Monthly Archives: April 2009

Travel: St. John, USVI

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by Vicki H

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by Vicki H

The marketing theme for the U.S. Virgin Islands used to be “America’s Caribbean.” So while at first blush it may seem odd to have a Caribbean island in a blog about Great American Things, it definitely belongs.

The thing that makes St. John unique in the Caribbean is that the Virgin Islands National Park covers more than 7,000 acres on the island, limiting development and preserving the quality of the natural habitat. The beaches are that amazing sugar-white powder. The bays offer shades of aqua you can’t imagine being real. The snorkeling is excellent and you can swim to the reefs from shore. And the temperature is in the mid-80s year-round.

There are plenty of dining options, but no chain restaurants. The language is English, American money is used, there’s even a slow-as-home post office. The driving, however, is on the left, and that’ll throw you until you get used to it.

St. John is breathtakingly beautiful, and as safe as the Caribbean can be. No wonder it pulls us back year after year. Oh…and we’re heading there again tomorrow! (We’ll resume our look at Great American Things on Sunday, May 10 – see you then.)

Americana: Harley-Davidson

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by Shantanu Jog

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by Shantanu Jog

Occasionally, these posts are hard for me to write. Like this one. Because not only am I not a motorcycle guy, a motorcycle is about the last thing that interests me. And yet…

Harley-Davidson is without doubt more than worthy of a place on any list of Great American Things. William Harley and his childhood friend Arthur Davidson couldn’t have imagined the phenomenon to which they were midwives when they introduced their first motorcycle in 1903. Now, over a century later, marketing folks in all fields are jealous of the intense brand loyalty of the Harley Davidson community.

It wasn’t always this way. The outlaw biker movies of the 50s through the 70s and the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang associated Harley-Davidson with some of society’s least desirable elements. But even that has changed. Now Harley riders tend to have good incomes, be in their mid-40s, and often ride their Hogs to benefit charitable causes.

Some people love the legend. Some enjoy the freedom. Others are power junkies. But they all see themselves captured in the Steppenwolf song from the classic motorcycle movie Easy Rider.

Like a true nature’s child /We were born, born to be wild /We can climb so high /I never wanna die

Film: Gone with the Wind

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Did you know that Gary Cooper turned down the role of Rhett Butler? Oh, yeah. He even said, “Gone with the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.”

Clearly, Gary was no psychic. Just how big was GWTW? In 2007 the American Film Institute voted it the #6 Greatest Movie of All Time. For the premiere in Atlanta, the Governor declared a state holiday. It won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And if total box office receipts were adjusted for inflation, it would be the number one grossing movie of all time. The projected total: $3.78 billion.

Yes, this is the first movie added to the list of Great American Things. You may think another film should have had the honor.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

The Arts: Robert Frost

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Who’s the greatest American poet? Experts might nominate Longfellow … Dickinson … Whitman … Cummings. I’d no doubt go with T.S. Eliot, and his remarkable mastery of both symbolism and language (Say this aloud: “Combing the white hair of the waves blown back /when the wind blows the water white and black.”) except that he left the good old U.S. of A. and became a citizen of England.

Which doesn’t mean that I’d choose Frost only as the first runner-up. Although born in San Francisco, he lived most of his life in New England, and his language reflected the simple things he treasured. As one biographer wrote, “With his down-to-earth approach to his subjects, readers found it is easy to follow the poet into deeper truths, without being burdened with pedantry.”

Is there a more resolute sadness than Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening? Or a better treatise on destiny than The Road Not Taken? Robert Frost spoke for himself, but his words expressed the hopes, dreams, and fears of his countrymen. In my opinion, the Greatest American Poet.

Americana: High School Reunions

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by sholden.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by sholden.

They’re loved. And they’re hated. But the temptation to go back and see what’s happened to the people with whom you spent the most traumatic years of your life is irresistible.

Of course, the secret reason you want to go is to see what he’s done with his life. You know, the boy you thought you’d end up marrying. Or how she looks now, the girl who mixed your hormone cocktail.

There’s always the person you thought was a geek who now is Vice President of Microsoft. And the people who never left high school in their minds, who want to revive the clique and hold a pep rally.

The food’s not good, the music is too loud, and dammit, you were going to lose those twenty pounds. But you go, and in the end, you’re glad. Because you realize that you’re doing okay after all. And the head cheerleader who thought she was God’s gift now tips the Toledo at over two bills.

Actor: Bill Murray

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by fantasticfest

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by fantasticfest

Have I ever told you about the time Bill Murray sang “Happy Birthday” to me? Oh, please forgive me. I thought I’d told everyone.

It was back in 1990, and Bill was filming What About Bob at Smith Mountain Lake, Va. He agreed to do a fundraiser for Roanoke’s historic Grandin Theatre, which was the area’s only venue for smaller independent films. Bill’s movie Quick Change was screened, in which he starred with Geena Davis and Randy Quaid, and then the legend himself came on stage to take questions from the audience.

I was there with my friend Sandy Murray, and we were trying to think of a question. It happened to be just before my birthday, so I said, “Let’s ask him to sing Happy Birthday to me in the style of his SNL character Nick the Lounge Singer.” Sandy asked him, and he said to me, “It’s not really your birthday, is it?” I assured him it (almost) was, and he sang “Happy birthday to you, you crazy birthday guy, you…” A very cool thing.

But then, Bill Murray is an exceptionally cool guy. You have to admire the arc of his acting career. He made his reputation with broadly funny movies such as Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, and now gives solid and subtle comic performances in such films as Rushmore, Lost in Translation, and The Royal Tenenbaums.And especially Groundhog Day, one of the best comedies ever made and probably the most underrated movie of all time.

But his greatest performance was that night at the Grandin Theater almost 20 years ago.

Of course, I may be a little predjudiced.

Americana: Fender Guitars

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by nailbender

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by nailbender

Picture Leo Fender in his California electronics workshop in the late 1930s. Fixing phonographs, radios, and public address systems. Oh…and instrument amplifiers. He had ideas, did Leo. Ideas about perfecting the electric guitar that would lead him to form the Fender Electric Instrument Company in 1946. He tinkered, and fiddled, and created a masterpiece. The first mass-produced, solid body, Spanish-style guitar:

The Telecaster. Think Jeff Beck, Steve Cropper, and George Harrison. Pete Townshend smashed a slew of them.

The next step was the Stratocaster. Which is only good enough for the likes of Eric Clapton, Dick Dale, and some guy named Hendrix.

There are other great guitars. Even other great American guitars. But almost everyone who picks up a guitar wants to own at least one Fender. It’s truly a great guitar. A great American thing.

Food: Mrs. Rowe’s Pies

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by vdr928.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by vdr928.

Okay, I realize this is way off the radar for most of you. It could go under the heading of “Roadside Food,” because Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant is located near Staunton, Va. at the intersection of I-64 and I-81. Everything on the menu is good home cooking, and many people think breakfast is the best time to visit. If you enjoy spoon bread or sausage gravy, it is. If you love a hot roast beef sandwich with homemade mashed potatoes and other foods your grandmother made, try lunch or dinner. Comfort food, night or day.

But for me, the highlight of Mrs. Rowe’s is the pies. Oh, the chocolate meringue, the apple, the peanut butter custard.Starting in June, you can even purchase the cookbook, Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, with 65 my-oh-my recipes.

Whatever you do, don’t fill up on mashed potatoes and find yourself too full for dessert. Mrs. Rowe’s sells more than 35,000 pies each year. You haven’t lived till one of them filled your pie hole.

Singer: Bruce Springsteen

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by

A first for me: a guest blogger. Reader JMQ from New Jersey (surprise!) sent not just a suggestion, but a fully written entry about Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been a big fan for years, and Bruce would definitely have found his place here. So thanks, JMQ, for this excellent submission.

In many ways, Bruce Springsteen is the embodiment of rock & roll. Combining strains of blues, rockabilly, and especially R&B, his work epitomizes rock’s deepest values: desire; the need for freedom; and the search to find yourself. He’s got his feet planted on either side of that great divide between rebellion and redemption.

All through his songs there is a generosity and a willingness to portray even the simplest aspects of our lives in a dramatic and committed way. His music has an almost cinematic quality to it, and has always had enormous range in terms of subject and emotion, as well as volume. His quietest stuff is as introspective as anyone’s, but at its loudest, it is the best house party or cruisin’ with the windows down/singing at the top of your lungs music there is.

But he also is one of the few songwriters who understands the sense of music as a healing power, embodied by The Rising album. Released in response to 9/11, it salutes the innocence of the victims, the courage of the responders, and holds out a hand to those who mourn them, who seek the comfort of an explanation for the inexplicable.

His concerts with his E Street Band are legendary for their epic length and a commitment to his audience to bring it every night – “it” being the ability to induce goose bumps and crowd pleasing rave ups. For the uninitiated, just multiply his Super Bowl appearance by 100 and you get an idea of what a typical show is like.

37 years, 16 albums, and 19 Grammy Awards later, his most resonant works stand as milestones in the lives of millions of fans. Long live The Boss.

Kid Stuff: Dr. Seuss

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by plainfieldpubliclibrarydistrict.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by plainfieldpubliclibrarydistrict.

Interesting fact 1: The father and grandfather of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) were both brewmasters. You don’t think those fanciful rhymes were helped along by the family recipe, do you? Nahhh.

Interesting fact 2: Dr. Seuss was an advertising art director for fifteen years, working primarily on the Standard Oil account. Knowing some wildly creative art directors myself, I’m not surprised one whit.

Interesting fact 3: During WWII, Dr. Seuss made propaganda films with Frank Capra, where he first learned animation.

Okay, enough facts. Time to conclude with some sparkling verse:

You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch.
With a nauseaus super-naus.
You’re a crooked jerky jockey
And you drive a crooked horse.
Mr. Grinch.

TV Show: The Andy Griffith Show

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Start with Barney Fife, only the best sitcom character ever. Add the sweetness of Aunt Bea, the innocence of Opie, the absentmindedness of Floyd, the foolishness of Gomer and Goober, and you get — well, you get the most grounded, most heartwarming sitcom in TV history.

Of course, the show would have gone nowhere without the down-home wisdom and  ever-genial personality of Andy Griffith. A native of nearby Mt. Airy, NC (which styles itself as the model for Mayberry), Andy is the father/friend we all wish we had. I know he later played Matlock, but I don’t think of them as the same person. I think Andy’s dad came along to play that role.

Everyone has a favorite episode of the show. Mine is My Fair Ernest T. Bass, in which Andy tries to change the wild Ernest T. into a presentable gentleman. The mountain man courts the lovely “Romeena” and says to the hostess, “How dew you dew Miss-us Wi-lee?” Hard to believe, but Ernest T. only appeared in five episodes of the series.

Wait — I think I hear the theme song being whistled. Time to catch another episode. Maybe I’ll hear Ernest T. wail, “She called me a creachter!”

Americana: Girl Scout Cookies

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by CurtisLeeJones

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by CurtisLeeJones

They’re inescapable. Your niece sells them. They’re outside the local Kroger. Your coworker is selling them for her kid. So you buy a box.

From everyone. And before you know it, you have a caloriepalooza in your pantry. But, oh, are they good.

Local girl scout groups started baking them at home as a fundraiser as early as 1917. They were sold for all of $.30 a dozen. It wasn’t until 1936 that the national Girl Scouts organization licensed cookies for production by a commercial baker. I remember going on a field trip to Richmond in elementary school to the FFV bakery, where Girl Scout cookies were produced. I thought they were all made there, but I learned later (okay, today) that they were actually prepared by 14 bakeries way back then.

Now there are two authorized bakeries, and up to eight varieties of cookies. But let’s face it, there’s really one one. Thin Mints.

‘Scuse me, I’m going to go see if we have any in the pantry. Or even better, in the freezer.

Sports: The Harlem Globetrotters

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by despeaux.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by despeaux.

The first whistled notes of “Sweet Georgia Brown” let you know that basketball wizardry — and more important, lots of laughs — are coming. The Globetrotters are in the house.

They’ve been around since the late twenties, and are reported to have played more than 20,000 games in 118 countries. Their usual opponents are the greatest optimists in sports, the Washington Generals. The Globetrotters’ record in this series: 13,000+ wins, 6 losses.

During their early years the team was a showcase for black basketball players who couldn’t play against white teams. The Globetrotters have actually retired several numbers, including Wilt Chamberlain (played for one year before being accepted into the NBA), Meadowlark Lemon, and Curly Neal.

Over the years, entertainment became their focus, and today they’re one of the best family-friendly acts touring the country. If you’ve never see them, take a kid and go. I promise it’ll be an immensely enjoyable experience — but don’t be surprised if you enjoy it more than the kid.

Actors: The Three Stooges

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by artiefacts.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by artiefacts.

Moe. Larry. And Shemp. And Curly. And Shemp again. And Joe Besser. And Curly Joe. The makeup of the Three Stooges evolved, as did their career through vaudeville, to movie shorts, to feature films, to television, to animation.

Some people think the Stooges are a guy thing. And it certainly seems true that men find them funnier than women. (Uh, I mean men find them funnier than women do.) They were masters of slapstick, and were among America’s highest paid entertainers later in their career.

Now it’s reported that the Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary) are planning a new Three Stooges movie. All you need to know is that Sean Penn is scheduled to play Larry, and Jim Carrey will be Curly. If the movie is funny, it’ll be a first for the Farrelly brothers.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

Food: Texas Pete

uploaded on Picasa by Sean

uploaded on Picasa by Sean

Here’s an unsettling little secret: Texas Pete is made right here in Winston-Salem, NC. Sure, we have to cross our fingers when calling it “Texas” Pete, but that doesn’t change a very key fact:

It sure does taste good.

Some of you may be saying, “Wait, that stuff is hot. And I don’t like spicy food.” Texas Pete gives you control, so you can add a few drops for a little kick or a whole lot to have a caliente experience.

So, here’s a shout out to the hometown sauce. Let’s call it “Winston-Salem Pete.” Okay, maybe not. That sounds like a bad minor league baseball mascot.

And we already have one of those.

Americana: The Smithsonian

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by prad.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by prad.

If you like BIG museums, you’ll love the Smithsonian Institution. It’s composed of 19 museums and nine research centers. Oh, and the National Zoo.

Y0u probably know the Air and Space Museum. Maybe the American History Museum. But you probably didn’t know that the African Art Museum and the Postal Museum are part of the Smithsonian. If you’re like me, you didn’t even know they existed.

More than 25 million people visit the Smithsonian annually, and what do they see? The Wright Brothers 1903 airplane. The original Star Spangled Banner. Julia Child’s kitchen. Dorothy’s ruby slippers. A total of 137 million items in all.

If you can get to D.C., save at least one day for the Smithsonian. Choose one of the popular museums and one of the obscure ones that covers a distinct area that interests you. Isn’t it comforting that someone thought of preserving and collecting all these amazing artifacts so they’ll be there for generations to come?

Person: Walt Disney

Photo courtesy of Flickr. Posted by Andy Latham82.

Photo courtesy of Flickr. Posted by Andy Latham82.

Lots of people have changed American culture. Some for better, some for worse. But few have had the positive influence that Walter Elias Disney brought to the world of entertainment.

From Steamboat Willie to The Wonderful World of Color to Epcot Center, Walt Disney’s imagination has inspired and delighted generations of Americans. His movies managed to achieve the near impossible task of simultaneously enthralling both children and adults.

In the Disney movie Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket said it best: “Like a bolt out of the blue, fate steps in and sees you through. When you wish upon a star your dreams come true.”

Music: Grand Ole Opry

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by threeflavours

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by threeflavours

You don’t have to like country music to appreciate the legacy of the Grand Ole Opry. Growing from a live radio broadcast (The WSM Barn Dance) in 1925, the Opry moved around Nashville before finding a home at legendary Ryman Auditorium in 1943. It moved to the Grand Old Opry House at Opryland in 1974.

When the move was made, a six-foot circle of dark oak was cut from the Ryman stage and moved to the new theater. Now today’s Opry stars can stand on the same boards that supported the likes of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.

Of course, you just don’t perform at the Opry; you’re invited to join the Opry. And though I’m not a big fan of country, I’m proud to invite the Opry to become a member of the distinguished company known as Great American Things.

Kid Stuff: Peanuts

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by !!Snoopy

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by !!Snoopy

Charlie Brown will never get to kick that football. Lucy will always give out psychiatric help for five cents. Marcie will always call Peppermint Patty, “Sir.”

Charles Schultz has gone to his eternal reward, but his legacy is seen by millions of people each day. Peanuts never gets old, never goes out of date. Look at all the forgettable comic strips in your local paper, think of all that have come and gone, and Peanuts goes on.

Peanuts doesn’t have the feeling of anarchy that infused Calvin and Hobbes, nor the daily dose of reality found in Dilbert. What it has is a sense of humanity, and a spirituality that resonates with its audience and which was intrinsic to Schultz’s own life.

Peanuts was created within a month of my own birthday. I won’t say how long ago that was, but Gutenberg had just invented the printing press. Now they say newspapers are a vanishing enterprise. Maybe so. But Peanuts will always be with us — as long as there’s a Great Pumpkin, or a pathetically bare Christmas tree .

Americana: Movie Popcorn

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by m-o-o-n.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by m-o-o-n.

A lot of people can’t go to a movie in a theater without gettting popcorn. It’s as much a part of the experience as air conditioning turned down way too cold, and the kids behind you who won’t shut up.

Although I’ve tried to avoid it for diet reasons, I still love “buttered” popcorn. I prefer to think of it that way, instead of “butter-flavored liquid fat.”

Oh, here’s an experiment. Next time you’re at the multiplex and want some buttered popcorn, listen to what the licensed professional concession attendants ask. You’ll say, “I’d like some buttered popcorn and a small Coke.” The LPCA will respond, “Do you want butter on that?”

Happens almost every time.