He could be corny and old-fashioned, and his songs were sentimental and conventional, but several songs I sang frequently in the 1970s and still sing today are John Denver songs.
John Denver popped onto the American music scene the same year I was graduating from high school. Then before I dropped out of college two years later to work on a cattle ranch in the mountains of West Texas, John Denver was a star.
Some of the blame for my leaving school and heading out had to do with John Denver. He sang about the great expanse of the west, the mountains and the streams, and being free of civilization and its curse, and I took him literally. Of course, his compositions were about more, but John Denver’s legacy is a love of nature and a life devoted to environmental and humanitarian issues.
“Poems, Prayers and Promises,” a 1971 album by John Denver, was the first album I purchased. I bought a guitar and learned to strum it, too, which is all I can do still, but John Denver was the impetus for that. I had never been inclined to music much before even though my older sisters and brother had piano lessons and could play.
My mother became a John Denver fan, too. I’m sure many older women, despite the generational gap, found him attractive and entertaining. He was a product of the 1960s revolution, but in an odd way, he was also a throwback to the crooners of the previous era, a sort of Bing Crosby or Dean Martin. He seemed to be drawn to entertainment as much as songwriting, so he ended up on television with his own shows, even hosting an annual Christmas program that drew millions of viewers. His show was ABC’s highest rated show for a number of years, and when I was home for the holidays, I sat with my family in the living room watching John Denver each year.
Despite his popularity, John Denver never won a Grammy for any of his songs, well, not until after he died in a plane crash in 1997. The next year, he received a Hall of Fame award posthumously for “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Critics and other songwriters had long counted him as a lightweight composer, writing soft, cheesy, simplistic ballads.
For a long time, I disagreed with them. I still do, to some extent, but they were right about some songs, especially “Sunshine on my Shoulders,” which is almost painful to listen to with its maudlin lyrics and slow, slow delivery even for the type of song it was. More than sunshine on your shoulders, the song wants to make you cry.
But John Denver penned one of my top ten favorite songs ever in “Perhaps Love.” In the 1980s, I listened to that song on tape and CD more than any other song I listened to. Just call me sentimental and cheesy.
We called him Uncle Walter. His associates called him Iron Pants. But no contradiction exists between the two terms describing the life of Walter Cronkite.
My family called him Uncle Walter because he came into our household every evening. We trusted him. His associates called him Iron Pants because of his reluctance to leave his newscaster’s chair during a big story, outlasting the most dedicated of his fellow journalists.
Cronkite was born in the same city that I was born in, St. Joseph, MO. But when I was born, he was 36 years old, had worked for United Press International for 14 years, and worked with CBS for a year.
Cronkite hadn’t lived long in St. Joseph. His parents moved to Kansas City when he was a year old and then to Houston when he was ten. So his childhood influences had little to do with our shared hometown. But St. Joseph residents claimed him for their own because he was a character worth claiming. He was honest, hard-working and smart. He didn’t necessarily make sense of the world every evening, but he brought the world into perspective.
He was the first to tell us about most everything that happened in our time. Of course, the most notable and infamous thing that happened was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The shock and disappointment in his face and voice mirrored the pain we felt.
Cronkite’s other painful job was informing America that the Vietnam War was a mess and a mistake. A World War II correspondent, Cronkite reportedly agreed early on with the necessity of the conflict in southeast Asia. But after a visit there, he recognized the futility and brutality of the conflict. When Uncle Walter broke the news that Vietnam was a lost cause, we knew for certain it was.
I especially remember “The Twentieth Century,” one of Cronkite’s innovations. It was a documentary television program that Cronkite hosted about recent political and cultural events. At that time, there was nothing like it on television and he set the standard for the evening news programs that would follow. Cronkite was big on technology too, especially the space program. He devoted himself to explaining it to Americans, and NASA recognized the effort. The space agency gave him an Ambassador of Exploration Award in 2006. He was the only non-astronaut or non-NASA employee to receive the award.
I often wonder how Uncle Walter would rate in today’s skeptical-of-the-media climate. In his time, he was repeatedly named the most trusted man in America. Once he was fired because he refused to report a story that had not been verified.
But nothing about Uncle Walter was fake. He earned the loyalty of honest people, and the political career of Johnson ended when Cronkite reported on the Vietnam War and Nixon’s career was doomed when Cronkite wouldn’t let Woodward and Bernstein’s undercover journalism die. If Cronkite said it, it was true because he was devoted to the truth.
We only knew of two Frenchmen in the 1960s when Jacques Cousteau and The Undersea World aired on television.
One was Maurice Chevalier, who sang the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” on American variety shows. The other we heard about occasionally was Charles DeGaulle, the French president who, like US President Eisenhower, had been a military general in World War II.
In those days, everything on American television was strictly American. So it was different and strange to see foreigners other than The Beatles, Herman Hermits, or Tom Jones, make appearances on American TV, and especially find a foreigner there with his or her own show.
Then add another twist. Jacques Cousteau was not a singer, comedian, or actor; he was an environmentalist. We didn’t know what an environmentalist was then, only that they wanted, according to American corporations, to take away all the good things that gave us cancer and asthma.
But by the mid-1960s, the environmental movement had begun making inroads into American consciousness. Still television lagged behind; all we had was a nature show, Wild Kingdom, which though good, gave us mostly a Disney version of the natural world.
Jacques Cousteau began to change that. He talked about protecting marine environments when the oceans were considered beyond polluting. He saw what others did not and advocated restrictions on dumping waste in the sea, including nuclear waste. He knew then what we only began to realize twenty or thirty years later, the oceans were not too big to fail.
Cousteau was an interesting character with his red stocking cap, sunburnt face, and ridiculously thin body. He looked like someone the ocean’s cold water could send to his death by pneumonia or squish with a few atmospheres of pressure.
Not many people were going down in the ocean depths then. Scientists were exploring and discovering new things about forests, mountain ranges, and deserts, but few were sucking bottled air in salty water and providing us visions of life under the waves.
I say that, but that is not exactly true. Five years prior to Cousteau’s breakthrough on American television, a program featuring a scuba diver finished a five-year run. Sea Hunt starring Lloyd Bridges, however, was not an environmental program. It was an adventure program with plots that included at times undersea exploration or scientific experiments.
Still, to us growing up in the 1960s, the oceans were a Jules Verne mystery. Every episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau provided a glimpse into something we had never seen before and knew nothing about. Each week, there were Cousteau and the crew of Calypso sailing like Captain Cook to far flung places, except unlike Cook, they didn’t come to destroy native culture and exploit the natural world. They came to protect all that they discovered.
And they did it with their sexy French accents that drove my mother crazy. She never learned to swim, but Jacques helped her appreciate the water.
Students were taught no other American president came close to the moral and egalitarian stature of Abraham Lincoln when I attended elementary school in the 1960s.
Today someone claims to be as good as and even a better president than Lincoln. Don’t worry, the claim is obviously bogus.
But it’s worth noting that Lincoln was just a man, not the demigod he was made out to be after his assassination and during the next 100 years. Lincoln had his faults.
He did not consider the welfare of Native Americans to be of great importance, and Lincoln advocated at one time sending black Americans to Africa to live. He seems to have believed that blacks and whites belonged on separate continents.
Another fault of Lincoln was that he was a tried-and-true Republican. As an attorney, he worked for railroad corporations, defending their interests in land and money grabs and against employee and citizen injury lawsuits.
And finally, Lincoln didn’t always stick to his principles. As a congressman, Lincoln called President Polk a liar when Polk lied about the start of the Mexican War. Lincoln said he could not support the war. But when it came time to vote, Lincoln voted for war funding, afraid to appear non-supportive of American soldiers. Lincoln forgot if you’re going to be against a war, you vote against it and vote to bring soldiers home.
Still, even in today’s cynicism, most Americans would agree Lincoln was a great man and our greatest president.
Most will say Lincoln was great because he rose above his dismal and impoverished upbringing. Or they will say he was great because he held the union together, which he did, but he did that with the help of many other strong leaders at the time.
But Lincoln’s real greatness is in his humility. He rose to a position of power at a time when character was intensely challenged. Yet Lincoln remained the good-natured, honest, open-minded and sympathetic person he had been before he became president.
And though the Civil War shaped his presidency, he did not allow the war’s ferocity and cruelty to drag him into savage name-calling and calls for revenge.
He also was willing to admit his mistakes. After being rebuked by Frederick Douglass and others for proposing to send black Americans to Africa, Lincoln accepted the folly and injustice of the proposal and dropped it.
Finally, Lincoln was a manipulator. He knew how to get what he wanted out of people, which is what Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent best-seller, Team of Rivals, reveals. Even one of Lincoln’s greatest accomplishments, the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in the Confederacy, was a play to appease residents of non-seceding states and the Northerners who favored abolition, as well as disrupt Southern war efforts.
Yet despite being manipulative, Lincoln was an extremely honest person throughout his life. He even earned the handle “Honest Abe,” which despite repeated scrutiny over the years, has endured. You can’t say that about many politicians.
During the presidential election of 1976, opponents of Jimmy Carter said, “Jimmy Carter wears his religion on his sleeve, but Jerry Ford wears it on his heart.”
I’m not commenting on Gerald Ford, who lost to Carter that year, but what was said about Carter was wrong, very wrong.
Jimmy Carter was vocal about his faith, but he was no empty-sounding drum. Carter backed his words with a devotion to many causes, especially, the work of Habitat for Humanity. Carter has been associated with the group so long that I can’t hear Habitat without automatically thinking of Jimmy Carter.
Last year, at 95, Carter was helping build homes, 21 of them, in Nashville for low-income people through the nonprofit. Carter worked despite suffering a fall days earlier at his home which left him with a black eye and 14 stitches in his head.
Ironically, the criticism of Carter in 1976 came from other, alleged, born again Christians. They did not like Carter’s liberalism or Carter’s proposal to tax the book companies, radio and TV programs, colleges, and other lucrative businesses run by megachurches and TV evangelists who claimed their businesses were religious and exempt from government taxation.
Sadly, Carter lost the election because of the hypocrisy of those fundamentalists along with the hypocrisy of those in his own party who opposed his pork barrel cuts. Only months after taking office, Carter criticized 19 federal projects in a spending bill, and fellow Democrats who had proposed the projects never forgave Carter. Democrats failed to support Carter’s economic reforms which led to disillusion with his administration.
Carter also lost the election over a ridiculous issue. During the second half of Carter’s term in office, the US faced an oil shortage due to the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Domestic oil producers were in no position to make up for the loss of imported oil, and gas prices rose.
Carter encouraged a 55-mile-per-hour highway speed limit, which was passed by Congress. Driving slower burns less fuel, and the action did, in fact, help to provide some relief from the shortage.
But just as during today’s coronavirus pandemic, people were reluctant to do the simple thing to alleviate a crisis. Drivers didn’t want to drive slower to make more fuel available for others, just as some people today will not wear a mask to protect others from coronavirus.
Carter did accomplish something no president before him had been able to do: bring together Israeli and Arab leaders and get them to agree to a wide-ranging peace plan. Carter hosted Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat at a Camp David summit that ended with the peace deal that still holds today.
I know Carter is often referred to by many as the worst American president since the early Twentieth Century. But that is said by those who don’t understand what Carter attempted to do and the hypocrites who undermined his presidency.
I have been guilty, like many men, of objectifying women.
I admit years ago, as a budding, hormone-seething teenager of the 1960s, I looked upon Raquel Welch as only an object of sex.
In 1966, when I was 13 years old, Raquel made an appearance in One Million B.C. — giving only three lines in a nearly two-hour movie.
My thoughts about sex were a little ill-defined and nebulous then, but there was nothing ill-defined or nebulous about Raquel’s physical appeal. She was all well-defined curves, sharp facial features, and dark skin that spoke directly and unmistakably to my male curiosity and budding libido. Her curvaceous and well-endowed frame covered by a negligible skin-of-an-animal bikini spurred an already active imagination and drive.
After her big breakthrough, Raquel began receiving more roles and leading roles, usually as a sex symbol, until the 1980s when older, but still beautiful, she began to flag in popularity and she was cast in a made-for-television movie that attempted to portray her in a new role as a smart, inquisitive reporter/investigator/writer. Despite being clad in pantsuit, suit jacket, and blouse buttoned to the top of her neck, Raquel provoked in me memories of the gorgeous woman in a bikini made from the skin of an animal.
Some today will say it’s a shame, and it is, that she was treated mainly as a symbol of sexual appeal. And it is a shame that she made her way to stardom predominantly on her shape even though she had enough acting ability to be more than a body; otherwise, she would have been relegated to low-budget movies with limited exposure.
What I grew to appreciate about Raquel, however, is that she never submitted herself to gratuitous sex scenes or puerile nudity. She was discreet about the roles she took, and I would wager she was as tough in the movie industry standing up to men as the roles she played on screen.
She was not a fragile, mixed-up megastar who needed cajoling, preening, and extra attention. She didn’t make a mess of her life with drugs, alcohol or sex despite being subjected, most likely, to the sexual harassment and mistreatment of the day in the movie industry.
I last saw Raquel on a Seinfeld episode. The episode came out in 1997, but I wouldn’t have seen it then. I caught it on a rerun, probably five to ten years later. When the episode was made, Raquel would have been near 60 years old, but the curves were still there.
And not only the curves. All the sass and spitfire of her younger days were showcased too. She took the Seinfeld writers’ quirky, fun-poking characterization of her in stride and good humor.
Or maybe she helped to create the character she portrayed.
If she did, I would appreciate her even more.
I was not quite three years old when Albert Einstein died, yet his face, figure and accomplishments became so much a part of popular culture that I feel as if he lived well into my manhood.
Even today my nine-year-old grandson recognizes Einstein’s immortal face and the brilliance of his life and mind. Even after other giants of physics followed Einstein – Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, Freeman Dyson – they have not come close to displacing Einstein as the epitome of intelligence and the ability to peer beyond the visible or established.
Of course, Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity and discovery of the photoelectric effect were not arrived at in isolation. They came about as the result of the work of physicists before him; as Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
But if anyone in science or philosophical thought skipped beyond the principles of known natural law and reasoning into a completely new universe of principles and behavior, Einstein is the human who did it.
I started college taking physics and calculus because I thought I had a good grasp of mathematics and mathematical reasoning.
I did fine in Calc I, getting an A, and I went into Calc II thinking I would conquer it too.
But halfway through, as we began revolving various curved and jagged lines around an axis to determine the volume of the 3D shape the spinning made, I lost my way. My grade dropped from an A to a C, and if the semester had lasted longer, I would have failed.
So, Einstein’s accomplishment is far beyond my paltry comprehension and the comprehension of most people.
But we can appreciate the benefits his work, theoretical as it was at the time. If relativity were not accounted for in the orbits of GPS satellites today, for instance, their navigational value would falter within two minutes, and the plane you may be in would not be able to land safely.
But we can appreciate Einstein’s dedication to his craft, his wonderment at the universe’s existence, and his burning curiosity toward the natural world. All those earned him the highest respect from others.
He also earned high marks as a human being. Even though his theories led to the realization of the atom bomb, Einstein did not take part in its development, nor were his first inclinations at e=mc2 that they could lead to an ultimate weapon.
Einstein did sign his name to a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt encouraging the development of uranium research leading to the possibility of a bomb. But Einstein said years later he signed his name only because he had been assured the Third Reich was developing an atomic bomb. That was not true, and Einstein regretted signing the letter written by another scientist.
Einstein lived and died a pacifist. His last years were about encouraging an end to war and the bomb his theory engendered.
If there was a daily comic strip I did not miss during its running, it was Calvin and Hobbes. While other strips have been just as inventive and unique — think Peanuts and The Far Side — no other comic strip carries the same intensity of human pathos or presents complex life issues and paradoxes in such an effortless and elementary way.
Watterson had encouragement and direction for his strip. He submitted a query that had Calvin as a minor character, and Universal Press Syndicate encouraged Watterson to make Calvin and his stuffed tiger the main characters in a revised strip. Here is a case of critics making the correct call regarding artist creativity — which is an example why people should listen to expert opinion — they can be right.
Of course, Universal Press Syndicate did not develop Calvin and Hobbes. The credit goes to Watterson, although there are precedents, especially for Calvin.
Calvin is reminiscent of Dennis the Menace and other mischievous and sardonic characters before him: Think Woody Woodpecker or Bugs Bunny who played the trickster, the sarcastic commentator, the hedonist.
But Calvin, personality-wise, is much more rounded than Dennis, Bugs or Woody. Calvin’s vanity is countered by childishness, his impulsiveness by creativity, and his moments of disrespect by his inquisitive mind.
And despite his sometime crass nature, he is vulnerable. At those times Calvin and Watterson are at their best. When the sick baby squirrel that Calvin finds dies, Calvin cries in his mother’s arm and reflects on the meaning of life and purpose of death.
Watterson also created an enduring character in Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who comes to life in Calvin’s imagination when the two are alone. He balances Calvin’s excesses and enlarges Calvin’s sense of wonderment.
My daughter as a child had an imaginary friend. He wasn’t a stuffed toy or a definite object, just someone who hung around and who she talked to at times. We made allowances for the imaginary friend; then one night I pulled a chair to the dinner table for JoJo and my daughter said the extra chair wasn’t needed.
“What about JoJo?” I said.
“He’s gone,” my daughter said.
“He gone. He’s not coming back,” she said.
I was not heart broken, but I had a several-month investment in JoJo. I was disappointed at my daughter’s callous display of indifference at his departure.
I felt an even more desperate loss when after 10 years, Watterson abandoned his creation. But maintaining a daily comic strip, especially one with the level of creativity Watterson displayed, is a demanding, draining work. Knowing when to quit something is as valuable as knowing when to start something.
So when I am reminded of Calvin and Hobbes, and I feel a wave of nostalgia, I go to the collections of Calvin and Hobbes strips I have and read a few weeks’ worth. Calvin and Hobbes are not just enduring characters, but they have become imaginary characters I cannot live without.