing stars in Hollywood history. In retrospect, it’s hard to visualize anybody else in Judy’s role, singing the songs that she made famous. Who else could express her love for “The Boy Next Door” as plaintively as she? And who else could belt out “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie” or “The Trolley Song” as lustily as she?

Also in the score was one of the most popular and endearing Christmas songs ever written – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that Judy sang to Margaret O’Brien in a touching scene. Judy did not want to sing the original lyric: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, It may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past.” She thought it made her seem too mean-spirited. So Hugh Martin, who wrote all the music and lyrics together with his partner, Ralph Blane, gave Judy a new lyric – “… Let your heart be light, Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” Anyway, when you come away from this musical, you come away humming and singing the catchy melodies and the easy lyrics.

(Footnote: Hugh Martin, composer, lyricist, playwright, died March 11, 2011, at the age of 96.)

Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie (Lyric)

When Louie came home to the flat, he hung up his coat and his hat. He gazed all around, but no wifey he found, So he said, “Where can Flossie be at?” A note on the table he spied, He read it just once then he cried. It ran “Louie, dear, It’s too slow for me here, So I think I will go for a ride.”

Meet me in St. Louie, Louie, Meet me at the Fair, Don’t tell me the lights are shining, Any place but there. We will dance the Hoochee Koochee, I will be your Tootsie Wootsie, If you will meet me in St. Louie, Louie, Meet me at the Fair.

The Trolley Song (Lyric)

With my high starched collar and my high topped shoes, and my hair piled high upon my head, I went to lose a jolly hour on the trolley and lost my heart instead. With his light brown derby and his bright green tie, He was quite the handsomest of men, I started to yen, so I counted to ten, then I counted to ten again. 

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley, Ding, ding, ding went the bell, Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings, From the moment I saw him I fell. Chug, chug, chug went the motor, Bump, bump, bump went the brake, Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings, When he smiled I could feel the car shake.

He tipped his hat and took a seat, He said he hoped he hadn’t stepped upon my feet. He asked my name, I held my breath, I couldn’t speak because he scared me half to death. Chug, chug, chug went the motor, Plop, plop, plop went the wheels, Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings, As he started to go then I started to know how it feels, when the universe reels.

The day was bright, the air was sweet, The smell of honeysuckle charmed you off your feet.You tried to sing, but couldn’t squeak, In fact, you loved him so you couldn’t even speak.

Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer, Plop, plop, plop went the wheels, Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings, As he started to leave I took hold of his sleeve with my hand, And as if it were planned, he stayed on with me and, It was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine, To the end of the line.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Letters offer words of wisdom on publishing

Harry’s work protégés and editor friends will appreciate these two letters he wrote in the 1990s. Although his references to publishing costs may not apply today, his reasoning does. We learn more about his experiences in the newsletter industry and with the book he co-authored in 94. And, once again, we see his spirit of encouragement to fellow writers and in general.

2 April 1993 – Lipid Research Clinic, Washington, DC  

Dear Diane:

I’m truly sorry that you had to stop publishing your newsletter. Over the years I’ve seen a great many newsletters begin with high hopes and end with despair and disappointment. Many of them had so little going for them that they deserved to die. But not yours. I thought yours showed great promise right from the start and, more important, you kept improving it to the point where you were producing a highly professional product with a potentially huge audience.

From the vantage point of an outside observer, I can make a few guesses about what happened because I’ve seen this happen time and time again. The problem is that you can’t get enough money invested in the effort to give it a fair chance to succeed. The money problem is compounded by the fact that the production of a newsletter is nobody’s primary job, but rather a part-time, spare-time activity for people who are already fully occupied with their primary jobs.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that every bureaucratic organization (like yours) has people at the top who don’t recognize the importance of a newsletter and deep-down don’t really want to see such an effort succeed. Indeed, they, together with the accountants (bean counters) are usually too shortsighted to visualize the potential future profits to be derived from a comparatively modest investment in the present.

The elder Kiplinger, of newsletter fame, once told me that when he started his first newsletter he lost money for the first three years. He kept borrowing money to keep it going – not from financial institutions, who all thought he was crazy to throw good money after bad, but from personal friends and relatives who had faith in him. In the fourth and fifth years he broke even. After that, he took off like a rocket.

Today, the Kiplinger line of publications takes in around a half billion – repeat a HALF BILLION – dollars a year. I don’t know how many, certainly more than a dozen, medical institutions around the country now publish newsletters. I have personally spoken to the people who work on three of them, and all three tell me the same thing – that it takes three to five years to reach the break-even point, but that it’s worth waiting for, because now they’re all making money, which allows their organizations to expand their medical efforts and do some things they could otherwise not afford to do. In every case, they had to fight off the accountants who are seemingly incapable of looking beyond the first two years to see profits five years down the road.

They also all agree that it’s not just the investment in the publication itself that’s important. It’s the investment in publicity and in marketing that gets the results, because the best newsletter in the world won’t make money unless a major effort goes into marketing it and selling subscriptions. I would bet a bundle that if the powers that be at GW Medical Center got behind your newsletter with a reasonable investment in publicity and marketing, they would wind up with a profitable enterprise just a few years down the road. I say this because I firmly believe that in terms of product, in terms of the usefulness and timeliness of the information contained in your newsletter, and in view of the importance of cholesterol knowledge penetrating the public consciousness, you have a winning combination.

I hope you won’t let this experience discourage you from trying again someday. And, by the way, I don’t want any money back on my subscription. Use it for something worthwhile.

With all best wishes,
Harry Zubkoff

2 December 1996 – To a long-time colleague and friend

I’m finally getting around to writing, now that the great Jubilee is a distant memory. So let’s talk about the publishing business. I believe there’s a lot of money to be made in this business, and it almost doesn’t matter what you publish, so long as you do it wisely. If you look at the book shelves in every bookstore, you’ll see all kinds of garbage. For every decent book, there are several dozen that are not worth the paper they’re printed on, but people buy them because they have attractive covers.

So, the first thing you need is the ability to design a cover. The next thing is the ability to write an appealing blurb on the back cover to attract the reader; it need have little bearing on the contents of the book. It’s just a hook. And then, of course, you need maybe 60,000 to 80,000 words to fill up the middle. Put a small ad in a writer’s magazine and you’ll get plenty of manuscripts in the mail. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever you want. How-to books, religious books, humorous books, gruesome books, occult books, who-dun-its, sci-fi – anything you want. What’s more, you can print these things in paperbacks very cheaply, and you can sell them for $2.95 or $3.95, half the price of the big paperback publishers, and still make money.

Even 30 years ago, when you were fresh out of school (Good Lord, was it really that long ago?) you had a talent for editing, and by now you should be very good at it. All you really need to make money is the capital to invest; and you can start small and build it up faster than you think. Then there’s the way my publisher did it. He hired three hacks (that’s three old pros like me) to write a coffee-table book, with plenty of pictures to accompany the text, he paid us a flat fee (no royalties) to provide him with camera-ready copy on computer discs, and he hired a distribution firm to sell the books in advance, based on a description of the planned contents and the reputations of the three authors. (I think the distributor did not do a good job, but that’s another story.) I really don’t know how much he made on the deal, but I’m positive that he made a tidy profit. 

Anyway, you could do the same thing, only better with a crackerjack salesman. There are dozens of guys like me around who would participate in this kind of a project for a modest fee. And there are plenty of topics that are ideal for this kind of book – for example, the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, coming up in September 1997; the 100th anniversary of powered flight, in December 2003; the 30th anniversary of the first landing on the moon coming up in 1999; and many others, as well. There are plenty of non-military related subjects, too. Put your mind to it and you can think of dozens; brainstorm it and you’re sure to come up with a few winners.

This copy of my book is the last extra copy I have, so consider it on loan to you. Keep it as long as you like, but I’d appreciate getting it back some day. After you look at it, and whenever you’re ready, I’d be happy to get together with you if you want to talk or kick some ideas around.                              

With all best wishes,

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

You can find Harry’s book on Amazon:

Flights: American Aerospace ... Beginning to Future

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Harry’s letters, musings give me hope today

Continuing a wave of letters I’ve discovered in Harry’s computer files, here are two brief ones he wrote in the 1990s. I originally rejected them for this blog; you see, they are just ordinary, friendly letters – one to a former office colleague, the other to a writer at The Washington Post. I changed my mind about sharing them because, on second glance, they inspired me with thoughts that we are all ambassadors of hope simply by showing kindness and understanding to others. Plus, I took a moment to look up the article he was talking about in the second letter.

October 1993 – Country Care Center, Illinois

Dear Dottie:

Alice Price gave me your address and told me you will soon hit a major milestone – your 80th birthday. So here’s a happy birthday wish a couple weeks in advance. When you blow out the candle(s) on your cake, may your fondest wish come true. Jeanette and I passed a milestone in August – our fiftieth anniversary. In this day and age, when the statisticians tell us that fully half of all marriages now end in divorce, that is looked upon as an aberration. It just isn’t fashionable any more, they say, to stay married to the same person for fifty years. How little they know! Actually, it still seems incredible to me that we were married fifty years ago, in August 1943, in the middle of the war. How fast these years have flown!

I suppose the young people in every generation think they are living through troubled times, but it seems to me that no generation faced more uncertainty about the future than ours did. And yet, despite the war, I think the whole country was optimistic about the future. We knew that somehow our country would survive and become stronger and better – and it did. So we – all of us – have much to be thankful for. Of course, like everyone our age, we have some health problems, but we still continue to enjoy life with all its heartaches and challenges. And we still have faith that this great country will somehow muddle through and continue to get better and, having been around since Woodrow Wilson was President, I don’t think it matters one little bit who the President may be at any given time.

Anyway, Dottie, we saw some tough times and some good times during our years together in the Pentagon, and looking back on them, it seems that I remember more clearly only the good times, and you were a part of all of them.

Happy Birthday and all best wishes,

17 March 1994 – Ms. Amy E. Schwartz, The Washington Post

Dear Ms. Schwartz:

I just want to tell you how much I enjoy reading your columns in the Post, no matter what subject you choose to write about. (Or, as Winston Churchill would have it, no matter what subject about which you choose to write.) This letter is long overdue, since I have enjoyed your columns for a long time. It was yesterday’s column, however, (3/16/94) on “Laughter in the Movie House”, that finally triggered me to act. I find your columns usually loaded with background information on the subject at hand, invariably thoughtful, exquisitely worded, and always provocative.

Strangely, it sometimes seems to me that I detect the same facility for language, the same gift for phrasing and a similar trend of opinion and commentary in two of your colleagues, Meg Greenfield and Lally Weymouth. Either you are all sisters under the skin or there is a particularly skillful editor at work here. Whatever the case, all three of you seem to echo my own thoughts frequently and much more elegantly than I could express them myself. So thank you, thanks to all of you, for being there and for making the Post always worth reading.  

Here’s the URL to the Post article:

September in History – Things we should know and remember

Also on my blog chopping block was this musing, last edited by Harry on July 29, 2009. It’s one of many notes he saved on quite a variety of topics. 

On September 30, 1946, the International Tribunal at Nuremberg handed down its verdicts in the war crimes trials. (I was there.) The Nazi Leadership Corps, the SS (Schutzsaffel), the Security Police and the Gestapo were declared criminal organizations and their leaders were placed on an automatic arrest list. The Tribunal adopted the historic principle that one who has committed criminal acts may not take refuge in superior orders nor in the doctrine that the crimes were acts of the state.

This quote by Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, one of the greatest movies of our times, is worth repeating and remembering.

“This trial has shown that ordinary men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination. There are those in our country, America, today who speak of the protection of the country. Of survival. The answer to that is:  Survival of what? A country is what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the world, let it now be noted here that this is what we stand for: Justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Harry weighs in on scandals, in letter to old friend

We continue to learn more about Harry’s professional life and relationships through the following letter he wrote in 1997 to a long-time co-worker and journalist. He comments on scandals in the military and a scandal of sorts related to his government publication. And he gives a few updates on his personal life.

10 February 1997
Dear Ben:

By now you must realize that I am the world’s worst correspondent. For some reason I just can’t bring myself to sit down and write letters. I mean to write. I want to write. I keep composing letters in my mind to various friends scattered around the world. I just can’t seem to actually write them. In your case, I’ve been writing mental communiques to you for the past year or so, but today it came to me quite forcibly that time is slipping away and I better stop procrastinating and start writing. So – here goes with a number of things I’ve wanted to tell you.

1.  Of course, I read your article on the sexual harassment problem in the Army when it appeared in the Outlook section of The Washington Post just before Christmas. I wanted to tell you then, and I’m telling you now, that you hit the nail on the head. Since then, I’ve heard that the scuttlebutt around the Pentagon is that they’ve uncovered the tip of the iceberg, and that a lot more is going to be breaking in the next few months – not only in the Army, but in all the services, especially the Navy again. 

My own opinion is that as long as men and women are thrown together in stressful situations, there will be problems; and as long as they are thrown together in non-stressful situations, there will also be problems. There simply is no getting away from it – men and women will get together somehow, no matter what the circumstances are, and more often willingly than not. I don’t see how it can be avoided without complete separation of the sexes in the military, and of course, that’s no longer possible. So, from now on and forevermore, incidents are going to occur and recur, from time to time, just like cheating scandals at the military academies. These things are, in a manner of speaking, inevitable. 

So, the question is, how do you handle them when they arise? Like you said, the last thing we need is another committee to start an investigation. What they need is a top ranking General, three or four stars, to go out and look at the situation and then take some decisive action. Unfortunately, nobody asked me what to do.

2.  Remember Fred Hiatt about whom I wrote a critical piece that you were good enough to publish in the magazine? After he left the Pentagon beat, the Post sent him to Russia; they even gave him some language training and other schooling to prepare him to be a foreign correspondent. (Too bad they don’t give young Pentagon reporters some schooling, too.) Anyway, he’s now back in Washington and occasionally writes a piece for the Op-ed page. Obviously, he has matured into a respectable commentator and has written some very fine and thoughtful articles in recent months. So I wrote him a letter to tell him so, and got a nice response from him. I thought you’d be interested.

3.  Regarding the Current News files that were decimated by Maitre at Boston U., the final resolution of that problem was that the remaining files were shipped down to the Air University archives at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. Dr. Silber paid the freight, which I believe cost somewhere around ten grand. I think I mentioned to you that Dick Kohn, former Air Force historian and now a professor at North Carolina got into the act and helped make those arrangements. 

Meanwhile, Maitre turned out to be...well, as W.C. Fields said when he met Mae West, “There is less here than meets the eye.” You might say that all’s well that ends well, but every time I think of Maitre I get furious all over again.

[Note: Harry was referring to the Current News, a daily publication he managed during his Pentagon career. Other letters in his files show that the Defense Department turned over the Current News archives to a communications director at Boston U., after much research and requests from other organizations to keep the files for scholarly research. It turned out that the Boston U. director later disposed of them, infuriating Harry and others. Certain individuals eventually retrieved the archive.]

4.  I read your review of Colin Powell’s book with considerable interest. I know him, not well, but reasonably well, and there are some things about his book that “give me pause.” You did a masterful job with that review, and some of what you said echoed my own reservations. It should have been printed in the mainstream press, where it could get much wider circulation, but even so, enough Washington insiders saw it so that it made an impression. Have you had any comments?

5.  I celebrated my 75th birthday last June and my 53rd anniversary last August – in fair health. Did I tell you that for the past seven or eight years I have been taking courses at the University of Maryland – one or two each semester? (I’ve also been teaching English there.) Last semester I took a course in the political process for journalists, taught by two people; one is a former Maryland State Senator, a Republican lady, and the other is the former Democratic Governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaeffer. Both were a joy to listen to – fascinating, really. This semester I’m taking a course taught by Hodding Carter: Professional Seminar in Public Affairs Reporting. It should be interesting; certainly, as in all the other courses I’ve taken, I’m bound to learn something. I must say, Ben, the older I get, the more I realize how little I know, or, to put it another way, how little I’ve learned along the way.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A personal update to friends everywhere

When my dad was about to turn 70, he wrote the following letter to a number of his friends. He gave typical updates on his life, probably of little interest to people who didnt know him; however, it will fill in gaps for those who did. If you like Harry’s writing style, it’ll entertain you. And, it might encourage you to write a letter or email to old friends. Or, make a phone call.

28 May 1991 
To Friends Everywhere:

I have become one of the laziest people around. Even though I have spent the best years of my life in writing – so many hundreds of thousands of words – and still write a fair amount almost every day, I just can’t seem to find the energy to sit down and write letters. Those of you who send out annual letters, usually but not always around Christmas time, just to keep all your friends up to date on your families and your activities, put me to shame. I never even acknowledge receiving them. It’s not that I don’t love them. I read and reread every word. I enjoy them. I savor them. I just don’t acknowledge them.

Now, suddenly, the pangs of conscience are overwhelming me. The spirit moves me. The urge is upon me. So here I am, trying to put into words the things that have happened to me in the last five years since I retired. Retired from the government, that is, since I have never really fully retired, though I’m getting closer to it all the time. The fact that I will be 70 in a couple of weeks, and the realization that I am mortal, after all, is probably one of the factors that impels me to write this letter – that and a guilty conscience.

I retired in June 1986, at the age of 65, but my replacement, Herb Coleman, who was the Editor at Aviation Week, couldn’t get away from there until October, so I stayed on as a retired annuitant until he came aboard. Then, after lining up financing and people and other things, I started my newsletter, the Defense Media Review, in which I got a chance to do what they would never let me do for publication in the Pentagon (I did it for eyes only for a few selected officials) – namely, I got to comment on media performance in their coverage of national security affairs. I had two very bright young men working with me.

Everything went along swimmingly, as they say, for a couple years. Jeanette and I even got to do some traveling – to Israel in 1987, to Hawaii in 1988 – not as much as she wanted to do, but I still had commitments and deadlines. Then, on August 30, 1988, the day after we got back from a month’s vacation, two weeks in Hawaii and two weeks doing California, I had a heart attack. Well, not exactly a heart attack. It was diagnosed as severe angina, which, technically speaking is a warning signal that a heart attack may be imminent, and you better do something about it.

After an angiogram, which determined that one of the main arteries going to the heart was 90 percent blocked, they decided to do the angioplasty procedure, rather than a bypass operation. In the angioplasty procedure, they simply insert a “balloon” into the artery and press the blockage (cholesterol) against the wall of the artery, thereby clearing the passageway for the flow of blood to the heart. It’s much simpler and easier than a bypass, but it’s not feasible for everyone; it depends on exactly where the blockage is. There is no guarantee, of course, that the blockage will not return. Mine did, some six months or so later. That was in March 1989, just after we got back from a cruise in the Caribbean (six islands in eight days). 

I keep telling Jeanette that traveling can be hazardous to your health. So I got a second angioplasty and, according to the prevailing medical view, the odds are that the second one will last much longer. It’s now a little more than two years later, and it’s still holding, so maybe the doctors are right. Of course, an important element in recovering and staying healthy is exercise – aerobic exercise, to be precise. And, it goes without saying, I really don’t do enough of that.

By the way, an important factor in bringing on heart problems in the first place is smoking. And everybody knows that I smoked too much. In fact, from the time I was fifteen years old until the time I was sixty seven, well over fifty years, I smoked – two to three packs a day. Not only did it help bring about the coronary problem, it also did irreparable damage to my lungs. Looking back on it, it’s hard for me to believe that I was so dumb for so long. Knowing what we know now, it’s idiotic for smokers to continue smoking and it’s moronic for young people to start smoking. Anyway, I quit on August 30, 1988, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, and, though I still miss it now and then, I have no real desire to start again.

By the end of 1988, the newsletter was becoming a burden that I didn’t want to carry too much longer. As it happens, shortly after I retired from the government, the College of Communication at Boston University established a Center for Defense Journalism and the Dean of the College invited me to serve on their Advisory Board. He also wanted the Center to start producing a newsletter. What he had in mind was very much like the one I was already producing – a commentary on media coverage of defense matters. So, for a very modest sum that did not involve a profit for me, I sold the newsletter to Boston University. It is now the flagship publication of the Center for Defense Journalism, and I am listed as a Contributing Editor, which means that I write an article now and then for them, and give them some ideas on what I think they ought to write about – all for free, of course.

For money I’ve been doing some free-lance writing and a little consulting for people who want to start newsletters or newspapers. I’m also trying to get into the fiction field, short stories mostly. The trouble is that I’m not hungry enough, as they say in the trade, which means that the motivation to try hard is lacking. Fortunately, you see, my government pension is quite generous, after almost 40 years of service (including Army time in WWII).

Last year I started taking some courses at the University of Maryland. One of the advantages of being over 65 is that you can go to school free here. One course in particular sounded intriguing – a course in modern military history, which starts in 1494 and extends to the present time. I found it fascinating and exciting. Also, humbling. There is so much I don’t know. As it happens, the professor used to work in the Army Historian’s office, and we knew each other slightly. I was truly impressed with the depth and range of knowledge he displayed.

When we got to the WWII era, about which I thought I knew a lot, I displayed my ignorance on occasion. He was very patient with me. Of course, most of the other students didn’t realize how truly ignorant I was. They thought that just because I was there that I knew more than I did. So, like the old saying goes, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. I tried to keep my mouth shut most of the time. One thing, though, that really impressed those young people, an attitude that was expressed very well by one when he said:  “You fought in World War II? Wow! My grandfather fought in World War II.”

Nowadays, when I’m out walking with my grandchildren, the young pretty girls never mistake me for their father. It used to be easy to start a conversation with them in the presence of the children, but now they got me pegged. “You must be the grandfather,” they say. I can’t imagine why, since I look as young and handsome as I always did.

That’s about all there is to the continuing story of my life. I’m now tapering off the work ethic and beginning to enjoy the retired life, especially the ability to yield to sudden impulses to take off and go where we want or do what we want.

With love and best wishes to all of you,

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Harry’s wit and wisdom in more random letters

If you have enjoyed the letters Harry wrote in several earlier posts on this blog, you’ll like the following letters, too, also recovered from his computer files. They add humorous and thoughtful details to what we know about his personal life. And, they further prove that he could write about anything.

January 1991 – Undergraduate Advising Center, University of Maryland

Dear Wendy:

Your letter of January 28 came as somewhat of a shock to me, since you indicated that I had a “difficult” semester in the fall. As a Golden ID Student, I audited a course in Modern Military History (History 224) and I must say I enjoyed every minute of it. Not only did I not have a “difficult” time, I had a truly delightful time. I found the course both informative and entertaining, while the Professor, Dr. David Trask, and his Teaching Assistant, Paul Moreno, both displayed a depth of knowledge that added immeasurably to the texts we studied. Indeed, I came away from the course with a feeling of satisfaction at a semester well spent and a sense of accomplishment at subject matter well learned.

You will understand, therefore, why I was at a loss when your letter suggested that I consider repeating the course or perhaps attending a workshop on “Recovering from a Bad Semester.” You also suggested that I consult my “assigned advisor”. I’d be happy to do so, except that I didn’t know I had one. Did I get one somehow while I was having a “difficult” semester? In any case, I am currently auditing the follow-up course, History 225, and I will be most pleased if this semester turns out to be as “difficult” as the fall semester.

I don’t really mean to be facetious, but I’d be very interested in hearing what bureaucratic procedure or what legal requirement prompted you to send me that letter.         

June 1991 – Richard Cohen, The Washington Post

Dear Mr. Cohen:

As a man of relatively modest stature, at five feet five inches, even more modest than yours, I truly appreciated your column entitled “Selling Us Short” in the Washington Post Magazine of 9 June. You did, however, inadvertently, I’m sure, forget to mention one other problem. In addition to the problem with shoes, which you described so eloquently, there is also the problem of men’s socks.

I refer, of course, to the monstrous hoax perpetrated on the male population of modest size by all the manufacturers of men’s socks who advertise that one size fits all – size 10-13. This is an obvious lie, and surely a violation of the law that prohibits false advertising. It may very well also be a violation of the anti-trust laws, since all the manufacturers seem to have entered into a conspiracy to hoodwink men with this “one-size” scam. Not only are those socks too big to begin with – the heel comes midway up my ankle – but it is my observation that socks are the only male garments that do not shrink but rather grow with each washing.

As a result of this nefarious practice, I and many others I know are reduced to shopping for socks, furtively, to be sure, either in the Boy’s Department or the Women’s Department, where size 9-11 is available. Unfortunately, neither the Boy’s nor the Women’s Departments carry socks of a quality and style equal to those in the Men’s Department. So I want to go on record as endorsing your call for men of modest size to rise up and rebel against the clothing manufacturers of America and their unfair sizing policies, as well as their unfair pricing policies. The trouble is, almost all of them are now in Taiwan, or South Korea, or China, or Hong Kong, or Indonesia, or Latin America, or Eastern Europe – or almost anywhere but the United States.

29 November 1991 – National Geographic Society, Washington, DC

Dear Bob:

It was very thoughtful of you to send me a copy of your December issue, and I can’t tell you how pleased I was to receive it. The pictures and the maps are phenomenal; Allen’s accompanying commentary is outstanding. Over the past fifty years I’ve read hundreds of articles and dozens of books about Pearl Harbor, but nothing I have ever seen presents so clear and graphic a summary of that event as this issue of the National Geographic magazine.

I recall very well where I was on that fateful day. I was working for one of the so-called war plants – the Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo, New York – which was on a three-shift schedule at the time. Everybody knew that we could not stay out of the war in Europe forever, and that a war with Japan was probably inevitable, too. We were producing airplanes, mainly for the Russians for lend-lease, but also, we hoped, for eventual use by our own Air Corps.

It was Sunday afternoon with the plant going full blast when the loudspeakers came on with the announcement about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The grim certainty that this meant war only confirmed our fears, and when President Roosevelt announced that the Congress had declared war a couple days later, it was almost an anticlimax. I decided right then and there that I would devote my life to serving my country and, aside from my military service during the war, that’s exactly what I did as best I could as a civilian for almost forty years.

It’s hard to believe that the attack on Pearl Harbor took place fifty years ago. (It’s also hard to believe that I am seventy years old.) And it’s equally hard to believe that the Japanese are so sensitive about the subject. December 7 ought to be a day of remembrance in Japan, as well as in the United States. If they had any public relations sense at all, instead of withdrawing their advertising ($1.8 million from National Geographic alone, according to the Wash. Post), they would increase their allocations to help fund such retrospectives. Indeed, I believe that a properly planned and executed public relations campaign centered around the Pearl Harbor experience could very well help bring our two countries closer together. As it is, the Japanese seem to be fostering the impression that they would gladly do it all over again in a 1990s kind of way – not militarily, but economically.

Ah well, that’s neither here nor there. Thanks again, Bob, I really do appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, October 13, 2016

His complaint letters didn’t go viral – until now

While preparing today’s blog post, I happen to pick up an AARP “Bulletin” newspaper with an article titled “How to Complain”. It suggests we can post our complaint on Twitter. On Twitter and other social media a complaint can go viral”, and the company – whose products or services disappointed us – can see it, too. The other way of writing a complaint – much longer than 140 characters – was right up Harry’s alley, as I discovered in his computer files. I would think he enjoyed voicing his opinions, analyzing the situations, and even offering possible solutions for each complaint. Plus, he wouldn’t stand to let the companies take advantage of him. See if you can relate to any of these.

13 February 1992 – Reader’s Digest

Dear Ms. Davis:

Over the past years, I have bought a great many things from Reader’s Digest, including at least two dozen or more record albums. Until now I have never had a really serious complaint; minor complaints are not worth communicating to you.

Recently, I bought the record album entitled “I’ve Heard That Song Before”. Partly because I was traveling and partly because I was extremely busy with some writing projects, I did not open the box until several weeks after it arrived. When I finally did so, I discovered, to my horror, an album that looked very much like it had been used in a lending library for two years before they threw it into the trash, where the Reader’s Digest crew found it and sent it to me. 

The album cover had been torn and crudely repaired with scotch tape, though it still gaped at the seams; the seven records were not in their proper casings, that is, record number 1 was in casing number 7, record number 2 was in casing number 5, and so forth – not a single one was in the right number casing; the condition of the records themselves was terrible, with oily fingerprints dried on all the records and scratches on some of them. 

It is positively sacrilegious to treat records so shabbily. I spent almost two hours with a special brush and record cleaning fluid, trying to restore those records to usable condition. And if you ask why I bothered or why I just simply didn’t return the album, the answer is that it was long past the seven-day tryout period, and besides, it’s a real hassle to mail something back.

In any case, for the most part I’ve been happy with the Reader’s Digest albums. They have given me many, many hours of enjoyable listening. One bad experience among a multitude of good experiences does not make you a villain, in my view. But, after reflection, it occurred to me that you would never learn about this incident unless you learned it from me, nor would you ever become aware of someone’s bad performance in your organization unless you received a complaint. As it is, if your bureaucracy is like most of the others, you may never see this letter, either. Someone in your outer office will very likely intercept it on the assumption that you should not be bothered with tiresome details like this. I guess I’ll be able to tell by the quality of the form letter I receive in response.

One of the albums I bought during this past year was one entitled “Memories of You”. It was a great disappointment to me. To begin with, there was no little booklet of background material on each of the numbers included in the album. Was that just an oversight, or was it because no booklet was prepared for this particular album? If there is a booklet, I’d like very much to get it. 

With respect to the contents of the album, I don’t know what kind of feedback you get from your customers, but let me register this with you. Some of the best songs in this album were spoiled, in my opinion, by the particular recordings you selected for inclusion. I refer to the recordings by Franklyn MacCormack with Russ Garcia and his orchestra. One or two renditions of that kind would have been more than enough in a seven-record album; nine or ten were far too many for my tastes. I would much rather have heard someone sing the songs the way they were meant to be sung – not murmured with heavy breathing by someone with a stomach ache.

19 June 1992 – Reader’s Digest

Dear Ms. Davis:

I was deeply disappointed in some music albums I bought recently. I was even more deeply disappointed by your failure to respond to my letter of complaint of 13 February 1992. Accordingly, I refuse to buy any more of the albums you are offering.

October 1993 – Credit Services Director, Blair [clothing]

Dear Mr. Park:

Your letter of September 28, 1993, is truly perplexing. Last month, your company sent me an “invitation” to purchase a selection of merchandise. There were no questions regarding my credit references, bank accounts, or charge accounts. I naturally assumed that you check the credit ratings beforehand on individuals to whom you send such invitations. In any case, as I understood it, you offered three payment options: to charge my purchase to a credit card, to accompany my order with a check, or to pay within seven days of receiving the merchandise. I chose the latter option.

Obviously, you have withdrawn that option. Let me make it clear that I will not furnish any of my credit card numbers to you, nor will I list my bank account numbers, nor will I pay in advance for anything “sight unseen”. Indeed, your letter sounds suspiciously like a scam to me and we, the trusting public, are constantly bombarded with such requests, as well as with warnings against revealing such information to anyone, no matter how legitimate they seem to be. It would be like giving someone a license to steal from you. 

I did sign your order form which, in effect, was an agreement to pay for the merchandise within seven days, assuming it was satisfactory, or to return it if I found it unsatisfactory. I am still willing to abide by that agreement, but you, the seller, must establish your good faith with me, not the other way around. For all I know, you may be selling processed paper goods that would fall apart after one wearing, or, more likely, poorly sized garments that won’t fit properly. 

In short, I’m the one who is taking a chance with you, despite my initial misgivings about buying clothing by mail and despite my further misgivings occasioned by your letter. But if you do not want to take a chance with me, so be it.

20 January 1994 – Fingerhut Corporation


I don’t understand. Indeed, I am completely baffled. Let’s review. I ordered a cordless electric screwdriver for $29.95. You sent me something else, along with a payment plan of some kind which would have wound up costing me either $39.95 or $44.00, I think. That’s just too much. I sent the merchandise back to you and told you to forget the whole thing. You acknowledged receipt of the merchandise, noting that it was not what I had ordered, and expressed the hope that we could do business again sometime in the future. You subsequently sent me additional advertising material. Now you are sending me another payment schedule, at a different price, for the same product, which I have not received and no longer want at the price you charge. This new payment plan says I must pay by 01-18-94, although I received it on 01-19-94 – that was yesterday.

Now then, one of us is mixed up. Am I missing something? Did I misunderstand? Have I entered into some kind of a binding contract that says I have to pay you for something I didn’t get and don’t want? Please clarify. My credit is important to me and I don’t want to jeopardize it over a misunderstanding or a miscommunication.

February 1994
– Fingerhut Corporation


You are trying my patience. On 20 January 1994, I sent you a letter questioning your invoice, returning it together with your inflated payment plan, and cancelling my original order. A copy of that letter is enclosed to refresh your memory. You never responded to that letter. Instead, you now send me another bill for merchandise I did not receive and no longer want at the price you charge. I am returning your bill, with this letter, and ask that you clear up this matter quickly.

8 December 1994 – President, Book-of-the-Month Club

Dear Mr. Artandi:

This letter will be as short and to the point as was your letter to me in which you invited me to take advantage of your “no-strings” offer to join your club. It is, indeed, a generous offer, and I was, for a moment, sorely tempted but, on reflection, I resisted that temptation and I’d like to tell you why.

The truth is that this is not a “no-strings” offer at all. True, I never have to buy another book from you, but every three weeks or so I have to decline to buy another book from you. I refer, of course, to the fact that if a member does not specifically instruct you not to send a book, you will automatically send your monthly selections. It is simply too much of a hassle to respond negatively to all your mailings. But I have a counter-offer for you. I’ll gladly join the club, but with the understanding that you’ll only send me books when I specifically request them, without the need to respond negatively to your frequent mailings.

Think of it for a minute. You would be pioneering a new way of doing business for book clubs. Not only would you not require your members to buy books, you would also not require your members not to buy books. You would be setting a precedent that every book club in the industry would have to emulate if they want to keep pace with the times. You would be inaugurating a new era in the book club industry and, in the process, you would find a grateful public responding to your appeal. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your sales would increase dramatically, simply because you could attract far more members if you make it clear at the start that there is never a need to respond negatively if your members don’t want to receive your monthly selections.

I can see a whole new advertising campaign in the making if you adopt this one, simple principle. So, what do you say? Do you want to go boldly where no man has gone before? Do you want to open up a new and final frontier in the book club business?

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Harry sounds off on government in letters to Post

It stands to reason that retirees have more time to pursue other interests. In Harry’s case, he loved to express his opinions and share his knowledge through writing. So, if you thought you couldn’t learn any more about him, check out these letters I found to The Washington Post – two to journalist David Broder and one to the Editor. They reveal more bits of Harrys background – and his views on government.

21 July 1993

Dear Mr. Broder:

I have long admired your column, your writing and your thinking. You set the standard for political reporters or commentators to emulate throughout the world of journalism. Your column in this morning’s Washington Post (7/21/93) is a case in point. As you frequently do, you have hit precisely the right note in describing the Vice President’s efforts to institute a sea change in the way the government operates. A note of cautious optimism.

You note that some of the people helping Al Gore in this project are relatively young and inexperienced, with, presumably, inadequate understanding of how the government works or how to effect changes. I have often observed over the years just how these governmental study programs get their staffs. I worked in the Pentagon for 36 years, the last 25 of which was in a position of considerable responsibility. During those years, I witnessed countless commissions and blue ribbon panels established to study and improve the way the government operates. All of them were headed by distinguished individuals; all of them were staffed mainly by people assigned involuntarily by the various government agencies, or through personal contacts by young volunteers. The volunteers were invariably enthusiastic and uninformed. The assignees were usually people whom their respective agencies were happy to farm out. Almost all the studies thus produced were uninspired and deserved the chance to gather dust on hidden shelves.

What is true of all those study groups is that none of them ever seemed to tap the vast pool of talent represented by the recently retired career government employees. I am talking about the middle management people who rose to their positions through the ranks, so to speak, who know and understand the intricacies of federal organizational arrangements, who know where the levers are and where the roadblocks are, and who know when to move them and when to circumvent them.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not volunteering my services, but I personally know dozens of retirees from the middle management levels of the government who could make a truly constructive contribution to Al Gore’s study effort. And I’m sure there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more who would happily place their knowledge and experience at the Vice President’s disposal. In all probability, OPM [Office of Personnel Management] could surely give Mr. Gore a short list of outstanding recently retired individuals from each of the federal agencies, from among whom he could choose a few who could bring their accumulated wisdom to bear on the problems being studied. If you think this suggestion is worthy, you might mention it to Mr. Gore or one of his key people. (No need to credit me.)

All that aside, I want to thank you for all those great columns you produce, for the depth and the breadth of the information you impart to your readers, and for the pleasure you give this reader by the quality of your writing.

16 March 1994

Dear Mr. Broder:

Your column in today’s Washington Post moves me to contribute a few random thoughts about the workings of government and the bureaucracy. It is no wonder that the public has a negative view of government, considering the following factors:

1.  Every presidential candidate in recent memory has run for office against the government. It has become fashionable to badmouth the government and the bureaucracy, and every time a candidate says something negative, the press multiplies it a hundred-fold. No matter how well the government operates, the public will not believe it so long as politicians continue to deride it.

2.  The professional civil service, which is to say the bureaucracy, operates at a severe disadvantage. The problem is that every President appoints people to the top positions in all the agencies, and these people are answerable only to the President. Now, here’s the rub. The kinds of people who are appointed to the statutory positions are chosen not on the basis of their professional qualifications for the job, but rather on the basis of their political qualifications. In fact, many of them are completely unsuited for the jobs to which they are appointed, despite the scrutiny by the press and the Senate confirmation process. With few exceptions, they are either campaign workers being rewarded with government jobs, financial supporters being rewarded with government jobs, representatives of industries that do business with the agencies involved, political and/or personal cronies, and an assortment of hangers-on who take any job that’s offered. 

Most of them enter into their jobs with an attitude of unrelenting hostility to the professional civil service. Very few of them, very few, try to work with their staffs of professionals or make a serious attempt to understand the peculiarities or intricacies of government operations. Instead, they staff their second- and third-tier ranks with pals and cronies, and they try in every way imaginable to circumvent the bureaucracy in order to do things that their agencies should not do, or to prevent their agencies from doing things that they should do. 

Rarely do their illegal or unethical activities get public scrutiny, mainly because the press is always too busy scrutinizing the President instead of looking into the less-glamorous conduct of lower-level appointees in the agencies. And, also because the press seldom talks to the professional civil servants who, in any case, are seldom willing to blow the whistle on the statutory appointees. Only occasionally are some of them exposed, either through a Justice Dept. investigation or a congressional investigation, and in those instances, the resultant press coverage solidifies the public perception of the “bureaucracy” as a den of thieves. Most of them are never exposed, either for the “shady” things they do, or for the ineptness of their conduct in office. Still, what they do makes their agencies look bad and you, by which I mean the press, really ought to differentiate between the civil service bureaucracy and the statutory bureaucracy.

3.  As I said in my letter to you last July, I want to thank you for the all the great columns you produce and for the pleasure you give me by virtue of the quality of your writing.

11 May 1993

To the Editor, The Washington Post
Regarding Rule XXII

The articles by Lloyd Cutler, George Will, Howard Baker and Norman Ornstein (today) all miss the mark, though the discussion itself is fascinating. The fact is, however, they all start with the assumption that the United States Senate is genuinely willing to act in the best interests of the country, and that the current policy on filibusters thwart this purpose. In my view, and I honestly believe a great many Americans share this view, nothing could be farther from the truth. If anyone still believes that the Senate is interested in the good of the country or the welfare of the people, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale at a bargain price.

The Senate has displayed time and time again its complete indifference to the best interests of the country. Individual Senators, Bob Dole included, are interested in their own self-aggrandizement and their own reelection first. Secondly, and a far second indeed, they pretend to work on behalf of their own constituents. In that respect, they put up a good front, but it’s all for show, not for real. I do not believe the good of the country enters their considerations at all. All their pious mouthings about their concerns for the welfare of the American “middle class” are sickening, especially coming from Republicans, who did as much as they could during the twelve years when they owned the White House, to eliminate the middle class. And those Senators who point with pride to their years of “public” service are hoodwinking the public. Their service was performed for private or special interests, not for the public.

If the Senate as a body were genuinely concerned with the best interests of the nation, it would find a way to cope with the filibusters that thwart the public interest. Until it does, until it demonstrates a greater degree of active concern for the country, it will continue to be regarded by many of us voters as a joke.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Harry tributes hit songs written in 1937

Harry loved writing about – and recording music from his era. 
On an afternoon in 2012, I was having lunch with my parents at Nancy’s Kitchen near their retirement community, Leisure World in Silver Spring, MD. My 91-year-old dad asked, “Do you hear the music they’re playing? I gave them a box of CDs and they play them all the time.” And then a manager called out,“Hi Harry!” That was my dad; he recorded music on CDs and shared them far and wide. He knew the restaurant patrons would enjoy them. Here are two stories Harry wrote for his community newsletter.

April 19, 2013 - That Old Feeling

Some songs evoke memories – of people, or events, or special occasions. As soon as you hear it, a memory clicks into place. This is one of those songs. You don’t hear this one at all these days, but I’ll bet the very thought of it will call forth a memory in your mind. It was written by Sammy Fain, with lyric by Lew Brown. A word about the writers.

Sammy Fain (his real name was Samuel Feinberg) was born in New York in 1902, and died in 1989 at the age of 87. He was a prolific composer who worked mainly in collaboration with Irving Kahal, though he worked with many others on an occasional basis. With Kahal he wrote “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella”, among other hits. He taught himself to play the piano and, though he played by ear, as they say, he became good enough to give an occasional concert for friends. Sammy Fain composed the music for more than two dozen films from the 1930s through the 1950s and was nominated for the Best Original Song Academy Award nine times. He won that Oscar twice, in 1954 for “Secret Love” from the movie “Calamity Jane”, and in 1955 for “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” from the movie of the same name. The lyrics for both songs were written by Paul Francis Webster, with whom he worked quite frequently. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1962.

Lew Brown (his real name was Louis Brownstein) was also an old pro in the music business. He was born in 1893 in Russia and his family came to the U.S. when he was five. He grew up in the Bronx and died in 1958, at age 64. Brown was a member of the three-man team of Ray Henderson, Buddy DeSylva and Brown who, in the 1920s wrote dozens of popular songs in “Tin Pan Alley”. He also collaborated with many of the great song writers of that era including Harold Arlen and Albert Von Tilzer. He wrote lyrics for a number of Broadway shows, too, including “George White’s Scandals” and “Mr. Wonderful”.

This song was published in 1937 (one of the best years ever for popular music) and first appeared in the movie “Vogues of 1938”. It was an immediate hit. Throughout the late 1930s and early ’40s it was extremely popular. Then, in 1952, it was featured in a Susan Hayward movie “With a Song In My Heart”, the story of Jane Froman. Patti Page had a million-seller recording in 1955, and Frank Sinatra had another in 1960. In 1997 the title was used for a movie that starred Bette Midler and Dennis Farina and featured performances by Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson. Almost all of the great singing artists of our times have recorded it.

That Old Feeling (Lyric)

I saw you last night and got that old feeling,
When you came in sight I got that old feeling.
The moment that you danced by, I felt a thrill,
And when you caught my eye, my heart stood still.
Once again I seemed to feel that old yearning,
Then I knew the spark of love was still burning.
There’ll be no new romance for me; it’s foolish to start,
‘Cause that old feeling is still in my heart.

May 27, 2013 - I’ll Be Seeing You

Some songs are immediate hits with the public from the time they’re first performed. That’s the way it was with last month’s song, “That Old Feeling”. Some songs, on the other hand, take years before they become popular. That’s the way it was with “As Time Goes By”, which I wrote about last year. It was written in 1930-31, and even though it was performed by Rudy Vallee, one of the most popular singers of the early 1930s, it was not until 1942-43, when Dooley Wilson sang it in “Casablanca”, that it really became popular. And that’s the way it was with this song, too.

“I’ll Be Seeing You” was another one of the great songs written in 1937. This one, too, was written by Sammy Fain, who wrote last month’s song. The lyric for this one was written by Irving Kahal and it was used in a Broadway musical called “Right This Way” in 1938. It had everything going for it – successful composer and lyricist, a Broadway show to introduce it – and yet it did not impress the public. The show closed after only two weeks and the song sank without a trace; that is, until Bing Crosby recorded it in 1944 and it was featured in a movie of the same name that starred Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotton. After that, it was used in countless movies and television shows and recorded by just about every recording artist of the 20th century.

In retrospect, it’s easy to understand. By 1944, millions of us were in war zones overseas and lovers everywhere looked forward to the day when they would see each other again. This song reflected the sentiment of separation and hope that all of us felt. There was a preamble to the words, too, very touching though not ordinarily included in most performances.

I’ll Be Seeing You (Lyric)

Cathedral Bells were tolling and our hearts sang on,
Was it the spell of Paris or the April dawn?
Who knows if we shall meet again?
But when the morning chimes ring sweet again.

I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places,
That this heart of mine embraces all day through.
In that small cafe, the park across the way,
The children’s carousel, the chestnut tree, the wishing well.
I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day,
In everything that’s light and gay,
I’ll always think of you that way.
I’ll find you in the morning sun,
And when the night is new,
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman