Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Tale of The Old Club Tie

It’s that season that starts with Veterans Day (Nov.11) and reaches a crescendo on my mother’s birthday (Nov. 23) and ends with my father’s birthday (Dec. 5). And since Hawkeye and Munner (as in my parents) were such a hit on FB on Veterans’ Day, I’m taking my friend Jill’s advice and running at the keyboard about them for a bit.

My parents were World War II veterans. Yes, both of them.  Full-fledged members of The Greatest Generation. I was the youngest of the Bryant brood, so most of my friends had younger, hipper folks. What mine didn’t have in the young and hip (and, truth to tell, happy) department, they more than made up for when it came to color. By comparison, some of my friends’ parents were about as exciting as watching someone unload a Safeway truck.

The AFLAC duck visits with my grandparents, my mother,and my uncle Meade, 1939.
My mother came from solid stock. Her parents were wonderful people; self-made, hard-working, generous, civic-minded and church-going. But… a little boring. Sure, my grandfather had a wooden leg. And it’s true that my grandmother, a teetotaler and card-carrying D.A.R. member, drove her Cadillac is if she were Dale Earnhardt (not Jr., but the real deal, The Intimidator himself). But these quirks only served to make them more human. They were the best grandparents ever, but they didn’t push any needles when it came to outlandish.

My grandfather, Willis W. Bryant, Sr. (on left) en route to Sumatra, Dutch East Indies, 1929
The Bryants, on the other hand, of which my father was a sterling example, wrote the book when it came to colorful. The family history was filled with stories of our descent from Cherokee twins (just one, actually), murder, selling whiskey to the Indians (no, not the Cleveland Indians) life in the Wild West not to mention the Far East, drinking, womanizing, guns, more drinking, and let's not forget the a cameo appearance by Miss Barbara Stanwyck. The family motto is “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” and so it’s best to take our oral history, especially when recounted after several beers, with a grain of salt.

My mother receiving her commission, Fort Hayes, Ohio 1944. The letter sent by the Army to my grandparents said, "Mrs. Castner's unselfish devotion to the Cause of Liberty and her indomitable spirit, is an inspiration to us all."
My parents met and were married in France late in the war. My mother had joined up after her first husband—with whom she’d enjoyed scarcely a month of connubial bliss—was killed in action. The B-17 on which he served as a bombardier, Liberty Bell, crashed returning to England after a bombing raid over Germany. After my mother received her commission, she went to Europe on the liner-turned-troopship Nieuw Amsterdam and served as a dietician at an Army hospital in France. To say she wasn't fond of French men is putting it mildly. I never asked her where she met my father, but my guess is at the bar in an officer's club someplace.

My father, who grew up in the Far East and California, was a glamorous Army Air Corps fighter pilot. Not just any fighter pilot, but the world’s best, if you were to believe him.

That's my father, Willis W. Bryant, Jr. on the far left. The guys in the barracks look as if they know some show tunes.
Years later James Dean adopted this very look.
He also had many social adventures, most of which involved women, something that you'd never glean from these practically suitable for Grindr photos. As far as the war itself was concerned, he believed, like a mid-century William Tecumseh Sherman, that the only good German was a dead German.

He named his plane, a P-47, Old Saucerass, after a dog his Uncle Jack owned. The dog had a spot on his butt that looked like, well, a saucer. Leave it to a Bryant to name a dog Old Saucerass, and leave it to another Bryant to name his airplane after that very dog. (I consider myself fortunate that I wasn’t named Old Saucerass.) In my father’s telling of story, my mother wanted him to call his plane Miss Betty but he thought a name like that was too common for words. Hence, Old Saucerass.  My father’s commander, a straight arrow type, made him erase the final S in Saucerass so the airplane became the even more ridiculous Old Sauceras.

He earned some medals, though he was completely dismissive of them. He claimed not to need some desk jockey at “Fort Fumble” (i.e. the Pentagon) to validate his skill and valor. However, he was proud of one bit of military recognition; his membership in the Caterpillar Club, a “club” for people who’d bailed out of an airplane in order to save their lives—as in pilots of disabled planes rather than paratroopers. He’d say it was his kind of club: no meetings.

The club allegedly took its name from the silkworm, since, in those days, parachutes were made from real silk. Then again, perhaps the name came about because silk caterpillars drifted from one mulberry leaf to another on a strand of silk. As Winston Churchill might have said, it's a metaphor wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Hawkeye proudly wore his membership pin—a little caterpillar crawling across a red white and blue field—on his blazer lapel.

One day in May 1983, I read an article in Esquire by John Berendt—who would later go on to write Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—about neckties. Back in the 1980s, Esquire, a magazine for pre-ironic and manly-yet-fashion-conscious future doofus hipster-wannabes, contained page turning articles about neckties. Oh and political exposes, sports pieces, crime stories and other guy kinda stuff. I read it for the necktie articles.

The article noted that while in America, a necktie was just a necktie, in Great Britain; a necktie was filled with more meaning than you can shake a stick at. Public schools, universities, clubs, and associations had signature neckties and you had to prove you had the right to wear certain ties before purchasing one. I’m sure every red-blooded slightly-to-the-right-of-center American guy who read the article thought to himself, “It’s no bloody wonder that those limeys lost their empire if they had time to worry about who was wearing the Royal Victoria Lawn Darts and Freestyle Quoits Association necktie! And they drink warm beer, too! Bah!

The article noted that even the Caterpillar Club had a necktie.

There it was: the perfect gift for my notoriously hard to buy for father. I wrote John Berendt in care of the magazine and asked where I could buy a Caterpillar Club tie.

He promptly wrote back on his very nice stationery and gave me the name of the store in England. This was before well before the age of email, so I typed out a letter to T.M. Lewin & Sons, Ltd; 106 Jermyn Street, SW1Y 6EQ telling them that my father was in the Caterpillar Club and asking how to purchase a tie. In the letter, I described my father’s lapel pin, assuming that was all the documentation I’d need.

T.M. Lewin in the person of P. A. G. McKenna (Miss) wrote back in nearly impossible to read longhand quoting me prices for two different ties but telling me that due to their agreement with Irwin G. B. Limited they could not sell me a tie without a copy of my father’s Caterpillar Club ID card. Just before she closed with “yours faithfully” she indicated they’d be grateful if any form of payment could be in a pounds sterling bank draft rather than in dollars. Longhand. Yours Faithfully. Bank Draft. Oh my. It was practically like getting a letter from the counting house of Scrooge and Marley.

So on July 5, 1983 I wrote to Irwin G. B. Limited, Icknield Way, Letchworth, Herts 596 IEV to see about getting the proper ID Card. I described the pin and noted that it had the legend “W.W. Bryant AAF 5-24-44” on its back.

A week later, on blue Caterpillar Club stationery, I received a note from Mrs. B. Elsworth, the secretary of the Caterpillar Club.

We have checked our records thoroughly and cannot find any trace of your father’s membership here. However, the description of the lapel pin you give in your letter gives us a clue to the mystery, since it does not bear any resemblance to the lapel pin which we have always issued to members. Our pins are just a gold Caterpillar with the rank and name engraved on the reverse—we do not feature the date of bail-out and there is no background of red, white, and blue. We believe that in fact your father may have been enrolled into a “Caterpillar Club” which was set up during the middle years of the Second World War by a “pirate firm” in Canada.

I’m afraid in the circumstances we cannot provide you with the authentication you require. However your father certainly looks to quality for membership in our Caterpillar Club. If he would like to complete the enclosed form and send us some documentary evidence… we could be happy to present him with our lapel pin and membership card which would enable you to obtain a tie…

She very kindly enclosed a mimeographed sheet of information about the Caterpillar Club and its history since its founding by Leslie Irvin, the developer of the parachute. Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh had used Irvin parachutes more than once—Lindbergh four times! The information included testimonials from members that are right out of P.G. Wodehouse:

Dear Sir: Will you please enroll me as a Member of the Caterpillar Club? I bailed out over Holland on August 15th from a blazing Kite and made a wizard landing.

God bless you brother Leslie on behalf of my wife and children, as yet unknown.

Dear Leslie, I’d like to thank you for the sweetest moments in all my life, when my parachute opened and I realized I was not going to die. Your ‘chutes are so good I am going to name my son (when I have one) Irvin as it was due to one in particular that I am alive enough to woo, marry, and get me a son. 

My father wasn’t a pack rat but fortunately he still had his pilot’s logbook from his early days in the Army Air Corps, so we knew that he bailed out from a P-47 whose engine had caught fire near Harding Field, Louisiana, on May 25, 1944. So I contacted the public library in Baton Rouge to see if they might be able to help. I wondered if there had been something in the newspaper about it.

Lo and behold there was!  The incident was newsworthy enough to rate a small blurb on the same page as an ads for the Pelican Club and The Katherine Davis School of Dancing. A library staffer whose name is lost to history sent a copy produced by the microfilm reader.

Pilot Parachutes from P-47 Near Engineer Depot

Second Lt. William W. Bryant of Harding Field escaped with minor injuries when he parachuted from his P-47 fighter plane at 12:45 p.m. today five miles west of the Engineering depot, air officials announced today. The pilot was on an operational training mission when the accident occurred. His plane crashed.

Nine months after getting the application I sent it back to B. Ellsworth on Ikneild Way, Herts.  My father signed the form Willis W. Bryant Lt. Col USAF (Retired).  Rank at time of bale-out 2nd Lt. US Army Air Corps, Service # A0767107.

A week later Mrs. B. Ellsworth, now my chum and identifying herself as Babs, wrote back. 

Since I now see from your application that the bale-out took place over North America, I am sending all the correspondence to our office in Canada, which deals with North American applications. Mrs. Eva Wagner of Irvin Industries Canada should be contacting you in the future about your application.... We have made further checks here and definitely have no record of any previous application by you. 

A little over a week later (Mrs.) Eva Wagner wrote, indicating that she’d received correspondence from Mrs. Babs Ellsworth. She went on to say:

When Leslie Irvin first established the Caterpillar Club in 1922, it was restricted to those who used an Irvin parachute to save their lives from a disabled aircraft. As time went on and other parachute manufacturers started up, it became increasingly difficult to determine whose parachute was responsible for the safe “let down”; especially during the Great Wars. He then revised the clause to accept memberships from those using an “Irvin-type” parachute. 

Therefore I am pleased to enclose an Irvin membership card and Caterpillar pin, which we know you will wear proudly.  

Shortly thereafter I sent the cash to Britain and got the tie in return. It was a lot of work for one somewhat nondescript tie, but since he was the world’s greatest pilot, it was worth it. And in the process, I learned the real reason for the fall of the British Empire...warm beer!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Ah Luv Looavul

I visited Louisville (aka Looavul) a few years for a performing arts conference. The conference followed the standard format. There were performer showcases--good, bad, and ugly--and there was an an exhibit hall filled with agents and folks from related businesses. Software vendors, publishers, and talent agencies were there flogging all sorts of products that I didn’t want. Oh, there also were some educational sessions---I was invited to be on a panel at a breakout session. All in all, a worthwhile venture.

However, the trip's highlights weren't really at the convention center. During the time that I wasn’t in a session with a lanyard around my neck, I saw the cops shoot someone on the sidewalk with a taser. Wow! The perp fell to the ground in an instant! I also stumbled into a Smart Car marketing event just after they'd come out. As a result, I got to take a test drive in one. It was no surprise that the taser had more power than the Smart Car.
Last month, I had the chance to go to Louisville again, this time for a big arts festival and a meeting of festival directors. My friend/colleague Pam went along. While I thought it would be hard to top a tasering and a Smart Car, I had a feeling Louisville would be up to the challenge.

I’m not a big weather guy—my favorite weather app is walking outside and looking around—so I was a tad surprised when we landed in Louisville and it was raining cats and dogs. It was sunny when we took off in Baltimore. Imagine that! The rain was coming down in buckets. Pam and I agreed that it would be a dreadful time to be an artist at a festival in this weather.

After a call to our hotel, its black Mercedes van came to pick us up. The driver was an attractive 30-something product-using metrosexual-to-gay guy; closer to gay if I had to guess. We commiserated for a moment or two about the weather, and before too long we were chatting about bourbon, one of Kentucky’s best known products along with thoroughbred race horses, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Hatfields and the McCoys. Our driver said that he didn’t really like bourbon but then gave us the tasting notes on his six favorite kinds including the low down on which distillery tours to take and which tours to skip. I can’t imagine how much he would have known about bourbon if he’d really liked the stuff.  My guess is that he’s using the brain cells where he’d store info on bourbon to keep up on Ryan Gosling, Marc Nelson Cone Mills selvage denim blue jeans, and the career of Kristin Chenoweth.

As soon as we checked into the Seelbach Hilton, Louisville’s grand old hotel, I got a text that the festival for which we’d driven from State College to Baltimore, parked in long term parking, gone through security, flown from Baltimore to Louisville, and taken that black Mercedes van in the rain into the city to see had just closed early due to bad weather. And it was not going to open at all the next day. This was the first time in 47 years that the show closed early. I couldn’t imagine how the festival staff, artists, food vendors, and customers, were feeling at that point. Other than wet, I mean. It truly did suck to be them. And not in a good way.

Fortunately for Pam and me, before we could say “Well this is a fine kettle of fish!” our friends Barbara and Keith pulled up in their Toyota in front of the hotel. They live near Cincinnati and had driven down to hang out with us. We hadn’t seen them in some time, so that made the visit especially nice.

Since B. and K. had done their share of  "bourbon tourism", they had a good idea of what we should do instead of the now-closed festival. Without passing Go or Collecting Two Hundred Dollars, we drove to the nearest distillery—Jim Beam.

We got there too late for a tour but not too late to check out the various incarnations of photo ops and gift shops, and fortunately, not too late for the tasting room.

After the Jim Beam worker bees made sure we were of legal age, we got a card that we could shove into a machine that would give us two drams of bourbon. Bourbon is very fashionable now and accordingly comes in all sorts of price points and horrible flavors for people who aren’t manly enough to drink the real stuff.  So, if you’re lacking even one ounce of Good Ole Boy-ness, you can get bourbon that tastes like Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, Hershey’s Chocolate, or for the real hair shirt types, Tuscan Kale.

After our drams and some photo ops, we stopped for dinner at a quaint inn next to a supermarket in Bardstown. I had the Hot Brown, which is sort of a croque-monsieur Kentucky style. Tasty; but it’s the kind of dish that helps cardiologists pay for their condos at Hilton Head. After dinner, B. and K. dropped Pam and me off at the Seelbach and headed back to northern Kentucky.

The hotel bar advertised 44 premium bourbons so of course Pam and I had to stop in. It wasn’t nearly as grand as the rest of the hotel, no doubt the victim of an unfortunate remodeling or three. But it did have more bourbons than you could shake a stick at, most of which were aimed at the non-parsimonious tippler. In other words, I wasn’t their target market.

Partly through my first drink, a friendly brunette of about my age but somewhat higher mileage (the hairstyle was a couple of model years out of date) sat down next to me. She ordered the house special: bourbon and champagne. With a pleasant Kentucky lilt in her voice, she told me that she was in town at some sort of singles event. (She was definitely gonna stay single sitting by me!) She lived on sixteen acres near Bardstown and was an auditor of large insurance claims at Humana, the big hospital chain. Before her bourbon and champagne ran out I learned that she was looking for a man, a farm hand, a new horse, and a dog, too. Holy crap!, I thought to myself. It's practically Loretta Lynn!

The next day, when we would have been going to the now cancelled festival, Pam and I were left with nothing to do, and no car in which to do it in.

We walked over to a great breakfast restaurant that not only had breakfast buffet, but also a “watch him cook” omelet station. I learned all about President Truman’s breakfast—that info is not in the membership packet sent out by the Truman Library. (Yes, I am a member in good standing.) What about that daily rubdown? Was Bess Truman involved in that? Yowza!

After breakfast, the hotel doorman called us a cab and we headed out to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. Fortunately, I was wearing my extremely festive Murray’s Toggery belt adorned with racing silks. Without prompting, the ticket woman commented on how appropriate it was.

After paying the entrance fee, we entered the galleries through a Churchill Downs starting gate. (Clever, no?) After passing a giant video screen of horses breaking from the gate—they’re way more colorful on that screen than they are on my 15 year old Sony, visitors are faced with a great variety of exhibits.

The museum covers the owners, the horses, the jockeys, the mint juleps, the hats, and did I mention the mint juleps? that come together to make the Derby the fastest two minutes in sports. In addition to the standard static displays that people my age expect to see in museums, visitors can have fun with video screens too. For example, after a few punches at a touch screen, you can watch a replay of any Derby from the age of film and television. In no time you’ll find yourself waxing nostalgic for the glorious years of the Jimmy Carter presidency as you watch Affirmed coming in at a pretty darned fast time of 2:01.1/5 in the 1978 race.

There are lots of participatory stations too, a strategy they should consider at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas. In one of the interactive exhibits, you can go into a booth (not the same sort as in the "History of the Peep Show" exhibition at the E.H.M.) and watch a video of a raced with closed captioning and call the Derby yourself. It’s harder to say “Savoy Cabbage has the lead by a head” than you might think.

Looking remarkably fresh, Q.M. Queen Elizabeth took in the Derby in 2007.
If you like trophies and saddles and all sorts of other equine stuff this is definitely the place to be. The memorabilia includes Secretariat’s elementary school report card; a Hawaiian shirt worn by Nashua when he appeared in an episode of Gilligan's Island; and home movies of 1964 winner Northern Dancer hanging out in his Dupont Circle bachelor pad with his “roommate” Mr. Ed, and so on. All kidding aside, the museum has the best visitors' center movie I’ve seen since Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot, the longest running movie in history.

The only part of the museum that’s lame (pun intended) is the gallery about the infield, which is where the hoi polloi hang out and have a helluva lot more fun than the swells in the good seats. Unfortunately (fortunately?) there are no scratch ‘n’ sniff panels that smell like mint julep laced barf, or oats after they’ve been repurposed into thoroughbred tracks. And if you’re looking for a beer bong the size of a Budweiser Clydesdale, you’ll have to look elsewhere. 
The good news is that you still can enjoy a somewhat sanitized infield port-a-john. Fortunately there was a nice young woman there who agreed to pose coming out of the can for me. I’m pretty sure I was the only person who’s ever asked her to pose in a port-a-john. But hey, supermodels have to start someplace, right? Had the role of a patron exiting the port-a-john been played by our shuttle bus driver, the morning line was 7 to 5 that he would have gone completely Norma Desmond, opening the door and proclaiming, with eyes the size of saucers, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

After the Kentucky Derby museum the rain let up for a bit and so Pam and I decided to walk from the hotel over to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. I don't know what you think, but nothing says fun to me like a trip to a baseball bat factory.

On the way we stopped and said hello to Col. Harlan Sanders.

They preserved his body using 11 secret herbs and spices at the Louisville Visitors' Center and you can have your photo taken with him. Seriously.

Our plan was to pop into a Starbucks en route, but it was overrun by hordes, and I do mean hordes, and of girls age fifteen and under in cheerleading uniforms, accompanied by a smattering of non-MILF moms and a few dads who were either pussywhipped or crazy or probably both.

Yes, we were in the midst of an enormous “cheer” competition. I didn’t know that people did this but apparently it’s a big deal. A big wackadoodle deal, actually.  Since I’m not one to shy away from blog material and I sort of knew my way around the convention center, I said “Come on Pam, let’s check this out.”

So there are one billion girls. And the occasional boy. And all the little girls all have eye makeup that looks as if it were applied by a drag queen in training. A drag queen in training with a twitch, actually. And they’re all wearing uniforms, advertising not their school, but their cheer team, usually a one word name like the Flash or Max or Zip. But the one girl who was not in uniform was wearing a tee shirt that said—no joke! “Glitter is my favorite color”.

The convention hall was sort of dark and there was deafening dance music, so in a way, it was like Tracks, the late and lamented D.C. night club where I once danced on a platform wearing not much more than polka dotted navy J. Crew boxers. Instead of loud dance music and 8 million gay men and a few large women running around, it was loud dance music and 8 million teenage girls and a few large women running around. 

Oh, and unlike Tracks, which smelled of smoke, beer, Polo, and Binaca, the Louisville Convention Center reeked of the cloying smell of German roasted nuts. No doubt they are made with Chancellor Angela Merkel's secret recipe known only to her and the folks at the NSA who have been tapping her phone.

Cheer teams seemed to consist of about 20 screaming girls and the occasional unlucky boy. And they do a routine that involves “dance” and tumbling and gymnastics but as far as I could tell no actual cheering. Each team has a gaggle of parents dressed in the team’s colors that follows the team around the way pilot fish swim swarm around sharks. Unlike the pilot fish, the parents film everything with their cell phone cameras.  Pam and I watched a few of the precisely 2 minute 30 second routines—that’s 7 minutes and 30 seconds that we’ll never get back.  

When we couldn’t take it any longer, we left the Convention Center and finally got our coffee. I think we were the only people in that Starbucks line who didn’t ask for a whipped frozen frothy foamy thingy with extra sugar and heavy on the caffeine.  On exiting the coffee shop, we ran into a guy on the street who was dressed in a bright blue hat that looked as if he bought it at the Queen Mother’s estate sale. It really complemented his blue Spiderman costume. He graciously allowed me to take a photo. Unfortunately when he posed, he put held his cigarette—which made his whole outfit--behind his back.

We finally did make it to the Louisville Slugger Museum. The museum itself seems as if  it’s the holding pen to give you something to look at while you’re “on deck” waiting for the factory tour to start.

But you can hang out with mannequins of Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter, and even swing Derek’s bat if you buy him a couple of drinks, I mean, hang out in a different part of the museum. It’s not super complicated to make a baseball bat—stick a piece of wood in a computer operated lathe, brand it with a hot iron, add some lacquer and you’re good to go. The hard part is using the bat to hit the baseball.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Louisville Slugger’s movie. Well, it was completely unremarkable and wasn’t even in the same league as the movie at Churchill Downs. However, the hallway leading from the theater to the gift shop was decorated with murals that are alone worth the price of admission.

Sure, no one is tasered, or drinking a mint julep, they’re not scratch and sniff. (OK, I didn't actually check.)  But oh my. Of all the one zillion baseball-related mural topics out there, did someone really say "Hey! I've got an idea!! How about a few players cruising each other in the locker room?"

Sooner or later these murals are destined for a new home at the Erotic Heritage Museum. In the meantime, adjust yourself, kick the dirt out of your cleats, and make plans to visit Louisville. And when it's time to order a bourbon, you'd better make it a double.