Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I Stick My Neck Out for Nobody (except to sing "La Marseillaise")

Q: What are the specific dates during which the action of Casablanca takes place?

Hint: This is a pretty good time of year to ask this question.

Grammarians seem to love Casablanca. Perhaps it's all the lines and phrases that are part of our daily vocabulary. (Whenever we say we are "shocked, shocked" to learn of some wrongdoing, we are quoting Captain Louis Renault without any need of explanation beyond a certain inflection in our voices echoing the bureaucratic hypocrisy embodied for all time so wonderfully by Claude Rains.)

A: We must be alert near the beginning of the movie, when we first meet American ex-patriot barkeep Rick Blaine as he OK's a check, dated 2 Decembre, 1941.

That evening, Ilsa Lund, the lost love of Rick's life, enters Rick's Cafe Americain with her husband, freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. After the bar closes, Rick drowns his sorrows with Sam the piano player and says, "It's December 1941 in Casablanca. I'll bet they're asleep in New York. I'll be they're asleep all over America."

On December 3, Isla and Victor check the black market for Letters of Transit. That evening at Rick's, Victor counters a group of German soldiers singing "Watch on the Rhine" by leading the band and customers in "La Marseillaise," forcing Major Strasser to close the cafe. (The tears in the customers' eyes were by-and-large real --- most of the extras were refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, overcome by the emotion of the scene.)

Later that night, while Victor attends a meeting of the resistance, Ilsa visits Rick and ... well, the details are left to our imagination.

On Dec. 4 Rick sells his cafe to Signor Ferrari of the Blue Parrot and arranges the scheme to get Ilsa and Victor on the plane to Lisbon, which he does, killing Major Strasser in the process. Arm in arm with the cynical Captain Renault, Rick joins the fight, just three days before the rest of his countrymen do. (Which, of course, is the point of the picture, made in 1942.)

Along with shooting a Nazi major through a trench coat, every Casablanca fan yearns to be able to sing "La Marseillaise" along with Yvonne, the teary-eyed barfly. So, here are the lyrics:

Allons enfants de la patrie, . . . Arise you children of the fatherland,
Le jour de gloire est arrive. . . . The day of glory has arrived.
Contre nous de la tyrannie . . . Against us the bloody flag
L'etendard sanglant est leve. . . . of tyranny is raised.
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes, . . . Do you hear in the fields,
Mugir ces feroces soldats? . . . The howls of these ferocious soldiers?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras . . . They come right up into our arms
Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes: . . . To slit the throats of your sons, your comrades.
Aux armes, Citoyens! . . . To arms, citizens!
Formez vos battailons, . . . Form your battalions.
Marchons, marchons, . . . Let's march! Let's march!
Qu'un sang impur . . . Let impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons! . . . Water our furrows!

Several years ago, Anne Bagamery, business editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, wrote about a political controversy then taking place about the last two lines of "La Marseillaise":

"Most people think they are 'Que sang impur abreuve nos sillons' -- in other words, let the blood of our enemies fill our furrows. Others, including the ultra-right National Front, insist the words are "...n'abreuve nos sillons" -- let the blood of our enemies NOT fill our furrows, in other words, keep the filthy interlopers off our land entirely. Members of that party often sing their own version of the lyrics, despite what everyone else is singing.

"Also BTW, and I did not know this until I had a child in French school: French people do not systematically learn their national anthem! If you watch closely during big ceremonies, you'll see that even high government officials are not singing along. This is not because they fear they will break down with emotion; it is because they don't know the words!"

And they don't watch Casablanca the way we do!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Your and you're; its and it's

"Thank you."
"Your welcome." Aaiiiieeeee! Please kill me now.

This is an error that seems to be an epidemic at all levels of society, especially on e-mails.
  • "You're" is a contraction of "you are."
  • "Your" modifies nouns, and in "your house."
  • "It's" is a contraction of "it is," as in, "It's a beautiful morning."
  • "Its" is used to modify nouns, as in, "The cat uses its litter box."

    These and other common confusions are listed in Harbrace's Glossary of Usage, (G-1 through G-11, near the back, marked usgl on the upper right corner of the right-hand pages.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A waif in tattered clothing -- a ragamuffin


ragamuffin (RAG-uh-muf-in) noun
Someone, especially a child, in ragged, dirty clothes.
[After Ragamoffyn, a demon in William Langland's 14th century poem
Piers Plowman.]

"There were ragamuffins filled with certainties on every streetcorner
and philosophers in every coffeehouse."
-- Earl Shorris; A Nation of Salesmen; Harper's (New York); Oct 1994.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Notre Dame Victory March

When once-mighty Notre Dame plays Stanford today, the Fighting Irish will be trying to avoid their 10th loss of the season, so it's a good time to sing "The Notre Dame Victory March" loud and clear.

First played in 1909, the "Victory March" was written by the Rev. Michael J. Shea and his brother John, classes of '06 and '08, respectively. Michael became a priest in Ossining, N.Y. John lived in Holyoke, Mass. The song's public debut came in the winter of 1908 when Michael played it on the organ of the Second Congregational Church in Holyoke.

The first verse, nobody knows:

Rally sons of Notre Dame
Sing her glory and sound her fame,
Raise the Gold and Blue
And cheer with voices true:
Rah, rah, for Notre Dame.
We will fight in ev-ry game,
Strong of heart and true to her name
We will never forget her
And will cheer her ever
Loyal to Notre Dame

But the second verse, everybody should know:

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name,
Send a volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky.
What though the odds be great or small
Old Notre Dame will win over all,
While her loyal sons are marching
onward to victory.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Vary sentence structure and length

Harbrace Chapter 30 is on Variety: Vary the structure and length of your sentences to maintain the reader's interest.
Seek sentence variety to make your writing livelier. Inexperienced writers tend to rely too heavily--regardless of content or purpose---on a few familiar, comfortable structures.

Among many items for a writer's bag of tricks in Chapter 30, there's Rule 30b(2): Begin with a prepositional phrase or a verbal phrase.
  • Out of necessity, they stitched all of their secret fears and lingering childhood nightmares into their existence. --Gloria Naylor [prepositional phrase]
  • To be really successful, you will have to be trilingual: fluent in English, Spanish, and computer. --John Naisbitt [infinitive phrase]
  • Looking out the window high over the state of Kansas, we see a pattern of a single farmhouse surrounded by fields, followed by another single homestead surrounded by fields. --William Ouchi [participial phrase]

Another very handy tip, No. 30b(4), suggests: Begin with an appositive, an absolute phrase, or an introductory series.

  • A place of refuge, the Mission provides food and shelter for Springfield's homeless. ---Shelley Aley [appositive]
  • His fur bristling, the cat went on the attack. [absolute phrase]
  • Light, water, temperature, minerals---these affect the health of plants. [introductory series]

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A demimonde -- oo la la!

demimonde n. [from the French demi (half, or "partly a part of") + monde (world)]
1 a: a class of women on the fringes of respectable society supported by wealthy lovers b: prostitutes
2: a woman of the demimonde
3: a group engaged in activity of doubtful legality or propriety

"Before Giuliani gets [to the presidency], Americans might want to learn more about the New York demimonde he runs with. In recent years, New York's hothouse of sex and power has sometimes felt like a nuthouse, with the inmates in charge."
---From Jonathan Alter's column in the current Newsweek

The People She Loved
A retired prostitute remembers a downtown Knoxville demimonde
by Jack Neely
--- a coverline from Metro Pulse (Knoxville's Weekly Voice)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

From 1597 -- We Gather Together

From Wikipedia:

We Gather Together is a Christian hymn of Netherlands origin written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius (pka François Valéry) as Wilt Heden Nu Treden to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout.

In the United States, it is popularly associated with Thanksgiving Day and is often sung at family meals and at religious services on that day. Although it appeared in a Dutch hymnal printed in 1626 (after the Pilgrims sailed to Massachusetts), the Pilgrims probably knew the hymn or about it from the period when they lived in Holland.

The hymn is customarily performed to a tune known as "Kremser", from Eduard Kremser's 1877 score arrangement.

The modern English text was written by Theodore Baker in 1894.

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,
Sing praises to His name: He forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side, All glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
And pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Like St. Patrick -- a noble patrician


patrician (puh-TRISH-uhn) noun
A person of high social rank, good background, etc.; an aristocrat.
[From Latin patricius (having a noble father), from pater (father).]

A note from a subscriber:
"Of course, as an Irishman I have to point out that this is the origin of our patron saint's name. He was indeed a Roman patrician by birth, as he and his father were Roman citizens and their family owned a villa in Britain called Bannaventum Tabernae, staffed with both servants and
slaves. A real patrician indeed."

"The exciting new tie width even spawned a musical genre (probably invented by some dull, pipe-smoking patrician at Rolling Stone magazine)."
-- Simon Mills; The Day Ties Went Size Zero; The Guardian (London, UK); Oct 26, 2007.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bo, Woody & Ralph Waldo

"Go forth into the busy world and love it. Interest yourself in its life, mingle kindly with its joys and sorrows."--Ralph Waldo Emerson (right).

The coming weekend's showdown between Ohio State and Michigan brings up memories of the late, longtime Wolverine coach Bo Schembechler and his mentor and coaching rival, Woody Hayes (above), whose long career as coach of the Buckeyes was ended by an intemperate moment in the 1978 Gator Bowl, when he gave a dandy upper cut to Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman, who had intercepted an Art Schlichter pass to seal the game.

In the early 80s, I had a phone interview with a retired Hayes on the subject of pep talks, for which he was famous. He often liked to talk with his players about history. ("I've got two dollars," he said to an Ohio high school audience in the 70s. "Whoever tells me the two most important events of the 20th century, I'll give you a dollar and sign it!." Woody's answers: the Russian Revolution and the explosion of the atomic bomb.)

When Ohio State played at Illinois, Hayes said he liked to look at the portrait of Abe Lincoln in the dining hall and talk about Lincoln -- what kind of a man he was, what kind of an athlete he was (a rail splitter, state champion wrestler) and what kind of a football player he would have been (a defensive tackle, the team decided, "because he could use those rail-splitter's arms to shed blockers") .

Hayes then said he often liked to talk with his players about Emerson's essay on "Compensation." It's a 40-page essay, with many complex themes relating morality to the natural world. But one theme is, roughly, that you receive many kindnesses and benefits in your life (like, say, from teachers and parents) that you can't really pay back to those people. But you can (and should) extend similar kindnesses to others to balance out the give and take of the cosmos (or something like that).

Hayes said many a player had come back to him in later years and said, "Coach, Emerson was right!"
Suffice it to say that the world of college football has changed a little since the days of Woody Hayes -- though Joe Paterno could probably throw a little New England trancendental philosophy around the locker room if he really wanted to get the Nittany Lions up for a tough game!

Art Schlichter, by the way, went on the become one of the most tragic victims of compulsive gambling ever. He threw away his NFL career and his life because of the addiction, for which he was treated in the best gambling addiction facilities in the country, to no avail. Schlichter most recently served a sentence in federal prison for money laundering and fraud. He was released from prison on June 16, 2006. By one estimate, he owes half a million dollars in restitution.
Schlichter has founded a non-profit organization, Gambling Prevention Awareness, to educate others about the perils of compulsive gambling, including college and NFL players. He told ESPN that he started gambling because the pressure of being Ohio State's starting quarterback was too much on him, and he wanted to be just a regular guy.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mnemonic Devices (for spelling)

A mnemonic device is one that assists the memory, from the Greek mnemon--mindful. (Mnemosyne was the Greek goddess of memory and the mother of the Muses by Zeus.)

We all know "I before e, except after c, or when sounded as "a", as in neighbor or weigh."
Fewer people know the mnemonic sentence that can help us remember the major exceptions: "Neither leisure foreigner seized the weird heights."

Try these---

There is a rat in separate.

I have an independent dentist. (We also have an independent superintendent, who sings Do-Wop.)

The principal is my pal. "Principal" can also refer to a matter or thing of primary importance, or the capital sum placed at interest, due as a debt, or used as a fund, as in the principal of a loan.

A principle is a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption. As in, you are always true to your principles.

For the dance, your attendance is requested, just as it will be for you descendants.

A vast area was devastated.

Finally, something definite.

Like the letters you'll write on it, stationery has an "e" in it. (As opposed to stationary, or unmoving, objects.)

We're all all grateful for congratulations.

The U.S. Capitol building has a dome on it -- as do the "o"s in both words. Confusingly, Washington., D.C., is the capital of the United States.
Why? The former word comes from the Capitoleum , the temple of Jupiter at Rome that sat atop the Capitoline hill. The latter comes from the Latin capitalis, meaning chief, or principal, (derived from the Latin word caput, meaning "head"). All you have to remember is the building has a domed "o." All other meanings are with an "a."

How can you learn for sure to spell tough words, like occurrence, or accommodate? Or parallel? One good start is to pay a visit to Harbrace Chapter 18: Spelling and Hyphenation. The first seven pages are invaluable for anyone.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Digging in your heels -- recalcitrant


recalcitrant (ri-KAL-si-truhnt) adjective
Stubbornly resistant to authority.
[From Latin recalcitrare (to kick back, to be disobedient), from re- (again) + calcitrare (to kick), from calx (heel). If you have a dog that has dug his heels in while you're trying to pull him forward, you have a case of an animal that's being recalcitrant, literally.]

Click here to see recalcitrant in the Visual Thesaurus.

"Mount Kelut has been on high alert for more than two weeks but activity escalated dramatically on Friday, triggering fresh rounds of evacuations carried out by troops and local officials. On Saturday, some recalcitrant residents were dragged from their homes."
-- Indonesia's Mount Kelut Erupts; Agence France-Presse; Nov 3, 2007.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Omit superfluous words, SEC style

(from "A Plain English Handbook," put out by the Security and Exchange Commission to coach financiers on making their stock offerings and other disclosure documents more comprehensible.)

Words are superfluous when they can be replaced with fewer words that means the same thing. Sometimes you can use a simpler word for these phrases:

superfluous . . . . . simpler
in order to . . . . . to
in the event that . . . . if
subsequent to . . . . after
prior to . . . before
despite the fact that . . . although
because of the fact that . . . because or since
in light of . . . because or since
owing to the fact that . . . because or since

The following summary is intended only to highlight certain information contained elsewhere in this Prospectus.

This summary highlights some information from this Prospectus.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A comma costs a cable company $1 million

As we know, non-restrictive phrases or clauses -- that is, those that can be dropped out of a sentence without changing its meaning -- are set off in commas.
So, the second comma in the following sentence makes the "and .. " adverbial phrase a non-restrictive element, which means that the contract can be terminated in a year:
“This Agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

Here's the whole story from a year ago:

By Ian Austin of The New York Times

OTTAWA, Oct. 18 - What is the price of an extra comma? For Canada’s largest cable television company, it may be 1 million Canadian dollars.
Rogers Communications of Toronto and a telephone company in Atlantic Canada are locked in an arcane grammar debate that will decide the fate of a contract between the two corporations.
Canada’s telecommunications regulator, citing what it called the “rules of punctuation”, recently ruled that a single comma in a 14 page contract allows Bell Aliant to cancel a five year contract covering use of telephone poles by Rogers at any time with notice.
Rather than accept the regulator’s grammatical parsing, Rogers has now turned to Canada’s official language, French, as well as its own outside grammar expert to appeal the ruling. The case clearly frustrates Kenneth G. Engelhart, its vice president of regulatory affairs.
“Why they feel that a comma should somehow overrule the plain meaning of the words is beyond me,” Mr. Engelhart said. “I don’t think it makes any sense.”
The agreement between the two companies is a standard contract for the use of utility poles that was negotiated between a cable television trade association and an alliance of telephone companies. French and English versions of the contract were approved by the government regulator about six years ago.
Mr. Engelhart said that the cable industry’s has always understood that the pole contracts run for five years. In that industry’s view, the contracts then automatically renew for another five years unless a telephone company cancels the agreement before the start of its final 12 months.
Aliant, which is controlled by Montreal-based BCE, declined to comment on the dispute. However, in a filing with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, it declared the issue “a classic case of where the placement of a comma has great importance.”
Mr. Engelhart said the grammar fight began when Aliant told Rogers in February 2005 it was canceling a pole agreement for the province of New Brunswick one year early. The cancellation was necessary because a local electrical utility was taking direct control of poles that Aliant previously managed on its behalf.
The power company, Mr. Engelhart said, planned to “really crank up rates,” a change that would cost Rogers about 1 million Canadian dollars over that final year.
In the first round, the regulator agreed with Aliant that the second comma in this sentence enables the phone company to escape the contract after as little as one year: “This Agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
Even Aliant allowed in its submissions that there are at least three different ways to interpret the sentence.
But the regulator concluded the second comma means that the part of the sentence describing the one year notice for cancellation applies to both contract’s five year term as well as its renewal.
“The meaning of the clause was clear and unambiguous,” it wrote in a ruling issued in July.
Mr. Engelhart acknowledged that his lawyers may have underestimated the regulator’s interest in grammar.
“We were obviously too confident the first time around,” he said.
To bolster its appeal, Rogers commissioned a 69-page affidavit, mostly about commas, from Kenneth A. Adams, a lawyer from Garden City, N.Y. and the author of two books on contract language. It disputes the regulator’s analysis of what Mr. Adams calls “The Rule of The Last Antecedent.”
Rogers is also banking on the official French version of the pole agreements which has equal status under Canadian law. While differences between the languages means that it will not settle the comma question, Mr. Engelhart said its phrasing removes any ambiguity about the contract’s lifespan.
“It becomes very clear once you read the French version,” he said.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Indisputably true, self-evident -- axiomatic


axiomatic (ak-see-uh-MAT-ik) adjective
1. Indisputably true; self-evident.
2. Aphoristic.

[From Greek axiomatikos, from axioma (honorable). Ultimately from Indo-European root ag- (to drive, draw) that's also the fount of suchwords as act, agent, agitate, litigate, synagogue, and ambassador.]

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The true story behind Thunder Road

The Boys of Thunder Road
Our Best Lead Yet for the Real “Mountain Boy” in Thunder Road
By Brooks Clark

“Let me tell the story, I can tell it all, about the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol….”

So croons Robert Mitchum in his 1958 hit record, The Ballad of Thunder Road, a bi-product of the cult-classic B movie, Thunder Road, that Mitchum wrote, produced and starred in, alongside his son.

Like so many Tennesseans born in the 50s, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know by heart (and sing in our station wagon on those family car trips) that infectious refrain—

“And there was thunder, thunder over thunder road,
Thunder was his engine and white lightning was his load.
And there was moonshine, moonshine quench the devil’s thirst,
The law they swore they’d get him but the devil got him first.”

From its twangy opening guitar run, the song builds to a tragic denouement. In an ominous e-minor key evoking danger and action (used to similar effect in Henry Mancini’s James Bond Theme and Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man) – Mitchum sings,

On the 1st of April, 1954,
the federal man sent word
He’d better make his run no more.
He said 200 agents
were covering the state
Whichever road he tried to take,
they’d get him sure as fate.
Son, his daddy told him,
make this run your last.
The engine’s filled with hundred proof;
you’re all tuned up and gassed.
Now, don’t take any chances,
if you can’t get through.
I’d rather have you back again
than all that mountain dew.

Roarin’ out of Harlan, revvin’ up his mill,
He shot the gap at Cumberland,
and screamed by Maynardville.
With T-men on his tail lights,
roadblocks up ahead,
The mountain boy took roads
that even Angels feared to tread.
Blazin’ right through Knoxville,
out on Kingston Pike,
Then right outside of Bearden,
where they made the fatal strike.
He left the road at 90,
that’s all there is to say,
The devil got the moonshine
and the mountain boy that day.

In the movie, the mountain boy’s 1950 Ford Coupe busts through one Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) roadblock, swerves to avoid a second, careens at full speed off the highway, rolls over three times and lands in a fiery mess on the fence of a electric-utility switching station.

Connoisseurs of Thunder Road know the movie was filmed in Asheville and the action takes place nowhere near Knoxville, and those who’ve looked have never found any record of the crash in Knoxville's newspapers or court records.

Nonetheless, the words of the song and the image from the movie of the hot rod flipping over into an electrical substation are cemented in our collective memory, and they certainly tap into larger truths about this region’s ties to moonshine, fast cars, and running from revenuers.

When I drive on Kingston Pike near Bearden Hill, those lyrics and images push their way into my head. I see the mountain boy roaring from Papermill Drive – the truck by-pass in those days – onto the main drag right where P.F. Chang’s is today. I see that Coupe roaring around a road block and flipping over into that substation, sparks flying and moonshine spilling.

It’s hard to imagine a song that entwines as many East Tennessee cultural strains as “The Ballad of Thunder Road”--- from moonshining, to our cussed aversion to being taxed or told what to do by the law or anyone else, to the gutsy drivers who became the first heroes of NASCAR, to the illogical collection of blind corners, five-way intersections and farm paths-dressed-up-as-parkways we call Knoxville’s road system.

Like the Iliad to the Greeks or King Arthur to the English, Thunder Road is in our DNA – the song, the movie, and a whole culture of legends that almost any Knoxvillian will swear to as fact.

At least one Knoxvillian – John Fitzgerald, a Farragut farmer – went to his grave swearing, absolutely believing, and persuading many others that he saw with his own eyes that car swerve off Kingston Pike and into a Lenoir City Utilities Board switching station.

So where did the story come from?

A few years ago, I gathered all the hints I could find about where Mitchum had gotten that story, and I put them in a Knoxville Cityview magazine article.

The 2001 Mitchum biography, Baby, I Don’t Care, by Lee Server, revealed that Mitchum found the story in the ATF files in Washington, D.C. He got access to the files with the help of the brother of his collaborator on the Thunder Road script, James Atlee Phillips. Mitchum spent days looking through the tales of the war against moonshiners in the Appalachians and came away with nine pages of official documents.

In a painful historical might-have-been, Server notes that Mitchum had noticed Elvis Presley’s respectable acting debut in Love Me Tender and wanted him to play Mitchum’s younger brother. They even had a face-to-face meeting, but the Colonel’s asking price was too high. The role went to Mitchum’s son, and Elvis lost one of the few chances he ever had for an interesting dramatic role.

It’s easy to see how Mitchum could have taken the language from official reports to craft the lyrics of his song. (The tune was that of a Norwegian pavanne that his mother, Ann Gunderson, used to sing to him as a child.)

Phone conversations with ATF agents could have explained how Mitchum, who never visited Knoxville, nailed all the details of the Harlan-to-Knoxville roads – even the pronunciation of “Bearden” – so accurately. But no one ever knew the real basis for either the movie or the crash Mitchum sings about.

The tradition of mountain moonshining has been enshrined in songs from “Good Ole Mountain Dew” and “White Lightnin’” to “Rocky Top.” It was often the only way poor farmers could generate any income, and exorbitant taxes would eat up any margin that existed from the actual selling price. And that was when it was legal.

To get their product to market, moonshiners had to outrun local Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) and federal ATF agents, and they had the hot rods to do it. Sundays through Thursdays the gutsy drivers honed their courage and driving prowess en route to markets in the big cities, then on Friday and Saturday nights they became the heroes of local dirt tracks, which led to the sport of stock car racing.

Legendary drivers like Junior Johnson ran routes around Wilkes County, North Carolina. Knoxville had heroes like “Tootle” Estes, Ralph Burdette “Duck” Moore and “Windy” York. In the magazine story, dirt-track hero Clyde “Breezy” Waddell had been included on that list. Afterward Waddell wrote a letter making it clear that he had never run whiskey.

“Thunder Road was a code name for a particular route that everybody knew,” said Grant McGarity, for years the resident agent in charge of the ATF office in Knoxville. “Someone in a shady part of town would refer to running Thunder Road at 4 o’clock in the morning, and it was often the main thoroughfare.”

The Thunder Road canon included the theories work body of Oak Ridge physicist/writer Alex Gabbard. In his book Return to Thunder Road, Gabbard had celebrated the route described in the song from Harlan, Kentucky, through Maynardville on Highway 33, Broadway and then onto Kingston Pike.

Both Gabbard and writer Kate Clabough had interviewed John Fitzgerald, who swore, with many persuasive details, that as a teenager he saw federal agents at a roadblock and a crash on Kingston Pike.

Fitzgerald couldn’t pin down the year, let alone the exact date. He’d done the first half of his morning chores, and it was still too damp to do the rest, so he rode his bike down to Galyon’s Esso Service Station on what was then the corner of Vanosdale and Kingston Pike, across from what is now West Town Mall.

There he saw a group of ATF agents getting ready to set up two roadblocks—one where Will Walker’s farm was then (and Pet Supplies Plus and First People’s Bank are today), the second near Morrell Road.

“It’s the little stuff John remembered from the wreck that made me really feel like he knew what he was talking about,” says Clabough. “For example, he remembers thinking the agent wasted money, since he purchased a Grapette, even though an RC was twice the size for the same price. He also remembers that another agent must not have liked Galyon’s coffee, since he tossed the coffee from his cup onto the parking lot, and the owner gave him a funny look.”

As the agents pulled two cars bumper to bumper across Kingston Pike, Fitzgerald says he hid in a ditch near Morrell Road, near the second of two roadblocks. He says he could hear the engine roaring long before he came into sight.

The mountain boy would have driven by the Mount Vernon Motel (now World Futon) on a Kingston Pike that was then a two-lane road through farmland. It had dips, rises, curves and blind entrances from farm roads.

As quoted in Gabbard’s book, Fitzgerald says the car swerved off the road, jumped a gully, cut through a bank of dirt, and ended up lodged in the fence of a substation where Mattress Direct and Walker’s Formal Wear are today.

“It was a ’52 Ford, misty green, solid color,” Fitzgerald told Gabbard. “It had gone through the southeast corner of the fencing around the substation and ended up in the air, sort of, still in the fencing. Gas and whiskey spilled out of it, and some of the whiskey had been thrown over into the sub-station and caught fire….

“The trunk lid was knocked open and several cases of moonshine had broken. I remember the smell. … [the driver] was laying facing south, on his right side, in a fetal position, sort of crumpled up. He was all bloody. His hair was dark brown, cut in a typical 50s hair-style. He had on a light-colored shirt….I remember thinking, ‘what a waste.’ …. He gave his life for a trunk load of whiskey.”

Fitzgerald told Gabbard he recalls the Highway Patrol arriving and conducting an investigation, but Gabbard never found any records of the incident in Highway Patrol records or any other corroboration.

Clabough, meanwhile, vowed that someday, somehow, she would find the mountain boy, even as she was writing dozens of stories and keeping up with her blended family of five children.

A relentless historical researcher, Clabough had gotten her training in a Nebraska library that doubled as a newspaper morgue. That was before she moved to Louisville in 1997. Her husband, David is a dairy farm manager turned graphic designer and the one who first piqued Kate’s interest in Thunder Road.

Clabough checked newspaper microfilms, police reports and funeral home records. She interviewed many who called with leads after the magazine story (we listed a phone number), including Knoxvillians with memories of similar crashes of moonshiners or stories they’d heard about some of our area’s great dirt-track drivers, or their grandfathers, or friends of their grandfathers.

One elderly woman called and told about a crash off North Central, where the car turned over and poured whiskey all over the street.

Another caller said the movie was based on moonshine-runner Gus Mathis. Clabough called Mathis’s widow, Grace, at her Cocke County home. Grace said, yes, indeed, Gus ran his car over Swann’s Bridge headlong into a police car, ended up in a full body cast, and got 13 years in prison in Atlanta. But he was not the subject of the movie.

Gabbard had gathered many clues about the mountain boy might have been connected to places near Harlan. Clabough wrote letters to people all over that area. “Not one lead,” says Clabough, “not a glimmer of recognition.”

From the very beginning, agent McGarity had told Clabough “immediately, with no hesitation” that he had always heard the real subject of Mitchum’s movie was from Cocke County. This was logical, since Newport had for many years been the nation’s capital of

Following that lead, Clabough sent a letter to the editor of The Newport Plain Talk. It was a short note, saying she was looking for the identity of the person in the movie Thunder Road.

Within days, Clabough received an unsigned letter, written on two sides of lined notebook paper in a neat script, probably that of an elderly woman. It was postmarked Knoxville. It said that the facts “as told by my mother,” were that “the person in Thunder Road was from Mountain Rest in Upper Cosby, now in the National Park. Pinkney Gunter was a maker of moonshine. His son, Rufus, was the ‘runner’ and delivery man.”

“After Rufus’ death,” the letter continued, “the family was approached by Mitchum’s people about signing a release to make a movie based on their son’s exploits. At first, his father refused, but, eventually, his mother did sign the release.”

Days later, Clabough received a second letter, also postmarked Knoxville but in a different hand and signed. (The writer wishes her name withheld.) “It included a list of names and addresses I could call to verify,” says Clabough. The writer said Gunter went off a bridge into the lake, and she went “to watch when they were dragging the body.”

Then Clabough got a call from Cocke County Circuit Court Judge Ben Hooper. “Thunder Road was based on a man named Rufus Gunter,” Hooper told Clabough. “He didn’t die like Mitchum’s character, but he certainly lived like him. I remember my Uncle George Poe taking me to see him race in Knoxville. He talked him into giving me a ride. He drove a ’37 or ’38 Ford. I remember the car had no passenger seat so I sat down low on the floor. The car bounced all over. I was scared to death. I wouldn’t say it was a good experience.”

Hooper said that in January 1953, Gunter was being chased on the Asheville Highway, heading toward Knoxville, when he got to the J. Will Taylor Bridge.

It turns out that Eddie Harvey, now 86, the recently retired proprietor of Eddie’s Auto Parts on Broadway in North Knoxville, had souped up engines for Rufus Gunter and remembers well the night he died. As Harvey recounted to Fred Brown of the News Sentinel, "It was ice cold and Rufe was red hot from driving that car. He jumped for it. When he hit the water, he took a cramp and went under. It took me a week to find him."

Ronnie Moore, son of racing legend “Duck” Moore, told Clabough that his father knew Rufus Gunter well. They raced against each other in the 40s and early 50s, until Gunter’s death took him off the circuit. And they both ran moonshine.

In the context of Cocke County moonshining, it’s not surprising that it took almost 50 years for outsiders to connect the tale of Rufus Gunter to Mitchum’s movie. Though it’s “colorful regional flavor” to historical researchers, it was dangerous organized crime to those who lived it. Even today there are secrets in Cocke County that prudent souls might not want to ask too many questions about.

For Clabough, the search for Thunder Road led her back in time. Following a lead, Clabough visited the home of an elderly Jean Schilling near Newport. During the Depression, Schilling’s father, Ike Costner, had been the biggest moonshine distributor in East Tennessee. Known in the newspapers as the “Newport Bad Boy” Ike Costner was an inveterate criminal and mobster.

He did time in Leavenworth and, with Al Capone, was on the first trainload of convicts sent to newly opened Alcatraz in the 1930s. Ironically, Costner had learned to make whiskey at a government-run distillery in Cocke County before Prohibition.

Mrs. Schilling gave Clabough a boxful of materials, including several volumes of poems by her aunt, Ella Costner, the Poet Laureate of the Smokies, who also happened to be Ike’s sister.

The volumes included Ella’s memoir, Song of Life in the Smokies, a frank and chilling portrait of desperate poverty, Godliness and violence, good souls and bad, in early 20th Century Cocke County. Ella’s father was a preacher and a good man, but her brother went bad. She became a Navy nurse, saw the world, came back home, and wrote about it.

Ella Costner knew the Gunters. Her book includes the names and genealogy of the families in the Cosby area, including “Pink” Gunter, his wife Susie – called “Ollie,” maiden name Ramsey – and their son Rufus. Born about 1920, Rufus was 33 when he died. Not exactly a boy, but still the beloved son of Pink and Ollie Gunter.

In her search for Rufus Gunter, Clabough has grown to understand the process by which memories mix with family stories, legends, and movies, take on a life of their own, and grow stronger with the years. Cognitive researchers tell us this is the way our brains work: our memories change each time we re-visit them.

The late John Fitzgerald remembered all those details from Kingston Pike in the early 50s, seeing federal agents drink a Grapette, hearing the roar of an engine, smelling the whiskey.

Says Clabough, “In the clippings, I never found a moonshiner’s wreck from those years, but I did find a story about federal agents testing a new fangled technology—radar. John may have seen them testing radar that day, and everything he described may have been exactly as he saw it.”

The images from the movie and song could have filled in the blanks of what he didn’t see. The words of Mitchum’s song are so vivid – and tied to the roads we drive every day – that in our minds many of us have seen that Ford Coupe leave the Kingston Pike at ninety and flip into that switching station a hundred times.

Ultimately, it’s the truth at the heart of Mitchum’s movie that makes it a cult classic for East Tennesseans, who might have heard the stories of grandparents driving dirt tracks and surviving the hard times by turning their corn into moonshine. And there is the pain at the heart of the story -- the daddy who lost his son for a trunkful of Mountain Dew.

The devil got the moonshine and Rufus Gunter that day, but Knoxville got a legend that will live as part of our cultural landscape forever.

Affect and effect -- the peskiest homonyms

From the AP wire (a language fossil, I know) a couple of years ago: "The way Notre Dame went about replacing Tyrone Willingham had a greater affect [sic.] on its minority hiring report card than its decision to fire the school's first black football coach."

The old affect-effect thing can trip anyone up at any time.

Homonyms are words similar or identical in sound but different in spelling and meaning.

Affect and effect are the two most frequently confused homonyms. Each can be used in several different senses, but if you learn only the meanings below, you will obviate (to prevent by anticipatory action) 95 percent of the trouble most people have with these two words.

affect v.
To cause a change to take place in, to influence (to produce an effect upon):

-Smoking affects the health. The mayor's reform will affect the life of every citizen.
-To touch or move emotionally: The play so affected me that I cried.
-To pretend, to imitate: I affect an aire of supercilious disdain. ("Affected" in "He is an affected ass" is the past participle of the verb affect as used in sense 3.)

Note: The word "affect" is never a noun, except in one sense, used by psychologists, who refer to "affective states" and "affect" - with regard to a person's face and the feeling or range of feelings expressed therein. As in: "The patient had an unusual affect that probably traced back to an unhappy childhood."

The word "effect" is a noun or a verb.

effect v.

To bring into being, to bring about, to cause to happen, to accomplish: I effected an honorable solution to a tough problem.

effect n.

A result or consequence (anything produced by an agent or cause): What effect will the mayor's reforms have upon the citizens?

The effect of the win was improved morale

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A novel with a key -- roman à clef


roman à clef (ro-mahn ah KLAY) noun, plural romans à clef
A novel that depicts (usually famous) real people and events under the guise of fiction.
[From French roman à clef, literally, a novel with a key.]

All fiction has a grain of truth, but a roman à clef has it by the bushel. Roman à clef dates back to seventeenth century France. In the beginning, a roman à clef really did have a key that was published separately. In these times, you can simply go on the Internet and search using Google.
An example of roman a clef is Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. These days the term can apply to any work of fiction, for example, a movie, not just a novel. A blend term "faction" has also been used, after "fact"presented as "fiction".

"[Geraldine] Brooks has borrowed details not just from Little Women but from the story of Alcott's own extraordinary father, Bronson Alcott, a man whose free-thinking, utopian views were all downplayed in his daughter's roman à clef."
-- Michelle Griffin; March; Sydney Morning Herald (Australia); Apr 2, 2005.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Ode to Roger Staubach ... Anchors Aweigh

On Saturday Navy beat Notre Dame 46-44 in triple overtime. It was the first time the Midshipmen had beaten the Irish since 1963, when Jolly Roger Staubach was the Navy quarterback.

In honor of the occasion, here are a few words about Navy's ever-stirring fight song.
To "weigh anchor" is to bring an anchor aboard a vessel in preparation for departure. The phrase "anchor's aweigh" is an acknowledgment to the commander that this procedure has been completed.
"Anchors Aweigh" was composed in 1906 by a longtime Naval Academy bandmaster named Charles Zimmerman and Alfred Hart Miles '07. It was first played during the 1906 Army-Navy game at Franklin Field, Philadelphia. There have been many lyrics over the years, but the most commonly heard are from the current verse 2:
Anchors Aweigh my boys
Anchors Aweigh
Farewell to college joys (or "Farewell to foreign shores")
We sail at break of day day day day
Through our last night ashore
Drink to the foam
Until we meet once more
Here's wishing you a happy voyage home!

Click to hear "Anchors Aweigh."

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Expression from mythology: dragon's teeth

dragon's teeth (DRAG-uhns teeth) noun
Seeds of discord. Usually used in the form "to sow dragon's teeth": to take an action that leads to future conflict.
[In Greek mythology, the Phoenician prince Cadmus killed a dragon and sowed its teeth. From those teeth sprang an army of men who fought eachother until only five were left.]

"As some would tell it, the Court of Appeals sowed dragon's teeth five years ago in its landmark holding that a cable television provider' late fees were too high."
-- Peter Geier; Despite Negative Image, Class-Action Lawyers Perform Important Job For Clients; The Daily Record (Baltimore, Maryland); Dec 10, 2004.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Acronyms, initialisms, and where those accents came from

We all know that RSVP, the letters at the bottom of invitations, stand for "Répondez, s’il vous plaît," or, "Respond, if you please."
Although this makes it redundant to put "Please RSVP" at the bottom of an invitation, redundancy in the name of politeness can be forgiven.
RSVP is an acronym, which is a word made up of initial letters, as in scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) and laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
By the strictest definition, RSVP is an initialism, because the letters are pronounced as letters, as in FBI, not as a word, as in scuba and laser.
Some dictionaries don't draw this distinction, but plainly these are two different kinds of words, and in practical usage the biggest distinction is that initialisms are written as upper case letters (as they are here), while acronyms, once we get used to them, are often written in lower case. (This is why it's funny when Dr. Evil, having been out of circulation in the decades that "laser" became a part of our everyday vocabulary, uses those quotation marks in the air around "laser beam" to indicate that he is using a highly technical acronym.)

The discussion of RSVP brings up two other fossils in our language:
  1. Those accents, one over the é and one over the î. What are they for? An amateur linguistic explanation is that they stand for "s"es that were long ago dropped from the French language. This goes back to 1066, when the Normans, a bunch of Vikings who had settled in Normandy and taken up French , sailed over and conquered England. They sounded their "s"es, so the French words in our language have those "s"es in them, like respond, please, forest (forêt), and many others. Back in France, in the centuries after 1066, the French took to dropping their "s"es--perhaps the way Bostonians drop their "r"s (as in "Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd").
  2. Why do we call capital letters "upper case" and small letters "lower case"? This is a printing term, from the early days of movable type. The printer kept the big letters in the upper case, and the small letters, which he used much more often, in the lower case, where he didn't have to reach as far. (This is akin to the bartending term "top shelf" for the most expensive liquors. To this day, bartenders keep the priciest brands on the top shelf, where they have to reach less often than for the cheaper brands.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A word for Smithers and Eddie Haskell -- sycophant

sycophant n. a servile, self-seeking flatterer; a suck-up; a brown-nose; an a**-kisser
From the Greek word sykophantes and Latin word sycophanta for an informer or swindler.
Interesting that these words come down to us virtually unchanged over thousands of years. Perhaps sycophants have pretty much remained the same in different ages and cultures, so the word has remained the same as well.

The character Mr. Burns in The Simpsons would be lost without his trusty sycophant, Smithers.

sycophantic adj. of, relating to, or characteristic of a sycophant: fawning, obsequious

"Is that a new vacuum cleaner, Mrs. Cleaver?" asked the ever-sycophantic Eddie Haskell, adding, "Isn't it wonderful what they're doing with modern conveniences these days?"