Thursday, January 26, 2017

Harry’s telling story of his pal Al

Harry and his friend Al Skolnik in 1962, in Greenbelt, MD, News Review clippings

I remember my parents dear friends Al and Elaine Skolnik, in our hometown Greenbelt, MD, always smiling and friendly. My dad and the Skolniks were tireless volunteers for the city newspaper, the News Review. Al died suddenly in 1977. Recently I found Harrys typewritten tribute and read it for the first time. I saw that its never too late to appreciate this story of his pal Al – and another snapshot of my dad’s life. 

The news spread like wildfire last Thursday afternoon, not only in Greenbelt but throughout the metropolitan area. Al Skolnik was gone. It was unthinkable, unacceptable. Everyone I spoke to had the same reaction – shocked silence, a sense of profound sadness, a feeling of deep and irrevocable personal loss.

It is a symptom of mankind’s shortsightedness that we seldom recognize the true stature of and worth of the giants among us until they are gone. So it is with Al Skolnik. Though he received some measure of recognition while he was here, it was not nearly so much as he deserved. The high regard in which he was held found some expression in the community’s mass attendance at his funeral Sunday morning, and in the moving eulogy so eloquently voiced by Rabbi Berger. But much remains to be said. We are not finished with Al Skolnik; more to the point, he is not finished with us. His presence, his influence, will continue to touch all of us, felt not only by those who were close to him, but by the entire community he loved and served so well.

Of course, he never realized the impact of his presence on the community. I remember the overwhelming support the people showed him when he and the News Review were sued for libel by a land developer whose name has faded into obscurity. Yet, with characteristic modesty, he preferred to believe that we were fighting solely for a principle – freedom of the press. He would not accept the fact that we were just as deeply committed to supporting him personally. Yet, he was the catalyst around whom the support was rallied and upon whose courage steadfastness that most precious of American freedoms was extended and strengthened. I can see him now, in the aftermath of that oh-so-sweet Supreme Court decision, declaring that it was a victory for principle.

“But, Al,” I said, “It was as much a victory for you personally.”

“Me?” he said, a look of genuine bewilderment on his face. “But I didn’t have anything to do with it, I was just incidental.”

When we held that grand banquet a year or two afterwards, it was billed as a tribute to Roger Clark, the defense attorney who had carried the case all the way to the Supreme Court and ultimate victory. In reality, though, it was a tribute to Al and Elaine, who had carried the heavy weight of responsibility during the years of trial and trouble. It represented a massive outpouring of warmth, good will and gratitude for their total commitment to the service of their community. We tried to persuade Al, beforehand, that he should get double billing with the attorney as the guests of honor, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I don’t want anything to detract from the tribute we’re paying Roger,” he declared flatly. “This should be his night.”

“But Al,” I argued, “everyone wants to pay tribute to you, too.”

“What for?” he asked, and he was really puzzled.

“For the sacrifices you’ve made,” I replied. “For the contribution you’ve made to the community.”

“That’s not a good enough reason,” he was adamant.

“Al,” I sighed, “you are stubborn and incorrigible.”

Of course, he won. But despite his protestations, the community paid tribute to him that night anyway. And he enjoyed it. I have never seen him grin so broadly or so continuously. He positively beamed. He was jovial. And when the staff of the News Review presented him with an electric typewriter, he accepted it gracefully and cheerfully. But afterwards, just to keep his record intact, he said: “You shouldn’t have done it.”

Like I said, incorrigible!

I never could understand why the plaintiff in that case insisted on including Al personally as a party to that law suit. Perhaps he, and his attorney, as well, perceived Al as a threat. Well, if objectivity and dispassionate honesty can be perceived as a threat, they were right. No one else was or could be as rigorously objective or as dispassionately honest as Al. He used to drive me up the walls with his insistence on knowing and presenting both sides of every controversial issue. He was forever trying to be “fair” to everyone; he even leaned over backwards to be fair to those with whom he disagreed.

I felt some sense of responsibility for Al, since I had recruited him to work on the News Review. At least, I persuaded Elaine to charm him into joining the staff and, as everyone knows, Elaine has the talent to do just that. Of course, we had to wait a few years, until he completed the requirements for his PhD, but he finally joined the staff and the rest is history. I wish I could take some credit for the enormous contribution he and the newspaper subsequently made to the community, but he did it on his own. Anyway, when Al joined the staff, I felt obligated to pass my wisdom and experience along.

“Al,” I would say, “a newspaper is not obligated to be fair or objective. It is obligated only to present the facts in its news columns, but it can be as unfair or as prejudiced as it wishes in its editorials.”

“Everybody and every side deserves equal consideration,” he would stubbornly insist.

“Not in editorials,” I would say. “Editorials can and do take clear, unequivocal positions, either for or against any given proposition, without regard to the opposing views held by others.”

“Greenbelt deserves better than that,” he declared. “We ought to show the merits of all opposing viewpoints so that people can make up their own minds.”

“Al,” I said, defeated, “you are exasperating.”

With such an attitude, he often appeared to be straddling the fence rather than expressing or taking clear-cut positions. To those of us who hold strong opinions without regard to facts, this insistence on an objective appraisal seemed irrational. Looking back on it, I am reminded of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, who viewed all events in the light of cold logic. Thus, when something occurred that defied all the rules of sensible behavior, he was neither horrified nor offended. Instead, he would find such occurrences “interesting” and, some things, even “fascinating,” and would proceed to analyze them in meticulous detail in order to understand them and explain them.

Now, after such careful appraisals, Al sometimes arrived at the same conclusion that I had reached intuitively, based on a “gut” feeling. Naturally, when someone agrees with me, I consider him a reasonable, even a wise man. But when he reaches a conclusion different from mine, that is a horse of another color. It is particularly frustrating when his conclusion is based on intellectual conviction. Have you ever tried to argue with someone whose opinion’s based on an examination of the facts, while yours is based on intuition? There is just no reasoning with such obstinate, opinionated people. Why, a man like that can change the world; on occasion, he even persuaded me to change my opinion. Exposure to logical thinking can sometimes do that.

In essence, Al was an observer and reporter, rather than a direct participant in the affairs of the city. I have no doubt at all that he could have been elected to any public office, had he so desired, but he preferred to remain in the background. He was a public person; indeed, he was basically shy and reserved, a man who felt more at ease behind the scenes. Yet, he has been as instrumental in shaping the nature and destiny of Greenbelt as any elected official in the history of the community. The many background discussions he had with community leaders, and the suggestions and quiet recommendations he made at countless social gatherings, had a way of emerging later on as officially sanctioned policies and programs.

He and Elaine were indefatigable campaigners, but always on behalf of others, never for themselves. Over the years, their efforts assured the election of a great many public-spirited citizens to office. Those of us who were beneficiaries of these efforts used to kid him about it sometimes. In another political environment he would have been known as the “Boss”; in still another milieu, he would have been the “godfather,” though he was too selfless and too gentle a man to deserve that title. In any case, he was really embarrassed by our attempts to credit his efforts for our victories.

“I only cast one vote,” he would say, “And besides,” he would add, with that sly chuckle and half grin, “I wasn’t working to help you so much as I was trying to prevent those other guys from getting elected. You just represented the lesser of two evils.”

He had such a fine mind, trained and disciplined by study and use. During that libel trial the attorney for the plaintiff mocked Al’s educational attainments, implying that a man with a PhD ought to at least understand the meaning of certain legal terms. Among other things, the Supreme Court’s decision proved that lawyers themselves, and even judges, do not agree on the meaning of some legal terms. In any event, by attempting to degrade Al Skolnik, that attorney succeeded only in diminishing himself. I could not then, nor can I today, forgive him for some of the things he said and some of the tactics he used in the courtroom. Al, however, was quite without rancor or malice at such treatment. When I expressed my feelings to him after the initial trial, he shrugged them off.

“He was only doing his job,” he said. Then lifting a hand expressively, he cut right to the heart of it. “After all,” he said, “he was playing to the jury, while our lawyer was addressing the law.” And then came the punchline. “You know,” he added judiciously, a hint of admiration in his voice, “all in all, I think he probably did it very neatly, very professionally. After all, he won, didn’t he?”

“Al,” I said, at a loss for words, “You are too good to be true. It’s infuriating.”

What can you do with a man like that?

The many social evenings we shared, say for dinner and a movie, were illuminating. Al’s orderly mind could not tolerate illogic, a quality that Hollywood’s movies seem to cherish. Invariably, as we emerged from a thrilling and entertaining whodunit film, Al would start dissecting it.

“I don’t understand it,” he would complain. “How did the hero know that the villain was going to confront the girl with an ultimatum, and arrange to intercept the bodyguard before the rendezvous?” or words to that effect. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he would add. “It lacks coherency. The characters didn’t behave logically.”

Over refreshments at the nearest Hot Shoppes afterwards, we would discuss it. It sometimes got hilarious as we tried to explain the plot, the motivation, the situation, the character development – all the classic elements that make a story hang together coherently.

In the process, we would uncover all the flaws and inconsistencies that mark any of today’s movies. So going to a movie with Al was not only an entertaining experience, but an intellectual exercise, as well. Al’s mind at work as he tore a movie to shreds was a delight to behold.

“Al,” I would say, “you are a born critic.”

“It’s easy to criticize,” he once said thoughtfully. “The problem is to create – to build instead of to tear down.”

And in a very real way, this is what Al’s life was all about. He brought a measure of order and humanitarian perspective to a sometimes chaotic public environment. He brought a measure of sanity and rational analysis to the scrutiny of public issues. But most of all, by virtue of the active role he played on the News Review, he made the newspaper the kind of all-pervasive, unifying influence that makes a community out of a development, and gives its people a sense of belonging and sharing and togetherness. He left his corner of the world a better place than he found it, and that’s not a bad epitaph for any man.

I can see him now, scanning these pages coming out of the typewriter, as on so many previous occasions, and frowning in concentration as he mentally rejects clause after clause.

“Sounds kind of pompous doesn’t it?” he would ask mildly.

Like I said, he was incorrigible, a challenging, exasperating, infuriating man, and – oh, dear God – how we loved and respected and admired him. The sense of loss will be with us always, but, for myself, I shall always be thankful for the years of friendship we experienced together and for the memories we accumulated. For Elaine and his family, no mere words can lessen their grief, but perhaps they can take some small solace in the knowledge that so many, many of us share it with them.

In his story above, Harry (far right in photo) refers to Al (seated center) accepting an award after the Greenbelt News Review won the 1970 Supreme Court case. I’m told the case became a landmark for freedom of the press.
Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, January 19, 2017

My father’s advice: How to play the personnel game

On Sunday Ill turn 65 (oh my!), so I thought it fitting to post a letter my dad wrote to me. In 1975, I was a college graduate living in northeast Atlanta and working downtown as a secretary in the Administration on Aging. I saw the job as my entry into the federal government, while updating my resume (aka 171 form – now obsolete) with plans to move into a professional “series”. Evidently I sent the form to my dad for his opinion because recently I came across his reply, which I now vaguely remember. It contains the sort of fatherly advice he offered freely throughout my career. Im showing it off now as another example of Harry’s generosity-driven letters – and how he felt about the bureaucracy. By the way, his general advice is not obsolete, so feel free to pass it around.

Tue. 21 Oct

Dear Elaine,

I’ve looked over your form 171 closely, and I really think you should do the whole thing over. From the point of view of an employer who interviews dozens of people each year for a variety of clerical and professional jobs, I can only tell you how I feel about these applications … but I can also say that I’ve spoken to many other supervisors and all have expressed the same sentiments.

Briefly, then: 1. A form 171 that has obviously been doctored up to reflect your current status is looked upon as a “lazy man’s (woman’s) application.” A freshly made-out form, on the other hand, reflects a serious desire to impress a prospective employer, and he is, therefore, more inclined to take it seriously. 2. In many ways, the government application form is something of a game; both the applicant and the employer know that it contains exaggerations, that it stretches the truth to some extent in order to make the applicant’s previous experience seem more important than it, in fact, was, and that it presents the applicant as a prodigy of virtue whose talents are precisely tailored to the job at issue.

The question, then, is how well do you play the game? If you play it well, it reflects the fact that you displayed a considerable degree of advance preparation and self-discipline in making yourself a saleable commodity. So – let’s face it, the 171 is what you’re judged by, since no employer is a mind-reader and no one can evaluate your attributes by looking into your eyes. Of course, the interview is an essential part of the judging process, but you may never reach the interview stage if your 171 doesn’t impress both the personnel office and the prospective employer.

Dad hand-wrote this eight-page letter.
Now, as to your conduct on the job, I know you have received conflicting reports or opinions, particularly as regards your chances for advancement into professional responsibilities and higher grades. Well, no matter what others may tell you, believe me when I say that such things as a willingness to work, an openly exhibited (cheerful) desire to master all aspects of your job, and an obvious ability to accept and discharge more demanding duties and responsibilities – all these are very rare indeed, and when an employer encounters these things he is quick to note and equally quick to reward. I can cite plenty of cases where people moved from clerical to professional fields because their performance impressed their supervisors.

So – ask yourself, have you displayed those characteristics? When you’re not busy, do you ask around to see if you can help anyone else? Do you seek out work, or do you wait till it’s handed to you? Have you told your supervisor(s) that you are willing to do more and want more responsibilities? And do you actively try to learn everything there is to know about your office, its larger roles and missions, how it fits into the overall organization, what it’s supposed to produce and what it’s actually producing? Can you discuss intelligently what problems your boss and his boss are wrestling with or worried about – and can you make any suggestions to them as to how to improve their organization and their operations?

My own feeling about people who work for me is that it takes them 6 to 8 months – and then, if they don’t come to me with questions to show they’re thinking and/or suggestions that indicate they want to use their talents to help me, well, they’re missing the boat. And that’s the real difference between clerical and professional personnel – between a secretary who will always be a secretary and a secretary who is going to advance into the professional levels. The difference is how much thought and effort you devote to your specific job and your entire organizational efforts.

Now, having said all that, I still think it’s a good idea to keep your applications circulating and your senses tuned to better possibilities. That’s why you need to fill out a new application form and send it out to all the likely places. You should ask your personnel office for all HEW Job Announcements for which you (not they) think you’re qualified so that you can submit an application for each. You should ask the Atlanta office of the Civil Service Commission for Job Announcements in other agencies, and apply for them as well. But, while you’re doing all that, you should be doing everything you can to convince your boss that you’re the smartest and hardest working person he ever had and that if and when you leave he’s going to be the sorriest guy in the world for not hanging on to you. And the way to do that is to take on responsibilities and do so many things that they’ll need two people to replace you.

As to the application itself, here are a few random thoughts: 1. Remember, personnel people are triggered by certain key words and phrases, so they should be used (judiciously) in all job descriptions. These things also impress supervisors or employers. For example: you don’t simply type letters, you compose correspondence; you don’t simply type reports, you draft reports, you provide editorial assistance in the final preparation of reports on (what? the problems of the aging? the use and abuse of dangerous drugs? the love life of the lemming?); you don’t simply research pertinent material relevant to special projects, you exercise initiative in researching pertinent material (where? libraries?, other organizations in HEW?, other agencies?, state and local governmental facilities?, industrial and academic resources?, etc.?), you select the most significant material for inclusion in the report and you integrate it into the substance of the report; and the “special projects” are what? – things such as the absorption of college graduates into the establishment? or whatever!

In other words, no matter how simple or trivial your job – any job – may have seemed to you, you have to write it up as though it were an important and essential operation without which the office or the organization could not have fulfilled its mission. What you’re doing, in effect, is demonstrating to a prospective employer that you are a unique and precious individual (which you are, of course) who is capable of making a real contribution and whose presence in his office will be a valuable addition to his staff. As I see it, your present job should be expanded to 3 or 4 times its present length (which means it must be continued on a separate sheet); and that applies to all the jobs you list. Even your Kelly Girl job can be expanded to indicate what kind of organizations you worked for and how much you did for them and how valuable the experience was in preparing you to do an outstanding job for whoever hires you next.

I just can’t emphasize strongly enough how important I think all these things are in your application form; I honestly believe they often make the difference between being hired or not.

If all this sounds a little pompous to you, blame it on my bureaucratic conditioning. I have been fighting against the “bureaucratic mentality” all my life – but from within – so it’s poetic justice that I should be a victim of the system, after all.

Anyway, bear this in mind, too. When I said the government application form is a game we play, I meant it; unfortunately, it’s the only way to get in. Once in, however, the game becomes more subtle; the same sort of garbage continues to go on between the employee and the personnel office (otherwise, personnel people would have very little to do), but between the employee and his supervisor that part of the game is meaningless. The objective, as I said before, is to take on all the duties and responsibilities you can get, regardless of whether they’re spelled out in your job description or not; then, some day, when the personnel officer/position classifier comes around to do a desk audit of your job, she’ll be so amazed at the extent of your activities that she’ll classify your job at a higher grade, which will astonish your boss, as well. At least, that’s the way it should work if your personnel office is honest – which may be too much to expect. Still, the system does work and if you persevere, you can beat them at their own game.

In the interests of speed, I’m sending this letter out right away so that you can get started on a new application. By the time you get to the references, I’ll have Jenny Klein’s and Nora Levsky’s job titles for you to fill in, as well. And, as soon as you complete it (but don’t sign it), and return it, I’ll make a few dozen copies for you. When you send it to me, use one of these address labels (enclosed).

Y.E.L.D. [Your Ever Loving Dad]

P.S. Thought you might like to see an article I wrote, to be published some time in December, I think.

Your Dad

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A tearjerker – and dream songs – to remember

Harry the music man, 2012
Did you see the movie “An Affair to Remember”? Note to young people: Watch it! I saw the Cary Grant version many times in my youth. Harry discusses the movie’s music in the first of two articles below. He wrote the articles for his community newsletter in Leisure World, Silver Spring, MD.

Dec. 6, 2012 
Wishing Will Make It So

There are so many memorable songs that it’s hard to choose which one to write about each month. Sometimes I choose because the melody is stuck in my mind. Sometimes it’s because a song is associated with a person I’m thinking about. And, sometimes, like today, it’s because the lyric strikes me and I can’t let it go. Consider this couplet, for example: “Dreamers tell us dreams come true. It’s no mistake. And wishes are the dreams we dream when we’re awake.” Let that thought roll around in your mind for a while. I think it’s one of the most profound thoughts ever expressed in popular music lyrics.

What brought it to mind was that I caught a glimpse of an old movie, while surfing on TV recently, called “An Affair to Remember”. It starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. A real tearjerker. Well, that movie was made in 1957 (good grief, more than 50 years ago). But that movie was a remake of an older movie called “Love Affair” that was made in 1939 (good grief, more than 70 years ago). It featured Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in the starring roles. In the original movie, Irene Dunne sang the “wishing” song, written especially for that movie, words and music by Buddy DeSylva – the Tin Pan Alley/Hollywood songwriter I’ve talked about in previous columns. That movie, by the way, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Writing, Best Original Story, Best Art Direction and Best Original Song.

Just to prove that Hollywood knows a good thing when it sees it, it tried another remake in 1994 with another “Love Affair” starring Warren Beatty and Annette Benning. Same storyline, etc. I didn’t see that one. Two out of three is enough. Anyway, it was Irene Dunne who got me started on wishing and dreaming and marveling at lyrics that made sense.

Wishing (Lyric)

Wishing will make it so, Just keep on wishing, and cares will go. Dreamers tell us dreams come true. It’s no mistake. And wishes are the dreams we dream, when we’re awake. The curtain of night will part, If you are certain, Within your heart. So if you wish long enough, wish strong enough, You will come to know. Wishing will make it so.

March 19, 2013
Once In a While

Usually, a successful songwriter has several big hits to his credit. Rarely do you hear of a writer with only one big hit, but once in a while, one comes along. His name was Michael Edwards and his one really big hit was “Once In a While”, published in 1937. Tommy Dorsey’s recording that year went to Number One in the country and Patti Page’s recording some fifteen years later, in 1952, also hit the top of the charts. Again, in 1968, Ella Fitzgerald also had a big hit with her recording; Elkie Brooks had a big hit with it in 1984; and Eddie Vetter did it again in 2011. So, it’s still being heard now and then – once in a while. Michael Edwards was a classical violinist, organist and music arranger, and this song was his one and only major composition.

The lyricist, Bud Green, on the other hand, had written many lyrics and had collaborated with a great many composers and other writers, including Buddy DeSylva, Les Brown, Ray Henderson, Al Dubin, Harry Warren, and others. Among his most successful songs was “Alabamy Bound”, “That’s My Weakness Now”, “I’ll Always Be In Love With You”, “Flat Foot Floogie With a Floy, Floy”, “Sentimental Journey”, and many others. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975. 

Like so many other American songwriters, Bud Green was born in Europe (Austria) and came here as a child. He grew up in Harlem at the beginning of the 20th Century and started writing songs when he was still in elementary school. Aside from his success as a lyricist, Bud Green became famous as a symbol of the “Flapper” era. His song “That’s My Weakness Now” became a huge hit for Helen Kane, including the phrase “Boop Boop-a-Doop”. That song and that phrase and Helen Kane’s rendition became the inspiration for Max Fleischer to create the Betty Boop cartoons that burst on the world in 1930 and that are still with us today.

Once In a While (Lyric)

Once in a while, Will you try to give one little thought to me, Though someone else may be, Nearer your heart? Once in a while, Will you dream of the moments I shared with you, Moments before we two, Drifted apart?

In love’s smoldering ember, One spark may remain, If love still can remember, The flame will burn again. I know that I’ll, Be contented with yesterday’s memory, Knowing you’ll think of me, Once in a while.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Opinions on change, criticism and clarity

After a 36-year career in the federal government, Harry walked away in 1986 as an expert in his field, the media. But he never stopped writing about the media. I uncovered these 1991 essays in a collection on his computer. They may interest media folks and government communicators, as well as entertain his friends and family. I think he would have liked that.


America will be a great place – if they ever finish it. Comedians used to say that every now and then, and it would invariably get a laugh. Sometimes, driving through almost any city in the country, and seeing all the construction going on in office buildings, apartment houses, shopping malls, new roads, etc., that line comes to mind again. It’s what is called an inverted truism. The truth is, of course, that America will never be finished. We will be building it, building upon it, and rebuilding it forever – and not only its physical structure, but its institutions, its values, its very culture, as well.

Our society is constantly evolving and the pace of change is rapidly increasing. In earlier generations, say fifty or sixty years ago, changes were coming much more slowly and people were able to adjust, to adapt to change, to get used to things for a while before they phased into something else. Not anymore. Changes in our lives and in our environment and society are coming so fast that we are having trouble coping with them. They frighten us. We wish, sometimes, that we could slow down the world for a while, till we catch our breath.

Sixty years ago, in the 1940s, an eighth-grade education was enough to qualify people for most jobs in our society. Fifty and forty years ago, in the 1950s and 1960s, a high-school education was enough. In fact, only about 15 percent of our youth graduated from high school in the immediate post-World War II period and less than 10 percent of them went on to college. But the evolving needs of science and technology have changed all that. Today, most jobs in our society require a college degree in order to earn a living wage with any hope of advancement to positions of responsibility and authority. In fact, a large proportion of the worthwhile jobs require advanced degrees. As a consequence, some 75 to 80 percent of our youth today graduate from high school and some 60 percent of them go on to college. That alone represents a great sea change in American society.


Military public affairs officers, whose business involves dealing with the media on a daily basis, are frequently critical for what reporters regard as the wrong reasons. For example, the media has come under attack for writing about the erosion of benefits for service men and women, such as cutting back on commissary and Base Exchange privileges, or making changes in the retirement system. Not only do articles like that make the recruiting job more difficult, but they are bad for the morale of those who are already in the service, and they discourage people from reenlisting when their tours are up. But surely, reporters respond, the military cannot seriously expect the media to refrain from reporting such developments, simply on the grounds that to do so would have a negative effect on recruitments or reenlistments. Such criticisms are grossly unfair, they charge, since the very nature of the reporter’s job is to purvey the news to the public.

* * *
It is a cliché among meteorologists that there is no such thing as bad weather; there are merely different kinds of weather. The same thing is true of news; there is no such thing as bad news, merely different kinds of news and, in journalism, all the news is fit to print. That’s the simple view, the simplistic view. The truth is that in journalism, as in any other business, someone makes decisions a hundred times a day or more as to what to do and what not to do, what to write and what not to write, what to include and what not to include, etc. And everything that reaches the public through the media is going to impinge on the public consciousness and influence the public behavior. 


Here are two examples of how communications can miss the mark. The first is a directive put out by the White House – by one of those bright young presidential aides, no doubt – during World War II:  “Such preparations will be made, as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal Government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by blackout construction or by termination of the illumination. This will, of course, require that in building areas in which production must continue during the blackout, construction must be provided that internal illumination may continue. Other area, whether or not occupied by personnel, may be obscured by terminating the illumination.”

When the President saw it he blew his stack, according to some eyewitnesses. Exasperated, he wrote the following correction in the margin: “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going, to put something across the window. In buildings where they can afford to let the work stop for a while, turn out the lights.” In other words, use plain English!

The second example is about the plumber who wrote to the National Bureau of Standards to tell them how useful hydrochloric acid was for cleaning out clogged drains. The Bureau wrote back: “The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but the corrosive residue is incompatible with metallic permanence.”

The plumber replied that he was happy that the Bureau agreed with him. So the Bureau tried again, writing: “We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residue with hydrochloric acid, and suggest that you use an alternative procedure.” And again the plumber expressed pleasure that he and the Bureau saw eye to eye.

Finally, a sharp young secretary at the Bureau sent a message that got through: “Don’t use hydrochloric acid,” she wrote, “it eats hell out of the pipes.” 

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman